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.