Avengers : Age of Ultron

Posted in Marvel, Review with tags , , , , , , on April 25, 2015 by Ben Browne

It’s what NASA uses.

Avengers : Age of Ultron (2015)

All of Marvel’s movies are treated as big event movies, but Age of Ultron is a special case. Perhaps it’s the wrong way of thinking, but people automatically want to know if Age of Ultron is better than the first Avengers. My answer is an annoying “kind of”.

Born out of Stark A.I. meddling, the Avengers have to face a new threat to global safety, a rogue program calling itself “Ultron” (voiced by James Spader) that has concluded that humanity’s extinction is the only logical outcome. He recruits two superhuman experiments in the form of the Maximoff twins, Pietro and Wanda (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), better known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, to aid him in stopping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. As is often the case with sequels, Age of Ultron is darker than the first. It explores the personal fears of each Avenger and leaves them broken and scarred. That’s not to say it tips the balance into all-out ludicrous grimmery. At its core, the film is still a fun, comic-book adventure with plenty of gags and moments of levity.

Age of Ultron certainly starts better than the original Avengers did. We open in medias res, with the team waging an assault on a Hydra castle deathbase to retrieve Loki’s series-important mind-control sceptre. It was so comic-booky and fun, it immediately brought a smile to my face. Loathe as I am to use the word, the banter between the team was like putting on a comfy pair of slippers. I genuinely love these characters and it’s great to hear them bounce off each other. As someone who has sunk many hours of the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance games, the little team-up attacks will always delight me on a level I can’t quite explain. In comparison, Avengers 1 took a while to get up to speed. The first 20 minutes or so feel weirdly low-rent and out of place when held up against the rest of the film. Lessons have been learned with Age of Ultron and it shows.

After being shoved to the sidelines in the first film, Age of Ultron finally spares some focus for Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Joss Whedon delves into the character’s personal life and he becomes the heart of the film. What I love about this is that he’s used as the necessary humanity in a team full of overpowered supermen. You can have your big personalities doing loud and awesome things, but you still need something to ground it. There’s a surprising budding relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner. It’s a strange pairing but it makes total sense. I found it all to be rather sweet. There’s one scene at the Avengers HQ bar where Romanoff flirts shamelessly with the awkward Banner that completely sold their relationship to me. It’s like a film noir exchange and the Whedonness of the writing came through strongly. He loves damaged characters and putting unlikely couples together and having you root for them is kinda his thing. I have to say, I’m liking Tony Stark less. It’s completely intentional too. Stark sees the Avengers as a stopgap solution to Earth’s problems and is working on an endgame. He’s trying to cut the barbed wire again. His shortsightedness leads to Ultron. Although it isn’t directly his fault, he definitely has to shoulder some of the blame. His talk with Cap whilst chopping wood definitely shows the fissures appearing in their ideologies that will lead to Civil War. I can’t wait.

Ultron is a fascinating villain. He has Stark’s wit hardcoded into his programming and so he ends up with just as many one-liners and witticisms as our heroes. His monologues are perfect for James Spader’s amazing voice and as a result Ultron is utterly compelling. The film has a running theme of evolution and Ultron embodies that. There’s one scene where Ultron destroys his body mid-speech with a newer, more powerful form without pause that is just a fantastic moment. This is an odd sentence, but despite Ultron’s desire to wipe out humanity, he didn’t seem that evil to me. Part of it is his cold, robot logic. He’s not evil because he enjoys it, but because it makes sense to him. Part of it is the fact that he’s so damn entertaining. It all adds up to him being insanely misguided rather than straight-up evil. I can appreciate that it’s a more interesting take on villainy, but it didn’t have the immediate, visceral appeal of someone who is an out-and-out bastard. However, I expect this to become less of a problem on repeat viewings.

Whedon is a master of the ensemble piece. He manages to accommodate a whole bunch of new faces whilst keeping things balanced with more familiar ones. Nearly all the characters are well served by the script and they all get moments to shine. Reviews have already levelled their few criticisms of the film at there being too many characters, but I think it’s a lazy criticism. It’s like the similar “too many villains” problem that is often brought up. For me it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Game of Thrones manages to balance a crazy amount of characters and plotlines each week. The execution is the problem, not the idea.  Age of Ultron does incredibly well with sharing focus. The only real casualty (and there’s bound to be one in a film like this) is that the film has to set up more universe building things with teases for Black Panther and future Avengers films. Thor gets a largely pointless subplot to find out about the Infinity Gems and to me it took away from the main narrative. It fucks with the pacing sightly and makes the film baggier. Having said that, I liked Andy Serkis turning up as Ulysses Klaw, an arms dealer with a deep fear of cuttlefish.

I’m going to spend a paragraph talking about The Vision because I can. The stakes feel higher when Paul Bettany steps up. He’s such a great character. He’s the opposite side of the coin to Ultron. He’s got the robot logic, but he also sees the value of humanity. Bettany plays him as a gentle, ethereal being and it completely works. As I watched the caped Vision float in mid-air, delivering beautiful monologues, I came to a bit of a realisation. Vision is a better Superman than the current version of Superman. That’s not a tough feat, but Vision embodies everything I like about a God-like figure trying to teach humanity rather than destroy it. His final dialogue with Ultron is also incredibly well-written and it shows you can have your huge, destructive setpieces as well as have time for simple conversation about differing ideologies.

Those destructive setpieces I mentioned? Age of Ultron has bucketloads of them too. My favourite was the scrap between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in his purpose-built Hulkbuster suit. The finale is the single most comic-booky thing I’ve seen on screen to date and I loved it.

Age of Ultron falls just shy of The Avengers’ greatness for me. It’s a better made and certainly a better realised film than the first, but I didn’t experience as many air-punchingly great moments as I did with the original. However, that’s not to say the film fails because it doesn’t. It’s another excellent Marvel film. The cast are great, the film is visually spectacular and it’s very well-written. It’s funny, but when I’ve discussed Age of Ultron with people, it’s the little character beats that I talk about rather than the impressive action sequences. More films should be made like that. Character resonates for so much longer than explosions do. I’ll give it four stars, but will qualify it’s a very high four. As I feel that half the country has already seen it, it seems moot, but the film gets a huge recommendation from me.

Fast & Furious 7

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on April 4, 2015 by Ben Browne

Gear change

Fast & Furious 7 (2015)

In a move that mirrors Skynet’s terrifying rise of the machines, the Fast and the Furious franchise has become self-aware. As a series, it’s been doing this since the soft reboot 4th instalment, the confusingly titled “Fast and Furious”, testing more and more outlandish elements with each film. I think Furious 7 is them fully embracing the ridiculous and rolling with it.

Enraged by his brother’s defeat, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) attempts to kill Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his family. Cue vrooms and booms. When I said that this film embraces the ridiculous, I wasn’t just talking about the tongue-in-cheek dialogue and the physics-defying stunts. It applies to nearly all aspects, including the plot. The whole thing plays out like a dumb Bond film i.e. a globetrotting adventure with plenty of opportunities for mayhem against exotic backdrops. The plot revolves around a program called the God’s Eye that can track anyone, anywhere. It’s basically a more sophisticated version of Lucius Fox’s sonar thing in The Dark Knight. Our heroes are informed that if they acquire the God’s Eye, they may use it to track down the Stath. All well and good, but what is the point in hunting a man who keeps turning up to kill them? He tracks them across the world. He’s doing all the legwork. If they used it to get a heads-up on where he would strike next, that would have made more sense.  As hypocritical as it is for this statement to be said by someone who almost exclusively whinges about narrative, the plot really isn’t important. It’s there as a vague framework for our heroes to bicker and for shit to blow up. I’m totally fine with that.

The death of Paul Walker hangs over Furious 7. There’s a touching realism added to the series’ themes of family and togetherness. I think they did a fantastic job of moulding the film around Walker’s absence and apart from a few off-feeling phone conversations Brian has, he’s convincingly part of the narrative. The film can’t be what they initially set out to make, but the film we do get doesn’t feel too compromised. The way they handle Brian’s departure from the series is beautifully done and genuinely tear-jerking. It’s a fitting tribute and it pulls double time as both a goodbye to the character and the actor. In my Fast & Furious 6 review, I was a bit cruel about the series’ theme of family, basically saying that repeating the word “family” wasn’t enough for me to buy into it. Paul Walker’s death and the effect it had on Furious 7 has removed that issue for me. Every utterance of the word “family” has a palpable tragedy and a deeper meaning attached. Not only does it not feel like a lazy plot device any more, it feels necessary to pay tribute to a lost friend. I’m now fully on board with them being like a family and it’s just a shame it took real life butting its ugly head in to do it.

I love the fact that F&F has evolved into a better version of The Expendables. It’s a real ensemble piece and I was glad to see the familiar crew again. Kurt Russell shows up as Mr. Nobody, a government man who is an eyepatch away from being Nick Fury (or Snake Plissken). I’m imagining he’ll feature in further F&Fs. Good thing too, because he seems to be enjoying every second. I was a little disappointed in the Stath’s role in proceedings. He’s a cool enough baddie, but there’s just nothing much about him. Shaw is rather generic and just shows up when the film needs some shit to go down. He has some funny interactions with The Rock’s Agent Hobbs early on, but as soon as the globetrotting begins, he’s just a British T-1000. I wanted him to really chew the scenery, but he never really got the chance. The Rock is a series regular now, but I want to mention how goddamn great he is. He’s in the film intermittently, but he makes use of every second. There is a brilliant moment where he cracks his arm cast by the power of flexing after uttering the line “Daddy’s got to go to work” that is so retro and awesome that it already ranks up there with some of the more testosterone-pumping moments of action classics like Predator. The image of him wielding a minigun is also badass.

I think Furious 7 may have a series best action setpiece. The sequence starts with the crew skydiving out of the back of a plane in their cars to attack a motorcade on treacherous mountain roads. The whole thing is unbelievably well choreographed and shot and it just keeps ramping up the stakes until you can’t take no more. One of my favourite things about the franchise now is that no idea is too ridiculous. They’ll just go for it if they think it’ll entertain. Best example of this is during the motorcade sequence when the chased bus’s side panels open revealing a row of remote miniguns. I cackled with glee at each fun twist and turn. The film has many other action bits, but none top the early scene. James Wan can definitely shoot car action, but I’m not sold on his hand-to-hand fighting chops. The camera work is a lot more frenetic and it can be tough to tell who is who. I like the trick he does by locking the camera on someone falling through the air, especially when it’s used to follow The Stath getting Rock Bottomed through a glass table.

I really enjoyed Fast & Furious 7. It’s easy to be snobby about it, but I think there’s room for big, dumb fun in this fucking awful world. If the tone and quality continues, I could watch this series forever. Recommended.

Rollerball (2002)

Posted in Review with tags , , , on March 27, 2015 by Ben Browne

“Just close your eyes and take the money.”

Rollerball (2002)

Pretty leftfield choice, I’ll admit. I’ve been busy the past few weeks doing stuff for The Peoples’ Movies and I was tasked with reviewing the Blu-ray release of the 1975 cult film Rollerball. It’s not perfect, but it has some compelling ideas in it. After watching it, I had an urge to watch the notoriously shit remake. Apparently my brain thinks I haven’t seen enough absolute scrotewash in my time.

Chris Klein plays Jonathan Cross, a rookie player who has made a name for himself playing Rollerball, a dangerous sport that involves rollerblades, a big metallic ball and motorbikes. He soon learns that promoter Alexi Petrovich (Jean Reno) has a vested interest in keeping ratings high and the way to do that is to make sure the game is as brutal as possible, even going as far as to engineer certain “accidents” to keep the audience share up. Then some shit happens. Whatever, I’m losing valuable whinging space.

If you are blessed enough to have not seen the film, you should know that this is a remake in the loosest possible terms. They keep the sport, the first name of the lead character and a smidge of corporate behind the scenes tinkering. It’s ludicrous. Why fucking bother remaking something if you’re not going to actually do anything with the property? The only members of the cast that walk away relatively unscathed are LL Cool J, Rebecca Romijn and Paul Heyman. They’re all hampered by godawful writing, but with each of them I can sense a performance in there struggling to get out. I only included Paul Heyman in that list because I’m a massive fan of his WWE work and the film plays to his strengths i.e. giving him time on the mic. No idea why they have Chris Klein in this film. I get that they’re going for a fresh-faced Jonathan, rather than the jaded James Caan version, but goddamn. It’s a Keanu-esque performance without any of the presence or charm. Narratively, it makes no sense to have a youngster who has only been playing the sport for 4 months be the centre of a story about the slow corruption of the sport. But hey, nothing in this film makes a lick of sense.  You never quite know what you’re going to get with Jean Reno. Rollerball Reno is awful. He’s hammy, but not in a fun way. All his personality quirks seem to be sourced from some kind of bad guy bargain bin.

All these years later, John McTiernan’s fall from quality still baffles me. Dude directed Die Hard and Predator. He practically wrote the blueprint for action movies for the next 3 decades (and counting). I believe I’ve talked about it before, but one of the subtler reasons why Die Hard works so well is the geography of it all. You get to know the layout of Nakatomi Plaza. Careful attention is paid to expressing where McClane is and where Hans and his boys are. Rollerball fucks all of that out of a window. You’d think that they would have done a decent job on one of the only things they kept from the original. Nope. The action’s a joke. I had no idea what was going on during the actual games. Part of it is a complete overuse of shakycam and part of it is just a complete misunderstanding of what makes a scene coherent. It’d be tempting to blame the editors, but I get the feeling McTiernan just didn’t give them enough to work with. I just don’t get how you go from genius level filmmaking to barely keeping the camera in focus. The violence is surprisingly tame. One of the points of Rollerball as a thing is the fact that it’s a bloodsport. It’s harkening back to gladiatorial combat. It shows how desensitised the audience has become to brutality. The film’s a 15, but the action is 12A at the very most. What pushes the film over the ratings edge is a strange preoccupation with female nudity. You can usually have bloody beatdowns, but a bit of nip action is too far. Here it’s the opposite. This is like a nega-film.

I don’t often say this, but Rollerball as a property is worthy of a remake. As I said in my review of the original, the Caan film has been influential and as such has been imitated and bettered by things since. There are some really relevant and intriguing ideas there that could be teased out with the right touch. Some of the best science-fiction films ever have been made in the past 20 years. It’s ripe for someone to come along and just build on the foundations laid back in ’75. However, this Rollerball has no interest in any of that shit. It doesn’t even veer into “so bad it’s good” territory. It’s criminally boring. The point in the film where I was sure that nobody actually cared was an extended chase sequence set at night and filmed in night vision. You can’t tell what the hell is happening and the only reason it seems to be in the film is to hide some shockingly bad CGI. Also, I’m pretty sure the sound guys knew what was up. There’s an unexplained, straight-up cartoon “TWANG!” sound effect when a fence gets broken that was so funny and out of place, I choked on my drink whilst watching.

Rollerball is kind of fascinating. If you have a high threshold for boredom and you want to see what it looks like when nobody involved gives a flying fuck, check it out. If not, I apologise for doing my bit to either inform or remind you that the film exists. Let the sands of time take care of this one.

Take This Waltz

Posted in Review with tags , , , on March 6, 2015 by Ben Browne

I’m working on a bunch of things at the moment, but none of them are postworthy yet. I was looking back over some of my older reviews (occasionally painful, often handy yardsticks) and I realised a) I’ve done a whole lot of reviews that haven’t made their way here and b) It’s a bunch of work I’ve already done just sitting there gathering e-dust. I get to plagiarise myself and I just checked with me, and I’m fine with it. Anyway, in an attempt at review diversity and to prove that I don’t just rag on dumb blockbusters, here’s an indie film that I fucking hated. It was originally posted on Cinehouse, where my work occasionally appears.

Take This Waltz (2012)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz. I only knew her as the lead in Zack Snyder’s surprisingly not crap 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. I haven’t seen her previous film: Away From Her, but by all accounts it’s a powerful and moving piece. I’m always up for a bit of cine-brain food so I sat down and carefully placed the disc in the player. 20 minutes in and I brought up the timer to see how long I had left to go. Not a good sign.

Michelle Williams plays Margot, an aspiring writer who is married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a chef compiling a chicken cookbook. Whilst on an excursion, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby). Sparks fly and there’s an instant mutual attraction. After finding out Daniel lives very close by, Margot’s temptation to stray from her safe, dependable marriage becomes stronger and stronger and the film deals with her being caught between the two men. Whilst it stars some really great actors, I really got a disingenuous feeling from it all. Michelle Williams’ Margot is meant to be quirkier than a hat on a lamb, but ends up coming across as a cynical approximation of a quirky lass. It’s not her fault as I’m sure this is how she was directed. She’s been fantastic in other films. It’s just all so insultingly twee and precious. There’s a scene early on where she and Daniel are both in the back of a cab, blowing some kind of hanging tassel back and forth. I’m sure this is meant to be charming, but I kept thinking “You’re both fucking adults! What the hell!?” I know adults act like childish dicks all the time (I’d like to think I specialise in it), but it just seemed so laboured and staged.

It’s hard to express the sort of reaction I had to this film. For nearly all of the runtime, it’s an indier-than-thou bullshit romance. It’s the sort of film destined to have monochromatic .gifs of key scenes made of it and plastered all over Tumblr. The dialogue is that special breed of pretentious and whimsical, containing “deep” metaphors. In their first proper meeting, Margot confides in Daniel that she’s been fraudulently using airport wheelchair facilities to make sure she doesn’t miss her connecting flights. She confesses she’s afraid of being afraid of missing connections. Overlooking the appalling misuse of disabled facilities, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that this works as a handy plot metaphor too. It’s really not as clever as it thinks it is. As soon as the lines were said, I had flagged them up as narrative signposts, rather than just two people talking. The whole film’s like this and I had a tough time sticking with it.

I think the characters are my main problem. We’re not meant to unequivocally love Margot, but I don’t think you’re meant to dislike her as much as I did. She’s an air-headed, silly little girl who I just didn’t have any time for. Cardboard lothario Daniel, played by Kirby and looking like The Walking Dead‘s Andrew Lincoln run through the “hipster dreamboat” filter a few times, is a struggling bohemian artist type who makes ends meet working as a rickshaw driver around Toronto. If you just let out anything resembling a snort of derision at that character description, this film won’t be for you. Seth Rogen’s Lou is just a nice, average guy and is therefore (intentionally) pretty boring. The only one with some “oomph” about them is Sarah Silverman’s recovering alcoholic Geraldine, who gets a fantastic scene towards the end and gets to say a few things to Margot that I found to be very cathartic.

Look, it isn’t all bad. It’s undeniably a well-made film. Some of the shots and locations are truly beautiful. The film also has quite a candid approach to things which gives an air of reality to proceedings. It’s a compelling illusion until somebody opens their gob and more whimsical crap dollops out. The actors are occasionally allowed to act like real people and Seth Rogen gets some really nice moments. I know I’m not the target demographic for this. There is an audience out there who will love it for what it is- I just don’t want to know them. Had the film stayed on the course it was on for 90% of the total time, it would have been one of the most irritating films I’d ever seen. As it stands, the ending makes up for a bit, but not nearly enough. The very last bit spoils it though. Just even suggesting that Margot can retreat back into her little fantasy land and not learn anything from everything that’s happened was truly maddening.

Take This Waltz is a pretentious, “grass is greener” story that wants to play with romantic conventions, but ends up as an annoying air-headed fantasy with delusions of depth. I’ve only just unclenched my fists to type this review. It pissed me off. Stick that on the DVD cover.

Nightcrawler

Posted in Review with tags , , , on March 5, 2015 by Ben Browne

Raw footage

Nightcrawler (2014)

Hello everyone, my name’s Ben and I’m…(deep breath)…a Gyllenhaalic. I started getting interested in his work around the time Donnie Darko came out. I’d dabbled with Gyllenhaal since then but found I could take or leave it. It’s only in the past few years that it’s got really out of hand. The dude keeps picking interesting and challenging films and turning in awesome performances. Frankly, I’m starting to feel I need a cheeky bit of Gyll to have a good time. It’s got so bad I don’t even have to double check the spelling of his surname any more and I’ll chase after anything that has even the slightest whiff of G about it. You know the really messed up part? I’m not even sure I want to get better. *Drops mic and flips the room off*

Nightcrawler follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) a sleazy man looking for employment. During a night drive, he stumbles across a flaming car wreck, eagerly filmed by cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) and his associate. After a quick questioning, Lou finds out that Loder sells his graphic camera footage to the local news channels for significant sums. Bloom decides that this is the career for him and sets about becoming the scummiest cameraman around. Nightcrawler had me hooked from beginning to end. It’s hard to sum up what it actually is. It’s probably best described as a cynical dark comedy/satire. The plot, good as it is, almost isn’t important. It’s a fascinating character study of Lou Bloom, a clear sociopath, but a completely compelling entity. Part of Bloom’s brilliance is obviously down to the tight scripting and direction, but Gyllenhaal is totally on point. He’s fucking fantastic. Bloom is scary because he’s so believably unthreatening, if that makes sense. He talks with the cool rationale of Patrick Bateman, yet talks in the sort of meaningless execu-speak you’d find on job applications. He’s basically a walking LinkedIn profile and nothing’s more unsettling than that concept. Despite being Gyllenhaal’s film, there is strong support in the form of Rene Russo’s ratings-chasing Nina Romina, Bloom employee Rick (the excellent Four Lions‘ equally excellent Riz Ahmed) and Paxton’s rival nightcrawler.

It’s tempting to talk about Nightcrawler as a satire considering all it has to say about modern news and journalism, but no matter how heartless the decisions made are, it all rings depressingly true. Rene Russo’s character reminded me of Faye Dunaway in Network– same drive, same lack of anything approaching humanity. That’s pretty much the film’s MO though as Bloom walks around like an alien in a human suit. He smiles and exchanges pleasantries with people because he knows he’s supposed to, rather than having it come naturally. There’s also a lot of shit under the surface with him and we only see hints of the much angrier, crazier person underneath. The word anti-hero is bandied around a lot, but I think Lou Bloom is one. If heroes embody all of humanity’s positive traits then Lou is the exact opposite of that. One would think that would make him a villain, and he definitely is one, but I found myself half rooting for the guy. That disturbs me on a bunch of levels. I think it’s because I really didn’t want him to be rewarded for being a moral vacuum. It kept my eyeballs glued to the screen.

Time for one of my trademark WTF comparisons, but Nightcrawler reminded me slightly of Dredd. Y’see I and many other film bores like me bang on about character arcs like they’re going out of fashion (which sadly, isn’t too far from the truth), but like Dredd, Lou Bloom doesn’t have a character arc. He’s the same guy at the start of the film as he is at the end. Sure, stuff has happened to him, but no wisdom has been imparted, no life lessons learned, no new purpose in life, nothing. Again, like Dredd, it’s more about how other factors react to the immovable object, rather than the usual narrative of the object having to learn how to move. If I may drop some Film School 101 shit on you, in the case of a character with no real arc, it’s usually the audience watching in a cinema/at home that undergoes a transformation of sorts. We’re presented with a complete thing and only when the credits roll do we understand the context of said thing. I love stuff like that.

I’ve seen some Dan Gilroy written films before (The Bourne Legacy and Real Steel) and apart from Real Steel, those films can fuck right off. Seems like all Gilroy needed was some freedom to really cut loose. He both writes and directs here and does a stellar job at both. The cinematography is also beautiful with some amazing shots of nighttime L.A. that wouldn’t look out of place in Drive or Collateral. James Newton Howard’s score is all over the damn place and it works. One scene may have a soundtrack that grabs your throat and refuses to let go, whereas another could be scored by something that wouldn’t be amiss in a mid ’90s family-friendly comedy. All of this gives the effect that the film isn’t quite sure how to present Bloom. Is he a cruel joke of a human being, devoid of any morals or is he a heroic underdog? Let me just answer that for you. It’s the first one. However, it muddies up what many would assume are very clear boundaries and that’s disquieting.

I loved Nightcrawler. I saw it earlier in the year and enjoyed it thoroughly, but only on a second viewing could I appreciate how great it is. This review is a double whammy, because not only do I get to talk about something good for a change, but I finally get to talk about Nightcrawler specifically and cross off one of the more pressing titles on the massive Word document containing all the films I haven’t been bothered to write about. Now… *scratches arm awkwardly* anyone got any news on that Southpaw?

Fifty Shades of Grey

Posted in Review with tags , , , on February 20, 2015 by Ben Browne

Dumb as a whip

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

So, in a completely expected turn of events, this film is goddamn everywhere. As with most modern things, even if people weren’t excited for the film, social media had to be told. I’m sure most peoples’ pages were flooded with links to various sites because this particular article found a new way to repeatedly kick something they didn’t like the idea of or plan to see in the first place. It’s been a crazy feedback loop. My biggest problem with it all? I feel I have to defend it on certain counts. There’s a horrible idea that Fifty Shades is shite because it’s a “chick flick”. I’ve heard this repeated time and time again and it needs to stop. Fifty Shades is shite, but it’s because it’s a bad film, not because it’s written and directed by women and targeted at a female audience. There’s also a puritanical section of society that believes that anything more adventurous than shepherd’s pie and missionary is morally wrong, which just ain’t true. There are some completely legitimate concerns about the series’ content out there but I find that most of them fail to hold any real world implications thanks to the juvenile fantasy of it all. Fifty Shades has quite the low-brow caliber to it, starting life as Twilight fan fiction. I mean, Jesus Christ, you can’t get much lower than that.

Filling in for her sick roommate, college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) interviews dapper billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and the pair both become fascinated by each other. After some courtship, Grey soons leads the virginal and naive Ana into his world of whips, chains and ropes. The rub comes when it transpires Ana wants a more usual romantic relationship and Christian wants her to sign a contract that pledges her submission to him. You know a plot’s bad when you can sum it up in a few lines and don’t feel like you’re missing anything important. I actually liked Dakota Johnson in this film. She’s stuck saying awful lines of dialogue, but she manages to humanise Ana just enough to make it work. She’s believable for the most part. Jamie Dornan on the other hand is a blank. Dude’s nigh-on robotic. Had you told me the film was a sci-fi about Ana teaching and rehabilitating a fetish droid and getting him to feel love, I’d have believed you. Don’t steal that idea by the way. I’m trying to create a human centipede of terrible things inspiring each other to see how low we as a species can stoop. The whole thing is just as ridiculous as you’d imagine something with a character unironically named “Anastasia Steele” would be. It’s a story that never evolved past childish wish fulfillment and the fact that it’s so popular with car driving, voting adults concerns me in a whole bunch of ways.

The writing’s the main problem. The dialogue is truly cringeworthy. I realise that it’s based on a godawful book, but for the first half hour or so, it seems like the film is taking the piss out of the source material- understanding the limitations and rolling with it. It was rather refreshing. However, it soon devolves into Very Serious Mode and suddenly all the camp fun is gone and we’re left with boring Ana and boring Christian and their fucking boring problems. It’s like it lost confidence in what it was doing and then just folded, giving the shitmunchers what they wanted instead of speaking several levels above them. Had the film stuck to its guns, I feel I might have been talking about a misunderstood bit of tongue-in-cheekery. But alas, once the film actually gets to the two boning, that’s it. Nothing more of any consequence happens. There are no additional plot threads or interstitial bits to take the focus off Grey and Steele.

It seems to think that the (only slightly) kinky stuff is enough to keep your attention. Ordinarily, this would be fine- it is a masturbatory fantasy after all. The problem is there’s no chemistry between the two whatsoever. In theory, you can see how their different personalities would be brought together but none of that is really on screen. Both Dornan and Johnson are talented actors, so I place the blame on the thinly sketched characters limiting what they can feasibly bring to the table. It all feels like bumping Barbie and Ken dolls together. Everything about it is unbelievably shallow. It’s shot in such a flat, boring way. I hope you like skylines and massive windows, because that and the occasional shot of tits is all you’re getting out of this one. I love the fact that for all the supposedly edgy and risque things the film does it’s still as much of a corporate production as anything else with its merchandise and its inability to tell a properly contained story, choosing to save stuff for sequels. It’s a total advert for itself, with plenty of product placement and a soundtrack that’s forced to be front and centre. There’s a scene scored by a painfully slow version of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love that sounded like what I’d imagine the regular version would sound like after a massive head injury.

I suppose the main question is, is it sexy? Eh, not really. Once you get past the fact that two attractive people are on the screen in various states of undress it becomes run-of-the-mill. There is literally no sex in the film that I haven’t seen done better in other films. You want a proper BDSM experience? Watch 2002’s Secretary, which is not only a much, much better film with an actual heart, but as I understand it, it seems to be the more genuine representation of “the lifestyle”. The story can’t resist making the reason for Christian’s tastes because of some trauma in his life, which is not only insulting to anyone who enjoys that sort of thing, but it’s insulting from an intellectual point of view as well. A better written character would just own that shit, but no, it’s like therapy to him. He’s a broken soul. Pass me a bucket. Oh- and the sequel bait ending can go fuck itself too. A sequel is all but confirmed considering the attention and money this one has garnered, but that is no excuse to just cut and run like the film does.

Fittingly, as with the Twilight cinema experience, there seemed to be just as many people there to take the piss out of it than there were to get lost in the fantasy of it all. For every appreciative “oooh” Christian got when taking his shirt off, there were derisive giggles for every tin-eared exchange. I like that fact that it’s almost like a play or pantomime. I was enjoying the audience participation way more than the actual film. It also disproved the theory that only soft-brained, sexually frustrated housewives were going to see it. The audience was pretty diverse. Even if that was the case, so what? Us manly men have plenty of poisonous brainrot pandering to us, why does every single fucking film with even a slight female slant have to be raked over the coals so viciously in the press and on the street?

As you may have gathered, Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty damn terrible. It starts off alright, but soon becomes the thing we all knew it would be. Dakota Johnson is practically the only saving grace, but the rest of the film is such an almighty mess around her it’s not worth recommending for her performance alone. There are positives, but if anything, they make the film a more frustrating and negative experience as there were a few brief moments where I glimpsed a much better film. Thankfully, with this last line, I’ve commented on what is undoubtedly the filmic talking point right now and I can forget all about this nonsense and go back to my ridiculously long, throbbing list of shit I actually want to talk about.

The Maze Runner

Posted in Review with tags , , , on February 13, 2015 by Ben Browne

Solid franchise legs.

The Maze Runner (2014)

I have a Word document on my computer called “Crap I haven’t been arsed to type up yet” which was starting to get to a worrying length. One of the first entries on there was Young Adult Adaptation #16834-B “Maze Runner, The”. In an effort to prevent the file from getting so large it gains sentience, I decided to tackle it and scratch it off the list. Slight buyer beware on this one. In yet another studio move that teabags the U.K., we get two options when it comes to watching the film. Option A: we can either watch an edited down 12A cut of the film or Option B: we can fuck off. Yep, both the theatrical and home release of the film is the compromised version (EDIT: Since writing this review I’ve learned that there is a 15 rated version of the film available, but it’s an HMV exclusive, which is another practice that can suck all of the dicks.) It’s not the most egregious of examples as there are only about 43 seconds trimmed, but if the uncut versions of films like World War Z and Die Hard 4.0 have taught me anything, it’s that a little can go a long way. As I watched an uncut version, all that changes is that when I say the word “brutal” later on, you’re going to have to mentally edit in the word “fairly” before it if you’re from good ol’ Blighty. Which you probably would anyway, because we’re weirdly uncomfortable with absolute statements without hedging them. Slightly.

The Maze Runner opens on a young man with amnesia (Dylan O’Brien) in a caged box elevator being whisked up to a large patch of woods and grass known as “the Glade”. He soon finds himself surrounded by a group of jeering adolescents and tries to run for it, discovering that the Glade is walled in on all sides by a colossal stone maze. He soon remembers his name is Thomas. Thomas slowly learns about the community he finds himself in, one of the key bits of information being that the maze shuts at night and is populated by mysterious creatures known as “Grievers”. He sets his sights on becoming a “runner”, the only group of people allowed to venture into the maze by day to map the labyrinth and hopefully find a means of escape.

Put simply, The Maze Runner plays out as a mix of The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies. That’s not to say it hasn’t got any original ideas, I’m just describing the general vibe. Lord of the Flies is the strongest comparison, the group dynamic of Maze Runner owing a lot to William Golding. There’s even a chubby one representing innocence, or whatever the fuck I wrote down in that school essay I did. It’s clear that Thomas is different from the usual monthly additions to the group. There’s more than a touch of destiny about him and blah blah blah. What is it with YA novels and destiny? Surely the best lesson to give to young teens is that they can control their own fate, rather than the notion that everything is predetermined and if you don’t feature in some prophecy etched into a wall somewhere you’re boned? Also the whole “memory loss” thing as a plot device can fuck off. Key points of the film rely on Thomas getting flashes of his past, which looks like the same lab that Wolverine was created in. It’s a lazy shortcut and it grates.

I really liked Dylan O’Brien. He plays Thomas with a quiet intensity that really works. This is not the sort of character that sits idly by and it gives us a good driven lead to get behind. Rumours have it that O’Brien is up for the Spider-Man role in the newly rebooted series and I’d be happy with that. Thomas’ arrival changes things and soon the only female Glader, Theresa (Kaya Scodelario), shows up in the box with a note in her hand reading “She’s the last one. Ever”. Maze Runner avoids the beartrap of having the sole female involved in some sort of love triangle, thankfully. The flip side of this is that she’s not given much else to do. She kind of fades into the background, which is a shame. Also worthy of mention is Son of Rambow‘s Will Poulter as the sort-of antagonist Gally. Unlike most jerks, you can understand where he’s coming from. The status quo has been nothing but fucked since Thomas arrived and it’s easy to see how he’d take umbrage to someone who disturbed the tenuous tranquility of Glade life. Thomas Brodie-Sangster does well as Newt. Newt is a thankless “feed exposition to the hero” role, but Brodie-Sangster takes a boring, functional character and makes him interesting.

The Maze Runner has a decent, intriguing concept. Having not read the books, I wanted to know about the maze, the Grievers and who or what put the Gladers there in the first place. The various reveals and revelations reminded me of the first series of Lost, with all of its compelling mysteries upon mysteries. I understand this is on the lower end of the budget spectrum as it cost about half of what the first Hunger Games did, but the film manages some decent effects and a great sense of scale with the various areas of the huge maze. Maybe it was these two elements that gave the whole thing a bit of a TV feel. In this day and age, that is no bad thing, but something about it just didn’t sell it as particularly cinematic. Not a huge deal as I’ve watched and loved things that were more crappily made than this, just felt it was worth mentioning. The film manages some exciting sequences and some of the Glader deaths are brutal. The maze action especially feels genuinely perilous knowing that the film isn’t pulling punches when it comes to which characters go and stay. I think the script could have done with a lighter touch though. The film can feel joyless at times and it makes all the bleak dialogue seem a little robotic. Sure, it’s not meant to be a trip to Rainbow Town, but touches of humour can really add to rug-pull character deaths and the like.

I liked The Maze Runner. It’s a decent enough start to a franchise that I’m actually looking forward to seeing more of. The sequel bait ending can feel a little unsatisfying, but it’s not a huge deal. It’s a solid film with decent ideas. The sequel has real potential and if delivered on, could be a whole new kind of experience. Recommended.

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