Friday, 27 June 2014

Mud – Proof that the coming-of-age tale will never die

Due to the generational ebb and flow of such things, we’re lucky enough to get a great new coming-of-age tale every couple of years. Not too long ago we had The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a few years before that, Adventureland, and then way back to the seminal classics of yester-year, Stand By Me and American Graffiti. All four are fantastic movies, yet Mud still has something to offer.

Two young boys stumble upon the enigmatic Mud (Matthew McConaughey) during one of their days out cruising the islands on the Arkansas River. And, as luck would have it, Mud sees something in these two boys; they remind him of himself . . . which, of course, is the perfect set-up for a whole new world of adult-free adventure. But, everything takes a turn for the serious when the two boys learn the truth about Mud’s dark past.

McConaughey is suberb in the mystical title role, and his Texan moodiness matches the Southern State fairytale-feel exquisitely. Just as Beasts of the Southern Wild did two years ago, Mud feels unashamedly comfortable with its own unique culture. Jeff Nichols (director) revels in the delightfully antiquated society in which these two kids live.

He also draws a raw beauty from the incredible scenery. He sends his camera gliding across the landscape with an unnatural grace, as if reflective of the more magical elements of this tale. However, when the action kicks in, his camera ramps up and David Wingo’s delicate score powers into focus. These scenes, while relatively scarce, are placed in brilliantly amongst the drama and they deliver a tangible sense of urgency and danger.

But, the whole thing would be nothing without the two youngsters, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. They both deliver performances well beyond their tender years and Sheridan, especially, is absolutely fearless when he finds himself toe-to-toe with the mighty McConaughey.

All things considered, Mud is a really beautiful piece of work featuring a set of excellent performances from the young and the old, alike.


Friday, 20 June 2014

Orphan Black – Season 1 Review

Tatiana Maslany excels in this British-Canadian high-concept sci-fi drama about a set of real-world clones.

Sarah’s (Maslany) world is turned upside down when she witnesses a women jumping in front of a train. But, if that wasn’t bad enough, said woman is physically identical to her. Panicked by the whole ordeal, she gathers up all the women’s belongings and assumes her identity; inadvertently kicking the door open to something far bigger than she could ever have imagined.

Throughout the season, Maslany plays upwards of half a dozen different characters and she delivers a mind-blowing piece of character acting. Her performances gel the whole show together. She works tirelessly to provide each clone with a distinct set of features; different accents, temperaments and body language . . . the list goes on.

And if that wasn’t enough, the production values are tremendous. Every episode feels part of an aesthetic whole and there are a number of running cinematic techniques that tie together to create a stylish visual sensibility. The use of attractive establishing location shots and invasive exploitation scenes make the whole show exude class. The directors also execute the multiple-clone shots excellently and the way Maslany acts against herself is seamless. But I must also give a big shout-out to Kathryn Alexandre who acts as Maslany’s body double. It must be a pretty thankless task, but her work is exceptional throughout.

Trevor Yuile’s score must also be commended. Like the tonal transitions in the show, the music seamlessly swings through a host of different emotions. At times it pulses under the dramatic beats, to then drift off into a deeply moving emotional accompaniment and then it worms itself into your psyche to play on the overriding sense of paranoia and confusion.

If the score is anything to go by, it seems the writers have only began to scratch the surface of this story. As the season neared its conclusion, it would have been easy to follow a more traditional dramatic progression; a slow-build escalating to an action-packed conclusion. But the show’s creators, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, chose to take a different path. At first it had me feeling slightly cheated, but they remain relentless . . . just without an abundance of action. It’s refreshing to see a show blaze its own trail and really surprise its audience.

Instead of upping the ante with action, they escalate the drama with increasingly troubling emotional and philosophical questions. The writers don’t shy away from scientific complexity, instead they embrace it by making it seem important to the characters.

The moral quandaries reach dizzying heights as the show deals with issues of motherhood and scientific advancement. It also stands as one of the greatest mainstream portrayals of the nature vs. nurture argument. It makes this vitally important real-world issue tangible, relatable and, most importantly, human.

In what has to stand out as one of the most impressive debut seasons I’ve ever seen, ‘Orphan Black’ is a totally engrossing and deeply challenging drama. Season two is set to be a blast.


Friday, 6 June 2014

Godzilla – Long Live the King

From half a million dollars to 160, Gareth Edwards (director) delivers another supreme blend of science fiction and human drama with ‘Godzilla’. Just like his debut, ‘Monsters’, Edwards balances monster movie thrills with a touching and, at times, tragic relationship study.

We are introduced to three generations of an American family crippled by the devastating effects of human ignorance (nuclear research, in this case). Man of the moment, Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, a man so consumed by his work that his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is left virtually fatherless . . . and soon after, motherless, when a nuclear disaster strikes a Japanese power plant.

Fifteen years later and Ford’s had a son of his own, but his father’s guilt still lingers long in the memory. However, just like the titular beast, it soon resurfaces . . . gone, but never forgotten.

Thus begins the mayhem.

And what mayhem. Buildings tumble, bridges buckle and break . . . and that roar. The sound design is exceptional across the board but, when Gojira gets his roar on, that’s something else entirely. Quite simply, it’s one of the most memorable sounds of modern cinema. Combine that with the brilliant effects work (certainly on Godzilla, himself . . . less so on his foes) and your hair will be left well and truly blown back. Spittle flying and belly rippling; it’s feral, instinctual, terrifying and provides some of the film’s standout moments. It’s also refreshing to see the designers keeping schtum about how they went about creating it.

In fact, it’s great to see this cinematic legend handled with so much care and affection. News headlines towards the end of the movie refer to him as ‘King of the Monsters’ and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

But, that brings us to the real issue. When the monster is so well handled, many of the human characters pale in comparison. I felt much of the drama rang true - a couple of father-son observations, in particular - and, though I'm a sucker for it, the classic ‘man shouldn’t meddle’ warnings felt well integrated. But it’s not all plain sailing.

Although I love some of his work dearly (Kick-Ass!), I’m not convinced by Taylor-Johnson as a blockbuster lead. He certainly looks the part, but he lacks the maturity written for his character. It’s especially obvious when he’s placed opposite Cranston, who blows him out the water for sheer crazed emotiveness. He also struggles when it comes to his role as a father. Even when the writer, Max Borenstein, includes a couple of nice little father-figure moments, Taylor-Johnson looks uncomfortable. And if only Elizabeth Olsen wasn’t so good as his wife. She does a far better job when it comes to the family drama and I would have liked to see more of her.

To his credit though, Taylor-Johnson aces the military role . . . as does the film. I’m sure you’ve seen snippets by now, but there’s a superb HALO jump, and it stands as the greatest demonstration of Edwards knack for camera control. He draws real beauty from the dense, choked ash clouds and the stark fizz of the flares. Every frame of that sequence is picture-perfect. I never thought I’d say it but, if anything, it’s let down by the music. While the monolith theme from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is suitably chilling, it didn’t feel epic enough. And put simply, however glorious that set piece is, it’s never going to dislodge Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece. With such a talented composer on-board (Alexandre Desplat, whose work on this film is effective, but not his best), I would have liked to see an original composition accompanying that brilliantly original dive.

But those minor gripes aside, whatever your view on modern blockbuster storytelling, we live in world where studios are giving the Gareth Edwards of this world (Nolan, Whedon, Abrams etc.) hundreds of millions of dollars to create cinematic magic. It truly is a glorious world we live in.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1.22 – ‘Beginning of the End’ Review

Season finales are such a great opportunity to forget any previous missteps and just focus on the elements that really make a show tick. So fifteen minutes in to episode 22 and I was sorely disappointed. It was enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but nothing breath-taking.

Then a beautifully moving Fitz-Simmons scene had me right back on board. Those two minutes were the best we’ve seen of that pairing all season and they were finally shown to be three-dimensional characters with their own set of worries and problems. Thinking back to the pilot, and all the complaints about accents and goofy science geek stereotypes, just made that moment seem that much more delicate. It marked an excellent turn around . . . and nicely mirrored the season as a whole in its steady reveal of unknown depth and complexity.

And then the familiar hand that greeted the two of them put the cherry well and truly on top. The hand may have suffered through a couple of undeniably cheesy lines to get there but he provided a welcome boost of Avengers-fuelled energy and poignancy to the rest of the episode. This newfound burst of confidence finally marked the beginning of the season finale we deserved . . . and the one Marvel needed.

In a way only Marvel can, they also crammed a host of season 2 set-ups into the last five minutes and every single one of them hit the mark brilliantly. A bit of excitement here, a dose of chills there and a nail-biting mystery to wrap it all up.

They made me forget about the meandering early episodes, the flat-pack characters and the cheesy tone. Instead, it got me desperately excited for season 2.

And, what’s even more encouraging is that I think the writers know how to build on these foundations. We’ve seen a huge improvement this season alone and with the additional months of preparation, I think they can finally deliver on the promise of a blockbuster Marvel TV show.

In Coulson we trust.

The finale: 9/10

The season: 8/10