Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Marvel, Review with tags , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

Signed, Shield, Delivered.
 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Vaguely controversial opinion time. Captain America is my favourite Avenger. The first Captain America film is also my personal favourite of Marvel’s Phase One. It spent more time and energy building its characters than any of the others in the Marvel stable. It’s proper structured storytelling with an understanding of motivation, theming and all of that other nerdy jazz than I can’t seem to stop banging on about. It’s hardly perfect though. Unfortunately, it proceeds to shite itself inside out in the last third of the film, not quite knowing what to do after skinny Steve becomes Cap in action as well as physique. However, I’d rather have two thirds of solid experience than an entirety of generic one (cough)IronMan2(cough). That being said, I had my reservations about The Winter Soldier. It’s based on a great story, but written by the people responsible for the underwhelming Thor: The Dark World and directed by some TV directors who happen to have directed the chore of the film that was You, Me and Dupree. Thankfully, I needn’t have worried.

“Most of the intelligence community doesn’t believe he exists. The ones that do call him the Winter Soldier. He’s a ghost, you’ll never find him.

The Winter Soldier focuses on Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans). He’s joined by Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the pair, under the direction of the cycloptic Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), are protecting S.H.I.E.L.D.’s interests home and abroad. Rogers, however, finds little fulfilment in being used as Fury’s personal attack dog and is still trying to figure out the modern world and his place within it. He meets up with war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) who has undergone a similar state of mind, not quite knowing how to adapt when the orders stop coming. We’re also introduced to Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) who is right behind S.H.I.E.L.D.’s controversial plans to monitor the global population and take out potential threats. Concerned that something may be rotten at S.H.I.E.L.D. after an attempt on Fury’s life, Cap investigates with Fury’s warning not to trust anyone ringing in his ears. On top of all this, there’s a mysterious metal-armed super badass roaming about known only as The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) causing all kinds of death and destruction. Phew. Longest plot recap ever. The story’s solid, giving us a spy thriller mixed with the standard superheroics we’re all used to seeing by now. I think the Captain America series is probably Marvel’s most experimental franchise as the first one was unapologetically a sepia-toned period piece whereas this one feels like a gritty ’70s spy epic, with the casting of Robert Redford a major clue as to what they’re shooting for. Whereas The Dark World may have left people questioning whether the superhero bubble had burst and feeling comic book fatigue, The Winter Soldier proves that if you’re smart about it, you can take on any genre and run it through the superhero filter and it’ll work. There are nice character moments and the clash of Cap’s yesteryear idealism with Fury’s post Edward Snowden/Wikileaks attitude is interesting.

The whole cast are good. Evans has refined his Steve Rogers schtick. He’s not as wide-eyed and innocent as he once was, but at the core, he’s still the same old idealistic Steve. Scarlett Johansson gets to go deeper into exactly who Romanoff is and relishes the opportunity. I have to say that I felt she was a little flat not really selling the character’s quippy nature, but that could just be her decision to make Natasha a disconnected, jaded type. Anthony Mackie is all sorts of fun as Falcon, giving Cap a proper verbal sparring partner as well as a brother in arms. Robert Redford also allows the film a sense of gravitas that it would have missed otherwise. Samuel L. Jackson. That’s all I need to say about him. Sebastian Stan gives us a good brooding Winter Soldier, but I could have done with a little more time with the character.

OK, the good stuff. There’s a lot of it. It whips along at a decent pace and has just as much time for the smaller interactions as it does for the expensive set pieces. Instead of vague “save the world” stakes (although there is some of that in there), it feels like a personal Cap story. I still love these characters and the new additions are perfectly fine in my book. I certainly hope we get to see more of Falcon and Steve’s flirty relationship with his neighbour. The action scenes are a lot of fun too. There’s an elevator fight and a very Heat inspired daylight shootout that are definitely big highlights. The writing’s more on point that it was in The Dark World and there are some really fantastic concepts being played with coupled with quotable quips and gags. Steve has lost his faith in government and authority and is questioning his orders for the first time. You know something’s up when the walking posterboy for following the rules and eating your greens starts becoming disaffected. It actually has something to say about the modern world and takes more of a stance on the military secrets/ constant surveillance issue than the wishy-washy wank that was The Fifth Estate, a film purportedly solely about all of that stuff. Add all of this up and it’s exactly the sort of thing I want from a Captain America film. Plus, at no point do the wheels fall off and they forget to tell a story, like in the first one. Big bonus points there.

My only criticism is that I wanted to see more of The Winter Soldier. Although it’s not exactly the best-kept secret out there, I will invisotext this next bit as it concerns the Winter Soldier’s identity an’ shit. (Highlight to read) So, Ol’ Winty is Cap’s thought-dead best pal Bucky Barnes (the one that fell off a speeding train in the first one?), brainwashed, mechanised and working for the Russians. I felt that there was so much going on, it didn’t really give the whole Steve/Bucky drama enough room to breathe. It felt a bit rushed to me and despite the long running time, I would have welcomed a few more scenes dealing with the whole thing.

“S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be!”

So, The Winter Soldier is a damn good film and I’m so pleased to be able to say that. It’s a solid film that I think will only improve on repeated viewings. Bear in mind that there are not one, but two, post-credits scenes to look out for, so bring a catheter and a pissbag if you’re planning on downing your usual vat of soda like I usually do.

The Lego Movie

Posted in Review with tags , , , , on February 8, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Everything is awesome!
 

The Lego Movie (2014)

The Lego Movie is one of those concepts that sounds ludicrously shitty and calculated. It takes a well-loved toy with no proper story or defined characters of its own, makes a feature-length adventure packed with celebrity voices and promotes and merchandises the crap out of it and all its other product lines. However, the buzz on it has been overwhelmingly positive. Like, this thing is getting Pixar level scores. So, when given the opportunity to catch a preview screening, I jumped at the chance. Y’know what? It’s exactly as great as people have been saying.

“Come with me if you want to not die.”

The Lego Movie focuses on average construction worker Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) who soon gets a break from his normal working life when he gets sucked in to a world of free creativity and prophecy when he stumbles across the fabled “Piece of Resistance”. He meets master builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and supposedly wise wizard Vetruvius (Morgan Freeman) and the trio, along with the help of Batman (Will Arnett) endevour to stop Lord Business (Will Ferrell) using a deadly weapon called the “Kragle” on all of Legodom. That may sound insanely generic, but as the name “Lord Business” may indicate, it’s actually more of a sideways look at genre conventions. It’s smart as anything, but never tips the balance into winking at the audience every 5 seconds. The main plot draws deliberate parallels with something like The Matrix and it really works. All of the cast are great. Chris Pratt is mostly known for playing a wide-eyed puppy dog of a man and uses that to great effect as Emmet, Elizabeth Banks has fun as Wyldstyle, Morgan Freeman is predictably brilliant and Will Arnett makes a fantastic Batman. Comedic TV greats like Nick Offerman, Charlie Day and Alison Brie do fantastic jobs and there’s an inspired bit of casting in the form of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as Superman and Green Lantern. Will Ferrell and Liam Neeson are genuinely funny too. All of the cast give the film an infectious sense of energy and it’s nigh-on impossible not to feel part of the fun.

If you’ve been on the internet for more than a few days, you’ll have likely seen a stop-motion Lego video parodying a big film or set to a comedy routine. The Lego Movie, whilst not strictly stop motion, has clearly taken influences from these and makes the characters look solid and played with, which gives the whole thing a certain charm. Elements, like water, fire and smoke are all made from Lego pieces and it’s hard not to laugh along with the film. Instead of being a tiresome plug for yet another one of the company’s licensed toy lines, it’s a genuine thrill when recognisable characters from franchises like Star Wars, TMNT, Lord of the RingsThe Simpsons and even Speed Racer show up for a quick cameo role. Sure, it is promoting the various figures at the end of the day, but it’s so well done, you won’t care in the slightest.

The whole film is a love letter to Lego, as one may expect. However, it’s an intelligent take on how people actually play with the bricks. Emmet lives in a world literally built on instructions. Everything is exact and normalised. Wyldstyle shows up and we are plunged into a world of unfettered creativity featuring weird and wonderful characters and places made out of mismatched pieces. Lord Business intends to make sure that everything in uniform, but our heroic rebels are fighting against him and the suppression of imagination. I’m genuinely surprised that writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were allowed to do something this clever without corporate bigwigs stepping in and insisting it be dumbed down for the kiddies. The third act is especially brave, but works beautifully.

It’s tempting not to say it, because of the crappy pun lurking within, but there are no other words for it. The Lego Movie is an incredibly well-constructed film. The storytelling is spot-on. This may not seem like a huge revelation, but you’d be surprised at the number of films (not just kids’ movies) that fall foul of basic storytelling. We get to know the characters, their motivations and their personalities. They feel like living, breathing people despite being made out of plastic. The film is even confident enough to have fun with several things. Morgan Freeman’s casting as a wise man who actually isn’t that wise is a masterstroke. Will Arnett’s Batman contains several jabs at how dark and joyless the representation of the character has become. It completely nails what it wants to do and it’s a joyful experience.

If you’ve ever played a Lego videogame like Lego Star Wars, you’ll know how charming and winning the humour can be. Luckily, the movie also has these things in spades. The film is fast and funny throughout its runtime. Whilst some of the dialogue and jokes fall a little flat to adult ears, the kids in my screening loved them. Even when the film isn’t being particularly amusing speech-wise, the screen is packed with visual gags to keep you smiling. Tell you what, by the end, my face hurt from smiling so much. This is exactly how kids’ films should be. I walked out thoroughly entertained. As I left the screening, I noticed that all parents and children alike had the same expression on their faces to match my own. That’s when you know you’ve just seen something special.

I can’t think of much wrong with the film. The only reason that it doesn’t get a full five stars is that I could have done with the spoken gags be just a little funnier. Don’t get me wrong, there are some cracking jokes contained within, it’s just that it doesn’t quite reach the level of the all time classics like the Pixar back catalogue or some of the Dreamworks oeuvre. I was left wanting a bit more time with some of the recognisable characters, but will admit that may have over-egged the pudding. Here’s hoping some Marvel minifigures show up in the sequel.

“Batman, could you make one of these in orange?”

“I only work in black. And sometimes, very, very dark grey.”

Having said that, I truly believe that this film is this generation’s Toy Story. Whilst not as groundbreaking in terms of technology, it’s got the same quality and heartfelt goodness oozing through its pores. This isn’t just a glorified advert, it’s a refreshingly great film that happens to use an existing product as its medium. It’s a reflection of our pop-culture driven society and goes much deeper than you’d expect, going so far as to examine the whole concept of creativity, individuality and play. It’s so good, it makes me angry that more kiddie films aren’t like it as it completely shows up the inherent laziness and cynicism of the normal child-centric offerings. I can’t imagine many people walking out of The Lego Movie disappointed, even after all the insane hype and the glowing reviews, including this one. It didn’t need to be this good, as the Lego name and the blanket advertising would have ensured a healthy box office return, but I’m very glad it is.

Riddick

Posted in Review with tags , , , on February 7, 2014 by Ben Browne

 

Everyone’s a criddick
 

Riddick (2013)

Yeah, I know. There’s a bunch of “important” films out at the moment and I’m reviewing some lunkhead sci-fi thing from last year. Well, here’s the thing, I’m not exactly paid millions for this gig. In fact, I’m not paid at all, so going to see every film that has had award gold mentioned anywhere near it would be insanely costly. Plus, I’m probably one of the only people outside of Vin Diesel who actually likes the Riddick saga and wanted to see where it went next. So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don’t push me and I won’t push you.

“Somewhere along the way, I lost a step. I got sloppy. Dulled my own edge. Maybe I went and did the worst crime of all. I got civilized.”

Betrayed by the Necromongers, Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel) is left for dead on a desert planet. After a while, Riddick forms an escape plan and finds a way to alert some bounty hunters to his location, all of them hoping to collect the big fat price on his head. The motley crews that show up include your standard violent mercenary types and a man with a personal beef to settle with Riddick. The basic film is solid, although clunkily adheres to the three act structure with audible crunches whenever the film changes gear. I’ll watch Vin Diesel in most things. He’s a fun watch and is notoriously geeky underneath all his dudebro cred. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. None of them are particularly bad, it’s just that there’s not enough personality to go round and a lot of them fade into the background. Jordi Mollà pops up as Santana, a grizzled mercenary who likes big knives and non-consensual fun. Matt Nable plays Johns Snr. a man related to the Johns in the original Pitch Black. Katee Sackhoff is decent in the role of tough merc Dahl and Dave Bautista shows he’s got some presence to him outside of his hulking appearance and can surprisingly sell some comedic moments, making me anticipate his role in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy even more. Also Karl Urban shows up wearing way too much makeup.

Riddick is ludicrous, corny sci-fi, but that’s what the series has been since Chronicles of Riddick. It’s an ’80s throwback, full of over-the-top action and slow-motion leaps through the air. If you can’t get on board with that, then Riddick won’t be for you. Don’t go in expecting a modern, flawed character. Riddick is an invincible badass. This is a film series that has names like “Crematoria” for a burning planet, “Furyans” as a race of warrior people and mentions of an “Underverse”. We’re not talking about highbrow sci-fi here. Riddick has a CGI dog sidekick, for instance. It’s Mad Max, Aliens and a fuckton of other films thrown into a blender- and that’s no bad thing. The first half of the film is the best, showing Riddick surviving the planet’s various hostile wildlife in near silence, with only occasional bassy voiceovers to fill in the gaps. It proves that a) Riddick is a decent character and b) Vin Diesel is charismatic and fun enough in the role to carry of the Wall-E style opening. The second act is Riddick acting all mysterious, evading capture and picking off faceless mercenaries one by one. It’s not without its charms, but it falls flat after following the strangely brave first part.

The third act of film is basically an extended tribute to Pitch Black. Sequels are usually overreactions to the perceived flaws of the previous film, so Riddick bypasses Chronicles almost entirely and focuses on its franchise spawner. This would be fine, but the script is clunky as hell, so instead of having thematic links to the original, it’s pretty much the same film. Riddick’s chained up, it’s dark and wet outside and there are vicious aliens wanting to kill folk. It’s here that the wheels start to fall off. I’ve already seen Pitch Black, I don’t need to see it again with slightly better effects. It all builds to an ending that comes out of nowhere and makes no damn sense by any stretch of the imagination. It’s genuinely jarring and baffling. Characters just act in a contrived way just so we have a vaguely happy ending, ignoring any kind of motivation or personality they had up to that point. Director and writer David Twohy needs to have his wrists slapped for that one.

As is often the case with this sort of film, the main token female character is indicative of the film’s problems as a whole. I think Sackhoff does well considering, but there’s something really off about the writing when it comes to her and how others react to her. Dahl is a tough female merc who owes a lot to Aliens‘ Vasquez. As the only female, she has a gratuitous shower scene, has to fend off rape and is apparently a lesbian. However, Riddick thinks he can change that. Chained up, he growls about his intentions to kill a dude before saying he’ll be “balls deep” in Dahl by the end, after she asks him all “sweet-like”. This is meant to be badass, but falls extremely flat. I mean the notion that you can heterosex a lesbian straight is pretty fucking disgusting and having it appear in a 2013 film is just wrong. I know it’s a throwback flick, but that attitude reminds me of the Connery Bonds. Y’know, the era when he seduces the “immune” Pussy Galore and tells a native islander to fetch his shoes. The fact that this actually comes to pass is the worst thing. They could have done something subversive with it, but nope- she literally asks him all “sweet-like”. Goddamn. As I said, the ending is a bathtub of weaksauce, but that element to it is the most obnoxious.

“So what is the best way to a man’s heart?”

“Between the fourth and fifth rib. That’s where I usually go. I’ll put a twist at the end if I wanna make sure.”

So, apart from a poor show feminism-wise, Riddick is actually a decent watch. I enjoyed it for what it was. There have been a bunch of reviews calling it stupid and corny, but I think they’re missing the whole appeal of the series. I’ve got a soft spot for less than stellar sci-fi.To be honest, I’m actually looking forward to the teased sequel. If they keep the OTT violence and sci-fi sensibilities, we could be in for a fun ride. Let’s just work on the women this time round, eh?

Photoshop ‘Til You Drop: The Decline of the Movie Poster

Posted in Soapbox with tags , on February 5, 2014 by Ben Browne

I’ve wanted to write a piece about film posters for a while. I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that these days they mostly fall under the “Photoshopped Nightmare” category. As I’m the sort of adult who hangs these things on my wall and then wonders why the girls aren’t calling, it’s really disappointing that they’re mostly fucking awful. I’m not going to do a post about the tropes etc. because people have done that shit way too many times over recent years, plus if you’ve set foot in a cinema’s auditorium recently, you’re already well aware of them.

When it comes to blaming someone, people bark up the wrong tree. As is often the case, studios are to blame, not the designers. Check out this informative post that describes some of the constraints put on these people. Fair enough, it’s their actual job to respond to a remit and graphic designers are usually insanely put-upon to try and re-create some uncreative arsehole’s vague vision, but it still seems like a lot to deal with. Plus, the system in place seems directly opposed to any kind of creativity and almost custom built to produce the same grey glurge time and time again.

Much like everything else in the filmmaking process, posters are often focus grouped to death, which is a huge reason why everything looks the fucking same. Here’s the dirty secret about focus groups- they’re not the be-all and end-all. There’s years of documented problems with using focus groups, but they’re still used heavily and their findings are taken as gospel. If you haven’t seen Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “State of Cinema” speech, I suggest you get on that. In it, he mentions the flaws of the testing system and how it affects everything to do with a movie’s release, including the poster. The thing is, people nearly always want what they’ve seen before. There’s the uber famous Henry Ford quote that springs to mind when he talked about this new fangled motor car he’d produced: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” It’s exactly the same here.

So, the thing that made me think about this all again is that particular Black Widow poster at the top of all this. If you can’t see what’s wrong with it, you need to go outside and see what a real woman looks like (or simply look down if you happen to be a woman, obviously). The proportions are preposterous. At this point, you may be thinking “Sure, but this is just the standard Photoshop problem that plagues magazine covers and the like- nothing new here.” Well, how come both the Cap and Nick Fury posters released at the same time and done by the same people don’t look as freakish? Well, we all know the reason why, don’t we? Women are often portrayed as purely sexual objects and fetishised to a ridiculous degree.  That particular Black Widow poster is made to appeal to the mouth-breathing teenage boy demographic who have no idea what an actual woman looks like and have brought themselves up on twisted pornographic caricatures of women thanks to the plethora of porn sites, video games and comic books that they indulge in. The fact that they felt they needed to give Scarlett Johansson, an almost painfully beautiful woman to begin with, a smaller waist, pixel perfect hair and zipper-busting tits is insane and speaks of problems way bigger than the simple marketing of a movie.

So why am I getting bent out of shape? Surely it’s the film that matters? Well, yeah, but movie posters are a grand tradition. Sure, the release of a poster seems more like an obligation on the studios’ part, but it still exists. The Internet and TV ads are presumably much more effective marketing tools but the poster is still hanging on in there. Shit, you need something to slap up on billboards and bus stops. To me, they represent a lot. As part of my work on this site, I have to find a corresponding poster to head my reviews and they nearly always suck. I remember seeing exciting posters for future films as a kid and just being drawn to them like a gormless moth. My parents used to hate taking me to the cinema because when it came time to leave, I would always lag behind and gawp at the colourful posters on display. In some cases, the film’s art is intrinsically linked to what I picture when I think of the film itself. Marty looking shocked at his watch whilst stepping out of his DeLorean perfectly encapsulates Back to the Future in a single image.The massive shark head coming up out of the depths to munch on a swimmer is Jaws to me. There’s no poster that I can think of it recent years that has made me want to rush out, buy it, frame it and hang it on my wall.

Surely the popularity of the Mondo posters and the minimalist designs shared on places like Tumblr and DeviantArt indicate that there is a market for interesting art out there? One of my favourite recent pieces is the IMAX exclusive poster for Iron Man 3 that I got from a screening, seen below. Sure, I understand why it wasn’t used for general release because it doesn’t really tell you anything about the film or feature ticket-seller Robert Downey Jr’s face or name, but shit, it’s leagues ahead of the theatrical poster where it looks like Gwyneth Paltrow has a broken neck.

DVD/Blu-ray cover art is normally even worse. Sometimes they won’t even use their shitty theatrical art and knock together an even shittier image for the cover. As a film collector with a weird obsession with aesthetics, it really bugs me. It’s one of the main reasons I buy the increasingly popular steelbook editions of films as the cover art is usually far superior to, and way more interesting than, the normal release because it doesn’t have to cater to the sort of people who impulse buy because the cover looks like something they’ve seen before.

So what’s the solution? I have no real idea. I don’t work in the industry. However, I will ask a few questions. As film posters aren’t the most important or effective thing in a film’s promotional campaign, why can’t they be a bit more experimental? Surely now’s the time to do it as nearly every poster looks exactly the fucking same? It doesn’t make any sense to me. They’ve got fuck all to lose and a bunch of things to gain.

Groundhog Day

Posted in Review with tags , , , on February 2, 2014 by Ben Browne
It’s a doozy.

Groundhog Day (1993)

It’s February 2nd! I felt like reviewing something fitting and as there’s no film entitled Piss Wet Miserable Grey Existence as of yet, I settled on Groundhog Day. The film is an undeniable modern classic and has entered popular culture like some awesome simile I can’t think of right now. It’s also one of my favourite films (I know I seem to say this a lot, but it’s a long damn list, OK?). So what makes it so fucking special? Well, stow the attitude and the pottymouth and I’ll try to explain.

“I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters.*That* was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get *that* day over, and over, and over?”

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV weatherman assigned to cover the Groundhog festival in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Along with new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) he begrudgingly travels to the town, where he finds that once the day is over, it restarts, leaving everyone but Phil completely oblivious to what has happened. Phil ends up stuck in a time loop, re-living the same day over and over and over with no end in sight. The concept is so famous, the term “groundhog day” has come to mean repeating the same things again and again. The whole film is basically a showcase for Bill Murray and he’s more than up for the task. It’s one of his all-time great roles, playing to his strengths but also giving him plenty to work with. He starts off in his comfort zone, in full sardonic mode but soon starts changing into a character you genuinely feel for, rather than just revelling in his cool jerkyness. I’ll get back to Andie MacDowell in a minute (ooh, ominous!). I think Chris Elliot is often overlooked as Larry, but the script allows him some nice moments and he does well with what he’s given. Stephen Tobolowsky also makes several scene-stealing appearances as Ned Ryerson, an insurance salesman who may be the most irritating man in the world.

It’s incredibly frustrating when a film has an awesome concept and doesn’t fully explore it or go anywhere fun with it. Groundhog Day is not one of those films. In fact, it’s the complete polar opposite. It takes its central conceit and runs with it, giving us a full gamut of interesting takes on what life would be like if we lived in a consequence-free world. The film is open to all sorts of interpretations, with theories ranging from religious allegory, a take on reincarnation and metaphysics, a metaphor for depression- all the way up to representing the five stages of grief. Crucially, the film never explains why Phil is living the same day repeatedly, which I think is a masterstroke. If the film would have been made today for modern dumbuses, there’d be a temptation to over-explain to avoid twats on the internet pointing out non-existent “plot holes” and they’d have cobbled together some bullshit “temporal loop ’cause of stuff” reason which would have hurt the film considerably. The point being is that despite this being a high-profile, decently budgeted big studio comedy back in the day, it inflamed the imagination. It made people ask themselves questions and think about some pretty out there existential stuff. Imagine that – a popular comedy that went deeper than yelling inappropriate things and broad-as-anything slapstick. Fuck.

I’m in love with the script for this film. The story is great and the dialogue is sharp and witty. It’s also structured incredibly well, the gag rate for the first half is fast and furious, but eventually winds down as Phil finds himself sinking into a detached depression, before picking up again as he focuses on self-improvement. It’s obviously more fun to watch Murray deadpan a few one-liners, break laws, con his way into a woman’s knickers and stuff cakes into his mouth with reckless abandon, but the slow evolution of the character is well-charted and subtly done. When sentiment and romance enter the fray it feels completely earned. The film isn’t afraid to explore some of the darker bits of humour either. Phil’s repeated suicides are blackly comic. The one scene I always remember is him coming down the stairs, dishevelled and not properly dressed, picking up a toaster and plodding back upstairs, getting in a full bath and dropping it in, not even bothering to remove the toast, and all whilst maintaining complete silence and a thousand-yard stare. It’s brilliant.

So, Andie MacDowell. I don’t want to come across as mean as I’m sure she’s lovely in person, but she is one of my only problems with the film. It’s not a necessarily a bad turn and it’s not even her worst performance, but there’s something incredibly flat about Rita. The character of Rita is completely integral to the story. She’s why Phil initially sinks into suicidal depression and then eventually the reason why he works on becoming a better person. She should be something really special. We need to fall in love with her too. On paper, it’s easy to see why Rita is interesting. Thanks to Phil’s repeated encounters and dates with her, we glean a lot about her life, her aspirations and her personality in general. She’s a fully realised character, but MacDowell just can’t sell it. There seems to be an emphasis on how quirky she is, initially to contrast with with Phil’s jaded disposition, but it just doesn’t work. Luckily, everything is so strong around her, it manages to make up for a lot.

“This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”

Groundhog Day is a pitch-perfect comedy. It does practically everything right. It’s got a powerhouse performance by Murray and manages to broach big life questions and have a believable love story without being preachy or mawkish. Best thing about it is that it totally rewards repeat viewings too. It’s one of those films that I’ll put on if I’m in a shitty mood and find myself laughing all over again as well as feeling generally uplifted. Never has the phrase “timeless classic” been more appropriate.

Man of Steel (Redux)

Posted in D.C., Redux with tags , , , , on January 20, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Kryposhite
 

Man of Steel (2013) (Redux)

I’ve talked about Man of Steel quite a bit since it came out. It’s certainly one of the more polarising films of last year. Well, the dust has settled and I felt it was worth another look. Would the fact that my expectations have been tempered actually allow me to concentrate on what the film brings to the table rather than what it doesn’t? I’m completely torn on how to do re-tackle this one. I tried watching the film like I’d never heard of Superman before and had mixed results. Super-spoilers by the way. Don’t read if you haven’t checked out the film and intend to.

“How do you find someone who has spent a lifetime covering his tracks? You start with the urban legends that have sprung up in his wake. All of the friends of a friend who claimed to have seen him. For some, he was a guardian angel. For others, a cipher; a ghost who never quite fit in. As you work your way back in time, the stories begin to form a pattern.”

Very short plot summary. Sent from the doomed planet of Krypton, an alien child by the name of Kal-El lands on Earth and is adopted by Kansas farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). They name him Clark. The child grows up with superhuman powers and struggles to control them. Flash forward and the now adult Clark (Henry Cavill) is trying to live a quiet life, but has become a bit of an urban legend due to his compulsion to save people with his special abilities. After saving her life, he’s hounded by investigative reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Things get much worse when the warmongering General Zod (Michael Shannon) escapes from imprisonment and threatens to destroy Earth unless Kal-El reveals himself and surrenders to him.

I really tried to get my knowledge of the character out of my head. This was a new superhero as far as I was concerned. The problem is that the film is relying on some familiarity to carry you through. Clark/Kal doesn’t really have a personality and therefore is a blank slate we have to project onto. What are his motivations? What does he want out of life? He certainly doesn’t have a character arc. He wants to save and protect people as a youth and continues to do so until the end of the film. Fine, he’s Superman Powered Flying Man after all- but he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t change during the events of the film. A character can totally work without any big emotional journey. Probably the best example I can think of is Judge Dredd in Dredd, but in Dredd’s case, that was the whole point. When it comes to Man of Steel, Clark is meant to be conflicted, having two incompatible ideologies from his two different Robin Hood dads duking it out in his brain. He’ll say he’s conflicted, but he doesn’t act it. Even using the film’s own logic it doesn’t work. Clark can’t help but save people and has a compulsion to do so – fine. However, the big city punch up at the end shows no effort to save anyone, apart from a few in the train station (you bet your fucking arse I’m going to come back to that scene). A little character care could have gone a long way. The film could have even kept its 9/11 allegorical ending if it wanted, but imagine how tense it would have been if Clark is punching the crap out of Zod just to put him down long enough to go and rescue people in peril/caught in the collapsing buildings/whatever. It’d be like spinning plates. He saves people from a burning building and has just managed to put them safely on the ground before WHAM! Zod slams into him at a terrifying speed, tackling him and sending the pair of them a mile away, fighting in a whole new part of the city.

The first 20 minutes of the film show a complete lack of restraint. The opening is just disjointed action, filled with noise, explosions and stuff. It’s basically the “Bayhem” Michael Bay is often criticised for. We have an action packed opening on Krypton. We then cut to bearded Clark on a boat which spots a burning oil rig. More extended action. There isn’t time to digest any of this. There’s little breathing room – it’s just an assault on the senses. After Clark saves people on the rig, he’s knocked into the ocean. To me, this little bit sums up Zack Snyder at his worst. It’s a nice, big, empty shot but Snyder fills it with two CGI whales for some on-the-nose reason for Clark to have yet another flashback to his schooldays. Somebody needs to slap Snyder’s hands away from the storyboards on occasion, because when he’s unleashed he creates an OTT shitstorm like Sucker Punch. Writer David S. Goyer and his infamous “Goyerlogue” also proves that he needs one or both Nolans to rein him in before he makes the Most Serious Film Ever and becomes a depressing singularity, sucking in joy and natural sounding dialogue with him and blinking them out of existence. There’s too much exposition and too many moments of a character saying “I’m sad/conflicted” without ever showing us.

I think one of the reasons it’s so hard to nail down Clark as a character is the film is almost embarrassed to be an origin story. I does everything it can to disguise the fact with the multiple flashbacks and the like. Listen, I’m wary of origin stories and I’m sick of reboots, but that’s because they usually fall into the same traps time after time, not because of the very fact that they’re retelling the same story. Batman Begins was refreshing because it was finally a decent take on the Dark Knight’s origins and removed all that crappy “Joker killed the Waynes” shit from the filmic canon. Origin stories aren’t inherently bad. Dressing shit up and pretending you’re not starting afresh is dumb. Own that shit. If you have to reboot a franchise, make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. Telling a linear story from when Kal crash lands in Kansas wouldn’t be the worst thing. We could still have all the well-done school stuff, but there would be more connective tissue, some flow to it all and, most importantly, a stronger sense of character.

Look, I get that this isn’t the Superman I watched in the animated series. I understand that. My issue is that this barely seems like Superman at all. Sure, he’s got the powers an’ shit, but where’s the crucial humanity to him? It has to be said that one of the most important characters in Superman lore, Jonathan Kent, has been royally fucked up. He’s a goddamn sociopath, When a young Clark asks, somewhat rhetorically, whether he should have let a schoolbus of his classmates die just so his identity is kept secret, there’s a short pause and Pa Kent says “…Maybe.” OK, he doesn’t have the answers, but what an odd lesson to teach a child. In common Superman lore, one of the saddest moments is when Pa Kent dies of a heart attack. Why? Because it’s the one thing Superman can’t stop. He can fly at supersonic speeds and punch clean through mountains but he can’t stop his loved ones from dying. It’s the total embodiment of mortality and the cruel chaotic way nature works. In Man of Steel, we have an unnecessary tornado sequence where Pa Kent goes back to his car to save the family dog and gets caught up in the storm. He purposefully stops Clark from saving him as some sort of grim ultimate proof that Clark should take his shoe-shittingly mental lessons about secrecy to heart. It’s really stupid and completely undermines the character, at least from my point of view. It’s a shame because I think Costner does a great job as Jonathan and given the right material could have been the ultimate father figure.

Lois Lane is another wasted opportunity. Amy Adams is usually the best thing in anything she’s in. Lois Lane is a tough character to get right, but one that Adams is more than capable of nailing. Lane starts off all promising an’ shit (she gets a sweet line about military “dick measuring”) but the film loses interest in her and she ends up just being there. When the Kryptonians take Clark on board, they also state they want a human, so Lois accepts. Why do they want a human? For collateral? Wasn’t the deal “give up Superman and we won’t blow you up”? OK, they were going to go back on that anyway, but surely they wanted people to think they were holding up their end of the bargain. It’s not explained and smacks of contrivance. The romance between Lois and Clark is rushed as hell and completely perfunctory. There’s no meat to it at all. It’s there purely because of audience expectation. It’s pandering bullshit.

Shannon’s Zod is a weird one. I like his angry take on the character, but like Clark, his motivations are muddled. It’s only just before their final battle that we learn that Zod was genetically engineered to protect Krypton’s interests. He can’t help the way he’s acting. It’s a decent idea and actually makes you feel empathy for him, but the revelation is so oddly timed. Why all of this now, just as Superman’s about to beat the super-shit out of him? This coming to light at an earlier point in the film would have fleshed out his character considerably.

It’s frustrating because there some really decent elements and cool “bits” in play. The performances are all solid, especially Cavill, Adams, Shannon and Crowe who all bring their “A” games. The action beats are all exciting and give us the kind of superhuman megafights we haven’t seen before, especially in a Superman film. The scene where Clark, suited up in the iconic red and blue, learns to fly for the first time is joyful. The bit where Jor-El tells Clark the history of Krypton through the medium of an animated metallic mural is awesome. Lois being let in at the ground floor when it comes to knowing Superman’s identity is a smart move (although I get the feeling it was only included to sidestep the shit and insight-free “Clark’s disguise is rubbish, it’s clearly Superman in glasses” schtick). Superman’s final reveal being tied into humanity’s first contact with aliens. It’s all good stuff. There’s a really smart take on the whole Superman thing in here somewhere, buried underneath the origin embarrassment and leaden writing.

So, the big controversial ending. Superman breaks Zod’s neck. He just fuckin’ kills the guy. To be honest, I don’t really have a problem with this. It makes sense. He was backed into a corner and Clark had no real other option. Zod wins in the way that Kevin Spacey’s John Doe “won” in Se7en. It’s a dark ending. If you needed proof that the film was relying on previous knowledge of the main character, this should be it. It assumes you know Superman doesn’t kill people. It’s never addressed in the film. Afterwards Clark is torn up about it, screaming in anguish. It’s powerful stuff. If they use this as a way of cementing his moral standpoint in future adventures and having Clark vow to never kill again, then it’s worth it. The film can’t help but ruin this moment by tacking on some bullshit scene about drones (ooh, topical!) and a female military captain finding him “hot”.

“Hi, Lois Lane. Welcome to The Planet.”

“Glad to be here Lois.”

Man of Steel is a frustrating mess. It messes up a chance to properly introduce a great character and confirms peoples’ biases a thousand times over when they say Superman is boring. He is boring in this film. Fucking boring. There’s nothing to him. The film refuses to stick to its guns when it comes to anything. It’s a turgid clunker with delusions of grandeur and a sense of pomposity that’s really unappealing. So, explain to me why I actually don’t hate it with the same passion that I do something like The Amazing Spider-Man. I’m not sure, really. Maybe it’s because I can see the potential here. It can be a great series, it wishes to be. It only lacks the light to show the way.

P.S. Right, I’m done talking about Man of Steel, I promise. However, I found the video below by Chronicle writer Max Landis to be informative and on the money:

The Wolf of Wall Street

Posted in Review with tags , , , on January 18, 2014 by Ben Browne
 
Not much rhymes with “wolf”. PUN ABANDONED.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2014)

So- first proper review of this year. Well, sort of. This review is as prompt as it could be as it only properly came out yesterday, but American readers may be left wondering why this is so late. Well, here in the UK, we’ve been worn down and beaten to a point where we’re used to getting screwed over for no particular reason, so we had to wait a few arbitrary weeks until the film reels were suitably rainproofed and finally shipped over.

“My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.”

The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the life and subsequent book of stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). After a false start on Wall Street itself, with Belfort having the misfortune of becoming a broker during a market crash, we see Jordan try again. Belfort starts applying big city thinking to unlisted “penny stocks”, gets rich and starts his own company. Soon he’s assembled a selling team of basic crooks, including new friend Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and they slowly build up an empire. However. the company starts getting the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in particular, who is intent on nailing Belfort and his shyster dealings. Okay, I realised it made it sound kind of standard, but it really isn’t. I’m underselling it. The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of excess. Everything’s turned way up to the point where it actually becomes pretty exhausting. Money, sex, drugs, greed, corruption, addiction- these are all things that completely saturate the film. Jordan Belfort is a deeply unlikable man. He made his money, like many stockbrokers, by selling lies and half-truths to gullible people and conning them out of their savings.

DiCaprio is going to win that golden statue, I can just feel it. Jordan Belfort is not going to be the defining role for him, but he’s the latest in a long damn list of characters that Leo has completely owned. This is both his most over-the-top and nuanced performance so far. He’s dynamite and I won’t hear a bad word against him. Jonah Hill is also a strong contender for awards gold too. When I first saw him, sporting a ridiculous outfit and even more ridiculous false teeth, my heart sank, but he does an amazing job. I think he’s a really talented dramatic actor and deserves meatier roles like this one. Everyone’s good in this film. Belfort’s trophy wife Naomi (Margot Robbie) is fantastic. I can imagine a Skyler White type situation where stupid people hate her because she doesn’t buy into Belfort’s bullshit like they do, but it’s their loss. Matthew McConaughey turns up to corrupt a young Belfort straight out of the gate in a surreal lunch scene that ends up boiling down to chest thumping and humming along to a tune that probably doesn’t exist. Even though his appearance boils down to a McCameo, he makes a big impression. Same goes for the whole film. Every so often, another actor will enter the fray and adds their specific talents to the ensemble. Jean Dujardin shows up as a Swiss Banker! Hurray! The angry fella from The Walking Dead plays another muscled angry fella! Huzzah! Jon Favreau appears as a sleazy lawyer! Bonus! Rob Reiner plays Jordan’s Dad! Cripes! Joanna Lumley stars as a classy British aunt! Blimey! It’s a damn good cast.

So, OK. The big question hanging over all of this is: “Does this film glorify this scumbag’s lifestyle?”. There have been plenty of hand-wringing articles over this subject as well as news that in several screenings, bankers and Wall Street douchebags applauded scenes of debauchery and disgusting decadence. Well, the ultimate answer is YES (if you’re a fucking braindead moron). It’s a Scarface type of situation. How many times have you seen a poster of Tony Montana on some idiot’s wall? It’s a staple of student accommodation. I’m not saying liking Scarface is stupid, I’m saying that the appearance of Al Pacino’s mug on the back of their bedroom door is probably not the moral indictment of Montana’s greed and stupidity that the film is. People cling to the fact that Tony Montana managed to get the money, the drugs and the women he set out to get. They love the fact that he went out in an apparent blaze of glory. Same in this case. There are tons of superficial idiots out there who will see the vast amounts of money, women and drug-fuelled parties on display and aspire to Belfort’s lifestyle. The sad irony is that it’s a parody of that very attitude. As I said, everything is ramped up. Chest-beating masculinity, hyper-sexuality, insane greed, all of it. The film is basically a comedy, despite it containing some dark undercurrents. It’s laughing at Belfort and his crew. I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now, but there’s an insane physical comedy sequence where Belfort is off his head on banned sedatives, Quaaludes, which is one of the funniest things that I’ve seen in recent memory. It goes on for an incredibly long time and it’s played absolutely perfectly. The whole thing is practically a cartoon. That linked article earlier in the paragraph plays with the idea that Scorsese could have done more to make Belfort look like the villain. That’s dumb. We don’t need to see the results of people losing their savings, houses and livelihoods as the result of dickheads lying down the phone. The global recession was thanks to coked-up twats like Belfort playing with other peoples’ money like it was nothing. We’ve all fucking lived the consequences.

The film is certainly makes its position on the whole thing known. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t think Jordan’s a hero. There’s a bit early on where Jordan, fresh from his initial baptism of sleaze on Wall Street, lies his arse off about a shitty investment opportunity to some poor excited schmuck on speakerphone whilst the whole office giggles and high-fives each other. As he’s talking up the possible military applications of this new tech company Aerotyne we have a cutaway to a still of the company HQ which is basically a beaten up old shack in the middle of nowhere with a hand-painted sign.  You’ll laugh, but feel guilty for doing so.  My point is this- if you can watch that scene and not figure out that Belfort and his cohorts are the bad guys in all this, walk away. The film will do nothing for you. Screenwriter Terence Winter uses Belfort’s candidness and frequent pieces to camera to really make you hate the guy.  It’s not as if he was seduced into the business on the appearance that all is fine and dandy. He knows he’s bankrupting people to line his pockets, he knows it’s illegal as shit- he just couldn’t care less and actively enjoys it.

This whole story is in Scorsese’s wheelhouse. It’s Goodfellas but with a different morally bankrupt way to the top. Yeah, one could argue that he’s hardly stretching himself, but he’s Scorsese. He can do what he wants. The film is masterfully directed and the music choices are superb. The one criticism I had of it is that it felt too long.  After three hours of everything turned up to maximum, I felt like I’d been put through the wringer (although that may be the actual point). I felt the film was repeating itself at times with multiple scenes of parties and insane money spending, but that’s just me. All I know is that I was busting for a piss by the end of it.

“Let me tell you something. There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.”

I loved The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s films like this that remind me why I like films in the first place. Great cast, fantastic direction, brilliantly written- the list goes on. Like most sharp satires, it’s bound to be misunderstood by some. I suppose the basic message to it all is crime doesn’t pay. You just get incredibly rich, slip through the cracks in the legal system, stay rich and have one of the best living filmmakers direct the story of your life starring one of the best actors around, all of which will bolster your book sales. Yup, doesn’t pay in the slightest.

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