Friday, 25 April 2014

Speed (15) | Film Review

Speed, dir. Jan de Bont, wr. Graham Yost, st. Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Dennis Hopper, Joe Morton, Jeff Daniels

Poor old Wally Pfister. Early buzz surrounding his directorial debut Transcendence has been lukewarm to say the least. Though when cinematographers tire of playing second fiddle to their masters and decide to march to the beat of their own drum, the results can be triumphant. After photographing such films as Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Flatliners, Lethal Weapon 3, Basic Instinct, and Black Rain, Jan de Bont stepped in to film Speed, a high-concept chase-actioner in which the improbably heroically-titled Jack Traven attempts to rescue passengers from a GM New Look public bus in downtown LA that's set to blow up if its speed drops below 50mph. Graham Yost's screenplay (with uncredited rewrites by Joss Whedon) is brutally perfunctory at times, not helped by Reeves' dead-behind-the-eyes delivery and Dennis Hopper's bomber Howard Payne - a man so Scoobyly evil he can click his fingers without using his thumb - and who shines Jack on by saying things like, "Your life is empty because you spend it trying to stop the bomb from becoming." But other than that Speed is bold, glossy, stylish, cleverly trisected into self-contained acts - Elevator, Bus, and Metro - and gloriously unrelenting. The script's underdevelopment of character translates well into individuals with streamlined goals. Twister, Speed 2: Cruise Control and Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider sequel followed, with de Bont at the helm, but he hasn't since been able to replicate this kind of directorial success.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Raid 2: Berandal (18) | Film Review

The Raid 2: Bernadal, dir/wr. Gareth Evans, st. Iko Uwais, Arifin Putra, Oka Antara, Tio Pakusadewo, Julie Estelle

If nothing else, your response to watching The Raid 2: Berandal will be shocking realisation at how little cardio you do. Actually, it's hard to talk about Evans' film without bringing up the original, a film I unapologetically trashed when it came out in 2012. Since that time, the budget has increased four-fold, Evans has knuckled down and turned in a convoluted Scorsesian screenplay of feuding warlords, the choreographic canvas has broadened to include more fight sequences and car chases, and with all that comes an extra hour that's been tacked on the original's running time. All this should add up to a migraine-fuelled orgy of hate and bile, right? Well if Evans' sequel preaches anything, it's that context is everything. Watching The Raid 2 I was reminded of Krishnan Guru-Murthy's infamous Tarantino-baiting Channel 4 promo interview for Django Unchained. "Violence is good cinema", Tarantino says. "It's a fantasy, it's cathartic." By fleshing out his characters' motivations, desires, ambitions and granting them comprehensive through-lines, Berandal's extreme violence may be enjoyed as part of a fictional narrative, rather than a vacuous montage of blurry fists seemingly designed to solely titillate and engorge the blood vessels. 

This film sees the return of Rama (Uwais) from Redemption. Not content with his previous tower-block efforts from the first film, the police's anti-corruption outfit gives him the chance to infiltrate the intricate network of crime bosses and bring down the whole house of cards from within. Rama duly complies but soon the tentatively truced factions descend into a chaotic melange of power-plays and inter-gang executions. This time round it is easier to see the undeniable beauty in Yayan Ruhian and Uwais' balletic choreography in all its bone-crunching blood-spurting fury, but the camerawork oscillates wildly from tight and controlled to wildly unbalanced, as if unable to keep up with the frenzied action in front of the lens. No doubt an aspect of this is contrived thus to lend an air of docu-immediacy to proceedings, and sure, there's a grittiness to handheld camerawork that satisfyingly unpicks the glossy sheen of more clinically orchestrated anarchy, but it still occasionally feels every bit of its meagre $4m budget. Ultimately, the story doesn't quite ascend the heights of literary operatic crime fiction it clearly aspires to, but as a piece of savage cinematic escapism, the rage and bloodletting deliver palpable thrills.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Bourne Supremacy (12) | Film Review

The Bourne Supremacy, dir. Paul Greengrass, scr. Tony Gilroy, based on The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum, st. Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Brian Cox, Julia Stiles, Karl Urban, Joan Allen

The second film of the twelve-book franchise (we have The Bourne Betrayal/Sanction/Deception/Objective/Dominion/Imperative/Retribution and Ascendancy to go) remains the strongest of the to-date four-film franchise, a blisteringly skeleton-shattering tale of mind control, identity-seeking, and duplicitous quadruple and quintuple crosses. The film picks up from where The Bourne Identity left off, with Jason and Marie making a go of things in Palolem, India. He's still plagued by frustrating and fragmented blurs of his previous life, and she's become his rock, persuading him to keep a journal of his collected memories in the hope everything will come together. Their idyll is suddenly and shockingly shattered however when Bourne's black-ops masters Treadstone - now Blackbriar - seek to tie up their remaining loose end. Director Paul Greengrass, who inherited the sequel from Doug Liman, creates a leaner and more muscular picture than its predecessor. The action is more thoughtfully choreographed (culminating in the most brutally supreme of car chases), the narrational machinations are insidiously and satisfyingly complex, and Matt Damon gives a performance of great range and delicacy, torn as Jason Bourne is, between using what he is to discover who he is. The recent NSA revelations have suddenly thrown any film that confronts mass surveillance under a new light, but there's a very honest, un-Hollywood feel to The Bourne Supremacy, in the way it uses its characters not merely as tokens with which to carry the action, but as human beings who front the real cost of our brave new world.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Prisoners (15) | Film Review

Prisoners, dir. Denis Villeneuve, wr. Aaron Guzikowski, st. Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano

This is more like it - a superb, expansive, tremendously well executed and performed thriller from Canadian director Villeneuve who brought us the formidable Incendies back in 2010. Jackman, on stripped-back, raw and intense form, plays Keller Dover, a family man who along with their neighbours, discovers his little girl has been abducted from their sleepy blue-collar town. Initial suspicions lie with Dano's Alex Jones, a developmentally disabled local man who lives with his aunt Holly (Leo), but Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) insists on methodically going through the evidence, even though Keller believes in Jones being the perpetrator. Villeneuve's film is a masterful exercise in drawn out suspense, and explores what anger and fury men are capable of when convinced of another's guilt. There is no urgency to move things along, and indeed Villeneuve succeeds in wringing every last drop of potential Hanekian menace from every cold and barren Wintry location. There are faint echoes too of Fincher's Zodiac, especially through Jóhann Jóhannsson's minimalist score, and importantly, there's a resolution that raises more uncomfortable questions about trust and the evil that exists within small town communities than it answers. Gyllenhaal is on fine form as a man frustrated by the inhibiting confines of due process, but this is Jackman's show. A terrifyingly restrained exhibition that illustrates the abyssal depths of grief and suffering, this is a fragile, human performance. Bullets may bounce of the exoskeleton of his most famous portrayal, but here we see a man near destroyed by the loss of his child, in all its unflinching, persuasive detail.

Snowpiercer (15) | Film Review

Snowpiercer, dir. Bong Joon-ho, scr. Bong Joon-ho, Kelly Masterson, based on Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand & Jean-Marc Rochette, st. Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Go Ah-sung, Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, Luke Pasqualino, Ewan Bremner, Ed Harris

In the future, after an attempt to reverse the effects of global warming by injecting coolant into our atmosphere has gone badly wrong resulting in an another ice age, the rag-tag remnants of humanity hurtle around a globe-spanning track upon the Snowpiercer, a perpetual-motion-engined locomotive that houses the dregs of mankind in the tail, while the elite live it up towards the front. Historically, no one has done class division like sci-fi, although these days, with the gap between our richest and poorest at an all time high, one wonders whether a 21st Century-set contemporary drama might serve just as well without the need for high-concept analogy. Bong Joon-ho's film, made by Park Chan-wook's production company Moho Films, was almost hacked Blade Runner-style in late 2012 by distributor Harvey Weinstein when it emerged that he planned on snipping 20 minutes from the 2-hour cut and adding fore and aft voiceovers - presumably in order to make the picture more palatable for movie-going audiences that have a hard time with tricksy things like plot and character - but in the end, a compromise was reached and the film opens in the US (but with no UK release date as of yet) in June, and uncut.

It's a curious decision on the part of Weinstein, as Snowpiercer is no more wooly or ponderous as, say, Neill Blomkamp's Elysium which weaves a similar allegorical tale of proletariat oppression by the wealthy upper classes, and the film - Bong Joon-ho's first English-language feature - in no way suffers from the potential East/West clash of style and technique that might render the movie impenetrable to English speaking audiences. It all smacks very heavily of a kind of pre-emptive irrational fear of foreign-language directors' vision for Westerners, of the sort that does a great disservice to the intelligence of cinemagoers, and further arouses suspicion that distributors put financial return above the expansion of artistry.

But politics aside, Snowpiercer is a sprawling and visually glorious tale that's equal parts Jean-Pierre Jeunet, George Orwell, and L. Frank Baum, with echoes of the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas and Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys for good measure. The plot, singular and drivingly kinetic for such an environment as a train, where the only possible momentum is linearly forward, has Evans as Curtis, the unlikely leader of the tail-end resistance, a motley gang of disheveled and disenfranchised who are kept in concentration-camp squalor and provided for with jellied protein bars. With the help of a host of universal archetypes - the sage Gilliam (geddit?) (Hurt), the plucky youngster Edgar (Bell), the silent muscle Grey (Skins' Pasqualino), and tech-wiz Namgoong (Kang-ho), they mount a revolt, slowly making their way through the carriages, witnessing with increasing wonder and resentment the level of opulence offered to the other passengers at their expense, hoping to find at the train's snowpiercing head, the enigmatic Wilford, architect of both transport and new world order.

For such a grand vision there is inevitable friction between the more action-based set-pieces and the video-game-like level-up quality to each new carriage the group encounter, and the numerous pauses for ponderous character development and narrative exposition, but the sense of scale is immensely impressive and cleverly envisaged, and indeed, the conceptual idea of a train forever condemned to circumnavigate the decaying inhospitable globe while humanity's hierarchy is kept in check has a certain Sisyphusian nihilism about it that carries an undeniably compelling existentialist weight. Snowpiercer will be worth the weight then when it eventually chugs through the UK. An oddity to be sure, but a visually impressive and hauntingly cerebral one too.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Species (18) | Film Review

Species, dir. Roger Donaldson, wr. Dennis Feldman, st. Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina, Marg Helgenberger, Forest Whitaker, Natasha Henstridge

Some ropey dialogue, preposterous plotting, and obvious Alien pretensions aside (the creature design springs from the colourful mind of H.R. Giger himself), Species is an irresistible slice of 90s B-movie goodness. When SETI receives an incoming transmission which includes an attachment of alien DNA sequencing, humanity duly complies and splices it with that of our own. The result is Sil, a basiliskian xenomorph that ostensibly looks human, but mutates when in heat. Driven by a biological desire to reproduce, Sil escapes into the LA night looking for action, swiftly followed by an esteemed ensemble cast gathered to track her down. These include Madsen as a government troubleshooter, Molina as a Harvard anthropologist, a molecular biologist played by Helgenberger, an empath played by Whitaker, and the Frankenstein-like Fitch (Kingsley). The one-note chase movie is improbably held together by this cast of greats doing their best with grad-student writing, but the real delight is the film's gloriously divisive psycho-sexual politics, that either play as an empowering feminist study of infallible maternal instinct and courageous predatory menace, or another deeply misogynistic view of the female form as innately heretical, corrupt and treacherously immoral.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12A) | Film Review

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, dir. Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, wr. Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, based on Captain America by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby, st. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johannson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson

Remember after 9/11 how everyone said that Hollywood would have to seriously re-evaluate how terrorism is depicted on screen? Some even prophesized a complete re-working of how violence and action was approached. Never would the sight of a collapsing building exploding in flames ever fail to conjure memories of that unforgettable day again. Hollywood has always taken its cue from real-world events, but if post 9/11 Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that Hollywood doesn't so much respond to reality, but rather stares at it blankly like a dog that's just been shown a card trick, before proceeding to blithely go about its business.

And so, in this latest movie from the Marvel juggernaut, we have the second Captain America movie that finds the defrosted Steve Rogers (Evans) peeved at Nick Fury's latest S.H.I.E.L.D. initiative - the installation of three atmospheric stations designed to monitor everyone on Earth and preemptively eliminate any threats to world peace. Mass global surveillance in return for unwavering security. As a response to recent events, it's laid on so thick I was surprised Edward Snowden didn't cameo halfway through as a security guard Stan Lee-style (who does). Narrative twists and turns however mean that ultimately Captain America doesn't need to have the strength of its initial convictions and therefore is able to bail before things get too political. 

It's true too that Evans makes for a dourer lead - there are no Starkisms here - but what the film lacks in warming and zingy one-liners it makes up in welcomingly sober tonality. Certainly the brawls between Rogers and the titular Winter Soldier are more violently visceral than in any Marvel movie gone before, and for once we have an antagonist whose fearsome presence doesn't crumble to dust once he's unmasked. There's able support too from Johannson as Natasha Romanoff, whose character gets a little more screentime and whose backstory is to be further uncovered in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, and in her own spin-off film after that. Redford makes a suitably hissable villain, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is at the centre of one of the film's most memorable set-pieces early on - a carjacking sequence that wouldn't feel out of place in a Michael Mann project.

Whether the whole franchise ever becomes anything more than merely the sum of all its constituent parts remains to be seen. In the meantime, chalk it up as one of the more successful superhero flicks.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Scent of a Woman (15) | Film Review

Scent of a Woman, dir. Martin Brest, scr. Bo Goldman, based on Il buio e il miele by Giovanni Arpino, st. Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell, James Rebhorn, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Charlie Simms (O'Donnell) is in a bit of a pickle. Having eyeballed those responsible for playing a prank on their private school's headmaster, he now faces the difficult decision of whether or not to rat out his peers - a moral dilemma compounded by the bribe headmaster Trask lays before him: squeal, and glide into Harvard. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Pacino) meanwhile has come out of the other side. Having spent a lifetime in the Army watching great men relinquish their principles, along with the senseless waste of young life he's experienced, Frank's capacity for compassion has left him almost as quickly as his eyesight. Charlie feels like he's teetering on the brink of an abyss, Frank has welcomed its embrace.

When most on-screen couples are romantic or buddy cops it's a delightful rarity to see such an interesting pairing - even if things do unfold rather as expected come the film's final moments - the ride is a blast. Charlie's Thanksgiving Weekend job is to babysit the cantankerous colonel - an easy $300 that will buy his plane fare home for Christmas - but Frank has other ideas; a farewell tour of wonders in New York before his liberating suicide.

The joy in Brest's movie (from all the way back in 1992) comes from the effortless way it touches upon so many thematic bases with truly poignant resonance. Privilege, class, elitism, scholastic morality, fatalism, and depression all show their hands along the way. The fact Charlie and Frank may end up friends thanks to the 157-minute cathartic journey they share may be a foregone conclusion, but the movie nimbly hops from set-piece to set-piece, each one refining and building on its predecessor. The famous tango Frank performs with stood-up diner Donna (Gabrielle Anwar) is offered up these days as the movie's centerpiece, but there's an undeniable mesmerism in watching the pair's cut and thrust in the film's more intimate moments. The 22-year-old O'Donnell is tremendous as the student with nothing to offer but his inexperience and innate integrity, and Pacino's barnstorming performance (which won him his first Best Actor Oscar the following year) pinballs from wildly abandoned enthusiasm (mainly in women and Ferraris), to steely menace, to dead-eyed resigned fatigue. Dissenters may dismiss it as trademark Shouty Pacino, but there's an immense subtlety in amongst the pyrotechnics.

Along with Thomas Newman's Americana soulful score, the film is also notable for the supporting performances of two late, great actors; a young Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays Charlie's slippery classmate George, and James Rebhorn as headmaster Trask, an effectively smarmy pillar of Etonian authority.