Rollerball (2002)

“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

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

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

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

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.

The Interview

Hollywood hacks.

The Interview (2015)

I don’t need to tell you about the furore surrounding this one. Like many people, I found myself wanting to check out the infamous film after it looked like Sony weren’t going to release it. I think it was the forbidden fruit angle. Anyway, all of that quietened down and Sony released it online and in select theatres in the U.S. and it made its way to these rainy shores sometime last week. Being more committed to writing as of late, I figured The Interview was at least worth checking out to see if it was good once the almighty international shitstorm died down. Spoiler: it’s pretty mediocre.

James Franco plays Dave Skylark, a vacuous celebrity talk show host. Seth Rogen plays his producer, unhappy with the shallow nature of the programming. The pair learn that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (Randall Park) is a big fan of the show and, seeing a chance to score some professional kudos, the pair contact NK’s press offices to set up an interview. Their request accepted, Skylark and Rapaport pack their bags for Pyongyang and are contacted by Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), a CIA agent who recruits the duo to assassinate the mental despot whilst they’re over there. The script isn’t great. Whilst there is proper storytelling going on (foreshadowing, actual character arcs) a lot of the jokes suffer from the “throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks” approach. I laughed several times during the film, but I’m more willing to put that down to the buckshot nature of it all, rather than properly crafted jokes. The comedy is broad and vulgar, as you’d expect. I don’t want to come across as some snooty dick who thinks he’s above poop jokes (and there are sooo many in the film). I enjoyed This Is the End a hell of a lot and I liked Rogen’s previous effort Bad Neighbours (simply “Neighbours” in non-UK territories). A lot of the gags in The Interview just seemed quite lazy. I know that now the question is “well, what did you expect?” Well, something a little better than this.

As much as I like James Franco, I’m not sure what the hell he’s doing as Dave Skylark. It’s an incredibly over-the-top tryhard performance and it sunk more than a few comedic moments. The guy can be incredibly funny and has proven so in the aforementioned This Is the End and Pineapple Express. It’s weirdly misjudged. Rogen plays a standard Rogen role, so he balances out some of the Skylark nonsense. MVPs of the film are Randall Park and Diana Bang. Park actually makes you like the Katy Perry liking murderer and makes him seem like someone you’d definitely invite to a night out. Diana Bang also does great work as Sook, Un’s propaganda minister. They’re both layered performances and it elevates the film considerably when they’re both introduced.

When I say the humour’s “broad”, I really mean it. You’re not going to get much more than dick jokes. That’s fine, but the quality of said dick jokes pales in comparison to something like This Is the End. Some of the stuff seemed incredibly dated too. I mean, Lord of the Rings references in a 2014 film, really? They’re not even good ones. Also, nice of them to use Katy Perry’s “Firework” – a song second only to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” in terms of soundtrack overusage. Whilst there are moments that do work, I found myself rolling my eyes at every lazy gag and every hacky joke. For its inflammatory central conceit, the film seems to be happy with sticking to old hat jokes. There’s one scene where Agent Lacey tells the duo she wants them to “take (Kim Jong Un) out”. At this point, the screen may as well flashed up some sing-a-long lyrics at the bottom, complete with bouncing ball. I refuse to believe that there was anyone in the cinema who didn’t know that the pair would misconstrue what she was saying and that the next line would amount to something like “…for drinks?” or “for dinner?”. It’s an incredibly simple joke but they continue riffing on it for a whole minute. A very long feeling minute. There’s no real satire to the film. Just the point that North Korea is weird and bad. Not sure about you, but I didn’t need to slap down the best part of a tenner for that incredible insight. Again, yeah, what did I expect from a Rogen/Franco film? Well, what’s the frigging point of having a controversial plot if you’re going to squander opportunities to actually say something?

The Interview is just about passable. There are hints of a much better script underneath all the lunkhead humour. I will say this, I wasn’t bored at any point, but I really felt like I should be laughing a lot more than I actually did. I’ll shakily recommend it because of the super-subjective nature of comedy, but it’s not something I’d be confident enough in to shout it from the rooftops.

Big Hero 6

Marvellous.

Big Hero 6 (2015)

Big Hero 6 has been on my radar for a long time. Disney have been on a bit of a streak since 2010’s Tangled and since then both Wreck-It Ralph and the inescapable Frozen have raked in the critical acclaim and sweet, sweet money. Here’s the long and short of it. Big Hero 6 is loosely based on a rather obscure Marvel comic book only really known for featuring superheroes Sunfire and The Silver Samurai, both of whom don’t feature in the film due to different creative directions and complicated rights issues. It’s a Marvel property, but it’s a very Disney take on a Marvel property if that makes sense, and it fucking better do as I’ve tried and deleted about 8 different ways to say this and I officially give up.

Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a 13 year old tech genius who lives in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo. Tragedy strikes and Hiro is left with an inflatable robot medic companion by the name of Baymax (Scott Adsit). Hiro soon discovers that there is a masked madman with access to an army of microbots on the loose and decides to go after him, but not before recruiting his science-whiz friends and gearing up for a massive fight to save the city. If I may get slightly reflexive on you for a moment, I wasn’t sure whether the very lines you just read spoiled too much and had to check official blurbs to see what they reveal. The summary is fine in terms of spoilers, but I think it’s the fact that the film takes a while to get there that makes it feel like I’m blowing the whole film for people. The film taking its time is completely a good thing too. It spends time fleshing out its characters and stokes the fires of emotional investment expertly. If I had to criticise, I would say the villain story is a bit weak, but as with Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s more about the team coming together than the big bad they have to defeat. This is a Disney production, so the voice acting is top notch. Scott Adsit’s Baymax gets a lot of the big laughs in the film thanks to his gentle, but matter-of-fact way of talking.

Like How to Train Your Dragon or E.T., the film works on the bond of boy and companion. Hiro’s relationship with Baymax is as funny as it is touching. In the original comics, Baymax is a dragon creature, but the decision to make him a cuddly, friendly robot is a sound one. It’s fun just watching Baymax totter around and interact with things. I’m a grown-ass man and I wanted to reach through the screen and hug him. There’s an inspired bit briefly seen in the trailers where Baymax is low on battery and basically acts drunk. His pratfalling and slurring are incredibly funny and charming. He’s not just a joke character though, as Baymax is key in some of the film’s more emotional moments and some of his interactions with the depressed Hiro are genuinely moving. Big Hero 6 has got a lot of heart and it shows. It reminded me of The Iron Giant in a lot of ways (there are more than a few plot similarities) but Big Hero 6 nails what Iron Giant did and makes you care about the characters. This is clever and mature storytelling and it’s great to see they didn’t just slap some superhero shit together haphazardly and took the time and effort to make it something special. Storywise, the film slightly falters when the team get together. Some of the team get proper arcs, some not so much. I was really enjoying the team dynamic and wanted to have each of them walk away with something learned. It’s a minor flaw in the grand scheme of things.

I know this may sound like a weak statement, but I was caught up in how colourful and fun everything was. The city of San Fransokyo is a brilliantly designed place, with evidence of American and Japanese culture colliding. I could have done with seeing more of the city, but was happy enough with what Hiro and crew were doing for it to become a problem. I’m looking forward to the Blu-ray so I can pause and appreciate all the tiny details put into it. The action is fun and frantic and seeing all the tech in action is a delight.

I loved Big Hero 6 hard. It’s now my favourite of the newer Disney animations. It’s got wit, action, emotional gut punches, the lot. It has a big ol’ beating heart at the centre too, which can’t be faked. Highly recommended.

American Sniper

Spittin’ dust.

American Sniper (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Some killer, mostly filler.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy (Redux)

 
Ain’t no thing like mecept me”
 

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (Redux)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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