American Sniper

Posted in Review with tags , , , on January 21, 2015 by Ben Browne

Spittin’ dust.

American Sniper (2015)

If you made it through my list of most anticipated films of the year list, you’ll notice that American Sniper is conspicuously absent. There’s a very good reason for that. I wasn’t looking forward to it. The only reason why I went to see American Sniper is because it’s pretty damn significant right now. It’s broken all sorts of box-office records and people are talking about it. A lot of people. As a film critic, this kind of large scale cultural talk is like friggin’ catnip and I wanted to stick my own personal oar in before the lake became nothing but oars.

American Sniper is based on the book of the same name, primarily written by Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper. During his various tours of Iraq, Kyle earned the nickname of “Legend” and became the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. We follow Kyle as the film charts the trials and tribulations of both his military and civilian lives. The acting is on point. Bradley Cooper completely sells the idea of a man undergoing a slow motion mental carwreck. It’s a fantastically understated performance. Sienna Miller is also great and completely mercurial as his wife Taya. It was only when the credits rolled that I remembered she was in it, which surely is a compliment to any actor.

I will admit that I had a big ol’ preemptive hateboner for the film. I’ve always been averse to flag-waving jingoism and the deification of the military. Half the reviews I read were praising the film for being super-important and, on more than one occasion ,”life-changing”. The other half were shitbombing it for being another throbbing vein in America’s cultural erection for war. Knowing which way my political compass points, I knew I’d probably be in the latter camp. I also admit to kinda sorta maybe looking forward to giving an multiple Oscar nominee a few cheap rib kicks and sodding off, my contrarian ways intact. However, I remembered to not judge a film before I’ve seen it and tried to keep various other reviews out of my mind. Every film has the potential to be the new Citizen Kane. It’s just very, very unlikely.

The shitty thing is that my mind hasn’t been changed. I can see why the critical divide has been so massive. Part of me knows that Clint Eastwood is a smart director who has displayed more than enough understanding of irony and subtlety. The other part of me wants to base my reaction on what I felt the film brought to the table, which is an uncomfortably one-sided, chest-thumping slice of guns ‘n pecs. The real Chris Kyle is a controversial figure and I certainly don’t agree with some of the things he said and some of the passages in his book. Disclaimer: I’ve only read a few excerpts of his stuff, but unless he says something like “I’m going to go mental for the next few pages, see you in Chapter 14″ beforehand, I think I’ve pretty much got the measure of what’s being said. Kyle is portrayed as a perfect (if slightly conflicted) war hero, which sticks in my craw. The whole thing is hugely binary and I kept wishing for additional shades of grey.

It’s clear that Eastwood is more interested in the forceful military patriotism than Kyle’s PTSD and his slow retreat into himself. Apart from Kyle jumping at noises and having a thousand yard stare, the film is completely disinterested in exploring the guy’s breakdown in any meaningful way. To me, that would be the most interesting and drama-heavy element of the story, but whatever, I’m not a director. The way it’s dealt with in the film feels very superficial and movie-ish. As I said though, this is only paid a bit of attention before we see more of Kyle’s many kills.

What troubled me most of all was how generic it felt. It felt like a subpar action film, complete with lazy dialogue and a lack of a actual point. Nearly every exchange between characters consisted of nail-on-the-head observations and hackneyed “let’s get these motherfuckers” type lines. Apart from a shitload of faceless locals, there are two main baddies- “The Butcher” who tortures kids with a power drill and has a collection of human body parts and an insurgent sniper who rivals Kyle in the sharpshooting department. Despite these being true accounts, again, it all feels very movie-like, which is a problem when one is striving for realism. It reminded me of the laughable Shooter, where Marky Mark plays a character unironically named Bob Lee Swagger. These are incredible events, yet my brain was switching into dumb Friday night rental mode. The film is feels rather mechanical too. It’s just of loop of Iraq, home, Iraq, home, Iraq, home. It’s like an assembly line. A particularly tedious one at that.

The performances of Cooper and Miller hold the film together, but everyone else fades into the background. I would struggle to name any characters outside of Kyle and Taya. I didn’t care when Kyle’s squad started diminishing in numbers because we hadn’t spent proper time with them. I didn’t know them from the next camoed grunt. I felt really disconnected from the whole experience. Speaking of disconnects, I’m not going to talk about the ending in great detail, despite being incredibly tempted to. Why Eastwood chose to not actually dramatise what happened is beyond me. Just baffling.

Despite how I’ve made it sound, American Sniper wasn’t completely without merit to me. It’s well shot and manages some tense sequences, especially one involving a dropped rocket launcher, but I just didn’t care. I was more focused on the story it wasn’t telling rather than the one it was. I can’t personally recommend it. Having said that, the film may hit you differently and judging by the polarising reviews, the reaction to it will totally vary from person to person.

My most anticipated films of 2015: Part 2: The Cradle of Life

Posted in Soapbox on January 17, 2015 by Ben Browne

So here’s the second part of my list. I actually got rid of a few like Fast and Furious 7, but I realised asking people to read through every single film I’m even a little bit interested in was a bit much. Still, there’s plenty outside this list I’m excited about, just these are the main ones. Also, as if to personally bollocks me up, In the Heart of the Sea has moved to the end of the year’s “award season”. It’s a hell of a delay, but at least it shows they’re confident in the quality of the product.

 

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond – 22nd May

Known elsewhere as simply “Tomorrowland”, this film is Disney’s latest attempt of making a film out of areas/rides in their theme parks. Plot details are scarce, but it has something to do with George Clooney and visiting a futuristic place called Tomorrowland. Two reasons why I’m excited for this one. One, Brad Bird’s directing and he hasn’t directed a film I didn’t really enjoy. Two, it has a very effective teaser trailer that captures that old fashioned mystery that you don’t tend to get these days. I want one of those pins.

 

Jurassic World – 12th June

I’m torn about Jurassic World. Part of me is still enamoured with all things Jurassic Park and is relishing the thought of a new dino action blockbuster. The other, more rational side reminds me that all the sequels have been varying degrees of shite. Set-up is that Jurassic World is a functional dinosaur park and has been for some years. The spectacle of seeing living breathing dinosaurs becomes commonplace and visitor numbers start to dwindle. At the demands of the higher-ups, the park’s geneticists cook up a new hybrid dinosaur which gets loose and runs amok in the park. Chris Pratt’s in it, so thumbs up there, but the story doesn’t fill me with confidence. I’m looking forward to the spectacle of it all, but the trailer gave me some doubts. The dialogue was hackneyed and awkward and everything had a bit too much of a greenscreen quality to it. Plus, the shot of Pratt on his motorbike riding alongside his raptor buddies has me all kinds of concerned. Fingers crossed that it at least manages to be the best of the sequels.

 

Ant-Man – 17th July

As you may have noticed around these parts, I’m a bit of a Marvel fan. Thing is, I’m not particularly buzzed about Ant-Man. So why put it on a “most anticipated” list? It’s because I’m still looking forward to it, but expectations aren’t high. Part of it is the whole Edgar Wright debacle (although it seemed to be over genuine artistic differences) and part of it is the trailer which can’t decide whether it’s a serious superhero film or not. Ant-Man is the story of con man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who must use a super-powered, super-shrinking suit to somehow help his mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Marvel have proved they know what they’re doing and occasionally make initially baffling directorial choices (I was incredibly worried about the Russos directing Winter Soldier, but they fucking nailed it) so the director of unremarkable stuff like Yes Man and The Break-Up gets a pass. I’m really hoping that the tonal problems of the trailer don’t speak of similar problems with the film, because that could be a killer. The script’s written by Judd Apatow regular Adam McKay, so chances are it’ll lean more towards the Guardians of the Galaxy end of the spectrum than anything else. Could be a pleasant surprise, could be the first Marvel misstep in a while. Either way, it’s going to be interesting.

 

Crimson Peak – 16th October

Guillermo Del Toro returns to his gothic horror roots with Crimson Peak. I’ll just copy and paste the synopsis here because it’s elegantly simple: “In the aftermath of a family tragedy, an aspiring author is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.” S’got Charlie Hunnam, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain in it and I’m looking forward to it. Del Toro describes it as more in line with his earlier Spanish language films like The Devil’s Backbone, which I’m all for. Apparently it’s going to make full use of its R rating too, which is fucking refreshing in this age of neutered horror.

 

 

 

Spectre – 23rd October

Hmm, do you think the guy that reviewed all 23 Bond films back-to-back is excited about a new one? Yep, it’s safe to say there are teethmarks on the bit. Sam Mendes returns which is brilliant considering the bang-up job he did on Skyfall. Christoph Waltz is probably going to be Blofeld too, so there’s that. I haven’t read the leaked script, but I imagine the plot involves James Bond killing dudes and saving something or someone. This is our 24th time around on the carousel, I think we know how many horses are in the race by now. Rumour has it that it might be Craig’s last and if it is, let’s hope this one is more of a Casino Royale than a Quantum of Solace.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – 18th December

I can’t believe we’re getting a new Star Wars film this year. Not only that, but it’s been wrestled from George Lucas, so it might be like an actual, proper film. Like nearly everyone else, I geeked out over the teaser. Yeah, it’s all just fleeting glimpses of familiar stuff, but the mystery and excitement is back. If anyone can make a new Star Wars saga work, it’s J.J. Abrams. He’s crazy talented and seems to have a good grasp of what people are looking for in a fun space saga. I was cautiously optimistic, but now I can feel the hype growing. The trailer was in front of Battle of the Five Armies at the IMAX and it blew me away. I’m not as precious about Star Wars as I used to be and if the film turns out crappy, it can simply join the long list of Star Wars crap I don’t pay attention to. Still, if it manages to be great, I can’t tell you how happy I’ll be.

 

 

Trumbo – TBC

Bryan Cranston’s in it. That should be enough. In case it isn’t, Trumbo tells the true story of successful ’40s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who is blacklisted for being a Communist at the height of the Red Scare. I’ve always found the whole McCarthyism era interesting and so this one looks to be right up my street. No confirmed release date yet, but this is almost certainly awards bait so probably around the end of the year. I hate to jump to conclusions but possibly a Bryan Cranston Oscar? YES.

 

The Hateful Eight – TBC

 

 

It’s Tarantino. You should know your opinion on him by now. I love the guy and am always pumped for his next film. The story revolves around post-Civil War bounty hunters trying to find shelter during a blizzard but end up getting involved in “a plot of betrayal and deception”. Channing Tatum, Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell all star and it looks like it’s going to be another blood-soaked affair. One ticket please.

So, that’s my list. This is going to be a bumper year and apparently I’m going to have to become a millionaire to afford all these trips to the cinema. The perils of being an unpaid critic are numerous. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.

My most anticipated of 2015: Part 1 : An Unexpected Journey

Posted in Soapbox on January 12, 2015 by Ben Browne

Two image-filled lists in a row? Have I sold my soul to the vapid, clickbaity world of modern listicle writing? Mercifully no.  Even worse, this is my first two part article. Why? Well, if narrowed it down to a friendly ten, it’d just be the massive billion dollar franchises getting a look-in and are the ones already being talked about incessantly. Anyway, this is not a thing I usually do, but I’m responding to a request on Facebook (Hi Dave!) to write about the films that I’m anticipating in 2015. I’m looking forward to all of these in different ways, but the thing I’m really looking forward to is a film I know nothing about at the moment and get blindsided by when I sit down to watch it. Obviously being hyped for something and then it turning out to be good is great, but there’s something incredibly special about being sucker punched by the unexpected and exciting. I realise that by saying this, I’m kinda invalidating this list I worked pretty hard on, so let’s move swiftly on. So, in UK release order, here are the films you can expect this “disingenuous prick” (actual reader feedback) to have “one of my sodding opinions” (probable reader thoughts) on later this year.

 

Big Hero 6 – 30th January

 

Big Hero 6 has been out for ages in the United States, but we finally get it at the end of the month. I’ve been excited about it for a long time and the wait has been tortuous. Basically, it’s a more traditional Disney take on a Marvel Comics property. The film’s about a boy named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his inflatable medical bot Baymax (Scott Adsit) who team up with his techie friends to form a team of superheroes. Disney have been on a roll lately with Wreck-It Ralph and the inescapable Frozen and I’m hoping that co-writer Daniel Gerson brings the same level of quality to the film as he did with Monsters Inc. The near unanimous praise the film has garnered would suggest that Disney have knocked it out of the park again. I’ve only seen a few trailers, but I can already tell I’m going to love Baymax and that he’ll steal the show.

Inherent Vice – 30th January

Out on the same day is Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice. Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, the film is set in the ’70s and follows pothead P.I.  Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he investigates the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. Critical reaction to this one has been mixed, but the reason I’m looking forward to it is because of PTA. At the very least his films are interesting and the cast is made up of some legitimately great actors. It looks to be a bit of a strange mix of genres, but if anyone can make it work it’s PTA. Joaquin Phoenix is a fascinating actor too, both on and off screen. I’m hoping for a bit of an unconventional experience that has the potential to become a new cult favourite of mine. Fingers crossed.

Jupiter Ascending – 6th February

Whilst the trailers for Jupiter Ascending haven’t been great, I have absolute faith in the Wachowskis. Sure, the Matrix sequels weren’t as great as they should have been, but their Post Neo work has been fantastic. When they can give me stuff like V for Vendetta, Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas, they’ve earned a ticket sale to all future projects.  Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a woman who unsurprisingly dreams of something bigger than her current job cleaning toilets. It’s only when genetically engineered ex soldier Caine (Channing Tatum) tracks her down that she learns that she may space royalty and in charge of the balance of the entire cosmos. No pressure then. I’m hoping it’s the slightly hokey but visually stunning space opera it seems to be. I imagine it’s the sort of film that needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible, which is great for me as it’s an excuse to visit the IMAX. Pretty stoked.

Fifty Shades of Grey – 13th February

Yes, really. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s almost certainly going to be terrible considering the source material. However, this film is going to make waves when it hits and it’s probably going to be one of the most talked about films of the year. It’s kind of an event picture. If you didn’t know by osmosis alone, Fifty Shades of Grey is about Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a student, who encounters a brooding, handsome billionaire named Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). Grey opens Anastasia’s eyes to all sorts of things, with a special focus on the world of BDSM. Cue mugging and flogging. I’ve not read the book, but have read select passages and I was genuinely shocked at how poorly it was written. I guess that’s what you get from something that started its life as Twilight fanfiction. I kinda want to see if it’s just as much of a car crash on screen. I might skip going to see it in cinemas though, can’t be publicly photographed leaving this sort of this sort of filth- got my political career to think of.

Chappie – 6th March

 

So Chappie is the next Neill Blomkamp film after District 9 and Elysium. I’m a big fan of the guy. Chappie looks like my cup of weird tea. It seems to be a mix between Robocop and Short Circuit, which is something I didn’t even know I wanted until just now. It stars Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel and Sigourney Weaver with voice and motion capture for Chappie done by my main man Sharlto Copley. Basic story is that Chappie, a robot capable of learning and feeling, is kidnapped by gangsters and raised in a dysfunctional way and used for their “nefarious gains”, whatever the hell that means. I don’t know what the hell to expect from this one. The first trailer seemed like it was a fairly family friendly affair, but the latest one seems to indicate the film is firmly in Blomkamp’s wheelhouse with promises of gritty violence. Despite not quite knowing what I’m in store for, I’m excited. Plus, I am rather charmed by Chappie himself, I must admit.

 

In the Heart of the Sea – 13th March

I like Ron Howard. He’s done some crap in the past, but his recent output has been great. I loved Rush and I hope him re-teaming with Chris Hemsworth produces a similar quality film. Based on a book about real events, In the Heart of the Sea focuses on the 1820 sinking of the whaling ship Essex by a massive and pissed off bull whale. leaving the crew shipwrecked. I really like the sound of this one and I think the spectacle alone is worth seeing. I’m a big fan of Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy and I can imagine that they’ll bring the skills needed to sell what seems to be a prolonged oceanic disaster film. Sign me up.

John Wick – 10th April

Again, this one has been out in America for ages and the positive word of mouth has me desperate to see it. Story is that John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a retired hitman seeking vengeance over someone killing his dog. What’s not to love about that? I like Keanu and this seems like a real return to form after recently starring in shit that nobody saw like 47 Ronin. After being spoiled by The Raid 2 last year, I’m hoping for a slice of unusual action from this one as it cites many anime and martial arts films as influences.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – 24th April

It’s the sequel to The Avengers. Of course I’m excited. Marvel are on a great run of quality right now and I can’t see that failing to extent to their tentpole team-up film which has the potential to make more than the billion dollar first did. From the trailers, it looks like we’re heading into darker territory with rifts between the various Avengers appearing and a few shots of a clearly not well Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Simple premise is that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) creates Ultron, a robot peacekeeper with self-awareness and learning capabilities (2015 is looking to be a banner year for self-aware robots). Things go awry when Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides that humanity needs to eradicated. The trailer has me stoked. The returning cast look great. The new additions of Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Vision look awesome. The trailer’s promise of a showdown between The Hulk and Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit has me incredibly hyped. Bring it on.

 

Mad Max: Fury Road – 15th May

God. I hope it’s half as fun as the trailer.

Anyway, that’s part one done. Part two later this week.

 

Scenes of the Year 2014

Posted in Scenes of the Year with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by Ben Browne

Happy New Year all! Phew, thank Christ that’s over. Is it just me or was 2014 fucking rubbish in all sorts of ways? Anyway, time for the now yearly tradition of me picking my personal highlights of the cinematic year and forcing you to read them because you can be sure I’ll bring it up next time we go for coffee. As was the case last year, my scenes list isn’t the same as my “best of” list, despite there being a lot of overlap. I prefer talking about individual scenes as it can bring up some really interesting choices and allows me to include the most fascinating of beasts- the good scene in an otherwise average or bad film. As always, despite my best efforts, I didn’t see EVERY film to come out in 2014, so there may be some glaring omissions. Also, if you fancy checking out my full reviews of the films in the list, just click the title. Right- rambled long enough now. Here’s my goddamn list:

1) The Wolf of Wall Street – The ‘ludes kick in

 

The only good thing about the shitty January period of films in the UK is that we tend to get some of the great films that have been out in the U.S. for months. Case in point, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street which proved to be the one diamond in the deluge of shite released. I expect a Scorsese picture to be great, but what I wasn’t expecting was such a thick, satisfying slab of black humour. My favourite sequence happens when Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) finally feels the effects of necking out of date Quaaludes and collapses, having the Herculean task of driving back to his house and confronting Donnie (Jonah Hill) ahead of him. What follows is a drawn out and absurd sequence which is equal parts tragic as it is hilarious. DiCaprio also shows himself to be a great physical comedian, writhing and drooling his way home.

The absolute absurdity reaches a peak, however, when Jordan and Donnie fight, with Donnie picking an inopportune moment between phone beatings and cord stranglings to stuff his gullet with ham, causing him to choke. With his friend in peril, something rational finds its way through Belfort’s ball-tripping and he realises he’s got to save him. Struggling to his feet, Belfort takes a bump of energising coke, soundtracked by an old Popeye cartoon on TV and sets about saving Donnie. It’s bloody brilliant. When the film first came out, there were several pockets of hand-wringing muppets worried that the film glorified instead of condemned Jordan Belfort’s sleazy rise and fall. I don’t know how you can watch a scene like this one and not get at least a sense of what is being said. They’re selfish parodies of human beings at this point. Completely lost in a world of disgusting excess. It’s a total condemnation if ever I saw one.

 

2) The Lego Movie – “Spaceship!”

 

The Lego Movie is a joy. It’s a kids’ movie which is a giant advert for itself, but it manages to be a fast and witty experience with an infectious sense of fun. It has a great focus on characterisation and each of Emmett’s gang have their own motivations and personalities which is rare. Highlight of the film for me was the moment that astronaut Benny (Charlie Day) finally gets to build the spaceship he’s wanted to assemble all film. Our heroes have to make it back to stop President Business’ evil plan and only some kind of spacecraft will get them there in time. There’s something about the kinetic animation and manic Day screams of “Spaceship!” that really tickles me. Not much more to say, really. It’s a good scene and I dun giggled.

 

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The SHIELD lift sequence

 

In what would surprisingly only turn out to be my second favourite Marvel film of the year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a fantastic rebuttal to people criticising all these “capeshit” films from being the same. I’ve often thought that the Captain America series is one of Marvel’s most experimental. The Thor films may be all fantastical in their settings but they’re pretty standard fantasy films. First Avenger gave us an earnest World War II superhero caper whereas Winter Soldier gives us a ’70s style paranoid spy thriller, complete with Robert Redford. They also seem to be using the Cap films to significantly push the shared universe forward and have big repercussions ripple through the rest of MCU. The underlying message of this one is “trust no-one”. No scene better encapsulates this more than the SHIELD lift sequence where Cap (Chris Evans) finds himself in a crowded lift full of enemy agents.

Whilst the punchy and kicky payoff is feckin’ sweet, it’s the slow build up to this one that makes it special. It’s Cap noticing a supposedly innocent guard nervously toying with the strap on his holster. It’s the building tension as more and more bruisers are picked up on each floor. The main thing that sells the scene for me is Cap calmly asking: “Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?” which is a perfect Captain America type line. The ensuing claustrophobic fight reminded me of a souped-up version of the similarly constrained Bond/Red Grant train carriage scrap in From Russia With Love which is a compliment in itself.

 

 

 4) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Koba performs

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes disappointed me. It wasn’t bad, it just felt it was missing some key components like a compelling human cast. Undoubtably one of the highlights of the film was Tony Kebbell’s villainous ape Koba. Basic gist of this scene is that Koba’s sneaking around and comes across two twitchy human guards with guns. Instead of risking an attack, Koba turns up the cuteness dial and starts acting all chimplike, imitating what the men do and charming them. It’s only when the men are nice and distracted does Koba grab one of the rifles and blow them away. Having a deeply misanthropic character like Koba performing what basically amounts to ape blackface shows a level of imagination and intelligence lacking in the rest of the film’s undercooked script.

 

5) The Raid 2 – The car chase

 

As with the first one, I loved The Raid 2. No film series offers the same level of bone-crunching goodness that The Raid films do. Whilst featuring some fantastic choreography for normal scrapping, the moment that my jaw actually hung open for was the car chase which manages to be one of the most exciting action sequences in recent memory. Hero cop Rama (Iko Uwais) has been captured by some bad ‘uns. He wakes up and proceeds to go apeshit.

It’s the level of ingenuity that impresses me most. Some of the shots are amazing as we swoop in and out of cars involved in the chase. Best of all- it feels dangerous. I mean, when was the last time you were actually thrilled by an action sequence? Well, The Raid 2 did it for me. Both Gareth Evans and the Raid stunt team are at the top of their game right now. The very notion that this could be topped has me eager to see where they go from here, which apparently seems to be Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Can’t wait to see the stuff they do with lightsabers.

6) X-Men: Days of Future Past – The Quicksilver sequence

 

If ever there was a shoo-in for this particular list, it was this one. I enjoyed Days of Future Past a lot, but despite fierce competition from the ending, the Quicksilver sequence won out comfortably. Basic set-up is that Wolverine, Professor X et al need to bust Magneto out of his special plastic cell in the Pentagon. They enlist Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, a mutant with the power to move at incredible speeds, to help them. Quicksilver comes into his own when the gang are outnumbered and outgunned when the enter the kitchen. We see Quicksilver casually put his Walkman on and proceed to incapacitate every guard in a flash. Best part of this being that we experience it all through Quicksilver’s perception of time, so everything happens in balletic super slo-mo.

There are so many elements that make this work. The song choice of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is inspired. The little touches of humour with Quicksilver setting up guards to punch themselves in the face and such is great. The effects are astounding. We didn’t get to spend much time with Quicksilver in the film, but the most is made of him. I’ll be interested to see how Marvel Studios version of the character stacks up.

 

7) 22 Jump Street – The end credits

22 Jump Street is a sequel that mocks the very idea of sequels. Like the first one, it’s a genuinely funny film with some seriously clever stuff going on behind the scenes. Once 22 Jump Street wraps up, it answers the obligatory sequel question with a whole slew of movie posters and clips from fictional sequels. By Christ it’s funny. I won’t give away the various funny little bits because then I’d just be that guy who just retells jokes, but it’s great. Definitely make sure to take note of the various taglines though. Some serious punning power. What I love about it is that it’s kind of both a fuck you to the idea of franchises and kind of an acceptance of where this franchise is heading as well. 23 Jump Street has already been confirmed and if the Sony hacks (in both senses of the word) are anything to go by, a Jump Street//Men in Black crossover may happen. I wish I was fucking kidding.

8) Snowpiercer – Tunnel vision

 

I’m breaking the rules of my own list for this one.  Snowpiercer has endured a rocky road to get to audiences. It got a half-hearted theatrical release in the U.S. and there’s no goddamn sign of it in the UK, theatrical or home video, which is pathetic. It’s such a shitty situation as I really enjoyed Snowpiercer and feel like the more people see it, the more it will encourage a like of solid, but definitely oddball films. Basic premise is Bioshock on a train. The world has frozen over and the only life exists on a self-sustaining train that crosses the globe in an endless loop. The class divide is huge. The lower classes live in the scummy tail of the train whereas the uppers in the front carriages get to enjoy all manner of luxuries.

Sick of their treatment, the tail rises and a group of them, led by Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) leads the charge to push to the front. One of the best moments for me is after a few successes Curtis’ group come to a dead stop when they encounter a group of tooled-up soldiers brandishing vicious hatchets, easily trumping the crappy clubs our heroes carry. Informed by the raucous and unrecognisable Tilda Swinton that precisely 74% of them will die as punishment for their actions so far, the soldiers whip out their night vision goggles and ready their axes just in time for the train to go through a “fucking long” tunnel and plunge everyone into total darkness. It’s absolutely fantastic and hammers home the central theme of the haves vs the havenots. My favourite little bit is when the train passes by a crack of light in the tunnel and we see it shine on everything from the bloody carnage to the survivors’ faces. Brutal and beautiful. Brutaful.

 

9) Guardians of the Galaxy – “Come And Get Your Love”

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is my favourite film of the year, so chances were high that it’d appear in this list. Whist the Kyln prison escape scene is well orchestrated and executed, it’s the song and dance number we get with the title card that gets the mention. Why? Well, apart from being incredibly enjoyable and fun, it’s the film setting out its stall. The very opening scene is an emotional gutpunch as young Peter Quill attends his dying mother’s hospital bed. From there we have a bit of mystery as a masked man traverses some ruins until finally the mask is removed, headphones are placed on and Redbone’s funky-as-anything “Come and Get Your Love” is blasted. When the big gold titles come up above a tiny dancing Quill it’s a statement of purpose. The first few bits may have been tonally rocky, but that’s James Gunn’s name on screen- wild tonal shifts come with the territory. It’s unapologetically what it is and hooray for that. Best bit has to be Quill miming the words into the snapping jaws of a nasty looking alien held like a microphone.

 

 

10) Need for Speed – The Koenigsegg crash

 

I didn’t like Need for Speed very much. I think a lot of its throwback charms were lost on me amidst the clunky script and poor plotting. However, one thing that Need for Speed got completely right was its attitude towards stunts. Pretty much every car stunt is practical and it shows. One of the best sequences in the film is a race between three incredibly fast Koenigsegg Agera Rs. The film’s slimeball bastard Dino (Dominic Cooper) nudges the back of another and sends it skidding with it quickly gaining massive air and tumbling over a bridge in a huge ball of flames. It’s meant to be a devastating crash and thanks to the real stuntwork it looks and feels it too. In fact, all of the action scenes in Need for Speed could go on here, but this one wins because of its simplicity. I like the fact that there’s still spectacle in these kinds of things. Shame about the rest of the film, but the car stuff is brilliant.

EDIT: Balls. I found my notes and I forgot something which definitely deserves a place. Rather than removing an entry, I’ll add another because I’m a sexy writing maverick.

11) Begin Again – The imaginary orchestra

 

Begin Again is the sort of charming kind-of romcom that reminds me I don’t hate romantic comedies, I just hate the usual lazy shite that’s released posing as them. A true romcom can uplift and that’s exactly what Begin Again does. There are many great musical moments but the king of all is an early scene where drunk, down-on-his-luck music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears Keira Knightley’s Gretta sing for the first time at an open mic night. Dan immediately hears potential in the song and starts imagining what it would sound like if it was scored by an orchestra. We then see floating drumsticks and bows go to task and bring in the various instruments gradually until it all reaches a peak and slowly fades back to just Gretta’s performance complete with background chatter and bar noise. It’s Ruffalo that makes this one work so well. In hearing the song, Dan rediscovers an excitement about music and Ruffalo slowly getting to his feet and imagining the accompaniment before getting completely lost in it is joyful. Of course, it helps that the song “A Step You Can’t Take Back” is a lovely gentle track that works perfectly with Dan’s realisation.

So, that’s it for another year. 2015’s line-up is intimidatingly massive so I’ll see you on the other side.

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on December 17, 2014 by Ben Browne

Some killer, mostly filler.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

After the fairly middling critical reaction to Mockingjay Part 1, I wasn’t in any rush to go and see it, despite being a self-proclaimed fan of the franchise. Part of my reticence was also down to the stupid, but annoyingly cash-savvy decision to split the final book into two films, a practice that I hate with every fibre of my being. I mean, why bother going to see half a film, based on the weakest book in the trilogy, which is undoubtedly going to have as much padding as an insecure schoolgirl’s bra? Still, the notion of being a “proper” critic and forming my own opinion on a film, no matter how crappy the reviews are got the better of me, so here we are.

“They’ll either want to kill you, kiss you, or be you”

Mockingjay Part 1 once again follows our main heroine and two-time games survivor Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after she was airlifted out of the Quarter Quell Games at the end of Catching Fire.  We learn that her act of defiance has sparked pockets of violence and rebellion in the various districts, leading the Capitol to respond in kind with brutal bombing runs, laying waste to all who oppose. Katniss is taken underground, far below the fabled District 13 and the leader of the rebellion, President Coin (Julianne Moore) plans to capitalise on the revolutionary spirit in the air by using Everdeen as a figurehead for the uprising with the former advisor to Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Katniss however, has her mind on not-quite beau Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who was left at the Snow’s mercy when only she was rescued. Things take an interesting turn when Peeta shows up alive and well on Capitol propaganda broadcasts, urging people to lay down their weapons and submit to the Capitol’s rule. The basic narrative thrust of the series is still sound. The film still has its media satire action goggles on and Mockingjay Part 1 focuses on the battle between Katniss’ reluctant postergirlism and Peeta’s strangely glassy-eyed figureheaditude (those are totally words, shut up). There are some really clever, creative flourishes here. I’ve said it (and drawn more than my fair share of ire for it) before but The Hunger Games series is one of the best series out there, giving us a franchise that is smart, dark and enjoyable and not the sort of brain-numbing shit that normally captures a young adult audience’s attention.

A review of Part 1 is always going to put a cap what you can say about it because it’s simply not a complete film. I’d read many reviews beforehand and they all seemed to make a big deal of splitting the last part in two. I started to wonder whether it was usual critic axe-grinding or a legitimate problem with the film. Sadly, it’s the latter. The film is all set-up and no pay-off. It’s going to leave you with narrative blue balls.  We spend a lot of time underground, with characters spinning their wheels until they’re sure enough time has passed to move the plot on without being in danger of running out of story. The pacing is slow and plodding. There’s a few pockets of action here and there, but it becomes clear that the big guns are being saved for next year. This practice really sucks. If you’re going to split a film, makes sure that both parts are satisfying experiences on their own. It’s fine to not rush to the endgame, but when it feels like all you’re doing is delaying the inevitable, it can frustrate and feel like you’ve just slapped down your cash for a feature-length trailer for the next one. Nearly all of the film’s failings can be attributed to the split. It’s baggy compared to the efficient Catching Fire. Various ideas/themes will be brought up in one scene, only to have the same ideas pop up in the next scene, making the drama feel inert. Mockingjay Part 1 feels like a film with the deleted scenes kept in. There’s one moment near the end that would have made a great cliffhanger, but we have to endure a few more low-key scenes reiterating what we already know before the credits finally roll.

This could have been a disaster. Thankfully, the actors just about carry it. Jennifer Lawrence is still great as Katniss. She’s been a reluctant hero from the beginning and the film plays on that. It’s nice that in spite of surviving two games, she’s still human. She’s a badass when she needs to be, but she remains just as vulnerable and relatable as she ever has. In lesser hands, the temptation to turn her into a world-weary invincible warrior may have been too strong, but her continued character development has been skillfully piloted away from those hacky jagged rocks. There’s new blood in the form of Natalie Dormer’s Cressida and her camera team, but they’re not really given much to do. Julianne Moore’s President Coin is the most interesting new addition to the cast. Moore gives a veteran polished turn as Coin and her slow-burn friendship with Katniss is played extremely well. I also liked her constant sparring with PSH’s Plutarch. PSH never turned in a duff performance even if the film was questionable and Mockingjay doesn’t break that streak. The guy was a fantastic actor and I’m gutted all over again that we won’t see anything more from him.

One of the only things that I feel The Hunger Games hasn’t knocked out of the park is Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. I love Katniss as a character, but I just don’t feel the films have justified her obvious love for him. He’s been a comfort during tough times and I suppose that’s enough, but something still doesn’t gel. Being stuck in the Capitol, Peeta doesn’t get much screentime and so the film instead concentrates on Katniss’ relationship with dreamy friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).  Much like in Twilight, I’m rooting for the underdog. Gale seems a much better match for Katniss. They’re equals. The more the films play out, the more I find it difficult to accept that someone as strong as Katniss would be into a beta male like Peeta. The film does occasionally hover around Katniss’ attraction to lame ducks, but I’m still not buying it. Anyway, the film has some nice moments between Katniss and Gale and I just wish they explored their complicated relationship a bit more. I could have done with an extra scene or two between them before Gale leaves District 13 for a good stretch of the film.

“Miss Everdeen, it is the things we love most that destroy us.”

Mockingjay Part 1 is decent enough. There’s an inherent quality to the performances and the script, but it’s a shame a recommendation has to come with so many caveats. I know that once Part 2 comes out I’ll never watch Part 1 on its own again. I would have been completely happy to sit through a three-hour spectacular finale, but nope- money to be made, son.  Anyway- the film: 3/5, the business practice: -1000000000/5

Guardians of the Galaxy (Redux)

Posted in Marvel, Redux, Review with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Ain’t no thing like mecept me”
 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (Redux)

Something’s been eating away at me since I first reviewed Guardians a few months ago. Whilst I stick by a lot of what I said in that review, I’ve seen it twice since then and I felt my original thoughts needed tightening up. Y’see, I’ve been nigh-on obsessed with the film since seeing it. The downtime between the second cinema trip and the DVD/Blu-ray release have been filled with conversations about it of both the I-can’t-believe-you-haven’t-seen-it and the wasn’t-that-bit-so-awesome-when? varieties. The super-popular soundtrack has also been in heavy rotation on my iPod to the point where I swear it tries to sneak in other tracks for variation’s sake. Not many films these days manage to stick in my brain as indelibly as Guardians has managed. A third viewing on shiny disc has confirmed one thing- it’s not only my favourite film of the year, but it’s moved up to being one of my favourite films of all time and as such, certain points need to be addressed. Oh- if you haven’t seen it yet, thar be spoilers, so just go and see the damn thing and come back.

“I know who you are, Peter Quill, and I am not some starry-eyed waif here to succumb to your… your pelvic sorcery!”

I’m going to skip the plot summary and just dive straight in, because the chances are you’ve seen it multiple times like I have. All my casting notes are the same as well as my assessment of the action beats etc. I want to focus on the meaty script and several problems I had with it on the first viewing.  Story-wise, Guardians relies on familiar tropes, including the standard MacGuffin plot of having an object driving the narrative and where characters go. You could also say that the characters are pretty broad. Of the few negative reviews that exist of this film, those seem to be the main points of contention, including criticising the now-commonplace big Marvel ending that is a gigantic aerial battle. All fair points, but I would argue that picking the film up on these things is kinda missing the whole point. To me, Guardians is like the Indiana Jones films or even the mighty Star Wars. Its very aware of these clichés and uses them to give us something new or sell us on something a bit “out there”. This is blockbuster filmmaking as it should be. It has a smart script packed with fully realised characters and quotable lines, a great sense of wonder when it comes to the deep space locations, decent action and a cracking soundtrack. What I love about it all as well is like all the best Marvel films, it still has the specific director’s stamp on it. Guardians is very much a James Gunn film with his love of wildly swinging tonal shifts, regular casting pool and a real passion for the absurd.

The thing about Guardians is that the character focus is very strong, so much so, the story almost takes a backseat. We get to know these people/animals/tree monsters/aliens over the course of the film. The writers James Gunn and Nicola Perlman ensure that each character has a strong motivation and a real driving purpose. Take Rocket Raccoon for example- from the trailers, it looked like he was just another CGI creation with one-liners, destined to pratfall and do “human” things to get a yuk out of brainless twats. However, in the film, he’s a fully formed creation. He resents humanity and constantly struggles to find his place in the world, always dealing with the fact that he shouldn’t exist.  He’s full of bluff and bravado because they’re his coping mechanisms. There’s one scene where Rocket’s been drinking and is drunkenly waving his gun at the crew, choking back rage and sadness at the fact that nobody takes him seriously and he feels people are laughing at him. In a lesser film, this would have been a gag, but as it appears here it’s heartbreaking. This attention to detail expands to not only our main Guardians, but side characters like John C. Reilly’s Dey. It’s so fucking refreshing to feel like proper storytelling isn’t dead and that even with a megabudget, the little things (Rocket included) aren’t forgotten about.

One of the main things people have taken away from Guardians is how funny the film is. The film is witty throughout and some bits are downright hilarious. What I love about Guardians is how it uses the humour. A lot of the running gags have a huge emotional payoff. Take Peter Quill’s need to be known as “Star-Lord”. He gets frustrated multiple times that people don’t know his supposedly badass outlaw name. It’s a neat little touch, but nothing we haven’t seen before and it smacks of handing out a trait arbitrarily. That is until we learn that “Star-Lord” was his dead mother’s pet name for him and I can barely read what I’m writing right now as the screen has gone all blurry. It’s such a nice moment I get choked up even talking about it. We finally understand why the name was important to him. Very few films can actually make me tear up, but Guardians is definitely one of them. Another example of this is Groot’s repeated “I am Groot”s. Who knew that the repetition of that one line was just lifting our chins up to ensure we get the full force of the “We are Groot” sucker punch? It’s this sort of layering and narrative domino setting that makes me love films all the more.

If you read my original review, you’ll know that I had a problem with three characters- Ronan the Accuser, Nebula and Gamora. My opinion has changed on each. I originally thought that Ronan was a bit of a weaksauce bad guy, but the more I’ve watched the film, the more I realise that’s sort of the point. He’s meant to be out of his depth. He’s a petulant teenager playing with big-boy toys. Thanos is the main dude, but as Drax notes, Ronan is a puppet. He does pose a legitimate threat, but he’s no Loki. Plus, the film is more about the Guardians coming together, rather than taking down an ultra-badass. Chances are the Guardians won’t be able to distract the next big bad with dance moves. Let’s talk Karen Gillan’s Nebula. Nebula is fascinating and has a very odd sisterly relationship with Gamora. She’s really compelling and I’m still a little disappointed we don’t see more of her. Her exist from the film is a bit clunky too, with “sequel” written all over it. Not bad by any means though. Which brings us to Gamora. I initially stated that Gamora is the one with the least focus, but I realise that it’s because her character hasn’t really completed her arc by the time the film is over. Whilst Quill, Rocket, Drax and Groot are all fully on board, Gamora still has a bit to go. She’s almost there, as the little head bobs to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” demonstrate, but she’s still got issues to work through. It’s more of a promise of things to come than anything else and the fact that she doesn’t seem as well-sketched as the others is entirely intentional. My guess is that Guardians 2 will be more about her as well as the mystery of Quill’s father.

“What should we do next? Something good? Something bad? Bit of both?”

So,  on to the main reason I wanted to do a redux review. Guardians of the Galaxy has been one of my most read reviews on this site and instead of being happy that so many people stopped e-shopping or watching naked people do naked-er things to read my nonsense, I cringed slightly because of the four star rating I ended up giving it. For a film that has dominated my thoughts since it came out and has been proven to make me laugh and cry every time, that’s a bit of a slap. I mean, if I can’t give Guardians of the Galaxy a full 5 stars, what the hell can I give it to? It’s an injustice, I tells ya! Anyway- Guardians gets the rating it deserves and I get to sleep soundly at night. Fair deal.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on November 16, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Turtle head.
 
 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

It was going to happen eventually. I never really watched any of the Transformers cartoons as a kid, so I didn’t understand the apparent betrayal that fans of the shows felt when the Michael Bay films came out and shat all over any interesting characters that may have been precious to people. Well, now I kind of get it. I was obsessed with the Turtles as a kid and watched the cartoon and the 90’s movie religiously. Too many people regard this as another Bay revival of an ’80s property. It’s important to note that Michael Bay didn’t direct this and was one of three producers on the film, but the Bay connection is still there. It was marketed as such and purposefully looks like a Bay film, complete with blue lens flares and the like, so there’s that. I remember all the characters and basic plot points from childhood and still have a genuine affection for them. It’s definitely nostalgic for me and reminds me of a time before the world decided to stomp me flat and take money from my wallet at every opportunity. Having said that, I’m not a blinkered fanboy, ignoring all shortcomings in favour of a hit of pure history. What all of this boils down to is that yes, I’m nearly 30 and I went to see a probably terrible kids’ film on purpose. Shut up.

“You live, you die, you fight as brothers. Remember, nothing is as strong as family.”

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2K14  focuses on April O’Neil (Megan Fox), a struggling journalist who wants a shot at reporting deeper news than simple fluff pieces. She investigates the recent rise in crime attributed to the Foot gang and during her sneaking around, witnesses a strange vigilante stopping a Foot crime. After more digging, she finds that there’s four of these vigilantes and they just happen to be talking Juvenile, Genetically-Altered, Martial Arts Reptiles named after great Renaissance artists. They team up with cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett) when it transpires that the city is under threat by a man in a robot samurai suit who calls himself “The Shredder” and billionaire totally-a-bad-guy-from-the-off Eric Sacks (William Fichtner). I’m really not sure why they thought that this was the best way to proceed with reintroducing the Turtles to younger audiences.

The premise is inherently ridiculous, but the film seems to want to ground it and play it off as semi-realistic, which is baffling. The Foot Clan aren’t ninjas, they’re just dudes with guns. Shredder isn’t just a guy with a silly purple cape and sharp metal accessories, he’s a guy in an advanced robot suit with knives upon knives on it. The plot seems to be Standard Superhero Plot #4723A, with the Turtles license bent and snapped to fit the story. A lot of it reminded me of the hacktastic Amazing Spider-Man, right down to the ultimate evil plot of gassing New York from atop a tall building and featuring a big radio tower falling as the end action sequence. The plot is lazy as shit and relies on coincidence as its main way of explaining why stuff happens. Guess how the Turtles become ninjas. Splinter finds a book on ninjutsu in the sewer, complete with step-by-step instructions. Fuck you whoever wrote that. I know it’s all ridiculous, but that’s so dumb, even for this. Know how they do it in the far superior ’90s film? Splinter is a ninja master’s pet who watches him train for hours a day and starts mimicking him. Yes, that’s a different kind of stupid, but it makes more sense for the character. Also the decision to give April a personal stake in the Turtles’ creation by having them be her pets from when she was a kid is just the kind of terrible decision films of this ilk make. Here’s a secret, giving a character like that personal ties to whatever’s going on doesn’t make the drama any more involving. It’s a hackneyed device that always shows up your film for the empty experience it is. The writing wants to be a bit smart, self-aware and witty but it often falls flat. I’d be a filthy liar if I said I didn’t chuckle at some of the gags though.

Cast wise, it’s not terrible. Megan Fox is actually pretty tolerable as April O’Neil. I expected her to be the worst thing ever, but turns out if you do stuff enough, you get better. It’s a shame we had to pay and sit through her acting classes beforehand though. Will Arnett is decent enough, but misused. Same with William Fichtner, who can play creepy dudes in his sleep, but is not given much to work with here. The Turtles’ voices are fine. Johnny Knoxville is an odd choice as Leonardo- the straight-talking leader. Surely he’d be more suited for Michelangelo, considering his Jackass background? Also, Christ knows what kind of voice Tony Shaloub gives Splinter. It’s kind of Japanese, but not really. Fucking distracting. As you can see from the poster above, the Turtles designs are horrible. I get that they’re going for a more realistic turtle design, but since when does realism have anything to do with TMNT? Splinter also looks straight-up bad.

The film doesn’t know who it wants to appeal to and tries to appeal to both kids and jaded, rose-tinted bespectacled adults like yours truly. As is often the case, it ends up falling inbetween and appealing to nobody. Tonally it’s all over the place. The film has some surprisingly brutal fighting in it, especially in one part where Splinter gets proper fucked up by Shredder. However, in the same film you have the Turtles acting all goofy and a fart joke or two. It just doesn’t gel. The action is slightly more decipherable than your standard Bayformers flick, but still isn’t particularly good. It’s all just a pixelfuck with by-the-numbers slow motion bits to show you the apparently super-awesome bits. A little restraint would have been nice.

So, is there anything good? Well, despite the heavily compromised characters, I still liked the Turtles’ dynamic. Leonardo is still the leader, Raphael is the tough one who wants to go solo, Donatello is the nerdy one and Michelangelo is the wacky one. Despite the godawful script, there are still little glimpses of their personalities and it still sort of works. There’s one moment in an elevator between fights where Mikey starts beatboxing and the rest of the Turtles join in. It’s a fun little moment and the film needed way more of these to have any chance of being good. I will say that it’s nowhere near as offensive as the Transformers films, which is a relief. I’m not sure I could have handled another morally bankrupt, racist and sexist piece of shite masquerading as childrens’ entertainment, especially one that meant the world to me as a child.

“Four turtles… one’s fighting a robot samurai. Why not?”

So yeah, this TMNT is pretty much the worst version of the story that’s been done. No effort has been made to make anything other than a brand-recognition title in the hope of making money from any remaining goodwill the property has with adults and capitalising on the new-ish Nickelodeon cartoon. Don’t worry though- a sequel is already in development. Fucking sigh.

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