Sunday, 27 September 2015

It's appalling. Still, if you abandon your moral judgment, it can be fun.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Chosen because someone told me "I'm going to stop being friends with you until you watch all the HG films."
And I promised them i would review any I watched. 

A film almost entirely stuck in the 'Refusal of the Call' act of The Hero's Journey. Katniss is a curiously passive lead who is constantly told what to do by everyone around her and does nothing to drive the plot or action herself. She is a mere pawn in a game we dont even get to see played. Though viewers paying attention to the "moves and counter moves" should figure it out early enough (a bunch of the plot makes little sense unless you realize a character twist) which just furthers the feeling of Katniss being kind of dull in not appreciating why people are sacrificing themselves left and right around her.

The film follows the structure of the first quite closely to diminished effect once again spending a long time before getting to the Games (which are promised to be completely different but that, like many things in the movie, never really follows through). It has many of the same flaws - little idea of who the other tributes for the games are, a world that doesn't really make sense, but has none of the small touches of interest the first managed to feed in. The relationships dont feel as lived in and the dour grimness is not lightened by any warmth of character. 

An exception to this starts to half arse itself around Elizabeth Banks seemingly one note act of camp. She seems genuinely put out by the plot turns at what seems at first a break to her status quo and annoyance at her job being disrupted but threatens to mean something more interesting as she shows perhaps a concern for the two leads but also the subtlest hint of rebellion in wanting to have a connection between them. Unfortunately this proves to be (for this movie at least) just a plot point to serve up a reason for a character to do something later entirely unconnected to Bank's eccentric.

A game and talented cast of supporting actors help fill some of the void left by a lead that doesnt want to do anything (though Lawrence herself is fine). I'd much rather watch the Hunger games where Jeffrey Wright electrocutes six people to win or follow Amanda Plummer's weirdo to her victory and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is always worth watching.

The reluctant hero trope and the refusal of the call exist for a reason. Not least we dont want our heroes to be vain egomaniacs but Catching Fire goes to far in the other direction though the movie closes on a shot of Lawrence squinting in steely determination that suggest she's crossed the threshold for the next film and will hopefully have a lot more agency.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

*this isn't on general release yet and I will be talking about some plot points so cheese it if you don't want to know about specific details

Having got the introductions and assembling out of the way in the first one this sequel is able to start straight into the action with a fun assault on a Hydra base that's lets each of the team highlight an exciting bit of business and bounce off of each other in interesting ways. #

The movie is pretty pacy, crammed full of incident but tries to slow down enough to let the characters breathe. It is more successful on this for some than for others. Hawkeye (perhaps as apology for shoddy treatment last movie) fares best, given a sweet backstory that at first threatens to put crosshairs over him, though the more they push that button the more it seems it will be a reversal of the kind Whedon is very fond of. He becomes the key figure of the film, the glue uniting and inspiring the team. Which is great, but shouldn't that be Captain America's job? 
Both Cap and Thor get a little short changed in this busy film, but as they have their own franchises I guess it balances out a touch.
Also lost in the noise is a new relationship built seemingly from the pleasing chemistry Widow and Banner had at the start of the last film. But there's no time to really feel the connection here, we have some other characters telling us how much they like each other but plot gets in the way of us seeing them ever really doing anything.

The new characters make a great impression, their powers and looks contrasting nicely with everything else. Scarlet Witch in particular, despite a nebulous power set, is able to spark off some interesting 'dream' sequences letting Whedon have some fun with oddball visuals and seemingly baffling non sequiturs. 
However the Twin's back story never feels resolved (a sideways glance at Tony Stark saving people seems enough for this movie to wrap up his part in the siblings misery) and The Vision (who gains his comic look cape in a lovely moment of gratitude to Thor) is brought in on a confused rush of information that doesn't quite gel into a character but he gets some good gags and a splendid capper to a running joke about Thor's Hammer.

The action is strong, much like the climax of the previous film building good jokes into the way these heroes fight and through features a lot of one of my bugbears - slow motion, mostly well utilizes it to accentuate and punctuate choerographed beats.
Ultron himself is gleefully brought to life by James Spader's voice, a dark mirrored version of both Stark (something all of the Iron Man movies have done, so not exactly fresh, though this one is perhaps more literally an Iron Man) and JARVIS. 

Basically this is pretty much exactly what I want from an Avengers movie. It's big, brash, grounded in a sense of talking these characters seriously whilst letting loose enough to be ever so silly. Heroism is again focused on, saving lives a primary concern despite the carnage. It get's a little lost in signal to noise, (Thor's diversion seems primarily to set up sequel fodder) but is fun, fun, fun.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Were you rushing or were you dragging?

Whiplash (2014)

Astounding. Perhaps one of the best action films in years. It does what great action should do. The heart pounds, you bay for blood. It is an uncomfortable experience. 
You want to revel in the violence, yet are turned off by the grotesque monsters.
Like Damien Chazelle other music based script Grand Piano Whiplash doesn't really have a foot in reality. Indeed the film's foundation, core theme, is based on a lie about Charlie Parker. But it is filled with telling small details that, to this music illiterate at least, read as true and interesting. A focus on the minutiae of performance. Yet it never feels didactic or condescending.
J.K. Simmons is, of course, terrific. His music teacher just a shade removed from moustache twirling cartoon villainy but it's that shade that makes the difference. The film attempts a couple of scenes to show him as more three dimensional but it has no real interest in redeeming a totally reprehensible arse..
Indeed the climax of the film is a thrillingly complicated, ambiguous full stop on the film's debate over the cost of perfection.
It is a virtuoso display of drumming, seen as both a fuck you and a thank you to the Simmons character but Paul Reiser get a heartbreaking shot as he knows his son has lost during this moment of exhilarating triumph.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Did you program her to flirt with me?

Ex Machina (2015)

There can be a tendency for a more high brow minded creator to think they are reinventing or saying something new, genre tropes when they take them on. But instead the use the same ideas any number of hacky B movies have done for years but add a dull solemnity. Winterbottom's Code 46 for example. Garland has perhaps been a little guilty of this with his collaborations with Danny Boyle but escapes the trap mostly (for one because Boyle is a canny and humane director who fills the screen with warmth) and again here touches on nothing particularly new but has a witty and interesting approach.
Essentially a four hander (most reviews seem to be focusing on the three main characters but Sonoya Mizuno gives a great silent performance and is an important part of the film) set in a single location it can be a little didactic but never feels stagey. The film is crisply shot, shorn of exposition for vast chunks, and well played by all, though Gleeson's accent sounds a touch weak. Vikander's A.I. robot is a marvel of special effects raised several levels by a terrific performance.
The film may not have anything new to say about A.I. especially (it tries to tie it all into social media not entirely convincingly) but really the film seems to be about the way Men approach technology and sexuality. It seems to condemn the one sided nature of gender in tech (though not without issues of it's own as a fair amount of female nudity is on display for the viewer here) without ever bringing that subject up, making it incredibly timely and more than just an exercise in 'is Deckard a replicant or not?'.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Ornithologist, Philatelist, Philanthropist.

Foxcatcher (2014)

Boring is such a hollow pejorative as much as nice is a terrible descriptive. Yet they have their uses. A review is nothing but a snapshot of what one person thinks, arbitrary, tainted by not just personal preference but by whether they had a good meal that day or where squirming through a film needing the toilet. You can try to separate that from the film itself but a hundred million things can affect you a hundred million different ways.
That's my way of saying, despite some good performances (Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent, Carell is fine but it feels like acting with a capital A, directed by his make up as much as anything else) and an eye for the odd interesting composition the film is, well, all kinds of dull.
It keeps itself too removed from everything. Parcels out plot (almost non existant) and character beats incredibly slowly. Perhaps hoping to build a sense of dread, especially if you know anything about the actual events that happened but it never seems to serve any purpose.

Friday, 16 January 2015


Big Hero 6 (2014)

A lesser known comic property owned by Disney Big Hero 6 attempts to do for superheroes what Kung Fu Panda did for, umm, kung fu and How to Train your Dragon did for dragons.
And in Baymax (despite the 6 in the title this film is really only concerned with 1) it almost succeeds. A sweet funny creation with an adorable design and good voicework from Scott Adsit (and presumably a computer). 
But the film suffers from a lack of specificity. It's never as funny as the Incredibles and, despite an interesting mix of San Francisco and Tokyo as it's location, has less palpable world building. 
It loses more focus as it brings in the other characters to be the Avengers of this world, only one - a slacker with Batman style money, gets anything more than a cursory depth and baymax himself becomes duller the more armour and fighting skills he has.
Still, a pleasant enough movie.

See, folks don't care if it's a copy.

Big Eyes (2014)

A fine cast elevate the film a little above it's generally bland telling. 
Burton never seems to really get beneath the material turning in a competent but slight examination of the pursuit of fame and the uneven treatment of artistic women. 
It livens up a little in a daft courtroom scene with Waltz chewing the scenery to shreds playing nicely against Adams calmness but perhaps the whole film needed a bit more passion, more energy. It comes off feeling much more like a teevee movie than the strangely similar Behind The Candelabra and could have done with some of that film's verve.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

When I dreamed of Broadway, I never pictured the elk antlers.

Birdman (2014)

Brilliantly performed, superbly shot and fairly funny there is a lot to like about Birdman.
And yet, I came away sort of hating it.
I found it seemed to elicit thriller style tension rather than sympathy in it's multiple scenes dealing with suicide, we spend the entire film inside Keaton's head yet it wants to play games over what is real or not rather than dig into his psyche in any meaningful way.
It's supposed deep revelations are trite cliche. It is not especially interesting to comment on the fact people like to be entertained by what some may find junk. It is incredibly old fashioned about the role of critics and both cries foul over their pointlessness and gives them ultimate power (it's hard to judge whether any one Broadway critic could have ever closed a production with a single bad review but certainly now in the age of social media and immediate audience response that role has vanished). It makes the critic the villain, almost cackling as she decides to destroy his play before even seeing it, giving her snobbery over Keaton's movie past as a motive. Which just confounds the movies message further. He is sinking all his money into the production and she doesn't care, but her job is disappearing and he sees no value, no art in what she does. It treats this character in the most banal way possible, something that is true of most in the film with perhaps the exception of Ed Norton's character who is the most fascinating, and most repulsive of the lot. it tips too far to the latter though when he attempts to rape someone on stage and scene that dismisses the ickiness of that moment to play it for laughs.

All of these people banging against each other and none of it seems to mean anything.