Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Jurassic World – Tyranno-Sequel Rex

One of the central conceits of Jurassic World is that the world is bored of ‘de-extinction’ (as the film puts it). It’s that desensitisation that triggers the suits to kick-start the genetic engineering of a brand new attraction; the monstrous Indominus Rex.

And, I’ve found myself struggling with this concept. Can that really be true? Can people be bored of dinosaurs? Because I’m certainly not . . .

The greatest scenes in this franchise reboot are the moments that revel in the magic of de-extinction. The triceratops roaming across the island, an injured apatosaurus mewing in pain . . .

So what a shame, then, that these sparkles are so few and far between. One shot shows us attendees canoeing past a pack of herbivores drinking from the river . . . for a second or two, until the camera whips round to a pair of speeding 4x4s desperately chasing after the loose killing machine.

The movie’s so focused on dino-destruction that they’ve lost track of the wonder that made Jurassic Park such a hit in the first place. There’s nothing here that matches the spine-tingling effect of seeing these great beasts up on the big screen for the first time. The CG effects are slick, and surprisingly hefty, but Spielberg’s blend of practical and digital effects is ultimately far more immersive.

One area where the film does shine, however, is the sound design. The medley of piercing screeches and guttural roars are suitably bone-rattling. But, there’s another layer to the film’s soundscape, Michael Giacchino’s (occasionally dazzling) score.

Yet, like the film as a whole, Giacchino’s at his best when he’s swooning over these great beasts, rather than poking and prodding them. His magical theme is lost in amongst the regimented military orchestration accompanying the action sequences. To the extent that there’s never more than ten seconds or so of the central hook on any of the tracks on the soundtrack album.

The parallels between the plot of the movie and the (presumed) production meetings are uncanny (and don’t go by unreferenced). They wanted something bigger, scarier and more thrilling; I didn’t . . .


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Birdman – Boyhood Beater

Birdman was pretty much the only major slip-up during last year’s crop of awards contenders.

Now, that’s not to say there isn’t some great stuff here. The cast are superb, with Michael Keaton on suitably deranged form as washed up actor, Riggan Thompson, attempting to put on a comeback play. Likewise, Zach Galifianakis’ performance suggests he should just give up on ‘comedy’ and stick with drama (albeit darkly comic drama), plus Emma Stone’s on great form (particularly during one barnstorming monologue) and Edward Norton . . . well, that’s true acting if I ever saw it.

So, what a shame it is then that the rest of the movie is engulfed by an overwhelming cloud of highfalutin tosh. Even those excellent performances are burdened with an air of self-indulgence. The technically brilliant camerawork (seamless cuts, resulting in virtually the entire movie looking like a single take) is distracting and uncomfortably showy. The cinematography is just too overtly ‘look-at-me!’ to ever blend into the background. It’s noticeable throughout and that just reinforces the fact that you’re watching a movie, which is far from ideal.

That being said, I’d like to take this opportunity to praise the lighting department and the editors. Their work here is world-beating and, without these guys and girls at the top of their game, Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography wouldn’t have received half the praise it did.

And then we get to the downright pretentious. The percussion-dominated score is truly painful, at times. I would have rather had a score performed entirely on castanets than the deafening racket we have here. It’s bizarre and, once again, terribly distracting. Too the point that it drowns out some of the dialogue, in fact. While many of the lines are spat and screamed, there are some real gems in amongst the roughage . . . so what a shame that many of them fly past unheard.

And, to finish, I may be biased, but I don’t take too kindly to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s (director and co-writer) treatment of critics. Not only is it painfully hostile, but it’s cynical and nihilistic. I didn’t even get the idea that this was just stemming from the characters. It seems Iñárritu and his team genuinely share these sentiments and I’ve got very little time for that.


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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Southern District – Technically Masterful and Dramatically Nuanced

First screened in the UK at the London Film Festival back in 2010, Juan Carlos Valdivia’s challenging drama Southern District (or Zona Sur, in the film’s native Spanish) has finally made it to the DVD/VOD market.

The film centres on a white upper class family living in La Paz, Bolivia, during a time of major cultural upheaval. Referred to by some as the end of the ‘Bolivian Apartheid’, this period saw the first Aymaran (one of the country’s largest indigenous peoples) President rise to power in a country that had been dominated by descendants of the early European settlers for so long.

However, this is no triumphant call to arms, instead the film takes a highly understated and almost subdued approach to this cultural transformation.

Ninón del Castillo (a non-actor, like the rest of the cast) leads the family as Carola, a recently divorced mother of three. The drama then follows the individual members of this family, along with a their two Aymaran servants, as their slice of the high-life begins to crumble beneath them.

But there’s no major crash, many of these issues are merely implied by the interactions between the different family members. A disapproving glance here and a particularly feisty reply from one of the servants become the key to following the nuanced dramatic progression.

Valdivia also makes use of a series of brilliant sequence shots (entire scenes consisting of just a single shot). He sends his camera swivelling gracefully on the family dinner table, following the conversation around the room and delivering a unique viewing experience. The ever-moving camera stands at odds with the measured pace of the drama, but it does make for some exquisitely beautiful shots.

Not only is the camera movement a challenge to pull off, but the lighting and the performances have to be pitch perfect to match. Five minute takes ask a great deal of the actors and they have to hit every cue, not only with their lines but also spatially. So what a relief that Valdivia’s cast deliver such superbly naturalistic performances. The youngest child, played by Nicolás Fernández, is particularly impressive and he delivers one of the most accomplished performances by a child actor that you will see this year. His relationship with Wilson, the male servant, is also one of the most engaging and well-handled narrative threads in the film; thanks, in part, to Fernández’s delicate performance.

If nothing else, Southern District is a masterful exercise in cinematic technique, but there’s more to it than that. The film has an overriding sense of dramatic nuance that Western cinema so rarely provides. It may not be the pulse-raising cultural revolution piece it could have been (in clumsier hands, might I add), but Valdivia’s film provides a far deeper portrait of a country in the process of metamorphosis.


This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.

Dying of the Light – Homeland-lite

Nicholas Cage is an enigma, and in his latest thriller, Dying of the Light, we get to see him at both extremes. Much of Cage’s work here is effective. He seems invested in the performance and, at times, a welcome sincerity shines through. But there’s always the danger of him tipping over from the sublime to the ridiculous . . .

In an instant, Cage can raise his voice and it all just falls to pieces, further fuelling his wacky internet persona. It’s bizarre, and it always seems to accompany his final sentences. Too many scenes start on point and then end with a laughable Cage exclamation.

In Cage’s defence, writer-director Paul Schrader (most well-known for writing two Martin Scorsese’s classics, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) doesn’t give him the best dialogue to work with and a lot of his lines just come across as clumsy. As does the plotting . . .

Cage plays Evan Lake, an ex-CIA agent suffering from the onset of a rare form of dementia who thirsts for revenge against the presumed-dead Muhhamed Banir (Alexander Karim), the man who tortured him 22 years prior. Seemingly out of the blue, Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin, making the strange choice to channel his inner Elijah Wood) stumbles across an order of obscure medication matching the illness Lake believes Banir continues to suffer from. Lake and Schultz then team up and take the fight to Mombasa, via Budapest, to try and track down Banir.

It’s a bizarre central conceit for a spy thriller and all the disease talk just feels odd. So much of the film seems desperate to play up the Homeland-esque elements; the disgraced agent, the mental illness and the Middle Eastern antagonists (Banir, as opposed to Nazir). But, there’s no commentary on US international policy, just one man’s inconsequential vendetta.

And, for a ‘thriller’, there’s a severe lack of action and suspense. A car chase, a foot chase, a bizarre mano-a-mano showdown and a final fire fight all pass with none lingering long in the memory. That is, apart from one left-field method of attack which stands as yet another example of the bizarre villain. For one, his disease ensures he has absolutely no physical screen presence and it’s not even like he has some death-to-America grand plan.

Talking of Hollywood thriller stereotypes, the movie is peppered with uncomfortable casual racism from Lake. Now, this may be a conscious decision to paint Lake as a man caught in the past, but it just ends up reinforcing the antiquated and pedestrian feel of the movie. There’s a similar question when it comes to the pacing; is it so rhythmically challenged because Lake suffers from dementia? Who knows, and who cares, quite frankly.

Dying of the Light starts promisingly enough and, for much of the running time, Cage does a fair job of playing a CIA agent out for revenge. But, that soon fades, as the focus turns to the antagonist’s disease, and there’s little to hold our interest with each increasingly bizarre plot point.


This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.

Halo: Nightfall – Even the fans will be disappointed . . .

It’s hardly surprisingly that Microsoft Studios (the publishers of the hugely successful ‘Halo’ games) and 343 Industries (the developers) have put so much effort into the franchise, because Halo’s science fiction universe has a great deal to offer.

Big guns, bigger enemies, an iconic (and visually distinctive) set of antagonists, reams of mythology, endless sumptuous backdrops and an established poster boy (Master Chief, the green armoured super-soldier adorning the games’ cover art) . . . the list goes on. It’s strange, then, that Halo: Nightfall chooses to ignore pretty much all of that.

Billed as a bridge between the franchise’s most recent instalment, ‘Halo 4’, and the upcoming ‘Halo 5: Guardians’, Nightfall introduces us to a new hero, Agent Locke. His job; to lead a small team on a treacherous mission to destroy the universe’s sole deposit of a deadly new substance and ensure it never falls into the wrong hands.

We’ll start with Locke, if I may. 343 have promised us Locke for ‘Halo 5’, so when we’re told that only two of our Nightfall team will get out alive . . . well, the tension barely registers.

And the rest of the movie’s no better. By crafting a singular, self-contained narrative, not only have they turned away from the games’ well-established foundations, but they’ve reduced the stakes infinitely. Truth be told, Nightfall feels like cheap extended universe work, despite the $10m price tag. Sure they chuck in references to the Covenant and the Forerunners and the props look the real deal, but this isn’t Halo.

They’ve taken a living, breathing sci-fi universe and boiled it down to a B-movie monster picture (did I mention the killer worms?). They’ve given up on the mysterious, brooding lead (Master Chief) and given us a bunch of two-dimensional marines. It just feels so generic; Pitch Black’s night vs. day stuff, Aliens’ marines and Edge of Tomorrow’s shape-shifting foe . . . the list goes on.

Even Halo’s iconic, and rather brilliant, music is ditched in favour of a totally unforgettable action score. The performances are poor (is that David Morrissey’s long-lost half-cousin?) and the dialogue worse (‘I remember my childhood on the north coast of England’ . . . what does that even mean?).

Halo is a franchise notable for its use of bright colours and bold visuals – the aliens fly purple spaceships, for goodness sake! – yet, for some reason, Nightfall abandons us in the greyest location imaginable. But, at least the colour palette matches the marines’ personalities; can somebody please let the creators know that dramatic doesn’t always have to mean humourless!

I’m unsure what was lost in the transition from serialised five-part TV show to feature-length movie, but Halo: Nightfall is Halo in name only. Give up on this rubbish and just watch the far-superior Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn; it’s leagues ahead.

This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.