Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Blackfish; Argo; Summer Wars; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; This Is 40


Which concerns the instances of deaths and injury caused by killer whales in captivity.
Lots of talking heads, a mixture of ex-trainers and employees and scientists, what is amazing is the amount of footage available. Whilst the incidents that took place and were captured on camera by visitors are understandably available, there are numerous instances of out-of-hours training sessions and the attacks that happened at those times, and it’s quite hard to work out how the film makers got hold of this footage as I would have assumed it would have been owned by SeaWorld.

The instances of orca interaction are engaging, and the enthusiasm of the neurologist claiming that their emotions are more advanced than ours, due to having parts of the brain that we don’t, build up in such a way that when you see footage like the orca capturing for Sealand in the 70s it is pretty upsetting.

By the end of the film there’s little doubt that keeping these or any whales in captivity is wrong, not just for the animals themselves but for the people working with them.


As it’s based on a true story, it’s hard to know whether the more clichĂ©d aspects actually happened, but some of Argo certainly feels a bit too much like other thrillers. The 6 people at the heart of the story, stuck in Iran during the revolution and in hiding, are only sparsely sketched with just Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford given some meat as ‘the cynical one’ who immediately dismisses the escape plan as doomed and likely to get them killed. Surprise surprise, as Joe is ultimately the one to make their cover work and succeeds in getting them that last step towards home.
Other elements equivalent to the bomb countdown turn out to be fabricated - the last minute interrogation by revolutionary forces was made up, as was the jeep and police chase on the runway. However, these worked well to inflate the tension and kept your heart pounding, despite knowing the outcome in much the same way that United 91 worked so well even though you know what happens in the end.

Affleck plays it pretty light for him, no shouting or tub thumping or rousing monologues, quite often he seems dejected and defeated even before things go wrong, so it’s pretty much Affleck doing subtle. But it does help it feel more real, rather than the shooty-fighty secret agent films we’re used to, and the supporting cast do a good job of bringing their real-life characters to life, with the likes of Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston all putting in a good turn.

Despite the twisting of some elements of the story, Affleck manages to avoid the vilifying of the Iranians without making the revolutionaries’ actions seem reasonable.

Not as good as the Oscar would suggest, but definitely worth a watch.

Summer Wars

Bravura Japanese anime film with a dizzying plot that basically boils down to: an AI invades Oz, an all-pervasive ultra-advanced social network which most of the world now depends on to function. The AI messes up everything from water to traffic to satellite systems, leaving a maths genius boy and an extended family that can trace their family tree back centuries to save the virtual world.

A schoolgirl invites a nerdy boy, working as a part-time Oz coder, to do a job for her in the country. The job is to pretend to be her fiancĂ© for her great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party, the head of a large extended family living at a large house with roots going back over 500 years. One night he gets an anonymous maths puzzle, which he stays awake to solve. The next morning he finds that Oz has gone haywire with many accounts cannibalised by an AI and infrastructure melting down, and he is being touted as the scapegoat on TV.

Visually dense, Summer Wars has a huge amount going on, both in the CGI visuals in the virtual world of Oz and those of the more traditional setting of the Sanada Clan’s family home.
The huge cast of family members introduced illustrates how director Mamoru Hosoda (of the acclaimed The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) expects the audience to keep up, rather than kowtowing to them, and ultimately it makes for a satisfying tale despite the inevitable real-world consequences that are introduced to give the drama a little more immediacy towards the finale.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Boonmee is ailing. He travels to the honey farm that he owns,  and is visited by his family, including his dead wife and disappeared son in spirit monkey form.

The film feels very much like a tone poem or something a bit ethereal like that. Lots of sitting for intermittent chat, journeys through lush jungle, aspects of past lives such as the princess whose beauty fades but finds comfort in the form of a water deity in the shape of a fish who pleasures her in a jungle pond.
Glimpses of the red-eyed, thick haired monkey spirits who Boonmee’s son has joined.
A moment in a hotel room where Boonmee’s sister talks with her daughter, and her son arrives, trying to decide whether to continue being a monk.

It’s hard to put a finger on what is going on, besides Boonmee making peace and saying his goodbyes, but the world painted in the film is evocative and a pleasure to be in if you’re in the right mood.

This Is 40

Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd return to the roles they played in Knocked Up, as Debbie and Pete who are now struggling with the onset of middle age whilst feeling far from grown up.

The theme of extended adolescence has been around a long time now, particularly in the comedies director Apatow has been involved with, but Rudd and Mann make for good company despite their character’s whining, and Apatow’s daughters Maude and Iris again reprise their roles as the couple’s daughters and both are charming.

Chris O’Dowd, Lena Dunham, Johnathan Lithgow, Jason Segel and Megan Fox all crop up at some point to round out the cast, and though the incidents in the plot are fairly predictable and generic the players manage to keep you onside despite the over long running time.

Definitely an enjoyable film rather than a triumph, This Is 40 has a relatively low belly-laugh ratio due to all the griping and soul-searching, but to be honest I would watch Rudd in almost anything. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Total Recall (2012); Killing Them Softly; 5 Broken Cameras; Silver Lining Playbook; The Monster Squad

Total Recall (2012)

In yet another case of the unnecessary remakes, Colin Farrell stars in the Arnie role of this reworking of the adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story.

The bare bones of the plot are the same, with factory worker Doug Quaid yearning for something missing, opting to visit the Rekall company who implant exciting false memories into you, and uncovering his status as an undercover agent.
However, rather than the previous set up of rebellion on the Mars colony, this time around Mars is a single reference, instead Earth has been devastated by chemical warfare leaving only the United Federation of Britain and the Colony (Australia) habitable, built up into 2000AD style Mega Cities. Connecting the two is the Fall, a drilled hole straight through the Earth’s core, with a transport that runs in between, altering its gravity half way through.
The set up is the familiar dystopia of the oppressed and oppressors, with the Colony here supplying hard labour to the UFB though the set design doesn’t distinguish a great deal between which is which. Blade Runner-esque is the order of the day with lots of rainy, neon-lit night and thousands of levels of buildings connected by hover car motorways.

This set confusion runs through most of the movie, as despite the mash up of languages and culture there are anomalies with accent where American seems universal and English rare, despite the UFB status as world leaders.
As well as this the whole idea of political upheaval doesn’t make sense. In the original there are defined differences between Mars and Earth, being different planets, but here the difference is ambiguous. Usually the richer part would live of the work or resources of the rest, but in this world of advanced technology encompassing a traversable bore hole through the Earth’s crust, a large automated robot police force/army and ubiquitous hover-cars, it’s hard to understand how resources are limited.

Still, Colin’s Quaid finds himself going through Arnie’s paces, fighting with what he thought was his wife (Kate Beckinsale in Sharon Stone’s role) and trying to reach the resistance to find out who he really is.
There’s lots of chase and fight related action, and neat little snippets of tech such as mobile phones implanted into the hand and bringing up a vid screen on any glass surface, but on the whole the film feels like empty flash, lacking the coherence of the original, let alone building on it.

Initially I thought Farrell would be okay compared to Arnie’s bug-eyed, gurning attempt at acting, but in retrospect Arnie’s cartoon character persona suits the ideas much better than Farrell’s anonymous, muted angst.
Beckinsale’s UFB agent and Jennifer Beale as Quade’s anchor to his old self do well in roles that require more fighting than looking pretty, but can’t elevate the film any more than Farrell, and Brian Cranston hasn’t chosen well for his post-Breaking Bad film debut as the evil leader of the UFB.

It will be interesting to see when Hollywood will decide to stop cannibalising itself, or are we stuck in this blockbuster & sequel cycle for another 30 years?

Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly yearns so hard to be a 70s film it hurts.
The wasteland sets of old crumbling buildings, sweaty card dens and battered cars along with the timeless wardrobe really give it a sense of place, with only the odd instance of a mobile phone or somesuch to pull you back to the future.
That and the constant glimpses of the Obama/McCain election campaign via TV and radio broadcasts and mentions of the ‘recession’ and ‘current economic climate’. Whilst many films attempt at a subtle introduction of subtext, KTS pretty much bludgeons the viewer with its references.

However, despite the bungled message, this is a beautifully shot film using lots of stylistic tricks to elevate the grubby setting of the story, concerning useless losers sticking up a card game and getting whacked - moments such as one of the junkies lost in a high, or a slow motion drive-by/car crash at night, seen from multiple angles.

Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn are brilliant as the losers, Ray Liotta is a slightly more vulnerable version of his usual roles, Gandolfini’s good as the repulsive hitman brought in by Brad Pitt’s fixer and Richard Jenkins is great casting as the administrative middle man for a corporate mob.
Pitt is as charismatic as ever but this isn’t his best performance, instead offering a nastier version of Ocean 11’s Rusty along with his usual schtick - the knowledgeable, worldly type. His own get-up hints at an even earlier time in cinema with his leather jacket and slicked back hair, a hangover of the 60s in a 70s film set in 2008.

Director Andrew Dominik’s previous feature was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and it seems he’s learning with Killing Them Softly, keeping an element of the more ponderous, painterly moments of the former, but upping the pace and keeping to a genre running time.

Pitt’s last line is obviously meant to be the summary to the whole thing “America isn’t a country, it’s a business…” but the film yearns to be more important than it is - and yet, despite not being as good as it hopes to be, it’s still a decent film that doesn’t outstay its welcome and classier version than the usual mob/hitman flicks that are regularly turned out, with some great performances and lovely camerawork.

5 Broken Cameras

In 2005, Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat bought his first video camera to film his fourth son. He then ended up recording the conflict between his home, the West Bank village of Bil’In, and the encroaching Israeli settlements, taking over much of the village’s land and the villagers’ livelihood.
The 5 broken cameras of the title are the cameras broken during the course of recording the village’s protest at the settlements, cameras which record the beating, tear-gassing and shooting of peaceful protestors by Israeli forces, of olive trees burnt by settlers in the night and of raids on the village to arrest children.

Throughout the course of this documentary it’s clear that there will have been some editing decisions made to highlight certain events in a certain way, but increasingly as the film unfolds it’s hard to imagine any context that would allow the Israeli army’s actions to make sense, culminating in the death of one of the village’s key protestors and Emad’s friend, a man you come to know in a small way during the film and then who you watch shot dead.

It’s hard to watch the film without feeling outrage, and it’s hard to imagine being in the same position without retaliating with violence, so it’s a testament to the patience of the villagers and their supporters that they manage to keep it relatively peaceful.

Silver Lining Playbook

Both Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are brilliant in bringing their characters to life, unpredictable and inappropriate, a strain on their families but ultimately trying to get better. Even with the trite plot tropes of the gambling all-or-nothing ultimatum and the challenge/competition finale, Silver Lining Playbook still manages to feel fresh.
Not only the leads but DeNiro as Cooper’s father turns in a brilliant role, the first for a long time that feels more about the performance than the pay, and Jacki Weaver, excellent in Animal Kingdom, matches him for the quality of performance. Even Chris Tucker manages to channel his usual screechy offering into a part that plays to all of his strengths, the fast talking energy and good-natured face that doesn’t seem capable of threat.

Excellent camerawork, jittery camera full of quick edits, but the framing gives you the feel of the shambolic inner world of the bipolar sufferer rather than the usual quick cutting of an action-packed blockbuster.

After the excellent The Fighter, it seems that director David O. Russell is excelling at coaxing spectacular performances from his cast.

The Monster Squad

Another of the video-shop tempters, I never got round to watching the Monster Squad in the 80s.
Perfectly aimed at it’s demographic, it focuses on a group of pre-teen outsiders who gang together as the Monster Squad, and hone their knowledge of the classic monsters - how to defeat werewolves and vampires for example.
It just so happens that after a failed attempt by Van Helsing to stop Dracula decades earlier, Drac gets himself and Frankenstein’s monster flown out in crates, only to be dropped over small town America after being discovered by the pilot.
In town a man turns into a werewolf, a swamp creature appears and a mummy escapes from the museum, leading to a perfect storm of 80s updated Universal classic monsters for the kids to face off against.

The squad consists of all the key skill sets - horror film geeks, a fat boy, a cool leather jacketed boy, a little girl - and the tone of the film is very light and fun-loving, a little at odds with the 15 rating earned by scenes like the werewolf being blown apart by a grenade, only to messily form together as it wasn’t a silver weapon. If the film were made today it would likely be a 12A, with its euphemisms such as ‘dork’ replacing any more grown up swearing.

Tom Noonan as Frankenstein's monster is the stand-out performance here, portraying the monster as a gentle giant in the vein of the James Whale adaptation, with less of the accidental killing.