Thursday, 17 December 2015

Short Review: The Guest

The Guest was a film that I had shrugged off after watching it’s rather underwhelming trailer. To be brutally honest, I felt indifferent to a film taking a generic thriller story and drowning it in John Carpenter-esque style, merely jumping on the bandwagon of films like 2011’s excellent Drive. “If I wanted to see a 1980 styled cat and mouse thriller, I’d just watch a 1980s cat and mouse thriller.”  Yet after borrowing my brother’s copy of it, I was actually taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. 

A soldier returns to pays his respects to his friend’s mourning family. He’s extremely polite and handsome but there’s a dark side beneath all the smiles and good manners. Here lies a systematic psychopath whose sole intention is to terrorise a family with their own individual conflicts, and there’s nothing that can possible stop him. Dan Steven’s titular role is deviously charming, but utterly warped in his actions towards the family. Even when his real intensions are revealed, there’s a twisted desire to see him succeed and that’s credit to Steven’s performance. 

The Guest doesn’t necessarily do anything original, taking a very basic premise and running with it. In fact, the film plays more like a nostalgic trip down the gritty, uncompromising roads of the cult classics of the late 70s and 80s. Blood squibs, a synth soundtrack, long shots of endless roads and an unstoppable killing machine conjure thoughts of The Terminator and Halloween’s Michael Myers. The cinematography and production is well-thought out and coordinated, and the soundtrack is great.

The Guest is much like the 1980’s cult thriller The Hitcher staring Rutger Haeur. Both are engaging thrillers that centre on a fabulous performance from the film’s lead, and produce a constant, underlying level of tension and sheer energy. They’ve both got similar pacing problems and sinks into an outrageous third act, yet still offer an enjoyable time. Recommended. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

I collect the figures, read the comics and watch the films, but the “superhero” film genre is becoming increasingly saturated with the same thing over and over again. You just have to look at Marvel and DC’s release schedules for the next couple of years, and it’s clear that Hollywood and modern cinema in general, are being suffocated by these multi-million dollar franchises. After waiting an eternity for its release over here in Japan, Avengers: Age of Ultron was one of my most anticipated films of this year. Yet for all its bells and whistles, the film feels like a significant step back in Marvel’s recently stellar form. And it can all be simply attributed to one thing; crap writing. 

Tony Stark’s overzealous need to protect humanity from the unknown is rewarded with a sentient A.I. program named Ultron, who unfortunately plans to eradicate the human race. Tensions arise, the team’s chemistry is tested and destruction ensues as the Avengers come to the rescue..?. At the story’s heart, and even in the title, is the introduction of the villainous Ultron. Yet as a continuation of Marvel’s inability to create genuinely threatening antagonists, the physically imposing Ultron fails to really bring anything of stature or note. I can’t fault James Spader’s vocal performance, but this iconic character’s transformation to the screen is bitterly disappointing. The needless, smug remarks and Stark mannerisms belittle the initial menace and threat that’s effectively established with the character in the first act. It’s therefore frustrating that one of the quintessential figures of the Avengers lore is reduced to a tedious and vapid figure with an “evil plan” that’s ridiculous beyond belief. 

This labelled “Age” of Ultron similarly finds little justification through the course of the film. It’s ultimately a weekend of mild nuisance for the Avengers, where each member has minor obstacles they have to overcome as a team. The foundations are there for a film of impressive scale and dramatic weight, but it’s constricted by a lack of drive and ambition from the writing. These inconsistencies and problems ultimately infect the majority of the film. Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner’s forced romance falls flat on its face to an uncomfortable degree. Their relationship feels tacked on rather than of genuine affection, which in hindsight had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. It’s an amateurish technique of forcing emotional gravitas to the ensuing events and it shows. 

One issue that has been a constant problem with the Marvel films of late is the underlying desire to further develop its overall “Universe”. Age of Ultron spends a tiresome amount of screen time on setting up Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: The Infinity Wars. Previously, hidden secrets, minor details and easter eggs offered fans glimpses and signs of the bigger composition of the Marvel totality. But with the vast nature and multiplicity of the franchise, it seems that casually inserting mini trailers/ teasers for upcoming films has become the norm. It’s genius marketing, but distracts from the film at hand. Yet even when the decision is made to include these elements, they’re either forgotten about or trivialised. Take Captain America: The Winter Soldier for example. The final moment of that film is the dismantling of S.H.I.E.L.D at the hands of Hydra. It’s a significant event that see’s Nick Fury disappear off the grid, S.H.I.E.L.D’s secrets being leaked to the public, and Captain America, Black Widow and Falcon going their separate ways. But in Age of Ultron a couple of lines of dialogue are deemed sufficient to resolve these major narrative ramifications. It’s an intriguing angle that could have been used to create uncertainty over the Avengers’ public perception, but alas it’s completely wasted. 

But for all my problems with Age of Ultron, it was still entertaining to watch. Even with the massive drawback of an unintelligent script and story, the entire cast do a relatively good job. The chemistry between the team members is on display, and it’s one that remains engaging and charming to witness. While Aaron Taylor Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen’s accents are as inconsistent as the screenplay, they manage to justify their recruitment into the Avengers. I actually really enjoyed Scarlet Witch’s mind games with the rest of the team. Exploring the inner psyches and torments of our heroes, added more weight to each decision and reaction. Heroes with fragility or past trauma are always a lot more interesting than the immortal beings they’re usually whittled down to. Meanwhile the action set pieces are handled well and certainly look the part. The film hits the action beats that a blockbuster should, and the spectacle is, for the most part, satisfying.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is an acceptable sequel, but loses the intellect, charm and cohesion that propelled the superhero team to popular stardom back in 2012. At the time, Avengers Assemble was a surprisingly enjoyable blockbuster that felt sincere and fitting to its origins and the source material. Meanwhile last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier brought a sophisticated and thematically, engrossing story of conspiracy and espionage that offered a different perspective to the franchise’s characters and the genre itself. Guardians of the Galaxy took many by surprise with it’s gung-ho attitude and strong sense of humour throughout. This ability to infuse a unique element or personality has become an important factor in defining these individual films. Age of Ultron is an “Avengers” film, and by that stipulation it should be one of grandeur and lasting consequence. Yet while the aesthetics and performances are handled well, the sub-par writing leaves a film of missed opportunities and squandered ambition.


Sunday, 28 June 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

I’ve always admired the Mad Max franchise’s depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with ferocity, savagery and the roar of rusty engines. V8-powered, bolted together vehicles churning fire and oxidised steel on a horizon of hell is a welcome contrast to the grayscale and zombie-ridden surroundings the “post-apocalypse” genre has been saturated with. Yet as a story of “The Road Warrior’s” revenge, redemption and survival, the series hasn't had the same impact as its visuals and sound. George Miller’s recent career has been one filled with dancing penguins and little of anything resembling action cinema. Yet for a director who’s been 30 years absent from the franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road is arguably the best in the entire series. 

Essentially a two hour vehicular chase, Max is caught up in Imperator Furiosa’s break for freedom 
while being chased by Immortan Joe’s convoy of adrenaline-fuelled madness. The theme of survival is encapsulated in nearly every facet of the film’s world; the citizens of the Citadel are ruthlessly held under Joe’s clenched grip over the water supply. Joe himself needs to continue his line through his breeding girls. Furiosa’s attempt to escape the horrors of her current situation and Max’s sheer perseverance to endure. There’s little doubt that Fury Road focuses its attention on the action and visuals, which leads to the film suffering from a lack of depth towards the end. Yet for a script that’s light on substance, the likes of Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy offer a compelling team as the wreckage ensues. The brief moments of respite offer enough character to maintain their mysticism whilst giving them some semblance of humanity and empathy. Theron’s Furiosa takes centre stage in a commanding, yet fragile performance that steals the show from Max. Tom Hardy is suitable gruff and cynical under the unfortunate circumstances he finds himself in. There’s a flashy yet vain attempt to “re-address” his tragic backstory and psyche, but he shares the characteristics of a protagonist from the spaghetti western formula; weathered and mumbling. It’s entertaining, but a few more lines of dialogue wouldn’t have hurt him or the film. The supporting cast, especially Nicholas Hoult, does a similarly fine job.

While light on story and dialogue, the barebones nature offers a solid foundation for which the visuals and sound design flourish. The world of Mad Max is one of “fire and blood” and “madness” as our protagonist says in the opening monologue, and while the harshness and hostility of the environment and its inhabitants is clearly evident, the film is visually stylish and repeatedly stunning to watch. For an apocalyptic wasteland comprised of deserts and rocky outcrops, Miller injects a swell of colours and tones; yellows, oranges, and blues that add variation and vibrancy. The warped realities of society and humanity shown within the set and production design, help craft the treacherous surroundings and its characters. The symbolism of Valhalla, the War Boys’ chanting V8 in front of an podium of steering wheels, and the harvesting of “mother’s milk” add a twisted richness to film’s design. These small details further the construction and theorising of these personalities and locations which has been a staple of the franchise’s style. The careful use of CGI and Miller’s desire to champion practical effects really adds to the sheer savage and hard-hitting nature to the film. Vehicles twist and buckle under the weight of collisions and debris litters the pristine sand dunes. Everything has force and an incredible amount of speed. Meanwhile Junkie XL’s thunderous soundtrack of pounding drums, vigorous guitar strumming and sharp shifts in tone reinforce the crazed fury that’s being depicted on screen.

Mad Max: Fury Road is another fine example of action cinema that doesn’t require an over-zealous  and contrived screenplay to remain engrossing and thoroughly entertaining. A simple narrative, interesting characters, incredible production design and thrilling stunt choreography turn the two hour runtime into a beautiful and unhinged storm of destruction and lunacy. It’s lovely.


Monday, 18 May 2015

My Problem with Anime

As of now, I’ve lived in Japan as an English Teacher for a year and two months. My job involves educating the nation's youth on the “joys of learning English”. Whether they’re teaching me more about Japan and the Japanese language is a completely different matter. Yet it’s clearly evident that my preconceived knowledge and understanding of the country’s modern culture was and still is pretty terrible. 

I was exposed to the likes of Godzilla, Ultraman and Doraemon at a relatively young age, most of which remains relatively fresh in my memory. Heck, my first trip to Disneyland was actually in Tokyo, where I shook the hand of a Japanese Mickey Mouse whom I couldn’t understand a single word. Soon my primary/ elementary school days were awash with the likes of Pokemon, Gundam Wing and Dragonball Z which would abruptly end during my teens, I’m not entirely sure why but I seem to recall video games consuming most my free time. 

It’s only been over the last five years that I’ve built a steady awareness and subsequent interest in Japan’s animated medium, know as anime. Being introduced to Studio Ghibli offered an assessable gateway into the sights and sounds that were on show, and I’ve formed a strong relationship with Ghibli’s work as you may know. From there Akira, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Tokyo Godfathers and Azumanga Daioh have highlighted some of the best the genre has offered. Yet from an outsiders’ perspective, wadding through the tidal wave of new series each year and the extensive back catalogue is a monumental and impossible task. Even as someone who occasionally watches new anime, I feel completely out of my depth when someone starts discusses it. I seem to recall the last time being aggressively belittled after I stated that Attack on Titan was “an overrated pile of crap”, which it is. 

There’s an obvious breadth of creativity to the medium that as spawned a barrage of personalities, stories and fictional worlds that have been met with mixed success. Yet one thing’s for sure, there’s plenty of choice; high school dramas, alien invasions, psychological thrillers an straight-up pornography, there’s something for everyone. Yet for all its popularity and impact on Japanese culture and modern pop culture in general, my cynical sensibilities have grown over the pass two years. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy anime, certain anime. But those few series represent a minuscule percentage of what's actually available. The incessant moaning from students and friends on my critical nature towards anime is one that has justified me writing this article. 

There are definitely plenty of problems with the medium but I’ll be highlighting the four major problems that have become prevalent from my “observations”;


-The Actual Characters

-Originality and Fan-service

-Anime’s “dark and twisted side”

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Furious 7 Review

I’ve had a strange “on and off” relationship with the Fast and Furious series ever since the first instalment graced our screens back in 2001. From there I’ve seen the ups and downs of the franchise and braved the whole boisterousness and audacity of it all. But it’s since Fast Five that I’ve come to appreciate them as the over-the-top “blockbuster” films they’ve truly become. Those looking for intellectually stimulating and thought provoking cinema aren’t necessarily going to find it here. Instead those voids are filled with further explosions, brawls and million dollar cars, all with the sole purpose of entertainment. And while my friends may question my sanity, I actually really enjoyed Furious 7

The film follows on from the Dominic Toretto and his crew’s apprehension of Owen Shaw during the events of Fast & Furious 6. They now find themselves being hunted down by his older brother Deckard Shaw played by a vengeful Jason Statham. At this point the series has become more about implausible stunts and audacious heists rather than the street racing and “detective work” it had originally encompassed. Here it’s no different. With a skeletal plot structure, director James Wan and writer Chris Morgan fill out the remaining runtime with impressive action set-pieces, new “important” characters, glamorous locations and Vin Diesel’s repetition of the word “family”. Even with a lack of narrative substance the story isn’t the mess many would predict. But if you were to employ any logical thinking behind it, then the entire thing would probably collapses on itself.

While the performances are hindered by the questionable script, there’s a deep chemistry between the actors that adds some much needed character and charm to the overall film. Vin Diesel and Paul Walker’s relationship has epitomised the franchise, and the friendship between them is great to watch as always. Michelle Rodriguez offers a surprisingly good performance. While her plot thread isn’t well handled, her character’s lingering fragility is conveyed in a somewhat touching manner. Dwayne Johnson doesn’t necessarily get the amount of screen time many would have hoped but manages to still leave an impression by his sheer physical presence and his vitality in the role. Meanwhile Kurt Russell looks like he hasn’t had this much fun in ages. 

The heavily spoken theme of “family” has been one that’s personified the series and while Vin Diesel spouts it at every opportunity, this underlying emotional crux feels strangely lacking from the film. Michelle Rodriguez’s amnesia surrounding her romance with Diesel’s character is calling for more dramatic weight than what’s actually prescribed. Additionally the crew’s losses of the previous films aren’t addressed to the magnitude that feels necessary and realistic. Yet with the timing of Paul Walker’s tragic death, Furious 7’s final goodbye to the Brian O’Conner character is one that’s poignant and appropriate. Simply put, the last 10 minutes are easily the most emotionally charged scenes of the entire franchise.

Furious 7 is oblivious to the concept of “restraint” and after 137 minutes of explosions, one-liners and travelling around the globe, I felt mentally drained. But while the story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and it lacks the dramatic weight the narrative calls for, it’s still a highly entertaining film with a touch of self-awareness and charm that continues to rejuvenate the overall franchise. The final tribute to Paul Walker is a fitting one that respectfully showcases his legacy and spirit within the Fast and Furious series with forethought and sensitivity. Yet with a sequel in the works, I can’t help but feeling that it won’t be the same without his presence. 


Sunday, 26 April 2015

Other Notable Films of 2014

As I previously stated; 2014 was a difficult year to watch the latest and "greatest" cinema releases. The following are a few others that I felt weren't necessarily my favourites of last year, but were notable in their own little ways:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A surprisingly enjoyable sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable first film of this rebooted franchise. Great performances all round and a story that’s thankfully restrained in scale but retains an essence of grandeur. 

Guardians of the Galaxy: A slick and highly energetic first outing for this band of unusual and very likeable characters. Strong performances, great visuals, plenty of action and an underlying level of humour offers something fresh in this increasingly saturated and morbid genre. The villain’s a bit of a letdown though.

Interstellar: Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic was visually stunning and sounded amazing, Matthew McConaughey’s performance. But to be brutally honest was rather mediocre. It’s a notable addition to 2014 because of the spectacle.

Killers: Don’t be fooled into expecting balls-to-the-wall, martial arts action by the “producers of The Raid” marketing ploy. This is a slick thriller with a disturbing and uncompromising story of murder, torture and revenge. While it’s final act is too outlandish, this is an visceral and thoroughly engaging film.

The Lego Movie: While the insufferable theme song is still engraved in my brain, this was a captivating and very funny film about toy bricks. Let me reiterate; a captivating and very funny film about toy bricks. Fantastic animation, hilarious characters and a creative script provided laughs and endless smiles from my podgy face. 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler proved to be another film that highlighted how one magnificent performance can elevate a fairly standard story into something memorable and thrilling. While the narrative’s themes of the TV news industry and the questions of morality and ethics are interesting, they’re never explored past the confines of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character. But Gyllenhaal’s sleazy performance shines through the entire picture, becoming the film’s predominant strength. His overly confident and absolute willingness to do anything offers an interesting perspective to both the “cutthroat” nature of TV news and Los Angeles as a city. His gaunt face with slick back hair along with his uneasy, twitchy personality create an utterly detestable being whose sole intention is to gain recognition and wealth without any morale compass. Yet it’s his lack of morality and absence of restraint that makes Nightcrawler’s progressive nature engrossing. There’s an unpredictability to his actions that blurs our preconceptions of his character and the film as a whole.  

Riz Ahmed puts in a firm shift as Lou’s desperate sidekick, while Rene Russo is superb in a volatile performance as a news director with similarly no moral compass. Meanwhile, Robert Elswit’s cinematography is well-executed as always with some slick camerawork. Street lighting, the glow from neon signs and the flashing blues and reds of patrol cars give Los Angeles a seedy and squalid look that suits the overall tone of the film. The editing department also deserve praise for matching the film’s fluctuating pace and mood consistently. 

Nightcrawler is a strong directorial debut from Dan Gilroy, and showcases his ability to get the best out of his cast and crew. By itself, the film isn’t necessarily a culmination of tightly written and composed elements and I was slightly disappointed by its reserved attempts to explore its distinct premise. But some clever dialogue, skilled cinematography and Gyllenhaal’s striking performance propels this from the depths of mediocrity and into something genuinely engaging and noteworthy. 

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Quick Video Review: Under the Skin

I've done a podcast, so the natural progression would be video reviews. This is my first attempt at a short video review of Under The Skin (that I had previously written).

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: 22 Jump Street

I was really surprised at how good 21 Jump Street was back in 2012, but I wasn’t necessarily looking for a sequel. Inevitably with its success at the box office, the critical praise it garnered and Hollywood’s general lack of originality, we ended up with 22 Jump Street. And I’m glad that we actually did. Decent comedy sequels are a rarity amongst the lazy, schlock that gets served up on a regular basis.  And to be brutally honest, the comedy genre itself has become a haven for juvenile, indistinguishable crap that audiences unfortunately sink millions into. But every now and then a handful of films prove this generalisation wrong: Hot Fuzz, Pineapple Express, Neighbors and now 22 Jump Street. 

22 Jump Street doesn’t fall into the traps of comedy sequels; their incessant need to one-up themselves, or their inability to leave the comforts of the previous instalment. It’s clear from the off that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. Breaking the forth wall indirectly, analysing it’s own flaws and the very notions of a remake and sequel, 22 Jump Street is smartly written and genuinely funny. From the assortment of weird and comical personalities, to drug induced high jinx, everything feels very familiar, which the film regularly points out, but simultaneously fresh. Action set-pieces manage to maintain the laughs through sheer silliness and hilarity. A car chase through the campus involving a motorised, over-sized football helmet is particularly memorable. 

While the writing is sharp and has the jokes, the performances really bring the best out of the script. The strong chemistry between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill is the main reason why the two films have been so successful. Tatum in particular, continues his surprisingly good form as a comedic actor while simultaneously bringing the best out of Hill’s style of comedy. Their bickering and arguing never tires and their entire “bromance” relationship adds an underlying charm to the film.  The supporting cast also do a fantastic job with a constantly enraged Ice Cube and Jillian Bell’s blank expression and delivery offering some great moments. 

22 Jump Street is a highly entertaining sequel that managed to produce the funniest laughs of the year. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill excel with the smart writing, and self-awareness of the overall film. While I have steadily lost interest in the genre, if we could see a comedy with a similar sentiment and mentality as this every year, then I’d be pretty happy. Just no more Melissa McCartney please.  

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: Gone Girl

David Fincher’s last film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was a slick yet ultimately unnecessary remake of the Swedish thriller of the same name. Fincher’s dark, brooding style has become inseparable from the thriller genre and continues to garner critical acclaim and box office profits. It was therefore fairly predictable that Gone Girl, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, wouldn’t be a massive departure from the director’s usual morbid and intense offerings. And while it lacks a certain distinctive edge within the genre, it’s still a captivating and sophisticated thriller with great lead and supporting performances. 

Dealing with the manipulative sensibilities of the press, the mundanity of suburban life, the economic crisis, the modern concept of “family”, depression, and murder, Fincher seems to be at home in an environment of unhappiness and spitefulness. And it becomes progressively clear through the course of the film that he intends to throw the audience head first without buoyancy and restraint. While the motives and the sequences of events are questionable at times, Gone Girl’s sheer temperament and ever-changing pace proves to be rather engrossing.

As with most of Fincher’s work, the term “likeable” never truly fits into his characters' compositions. Gone Girl is no different. Glimmers of compassion and goodwill come from Carrie Coon and some light humour from a surprisingly good Tyler Perry, but they’re battling an uphill struggle against the grim themes of the film. Rosamund Pike’s mentally unstable Amy, brings back memories of a crazed Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. With a spectacularly vocal and physical presence, she easily steals every scene and arguably the entire film. Her pale complexion, starry gaze and machiavellian smile leave a lasting impression that lingers throughout. Meanwhile Ben Affleck’s acting renaissance continues as the conflicted and clueless husband tumbling through the consequences of both his and Amy’s actions. The film’s depiction of a conflicted household and local community is an uncomfortable yet engaging one that draws comparisons with Thomas Vinterberg’s magnificent The Hunt, which I highly recommend. 

Gone Girl isn’t a perfect film. The story can be incoherent and absurd at times, and happiness never breaches the harsh surface of misery and bitterness. Yet from the superb production design and cinematography to the uncompromising subject matter and memorable characters, this is unquestionably a David Fincher film. And a very good one at that. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s last film, Moonrise Kingdom, was a rather laborious affair that, while maintained the quirks of his previous work and was helped by some fantastic supporting performances, offered little in the way of narrative engagement. While I wouldn’t describe myself as a diehard fan of Anderson’s work, he has created some of the most visually charming films of the last two decades. The Fantastic Mr Fox, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums are filled to the brim with personality, vitality and humour, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is no different.  

Blending comedy, drama, action and a hint of romance, the film isn’t one to simply loiter in it’s splendid visuals and Alexandre Desplat’s magnificent soundtrack. Split between three different time frames, The Grand Budapest Hotel travels from monasteries atop snowy mountains to the confines of a prison, exploring an array of colourful personalities from murderers to bakers. What always amazes me about Wes Anderson’s direction and writing, is that he manages to retain the energy and momentum throughout the entire film, yet still convey the depth and emotion of each scene and character. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the shrewd and rapid-firing concierge Monsieur Gustave H, a role that truly showcases the breadth of his talent. Meanwhile relative newcomer Tony Revolori offers a endearing performance as Zero, the hotel’s lobby boy and Gustave’s loyal sidekick. Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, William Dafoe and F. Murray Abraham are a few names from an overwhelming cast of incredible talent who all manage to leave a lasting impression even when they occasionally amount to little more than cameo. 

While visually and thematically The Grand Budapest Hotel doesn’t stray too far from Anderson’s usual artistic style, it’s still gorgeous to watch. Miniature sets and clever shifts in aspect ratios harken back to the “Golden Age” of cinema and give further personality to the film. An abundance of colour, careful set design and intelligent camerawork gives a distinct look that outshines the grit and murk that modern cinema has become all too obsessed with. 

With a smart and funny story, great performances all round, a beautiful visual tone and fantastic soundtrack, The Grand Budapest Hotel is easily one of Wes Anderson’s best. 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: Her

Spike Jonze has been a director that I’ve never been terribly fond of. I didn’t share the same admiration for Magnolia as many critics did, yet Being John Malkovich did strike a cord. His latest film, Her, was one that felt all too relevant in modern day society’s inseparable relationship to technology. While the concept of an over-intelligent A.I. is one that often churns up unsavoury predictions of Judgement Day or the Apocalypse, Her builds its premise around the melancholy of failed love and the resulting vulnerability. From a glance, it could be taken as a soppy, artsy piece of schlock, but with some fantastic writing and magnificent performances Her is radiant and poignant in its unique approach to the romance genre. 

The notion of A.I/ Human intimacy is one that is often frowned upon or joked at, yet Spike Jonze’s direction strangely translates the “man and software” premise into a degree of normality. Samantha, the film’s A.I., never becomes a physical entity as so often happens in this types of films. Yet the entire relationship feels somewhat grounded and surprisingly believable. Skipping the “child-like discovery” filler, Her presents Samantha as a sophisticated personality that quickly experiences the progression and imperfections of humanity, and the complexity of emotion. 

But it’s the pair’s comforting conversations and mannerisms that manages to project this as reminiscent of two actual loved ones communicating just through voice. The unavoidable awkwardness is present and on display in some of the film’s more emotionally intense moment, but Jonze plays it as the fragility of any human relationship. Additionally there’s a vulnerability through the entire picture and within each character that all stem from collapsed romances. From Joaquin Phoenix’s timid and introverted personality after his divorce, to Amy Adam’s own struggles with her partner, the film never glosses over or belittles this sympathetic theme. 

Key to the entire film’s success is its performances. Scarlett Johansson’s vocal work is fabulous, managing to convey a range of emotions and experiences through subtle intonations and changes in intensity. Meanwhile Phoenix does a terrific job playing the overly melancholy lead, maybe a bit too well. It’s the believability of the two’s interactions and exchanges that really sells this “unnatural” relationship and the film’s premise. With a supporting cast of Amy Adams and Rooney Mara, Her is awash with fine talent and it shows.

I’ve never been a fan of romantic dramas, but Her acts as a distinct and thought-provoking study into the labyrinth of “love”, meanwhile exploring the notions of human and technology’s connections. With a vividness and radiancy to the cinematography which uses ambient lighting and the abundance of colour, and a soundtrack that similarly offers emotional texture to the entire drama, Her is a beautiful film that undoubtably left an impression on me. 

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: The Raid 2

The Raid rejuvenated my love for martial arts films back in 2013, and I eagerly awaited it’s sequel. 
With a heftier story, an assortment of memorable characters and an overall larger scale, the film once again showcases the action set-pieces and visceral nature that we’ve come to expect and love from director Gareth Evans and his team. 

As a direct sequel I admire Evan’s attempts to add weight to the film’s plot. The first instalment’s bare-bones story merely provided light context for the hard-hitting action, but The Raid 2 attempts to adds narrative significance and consequence to the brawls and casualties with relative success. From the Indonesian gangster underworld to the Japanese Yakuza, betrayal, corruption and the overarching “undercover” thread, Evan’s has thrown everything into the sequel and the result is an engaging story running at a breakneck pace. 

Escaping the confines of the tower block, The Raid 2 explores everywhere from Jakarta’s prisons and back alleys to it’s nightclubs and restaurants. The stark contrast between the city’s differing lifestyles, while offers new environments for the brutal exchanges, gives a welcomed essence of life and variety to The Raid 2’s world. 

But it’s the martial arts that are once again the champion of the film. The unbelievable choreography and action scenes are in abundance, managing to surpass those of The Raid. From shootouts to car chases, everything feels grander and even more brutal than last time. Head’s are blown apart by shotguns, breaking bones is part of Rama’s daily routine and blood splatter plasters the deteriorating walls. Nothing is left to the imagination. Yet even with it’s overriding brutality and non-stop tempo, there are some very strong performances on offer. Iko Uwais’ Rama isn’t the stone-faced “superhero” that has plagued the action genre, but a conflicted individual who is fearful of the circumstances he finds himself force into. Meanwhile Arifin Putra also puts in a solid shift as the youthful and volatile antagonist. 

The film’s cinematography and editing perfectly capture the events and the film’s overall ferocity The multiplicity and methodology on and behind the camera is incredible to watch. From the intimacy of a car’s interior to the rugged expanse of a prison’s yard, each is filmed beautifully and meticulously.

The Raid 2 is an exhilarating assault to both the eyes and ears. Rarely pausing, Gareth Evan’s isn’t afraid to cram the 150 minute runtime with broken bones and blood soaked floors. Great performances and choreography, slick cinematography and editing, and an uncompromising and brutal demeanour make this one of the most enjoyable films of 2014. The unfortunate side effect of The Raid series now, is that watching western action films has becoming increasingly stale, slow and obsolete.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: The Wind Rises

2014 proved to be a turbulent and worrying time for Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s “official” retirement,  and the studio’s announcement of radical in-house changes prompted fans to fear the worst. Yet it was a relatively busy period for Ghibli with the releases of The Tale of Princess Kaguya and The Wind Rises in the west and the unfortunately disappointing When Marnie Was Here in Japan. Being a massive fan of their work, it was slightly shocking to read the headlines so soon after their recent accession to the global limelight. It’s therefore fortunate that Miyazaki’s long, acclaimed career ends on a distinguished high with The Wind Rises. 

A story of perseverance, drama and romance amidst pre-war Japan, The Wind Rises continues Ghibli’s more realistic and grounded approach to it’s narratives. While definitely more light-hearted than Grave of the Fireflies, The Wind Rises still touches on some very mature themes even with it’s undercurrent of humour and tenderness. While it avoids to really delve into the heavy themes of war as Japanese cinema tends to do (my article), and constitutes more of a fictionalised version of Jiro Horikoshi’ s career in Japanese military aviation, the story is a thought-provoking and genuinely poignant one. 

The flowing and dynamic nature of the studio’s iconic animation style is present as always. With the aeronautical nature of the story, the sense of speed and fragility as prototype aircraft tear the skies is exhilarating and gorgeous to watch. Body language and interactions are intricately depicted giving vast amounts of personality to the characters and film in general. As with all their previous films it’s the small details that really add uniqueness to Ghibli’s work. Whether it’s their careful attention to a bookcase in the background or the light glistening off the sea, their pursuit for perfection is evident. As too is Joe Hisaishi’s impassioned score. 

Apart from a rather rushed conclusion, The Wind Rises is a touching and beautiful piece of cinema.   With a career spanning 5 decades, Hayao Miyazaki has continued to deliver heart-warming and enchanting stories and characters to fans of animation and general cinema. I have a sneaky suspicion that this won’t necessarily be the last we see from him, but looking back it’s been an esteemed career that will entertain and captivate children and audiences forever. 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: Under The Skin

“Pretentious” is a word that has been heavily linked to Jonathan Glazer’s skeletal adaptation of Michel Faber’s sci-fi novel. And while it’s not hard to understand this criticism, Under The Skin was the only film that I felt warranted a second viewing. Inarguably a challenge to fully comprehend, the film’s somewhat basic plot is hurled into an intense atmosphere of unease and dread skilfully crafted by the film’s visuals and the haunting score. While it has proven to be a polarising affair between critics and audiences, Under The Skin’s trance-like approach was one of the year’s best cinema “experiences”, and I emphasise the use of term “experience”. 

Those looking for a conventionally structured sci-fi story, will be undoubtably frustrated by the film’s general lack of substance. Taking fragments from the original novel, Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell never truly delve into the novel’s original structure of internal monologues from the alien seductress and her victims. The result is a purposely worked ambiguity to the whole feature that offers uncertainty rather than definitive answers. With the absence of extensive dialogue, Scarlett Johansson’s performance is mainly conveyed through body language and subtly. And it’s a relatively strong one. 

Visually, Under The Skin has a distinct, dreamy wash throughout. From the actual “harvesting” process to the aggressive nature of the film’s Scottish locations, the film is simply stunning. Long, drawn out shots of scenery, and the sparsity of cuts are unfortunate stereotypes of “art house” cinema and while they’re present here, they’re used with a sincere level of restraint. Scotland’s wilderness and cityscapes offer a striking contrast in flux with the changing demeanour of the film. Meanwhile the radiant light from car dashboards and Glasgow’s street lights highlights interesting perspectives and temperaments. Coupled with this is the soundtrack. Mica Levi’s score is strangely hypnotic and suitably haunting, with long drawn-out strings and sharp shifts in tone that complements the surreal nature of the visuals. It’s probably my favourite soundtrack of the year. 

A genuinely unnerving and intense affair, Under The Skin was more an experience than a film per say. Patience is paramount as the visuals and the score flood the senses, leaving a grin to cover for a slightly traumatised psyche. 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Noteworthy Films of 2014: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While Captain America: The First Avenger was a rather mediocre affair, it’s sequel highlighted a very different approach to the character, the genre and Marvel Studio’s overall direction. Look back throughout the history of “superhero” cinema and it’s clear that the origin story and the standard “arrival of a new threat” approach has been done to death. However Winter Soldier evoked memories of 1970’s espionage thrillers such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Conversation, maintaining a strong balance between action and an engaging plot. Suspicion, conspiracy and ulterior motives provided a narrative that felt refreshing and relevant both to the character and the nature of S.H.I.E.L.D. The rise of Hydra and fall of S.H.I.E.L.D has indefinitely left a creative platform for Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War to build on, which should be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Captain America is quickly becoming my favourite superhero character alongside Black Widow, and this has been helped by Chris Evans. He lives for the role, and it’s clear that he has melded perfectly with the character, providing a touch of charm and genuine charisma to the role. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Anthony Mackie’s surprisingly enjoyable Falcon offered a strong supporting cast, so too did Robert Redford as the film’s main antagonist. Marvel Studio’s first menacing villain makes his appearance, the Winter Soldier, and even though he’s only a small part of the bigger picture, he still proved an impressive and formidable adversary with some impressive set-pieces and brawls. 

Winter Soldier is my favourite film from the Marvel, blending intense action with an engrossing plot that feels relevant to the character and the franchise. Though the burdensome prospect of a yearly barrage of superheroes over the next 5 years is worrying, I still have hope for Captain America’s own cinematic progression.

The Long Awaited Update

Since moving to Japan my cinema-going days have been drastically cut to the point where I rarely have the opportunity to watch the latest releases. My love and passion for film still remains and I regularly keep up to date with regards to the news in the industry and upcoming features. But I’m afraid to say that my fortnightly cinema days are over. You may have also noticed that I have failed to write anything for the blog in nearly a year. As you can imagine, my new job and life in Japan have become the centre of my attention. It’s a shame because I love to write and talk about cinema. 

However, as a result of settling into my employment and my current situation, I have decided to return to the world of “blogging”, in a somewhat smaller sense. I will therefore be trying to update on a semi-regular basis with mini-reviews and mini-features. The first will be a series on “noteworthy” films of 2014 that I managed to watch. Obviously with the lack of access to the front-runners and nominees of Award Season, the list won’t be a comprehensive one but will cover some of the more major releases.

As an example of my recent decline in “cinema-visiting” form, here is a list of films that I desperately want to watch, but with Japanese releases and the extortionate price of media it’s proving to be rather difficult: 

Two Days, One Night
Inherent Vice
The Babadook 
A Most Violent Year 

Hopefully I’ll be able to catch them in the near future, but for the time I’ll have to suffice with what is readily available and obviously what I've already seen.

Best regards, 

Jack Singleton