Tuesday, 16 July 2013

'Pacific Rim', 'Monsters University', 'The Bling Ring', 'We Steal Secrets' and 'The Deep': review round-up

'Pacific Rim' - Dir. Guillermo Del Toro (12A)

A clear labour of love for creature feature obsessive Guillermo Del Toro, 'Pacific Rim' marks the 'Pan's Labyrinth' director's first completed film since 2008's 'Hellboy II' and sees the Mexican channeling his fandom of Japanese mecha anime series and kaiju monster movies into something grand and frequently spectacular of the summer blockbuster variety. It takes place in the near-future, where a trans-dimensional portal beneath the Pacific ocean has been unleashing giant beasts upon the Earth for a number of years with city-destroying consequences. Humanity's solution? We created monsters of our own, in the form of Jaegers: towering metal soldiers controlled by teams of specially selected, mentally compatible human pilots, built in a spirit of international co-operation. However, years into this struggle, we are losing the battle: the kaiju are getting bigger, their attacks are more frequent and only a handful of Jaegers remain as governments worldwide abandon the program in favour of hiding behind ineffectual coastal walls. It's down to the last Jaeger pilots, and a pair of eccentric scientists, to cancel the apocalypse.

Packed with jaw-dropping set-pieces, characteristically striking visuals and boasting gorgeous production design, it's a visual treat and the sort of thrill-ride you only get from the very best Hollywood fare. Even the 3D - post-converted, but apparently given more time and attention than usual - is a treat, adding texture to the rain effects in particular, as the Jaegers battle the Kaiju at sea. From a character point of view it's broad, but certainly not dumb or empty: the drama feels humane and ties into the action rather than being a perfunctory afterthought. It's also pleasing how international the whole thing is. Yes: it's an American movie, so the American pilot and American mech win the day. But, on the flip-side, rarely is an action movie of this kind less militaristic or nationalistic than this. There's a Russian mechs, a Chinese mech and we're told the Australian mech is the best of the bunch - the most successful and effective around - allowing a sense that this is truly humanity fighting together in its darkest hour.

Also missing is the traditional antagonism between the military and scientists: the misunderstandings, the distrust, the contempt that's usually a huge part of the sci-fi genre. The human characters are, broadly speaking, all good guys and all on the same page - for the most part behaving rationally and not just shouting each other down. At several key moments the film neatly side-stepped whatever horrid cliche I thought was about to occur in favour of something less frustrating or contrived. There are still cliches, but they are the fun kind: like something out of the best bits of 'Independence Day' rather than 'Transformers'. What's more, the male characters are allowed to be emotional, while the lead actress (Rinko Kikuchi) is capable and not really a love interest in the traditional sense (the bond she shares with Charlie Hunnam's lead is not explicitly based around sexual attraction, and she's certainly never presented as a prize to be won by the hero).

Where the film really shines is in the amount of subtle world-building that takes place, with lots of background details and minor plot-points making the world feel rich and lived-in. This is a world effected in numerous ways - big and small - but the arrival of the Kaiju, and this provides some really excellent moments and imaginative ideas. Ideas that become enigmatic and encourage audience curiosity. If this film was a character, it's Boba Fett from 'The Empire Strikes Back': intriguing, rarely seen, the potential basis for endless hours of thought and fantasy by fans. What it's not is Jango Fett from 'Attack of the Clones': over-exposed, over-explained and under-whelming as a result.

One of the most purely enjoyable films we're likely to see this year and possibly the finest original sci-fi action film since 'District 9'.

'Monsters University' - Dir. Dan Scanlon (U)

Why don't presidents and prime ministers ever do all the stuff they promised they'd do once elected? The cynical view is that they're all cads and crooks: they never intended to do those things. They said what they had to in order to get elected and then they did what everybody does - they protected their own interests. But maybe (maybe) the reason the Obamas of this world don't live up to expectations is that, when you're actually in the chair, you're suddenly seeing different data, hearing different opinions from advisers and faced with a different set of responsibilities and expectations. I think this latter analysis might explain why Pixar - who once deliberately, self-consciously stood as a counter-point to the cynical, sequel churn - has been milking its "franchises" for all they're worth ever since founder John Lasseter got promoted at Disney.

For the record: I love Pixar. I think, not controversially, the people at Pixar are geniuses who have presided over arguably the most consistent run of quality animated films ever delivered by any studio. Unsurpassed in terms of technical accomplishment, story development and animation detail, their films are modern masterpieces. 'Cars' accepted, the nine of the ten films released between 1995 ('Toy Story') and 2009 ('Up') have to be considered among the finest animated films ever made. I say this not to fawn unduly, but to show that I both deeply love and greatly respect what the studio has stood for during the peak years of its existence. But ever since John Lasseter became the CFO at Disney in 2006, all those sequels the studio used to shun have happened or are on their way to happening at the expense of the sort of original ideas we've become accustomed to as devoted members of their audience.

We've had the (and I know I'm in the minority here) lackluster 'Toy Story 3', the embarrassing 'Cars 2' and now - with a sequel for 'Finding Nemo' apparently on the way - here comes 'Monsters University': a prequel no one asked for, from a studio that - less than a decade ago - would never have considered making it. I have all the respect in the world for John Lasseter and, since 2006, the quality of output coming from Disney Animation Studios has increased dramatically ('Princess and the Frog', 'Tangled', 'Wreck-It Ralph'), but I mourn for Pixar after this latest assault on its legacy.

As you may have gathered from the opening three paragraphs of increasingly shrill hysteria, 'Monsters University' - which sees the beloved Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) learning to be "scarers" and friends during their college years - is not a great piece of work. It's good. It's perfectly fine. It passes the time. There are moments of great wit and invention, and a few genuinely inspired laughs, whilst the animation and technical side of things is as polished and sophisticated as ever. Yet, overall, it's hollow and unfulfilling - the gags obvious "college movie" stuff punned with monsters the way The Flintstones does with the stone age. Worse still, it's not too indistinct from the sort of unambitious, by-numbers sequel you'd expect of Dreamworks or Fox. That's not say it isn't entertaining, but Pixar are victims of their own great success in this instance: what would represent a creative high-point for one of their imitators is simply not good enough. I enjoyed 'Much Ado About Nothing' last month, but would I have enjoyed it as much if someone told me it was the latest Paul Thomas Anderson movie? Some folks you hold to a higher standard.

'The Bling Ring' - Dir. Sofia Coppola (15)

Want to make a film? Only got about 15 minutes of actual story (something you read in a magazine article, perhaps?) and worried it might not stretch to feature length? Well, my friend, you've lucked out, because Sofia Coppola's latest provides you answers to this very conundrum! For instance, if the one scene you have sees five vapid teenagers breaking into a minor celebrity's house and stealing some of their clothing and jewelry: just show that same scene half a dozen times! It's easy - just take the teenagers to another house and do the same thing again! They can pick up slightly different bags and say how cool a slightly different house is. If you're feeling adventurous you can shoot this a few different ways to make people think they're watching something different each time. Sofia gives us a few options to play with: night vision, security camera footage, eye of god external shot etc. And make sure your characters say "Facebook" and "Twitter" a few hundred times so we know how hip and young and thoroughly now the whole thing is. You can string out the scenes in between with the kids driving and just, sort of, standing about looking at their phones. Really: if you put a cool enough soundtrack behind it you can even get it distributed and played in cinemas for actual paying customers. It's genius really.

Oooohh! Start with the ending and then... show the ending again later! That's another 10 minutes taken care of. And play some of the same dialogue multiple times - sometimes in a jarring, faux documentary style that's at odds with the rest of the film and then again out of that context. Have the actors say it word-for-word too, so you don't have to re-phrase it even slightly, because that might require more writing and you only have 15 pages to work with after all. If you have the money, you can hire a former child star freshly liberated from a wildly popular franchise. It doesn't matter if they're any better at acting than the other kids who nobody has heard of at all - or even if they have to do an accent. What matters is that you can get free publicity out of their appearance here, maybe halving the marketing budget of your picture. They may even work relatively cheaply because they're trying to break-out and be a "serious actor". Who knows? You can hope. All of this works much better if: 1) your famous family can produce it for you and 2) if you still have goodwill left over from a genuinely great film you made once.

There you go, lazy budding filmmakers of the world. Enjoy!

'We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks' - Dir. Alex Gibney (15)

An amazing piece of work: balanced, stylish, thrilling, sick-making - sometimes funny and never less than compelling. Alex Gibney takes on Wikileaks and Julian Assange in this revealing documentary that - like many of the contributors - is on one hand in awe of its subject and on the other immensely troubled by him. Bound up with the potentially world-changing and arguably heroic activities of Wikileaks itself - which, among other things, helped bring to light the ugly reality of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - is the increasingly odd story of Assange, the organisation's founder: whose behavior has been increasingly antithetical to the ideals the whistle-blowing website stands for in the eyes of supporters. It's neither a hatchet job, nor a celebration, but an examination of flawed human beings. It's a sad portrait of a man who seems equal parts a brilliant idealist, a paranoid loner, and self-styled international celebrity.

As much as it follows the career and recent legal troubles of Assange, the film also looks in detail at Bradley Manning - the US private who disclosed thousands of classified files to Wikileaks and who has subsequently been imprisoned without trial and, it would appear, tortured. There's discussion of war crimes committed by the US military under Obama's leadership. Discussion of how the procedures behind the sharing and storage of intelligence data changed after 9/11. Discussion of the moral grey areas around the entire subject: who is hurt by this freedom of information? What do we lose and what do we stand to gain from it as a society? A lot to chew over and Gibney's film, which features a wealth of interviews with fascinating contributors, does a fantastic job of facilitating and furthering the debate.

'The Deep' - Dir. Baltasar Kormakur (12A)

Iceland's official Academy Award entry for the last Oscars (though it wasn't in the final pool of nominees), 'The Deep' is a dry and slightly boring "based on a true story" account of how one man survived in the Northern Atlantic for six hours when he should have died after 15 minutes. When a fishing boat goes down, isolated and at night, all but one of her crew succumb quickly to the extreme cold - but one overweight man, who isn't even an accomplished swimmer, makes it back home against all odds. He even has to climb a mountain of volcanic rock when he gets there, so understandably he's hailed as a evidence of a miracle and a national hero upon his successful return. It turns out this wasn't a very cinematic feat, even if it would make a mildly diverting story if you came upon it in a newspaper.

However, with a third of the film left to go (most of it's a man swimming very slowly in the dark, talking to a bird), it shifts into a tale of a mostly apathetic man, devoid of charisma, shuffling between dry medical examinations and unconvincing efforts to comfort the families and friends of his fellow sailors. It's basically what a shrug looks like if filmed in super slow-motion.

Friday, 5 July 2013

'The Act of Killing' and 'Stories We Tell': review round-up

We held the sixth edition of the Hold Onto Your Butts film quiz at Dukes @ Komedia last night. As usual, I've posted Joe Blann's fantastic picture round above for your pleasure!


'The Act of Killing' - Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer (15)

Unsettling, bizarre, sometimes oddly amusing and always a challenging watch, documentary 'The Act of Killing' follows a group of Indonesian war criminals as they stage camp and increasingly strange re-enactments of their crimes for a feature film. These men - who carried out genocide on 1 million of the countries communists, ethnic Chinese and their families in the mid-60s, with the backing of their army and Western governments - mimic their favourite American gangster movies and incorporate pieces of Indonesian folklore in order to celebrate their part in the killing of thousands, with executioners among those proudly demonstrating the techniques they used to kill on the very locations where they committed their heinous and unpunished crimes.

What's immediately striking about the film is how frank and open the men are: from the newspaper owner (still running his paper) who declares his job was to "make the public hate communists" and to single out individuals for persecution and death, to politicians (still in power) who boast about their use of violent gangsters and uniformed militia groups to keep dissenters in-line. We witness gangsters in modern day Indonesia as they bully and extort "protection money" from frightened Chinese shopkeepers and hear one political candidate talk candidly to the camera about his plans to use his office to force local business to pay him bribes - or else he'll have their buildings condemned. It's a scale of corruption and celebration of mass murder so brazen the criminals can appear on what looks like the Indonesian equivalent of "Loose Women" to promote their film - and loudly declare that they will kill any communists who speak out against it, to the cheers of the studio audience. Unnerving in the extreme, but so heightened and seemingly exaggerated that it's hard not to laugh: for instance, when the head of a paramilitary organisation brags of his "relax and Rolex" lifestyle.

What makes the film so extraordinary and thought-provoking is that this isn't the story of a group of mad individuals, but seemingly something that runs much deeper and across the entire country. It's a reminder of many things, not least the fact that it doesn't take much to vilify a group of people and encourage a state-sponsored pogrom, but also that there's no such thing as "good" or "evil" people - that, unpalatable as it may be, most of us are capable of either in almost equal measure, guided by the hand of history as it shapes the society around us. These are men who talk of their love of dancing in the street after watching Elvis Presley movies. Men who collect crystal Tinkerbell statues and wear pink fedoras in earnest. Men who give as much thought to how to choreograph a musical number as they did to finding the most efficient ways to kill.

It's also a monument to the power of art to help people better understand themselves, to encourage empathy and as a vessel for exploring existential questions. A simple dialogue or argument with any of these men would have undoubtedly lead to a stand-off, so ingrained in their culture and past 50 years of myth-making is the rightness of their cause. But in providing them the means to make a film about their exploits - ostensibly celebrating and explaining what they did for posterity - the film demonstrates how art can lead to reflection and, in this case, unearth long-suppressed doubts. It's clear that, in the case of one executioner, re-enacting the events and re-visiting them in this way gives rise to feelings of grief and guilt that he might otherwise never have experienced - let alone expressed. It's usually pompous and empty to brand a film "important", but 'The Act of Killing' is exactly that. A near-perfect example of what can be accomplished by documentary filmmaking.

'Stories We Tell' - Dir. Sarah Polley (12A)

From Sarah Polley - the director of the uneven drama 'Take this Waltz' - comes a surprisingly affecting documentary 'Stories We Tell', in which she examines the life of her late-mother, the truth about her estranged genetic father and the way in which we construct stories. Inviting members of her extended family and friends to tell their version of events from beginning to end, Polley edits together disparate, sometimes contradictory accounts of her mother's life, to tell a nuanced tale that is equal parts sad and joyful in its depiction of a person's life and their secrets. The narration, written and delivered by Polley's (non-genetic) father, Michael, is especially poignant and even beautiful.

It's less effective, however, when Polley takes a more proactive part in events - making her own observations and reading excepts from letters with a humourlessness that's hard to stomach. Especially as she brings the focus of the film onto the making of the film itself, drawing attention to some of the techniques and advantages of its construction in a faintly self-congratulatory spirit that almost spoils things. Almost, but not quite: because 'Stories We Tell' is a fantastic piece of work, even (at times) in spite of its director. A celebration of a person's life that never shies away from the complexity of their character: a humanistic film that explores a woman's infidelity without judgement and with uncommon understanding.

Monday, 1 July 2013

'World War Z', 'This is the End', 'A Field in England' and 'Frances Ha': review round-up

Before I get to the reviews, I should (for once) make an effort to plug the Live at the Essoldo Cinema Podcast - the latest episode of which saw Toby and I joined by our friend Craig Ennis and director Ben Wheatley, to discuss his upcoming film 'A Field in England' (reviewed below). You can download that conversation here. Whilst you're there, check out earlier episodes of "The Essoldo", which launched earlier this year from the ashes of Splendor Cinema.

So... reviews:

'World War Z' - Dir. Marc Forster (12A)

I can only put the relatively kind reception this film has received from critics down to severely diminished expectations. It is profoundly terrible, but maybe not in the car crash fashion everybody had been primed to expect. Shot back in the summer of 2011, and subjected to numerous script changes and re-shoots since then, 'World War Z' was shaping up to be a disaster of notorious proportions: this generation's 'Waterworld' or 'Ishtar'. And it isn't that - at all. In fact, as I write, it's number one at the international box office and, whilst it's apparently still got a way from being profitable for Paramount, not any sort of box office disaster story. But it is completely and utterly rubbish - a film genuinely without redeeming qualities of any sort.

Terrible CGI (it's all helicopter shots of unconvincing computer-generated crowds, flocking through various big cities), non-existent action scenes (the climax involves a nap, a monologue, some meningitis, a can of Pepsi and interminable scenes of staring at a fairly docile zombie), thinly drawn characters (what is Brad Pitt's vital, most-necessary-man-on-Earth UN job supposed to be anyway?), gaping holes in internal logic (zombies that can topple city walls and push over buses, but can't get past a pile of office desks?), dubious politics (peaceful cohabitation between Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem attracts the zombies!), the worst-written child characters ever ("I'm scared!", "I need my blanket!"), plot threads that go, literally, nowhere ("my family aren't safe!!!"... um, well they seem OK) and... I could go on.

It's bad. It's a waste of your time. Writing any more about it would constitute a waste of my time.

'This is the End' - Dir. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (15)

I've written here before, probably numerous times, that it's very difficult to review all-out comedies (as opposed to comedy-dramas), in that whether or not the film succeeds ultimately comes down to one question: "did it make you laugh"? Comedy is probably the most hit and miss genre out there, when you think about it, because there's usually nothing else going on but a string of gags and, if they don't work for you, there's usually nothing else there that's going to keep you entertained. In fact, being in a room full of people laughing at stuff you (at best) don't think is funny or (at worst) think is utterly moronic can be an alienating and irritating experience. Luckily, for me at least, 'This is the End' made me laugh more often than not.

It's got all the hallmarks of the sort of US dude-comedy that I don't usually like: every gag is more or less based around a bunch of slacker, man-child "bros" talking about sex, chicks, drugs and booze - with ample comic millage taken from taboo subjects, such as rape and masturbation - and, aside from a brief cameo from Emily Watson, there aren't any female characters whatsoever to break up the sausage-fest. Yet there is a real warmth to the central male friendships between (co-writer and director) Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Craig Robinson and Jonah Hill - all playing exaggerated versions of themselves. It's big, it's silly, it's broad - but the novelty of seeing these stars playing with their screen personas, talking trash about each other's movies and sometimes (in the case of Michael Cera) knowingly going against type, is often really fun.

'A Field in England' - Dir. Ben Wheatley (15)

This bizarre, sometimes unfathomable, mix of pitch black humour and sleep-disturbing horror won't be a surprise to fans of Ben Wheatley's other films - or at least to those who've seen the equally macabre 'Kill List'. Set during the English Civil War, 'A Field in England' follows a group of deserters as they flee a battlefield, stumble upon some magic mushrooms and become embroiled in an unsettling, occult treasure hunt, whilst ostensibly looking for the nearest pub. The performances, from the likes of Reese Shearsmith and Wheatley regular Michael Smiley, are enjoyably exaggerated and thespy, the sound design is magnificent and Laurie Rose's black and white cinematography yields wonders that belie the film's tiny budget - facts that all combine to create a unique sensory experience.

'Frances Ha' - Dir. Noah Baumbach (15)

Noah Baumbach films have a way of reaching directly, perhaps uncomfortably, into my heart and brain in a way that makes me feel as if they've been made especially for me. If 'The Squid and the Whale' seems to speak directly to my late-teens and young adulthood, then 'Frances Ha' absolutely nails that feeling of post-graduate aimlessness I share with many of my peers... I can only speculate that 'Greenberg' represents some future mid-life crisis!

Co-written by Baumbach and luminescent star Greta Gerwig, the film depicts Frances as she drifts between temporary, low-wage jobs, flits between various apartments and generally struggles to belong in the world of adulthood that she is nominally now considered part of. A wannabe dancer who looks destined to fall short of being quite good enough to really make it, this is the story of a wide-eyed kid who is gradually coming to the realisation that they might not get to be an astronaut and may have to accept being just another normal person. But that's OK. Baumbach and Gerwig deliver this timely and sobering message with a lightness of touch and touching humour that stops it from being in any way bleak: Frances maybe a bit of a fuck-up, but she's a loveable fuck-up and one I can certainly relate to.

This isn't simply one of the best films I've seen this year but, personally, it's the rare kind of film I can see making a lasting impression on my life in the way very few films can lay claim. Usually, at the very best, films find ways to challenge or perhaps just effectively articulate how you feel about the world. But, for me, films like 'The Squid and the Whale' and 'Frances Ha' seem to bring into sharp focus truths about myself that actually help me better understand the world I live in and my own place in it. That's possibly just me, but - in any case - that's a rare thing for a film to do.