Thursday, 31 July 2014

Non-Stop (12A) | Film Review

Non-Stop, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra, scr. John W. Richardson, Chris Roach, Ryan Engle, st. Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker

Who's sending hard-drinking Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson) threatening messages on a non-stop New York to London flight? Is it the only other A-lister on board, Julianne Moore's nervous Jen? What about the captain played by Bruce Wayne's dad? And that guy from Monsters looks well shifty. Maybe it's Patsey from 12 Years A Slave? Oh look, there's Peter Russo sitting in Economy! Like some all-star(ish) cast from an Agatha Christie adaptation, Collet-Serra piles on the suspicions and serves up enough complimentary red herrings from his hostess trolley of plot to keep us satisfied for the entire long-haul. By now, Neeson can do this shit in his sleep. No one does ageing avuncular action-heroes better. And like most bottle-episode movies, a conclusion that has the writers having painted themselves into a corner is inevitable. Like the restricted and claustrophobic set, there is literally no where to go. Much like Robert Schwentke's Flightplan, the intriguing set-up eventually gives way to a hysterical ending. Collet-Serra uses this first act to deliciously ramp up the tension, applying fancy on-screen graphics to show us Bill's menacing SMSs Sherlock-style. Amusingly, at one point a screen-shattered but still operational device shows us the text, noisy and glitchy, the cracks obscuring a few F-bombs. The $50m/$200m budget to box office ratio speaks volumes, and any film that manages to unashamedly cram an unwieldy, inspirational crowd-rousing speech into proceedings and keep a straight face is surely worth of a little admiration.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Antiviral (15) | Film Review

Antiviral, dir/wr. Brandon Cronenberg, st. Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell

Definitely his father's son then, as Brandon Cronenberg's Antiviral serves up the kind of opaque and stylish film that has typified his dad's body of work. This is, to date, Cronenberg Jr.'s only film, and what it lacks in pace and structure, it makes up for in scope of ambition and design. Some time in the future, or in an alternative present, private clinics harvest illnesses and infections from willing celebrities intent on marketing themselves to the full. For $500, you too can be infected with an A-list disease comprising cells from the original superstar host. One clinician, Syd March (Jones), makes a bit on the side by injecting himself with his company's pathogens in order to sell them on the black market. The film boldly envisages a world beyond Heat magazine, where celebrity makeup endorsements, clothing-lines and perfumes have only fuelled the public's appetite to be as close to their objects of desire as possible. It's a bit of a stretch to believe celebrity obsession might stretch to wanting to share the same debilitating bug, but stranger things have happened in the real world in the name of delusional star-striking, and I was reminded of Andrew Motion's claim in 2002 that inducing illness was conducive to a sudden burst of creativity. But the film not only resonates with the idea of a public infatuated with the rich and famous, it also concerns itself with the idea of celebrities themselves being complicit in what has become just another lucrative marketing tool; in addition to the registered clinics, Antiviral shows punters queuing up at a butcher's, eager to get their fix of superstar meat - beige-coloured stem-celled muscle tissue injected with celebrity spores. Imagine your local Morrisons deli selling Brad Pitt sausages, Zayn Malik burgers, Tulisa Contostavlos steaks. The film is also partially indebted to Andrew Nichols' Gattaca in its depiction of pinsharp-suited Wall Street-like lab technician employees and their antiseptic working environment. Dad would undoubtedly be proud of his son's ability to explore new avenues in body-horror and make the most of his meagre budget, but ultimately, Antiviral collapses under the weight of its own lethargic heft, the story having run out of places to travel.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Enemy (15) | Film Review

Enemy, dir. Denis Villeneuve, scr. Javier Gulón, based on the novel The Double by José Saramago, st. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon

If Richard Ayoade gave us a typically absurdist tragicomic and Ayoadean version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, then Villeneuve's take on the story takes us somewhere altogether darker and infinitely more disturbing, which is ironic given Ayoade's perpetual gloom of the cramped Gilliamesque office cubicles and high-rise apartment blocks, and the expanse of Villeneuve's sepia-tinged Toronto. To be fair, a direct comparison isn't just, as Villeneuve's film is based on the José Saramago novel The Double (or more accurately, The Duplicated Man, which literal Portuguese title perhaps better befits the film), and not the Dostoyevsky book. Saramago's book does however speak to the same themes of identity and individual existentialism, but personalises and modernises the protagonist's woes to take in the dread of fidelity and commitment anxieties.

Gyllenhaal plays Adam Bell, a college lecturer who endlessly cycles through days of teaching the same patterns-emerging-through-chaos seminar, and emotionally dislocated sex with his girlfriend Mary (Laurent). On watching a movie rental one night, he screengrabs a fleeting shot of an extra who appears to be his doppelgänger, and on tracking him down, discovers that indeed the actor Anthony Claire is his exact double, tidier, kempt, and expecting a child with his wife Helen (Gadon), but physically the same right down to their hands and scars. So is Adam manifesting a neurological condition or, as the translated title of the source novel suggests, is this just a biological anomaly? Villeneuve scatters the breadcrumbs via a series of covert audio, visual and scripted cues, but unravelling the mystery plays second fiddle to the actual journey down the rabbit hole. With one part Hanekered menace and one part Cronenbergian surreal discomfiture, Enemy elegantly unfolds its story, aided by Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans' Giallo-inspired score and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc's burnt oranges and hazy yellows. But the film is Gyllenhaal's in what I'll wager to be his finest in a whole slew of nuanced and eclectic performances that stretches right the way back to 2001's Donnie Darko. There's a terrible inclination for such high-concept storytelling to completely derail if not anchored by credibility, but Gyllenhaal gives a persuasively haunted performance in his portrayal of a man teetering on the edge of madness. Enemy completes a triptych of films from Villeneuve that couple utterly compelling narratives with uniquely distinctive production aesthetics; his heart-breaking and shocking Lebanese Civil War-set Incendies in 2010, and last years Hugh Jackman-led abduction drama Prisoners offered similarly accomplished and unforgettable cinematic experiences. His next project, next year's Roger Deakins-lensed Sicario starring Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro shows all the potential to being his fourth nigh-on perfect film on the trot.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Saturn 3 (15) | Film Review

Saturn 3, dir. Stanley Donen, scr. Martin Amis, story by John Barry, st. Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel

Scientists Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett) live on Saturn's third moon as colleagues and lovers dutifully researching alternative food methodologies for a rapidly overcrowded and under-resourced Earth. Their idyllic existence is shattered with the arrival of Captain Benson (Keitel) - actually not a real captain at all, but a psychopathic murderer who we see dispatch the original Benson and assume his identity. Neo-Benson brings with him a distinctly un-Robbie like robot - Hector, grandly labeled as a "demi-god" - who appropriates Benson's psychosis and lust for the lithe Alex. Many of the miniatures and optical special effects haven't really stood the test of time, and suffer the additional humiliation of belonging to a film released three years after the pioneering Star Wars (which director Barry production designed), and one year after Alien - both of which are clearly aped here. But there's a claustrophobic and efficiently told story, and while the characterisation is slender, the intrusion into the protagonist's lives by a malicious force is as potent a home invasion scenario we've seen hundreds of times before. Elmer Bernstein provides an eerie electro-acoustic score and cinematographer Billy Williams, who was to win an Oscar for his work on Gandhi two years later, makes the most of the shadowy, foreboding corridors and sci-fi-laboratorial lighting.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Divergent (12A) | Film Review

Divergent, dir. Neil Burger, scr. Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel Divergent by Veronica Roth, st. Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Zoë Kravitz, Kate Winslet, Maggie Q, Miles Teller, Jai Courtney

Neil Burger's previous effort, the Bradley Cooper vehicle Limitless, may have peddled the old ten per cent brain use limit chestnut (both as the film's concept and as commentary on how to approach the movie as an audience member), but at least it provided us with something of a sensory overload that was commensurate with the film's thematics. Here, Divergent, based on the highly popular young adult fiction series by Veronica Roth, should in theory hold infinite more storytelling potential in its depiction of a future society segregated and categorised. There's certainly an engaging and prevalent core idea that concerns adolescents having to choose once and once only what sociological camp to set up in - Abnegation that houses the civil servants, Amity the charity workers, Candor the lawmakers, Dauntless the soldiers, and Erudite the scientists. Students have enough trouble choosing their GCSE and A Level subjects - imagine if what they chose at that age irrevocably determined their life path. Yet there's precious little plot on offer and even less of a commitment to decent storytelling, which is particularly galling given the film's near two and a half hour running time. It's seventy minutes before we encounter any kind of meaningful narrative, the first half of the movie primarily concerning itself with much first-day-at-school soul searching.

Woodley, currently accumulating plaudits for her role in Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars, plays Beatrice Prior, the daughter of a high-ranking council member. Once of age, she is subjected to a mandatory aptitude test - a form of drug-induced lucid dreaming - which will reveal to the individual which social order they should be a part of, kind of like a dystopian Sorting Hat. Thereafter, a public Choosing Ceremony sees the kids choose their fate in front of their peers and family. They sever all ties, and begin their induction. Beatrice, now going under the slightly less bully-baiting Triss, joins Dauntless despite her aptitude test being inconclusive (labelling her the "divergent' of the title), a bunch of parkour-obssessed spring breakers who confuse making YouTube viral videos with character-building orientation. She soon uncovers a plot led by tropey ice-queen Jeaninine Matthews (Winslet) to turn the Dauntless into her own private army via a mind-controlling serum, and lead a coup against the Abnegation overthrowing the government. But this is where things really start to unravel and things stop making a whole heap of sense. Why, for example, is Triss' divergence such a threat to the status quo as we are frequently told? And what makes her different from the "factionless"- society's disenfranchised and homeless undesirables? And what about Matthews nefarious machinations - a plan so clumsy and unwieldy as to eliminate any credible sense of real menace? Many have compared the Divergent series akin to that other popular YAF-du-jour The Hunger Games, but that is to do a considerable disservice to Suzanne Collins' books. As flawed as Jennifer Lawrence's films are, they contain enough plausible threat and gravity to offer compelling drama of sorts, and Katniss embodies a spunky ambition and purpose that is sorely lacking in Triss. Divergent is supposed to be a chilling and persuasive suggestion of what a post-apocalyptic socio-political landscape might resemble, but ends up as anodyne and dead-eyed as the world it depicts.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Signal | Film Review

The Signal, dir. William Eubank, wr. Carlyle Eubank, David Frigerio, William Eubank, st. Laurence Fishburne, Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Lin Shaye

There's more than a little Blomkamp in William Eubank's hi-concept science fiction episode The Signal. Maybe it's the dusty, arid setting and close-quarter framing, or perhaps it's the way that its hyper-modest budget is cleverly employed to make it look like a movie ten times its stature. One thing's for certain, there are a hell of a lot of ideas on offer here, not all of them as confidently executed as others, but enough to illusionistically suggest you're watching something greater than the sum of its parts. We catch our protagonists - MIT students Jonah, Nick, and Hayley - mid road-movie as the boys are in the process of shuttling Hayley to California. On the way, we learn they've been track an internet hacker known only as "Nomad", and that their route allows them the opportunity to drop in on the location his IP signal is emanating from. After some Blair Witch remote shack-investigating, things go very bad indeed and Nick wakes up in what is seemingly an underground research facility, possibly Area 51, and possibly having contracted some kind of pathogen judging by the hazmat-suited team that staff the area. The rest of the movie is given over to unravelling the enigma-wrapped riddle, and Eubank has great fun in establishing an eye-rubbingly strange environment in which everything seems just a bit off. Of course, well-versed sci-fictioners will have seen the ending coming a mile away, and there's just a mite too much super-glossy slo-mo that really belongs in an Audi advert, but Nima Fakhrara's squelchy score keeps the mood bubbling along, and there're some elegant VFX that realise the film's lofty ambitions.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

FADE IN | Batman (1989)

This establishing shot from Tim Burton's 1989 Batman showcases both Anton Furst's immensely detailed production design and cinematographer Roger Pratt's ability to conjure mood and menace out of the shadows. The serif font of the location title graphic rounds out the movie's gothic ambitions with class and restraint.

Die Wand (The Wall) (12) | Film Review

Die Wand (The Wall), dir/wr. Julian Pölsler, based on Die Wand by Marlen Haushofer, st. Martina Gedeck

Deep within the Austrian Alps, a woman (Gedeck) and her two friends arrive at a hunting lodge. For her friends it seems like an idyllic retreat, for the silent, nameless woman, stoic and sober, it seems more like an escape or maybe a convalescence. When her friends head out to a neighbouring village that very first evening, she declines the walk, choosing instead to stay at the lodge with their dog Lynx. In the morning, she wakes up alone. The unmade beds reveal her friends never returned back to the lodge, and on further investigation, down the rough track they had previously driven up, she encounters an invisible wall blocking her path, humming and vibrating on interaction. What follows is a narration-led survivalist tale as she struggles to adjust to her new circumstances in isolation. In many ways Pölsner's film is dramatically sparse. The Woman's contemplative quietness established at the start neither unravels into full-on panic at the extent of her imprisonment, nor does it accelerate into joyous montage of renewed endurance as many sole-survivor movies have before. Rather she knuckles down, harvests the land and begrudgingly learns how to use a rifle, all the while her faithful dog by her side. The relentlessness of life is all around her. Tall pines and flowing streams, the buzzing of insects, screech of birds, bray of deer - the sound design is a marvel of fecundity. One may also suspect it is no coincidence that the wandering cow she finds on the pasture and the cat that seeks shelter from a storm in her lodge both end up bearing offspring. The narration that punctuates the earthy soundscape is from further down the line - maybe years - as a close-cropped version of The Woman reveals she has been logging her experience. The action flits back and forth between these two timelines, the latter's grey and dusky colour palette contrasting vividly with the former's saturated Alpinic vistas. The Wall may be economic with its conventional storytelling, but the frame is bursting with shimmering imagery concerning nature's indifference to human plight or even fantastical, unexplained phenomena. It's a brilliant, strange, and sombre film, one that revels in its own capacity to sell the mournful wretchedness of enforced exile, but it's surprisingly poignant and Gedeck gives a heartrending portrayal of a woman quarantined in paradise.

Monday, 21 July 2014

The Lego Movie (U) | Film Review

The Lego Movie, dir/scr. Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, st. Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hearts may sink at yet another toyline/movie mashup, but Lord and Miller's film is a faithful big-screen adaptation of not just the plastic, but the spirit of creativity Lego inspires. Everyman construction worker Emmet (Pratt) spends his days attempting to toe Bricksburg's party line to consume, follow the rules (or in his case - instruction manual), and be happy without question, though he represses niggling thoughts that he doesn't belong. Unbeknownst to Emmet however, a battle has raged between a wizard named Vitruvius (Freeman) and Lord Business (Ferrell), who plans to seek ultimate control of the Lego universe. Much for Fox News to love there then. Emmet soon realises he's the star of his own monomythical tale in which he has to rise to the challenge of hero, fulfil the prophecy, and save the world. Much of the film's success emanates from its ability to conjure pure-joy childhood memories of the exact nature of Lego mechanics. A lot of what I saw in the film had me gleefully realising my playtimes weren't entirely dissimilar to other kids'. It was like finding out at 35 that we all actually belonged to a secret club all along - which cunningly, Pixar-style, gives the upper hand to the toys themselves. Thus the film's animators have lovingly digitally recreated those tiny imperfections we knew so well; the minifigure characters show fingerprints, worn edges, grime, knocks, scrapes and scars, while - critically - not betraying Lego's own limitations in articulation, animated with an ingenious mixture of lampooning and loyalty. This reverence for its subject matter continues too into the gloriously daft plot - you'll remember it from the ones you dreamed up in your youth - and flirts with the idea of real-world, ex-Lego objects and entities that infiltrate the narrative. There's even an ending that teeters precariously along that moving/mawkish precipice, but ultimately proves too adorable to resist. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Immigrant (tbc) | Film Review

The Immigrant, dir. James Gray, wr. Ric Menello, James Gray, st. Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner

There are two conflicting forces at work in James Gray's period tale of redemption and remission, set amongst the industrial haze of 1920s New York City. Cinematographer Darius Khonddji paints a vivid canvas of sepiaed oranges and browns internal and external. The initial scenes at Ellis Island, where Polish immigrant Ewa (Cotillard) and her sister Magda arrive having fled the war-torn horrors of their homeland in Poland, the Bandits Roost Theatre, where Bruno (Phoenix) runs a titillating burlesque club that provides Ewa with an opportunity to pay her way, and the pedestrian tunnels of Central Park that provide the setting for the film's final flight, are beautifully lit and photographed. Complete with gentle vignetting at the corners of the frame, the film suggests a flip-book of still images of Ewa's struggle for identity, captured, preserved then lost, only to be once more uncovered by the viewer. Unfortunately such poetic and historically resonant visuals are entirely at odds with the film's unconvincing melodrama. Cotillard, who can do so much with a look or a sigh, and whose character promises so much in the film's first act, discovers there's not much to salvage from her undeveloped character. In fact Gray's film strongly suggests Ewa serves only to provide Bruno with his narrative arc from entrepreneur and opportunist, to benefactor and liberator. Gray has stated that the vast majority of The Immigrant is anecdotal. That may very well be true, but whereas real life can often be forgiven for its clichés, cinema gets a march harder time. It's a shame Gray isn't half as good a storyteller as he is a painter.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Oculus (15) | Film Review

Oculus, dir. Mike Flanagan, wr. Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, based on Oculus: Chapter Three - The Man With The Plan by Mike Flanagan, st. Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff

Behind every new iteration of the wheel, lies the same basic premise. So in Mike Flanagan's stab at the horror genre we have possessed relics with mind-altering properties and mirrored glass that acts as a portal for nasties. It's a tried and tested formula to be sure, but Oculus does earn extra points for being able to conjure a particularly chilling environment thanks to its isolationist setting, a poignant POV from the perspective of two young siblings watching the evil take a hold of their parents, and Karen Gillan's spunky older Kaylie, determined to beat the Devil. Alas if only there were a bit more of this. Kaylie's obsessive planning and tech-rigging in order to capture the beast sets up a delicious play-off against the titular oculus, itself imbued with a cunning sentience (its defence by distraction technique is effectively creepy and goreless), but the ending eschews match-meeting for a safer, more traditional Twilight Zone episode closer that leaves the nagging sensation of just another monster movie.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) | Film Review

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, dir. Matt Reeves wr. Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, from a premise suggested by Planet of the Apes written by Pierre Boulle, st. Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee

Forty-six years after the original Franklin J. Schaffner film, we arrive at Matt Reeve's latest incarnation, hot on the heels of Michael Bay's Transformers: Age of Extinction, (a film recently memorably described on Twitter as one you can recreate in the comfort of your own home by "putting a copy of FHM and a microwave in a washing machine"), and a film that commandingly proves the Summer Blockbuster can be one of kinetic escapism as well as containing meditative, literary narrative, full of compelling characters and motivation.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up ten years after the events depicted in Rupert Wyatt's 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A re-tooled graphic similar to the one that played over Rise's end credits shows the spread of the virulent Simian Flu around the world. Civilisation has collapsed save for the few percent of the population that have proved genetically immune to the outbreak. The apes now live in a commune in the Muir Woods, encased in the Eden-like environment of luscious foliage, fresh-flowing streams and the reassuring fortification of giant redwood trees. Caesar, we see, has been busy. hematologically empowered by the original ALZ-112 drug seen in Rise, he and others have given birth to a new generation of hyper-intelligent apes. Rudimentary edicts are scrawled onto the stone wall of the apes' forum ("Ape Shall Not Kill Ape" among them) and they communicate using the sign language James Franco's Will Rodman taught the young Caesar, who has in turn taught the others. Amongst his own kind, Caesar rarely speaks in the human tongue, but when he does, the effect is devastating. We've grown up in an age when it's possible to realise anything our imagination concocts, but rarely has the technology been employed to create such a palpable sense of character. Weta Digital have surely outperformed themselves to the point where virtually all visible seams between reality and artifice have been eradicated. Very occasionally, there might be the briefest moment in a scene in which an ape doesn't land or clamber with the mass with which we might expect him to, but this is but carping, for the apes, as well as sharing most of our DNA, now share our reverential presence upon the screen. The CGI is, of course, only half the story. As a seismic shift from mo-capping in a self-contained and regulated 'volume' to real-life outdoor locations is, it's still Andy Serkis' performance that triumphs. Naysayers who perhaps denounce Serkis' craft as "not real acting" certainly have a lot to answer for. Even supporters might get hung up on awards and adulations, but Serkis' portrayal of Caesar succeeds in a far more fundamental way. As our primary empathic connection with the film, we understand what a quandary he lives. Loyal to his taxonomy but possessing of features that at once upgrade his species while simultaneously being characteristic of untrustworthy and self-destructive humans, Caesar has a tricky time even commanding his own.

The first half of the film concerns softly-spoken Malcolm (Clarke), his medic partner Ellie (Russell), and withdrawn Son Alexander (Smit-McPhee) head away from the ruins of city and into deep into prohibited ape territory, for there lies a hydroelectric generator at a dam that could provide the answer to the human's dwindling fuel supplies. This first hour then is essentially a peace negotiation with both sides bearing potentially enabling leaders and suspicious, treacherous deputies. There is, predictably, enticingly, much in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for us to map onto the world in which we live far from the cinema auditoriums. That trust is earned. That great leaps of faith are sometimes required to attain unity. That, as The Wire, House of Cards or Game of Thrones has shown us, there will always be people behind the scenes ready to juke the stats, seek a coup, or usurp a king. That an armistice between warring sides is the most fragile of things. That conflict is perhaps, worryingly, inevitable. It all sounds like hard work coming from a Summer Blockbuster but, wondrously, Serkis manages to convey all this is Caesar's eyes. His measured breathing as he looks at his enemies, deciding whether to make that pivotal extension of trust.

Ultimately, and as the trailers have shown or you might have guessed, when war comes, it's not pretty. There are no heroic charges into battle or defiant holdings of the frontline. It's ugly and chaotic and every ape or human that falls is a life taken that's keenly felt by the viewer. Yet somehow, while it's unsurprising that the humans break out their armoury's weapons with such urgency, it's much more troubling to see the apes' decrees crumble. Maybe it's because we feel culpable. Yes, from us Caesar has learnt empathy, kindness and loyalty, but Koba, the ape who murdered Jacobs at the end of the previous film, has retained all our hatred, malice, and distrust. Interesting too is the depiction of Gary Oldman's Dreyfus, nominally the human survivors' leader. He's less concerned with the wonder of talking animals and more about the preservation of his species. A brief scene in which he swipes through his iPad at photos of loved ones hints at a backstory probably left on the cutting room floor, and this is a shame, as another more fully rounded human character in addition to Malcolm wouldn't have gone amiss. 

So Dawn of the Planet of the Apes kind of depresses then. Surely it's a far cry from the heroic bombast and bluster of Marvel - or indeed Hasbro - offerings. But then again, so it should. Matt Reeves undoubtedly knows his way around an incendiary action-scene, but - boldly - earmarks vast amounts of time to the quieter scenes of communication that build the foundation for his scholastic, almost Classical approach to cerebral storytelling and narrative. Rise was a great film, but the differences between that and its successor couldn't be greater. Dawn is an altogether different animal. It instructs, provokes, and dares to respect its audience's intelligence. It resists formulaic narrative architecture in favour of heavyweight thematic content and is all the better for it. What a surprise then, given the franchise's mid-section sag, that as it stands, it should be bookended by two masterpieces.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Violet and Daisy (15) | Film Review

Violet and Daisy, dir/wr. Geoffrey S. Fletcher, st. Saoirse Ronan, Alexis Bledel, James Gandolfini, Danny Trejo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste

Here's a certain curiosity. Writer/director Fletcher has Bledel and Ronan playing Violet and Daisy, two girls playing at being assassins, or are they assassins playing at being girls? This handsomely shot feature weaves meandering student film suggestion with the trappings of allegorical psycho-drama. There are allusions to abandonment, trauma, abuse, mental illness, or just fantastical escapism in the pair's jaunty excursion through New York, making hits, collecting their payouts, and planning their Barbie Sunday purchases. It does threaten to unravel as it progresses, but the short running time keeps things moving, and there's plenty of doublespeak to peruse. Ronan and Bledel make compelling companions, sisterly and jocund one moment, vulnerable and innocent the next, squabbling like lovers the moment after. James Gandolfini plays one of their targets, a Cancer-ridden father estranged from his daughter, who plays sage and mentor to the pair. At times undone by its own bubblegum cuteness, Violet and Daisy is nonetheless an intriguing watch.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Transcendence (12A) | Film Review

Transcendence, dir. Wally Pfister, wr. Jack Paglen, st. Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara

Much as I have a soft spot for The Fly II, the 1989 sequel to Cronenberg's 1986 remake of the 1958 original, I do think its director, Chris Walas, was better suited to life as a special effects artist than as a bona fide auteur. He won an Oscar for his make-up work on The Fly, although The Fly II garnered much negative criticism. And Hollywood has rather chequered success when it comes to cinematographers who step in to direct - people who, arguably, should know better. At the successful end of the transition we have directors like Nicholas Roeg, who shot, amongst others, Lawrence of Arabia (as second unit photographer), Roger Corman's The Masque of Red Death, and Francois Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 before going on to direct acclaimed films such as Walkabout, Don't Look Now, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Jan de Bont cut his teeth on the gorgeous-looking Basic Instinct, Flatliners, Black Rain and Die Hard, before directing Speed (great), Twister (not so great), and the grammatically-challenged Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (really not so great). Even Spielberg's right-hand man Janusz Kaminski has had a go - a man of considerable talent (think how good Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Lincoln and War Horse look), but do you remember his directorial effort Lost Souls with Ben Chaplin and Winona Ryder? No, neither do we. Which brings us to Wally Pfister, a cinematographer primarily known for his work with Christopher Nolan, and whose distinct high-contrast visualisations have become an integral part of Nolan's cinematic vision.

On paper at least, Transcendence is ripe with technicolour possibility. It deals with Kurzweilian hi-concept futurism, the scientific and ethical dilemmas inherent, and all manner of complex bio-mechanical relationships. Movie history tells us Man and Machine is the golden conceit that keeps on giving. Depp plays Dr. Will Caster, a scientist a breath away from creating the world's first sentient computer, but who takes a bullet courtesy of RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a terrorist movement determined to keep humanity from overreaching. His wife Eveyln (Hall), unable to confront Will's inevitable demise, plugs him into his own creation, uploading his consciousness into a supercomputer. Once connected to the 'net, Will propagates his intelligence and begins to grow at an exponential rate, setting up base in a remote dustball town, and proceeding to build a vast array of underground labs complete with remote controlled cyborgs to help him carry out his research. The most astonishing thing about Transcendence is how it manages to pack so much into its considerable running time without demonstrating much heart or vitality at all. Evelyn and Will have so little connection as to appear to be little more than co-workers, whilst Will himself is a picture of unsmiling stoicism. Seeing as Transcendence reads as an alternative love story, and the myriad of ways it forms and takes shape, this seems like a quantum oversight. Its co-stars fare little better. I'm still not sure how Cillian Murphy's FBI agent or Morgan Freeman's government scientist fit into the chaotic, untidy narrative. Undoubtedly, and predictably, Transcendence looks as good as a bona fide Nolan picture: Caster's Apple-campus labs are a triumph of minimalistic design, and Evelyn's on-site lab-recreated apartment glows softly with the kind of hazy surrealism that recalls the home the Mecha synaptically recreate for David and his mother Monica in Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence. But the gaping holes in the plot are too large to ignore, and the cast (that given the pedigree ought to delight) come across as expressionless as one of Caster's automatons.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Boyhood (15) | Film Review

Boyhood, dir/wr. Richard Linklater, st. Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater

Richard Linklater has pulled off the most incredibly spellbinding special effect in recent times. It doesn't use models or animatronics, CGI or a phalanx of award-winning makeup artists. All it took, like Andy Dufresne and his little rock-hammer, was patience and a little determination. In an industry dominated and defined by deadlines and meticulously planned availability, it's a wonder Boyhood ever happened at all. The film charts the titular boyhood of the stoic yet perceptive Mason Jr. (Coltrane) from aged 6 to 18. This is the special effect in question: Coltrane ages in real-time with his character, the film being shot sporadically between 2002 and 2014. Arquette and Hawke play Mason's separated parents, the 12 years taking their developmental and emotional toll on the parents as much as their offspring. In fact this is a film as much about the bittersweet missed opportunities and late catches that follow us into adulthood as it is the freefall from childhood into adolescence and beyond. Arquette's well-meaning Olivia makes a pair of quite unlucky relationship decisions, and Hawke's Mason Sr. has no qualms about swooping in every now and then to dazzle his kids and make their Mum the bad guy, but between the two of them, the couple make a formidable parenting team. Olivia is kind, attentive, and struggles to balance her desire to further educate herself with bringing up her children nominally single-handedly, and Mason Sr., automobile safety aside, engages with his kids in a way that's stimulating and exuberantly, endearingly boyish. But the focus is on Mason Jr. played with the kind of quiet charisma and focus often found in young actors still in the process of finding themselves. Linklater's film toys with the duality of experiencing life and the passing of time as an active or passive observer, depending on just how far down the line you are. For example, Olivia's marriage to her college professor Bill Welbrock soon breaks down when the initial enthusiasm of bringing his own and his partner's set of children up descends into chorish apathy, and Bill turns to booze to simultaneously dull the boredom and give him the pep with which to pull boorish drill-sergeant rank over his kids and wife. These are decisions made by adults that children are made to bear. Conversely, and more realistically perhaps than say DiCaprio's Tobias Wolff in Michael Caton-Jones' This Boy's Life, Mason watches wide-eyed and mute as things unfold. Those familiar with Linklater's Before... trilogy will recognise the long improvisational takes full of the kind of astute conversational observations that effortlessly resonate so deeply. All of this makes for resolutely sublime storytelling and puts Boyhood streets ahead of any other cinematic offerings this year.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Why Cineworld's Introduction Of Allocated Seating Is A Spectacular Own Goal | Feature

A few weeks ago IKEA's lawyers sent the popular furniture mod site Ikea Hackers a Cease and Desist letter. A few weeks before that, Michael Gove announced plans to narrow the range of texts studied for English GCSEs. And now Cineworld has announced plans to introduce allocated seating at all its cinemas. It's clear to see what these three things have in common: management having no idea how things are down on the ground. IKEA's C&D letter citing trademark violation has already been denounced, in slightly more colourful terms, as non-applicable, and Gove's plans have provoked an equally furious reaction.

Cineworld's decision to introduce allocated seating has apparently been made "following extensive consultation with customers and cinema users", although a look through the comments that follow the entry on their own blog outlining the new changes paints a very different picture, with one Unlimited Card holder or frequent visitor after another claiming they have never heard of any such feedback request. A quick look at the social medias make it very difficult to believe that, as Cineworld say, "the overall and majority of feedback from customers visiting our cinemas has been positive".

What's particularly galling is the ill-thought-out, back-of-a-napkin attempt at trying to reason the change. Cineworld list four reasons why allocated seating has been introduced:

1) Sit with your friends
If you have booked as a group, you can be sure that you will be able to sit together.
2) Enjoy a more relaxed journey to your seat
With allocated seating you no longer need to compete with other customers for available seats in the auditorium. Plus, if you arrive late you won’t have to search in the dark looking for available seats.
3) Less queues, less congestion
More customers booking online in advance, means less people queuing in the cinema. Simply turn up with your reserved seats already booked, and print out your tickets from our ATM’s or go straight through to the cinema screen with a smartphone to display your ticket.
4) More choice
With allocated seating, you can choose where to sit; you can also choose the screening time with the best available seats.

So let's look at these shall we?

1) Sit with your friends
If you have booked as a group, you can be sure that you will be able to sit together.
Under the old system, this still works. You can all pre-book, meet up in the foyer, and head on in. Just make sure you're a bit early - especially if you know it might be a bit busy like an Orange Wednesday or Friday or Saturday night. You can be certain you can all sit together if you do a bit of forward planning, you know, of the kind that gets you to work in the mornings on time, or ensures you don't run out of toilet paper. If one of your group doesn't finish work until five minutes before the film begins, well sorry that's just tough. Cineworld don't explicitly say it, but allocated seating rewards laziness and encourages a laissez-faire attitude to entry. Just because the actors can't see or hear us doesn't mean a film screening isn't a performance.
2) Enjoy a more relaxed journey to your seat
Oh. It looks like they do explicitly say it:
With allocated seating you no longer need to compete with other customers for available seats in the auditorium.
And then:
Plus, if you arrive late you won’t have to search in the dark looking for available seats.
So just to be clear, arriving late and sitting in the nearest available seats so as not to disturb anyone takes LONGER and is MORE DISRUPTIVE than searching in the dark for your pre-booked row and making the customers already seated stand up as you stumble your way to your pre-booked seats.
3) Less queues, less congestion
More customers booking online in advance, means less people queuing in the cinema. Simply turn up with your reserved seats already booked, and print out your tickets from our ATM’s or go straight through to the cinema screen with a smartphone to display your ticket.
THIS ALREADY HAPPENS UNDER THE OLD SYSTEM. You book online in advance, your QR code is sent to your phone, you turn up and go straight in AND IF YOU'RE EARLY ENOUGH, YOU GET TO HAVE YOUR PICK OF THE SEATS. No one is disputing the value of purchasing your TICKET online.
4) More choice
With allocated seating, you can choose where to sit; you can also choose the screening time with the best available seats.
Just... what? Again, with UNallocated seating you can already choose where to sit. You just have to be on time. And you can already choose the screening time with the best available seats. You just have to be on time. 

In addition to all of this, can I just also add that while I'm certainly geeky enough to visit my local Cineworld and compile a spreadsheet that documents each screen size, auditorium layout, and optimum seating position, I suspect the majority of cinemagoers are not. Cineworld's auditorium layout map on their booking page gives NO usable scale to work from. This may seem like tiresome pedantry, but people have glasses. They get migraines. They get hot. They like their personal space. They have weak bladders and like to sit on an aisle. Entering a cinema auditorium and assessing its proportions before selecting your seat is integral to the whole experience.

And what happens when the people behind you start having a conversation in their normal speaking voices? What happens when the person next to you is eating his hot-dog, nacho, and popcorn dinner? What happens when the people in front of you start checking whether anyone's liked their Facebook status on their phones in the middle of the film because the massive 20' screen with flashing colours and sounds isn't enough to hold their attention for 90 minutes? I've been in a screening in which half an hour into the film, one half of a couple has attempted to discretely and sensitively exit the auditorium, only to have her other half shout - SHOUT - down the length of the stairway, "CAN YOU GET ME A LARGE POPCORN WHILE YOU'RE THERE?" What do you do during these situations? Well you could call an usher. If there were any. During a screening of "Man of Steel" last Summer, the auditorium's air-con was off and the packed auditorium was slowly expiring due to lack of air and abysmal storytelling. I ventured out to the foyer to inform a member of staff, and it was like stumbling into a scene from "28 Days Later". Fresh Pick 'N' Mix boxes lay half opened across the floor, jumbo frankfurters slowly rotated and the LCDs above the counters blinked and refreshed. There was no one about. In a 12-Screen multiplex cinema. Or you could just move seats. But no. Cineworld want you to lie in the bed it forced you to make. Recently, 20 minutes into the film, Cineworld Ilford actually STOPPED a screening to check everyone was seated where they were supposed to.

The thing is, I actually think Cineworld is pretty good for a multiplex. The Unlimited Card scheme seems good value, and even non-members get 10% off when booking online. Compared to Vues and Odeons, I've found them to be cleaner, cooler, staffed by knowledgeable individuals. Their smartphone QR-scanning makes entry a breeze, and their recent acquisition of the beloved Picturehouse chain has largely resulted in leaving the arthouses to get on with their own thing - and even funding the construction of a few more.
The problem is, like IKEA and Gove before them, Cineworld don't stand to gain anything from this decision. It's change for change's sake. Ikea Hackers is comprised of a dedicated and passionate community of people who love IKEA furniture. It's good business all round. Suing them is just going piss them off and make IKEA look like dicks. This country already has a vibrant and eclectic English curriculum. Screwing with it is just going to piss teachers off and disadvantage the students. Multiplexes have long been prophesied to end up as soulless and spirit crushing outlets that reduce the awe and wonder of film to a simple commercial transaction akin to buying a Mars bar. Screening Arts events has gone a long way to give punters an exciting alternative to iTunes and Netflix - exhibiting shows by the RSC, Met Opera, National Theatre, Glyndebourne, and the Globe has been an unadulterated success and an innovative scheme wonderfully and wholly embraced by the Cineworld chain. If corporations insist on making changes, I wish they would respect their customers' intelligence. Formulate your argument. Show us the working. We're grown-ups, we can accept the evidence. Just don't bullshit us.