Friday, 27 September 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; The Game

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I enjoyed all three of Peter Jacksons Lord of the Rings films, despite the twee moments and length, but something about the first instalment of his Hobbit adaptation just didn’t do it for me.
Yes, the story was originally aimed more at children and wasn’t as much showcase for Tolkein’s passion for language and myth, but still it feels pretty simplistic and shallow.

Thorin seems a little one dimensional, Aidan Turner’s Kili oddly seems the only actor who make-up forgot to dwarf-up, most of the rest of the dwarven cast develop little personality beyond their look, Barry Humphries as the Goblin King took me away from the character, there’s the irritating singing and bumbling of the party sequence at Bags End and the final shot of Smaug awakening beneath his treasure pit has some abysmal CGI.

Having said that, Martin Freeman shines as the set-in-his-ways Bilbo who eventually grows into and adventurer, some of the action sequences are well made – the encounter with trolls and the escape from the goblins particularly, it’s always a pleasure seeing Ian McKellan, Sylvester McCoy is surprisingly good as Radagast and his sequences hinting at darker things are good, and finally Bilbo’s riddling with Gollum works, pulling out a feel of threat despite the short, skinny frame of the wasted hobbit.

Ultimately, this first part of the tale can’t quite match the grandeur of that first trilogy, and suffers from the lack of opportunity to flesh out some of the party without deviating from the original text. It’s enjoyable but just has little heft, though I am interested to see how the wizard side of things is developed in the next two parts.

The Game

The revelation I had after first watching the Game after its cinema release in 1997 was how could the plot make sense? How could this company put together such an elaborate set of events that seem so realistic – and then I realised, everything in the film was fake, was made up by a huge team of people coming together to create something believable, and the team within the film was no different (apart from everything having to work on ‘take one’ with a very specific audience of one).

Whilst the story is neat but shallow, dealing as it does with the world of the amazingly rich and their tribulations, the meat is in the telling, the twisting of main character Nicholas Van Orton’s perceptions and ramping paranoia, the setting and framing and shooting of the thing.
The fact that Fincher tended to work with different cinematographers for his first few films suggests that it was his vision that brought the colour washes that Soderbergh was also using - present in Alien 3, Seven and Fight Club, in The Game you still get sickly yellows and cool blues pulling the mood of a scene in the way that some directors/editors would need to have music to rely on.

The telling is still a little straighter than Fincher’s critically acclaimed classics, this feeling more of a straight studio thriller than his other films up until Benjamin Button, but Michael Douglas manages to get by on his star charm, playing a similar high-powered man to his turn in Wall Street, but without the passion, instead the film is draped around his blankness and lack, his routine showing how his power and wealth brings no great satisfaction.
The shallowness I noted earlier is in the re-hashing that money doesn’t buy happiness, instead having rich experiences and meeting people help you better value your life, though here that idea seems to be simultaneously repressed by immense wealth and facilitated by it.

This mixed message doesn’t stop the film entertaining as you try and second guess how far down the rabbit hole the plot will go and how real what seems to be happening actually is, but ultimately despite being better than the average slick Hollywood thriller it inevitably pales compared to Fincher’s work either side of the millennium.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

All Quiet On The Western Front; Elysium

All Quiet On The Western Front

All Quiet On the Western Front (AQOTWF) is practically a template for most modern takes on war, with many sequences used over and over again, proving that either war rarely changes or the cinematic depiction of it can’t be bettered.
As opposed to the patriotic WW2 movies of the 40s and 50s, AQOTWF is the prototype of the anti-war film depicting war as hell.

A number of sequences are fully formed that can still be found today - the first clash with authority in the barracks as the shouty sergeant whips the new blood into shape; the humiliation and repetition of training; the bullying and violence in training before the soldiers even get to the front (though here it’s directed at pompous authority rather than in-fighting between recruits); the idealism of the new recruits versus the old-hand vets; the realities of war at the front and the distillation of importance to food and shelter; the shock and horror of death as it takes people you know, as you take others lives; the psychological breakdown of men by war, either completely, or into killers.

It’s easy to see how the film was banned by many countries preparing for the build up to the next war - the anti-war sentiment is overt, both in the way the war affects the schoolboys we follow from their classroom to the front, and in the speech given by central character Paul at the end.
A number of points are drilled home throughout the film, including the futility of war as the soldiers go over the top of the trenches with numerous of deaths on both signs but no ground gained, conversations highlighting how the soldiers involved aren’t even sure why they are at war and the more obvious affects of deaths and dismemberment as lives are shattered.

Some of the film is a little clunky, with the acting in particular a little overwrought, although this is likely to be a hangover of the move from silent movies to talkies, and the numerous east coast American accents are very hard to reconcile with the German uniforms, though I imagine those very accents could have been intentional in order to acclimatise an American audience and emphasise that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’.  But other sequences such as the trench fighting and no man’s land advances are still unnerving. Due to the quirk of old cinema where action is comparatively sped up, the hand-to-hand trench fighting feels particularly vicious, and the scenes of the soldiers cowering in their fox hole as bombardment goes on seemingly without end helps you sympathise with the men driven to shrieking madness.

Ultimately AQOTWF doesn’t quite stand up to the sophistication (and emulation) of war films that have come since then, but as an example of what was being made over 80 years ago it’s a stark reminder to question the jingoistic and patriotic urges to send the young into war.


After the success of District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s sci-fi critique on racism in South Africa, it’s easy to see the same slums though on a much larger scale in the sets of Elysium. Los Angeles of the future is a giant mega-city, but rather than the crumbling towers of 2000AD, Blomkamp’s vision is of dusty shanty-towns, very reminiscent of those occupied by the ‘prawns’ of District 9.

Elysium isn’t particularly original for a sci-fi tale, but neither was District 9 whose closest ancestor was 1988’s Alien Nation. In the same way that film took an old idea and ran with it, making it fresh and exciting, Elysium updates one of the oldest tales in cinema, that of Metropolis and the Time Machine, of Huxley’s Brave New World and myriad other dystopias involving a downtrodden underclass serving a ruling class.
Whilst the Morlocks were underground in the Time Machine, the ruling class of Elysium are above their servile underlings in another way, orbiting Earth in a ring-world space station with its own atmosphere.
Although the Elysium station is a typical sci-fi creation, all efficient robots, clean air and sharp lines, the main point of difference is the near-magical medical stations which automatically cure all ills. Healthcare back on Earth is lacking, and whilst people are desperate to board rickety shuttles just to try and stay on the heavenly Elysium station, the main driving force is illness and those seeking to cure it. This all leads to a lump in the throat ending as the Elysium computer system is told all Earth’s population are now citizens and it sends out medical ships to the surface to cure everyone in some sort of socialist wet-dream.

This worldview also comes out in the ‘worker’s struggle’ vein as our anti-hero, Matt Damon’s Max, is an ex-gang banger turned honest worker who gets screwed over by the boss on a robot production line, receiving a fatal dose of radiation for his efforts.
With the help of underworld contacts he’s assigned the task of kidnapping the CEO of his ex-employers company for his brain-implanted ID details, with the aid of an exo-skeleton grafted to his body. Thus begins his struggle against adversity and ultimately a tale of self-sacrifice.
There’s also a childhood friend and potential love interest, another cipher for cliche as she encompasses being a single mother and a nurse as well as a focus for Max’s efforts.

This back-story serves as a stable basis to weave a tale based on effects and set pieces, with a rather fetishised view of military hardware and a number of gory moments.

Matt Damon continues his run of star turns in the Bruce Willis role of the everyday shmoe in extraordinary circumstances who racks up a list of injuries, Alice Braga does well in the inevitably sketchy love interest part and Jodie Foster delivers an atypical performance as the ruthless politician/military type, but the stand out performance here is Sharlto Copley, back working with Blomkamp after his star turn in District 9.
In the role of Kruger (what a bad guy name!) he shines, in a dirty, brutal way, given that the character is that of a sleeper unit mercenary, part of a larger South African team who are called on to do Elysium’s dirty work. It’s in the confrontation between this crew and Max that most of the weapon idolisation takes place as we are treated to the effects of future guns and grenades.

Both action and story complement each other and push each other forward in a satisfying (if expected) way.
It’s good to see sci-fi based on ideas again, even if those ideas are recycled.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Audition; Insidious; Insidious: Chapter 2


Benefiting from the introduction of modern Japanese horror with Hideo Nakata’s Ring films, Audition was the first of Takashi Miike’s huge catalogue of films to secure a UK theatrical release.
Subtle and understated compared to some of his more infamous films, the low-key domestic scenes of the first two thirds feel very much like a melodrama. The story concerns a middle-aged man seeking a May-to-December relationship following the death of his wife, but after some ethically murky film casting sessions to find a girlfriend (the titular Audition), the film swiftly descends into the whacked-out horror and gore that some Miike fans enjoy.
The very slow set-up and stark contrast of the familiar first two acts with the pre torture-porn torture of the last is what helps the film stand out, as well as the evident confidence of Miike’s direction for what was his 30th film (though only the 9th that wasn’t straight-to-video).
However, it doesn’t really bear repeat viewing, with foreknowledge draining the film of most of the dread and tension. The scenes of torture still feel pretty strong, even though the 14 years since Audition’s 1999 release have seen a mini-revival of gore for gore’s sake in some sectors of the horror genre.

Worth a watch but not quite the classic of J-horror.


James Wan’s Saw dealt more with the psychological horror of being trapped, and having to commit to performing nasty acts of violence on yourself and others to escape, as it did with the gory results - a fact easily forgotten as you look at how the series has progressed.

The same writer/director team of Wan and write Leigh Whannel sees Insidious backed up with some excellent pacing, building tension alongside the odd jump, and aided by some great turns from Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as the parents of Dalton, a boy who can astral project and whose body is the target of ghosts and demons, as well as some brilliant lighting and framing.
Whilst the story itself is similar to a number of haunted house entries, Insidious takes the route of psychological chills with a comparative lack of violence or bloodshed over an extended build-up.
Comic relief is offered later on with the introduction of a ghost hunting double act, though Wan still manages to keep the tension heightened even while offering brief openings of relief through humour.

In a second viewing at the cinema I found Insidious as good as I remembered it the first time round - despite knowing when and how the scares were coming it still succeeded in raising the hairs on the back of my neck - creepy is an apt term, and in keeping with the name ‘Insidious’ itself. One of the better examples of new millennium horror so far.

Insidious: Chapter 2

Chapter 2 starts off on the back foot immediately due to a decision to overdub a younger actress playing ghosthunter/psychic Elise with Lin Shaye’s current voice. Whilst the original voice helps link the character for fans without too much exposition beyond a flash of “1986” as the character climbs the stairs to a creepy house, the timbre is wrong and jars you out of the film, taking you out of the crucial suspension of disbelief you need.

Overall Chapter 2 is a disappointment, though this is not to say it’s a bad film - intentionally funnier than the original and clever in the way it links elements of the first film with its narrative - at one point rewatching the first Insidious I found myself wondering why the apparitions give the unfortunate humans such a run around, only to have spookier elements of self-opening doors and such explained in the second.

A number of genre tropes are ticked off in a seemingly list-building manner, with creepy kids toys, an abandoned hospital, a main character murderously possessed, body failure represented by teeth falling out and a ghost hunter’s spooky souvenir room all making an appearance, and a number of these have their tension drained as the film splits its narrative. One group of characters find themselves in direct danger from the now possessed Josh (Patrick Wilson) whilst another spend much of the film uncovering the back story to both chapters. The twist of the first film’s astral projection is now known, and in its place the idea that the old ghostly bride taking Josh’s body is actually the spirit of a male murderer with gender and mother issues finds itself less shocking five decades after Psycho.

Alongside the humour the cast remain strong, with Barbara Hershey as Josh’s mother Lorraine and Lin Shaye as Elise given more to do, as well as Lin’s assistants Specs and Tucker (writer Whannel and Angus Sampson respectively). As well as these and Wilson and Byrne also as good as in the first, Jocelin Donahue is a good pick for the younger Lorraine, both for looking like Hershey and recent horror heritage as the lead in the wonderful 70's horror homage, House of the Devil..

One for completists, not as satisfying as the original and definitely not a stand alone watch.