Monday, 29 July 2013

Drinking Buddies, dir/wr. Joe Swanberg, st. Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston

A pair of couples burdened with their desire for the other's partner is the trope of long-running sitcom plot-lines and terrible student-devised One-Acters, but here, under the masterful pen and lens of writer/director Swanberg, becomes a coolly observed illustration of where relationship and friendship communications intersect, complicate, and diverge. Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson) are co-workers at a Chicago craft brewery. Such an environment means that the amber nectar's never far away - either as a tipple during lunch, or afterwards at the workers' local bar, and provides the pair with a focal activity around which they laugh, chat and cavort. But Kate and Luke have other halves in the form of Jill (Kendrick) and Chris (Livingston), a pair who prefer shopping-channel camping gear and tupperwear to cards and shots. That Drinking Buddies firmly refuses to be drawn on moral absolutes and parameter-defining relationship no-goes is what makes this drama such a powerful and engrossing watch. This is a film that involves the four, but belongs to Kate and Luke. To attempt to untangle the nature of their knotty relationship, just what exactly constitutes the blunt and unwieldy notion of flirting and kinship, is a whole narrative can of worms that Swanberg's more than happy to spill and then force us to watch the sprawl. It's wonderfully performed, funny, unsettling, honest to the point of autobiographical recognition, and manages to be achingly perceptive without seemingly doing very much at all.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Last Of Us, dir. Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann, wr. Neil Druckmann, st. Troy Baker (voice, mo-cap), Ashley Johnson (voice, mo-cap)


I'm going to do something I promised myself I'd never do. I'm going to review a video-game. 

Over the last few years, as computer-games have got more 'immersive' and striven for photo-realism and movie-like cinematics, I've done everything I can to resist the lure. But then Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain came along in 2010 and that was it. Although it still needed something of a fuller plot, and rounder dimensional characterisation, Heavy Rain proved that video-games had learned something about movies' atmosphere and tone. Playing the game, for me, was secondary to experiencing it.

And now Naughty Dog - the company responsible for the hugely successful and playable, yet lightweight Indiana Jones-style Uncharted game series - have created The Last Of Us, which since its release in June, has garnered universal critical acclaim from all four corners of the web. The inevitable comparisons with Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later crossed with John Hillcoat's The Road give some idea of the dysphoria on offer, but The Last Of Us posits an altogether different kind of meditative dystopia. The story opens with Joel (Baker) and his daughter Sarah on the eve before an outbreak pandemic of cordyceps (truly the stuff of nightmares, seriously - Google Image Search it) starts infecting vast swathes of the American populace. Twenty years on and a leaner, gruffer, shockingly hardened Joel, now alone, unwillingly takes possession of a 14-year old girl Ellie (Johnson), and is tasked with trekking cross-country in order to deliver her to the Fireflies - a resistance group that operates outside the military-controlled zones. 

Such adult/child relationship-journeys are nothing new, certainly to cinematic tropes, one of the reasons being there is much mileage to be extracted from stoic experience gradually and warmingly eroded by naive idealism. The difference here is that Joel spends a vast proportion of the game treating Ellie as excess baggage rather than the scared but determined child she is, and likewise Ellie, only ever knowing the world in its new decaying state, is ever the optimist, un-nurtured - heartachingly - as she is by Joel. And don't forget, this is no 120-odd-minute flick - this is a 16-hour marathon. Over hours, days, weeks, you live these characters intimately. And that's Naughty Dog's trump card, for the motion-capture - usually most tellingly artificial when characters need to engage in emotionally-charged discourse - is startlingly realistic. We're not at photo-realism yet of course, but nods, furrowed brows, sighs, held-gazes, looks-away - characteristics previously only performers flesh and blood were able to execute - are all beautifully animated here. Not only that, for me, the game's two biggest selling points were Gustavo Santaolalla's fret-plucked score - one of the most hauntingly elegiac and spellbindingly arranged and performed I've ever heard - and the absolutely extraordinary voice-acting. One gets the very real feeling Baker and Johnson interact as their rendered counterparts do onscreen, rather than in booths in front of scripts. The environments are delicately detailed, as one might expect, and the monsters, sorry - clickers, runners and bloaters - are suitably scary, but the biggest palpitations come from not avoiding predators, but in keeping the pair - and their burgeoning relationship - alive. Once the ending comes round, and a year in the story's timeline has elapsed, you'll never want Joel and Ellie's story to resolve - let alone achieve any kind of narrative closure that might leave you feeling uneasy and desolately melancholic, but Naughty Dog, in their bold wisdom, have remained utterly faithful to their grand vision of a video-game that carries the same empathic weight and solemnity as the best of what the cinema has to offer.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Pitch Perfect, dir. Jason Moore, scr. Kay Cannon, based on Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin, st. Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Rebel Wilson, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Adam DeVine, Ben Platt, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks

Before making his film directorial debut with Pitch Perfect, Jason Moore cut his teeth on Broadway as resident director for Les Misérable, and as much as I'm a fan of Schönberh and Boublil's acclaimed work, it doesn't half put you through the mill with its incessant onslaught of melodrama and never-ending roll-call of audition songs. It's something of a relief then to find a musical such as Pitch Perfect, that whips through a variety of multi-genre songs that individually never outstay their welcome, and comprising a plot so ultra-lo-cal as to merely serve as dramatic interludes between the numbers. I know that sounds derogatory but it really isn't meant to be. Aspiring DJ Beca Mitchell (Kendrick) would rather create mash-ups on her Mac than attend college, however, on joining the University's all-female a cappella group the Barden Bellas - building up a new team from scratch comprising 'alternative' but talented misfits as the trope goes - she finds a movement that addresses her musical sensibilities as well as her social insecurities as well as a token boyf along the way in the form of rival group member Jesse Swanson (Astin). What Pitch Perfect lacks in substance, it makes up in polished (über-produced and mimed) performance with a roster of song-types that feel at once cohesive and multi-demographic-appealing without the "everything and see what sticks" mentality. There's a limit, as talented as Rebel Wilson undoubtedly is, to how many fat jokes one can - or indeed feel one should - laugh at, and there are too many gags that lack the strength of their conviction, but there are some gems too - Hana Mae Lee's Lilly Onakuramara - a Bella member who's perpetually barely audible - is a gift that keeps on giving, and Kendrick is, as ever, a great joy to watch. For all its faults, Pitch Perfect is just the kind of fluff that's an easy and engaging watch without the taxation or trauma.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Only God Forgives, dir/wr. Nicolas Winding Refn, st. Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Those left cold or confounded by Winding Refn's critically acclaimed neon-noir Drive two years ago are unlikely to experience the warming of cockles upon viewing Only God Forgives, his latest foray into the darker recesses of the human psyche via more fluor-tubed excess, an unctuous Cliff Martinez score and of course, Ryan Gosling. That the film received boos and a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year gives you some idea of the film's polarising effect. Gosling, obviously feeling his character in his previous collaboration with Refn was something of a chatterbox, plays Julian Thompson - quite possibly "The Driver" in an alternate universe - an expatriate living in Bangkok who runs a drug smuggling op fronted by a boxing club. When his brother Billy (Tom Burke) murders a prostitute, so begins a bloody spiral of tit-for-tat killings involving Julian and Lt. Chang (Pansringarm), a kind of paradoxical ronin-y police chief with a penchant for karaoke. The dichotomy of Refn the consummate artist and Refn the pornographer is as maddening a conundrum as ever, and although there is indeed vast artistry in how Refn chooses to frame, compose and edit, you're also never far from the whiff of suspicion you're being had, or at the very least needled or provoked in some way. Yet for all the back-of-a-napkin plotting and unsubtle stylisms, Only God Forgives is quite compelling, aided by hypnotic performances, claustrophobic sets and locations, and a great undulating sound design. It may possibly be under the misapprehension it means a little more than it actually does, but neither can it be accused of being form over content. There's just too much going on that's curiously, frustratingly brilliant. 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The World's End, dir. Edgar Wright, wr. Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, st. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike

Over the 14 years since Spaced appeared on our TV screens - an offbeat sitcom of sorts, lovingly sewn together from offcuts of nerdy movie tropes - the enduringly endearing quatrain of Pegg, Frost, Wright and producer Nira Park have developed and matured their ideas whilst avoiding the polar pitfalls of overexposure and disappearance up one's own arse. 2004's Shaun Of The Dead paid homage to the Raimi zombie genre whilst Hot Fuzz 3 years later deftly finessed the Pegg/Frost wingman bromance into a buddy cop movie. And so we arrive at The World's End, the final installment of the so called Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, and more of a social sequel to Shaun than Fuzz - though all three feature the core premise of individuals up against a homogenized force. Pegg's Gary King could be Shaun ten years on, but whilst the former film made heroes from its portrayal of slacker(s)-cool, King is depicted as a slightly tragic leader of his friends' former gang - unable (or unwilling) to grow up, whilst his cohorts have, but find themselves in equally uninspiring and deadbeat suburban mundanity. 

King's plan is to get the boys back together in the fictional town of Newton Haven for "one last job" - or in this case - pub crawl - an epic "Golden Mile" of 12-pub imbibing. Things start to go weird though when the townsfolk turn out to be more playmobil than people, and a plot is uncovered that sees the gang's leisurely evening of  premium ale and past anecdotes turn into a fight against John Carpenter-y hordes. Since Spaced, Wright's trademark lexicon of choreography - reflected in everything from fight sequences to camerawork to the joyful patter of interweaving and overlapping dialogue - has been honed to near note-perfect execution, and the audiovisual pyrotechnics that are reeled off here genuinely delight with every muzzle-flash, although the glossiness of this new veneer may lead some to yearn for the less knowing, more lo-fi days of Pegg and Frost. It also needs to be noted that this film isn't just about them this time around, and inevitably, by opening up the group to Considine, Freeman, Marsan and Pike, great as they are, it translates into reduced screentime for our favourite pair which has the effect of slightly diluting inter-character relations. The World's End isn't a great departure from what's gone before, but it does cement the creative ensemble's place in contemporary British cinema as purveyors of broad-appeal comedy with heart, the likes of which we have yet to tire of watching.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Ratatouille, dir/scr. Brad Bird, story by Jan Pinkava, Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, st. Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano

The genius of Pixar is that they have always dealt with the kinds of solemn and poetic themes usually beyond the reach of their target audience - be it free will and loyalty in Toy Story, fear and parenthood in Monsters Inc., or parenthood (again) and the perils of adolescence in Finding Nemo. Ratatouille from 2007, a simple tale of a rat who falls in love with the intricate orchestrations of gastronomy, remains Pixar's most ambitious, loving, and insanely detailed feature to date. The deceptively humdrum premise - that anyone can cook - actually comes brimming with stowaway themes that concern ambition, prejudice, faith, the nature of legacy, and (most wonderfully intangible to a child) the quixotic love of food. It's hard to imagine a more highbrow and cerebral film for kids. Ratatouille is perceptive without condescension and passionate without mawkishness. It never sacrifices character or narrative progression for the sake of pace and enjoys a truly witty levity in the face of such serious subject matter. Subsequent Pixar films such as Wall-E or Up have achieved further acclaim but it's Ratatouille that retains the company's stratospherically high benchmark for inventive and soulful moviemaking.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Pacific Rim, dir. Guillermo del Toro, scr. Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro, st. Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman

On the face of it, Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim seems like the surefire hit of the Summer. Not since Hellboy II: The Golden Army has he directed, instead serving in the interim as producer and creative consultant on films like Splice, Julia's Eyes, Cowboys And Aliens, and most recently, the potholed Mama. But like several of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim - colossal robots built to engage the enemy - the Summer has already seen a seemingly indestructible behemoth crash and burn in the shape of Zach Snyder's Man Of Steel, what with its director famed for his visual aesthetic and built-in-audienced source material, should have been a critical no-brainer, and instead ended up earning the bruisingly direct Twitter trend hashtag #supermansucks. Ouch. So does Pacific Rim deliver? On the whole, yes, but golly gosh only be the skin of its teeth.

The film's premise concerns a massive crevasse in the middle of the ocean - the titular rim - inside which has formed a pan-dimensional portal from which large Godzilla-type monsters have periodically emerged and, as Lewis Caroll might say, galumphed all over the world's major cities and indeed their citizens. In a quickly glosssed-over bit of introductory newsreel-style exposition, we are told that global governments have put aside their differences to collaborate in constructing crazy-ass huge robots, piloted - as all the best ass-kicking craft are - by a pair of wingmen (to share and cohere the neural load). But the frequency of toothy sea-beasts has increased and the Jaegers are falling faster than they are being built. As far as narrative goes, that's pretty much it. The screenplay, uncreditingly finessed by Luther scribe Neil Cross, is as absurd and unwieldy as you might expect in a film about droids versus dragons, and there're some disappointingly tired old tropes like the Icemanish robo-jock Chuck Hansen (Kazinsky) who considers our hero Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) too reckless to be on active duty, an older avuncular CO who was once a pilot himself (Elba), and a pair of rent-a-geek scientists who go off on nerdy side-missions whilst the greater abbed pilots strap in and face-off, that are at once warmingly familiar and desperately dated.

That said, Pacific Rim never breaks the cardinal rule of ensuring levity, and (here's the rub) the predominant action sequences - the film's nuclear-fusioned core - are deftly orchestrated and coherently assembled, which is no mean feat given the majority of them take place at night or in the vast tidal swell of seawater. The creatures are imaginatively designed and impressively formidable, and the piston-crushing dance-off they perform with the Jaegers carries tangible weight and balanced physics that lend a persuasive sense of realism to proceedings. And again, like Man Of Steel, the performances are surprisingly fine given the wonky architecture the actors are forced to grapple with; Elba has a couple of great lines in amongst his character's gruff leader shtick and does his best to make his obligatory 'rousing the troops' speech sound listenable, something an American twang has always over-patriotised in similar scenes in movies before.

Thus Pacific Rim is quite enjoyable fun, if a little uninspired. That elusive middle-ground between adrenalined escapism and perceptive, cerebral content a la Cameron's Aliens is still a rare thing these days, and one wonders if Neil Blomkamp's Elysium, released later this year, might be that film - a movie that packs an emotional and spiritual punch the size of one of the Jaegers' house-sized fists.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Evil Dead, dir. Fede Alvarez, scr. Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues, Diablo Cody (uncredited), st. Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci, Jessica Lucas, Elizabeth Blackmore

Gore hounds - strap in; everyone else - feel free to log off. Alvarez's version - Remake? Homage? Sequel? - of the now classic Sam Raimi film ups the bloodletting and sheen, but forgets to include the wry humour that defined the original. The result, whilst competent and visceral, using mostly practical effects to dry-heaving effect, feels a little insubstantial. In its quest for realism, many of the original more supernatural concepts sit uneasily against naturalism, and there's precious little character development to chivvy attachment to the players once they begin slicing and dicing themselves and each other. Not too long ago we used to laugh at the idea of reboots and remakes and their ever increasing frequency of production; Evil Dead turns that chuckle into a thousand-yard stare.