Sunday, 23 June 2013

Film Review | Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

Regardless of individual or popular opinion, Beasts Of The Southern Wild has its place in cinematic history set thanks to achieving the youngest nomination for a Best Actress Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards for its nine-year-old star Quvenzhané Wallis. It's a shame then that the performances of Wallis alongside co-star Dwight Henry are the only thing worth recommending in a film seriously lacking in substance or cohesion.

The film is at its strongest when Wallis and Henry share screen time on their own, both giving performances which play off each other pleasingly. Even though Wink (Henry) is regularly quite cruel to his five-year-old daughter Hushpuppy (Wallis), often without any real reason other than to take out his frustrations of their harsh living conditions, by the film's conclusion the pair have managed to craft a touching and unique relationship on screen. Disappointingly, the rest of Beasts Of The Southern Wild's cast of characters is either distractingly irritating or so fleetingly seen as to be severely lacking in depth. Either way you'll find yourself caring very little about anyone other than Hushpuppy and Wink.

The problems elsewhere are even less easy to forgive. The film takes place in a world seemingly set sometime in the relatively near future, but presented as equal parts stark realism and childlike fantasy. Both views bleed into each other through the viewpoint and narration we are given by Hushpuppy, but largely work to cancel each other out. Director Benh Zeitlin shows a knack for shooting nature at its harshest and most extreme, but the fantastical edge regularly applied to the film severely dulls any moralistic or environmental message he was going for. By the same token, the elements presumably happening in Hushpuppy's imagination lack vibrance and magic when presented through such a starkly grim lens. Elsewhere, Zeitlin's attempts at linking his film into a deeper mythology - such as a floating nightclub called "Elysian Fields" - feel like weak efforts to raise the film to a higher literary level and quickly fall flat.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild ultimately manages the feat of coming across as incredibly preachy whilst at the same time saying and being about nothing. Zeitlin's narrative is almost arrogantly haphazard, as if the director feels he is above a cohesive story, and his message feels sanctimonious without having a core set of beliefs to base itself around. Despite a running time of just an hour and a half, this drags. Zeitlin is lucky in that his film at least looks good, and that he has two talented actors in the lead roles. Without these two saving graces, maybe the Academy would have seen through the Emperor's new clothes in which Beasts Of The Southern Wild constantly wraps itself.


Film Review | The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead seems to have had something of a resurgence of interest of late due to the fact that a big budget remake-cum-reboot was released earlier this year. Despite generally being quite well-received (certainly in comparison to other recent horror remakes), there was outcry amongst many fans of the original 1981 film that anyone even dare touch such an iconic entry into the horror genre. More than anything, that serves to prove just how loved The Evil Dead is by many, making it one of the most enduring cult favourites in cnematic history despite its shoestring budget and fairly basic structure.

It's clear from the very start that Sam Raimi's directorial debut was created with very little money in the coffers. This is the direct opposite of Raimi's most recent CGI-heavy feature, Oz The Great And Powerful, leaving the director only his skill behind the camera to create the story and tone of his piece. Raimi understands precisely how to generate fear and tension from the simplest of techniques, and builds up the creepy atmosphere brilliantly during the film's first half before allowing himself to go all out in the final forty minutes or so. The inventive nature of Raimi's low-tech monsters and gore, clearly influenced by the stop-motion style of Ray Harryhausen, retains its charm more than thirty years after the film was first released. Many modern horror films can barely manage thirty days, which reinforces Raimi's talent as a filmmaker even further.

The cast do well as a whole, but there's a reason this was the film that made Bruce Campbell's name in cult cinema and horror circles. Whilst his performance at the start of the film is perfunctory, even forgettable, by the time most of the other actors performances involve being creepy and possessed (a task at which all do effectively) Campbell shows an energy and over-the-top charm that is impossible not to enjoy. His turn is never Oscar-winning stuff, but it fits the tone of The Evil Dead perfectly.

If you're looking for a complex story with lots of character development, The Evil Dead will almost certainly disappoint. The story can be summed up in one sentence, and there are several elements introduced to hurry the monsters along without any further depth added to them later on. And, although it's not surprising that a film made over three decades ago for such a small amount of money has some notable cracks now showing, it's also something that cannot be ignored entirely. For all of its B-movie charm, The Evil Dead does feel dated at several points, particularly during its rather clunky opening act. Overall, however, this remains an enjoyable and inventive horror cult classic, as well as a solid document of a young Sam Raimi's cinematic flair and creativity.


Friday, 21 June 2013

Film Review | Lost Highway (1997)

There are, in general, two ways to watch a David Lynch film. The first is to see it as a puzzle: something to be worked out, picked apart, theorised about and ultimately solved. This is a dangerous route to take, because if Lynch's films are puzzles then there is almost certainly more than one way to "solve" most of them, and it's almost never clear which (if any) is the way Lynch intended them to be pieced together. The second way to watch Lynch's work is to see them as pure art - leave the intricacies, the conundrums and the enigmas, and just let a surrealist tsunami engulf you.

Reviewing a David Lynch film therefore needs to take in both perspectives, and with Lost Highway there's a lot you can say about both. As a cinematic riddle, this is one of Lynch's most accomplished head-scratchers. The key is to be found in a line Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) says near the start of the film: "I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened". Much of Lost Highway is undoubtedly seen from Fred's point of view, which begs the question of exactly how much of what we're seeing is "what actually happened" and how much is purely Fred's perspective. Things get even more complex when Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) enters the story; how he's linked to Madison is never fully explained by Lynch, allowing each viewer to come to their own conclusions.

As an artistic work, this is up there with Lynch's very best. The director gets the best out of his whole cast; particularly noteworthy are Patricia Arquette in a femmes fatale dual role, and Robert Blake as one of the most genuinely unsettling and chilling characters you're likely to ever encounter on screen. Lynch's bizarre genius is on show throughout the film, with the first truly mind-bending meeting between Pullman and Blake's characters likely to stay with you for a long time to come. As you'd expect from Lynch, his choice of camera angles and cinematography is consistently individual and expertly constructed lending Lost Highway an ethereal and irresistable nightmarish quality.

Lost Highway feels like the natural predecessor to 2001's Mulholland Drive. It's almost like the director was refining here the methods and tone presented in the later work. Despite its many strengths, Lost Highway isn't perfect largely because, despite the clear craft and artistry that has gone into its creation, it is quite regularly almost too obtuse and indecipherable to truly enjoy. There'll undoubtedly be several moments throughout where you'll have to be honest with yourself and admit that, even if you're captivated by Lynch's film, you have very little idea of what's actually going on. But in many ways, that's the beauty of the work of David Lynch: it can leave you completely bewildered and at the same time entirely certain that what you're watching is utterly brilliant.


Monday, 17 June 2013

Film Review | Hunger (2008)

It's easy in many ways to tell that Hunger is the work of Steve McQueen, the director who brought us Shame: a captivating central performance from Michael Fassbender; a subject which deals with humanity at its most raw and vulnerable, but also at its most destructive and savage; and a directorial panache which makes the film at times feel less like a feature and more like an art installation. But it's also easy to tell that this was made earlier than McQueen's modern masterpiece - the hallmarks are there, but the director's approach occasionally alienates a little too much.

Central to Hunger is its crowning glory, a scene well over twenty minutes in length featuring only Bobby Sands (Fassbender) and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) talking over the hunger strike Sands intends to take as an inmate of the Maze Prison during the Troubles. Featuring a single shot around seventeen minutes long, each man on either side of a table in an empty room, this is McQueen laying his cards out on the table in bold and uncompromising fashion. The entire sequence is note perfect, the two actor glancing off each other to perfection with Fassbender in particular bringing an intensity so brazen and enigmatic its impossible to resist, and the script delivering some of the most powerful moments of the whole film.

Either side of this extraordinary middle section, things are still undoubtedly impressive but feel less successful. The opening half an hour of the film presents a patchwork of events from both inmates' and prison officers' lives at Maze, offering little in the way of narrative structure or indeed exposition. If you're not already familiar with this particular period during the Troubles, McQueen offers little to educate you, opting instead to show you his artistic vision of life in Maze Prison which regularly impresses and confounds in equal measure. Fassbender's main character isn't introduced until around a third of the way in, a bold decision which ultimately works but is likely to be at least somewhat bewildering on a first viewing.

McQueen ends his film by again opting for images rather than a traditionally structured narrative, presenting us with some of the film's most harrowing moments as we witness Sands' deterioration and decay through Fassbender's astounding physical commitment to the role. Once again, the finished product feels more like an art installation than a feature film at several points, and whilst the film here is regularly striking, there are bold decisions made by the director which don't always pay off. McQueen undoubtedly has justification for showing us an extended sequence of a prison officer dousing a corridor with cleaning fluid, then sweeping the fluid from one end of the corridor to the other, but what his reasons are just don't feel clear enough to justify such a prolonged and, frankly, uninteresting moment.

Hunger is a film to admire and appreciate artistically, but not necessarily to enjoy in the same way as McQueen's later effort Shame. The director's panache with crafting powerful images is never in any doubt, but at the same time this feels a little too esoteric and metaphorical meaning Hunger often treads a fine line of accessibility. That said, as directorial debut's go, this is one of the most powerful and promising the 21st Century has seen so far.


Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Film Review | Rise Of The Guardians (2012)

DreamWorks' latest computer-animated effort (on paper at least) promises folklore's answer to Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble. In reality, what we get is unfocused, unambitious and underwhelming.

Let's start with the "guardians" themselves: a ragtag bunch of secular figures from various myths and traditions but who it is explained here are real, chosen to look over children throughout the world. The roll call is pretty impressive; it's just a shame that each member is either woefully unoriginal or just not very interesting. Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin) is largely a shameless rip-off of Gru from Despicable Me - even his elves are carbon copies of Gru's minions in every way other than appearance - with clumsy Russian stereotypes (two big swords and a Cossack hat, anyone?) slapped on to fill the gaps. Hugh Jackman's Easter Bunny, an anthropomorphic animal warrior who throws boomerangs, is more confusing than anything else. It's not clear whether the character is given Australian iconography due to Jackman's accent, or whether Jackman was chosen to fit the character's traits - either way it neither works nor makes sense, and an explanation is never even hinted at. The Sandman, an imp-like mute, is mainly an excuse for a few half-cooked gags ("Sandy! You should have said something"), and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is entirely forgettable.

Which just leaves Jack Frost (Chris Pine), the protagonist and latest guardian who you'll really struggle to care about, partly because of Pine's bland performance and partly because of David Lindsay-Abaire's pedestrian script which provides just one short sequence to give the character any depth or development. The whole thing never hangs together in any meaningful or satisfying way: the story takes far too long to get going, failing to truly hold your attention when it does; the characters lack chemistry, never feeling like the team they're meant to be; and the motivations of all involved, including Jude Law's generic villain Pitch Black, feel decidedly vague and flimsy from start to finish removing any genuine threat or urgency from the film's events.

All of this boils down to yet another sub-par DreamWorks animated effort. Even the animation itself, at times the saving grace of the studio's more recent films, feels unimpressive. There are some admirable attempts at bringing to life the various realms the mythical figures inhabit, and the main laughs come from the actions of Santa's yetis (yes, Santa has more than one yeti in Rise Of The Guardians), but the positive points are too few and far between to make it a film worth recommending. It's never offensively bad, nor does it plumb the depths of crudity or unkindness in an attempt at laughs, something unfortunately seen more and more in films made to entertain children. Rise Of The Guardians isn't a stinker on the level of Shrek The Third, thusfar DreamWorks' greatest and most repugnant failure, but it is seriously misjudged and a major disappointment.


Sunday, 2 June 2013

Film Review | Gambit (2012)

"Development hell" is one of those movie terms that seems to make any film it's applied to a free-for-all for derisive comment. Any negative issues are automatically inflated, with the good points often conveniently overlooked. True, there are examples of truly awful films making their way out of "development hell", but there are probably just as many - if not more - that eventually emerge to provide at least a fair amount of entertainment. A remake of 1966 Michael Caine film Gambit has apparently been on the cards since 1997, with everyone from Jennifer Aniston to Ben Kingsley attached to various roles. Fifteen years later, the finished product was finally released and (surprise surprise!) panned by many. Unfairly, I might add. Whilst Gambit isn't a comedy masterpiece, it has plenty of worth to offer.

The film's promotional material makes a lot of the fact that its screenplay is written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and whilst this is certainly nowhere near the brothers' best work, there's enough here to entertain with some snappy dialogue throughout. One exchange between Harry (Colin Firth) and P.J. (Cameron Diaz) overheard by two hotel employees with an entirely more lascivious meaning is a highlight straight from the playbook of classic British sitcom or one of the better Carry On films. Both Firth and Alan Rickman as his bully of a boss Lord Shahbandar get the majority of the script's best material, but there are pleasing moments for some other characters too.

That said, nobody here is exactly stretched to their dramatic heights: Firth's performance wavers between awkward upper-middle class Brit and Michael Caine impersonation, but is entertaining throughout nonetheless showing an aptitude for visual humour not often seen from him; Rickman is fine with his usual deprecating act, mixing in some smarm for good measure; less convincing is Diaz with a lazy performance and a Texan drawl that lacks authenticity even to my English ears. Tom Courtenay and Stanley Tucci are sadly given little of interest to do, with the latter channeling his best stereotypical German as if he'd been given some old copies of 'Allo 'Allo to watch as research for the role.

The humour occasionally falls back on lazy attempts at laughs - Rickman in the buff a couple of times, and even a cheap (albeit very well-timed) fart joke - but there's also enough eccentricity and caper-style comedy here to keep things amusing and enjoyable. It's never anything of substance or truly memorable, but Gambit manages to provide entertainment enough to make it a worthwhile watch.


Saturday, 1 June 2013

Film Review | The Sapphires (2012)

Chris O'Dowd seems to be something of a flavour of the moment across the pond in Hollywood. Having made his name here in the UK as grouchy computer geek Roy in Channel 4 sitcom The IT Crowd, O'Dowd suddenly managed the transition to feature films, becoming the go-to guy for a fresh, alternative Irish or British (interchangeable in Hollywood) addition to a cast. So far, he's held his own but failed to impress me with turns in the likes of Bridesmaids and Friends With Kids, partly because the parts he was cast in could easily have been played just as well or better by any number of other young actors - Irish, British, American or otherwise. His central turn in Australian-made movie The Sapphires however is exactly the kind of role O'Dowd needs to find for himself, and is also his first feature performance to truly catch my attention.

The Sapphires brings together an eclectic mix of genres and themes including musical, comedy, romance and war, as well as being based on a true story. It's a mix which could promise something for everyone, but also one which requires director Wayne Blair to maintain a careful balance to make sure the whole thing doesn't end up a complete mess. Pleasingly, things end up mostly okay. The soul tunes throughout deliver pleasing entertainment, and whilst not ever joke hits its mark there's plenty here to make you chuckle, thanks mostly to the relaxed and confident performance from O'Dowd as Dave Lovelace, the aboriginal girl group's Irish manager.

The romance takes its time to get going, but by the film's final act it's been given enough time to develop into one of the film's strongest assets. As far as the film's handling of its primary setting - the Vietnam war - it admittedly does feel a little too light at several points, shying away from revealing any of the true horrors. That in itself isn't a serious issue - the film is primarily a musical comedy, and plenty of other films have used war as a backdrop without dealing with death and violence head-on - but it does give the film something of an artificially upbeat feeling at times. The treatment of aborigines in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s is also dealt with at a few points with a greater level of success.

There are some issues here which can't be ignored, however. The performances from the four members of the titular aboriginal girl group range from pleasingly strong (Deborah Mailman) to decidedly clunky (Jessica Mauboy, clearly here only for her singing ability). Structurally the film feels somewhat uneven too, with a first act that rushes through several ideas with very little development leaving things feeling flimsy and amateurish at first. There are also a few threads left hanging without any resolution, and one particular scene involving Dave and the girls under threat from a group of Viet Cong soldiers offers a resolution so unbelievable without any explanation as to be laughable.

Despite its flaws, The Sapphires remains an enjoyable film that deserves credit for setting itself some challenging goals. Whilst it doesn't succeed in everything it attempts, Blair's film is an admirable and entertaining piece of cinema with both brains and spirit.