Saturday, 30 January 2016

Lazer Team Review – From YouTube giants to cinematic lightweights

Rooster Teeth, the Austin-based production company behind such hit YouTube channels as Achievement Hunter and The Slow Mo Guys, have provided me with countless hours of entertainment over the years. So, while I can only call myself a casual fan at this juncture, I just had to purchase a ticket for their latest endeavour, big screen sci-fi action comedy Lazer Team, to pay them back for over a decade’s worth of laughs.

Image courtesy of Rooster Teeth.

I’m saddened to say this feature-length effort from director Matt Hullum isn’t really up to snuff. We’re on familiar ground plot-wise. An alien race makes contact with Earth only to inform us that we’re at risk from extra-terrestrial beasties. To help prepare the planet for the upcoming fight, the aliens send down an all-powerful battle suit to be worn by the so-called ‘Champion of Earth’ (Alan Ritchson). The pod carrying said armour is then shot down by a quartet of losers (RT stalwarts Burnie Burns, Michael Jones and Gavin Free, with the addition of Colton Dunn) who each take a piece for themselves. The four of them must then overcome their differences and work as a team to defeat the incoming hordes.

Truth be told, I don’t see this playing all that well beyond the core, albeit considerable, fanbase. The broad narrative is sprinkled with a handful of Rooster Teeth faces in humorous cameos, but only the fans will spot them. Likewise, some of RT’s trademark wit does occasionally poke its head out above the derivative toilet humour, but far too infrequently.

I've a feeling even the tens of thousands of fans who donated to the film’s record-breaking crowdfunding campaign won’t view this as an all-round success. The audience I watched the film with were game and laughed along pleasantly, but it certainly didn’t seem to be the rip-roaring success it could have been.

It’s a shame because I know these guys are better than this. As I said, select one-liners stand proud amongst the cheap shots and there are a couple of instances of visual ambition (cool drone shots and time-lapse details), as well as a nice little third act twist, but there just isn't enough of Rooster Teeth’s distinct charm in their feature debut. There will be more big-screen outings to come from the YouTube giants, but while they took great leaps forward in terms of the financing and the pioneering release of this first attempt, Lazer Team only acts as a minimal stepping stone cinematically.

I will always have a place in my heart for the Rooster Teeth crew and Lazer Team was undoubtedly a huge success story behind the scenes, it’s just a shame they couldn’t have done more in front of the camera.

★★

Lazer Team is now available for streaming/rental via YouTube and YouTube Red.

Click here to find theatrical tickets

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Coming Soon – New poster revealed for romantic horror hit 'Nina Forever'

Rob (Cian Barry) is a supermarket shelf-filler who tried to kill himself 
after depression brought on by the sudden tragic death of his girlfriend 
Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy). Checkout girl Holly (Abigail Hardingham) 
has a morbid fascination with pain and death and puts Rob on her want list. 
Sexual sparks fly when they do finally get together. There’s just one problem. 
Even though she’s dead, sarcastic Nina has no intention of letting go of her ex. 
But can Rob and Holly really cope with a forever revenant threesome? 
A tender but bloody story about breaking up and moving on.

Check out the bloody new poster below in preparation for the film's Valentine-themed release date:


The film was a major festival hit last year, with glowing reviews out of FrightFest, South By South West and Toronto After Dark. But, even more impressive is the 'Most Promising Newcomer' Award given to Abigail Hardingham at the British Independent Film Awards. Remember this is an award the likes of John Boyega, Cara Delevingne, Craig Roberts and Gugu Mbatha-Raw have lost... lost! Promising stuff, indeed! 

Nina Forever hits VOD on February 15th, followed by a DVD/Blu-ray release a week later on the 22nd.

Image and synopsis courtesy of Fetch Publicity.

CANNES 2015: Youth Review – Spritely


Gaspar Noé’s Love wasn’t the only movie with a risqué poster at Cannes this year.


And knowing Rachel Weisz was the female lead, I’d assumed it was her backside on show. So what a shock it was to discover five minutes in that she was playing Michael Caine’s daughter. Where exactly was Paolo Sorrentino (director) going with this?

But, fear not, the incestuous ogling never manifested itself and the grand behind belongs to someone else entirely. But, enough of the arsing around . . .

Youth sees Caine’s retired composer, Fred Ballinger, staying in a gorgeous Alpine care home-come-rehab centre alongside Harvey Keitel’s aging film director, Mick Boyle. And the drama meanders between the two of them, as well as dedicating some time to the other guests. This set of characters includes, but is not limited to, Paul Dano’s lost-his-way actor-director, Jimmy Tree, and Weisz as Ballinger’s daughter and assistant.

In addition to these key players, there are a host of quirky peripheral characters, including – but, again, not limited to – a heavy-set Maradona-like ex-footballer and Paloma Faith (yes, that one).

It’s this occasionally full-blown weirdness that I struggled with early on, with the film coming across as an uninspired The Grand Budapest Hotel knock-off. But, over the course of the drama, Sorrentino did manage to win me over for most of the subplots.

The artifice did loom large over the early sections, and even moments as impressive as Weisz’s extended to-camera monologue came across as overly fake. But, once again, Sorrentino overcomes this flaw; this time with emotional tenderness. One exchange between Jimmy and a young girl is particularly strong and features a number of disarmingly astute observations about art and its place in our lives.

Moments like this soar, and they’re only heightened by Sorrentino’s visual artistry. His last film, The Grand Beauty was famed for its striking cinematography and he’s on top form here as well. His eye for striking visuals is truly impressive and he ensures the film is always a joy to watch. This is strengthened by Sorrentino’s firm handle on his musical choices, which he uses to elevate his stunning visuals.

Adding to the films fake-ness is Caine’s ‘performance’, apostrophised because, well . . . he’s playing Michael Caine. He does display flashes of brilliance amongst the Caine-isms, but it’s an issue nonetheless. Especially when Keitel avoids simply playing himself. But, outplaying both of them is Dano (whose striking face you may recognise from There Will Be Blood and 12 Years a Slave, amongst others) whose performance is fascinating and the perfect dose of Sorrentino weirdness.

Despite this being my first Sorrentino film, it feels like Youth is all I needed to educate myself in his oeuvre. His visuals and use of sound are excellent and his philosophising soars at times. So, even if his grasp on narrative isn’t quite as strong, he still makes for a fun ride.

★★★

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Spotlight Review – When the true story is as shocking as this…

Having now seen two of the three Best Picture frontrunners for the Oscars (this and The Revenant), and from what I know of The Big Short, it seems the Academy have two very distinct ways they can vote. On the one hand, they could go for the flashy cinematic flair of The Revenant, with its natural light and brutal long takes, or The Big Short, with its fourth wall breaking turns to camera and zingy delivery. Alternatively, they could go for Spotlight, which has none of the bells and whistles of its direct competitors, and instead pursues classical realist filmmaking invisibility. There are no visual ticks designed to direct the audience or fiery editing to work us up into a frenzy, instead we're given a group of three dimensional, and deeply realistic characters each working through the case in hand with good old journalistic persistence.

Few would have complained had Tom McCarthy (the director and co-writer, alongside Josh Singer) created something rather more brash. You see, Spotlight follows the true story of the titular investigative journalism team (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James) at The Boston Globe in 2001 as the paper's new editor, Marty Baron (played by a gloriously mousey Liev Schreiber), tasks them with their next project: to investigate the city's numerous sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Church. But, as you can imagine, the criminal web they uncover is spread far beyond those initial victims.

Image courtesy of Recent Movie Posters.

The film works as a brilliant journalism movie as these characters slowly, but surely, pick away at the church's scabs. Discoveries are seen to be made after days, weeks, or even months of hard work. As a result, the film avoids the pulse-raising cinematic pitfall of portraying investigative reporting as a series of unrealistic eureka moments. McCarthy is smarter than that and he knows he's got the characters, and the performers, to do this story justice. The ensemble is gold, with the firepower of the central team joined by the likes of Stanley Tucci and John Slattery. Ruffalo, in particular, is at his ruffled best playing the plucky, and somewhat clipped, Mark Rezendes, but every cast member delivers.

Schreiber is a particularly interesting case. He underplays here in a way that I've never seem him pursue before. Through a combination of mumbles and measured body language, this once physically sturdy actor sinks back into his editor’s chair really impressively. Only for him to rise up again with his mannered, but intensely determined, delivery. The focus drifts away from him for a significant central section, but that takes little away from Schreiber's transformative performance. His unexplained drive early on did leave me with the thought that Marty had a far closer connection to the issue at hand than we're given here, but the fact that my mind spiralled like that is simply a testament to McCarthy's outstanding character creation and Schreiber's layered performance.

As I have previously mentioned, on a purely cinematic level, Spotlight plays it quite safe. The colour palette is all off-whites and subdued tones, both in and out of the office, which does tend towards blandness as things go on. This isn’t helped by the noticeably digital cinematography. I don’t make this complaint all that often anymore, but the film, as shot on the Arri Alexa camera, does look ‘digital’ at times. This varies scene by scene, but there were an unfortunate number of instances when I noticed the slightly cheapened image. That being said, the lack of visual flamboyance does have the focusing effect of directing your attention to the characters and the unravelling investigation. The camera angles also do little to surprise and the editing is purposeful, but never inflammatory.

Image courtesy of Flavorwire.

I had questions about the supposed lack of flair going in, and they lingered, I must admit. McCarthy rarely seemed to be challenging himself on a cinematic level, of that much I had settled upon. However, as things progressed, I came to the conclusion that McCarthy's avoidance of the spectacular was in fact a deeply effective filmmaking choice. By maintaining a strong sense of realism throughout, McCarthy establishes an emotional focus that kicks in with every distressing advancement.

Also important in that regard is Ruffalo’s character. Mark Rezendes becomes a vital dramatic fulcrum as any thoughts of a quick story approach soon makes way for a more valuable, and more effective, long haul technique. Marty values the work of the Spotlight team so much that he sets his sights on exposing the rampant abuse from the top down. In the heat of the moment, it’s a development I found frustrating, especially given that it’s agreed upon as a group. So, the fact that Rezendes leaps in to exclaim that the longer they delay the story the more children that are at risk is vital. Just as I’d been dissatisfied by the decision of a handful of the main characters, McCarthy tempers that with Rezendes’ unabashedly emotional response. It’s a subtle, but highly effective, piece of audience awareness.

Muted shots of quiet tree-lined neighbourhoods and children playing in parks a stone throw away from a church are chilling. By invading the suburban idyll, McCarthy creates a palpable sense of unease and discomfort. In a way, the truth is made even more shocking by McCarthy’s frank, and almost matter of fact, delivery. In that regard, I can see Spotlight coming across to some as a reserved, and almost unambitious, telling of a vitally important story. But, most will be won over by the tremendous cast and the fascinating true story. And, when given a closer examination, McCarthy’s modest direction is revealed to be grand orchestration at its most inconspicuous. Just because the film can come across as a cold-blood approach to a hot-blooded issue doesn’t mean it isn’t intended to elicit a fiercely emotional response from its audience. It seems McCarthy recognised the sheer power of Spotlight’s unfolding narrative and, in turn, that he didn’t need any brazen brush strokes to get his point across. Maybe he was in total control after all…

★★★★

A big thank you to the FDA for hosting the screening!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Creed Review – American Myth-Making

I’m no boxing fanatic, but there aren’t many things that can match the overwhelming rush of a perfectly executed cinematic boxing match. So, when I say Creed has two such fights, then that should be one ticket sold, thank you very much.

Michael B. Jordan enters the ring as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of Apollo, the hulking heavyweight champion of the world from the first four Rocky films. Donnie’s brawler’s blood runs hot during a childhood in and out of juvy, before he settles into a desk job with the help of his mother. Underground fights in Mexico remain his only thrill until he decides to hit the big leagues and travels over to Philadelphia to search for the perfect trainer, his father’s conqueror, and killer, Rocky Balboa.

Image courtesy of Final Reel.

Bonded over their connection to Apollo, Balboa finally agrees to train Donnie in his quest to step into his father’s triumphant shoes. Training sequences ensue and Balboa tries to shape Donnie’s natural ability into something truly world beating. We only reach the ring on two occasions but, as I’ve mentioned, both fights are insanely memorable. The first is most notable for its cinematic technique as ace cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, flexes her filmmaking muscles to shoot the whole fight in a glorious single take. Her camera bobs and weaves between the two challengers, anticipating and intensifying every blow. It’s a really monumental achievement of choreography and visual verve.

The second fight is less technically flamboyant, although it’s still a stunningly shot piece of cinema, and instead sets the focus squarely on the unfolding drama. It’s an exceptional case of firmly established character foundations, and triumphant scoring from composer Ludwig Göransson, elevating an action sequence to new heights. Jordan is terrific and sells this breathtaking finale perfectly. Tessa Thompson is equally effortless in an important supporting role, and then we’ve got the big man himself, Sylvester Stallone, who revives his most iconic role in spectacular fashion.

He is well worth his Best Supporting Actor wins as he handles the moments of levity with an unexpected lightness of touch and then doubles down on the weightier character beats to devastating effect. Sylvester fricking Stallone brought tears to my eyes, for heaven’s sake… twice! I often feel his acting chops are undervalued, but even in my even-handed appreciation of his talents, I was truly bowled over by just how good he is here.

He’s aided, of course, by some pitch-perfect character writing from writer-director Ryan Coogler, and his co-writer Aaron Covington. The two of them nail these characters and breath new life into this series in the process. Donnie and Balboa’s rapport is particularly well-handled and the sprinkling of simple, but disarmingly effective, details work a treat. The subtlety of the hearing aid moment is really something and it takes great confidence to weave in those kind of poetic intricacies. Also, I won’t say too much on the subject, but with all this talk of diversity, or lack thereof, in Hollywood, how wondrous it is to see two POC writers representing black experience with such social nous.

Ryan Coogler’s has singlehandedly reinvigorated the Rocky franchise with a powerhouse legacy movie for the ages. Creed is superlative big screen entertainment. See it big; see it loud… see it.

★★★★★