Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Killer Joe – K Fried(kin) C

Matthew McConaughey’s hot streak continues in what is turning out to be one of the most impressive runs in modern cinematic history. With this, the excellent ‘Mud’, his memorable cameo in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and his Oscar for ‘Dallas Buyer’s Club’ . . . the guy’s on fire.

This time round he plays morally bankrupt cop-by-day hitman-by-night, Joe Cooper, who’s called in to finish off the estranged mother of white trash loser, Chris, and his charming simpleton sister, Dotty. The set up is excellent and Tracy Letts really delivers with the script, adapted from his own stage play.

The drama is feral, compact and hellishly depraved. The family-dinner-from-hell finale, in particular, is shocking but impossible to ignore. The actors give their all in one last push towards the shocking climax. McCounaghey pants his way through the scene like a devil possessed. Spit flying and blood spraying.

The rest of the cast are far from left behind, though, and Thomas Haden Church (the father), Emile Hirsh (Chris) and Gina Gershon (the step mum) all deliver career best performances. But it’s Juno Temple, as Dotty, who really bares all for her art. She totally consumes that character and brings her simplistic, but devilishly complex, persona to life. It’s a truly mind-blowing transformation that provides a chilling fulcrum to the ensuing chaos.

William Friedkin turns what could have been a bloody mess of a movie into a striking insight into the darkest depths of human behaviour.


Friday, 26 September 2014

Boyhood – Miraculous

Richard Linklater’s (director) been working on his passion project, ‘Boyhood’, for over a decade . . . and you can tell.

Following a unique 12-year production schedule, that involved calling in the key cast members for a few days filming every summer, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through his journey to adulthood.

Drawing more from the actors’ personal circumstances than Linklater’s basic ‘plot’ outline, the whole piece rings with an unparalleled sense of realism. It’s almost disarming watching Mason’s family acting so normally and that’s a viewing experience few have matched, or even attempted.

Understandably, the format does have some intrinsic issues and it places a great deal of weight on the minimal shoulders of the child actors. It must be said, there were years when Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, who plays his sister in the film, seemed slightly less interested in the whole thing.

But, I came to realise, those years lined up pretty accurately with the stereotypically muted/arsey/grating years of childhood. And, until someone shoots a movie like this again (if that ever happens), we’re going to be lucky to get anything as ‘true’ as Boyhood.

As a result, watching Boyhood is going to be a unique experience for every audience member. And, personally, I got more from the teenage years (hardly surprising seeing as I’m the same age as Mason when we finally leave his life).

To be honest, a number of Nostradamus-esque pop-culture prophesies are worth the price of entry alone; especially, a glorious Star Wars sequel conversation.

In the end, Boyhood is miraculous for it’s lack of miracles. There’s absolutely no sense of tampering, or even intrusion, we are merely left watching a family’s life unfold in front of us. The mundane has never been so engaging.


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Lucy – Wonderfully Wacky

Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’ is quite possibly the craziest movie you’ll watch all year . . . and it’s all the better for it.

The ever-reliable Scarlett Johansson stars in this 90-minute sci-fi action thriller as Lucy, a young woman unknowingly drawn into the world of high-stakes drug smuggling. However, when a load of this new narcotic seeps its way into her system, her brain begins to develop rapidly, using more and more of its maximum capacity.

And, while Lucy is left kicking an increasing number of butts, the equally reliable Morgan Freeman leads an academic lecture about the true potential of the human brain . . . and the parallelism works like a charm. What you’ll have explained one minute, you’ll witness the next.

Besson also deserves a massive pat on the back for being one of the few high-profile filmmakers who understands the benefit of 90-minute genre movies. ‘Lucy’ absolutely tears along, refusing to let up for even a minute. It’s how these kind of movies should be made, and I’d love other directors to follow suit.

That’s not to say it’s all plain sailing. The token car chase is unsettlingly brutal and a few grandiose flashbacks to our evolutionary ancestors are a tad too much. But, that being said, Besson covers his back . . . (yup, you guessed it) with the running time. The whole thing zips along and never gives any scene more than a few minutes of screen time. So, even if something doesn’t work so well, there’s always a gunfight just around the corner.

There are a few things that remain consistently excellent, however. Johansson’s performance is fab and yet again cements her place amongst the best in the business for female-led actioneers. She delivers a remarkably physical performance and leads the movie brilliantly. Even when her character gets increasingly apathetic as the drugs gradually take hold, she never loses the audience.

Kudos as well for the ending. Besson goes all out and turns the bonkers dial up to eleven, while somehow delivering the most insightful and cathartic moment of the whole movie. The film breathes a glorious sigh and I’d been so engaged in the action up until that point that I hadn’t anticipated Besson’s reveal in the slightest. It may not work for everyone, but I thought it was brilliantly done.

‘Lucy’ is one of the most confident movies I’ve seen in a long time. It knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be. Great stuff!


Friday, 19 September 2014

The Raven – Nevermore

The year is 1849 and a mysterious serial killer is roaming the streets of Baltimore using Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of terror to inspire his grisly murders.

It may not be the most original idea, but it’s still does enough to set it apart from every other bog-standard whodunit. But, to be honest, it’s not really Poe that makes the difference; more so the period setting. The links to the writer’s unrecorded final days are tenuous at best, but seeing the mystery unfold in a swirl of tailcoats and Baltimore fog is enjoyable.

As are the cast, for that matter. For an otherwise B-movie production, there’s some pretty high-profile talent on show here. The trio of John Cusack, Luke Evans and Brendan Gleeson, in particular, add a touch of class to the whole thing.

The denouement lacks any real weight but, overall, ‘The Raven’ is still a fun ride . . . even if it is twenty minutes too long.


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Movie of the Year?

Alarms bells started ringing out across the web when Rupert Wyatt dropped out of directing this sequel to his brilliant reboot, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, citing the fact that he felt he had too little time to do the movie justice.

But fear not, good fellows, our simians ‘friends’ are in excellent hands.

Fox have passed the baton on to Matt Reeves, director of the 2008 smash-hit ‘Cloverfield’, and his writers dive headfirst into this apocalyptic world, taking the chance to deal with themes of war, racial tension and the arms trade. The whole piece is led by its biting social commentary, that even manages to over-shadow the sociopolitical undercurrents of the first movie.

But that’s because this sequel is a totally different beast. Ten years have passed and the deadly virus featured in Rise has wiped out most of the world’s population. So the initial set of human characters are replaced by a small community of survivors left to rebuild a broken San Francisco. The apes, however, have fared far better and Caesar (Andy Serkis) leads the group in their kingdom amongst the trees. Tensions soon begin to mount when the two species once again come into contact with each other and Caesar is pushed to his limit when it comes to his undying love for the human race.

There are echoes of the Chaos Walking series of novels (do check them out, if you get the chance) in this second installments thematic progression from the first. But despite the issues on display here being far grander and more sweeping, they’re no less challenging. And the truly remarkable fact is that these themes seem more important than they ever have on the silver screen, despite stemming from a bunch of animated chimps.

We spend a good hour of the movie without a single human in sight, yet the film still fizzes with raw emotion. The early scenes of apes conversing in sign are perfectly realised and it’s almost a shame that they began to learn to speak. It was a step that they had to make in order to match up with the all-singing, all-dancing apes of the 1968 original, but those signing scenes are exquisite.

And what a job those performance capture artists do, if you thought the animation work in the first film was top-notch, wait until you see this. The increased scale forces the animators hand in so many ways, but they do a terrific job of managing it. And the way the CGI characters interact with their environment is unparalleled. Every quivering branch seems uncannily real and I’ll be damned if Maurice isn’t a real orangutan.

But, although the performance capture extras deserve a great deal of credit, the work of Serkis and newcomer Toby Kebbell is in a league of its own. Serkis yet again shines as the highly conflicted and unerringly charismatic Caesar, but it’s Kebbell who really surprises as he steps into Christopher Gordon’s shoes to take on the role of Koba, the truly terrifying rebel in the group. He nails a couple of chilling personality switches and stands as one of the most fearsome movie characters in quite some time.

The two apes spend the entire movie engaged in a Shakespearean conflict – echoing Othello and Iago – and, once Caesar’s family is brought into the mix, elements of ‘Hamlet’ soon begin to emerge. The fact that any movie in 2014 can even draw comparisons to the master himself beggars belief, and for that movie to be a $170m blockbuster is an even greater credit to Twentieth Century Fox and the filmmakers they hired. And, to think, this is all coming from computer-generated apes . . .

The entire movie feels deeply earnest and treats its source, and its audience, with the upmost respect. This is a real magnum opus for the franchise and all the talent involved and is without doubt the movie of the summer, if not the year. I may have been late to the party, but please ensure you catch this while it’s still in theatres. It’s immensely challenging, issue-cinema on the grandest of scales and that kind of ambition (and delivery) deserves all the praise we can throw at it. Truly mind-blowing.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – More, Please

We’re fortunate enough to live in a world of smart blockbusters. That’s not to say they’re all intellectually stimulating (far from it, in some cases), or even that they should all aspire to be, but we do have a refreshing number of franchises and filmmakers aiming for a balance of brains and brawn.

But even the deeply challenging worlds of ‘Prometheus’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Inception’ pale in comparison to the devastating relevance of Rupert Wyatt’s Planet of the Apes reboot-come-prequel.

Like the 1968 original, Wyatt maintains the sociopolitical undercurrents but, with the benefit of state-of-the-art animation and performance capture, this story has never felt so chillingly real. At no point do these apes seem in any way created or performed, they live and breathe up on the big screen and Wyatt absolutely makes the most of that.

When things really spiral out of control, I was left breathless, truly believing in the possibility of such an uprising. This terrified me in a way sentient robot movies have never done, and to elicit such an instinctual response is a great credit to Wyatt and his team.

‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ has finally realized the true dramatic potential of the first batch of Apes movies. By making the step-up from coconuts to mind-blowing performance capture, Rise leaves your mind spinning as fast as your racing heart . . . and, if that ‘No!’ moment doesn’t send a chill rushing down your spine, you’re a far braver man than me.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Super – Rainn Wilson’s War

The real-world superhero genre is a tough nut to crack. I mean the ‘Kick-Ass’ franchise went from masterpiece to disgusting shock-fest in a single movie. ‘Super’ doesn’t quite reach those heights . . . but neither does it plummet to those vacuous lows.

Rainn Wilson plays Frank Darbo a middle-aged man who’s too dull to keep his wife (Liv Tyler) from regressing towards her drug-fuelled past and walking out on him. Still deeply in love with her, he vows to save her from her evil pimp, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and, urged on by a wacky tentacled fever dream, ‘Crimson Bolt’ is born.

Like Kick-Ass before it, Super hits all the expected story beats. In fact, James Gunn (writer & director) is so confident in the plots uniformity that he skims across the entire narrative in the inspired hand-drawn opening credits sequence. That also stands as the first of many wonderful uses of music. It may be cliché to play melancholic indie songs over melancholic indie scenes, but Gunn executes it perfectly.

In fact, the film is pretty flawless for the first half. It’s moving, charmingly-crafted and deals with real emotions but, while Ellen Page’s introduction moves the plot forwards, her character also pushes the tone backwards. Boltie’s strange reaction to violence is often too uncomfortable to be enjoyable and her performance, scripted or not, just doesn’t ring true. It’s a real shame because Wilson is truly excellent and, on her day, Page can be a joy to watch.

It’s often horrific and it loses its way in the second half, but ‘Super’ is a more-than-welcome addition to the real-life heroes subgenre and it stands as a perfect vehicle for Gunn’s wackiness and Wilson’s delicate performance.


Friday, 5 September 2014

Kick-Ass 2 Review – Sickening

2010’s Kick-Ass was superb. It stood out as a gloriously effective, but affectionate, parody of the 21st century superhero craze and introduced the world to some of the most well-loved cult characters of recent times. Its enthusiasm was infectious and its thrills unavoidable.

But, as much as it pains me to say it, Kick-Ass 2 is none of the above.

Gone are the killer writing team of Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn and in their place is Jeff Wadlow (writer & director) who, on this evidence, has absolutely no grasp of teenage life. His idea of 15 year-old high school girls is straight out of Mean Girls . . . no wait, Mean Girls 2 . . . oh, screw it, ‘Mean Girls 3’*. It’s hopelessly derivative, mind-numbingly dull and downright nasty, at times.

And then there’s the violence . . .

Looked at objectively, there’s probably little difference between the levels of violence in the two movies. But that’s the point; violence should never be looked at objectively. It should be fuelled by an emotional engagement with the characters, it should mean something and it should be treated with respect. Wadlow does none of the above. Every bloody splatter is noticeable and, whereas the violence in the first film was joyous (even if you felt hopelessly guilty afterwards), the gore in this sequel is foul. Don't listen to a word these crackpots say, there are no consequences, there are no morals, there’s just pure smut.

And, to add insult to grevious injury, the whole thing is shoddily put together. The action scenes and the garish palette are vomit-inducing and the visual effects budget is abused.

But surely all this depravity can’t all stem from a single person? It must be noted that Wadlow’s screenplay is an adaptation and, while I haven’t read Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. source material, it must share the bulk of the filth. But, whereas you can quite easily skip over distasteful content in a comic book, the same can’t be said for a movie.

From one of my favourite films of all time to one of my least, Kick Ass 2 is a hate-fuelled exercise in populist shock tactics.

*not a real movie . . . but if it was, it would be a whole lot better than this.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Elysium – A Sophomore Slump

South African director, Neill Blomkamp, takes a second swing at the sci-fi inflected social commentary he pulled off so well in his first film, ‘District 9’. However, while the similarities are certainly there, ‘Elysium’ is a far clumsier beast.

The year is 2154 and Matt Damon’s factory worker finds himself zapped with radiation in a gross act of managerial negligence. In his few remaining days he sets his sights on Elysium, the space station housing all the upper-class civilians that fled Earth when the going got really bad; a place where he knows he can be cured.

But when a major plot-point involves Damon’s character being brutally bolted into an ass-kicking exoskeleton, you know some of the thought-provoking nuance is being lost. Any message is obscured by the over-indulgent slow motion and shock-tactics gore and, whereas District 9 maintained a delicate balance between the action and the parable, Elysium is left flailing for some sort of social relevance.

But, that isn’t to say that Blomkamp’s eye for stunningly integrated CGI isn’t still intact. The station, in particular, looks beautiful and the colours really sing. So, it’s such a shame that our view of this exquisite architectural feat is limited to a narrow-minded final boss fight.

Sumptuous visuals do little to overcome the flimsy narrative in Elysium, Neill Blomkamp’s disappointing District 9 follow-up.