Thursday, 30 May 2013

Dark Skies, dir/scr. Scott Stewart, st. Keri Russell, Josh Hamilton, Dakota Goyo, Kadan Rockett, J. K. Simmons

Not the ill-fated yet culty mid-90s NBC TV series, although dealing with similar ET themes, Scott Stewart's Dark Skies announces its pretensions on publicity material that states the film is "from the producer of Paranormal Activity and Insidious", which induces fears of its own. Yet remarkably, this is an effective and cogent sci-fi thriller, short on revolutionary ideas, but laden with atmosphere and menace. I'd be tempted to suggest too that the alien threat that rages against Russell and Hamilton's married couple Lacy and Daniel, faced with mounting financial pressure and the consequential marital strains, is an appropriate metaphor for personal economic uncertainty, the impotence of being unable to protect your loved ones, your most valuable possessions. Additionally, the film isn't afraid to look the phenomenon straight in the eye. When the parents go and see UFO specialist and be-catted recluse Edwin Pollard (Simmons), there are direct answers, but they're not very comforting. Anyone who's been watching the Cold War-set The Americans on FX knows of Keri Russell's ability to play the conflicted mother with subtle brilliance and persuasion, and similarly, Josh Hamilton makes a suitably accidental hero, a beta-male thrown into primal paternal mode. In many ways Dark Skies isn't anything you haven't already seen before and one may well question why such a tale of close encounters needs retelling. But the advance of history re-contextualises classic myths. It allows us to re-live these kinds of cautionary tales with renewed fear and hope when applied to our age. That's the essence of an enduring, timeless story, and it's why we keep going back to the screen for more.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Mama, dir. Andy Muschietti, scr. Neil Cross, Andy Muschietti, Bárbara Muschietti, st. Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nélisse, Daniel Kash

Not even the presence of Guillermo del Toro, über-curator of the inky-black fairytale and imminent Pacific Rimmer, here serving as executive producer, can fool you into thinking you're watching a bona fide del Toro movie, although kudos to this Spanish/Canadian effort which borrows the former's penchant for sentimentality-infused horror, with the latter's accessibility. Speaking of borrowing as we are, Mama offers no apologies for appropriating a whole slew of specific filmic tropes - oozing and oily tendrils that leak from walls, underwater-swirling floaty-haired ghostly apparitions, and a valiantly schmaltzy score from The Orphanage composer Fernando Velázquez. Luckily, the solid casting of Chastain and Coster-Waldau ensures watchable performances even if Doctor Who scribe Neil Cross has been a bit stingy with the amount of meat he affords his characters. There are plenty of tricks of light and sound and sleight of hand to satisfy, and I suppose it's a testament to the jolts and scares' appeal to the primal that makes these kind of BOO!s still effective after all these years. As del Torro-lite then, Mama forms a credible if not wholly satisfying experience.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Upstream Color, dir/wr. Shane Carruth, st. Shane Carruth, Amy Seimetz, Andrew Sensenig, Thiago Martins

Whatever you may have thought of Carruth's first film, the brain-achingly twisty and ponderous Primer in 2004, his ability as a film-maker was undeniable. Carruth took a skeletal crew, a paltry $7000, cast himself as actor, producer, writer, editor and composer, and turned in one of the most innovative science fiction movies you never saw. Nine years later he's back with his second film, the enigmatic and beautifully named Upstream Color, an evocative title that suggests a literary if not wholly sci-fi premise. It's a bolder film than Primer but still highly impenetrable. Fans will casually suggest the meaning of the kaleidoscope of sound and image and what fragments and splinters of narrative there are points to a C. Clarkeian, meta-spiritual concept that concerns life-cycles and free will, but the truth of what Upstream Color is really about remains wonderfully open to interpretation. Carruth layers imagery and dialogue over his own ambient music which hypnotically drones and pulses in tune and beat to the glacially unfolding story. Often, he'll lift dialogue from one take and place it as an audio backing under which he'll play many other versions of the same take, Von Trier-like, or sometimes he'll cut away to a non-sequitorial tableau or sequence, narratively unanchored, but still befitting the scene's mood and tone. Where trickery, media-student pretension and calculated orchestration begin and end is of course debatable, though it doesn't seem like we're having our legs pulled. Nor does it feel like we're the butt of some ongoing Carruthian joke either. Rather we are presented with traces of semblance, like garbled radio transmissions or slivers of organic cuttings, and it is up to us to make sense of them in the spirit of scientific pioneers or explorers. Undoubtedly Upstream Color, like Primer, will be a film to be viewed multiple times, but I would argue that comprehension is only part of that reason. Come by all means for the story, but stay for the film.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, dir/wr. Tommy Wirkola, st. Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare

The Brothers Grimm's 200-year-old fairy tale Hansel and Gretel gets a retro-futuristic, steampunky revival and a natty subtitle that tells us everything we need to know about the drudgery of the pitch; after escaping the clutches of the wicked witch and her Grand Designs pad as constructed by Heston Blumenthal, siblings Hansel and Gretel (Renner and Arterton) become bounty hunters, travelling from Bavarian town to Bavarian town, dispatching magic-ed hags as they go. Finding themselves in Augsberg (which thanks to the inexplicable American accents, sounds like they're saying 'Oxford'), they happen upon a coven of extra-specially nasty sorts lead by Grand High Sorceress Muriel (Janssen). Reviews for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters were understandably hostile at best, and no wonder. Wirkola's idea of a fresh take is the laziest kind of genre cross-pollination in which people say 'fuck' and 'bitch' a lot while shit blows up around them, and monsters are offed with ingenious and fetishistic weaponry in fountains of blood and gore. There's actually a halfway decent sense of location in the film, and the animatronic troll Edward is lovingly brought to life via puppeteers rather than tired CGI, but as producer Adam McKay helpfully explains, "The idea is, they've grown up and they hunt witches. It's a hybrid sort of old-timey feeling, yet there's pump-action shotguns. Modern technology but in an old style. We heard it and we were just like, 'That's a freakin' franchise! You could make three of those!'" I bet you did. And I bet they will.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

In Their Skin, dir. Jeremy Power Regimbal, wr. Joshua Close, st. Selma Blair, Joshua Close, Rachel Miner, James D'Arcy

Despite its promising pedigree (Miner - a talent who's never quite found her niche, the ever dependable Blair, and Hitchcock's Anthony Perkins - D'Arcy), Regimbal's In Their Skin never quite delivers in the way one would hope. It's an oft-exclaimed lament in these kind of unsettling spookers and something I've written about extensively before; the payoff never quite manages to do justice to the setup. Part of the problem, I suspect, is convention. We've been brought up on a rich and varied diet of genre lexicon. Our knowledge of what can happen is extensive, our belief in what should happen grows narrower with every failed attempt or tired cliché. And yet still these kind of films are churned out, each brief more outlandish and refreshing than the next, but all (ok, most) with the same tedious denouement that undoes the often brilliant establishing of the film's first act. In Their Skin is essentially one of those chillers categorised under "Home Invasion", and yes, predictably, there's much here to get the skin prickling - at least in the film's early stages. Close (in a film of his own penning) and Blair play Mark and Mary Hughes, who along with their young son Brendan (Quinn Lord), have decided to do the one thing you most definitely don't do to overcome a family bereavement, and hightail it to a remote house in the woods in order to grieve, and for the adults to fix their fractured relationship. This is no balmy Summer-house retreat however. In steely greys and teals Norm Li's pallid cinematography focusses on sterile earthy tones and the clinical chill of overcast skies and breath exhaled. It's a rather bleak reminder  of how unhealthy the very human instinct for solitude that follows trauma is. There may also be a touch of a Haneke-like dig at middle-class first-world problems in the opulent setting of the Hughes' rather grand country house complete with conservatory and PS3d kid's bedroom. It's a detail invasive tabloids love to illustrate - tragedy strikes even the rich! - and serves to highlight the voyeurism at watching a family heal. Then, with grace and immeasurable politeness, the Sakowski's appear, not in the dead of night as grotesques might, but more unsettlingly, in the early mist of dawn, stacking wood as a gift for the newcomers. They live down the way and want to ingratiate themselves with their new temporary neighbours. D'Arcy is great here, welcoming to the point of unease, and Miner too, mousy and courteous. It reminded me of that great British suspicion we have of others' graciousness. D'Arcy in particular has great fun with the clever script, a kind of aural slight of hand that has us questioning intonation and tone. Alas it cannot last and once the film shifts into the next gear, the deft intricacies of narration and character unravel fast. It's not a bad film - and these kinds of films often are - but it's terribly unfulfilling, and only adds to the list of squandered opportunities. Watching In Their Skin once more extends our cinematic vernacular for these kind of psychological thrillers, but in doing so, only makes it harder for that elusive innovative horror - whenever it may appear - to make an impact.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness, dir. J. J. Abrams, wr. Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, st. John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve, Bruce Greenwood, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Peter Weller, Anton Yelchin

It does seem a shame that after spending so much effort lovingly investing in a newly rebooted crew as Abrams did with Star Trek four years ago, much of them spend an inordinate amount of time relegated to the sidelines in Into Darkness, the obligatory, but rousing sequel. Maybe that's just the nature of the beast, after all, characters introduced, it's off they boldly go. But there's nary a pause here to take a moment and further study them, as Star Trek managed so well with balance between intimacy and relentless narrative. Here, it's like everyone's on the plot clock and there's not a second to spare. However, what we lose in the woefully underwritten Sulu, Chekov and Uhura, we gain in Cumberbatch's Lector-like John Harrison, a worthy entry into the canon of Brit-baddies. To say more of Harrison's backstory and intentions would be highly improper of me, save to say that he proves a vicious foil to Pine's impetuous Kirk. For once, there seems to be something real and fragile at stake. In fact, set phasers to glum as Into Darkness, true to sophomore lore that dictates a darker turn, lacks the frivolity of its younger brother. Yes, Bones is still complaining about everything and the Kirk/Spock bromance is still obfuscated by Spock's inner half-and-half-species conflict and Kirk's recklessness, but amidst the acts of terrorism, failed peace negotiations and starship crash-landings, not many innocents make it out alive. Chris Pine as Kirk is spunky enough though and there's a nice turn from Peter 'Robocop' Weller as Admiral Marcus that nicely echoes Miguel 'Bob Morton in Robocop' Ferrer's appearance as a USS Excelsior helm officer in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. There are a number of call-backs to days of Trek yore actually and these, I suspect, are likely to induce either squeals of delight or blinking blank faces, depending on your geek status. Like the other most recent Summer release Iron Man 3, there's a lot of fun to be had here. However (and this is probably more of a personal existential crisis than anything else) I'm starting to wonder if these types of spectacle don't satisfy in the way they once did; the treat is rich and calorific during ingestion but has surprisingly little aftertaste. I'm not sure if increasingly in Summer Blockbusters' bid for near universal demographic appeal, rough edges have been chamfered smooth, any real element of excitingly orchestrated subversion written out, and the whole experience watered down and dressed up. Star Trek Into Darkness then is undoubtedly a blast, but with no lasting and meaningful damage.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Look of Love, dir. Michael Winterbottom, wr. Matt Greenhalgh, st. Steve Coogan, Imogen Poots, Anna Friel, Tamsin Egerton

There's more than a touch of Coogan's avian-titled alter ego on display here, albeit a sadder, more morose version. He plays publishing tycoon Paul Raymond "The King of Soho", who brought the first 'Gentleman's Club' to the UK in 1958. Publications such as Men Only, Razzle and Mayfair followed, which, in conjunction with Raymond's savvy investment in property, made him a regular on UK rich lists. But Winterbottom's film, like his other joint-Coogan endeavour The Trip, is more focussed on the minutiae of private and personal melancholia rather than the broader strokes of chronological narrative that might make for a more straightforward biopic. As in The Trip, we are shown more than we are told, and whilst this may mean we are kept at arms length from delving deeper into the characters, we do get a sense of Raymond's relationship with his partner Jean (Friel), a wife whose support and loyalty is inevitably tested upon incessant sharing of her husband with all the top totty around, and his daughter Debbie (Poots), entitled yet desperate for validation from her father, and where these familial intersections sit within a more permissive period of British culture. The Look of Love, though funny and quietly sombre, isn't quite possessed of the searingly compelling subject matter it thinks it is, but does make one look again at attitudes to sex, commitment, marriage, business and family, what they were then and what they have become now, and whether much, if anything has changed. 

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Oblivion, dir. Joseph Kosinski, scr. Joseph Kosinski, William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek, Michael Arndt, based on Oblivion by Joseph Kosinski and Arvid Nelson, st. Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo

In many ways the hulking behemoth of Cruise's ultimate star pulling power is a perfect match for Kosinski's brand of visually arresting but substantially anemic film-making. At fifty years old, questions such as whether he's actually a capable or credible actor seem to have fallen by the wayside years ago. This is his twentieth $200m+ grossing film. He's more product than person. Yet I've always held a torch (well, one of those LED keyring things at least) for Cruise, as while I accept that he's an actor of limited range and dimension, he's incredibly natural in front of the camera, a skill that no doubt comes from decades working with every director, co-star, genre and style going. And while Oblivion may suffer from bloodless character development, Cruise's presence ensures us not having to worry about any troublesome flaws in our protagonist's psyche that might undo our rock-solid empathy with the hero; it's Tom Cruise, it'll be fine. But the characterisation and the plot (culled from many sci-fi greats past) is mere window dressing to Kosinski's world of beautiful desolation. Much like his earlier Tron Legacy, there's much to look at it and not much to do. The healthy budget has been conscientiously employed to include Icelandic volcanic vistas as set locations, 360 degree wrap around front-projected sky-tower cloud-scapes (from real Hawaiian mountain-top views), as well as all manner of scientifically-authenticated crafts and tech. To casual onlookers it might look like the same bored futurism, but for design geeks, it's deliciously intricate and stunningly executed. In a strange way, it seems weirdly possible to overlook the fact that Coster-Waldau is severely underused, or that Freeman might as well have not been in it at all, or that Riseborough's Victoria Olsen, despite continually stating she and Cruise's Jack Harper make an effective team, clearly don't, or that she takes part in probably the most ludicrously epic swimming scene in the movies ever since Elizabeth Berkley's thrashing like a beached bottle-nose in Verhoeven's Showgirls. Big clunkers that would sink any other film, but which sail by in Oblivion with not much bother. Because it's a film that sees Hollywood in all its hollow, vapid glory, a sugary caffeinated hit of dumb fantasy with an appropriately massive and unsubtle score by M83, a film in which Tom Cruise saves the planet, again, surrounded by all the smoke and mirrors biggest-budget Hollywood sci-fi has to offer. And who doesn't want to see that?