Cinema Lottery #14

cinema 14 into the storm

Into the Storm; Two Days, One Night; Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For; Obvious Child

Into the Storm
Release date: 20 August 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Almost twenty years after Twister, it’s quite surprising that it’s taken this long for a new tornado-themed disaster movie to make it to the big screen. The trailers for Into the Storm looked mildly promising: trashy, no doubt, and clichéd, naturally, but with the promise of some full blown destruction. Yet what the trailers don’t show is that the whole film is shot as a found footage movie – a pointless, incoherent decision. Whether the footage originates from professional tornado-chasing documentary makers or by two redneck adrenaline morons, it all looks the same. Even worse, there are frequently unmotivated camera angles – conversations are framed in the classic shot-reverse-shot technique, despite there being only one cameraman in the scene, overhead shots come from nowhere. Ostensibly the “found footage” style exists to add tension, but it never achieves this.

The characters themselves are all nondescript, and subplots like a blossoming teen romance are abandoned quickly. At one point a character instructs another to look after the footage because the film “might save lives one day” – how it could ever achieve this is unknown, because the science is non-existent. Like Twister, the final setpiece involves characters seeing the eye of the tornado – as though this is something new, when it’s already been achieved by both professional and amateur storm chasers in real life. Yet this is a film with the most generic, uninspiring of screenplays, so it’s little surprise that the motivation is mundane. That being said, some of the destruction is pretty nifty. It makes no sense, of course – whether a tiny little spout or a mile-wide behemoth (all of which instantaneously appear), all the tornadoes cause the same amount of damage: total carnage. Yet although it’s no doubt fun (for disaster movie fans, at least) to watch an airport be destroyed, or to see a fire-nado (a real thing), the best bits are all shown in the trailer. There’s simply not enough in the rest of the film to be worth watching. Perhaps the biggest problem is it takes itself too seriously. It appears to actually have honourable, educational intentions, despite being little better than a SyFy original movie. Truth is, if you want a good disaster movie, watch Twister and, if you want a bad one, why would you watch this when you could watch Sharknado?

Two Days, One Night
Release date: 22 August 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

The latest film by the Dardenne brothers, this is a gentle drama following Sandra (Marion Cotillard) over a weekend as she attempts to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. It’s a simple premise but an interesting one, and there are no real villains here – just normal people, trying to survive in a difficult world where, unfortunately, being selfish is often a necessity. Cotillard is entirely convincing as Sandra, who is hoping to return to work following extended sick leave due to a bout of depression. Her problems are cited as one of the reasons why she should not be brought back – her work may be compromised by her mental state. And if there is a problem with the Dardennes’ screenplay it is that she doesn’t seem to be ready. She cries over the smallest thing, is clearly stressed and fragile, and seems to barely be keeping herself together. Gaining equal support and rejection, as Monday looms closer she takes even more drastic measures, surely indicating that there is still a long way to go before she is truly stable, but it passes by with almost as little ceremony as any other moment in the film.

Despite the film’s simplicity, it’s not boring, largely due to the variety of characters Sandra meets. Two Days, One Night adopts an almost segmented structure, as Sandra goes to speak to each of her sixteen colleagues, hoping to sway them to her side. Although some of the conversations become a bit repetitive (particularly her having to explain why the vote is being recast), such is the strength of the performances that it feels authentic rather than tedious. Although Sandra is the film’s focus, Cotillard is fully supported by the rest of the cast, all of whom bring the characters to life, if only for a scene or two. There are no real surprises, no significant twists (apart from the aforementioned, which seems to have been included for a moment of drama, but I could have happily done without) – it’s a gentle, simple, well-crafted yet quite unremarkable movie, one that is pleasant but, ultimately, largely forgettable.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Release date: 25 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

When Sin City was first released in 2005 it burst onto the screens, a grimy, dirty, adults-only noir the likes of which had never been seen. It’s a shame, therefore that, nine years later, the once eagerly awaited sequel proves to offer absolutely nothing new. Gone is the innovation of the first film; this one looks and sounds the same. Whether it could have done something vastly different is less the point than the fact that this is nine years later, and what was impressive in the mid-2000s is barely noticeable today. A Dame to Kill For, then, is in many ways the worst kind of sequel – outdated, unimaginative, uninspiring, routine. Yet for all that can be criticised about it, stylistically it still ticked the boxes for me. There are no complex characters or profound storylines here, of course, and anyone expecting them has been sorely misled. Instead, there is the usual bevy of hot, scantily clad, ass-kicking females, Eva Green in her typical vamp seductress role, heavy use of voice-over, and a bunch of actors punching well below their weight technically and well above their weight figuratively. Josh Brolin in particular is wasted in his role, while Joseph Gordon Levitt is adequate but largely irrelevant. I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey Rourke, however, and despite the heavy prosthetics, he’s the only one who brings any life to his character – it seems he understands best of all that he need not take himself entirely seriously.

Sin City was a triumph of style over substance, and its sequel is no different. It may not be as original as the first (obviously), but visually it’s still quite beautiful. Heavily stylised, it’s hyper-noir, deliberately fantastical, explicitly acknowledging its graphic novel roots. In a time when the primary goal of most comic book movies appears to be realism, it’s quite a relief to see a film that rejects any guise of authenticity so entirely. That being said, the 3D is completely pointless – in a film that’s deliberately flat, all the 3D does is dull the bright white of the contrasting monochrome. As a final point, it should be said that, while A Dame to Kill For is violent (stylishly so), it barely seems to warrant its 18-rating – though perhaps this says more about the relaxation of the BBFC’s rating system than anything else. At a time when even Saw films can be a 15, Sin City‘s violence barely even matches that of a post-watershed television show – indeed, with shadows conveniently covering people’s lower halves, and blood shed in pretty arcs of white light, this is actually tamer than many series. Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin for the movie, proving that in the nine years separating it from its predecessor, the world has changed, but Sin City has failed to keep up.

Obvious Child

Release date: 29 August 2014
Rating: 3/5

There’s usually a wild card at these press days – the film that no one’s heard of. Today, this was it, a small indie “comedy” about womanhood and the issues that matter. Whether you like it or not will most likely depend on a few factors: are you a woman, are you a feminist, do you enjoy jokes about bodily functions, how do you feel about abortion. Personally, I find it tedious that these films by women, for women still seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box, instead focusing, inevitably, on relationships and pregnancy. Is that really all that matters to the female human? If this film is anything to go by, as a gender we reclaim our femininity by discussing stains on knickers and saying the word “vagina” a lot (literally airing our dirty laundry in public), we drunk-phone ex-boyfriends like lunatics, and believe that it’s somehow acceptable to make the decision to have an abortion following a one-night stand yet – this is the important bit – not feel the need to inform the man about any of it. Obvious Child, the title taken from a Paul Simon song, offended me in the way that Sex and the City offended me, with its crudeness and self-obsessed whining.

Here, despite a strong performance from Jenny Slate as Donna, the almost-thirty woman-child forced to grow up after discovering she’s pregnant, it was difficult to really empathise with anyone on screen. Gaby Hoffmann, once a child actor seen saving LA from a volcano in Volcano, is one of the only recognisable faces, and her choice of roles in recent years seems to be deliberately based on feminist ideals, but her tirade about “a woman’s choice” is uninspiring. It’s particularly annoying that the men of the film are given such a raw deal. Donna’s dad pops up briefly, but serves no purpose. The ex boyfriend, ditto. The most rounded male character is gay (but stereotypically so), while the one-night-stand-turned-possible-love-interest (despite Jewish Donna worrying that he’s too “obviously Christian” to date) is easily one of the blandest characters ever – having not been told about the proposed abortion, he learns of Donna’s pregnancy when she uses the entire tale (including the forthcoming abortion) as part of her stand-up comedy routine. Yet even this isn’t enough to rouse Max, who is infuriatingly placid, supportive, and doesn’t even think to question Donna’s decision. Surely he should be at least the slightest bit annoyed at learning something so important at a comedy club? Shouldn’t he demand answers, or an explanation? Well, apparently not. In this movie, it appears to be only the females that are afforded any depth or complexity. Yet in the end, the writers seem to equate female empowerment with discussions about farting and defecation, as though that’s somehow something to aspire to. I remain unconvinced, and unamused.

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Cinema Lottery #13

cinema lottery 13

Belle; Devil’s Knot; Oculus

Belle
Release date: 13 June 2014
Rating: 3/5

Featuring a steady cast with some recognisable faces (Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson), Belle is a romanticised period drama with a message. Set in the late eighteenth century, it is based on a true story, that of Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mixed race child taken in by the wealthy relatives of her father, despite her colour. Much is made of her struggles – treated like a lady but never quite accepted, she cannot dine with her family, nor is she expected to marry (for who would take on a wife with such a shameful past?) – but the film also makes it clear that everyone is bound by circumstance and hindered by their ancestry, whether trying to move up in social rank, or trying to maintain the ranking already achieved.

Belle‘s sincerity is clear from the outset, and it becomes rather overwrought. Visually, despite the splendour on show, it never rises above a well-crafted television period drama. Although it attempts to speak volumes about the slave trade and the inherent, endemic racism of the upper classes, it never really says anything particularly profound, while the characters lack depth. Indeed, the most interesting of the bunch is not Dido herself, nor the idealist son of a vicar proclaiming that all men should be equal, but Dido’s half-sister, a beautiful young lady who becomes even less desirable than Dido simply because she has no dowry. The biggest issue is that Belle attempts to be completely uncontroversial – it seems unlikely that Dido’s family would not have slaves of their own, given their social ranking, for example. Perfunctory, inoffensive but bland, the true story at the core of the film is undoubtedly fascinating, but its presentation here is far from compelling.

Devil’s Knot
Release date: 13 June 2014
Rating: 1/5

The case of the West Memphis Three is a hugely complex scandal sprawling over two decades; it’s a shameful case of sloppy police work and a terrible miscarriage of justice that has spawned several films (there’s another due later this year). This version is a docu-drama, by far the least authentic and least believable presentation of a true story. The story, for those who are unfamiliar, begins in 1993 in West Memphis. Three young boys go missing and, when they are found dead, naked and hog-tied, the police quickly move towards a satanic ritual killing. Three teenagers are convicted, despite it becoming increasingly obvious that they had nothing to do with it, and for the next eighteen years campaigners (including Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, and Johnny Depp) fought for their release. This film, based on a book of the same name, ignores all the post-trial controversy, choosing instead to focus on the trials themselves.

Oddly, there are loads of famous faces dotted throughout Devil’s Knot: Colin Firth is an American investigator, first shown buying a $20 000 antique table for no reason whatsoever except possibly to demonstrate that he is rich; he is entirely irrelevant to the story, but we keep returning to him for some unknown reason. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines) appears for a few scenes. Elias Koteas, Stephen Moyer, Kevin Durand – they’re all there, being obtrusively recognisable, all serving little or no purpose. Reese Witherspoon is Pam Hobbs, the mother of murdered Stevie, and she does an adequate job. In fact, they all do – the biggest problem is the screenplay, which says absolutely nothing about anything.

For those aware of the case, Devil’s Knot offers nothing new. For newcomers, it barely makes any sense. No one is obviously implicated, no new information is provided, no new theories are given, and the whole film is rendered even more pointless by the fact that it has been done before, as recently as two years ago, when West of Memphis was released. That film, a documentary produced by Peter Jackson, is fascinating and informative; this film touches on many, if not all of the details, but fails to find any nuance. Crucial facts are glossed over, others seem to be red herrings, others not mentioned at all. The fictional aspects make the whole thing suspiciously inauthentic, and the most interesting and important facts are only touched upon in the end credits, when it is too late to actually consider any of them. Devil’s Knot is dull, being mostly a courtroom drama, poorly executed, drags on interminably and is an entirely unrewarding, frustrating experience – if you’re interested in the case at all, just watch West of Memphis.

Oculus
Release date: 13 June 2014
Rating: 4/5

It may seem like a particularly high rating, but after the infuriating disappointment in the previous film, and in horror movies in general, Oculus came as a pleasant surprise. Jumping between past and present traumas, it follows a brother and sister attempting to finally destroy the object that caused them so much misery in their childhood – a grand, ostentatious antique mirror with a chequered past. Tim (Brendon Thwaites) has just been released from a mental institution, having finally being declared healthy. He is met by his sister Kaylie (current British sweetheart Karen Gillan) who, as it transpires, has been carefully planning on how to finally defeat this supernatural foe. Despite some hesitation, Tim is caught up in her schemes, which, on the surface, seem to be well-thought-out: she has video cameras set up, alarms that remind them to stay hydrated and fed, people phoning on the hour to check on them, a fail safe as a backup. But, this being a horror movie, it inevitably all starts falling apart.

While the film flits between the events that caused Tim to end up in the facility and the present day, it gradually reveals the whole story. That being said, much remains unsaid – the mirror’s origins, its source of evil, remains hidden, for example. Yet this is the siblings’ story, and in that respect it works well. There are some good jumps too, with a satisfyingly creepy atmosphere. It’s got a good, old-fashioned haunted house vibe, with little in the way of special effects and, crucially, it avoids the current trend in horror films and gets progressively more scary, rather than offering all its jumps at the beginning and then limping on to the end. Its conclusion is inevitable and, indeed, the film itself is not particularly original, but it’s effective nonetheless, leaving some unpleasant visuals (fingernails being ripped off and teeth being pulled out – two of my least favourite things) and a general sense of dread and unease to linger after you’ve left the cinema.

Film #96: Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

film 96 not quite hollywood

Rating: 3.5/5

Mark Hartley’s documentary, a unashamed fanboy look at Ozploitation movies, is fast-paced and frantic, and it’s a lot of fun. As someone who enjoys a good exploitation movie (here I’m using the term to describe the lurid 1970’s movies, filled with sex, gore and fast cars, rather than the classical exploitation films like Reefer Madness or Maniac) but knows little about the output from down under (Braindead is probably the closest I’ve come), Not Quite Hollywood plays out like a “best of” – it’s the kind of movie you feel you should watch with a pen and paper, just so you can make note of all the films to find on DVD later. Luckily for us, I’m pretty sure we have The Howling III: The Marsupials as part of a cheap double feature, but there were plenty more mentioned that looked just as ridiculous, and just as entertaining.

Among the various talking heads, mainly industry people who speak with both fondness and enthusiasm for their past lives, Hartley’s biggest name (for non-Australian audiences, at least) is easily Quentin Tarantino. He’s not listed as “filmmaker” or “director” but as “fan”, and he plays his role to perfection. Whether you’re a fan of Tarantino himself or not will probably influence your reaction to his segments – he drops bits of his own knowledge in, but mostly he comes across as someone emphatically trying to prove that he’s part of the gang. As a “fan” the anecdotes he details are the least interesting – it’s far more fun (and informative) to hear the stories from the people actually involved in the movies – but he does at least provide some context, and a recognisable face.

It is the films themselves who are the stars of the documentary, however. Hartley breaks up his narrative with sections focusing on specific strands of Ozploitation – the nudie pictures, the gore films, the racing movies. The general attitude running throughout is most definitely one of appreciation, with a healthy dollop of nostalgia thrown in for good measure: these were low-budget movies, made at a time when the Australian film industry was still a fledgling trying to find its place in the world, and for every Picnic at Hanging Rock, there were fifteen Turkey Shoot‘s being made to muddy the waters. It was a time of limited regulations, when stunt men risked their lives on a daily basis and women stood full frontal on screen and, while the rose-tinted glasses are definitely on, it’s difficult to not be slightly shocked at the hazardous working conditions rife in the 1970s. Even those involved must be quite surprised at how few deaths there were, considering what was going on.

While the films themselves are undeniably fun, compiled together in rapidly edited “best of” montages, Not Quite Hollywood starts to outstay its welcome a little bit. Perhaps it’s the obvious fan-nature of the movie that starts to grate – it’s interesting and informative, but at times feels a bit directionless, throwing another sequence of explosions and screaming women in rather than going beyond the surface. Evidently, while Ozploitation is not well known, there were a huge amount of films to emerge at the time, and Hartley seems to be trying to fit them all in, without really going into much detail about any of them. It is a fast movie, and it’s easy to be distracted by yet another reel of spectacle but, without my pen and paper at hand, the countless movies I saw clips of – the films I wanted to hunt down and watch in their entirety – have all blurred together to make one giant, mostly naked, slightly seedy, bloody, violent, apocalyptic road movie that only exists in montage. In fact, perhaps watching compilation videos of all the best bits of these films is actually the best way to watch them – surely I’ll be disappointed now, if I watched them; surely they’d never live up to the breakneck speed and apparently constant insanity that Hartley suggests?

After Not Quite Hollywood, Hartley went on to shoot the superbly titled Machete Maidens Unleashed!, another documentary, with the same formula (talking head segments interspersed with numerous movie montages), this time focusing on the American exploitation films shot in the Philippines. This is an area I’m more familiar with – Roger Corman shot several films there, as did Al Adamson and Eddie Romero – and the documentary was more fun for me as a result. However, my knowledge of the “Blood” series (Brides of Blood, Mad Doctor of Blood Island, etc) means that I am all too aware of the fact that many of these movies are slow, shoddy, and dull – until the few moments of outlandish stupidity. Is Ozploitation the same? If it is, Not Quite Hollywood does a good job at hiding this fact. And maybe really all you can do is watch the movies themselves to find out – if you do, I’m sure Hartley would consider his job done.

Cinema Lottery #12

cinema 12 noah
Noah, Divergent, The Double, Rio 2

Noah
Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 4/5

Even prior to release, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was courting controversy. It’s been banned in several countries, including Bahrain and the UAE, for contradicting the teachings of Islam, and the writer-director has received little support from the Christians, who have also criticised it for its reinterpretation of the Biblical texts. It’s true that Noah is hardly a literal adaptation: it introduces new characters (notably Emma Watson’s Ila and Ray Winstone’s Tubalcain) and expands the role of others (Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins); makes the fallen angels (CGI rock-golem creations) instrumental in the Ark’s construction; and draws upon family conflict as motivational factors. Yet for all these alterations and amalgamations, the story feels truly rooted in the Old Testament. Noah (Russell Crowe) is dogmatic and ruthless, yet simultaneously tormented by the difficult choices he is forced to make as a result of following The Creator’s wishes. Throughout the film, issues of faith, salvation, doubt, family, honour and sin are prevalent – all issues dealt with at length in the Old Testament, with some particularly problematic conclusions. It is worth remembering that the morality of the Old Testament is difficult to reconcile with today’s liberal world – this was a time when God was vengeful and bloodshed was common, when devout men were tested and sacrifice was demanded (and given). In this setting, Noah may not be narratively accurate, but is most definitely thematically relevant.

Aronofsky does, of course, invite criticism through the subject matter and obvious influences – and any film about religion (particularly Christianity), be it serious (The Passion of the Christ), anti-institutional (Stigmata) or downright silly (Dogma), is going to be divisive. There are also moments that will undoubtedly infuriate the more traditional viewers – Noah telling his family the story of creation, for example, is overlaid with images explicitly showing evolution. Yet even here, in one of the more subtly contentious sequences, the montage stops at the apes, with Adam and Eve remaining divine. In this way, while Noah remains uncompromising in its narrative and unapologetic for its characters’ decisions, it is neither overtly judgemental nor explicitly argumentative.

What is so frequently missing from critiques is whether the film itself is actually any good. Crowe is excellent, bringing a solemnity and pathos to Noah, even in his darkest moments. Jennifer Connolly, reunited with Crowe as Noah’s wife, brings a strength to Naameh, and her involvement is crucial (for both good and bad). Visually, the CGI isn’t always convincing and those expecting a disaster movie will be disappointed – the flood is a relatively minor part of the film. In terms of spectacle, the moments one would expect to be the money shots are frequently downplayed – the flood, the animals (all CGI creations that are “slightly tweaked” versions of real creatures). Yet it is a stunning film – rivers race across the globe in montage sequences, conversations are silhouetted against sunset skies, the Creator’s message told through symbolic nightmare sequences. As contentious and controversial as it may be, Noah at least offers some room for debate and discussion, while being a sharp and accomplished piece of filmmaking, a film that, at the very least, stands apart from the inoffensive, crowd-pleasing, unoriginal Hollywood output so prevalent today.

Divergent
Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Talking of unoriginal movies, Divergent may be narratively new(ish) but is thematically almost identical to the far superior Hunger Games (itself frequently criticised for being a 12A Battle Royale) – it is adapted from young-adult fiction, it’s set in a dystopian future America (specifically Chicago, here now sitting on the banks of the long-dried Lake Michigan), it features a teenage girl who unwittingly rebels against a society that has taken drastic measures to avoid another war, there’s some political uprising and some bloodless violence, a love interest, etc. The title refers to those few members of society who do not fit into one of the categories by which society is structured – apparently it’s very rare, though whether this would actually be the case remains highly debatable. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is part of the nice, kind, boring category, but discovers she is divergent when she takes her aptitude test. Having always admired the only faction that looks even remotely interesting (Dauntless, the security/rebel/cool kids), she joins up and begins the struggle from bottom to top of the class. If she had picked any other faction, it would have been an altogether different movie, filled with scenes of her sitting in a library or farming, or something. Naturally her new faction is crucial for the Evil Leader’s Evil Plans for Global Domination (Kate Winslet, icy, calculating, and disappointingly unintimidating); naturally her secret divergency (?!) is the key to stopping said plans.

Divergent‘s biggest problem is that it is so obviously riding on the coattails of Hunger Games. It also feels like it’s lacking any clear sense of direction or purpose. The characters are all fairly bland – Theo James does what he can as pretty-boy Four, but the more interesting people are all sidelined. Tris, who introduces the story through typical voice-over, is the weakest link – Woodley’s acting is satisfactory though unmemorable but the problem appears to stem from the writing. It’s really difficult to care about a lead character who, when sent into a dreamscape as part of the Dauntless initiation (it’s all about conquering fear, of course) turns out to be more afraid of a flock of birds than, say, harm coming to her family. It all feels very surface-level and even downright selfish on her part, and the little character development that happens does little to make Tris any more relatable or engaging – there’s so little genuine emotion on show that, by the time the epic showdown occurs (after a really long time), it’s hard to care.

The Double
Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 3.5/5

Loosely based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, directed by Richard Ayoade (Submarine, The IT Crowd) and boasting a producing credit for Harmony Korine (Springbreakers), The Double is a strange, muted film about a loser and the sudden appearance of a double who threatens to take over his life. While I’m reluctant to designate films as “future cult classics,” there is undoubtedly a niche audience that will appreciate The Double, and it invites repeat viewings – although whether there is any kind of adequate solution remains up for debate.

Jesse Eisenberg brings his characteristic awkwardness to Simon, a young man in an ill-fitting suit who appears to be virtually invisible to all those around him – his boss, the pretty copy-girl (Mia Wasikowska) who he admires from afar but cannot work up the courage to ask out on a date, even his mother. Working in a Gilliam-esque, windowless office, the arrival of James (also Eisenberg) throws his world into turmoil; James may be physically identical to Simon, but personality-wise he is all the things Simon is not – successful, charismatic, confident. Having gotten over the initial confusion of no one else acknowledging the startling similarities, Simon is resigned to accepting both James’ intrusion on his life, and the fact that he seems to be living it so much better than him.

Visually, The Double is a dark, foreboding film, filled with shadows and dank spaces that create a quirky, timeless world. It’s well paced and shot with a confidence and flair that signals Ayoade is going from strength to strength. Admittedly it’s fairly slow – the awkwardness of Eisenberg and the director himself is prevalent throughout, but it remains intriguing and engaging. The payoff – the eventual explanation that justifies all the weirdness that has preceded it – arguably offers more questions than answers yet also feels slightly underwhelming, and, personally, is less satisfying than, say Fight Club‘s revelation or Donnie Darko‘s mind-bending outcome. Whether it is actually very clever, or completely nonsensical, would require another viewing – anyone who thinks they’ve got it figured out, please let me know!

Rio 2
Release date: 4 April 2014
Rating: 2/5

Another Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, in this generic kid-friendly animation sequel he plays Blu, a rare, domesticated macaw now living in Rio with his family (Jewel, voiced by Anne Hathaway, and three kids representing various stages of adolescence). Their humans are trekking around in the Amazon, where a huge flock of macaws are secretly living, though their habitat is threatened by some evil loggers. Seeing footage of this flock on the news, Blu, his family and friends head off to the jungle, where hijinks and tomfoolery ensue.

Whereas the first film saw Blu learning to fly, here he is tasked with discovering his inner birdness. Once in the jungle, Jewel is instantly reunited with her father, who thoroughly denounces humans and any bird-human interaction. Yet this being a kids movie with talking animals, all the non-human characters display distinctly human traits – the jungle flock competing in a game of aerial football with the rival flock of parrots, for example. This kind of unintentional irony will most likely not factor in children’s enjoyment, but there is little here to distract the adult viewer from it. Similarly, a tacked on environmental message (loggers=bad) is undermined by the decision to release the film in 3D, thus requiring the costly environmental nightmare that is disposable plastic glasses. The 3D is, by the way, entirely unnecessary – even in the sweeping flight sequences it’s barely noticeable.

Visually, Rio 2 is adequate, but in terms of both narrative and cinematic achievement it is weaker than even Pixar’s more disappointing recent movies. The jungles are pretty and Gabi the poisonous, lovestruck frog is entertaining, but there is nothing particularly impressive, unexpected, or memorable about it, while the screenplay attempts to include an array of plots, none of which offer any depth or development – there’s a rival macaw vying for Jewel’s affections, but it goes nowhere; there’s the loggers and the return of Rio‘s bad-bird Nigel; a number of family conflicts are introduced (Jewel and her father, her father and Blu, Blu and his children) but they’re all quickly resolved in child-friendly outcomes. Although there are some musical numbers, there’s no consistency, and the songs are instantly forgettable. Bland and generic, it’s definitely one for the kids.

Cinema Lottery #11

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

Muppets Most Wanted
Release date: 28 March 2014
Rating: 2.5/5

Muppets Most Wanted follows directly from 2011’s charming, funny kind-of reboot, The Muppets (2011) and, ironically, is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of sequels – its opening musical number, a hilarious and astute showtune, directly warns us that they’re never as good as the first. This film, sadly, embodies this notion. Replacing the genuine enthusiasm of Jason Segel and real-life cartoon Amy Adams with Ricky Gervais is the first problem; he’s a divisive personality and, for his critics (myself included), his sleazeball-loser routine is expected and unappealing. He gets far too much screen time as the Muppets’ tour manager-cum-jewel thief, taking them on a disappointing “world tour” that comprises of four European countries while his boss Constantine, the most dangerous frog in the world, masquarades as Kermit. Cue a host of famous cameos, from Lady Gaga to Danny Trejo, who are undoubtedly fun to spot but frequently seem rather pointless.

The musical numbers are the film’s highlight; none really match the opening sequence, but are nevertheless catchy and entertainingly silly. There is, however, a general lack of fun and charm: it’s pleasant enough, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny – Constantine’s attempts to emulate Kermit are the high points, and admittedly there is a rather perverse enjoyment in seeing Gervais sing an entire song about being Number Two – while the story is bland and the supposedly exotic locations underwhelming. Ty Burrell, as the Interpol agent tasked with catching the jewel thieves, is a welcome addition, but Muppets Most Wanted generally feels rushed; relying too heavily, perhaps, on its predecessor’s success rather than taking the time to make more of an effort. Plus, the addition of some Cabbage Patch-esque baby puppet criminals is just plain creepy.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release date: 26 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

The latest addition to the Marvel film canon, Captain America‘s sequel, much like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, follows the individual Avengers as they deal with the world post-New York. It is, therefore, becoming increasingly important that viewers watch not one but all films, and it is also becoming increasingly obvious that each sequel is basically laying the groundwork for the eagerly anticipated Avengers sequel (due next year). This multi-layered world of intertwining stories is no doubt clever, but each is now suffering from a distinct case of deja vu – presuming that most people will go see this having seen most, if not all, of the films that have gone before, they are becoming fairly predictable. That’s not to say they’re not still entertaining films, but the element of surprise is definitely fading.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is by far the blandest of the Avengers; like Superman he’s a bit too clean cut, a bit too nice to be particularly interesting. Adding the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into the mix is smart; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) also gets a more prominent role, while Robert Redford adds some gravitas as Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD bigwig. The enemy in this instalment is not just the Winter Soldier, a mysterious assassin with a metal arm, but a threat to freedom itself, in the form of some new “precautionary” weapons (think Minority Report on a mass scale). Part war film, part spy drama, it’s an entertaining though dry film, directly referencing the events in Captain America in particular. There are some good fight scenes, but the final set piece is far too reminiscent of parts of Avengers, and the CGI-heavy sequences of mass destruction no longer excite as they once did. As its own film, The Winter Soldier is decent, but even it seems to acknowledge that really its main appeal is to follow the characters on route to the events that will occur in the next Avengers; in this case, it is the destination that is more important than the journey.

About Last Night

Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 2/5

A remake of a 1980s film, which was itself an adaptation of a 1974 play (with the more lurid title Sexual Perversity in Chicago), About Last Night stars Kevin Hart (30 Rock), Regina Hall (Scary Movie), Michael Ealy and Joy Bryant as four twenty-somethings going through a series of relationship and friend dramas. The two women are friends, the two men are friends, and they pair off into two uninspiring couples: Hart and Hall are irritating; Ealy and Bryant are nice but boring. Over the course of a year they break up and get back together, enjoy relationship-free sex and cohabiting, get a puppy, and bicker a lot. Yet the film is distinctly lacking in sexual perversion – were it not for the swearing, the movie would barely scrape a 12A rating.

Writing this two days after viewing, it’s already a struggle to remember anything particularly interesting (or at all) about the film. Hart and Hall both embody a kind of comedy that will either appeal or irritate, while the other two are inoffensive but forgettable. With a far stronger emphasis on drama than comedy, it’s a strangely understated film that nonetheless cannot hide the fact that the relationships are all generally stupid; meaningless fights over minute disagreements, the characters failure to communicate is trite and dull, and plot points that fail to add any sympathies to the leads (Ealy quitting/getting fired from his job is the result of something that is completely his doing, despite the film presenting it as a “down with the corporate man” kind of triumph). Of course, the whole thing is neatly tied up with a nice Happily Ever After ribbon, in which love conquers all, leaving the characters to get on with their lives and us to get on with ours, happy that neither has had even the slightest affect on each other whatsoever.

Labor Day
Release date: 21 March 2014
Rating: 3/5

Based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, written for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking), the majority of Labor Day takes place over a long weekend, when escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin) imposes himself on reclusive Adele (Kate Winslet) and her taciturn, solemn son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) only to become an important presence in their incomplete family unit. It’s an altogether more grown-up film for Reitman, with an emphasis on family values and melodrama – there’s none of the black comedy or quirky-hip language prevalent in Juno or Young Adult, for example. Yet despite the strong cast and appealingly nostalgic small-town America aesthetic, it is let down by its narrative, which requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief; never mind how easily Adele allows this criminal stranger into her home, it’s just far too easy for him to become the love interest/father figure. Within a day he’s fixed the car and the boiler and waxed their floors, the following day he’s teaching disabled children to play baseball – and despite living among other houses and there being countless posters asking for his whereabouts, no one seems to notice the strange new man cleaning gutters in a depressed hermit’s home.

It’s such a shame that the film is so let down by its source material (or by Reitman’s adaptation – having not read the book perhaps I shouldn’t so quickly pass the blame to Maynard). Winslet is, as usual, utterly believable, and there’s a gentle, affective chemistry between her and Brolin. While the focus is predominantly on the unconventional family unit, the supporting characters, including Clark Gregg’s ex-husband and James Van Der Beek’s concerned cop, are a welcome addition. The film is shot in welcoming, warm tones, with hints as to past traumas carefully combined in delicate montages. The emphasis on Americana is evident; an important scene involves the detailed creation of a peach pie – hardly subtle, but undoubtedly evocative. Yet it all strains disbelief somewhat; as much as it’s easy to believe the emotions on show, the narrative is too distracting in its overwrought melodrama. After a slow, meandering film that gradually reveals difficult home truths, Labor Day is further problematised by a rushed conclusion, which spans some fifteen years in a few minutes while adult Henry narrates, providing the family with a bittersweet ending but, with the melodrama conflicting with the understated performances and style, it ends up being, sadly, a bit unconvincing.

Films #77 & 78: A Trip to the Moon (1902) & The Extraordinary Voyage (2011)

film 77 78 a trip to the moon the extraordinary voyage

Ratings: A Trip to the Moon, 5/5; The Extraordinary Voyage, 4/5

It was impossible to give Georges Méliès’ short film anything other than five stars – it’s a mini masterpiece, with its images remaining some of the most iconic in cinema history. Over a hundred and ten years after it was made, A Trip to the Moon , perhaps the first true narrative film, is still breathtaking; Méliès’ unique vision is an example of pure fantasy, and it’s utterly bonkers. There are several versions of the film available, varying in length, colour, and quality. The version I watched is the best available; painstakingly restored, it is as crisp and clear as it ever was, the original hand-painted colours are gloriously psychedelic, the story finally told in its entirety. It comes with new accompanying music by French electronica band Air, whose specially written score is a perfect addition, adding tension and excitement at times, bringing (unintelligible) voices to the silent performances on screen, and adding another layer of whimsy and magic to the highly stylised, timeless images.

Film buffs will no doubt know just how important Méliès and his films were, but for those who don’t, a brief history lesson. While moving images had been around for several decades during the 1800s, the early pioneers of cinema were the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès. While the Lumière Brothers concentrated on providing spectacle through presenting general activities – leaving a factory, knocking down a wall, a train arriving at a station – in as realistic a form as possible, Méliès, a magician by trade, quickly saw film’s potential for trickery and fantasy. Having allegedly discovering such possibilities through a mistake – while filming an innocuous street scene, Méliès’ camera jammed, and it took him several seconds to get it running again, with the result being that, when he watched the footage later, a carriage suddenly transformed into a hearse – the filmmaker took full advantage of the new technology, and his early films are filled with trick shots and creative deceptions.

Rooted in fairground attractions and the sideshow, Méliès’ films generally consist of one or a series of staged tableaux; the camera doesn’t move during scenes and there is minimal editing, resulting in a distinctively theatrical style of presentation. Méliès was not concerned with realism, and his films in particular are obviously created, with painted sets and backdrops offering an instantly recognisable, entirely unrealistic aesthetic. A Trip to the Moon, featuring a group of academics who build a rocket and are shot through a cannon into the moon, where they discover a race of strange lobster-men, is overtly inspired by the written works of Jules Verne, and was later (illegally) remade by Pathé in 1908. The most iconic shot of the ambitious fifteen minute film, which became one of the earliest box office hits, is the rocket’s moon landing – splatting unceremoniously into the moon’s eye, it has inspired everything from music videos (The Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight Tonight) to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). Yet none of the subsequent homages and rip-offs come close to matching the unfettered imagination of Méliès, whose vision is both childlike in its innocence, and absolutely mad in its showiness.

This restored version reveals the true beauty of this strange and unusual voyage, and each scene is a sight to behold – the troupe of scantily clad showgirls pushing the rocket into its launching position, the explorers first encountering the fantastical jungle on the moon, the fights between the lobster-men and the humans, the way in which the moon’s inhabitants are unceremoniously turned into multi-coloured puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas. It’s one of the most important films in cinema history, and the fact that it still survives is a miracle.

While Méliès’ vision, and his influence on film history, is the initial focus of Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange’s accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, they also show the painstaking process of restoring the film. The colour version was believed lost until 1993, when a single print, in terrible condition, was discovered in Spain. With great care and optimism, the film was carefully unreeled, piece by brittle piece and, in a process lasting over ten years, eventually it was brought back to life. The documentary, including talking head interviews with Tom Hanks, Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), reveals the restoration as a true labour of love – an impossible journey made possible, ironically, because of extraordinary technical advances. While perhaps not providing any new information for those with a basic knowledge of early cinema history, it does nonetheless offer an excellent overview, while also including a substantial number of Méliès’ other films, including The One Man Band and The Man With Four Heads, demonstrating the magician’s penchant for trickery and his undeniable achievements. What is so wonderful is that, while modern film effects can so easily be dismissed as CGI – without the viewer necessarily understanding any of the complexities involved in that process – the early trick films remain magical somehow. We know they are an illusion, but explanations remain beyond our grasp, and all the more impressive precisely because of this. Like a real magic trick, the solution is often infuriatingly simple, but it’s a cynical person who really wants to know it. Instead, we can lose ourselves in the illusion, and embrace our childish, often forgotten, sense of wonder and awe.

Film #72: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

film 72 shadow of the vampire

Rating: 3.5/5

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Max Schreck, who will be portraying our vampire, Count Orlock. As you no doubt have heard, Max’s methods are somewhat… unconventional, but… I am sure you will come to respect his artistry in this matter.”

The first vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) remains to this day one of the most eerie, haunting, and iconic films of all time – Max Schreck’s Count Orlok is arguably the least human representation of a vampire. There’s little hint as to the romanticism now overwhelming the horror aspects of these creatures; Orlok is entirely inhuman in both his physical appearance and his actions. It’s no wonder, then, that legend suggests Schreck was truly a vampire. He wasn’t (probably), but Shadow of the Vampire plays fast and loose with the myths and tales surrounding F R Murnau’s silent masterpiece (aptly subheaded A Symphony of Horror), presenting Schreck as the ultimate in difficult leading actors, and Murnau (John Malkovich) himself as a director obsessed with realising his vision.

If Schreck’s performance in Nosferatu is central to the film’s inate creepiness, Willem Dafoe’s performance as Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire is equally crucial, and he was (deservedly) Oscar-nominated for the role that was written specifically for him. The role of Orlok demands a strong performance from an unconventional actor, and has been played by three very different men – Schreck, Klaus Kinski (in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake), and Dafoe. Technically Dafoe plays Schreck-playing-Orlok, but the distinction is particularly blurry, as it soon transpires Schreck is simply a character created to disguise the fact that the vampire is real. Schreck-the-character and Orlok are one and the same, with Murnau so determined to create a piece of documentary-art that he’s willing to sacrifice several members of his cast and crew in the process. In this way, the film is not only about a myth, but about cinema – this extreme example of method acting demonstrates the problems it causes for other members of the cast and crew as well as the success of a truly authentic performance. Meanwhile, Murnau’s obsession cleverly alludes to a conflict within the film industry – the director as auteur, forced to work with others who may somehow taint or damage his unique vision. It’s particularly telling that Murnau is so derisive towards his writer, practically willing Orlok to devour him first.

Such is the success of both director E Elias Merhige’s attention to period detail, and Dafoe’s performance, that when scenes from Murnau’s original film feature, it’s almost impossible to see the distinction. Following the film’s troubled production, Merhige allows his audience to watch the silent movie come into being – the camera rolls, the iris is in, and the colours drain from the image as Gustav (Eddie Izzard) attempts to act – in that delightfully overwrought, overly emphatic style prevalent in the silent era – opposite Orlok. Accompanying these scenes are the unobtrusive yet evocative orchestral score (taken from John William’s score of the 1979 version of Dracula) and the soothing, distinctive tone of Malkovich’s voice as Murnau tells his actors the story of their shot. It’s highly effective, not only in providing a rather romantic representation of the film industry at the time, but also in bringing a literary feel to the film – after all, Nosferatu is famously not an adaptation of Dracula, but the story is undeniably, blatantly rooted in Bram Stoker’s gothic novel.

This is not just a period piece, however, and while at least a basic knowledge of Murnau’s Nosferatu is preferable, it’s not essential. Due to the overtly fictional reimagining of a genuine historic moment, it’s easiest to just accept the supernatural elements, and to enjoy the wonderful performances and, in particular, the brilliantly strained relationship between Murnau and his most difficult actor. Malkovich brings a natural, tightly-wound lunacy to Murnau that frequently threatens to explode. Dafoe is clearly in his element, hamming up the inhuman aspects of Schreck/Orlok – while the real Schreck brought a kind of naïve alienness to Orlok, Dafoe’s creation is indulgent in his strangeness, and often very funny as a result; both he and Izzard in particular encapsulate the black humour permeating the script.

It’s a shame then that Shadow of the Vampire becomes rather cluttered at the end, the script getting messy and seemingly struggling to find an ending that will satisfy all the various elements established to that point. The result, which brings both the supernatural elements and Murnau’s doggedly obsessive vision to a climax, feels far more rushed than the earlier scenes, which gradually built up the sense of on-set unease in much the same way as Nosferatu, with long, shadowy fingers creeping into the frame and ominous shadows in dark corners. Merhige’s version of this well-worn story remains more a well-made curio than a true classic; if it inspires more people to seek out the film on which it is based, then that can only be a good thing. As to whether it will convince audiences that Schreck really was a vampire, well, his performance is still strong enough for that myth to endure without any help.