Cinema Lottery #8

cinema 8 world war z

After a brief hiatus, the FDA’s fortnightly press days have returned. As with previous weeks, the films were mostly average (perhaps the most damning critique) and, thinking about 2013’s releases so far, this seems to be a trend. Is this going to be a largely forgotten year in cinema? Feel free to let me know your thoughts.

World War Z
Release date: 21 June 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

It’s been plagued with problems – a sloppy trailer, delayed release, lengthy reshoots (some twenty minutes of the final sequence are new), the entirely unnecessary addition of 3D – but World War Z is not the disaster that was anticipated. That being said, it’s far from perfect. It sits most comfortably among disaster films, rather than zombie movies and, even then, is most reminiscent of Roland Emmerich’s overly-ambitious, ultimately disappointing 2012. In fact, its general format is almost identical, albeit with the undead replacing volcanoes, earthquakes, and tidal waves: father Gerry (Brad Pitt) travels from one location to another, narrowly escaping major catastrophe each time. His global exploits culminate in a small facility in Wales, where the previously large-scale action is reduced to a handful of zombies – its pace is jarringly slow in contrast to the frenetic bedlam of early sequences and it’s an unsatisfying anti-climax. Much like a number of recent weak horror films, World War Z winds down the action, rather than builds up to it, and none of the later sequences match the opening scene’s tension, fear, or panic.

Despite being based on Max Brooks’ novel of the same name, World War Z takes little from its source. Gone is the clever political and social subtext (a staple of the zombie genre), and absent are some of the book’s most memorable scenarios. This is a film that, if you dig below the surface, you just find more surface. If you suspend your disbelief and accept that, in the entire world, a man called Gerry is the only person who can possibly conceive of a cure, it’s a fairly entertaining two hours, but that’s all it is. Horror fans will be appalled at its bloodlessness: the swarming, racing, feral undead may have teeth, but we never get to see the aftermath. Yet there are some exciting moments – the demise of Israel, for instance, and the effect of an unwanted stowaway on a jumbo jet – but, as apocalypses go, bizarrely this one lacks any sense of peril.

Despicable Me 2
Release date: 28 June 2013
Rating: 2.5/5

When its predecessor was released, not-so-bad bad-guy Gru’s minions were the film’s biggest surprise and biggest success. This time around, they take centre stage – they are at the forefront of all publicity and advertising, so much so that Despicable Me 2‘s plot seemed to be largely irrelevant. They are, however, also central in this regard, but it’s not necessarily to the film’s benefit. These adorable, dungaree-wearing, party-loving morons, who speak in unintelligible gibberish and create more problems for their creator, are better when they are supporting characters and, in their attempts to give them as much screen time as possible, the overall narrative has been compromised. While the sequel continues, and completes, the unconventional family unit established in the first film, at the same time it is this family that is sidelined here. Gru (Steve Carell) spends little time with his adopted daughters, while the girls themselves seem to feature only as an afterthought, and the main story – Gru is enlisted by the Ant-Villain League to locate a new baddie – offers a number of possibilities that are bypassed in favour of, you guessed it, more minions.

The biggest shame here is that the once-novel minions have, by their overuse, become dull, and there is little else in the film to get excited about. Kristen Wiig provides the voice to love interest Lucy, a quirky cutie who contrasts well with awkward Gru, but their narrative is the only one that doesn’t feel rushed and under-developed. Visually, Despicable Me 2 retains the colourful pizazz of the first – it’s bright and cheery, with some refreshingly gimmicky 3D moments. As a kids’ film, it’s harmless and pleasant, but neither as funny nor as engaging as its predecessor.

Snitch
Release date: 21 June 2013
Rating: 3/5

Loosely based on a PBS/Frontline documentary, Snitch may be marketed as a fast-paced action thriller, but is less focused on exaggerated fight sequences than on the lengths a father will go to to protect his son. Here, the dad in question is John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), whose teenage son is set up by a friend desperate to avoid a jail sentence for drug dealing. Desperate to see his son released, John elects to become an informant, infiltrating a drug cartel specifically so that he can offer the District Attorney a trade. Both the documentary that inspired the film, and the film itself, aim to highlight the irrationally lengthy jail terms imposed by officials, specifically designed to create snitches.

For once, Johnson’s impressive physique is not exploited here – he keeps his shirt on, and the only fight scene involves him being beaten up. In fact, his physical appearance is irrelevant. So too is his trademark charisma and charm (that big smile only features once); instead he displays a sensitivity and a subtlety that has largely gone unnoticed until now. John’s need to save his son feels authentic throughout, as does his increasing frustration as to the government officials’ exploitation of him. Supporting Johnson are Susan Sarandon, as the DA, and Jon Bernthal, who is excellent as an ex-con enlisted by John to introduce him to his mark.

It’s a shame that writer-director Ric Roman Waugh feels the need to include a rather preposterous conclusion to his narrative. The authenticity of the story, and its message, are compromised by the characters’ sudden ambivalence towards the sanctity of human life – it may be wicked drug dealers who are quickly dispatched, but there is no indication as to even the slightest twinge from John’s conscience, nor are there apparently any repercussions. Snitch‘s conclusion panders to both the action genre and to Johnson’s reputation as an action star, to its detriment. It may not be a memorable film, but it does provide an indication as to Johnson’s continuing development as an actor, and for that reason more than any other, was a pleasant surprise.

Hummingbird
Release date: 28 June 2013
Rating: 2/5

(Spoiler alert – though it barely matters.)
Firstly, let me say: while I am a massive fan of Dwayne Johnson, I have yet to submit to the cult of Jason Statham. Both appear to share similarities though, in that their biggest successes (to date) have been the films that allow them to kick ass, wise crack, and generally not take themselves too seriously. Both also appear to be attempting to break away from this role, and perhaps it is my bias that lets me claim Johnson is doing a better job than the Stath. While I have already said that Snitch is rather unremarkable, with the exception of Johnson’s performance, Hummingbird is, quite frankly, a mess – it too takes itself seriously, and appears to have some kind of message (this time about the effects of war on soldiers) but it is a garbled, incoherent film that, despite some sharp cinematography, rapidly succumbs to the very stupidity it appears to be trying to avoid.

Statham is predominantly one-note as Joey Jones, a homeless, alcoholic former soldier suffering from PTSD who literally falls into an empty apartment one day and decides to clean up his life. Over the course of six months, he goes from pot washer to gangster, working for a Chinese family as a driver/heavy. He searches for a girl with whom he shared a box during his homeless days, and then searches for the man who killed her after she is forced into prostitution. He falls in love with a mousy Polish nun, who is the most saintly person in the world despite her troubled past (involving, of course, sexual abuse as a child). He does nothing to reconnect with his daughter, except partake in a bizarre, stilted photoshoot and stockpile vast quantities of money. He also pretends he’s gay, buys the homeless people pizzas, and hallucinates hummingbirds – just the once, mind you – presumably so the pretentious title becomes relevant. It’s overly complicated but mindlessly simple; the writers seem incapable of concentrating on any one thing, and neither his character progression nor his actions are believable, interesting, or engaging. Quite frankly, I was rolling my eyes long before he threw the misogynistic toff off the building.

Now You See Me
Release date: 3 July 2013
Rating: 3/5

With a great ensemble cast, including Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave “brother of James” Franco, and Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me is a perfectly entertaining, if ultimately forgettable, film, combining the wonder of magic (the Las Vegas show kind, not the supernatural kind) with the intrigue of elaborate heist thrillers. It’s light-hearted and unpretentious, and the “big reveal” may come as little surprise to anyone who’s seen any number of similar previous films (The Usual Suspects and Ocean’s Eleven in particular), but it’s not trying to be anything more than fun and, in this respect, works well.

Eisenberg, Fisher, Franco and Harrelson are four magicians, each with different strengths, who are given a common objective by a mystery person. After this introduction, the film’s focus quickly switches to concentrate on FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo), tasked with capturing these “Four Horsemen” after they somehow manage to rob a Parisian bank during their first Las Vegas show. What follows is a fairly formulaic cat-and-mouse chase, with added mystique thanks to the seemingly wondrous abilities of the magicians. As the exposer of illusions, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) provides the how, but not the why, of the gang’s actions but, of course, this is a film filled with deception and subterfuge so, naturally, red herrings abound. My recommendation is, don’t think about it too much, but sit back and enjoy the (rather ridiculous) ride.

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