Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice


'He'd be the bomb as the Phantom'

My instinct was right. Affleck's Batman was great, completely different to Bale's po-faced-growl-in-a-cowl. The Dark Knight trilogy took itself way too seriously, forgetting an important fact...that it's a comic book character. Affleck's Bruce Wayne/Batman is much truer to the comics. He's older, grizzled and a real powerhouse of a man. He uses guns more than gadgets and you get a feel of his brute strength in this. Sure he's still agile and flighty, but he's a boxer, not some black belt ninja. His fallibility is also clear. Under the suit he's still just a man and the film cleverly overcomes the obvious problem suggested by the title (how the fuck can Batman win?)

Jesse Eisenburg's Lex Luthor is also a winner. Full of ticks and complexes, he plays Mark Zuckerberg as a despotic psychopath. He's hellbent on taking down Superman for some reason that I didn't quite pick up upon but no matter, he's a decent bit of casting.

Superman for once is likeable, mainly by upping the surliness and keeping the do-gooding to a minimum, though he doesn't quite go the full stubble. 

Wonder Woman does enough at the end to earn her own film and we also get to see a few more spin-off heroes in some nicely worked sub-plot cameos.

Amy Adams is wasted again as Lois Lane. Someone to be saved over and over. She has her chance for heroics at the end but is denied by the script, deeming two heroines to be one too many for this film.

The epic running time, car chases and crash-bang-kaboom finale go against it but I'd happily watch it again. We can also be thankful there's no Commissioner Gordon bollocks in this one. So I say welcome back Caped Crusader, and thanks for injecting some much needed fun back into a franchise that was literally dead in the water. 

****

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Filmdog Weekly #14 (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bad Neighbours)

Welcome again to Filmdog Weekly. It's been a couple of weeks since our last post but happily we're back with a couple of cracking new releases in X-Men Days of Future Past and Bad Neighbours...



X-Men: Days of Future Past (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Sequel to the prequel to the second sequel'

X-Men First Class provided a much needed boost to the ailing franchise following some underwhelming efforts, cleverly casting some fresh-faced A-Listers to play the younger versions of our favourite mutants. Days of Future Past goes a web-footed step further by combining the two worlds in an X-Men mash-up and the result is a slick, intelligent conspiracy flick that unleashes it's Adamantium claws without quite going full berserker.

In a dystopian future where mutants and their sympathisers are hunted down by Sentinels, robotic guardians that can adapt to counter the powers of each mutant, a small group of rebels are hiding out in China in a bid to avoid detection, however they know that time is running out. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), now working alongside old friend / arch enemy Magneto (Ian McKellen), proposes sending Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to the seventies in order to stop an assassination attempt, and by doing so, change the course of history so that the Sentinel programme doesn't come into existence.

There are a whole host of time travel films which fall down on the crux of their scientific logic but this one neatly side-steps that problem by not over-thinking it. Wolverine doesn't physically go back in time, rather his consciousness is beamed back into his old body from 1973 by Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) who sends him there by cradling his head in her hands and using her mutant gift of 'phasing' (the time travel element is a convenient macguffin). Once there he tracks down the young professor (James McAvoy) and convinces him to help him stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from her one-woman mission to kill weapons developer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Along the way they rescue Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from a maximum-security prison with the help of lightning-fast teenage delinquent Peter (Evan Peters playing the un-named Quicksilver) who takes the prize for the film's best scene - a super slow-motion set piece shot from his point of view as our heroes stare down the barrels of several loaded guns.

As the Professor, Wolverine, Beast and Magneto attempt to track down Mystique, back in the future the other X-Men come under siege from a Sentinel onslaught and it's only a matter of time before they get to Kitty and Logan who hold the key to their continued existence. The peril factor is upped a notch as several key X-Men are dispatched in various interesting ways and we must hope that our young guns from the seventies can complete the mission before it's too late.

It's a very fine sequel to First Class which itself was a much needed change of direction. Days of Future Past enables those much-loved characters from the original films to become relevant again. Just as it appears he was about to jump it, Wolverine has punched his claws through the sharks head. There are a few issues, such as the grandstanding ending in which McAvoy's Professor once again unleashes his not-so-mutant power of urging rationality. I'm starting to get a little tired of his constant 'please-don't-be-bad' routine complete with 'Groovy Baby' accent. The film's dialogue-to-fighting ratio is also tipped a little too heavily in the balance of the former and it would have been nice to see Wolverine let loose his claws a little more. Nonetheless it's very entertaining with several great scenes and plenty of snappy dialogue, ultimately opening the door for a brand new series of franchise films that could go either way: more of the younger years or a return to the original cast? My guess is probably a bit of both.

* * * *



Bad Neighbours (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Everybody needs bad neighbours...'

Seth Rogen has been on something of a downward spiral since reinventing the stoner comedy with 2007's double bill of Superbad and Knocked Up but happily I can say that Bad Neighbours (Neighbors in the US) is a return to form for the grizzly bear-voiced Canadian. Rogen stars alongside Rose Byrne as new parents struggling to adapt to their increased responsibilities while battling to rid their nice suburban neighbourhood of Zac Effron's fraternity who have just moved in next door.

It's a transitional period in the lives of Mac and Kelly Radner as the mundane reality of parenthood is foisted upon them. Opportunities for fun and excitement are few and far between and so when a bus full of hot teenagers turn up and move their fraternity into the house next door, they cannot mask their inward enthusiasm for the idea.

At first everything is great as the Radner's enjoy a wild night of partying, letting loose their pent-up parental frustrations in a haze of smoke and alcohol while bonding with their young cohorts, who realise that these 'old dudes' (they're in their early 30's) can still be cool. 

Inevitably it all turns sour as the party never stops for Delta Psi, causing endless sleepless nights for their neighbours (but seemingly nobody else in the street) who eventually break their promise to frat-president Teddy (Effron) by calling the cops. From that point it becomes all-out war as the frat brotherhood set out to make their neighbours' lives a misery while the Radners come up with some dirty tricks of their own to try and get Delta Psi expelled from college.

I didn't think I'd enjoy Bad Neighbours but it's actually very good. It had me laughing out loud on several occasions and reminded me of another great frat-comedy in 2003's Old School. Rogen does his usual schtick as the sensitive man-child and Rose Byrne is rather brilliant as his feisty Aussie wife. What's refreshing is that she isn't overshadowed by the boys. This is more of a cross-gender buddy comedy and she's just as foul-mouthed and irresponsible as Rogen, getting her fair share of gags and I thought the pair of them were great. 

The fraternity brotherhood are a fine bunch of misfits too. Zac Effron seems to get better as his career progresses having shaken off the preppy Highschool Musical tag to deliver some fine performances in recent years (see Parkland and The Paperboy). He's still got the poster-boy looks ("He looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory") but has matured into a very fine actor and he reminds me of a young Jon Hamm. His frat-house president, Teddy, is a complex character and Effron gives depth to what could have easily been portrayed as a meat-headed asshole, injecting some likeability underneath his brutish exterior. Dave Franco excels as Teddy's right hand man Pete, the two of them sharing a number of scenes that border on the homo-erotic. Their brotherhood is made up of some fine young comedy actors including Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael and Submarine's Craig Roberts who gets a bizarre cameo as a whistle-blowing Pledge known as 'Assjuice'.

Some scenes can be a little too much (Rogen 'milking' Byrne's breasts) but on the whole it's a very funny, character-driven comedy.

* * * * 




Sunday, 11 May 2014

Filmdog Weekly #13 (Locke, Blue Ruin)

Hello again dear Filmdoggers. Welcome to another roundup of the best and worst on your local silver screen. Fasten your seat-belts and plug in the Bluetooth because we're taking a ride with Tom Hardy in Locke before checking out Cannes Festival-winning revenge thriller Blue Ruin...




Locke (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Atlas on wheels'


I have to hand it to the clever people responsible for editing the trailer for Locke. Never has a film about one man's car ride down the M1 seemed so gripping. The car starts and then...the menacing drone fades in, quietly humming away in the background. Then, snippets of echoed dialogue: 

"One little mistake...and the whole world comes crashing down around you"
"I'll fix it, it'll all go back to normal"
"Eventually...cracks appear" 
Without context the dialogue is meaningless but it certainly adds to the intrigue. On screen Tom Hardy is filmed from a number of angles inside his BMW, giving an acting masterclass in how to deliver a subtle, yet intensely powerful performance without opening his mouth, his eyes doing cartwheels while his facial muscles do somersaults. 

'TOTALLY UNIQUE...YOU MUST SEE THIS MOVIE' - BBC Radio 5Live

'ONE OF THE MOST NAIL BITING THRILLERS OF THE YEAR' - The Telegraph

'GRIPPING' - The Times

'EXCEPTIONAL' - Variety

'A MASTERCLASS' - Time Out 

Finally Locke buckles under the pressure, smashing and shaking the steering wheel with his hands, police sirens wailing, anguished screams muted as his face contorts in facial gymnastics. Then, quiet. "I will do what needs to be done", and the car door opens. It's quite brilliant. Surely this is the British Falling Down, only better?

Ultimately this all amounts to cinematic alchemy. 

The reality is a well executed and well acted drama that never hits the levels of excitement and intrigue sold to us in that 90 second trailer. What plays out is a real-time car journey as Ivan Locke travels down the motorway to attend the birth of his illegitimate baby. It's not great timing as the next morning he is due to supervise the biggest challenge of his career, a large-scale concrete fill (he's a foreman), and over the course of the film's running time he must confess all to his wife, explain to his boss why he won't be showing up for work in the morning and instruct a sozzled employee how to run the ship in his absence.

Locke does all this with great conviction, motivated by a sense of moral duty to be there for his new offspring in the way that his own father never could. Indeed he punctuates his numerous phone calls with a lecture to his imaginary father who sits invisibly in the back seat, adding some theatrics to an otherwise ultra-realistic screenplay. 

The pressure mounts as his situation endures further complications. His wife is naturally mad and wants him to pack his bags. The mother of his unborn child is a bit of an emotional train-wreck and he eventually loses everything after getting fired from his job. The weight of the world is on his back. He's Atlas on wheels.

There's an irritating trend in some recent films where the filmmaker decides to forgo the traditional concept of having an ending to their film, choosing instead to let the audience draw their own conclusions. It's a ploy that only works occasionally and Locke suffers because of it. The final shot in the trailer of the car door opening never happens (in fact it is a shot from the opening scene of the film where he closes his car door, only played in reverse to give the impression of the door opening. Clever editing once again). Ivan Locke doesn't get out of the car. Nothing actually happens. 

That's not to say Locke is bad, it's not. It's a decent drama that wouldn't be out of place on the BBC or the Playhouse Presents... series on Sky Arts, and would probably be better served as a theatre production. I just felt a bit conned.

My advice is this. If you want to pay good money to watch a man driving a car around, I suggest you pick up the phone and order a cab.

* *


Blue Ruin (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'More than a splash of claret thrown in'

Blue Ruin is the tale of Dwight (Macon Blair), a reclusive loner who spends his days searching through trash for his next meal and earns his money by way of recycling discarded cans he collects from the beach. On finding out that the man who killed his parents is to be released from prison, Dwight sets out on a revenge mission to his old hometown and soon finds himself caught up in a deadly dispute with the killer's entire family.

Once again I was sold on the trailer for Blue Ruin. Even without the helpful quote thrown in ('Recalls the dark wit of the Coens' Total Film) it had the hallmarks of a Coen brothers mystery with elements of violence, oddball characters and some interesting locations, however, where Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of adding subtle touches of black humour to their films Blue Ruin is completely devoid of any, leaving us with a graphically violent murder rampage in which none of the characters have any redeeming features. 

Dwight doesn't care whether he lives or dies and as a result neither do we. His motive, though understandable, is never fully developed into anything more than a 'you killed my folks so now you're all going to die' theme, and there's a twist that's revealed around the mid-point of the film, concerning the events of his parents murder, that doesn't make any difference to what preceded it or what happens afterwards, which renders it slightly pointless.

Dwight thoroughly convinces as the fragile loner who has spent years running away from his traumatic past, but once he achieves his primary goal he loses a certain amount of believability and a lot of empathy as he bungles his way through through a series of deadly situations in which the overwhelming tension is gently wound down rather than cut due to a lack of excitement in the action set pieces.

It's well acted and though it doesn't quite befit the lofty comparison to the work of the Coen brothers (whom I don't hold in such high esteem as the majority of film fans), it successfully delivers a hefty amount of nervous tension, especially in the first act which plays out with very little dialogue and a lot brooding, murderous intent. It was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival but I'm not sure that's quite the stamp of quality that it wants to be. It's beautiful (the photography is very good) and directed with an assured eye but ultimately I came away quite thinking it was soulless and emotionally empty. 

It's also another one of those films that doesn't finish with a traditional ending, so let me just say this.

* * *








Saturday, 26 April 2014

Filmdog Weekly #12 (Calvary, The Guard)

Welcome once again faithful Filmdoggers. Faith is once again at the forefront of this week's review as we unearth a modern classic in 'Calvary', the 2nd film in John Michael McDonagh's unfinished 'Suicide Trilogy'. We've also gone back to check out 'The Guard' from 2011 which opens the collection so look away now if you don't like Brendan Gleeson...



Calvary (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'There they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left'

What would you do if you knew you only had a week to live? That's the dilemma facing Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) in Calvary, a beautiful film about one priest's struggle to maintain his faith while his resilience is tested by his very own flock.

The opening scene sets the tone as Father James, while taking Sunday Confession, is told he's going to be murdered in 7 days time. The would-be-killer, his identity a mystery, revealing the pain and inner torture from years of sexual abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. With his abusers already in the ground, he's decided to take revenge by killing a good priest, an 'innocent' one instead. "That'd be a shock."

What plays out is a very clever, blackly comic, reverse murder-mystery in which the audience is introduced to a variety of characters from this close-knit Sligo town, outwardly showing contempt and mockery for Father James and the outdated institution he represents, while inwardly dealing with the issues of their own faith, severely tested or lost altogether following years of scandal surrounding the Catholic Church. 

Our list of potential assassins includes a libidinous Ivorian mechanic, a local butcher in the middle of an emotional love triangle, a young man with murderous thoughts born out of sexual frustration, an antagonistic pub landlord, an atheist doctor, a mentally fragile rent-boy and a rich banker with a superiority complex. Intriguingly, Father James suspects he knows the identity of his would-be murderer yet carries on with his daily duties anyway, doing his earnest best to fulfil his spiritual calling and putting his faith to the ultimate test.

It's a wonderful film full of rich photography and showing the west coast of Ireland in its picturesque full glory despite the underlying grizzly theme. Religious imagery is put to good use to highlight the contrast between Father James and those he means to serve. He strikes a lone figure wearing the priest's soutane for much of the film, only changing into casual clothes at the point when his faith is most tested but the soutane serves as a uniform, reminding him of his duty. His room is sparsely decorated with a simple cross adorning a large white wall and you understand the integrity behind the man. He practises what he preaches and is fully committed to his servitude of God even if it means paying the ultimate price in the process.

Brendan Gleeson has never been better in my opinion and this is a real behemoth of a performance. He plays it serious but still manages to add a lot of humour to a film which is very sombre and sorrowful. The cast is excellent with noteworthy turns from comedy stars Chris O'Dowd, Dylan Moran and Pat Shortt, all of them convincing in serious roles, and I thought this was a pretty special film. It's very moving, powerful and full of great characters. Go and see it before it disappears from the cinemas.

* * * * *

(Calvary is showing at all Picturehouses and selected Odeon, Vue and Cineworld cinemas in the UK)



The Guard (Netflix Canada)
'Galway Confidential'

I recently downloaded a free Chrome extension called Hola Unblocker which allows my computer to access content from around the world that wouldn't ordinarily be available in my country. I've found it very useful, particularly for accessing a wider range of films that I can't watch on Netflix UK. The limitation is that I have to watch it on my laptop rather than through the Wii but I can live with that.

One film I wanted to watch after seeing Calvary was John Michael McDonagh's previous film The Guard which I accessed on Netflix Canada. Once again Brendan Gleeson plays the lead character Gerry Boyle, a maverick police officer from Galway whose work-life balance is firmly tilted towards the latter end of the scale. He supplements the everyday boredom of policing with drinking, recreational drugs and hookers, making no apologies for it.

Boyle is teamed up with Don Cheadle's FBI Agent Wendell Everett to track down a trio of drug traffickers (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot) who are responsible for the murder of Boyle's partner. Their relationship has traces of 48 Hours as Boyle's unintentional racism and laissez-faire attitude towards by-the-book law enforcement causes friction between the two of them, but they eventually bond, acclimatising to the other's habits. 

Integrity is a key theme in McDonagh's films and similarly to Father James in Calvary, Boyle is the lone wolf among a flock of bent cops who feels compelled to be true to himself and his own beliefs despite the potential risks. The ending of both films shares a lot of the same beats, both putting on their uniforms for the final showdown, symbolising their dedication to their team.

While it shares many of the same cast and themes as Calvary, it's tonally different, opting for more openly comic moments and more eccentricity in its characters, most obviously in the way the drug traffickers have been written. The villainous trio are heavily clich├ęd and comic bookish in their dialogue, having existential discussions among themselves before committing brutal murders. They could easily be Dr Evil's henchmen from the Austin Powers films, so far removed are they from reality and this grates with the rest of the action, which while not enshrined in realism, takes itself a just little more seriously. The final showdown feels rushed, blundering through a barrage of machine gun fire and daft one-liners and it left me just a little unsatisfied.

The Guard is an enjoyable film but it feels more like a trial run for Calvary, in which writer-director McDonagh seems to have figured out what did and didn't work from this film, giving the characters to his follow-up more depth and it benefits from a better sense of pace. Don't be put off though, it's still a lot of fun and Gleeson is terrific as usual. Watch The Guard and Calvary in chronological order to maximise your enjoyment and you'll see how an exciting filmmaker improved over the course of 2 films.

* * * *












Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Filmdog Weekly - Matthew McConaughey Special

The Paperboy (Netflix) ***
Magic Mike (Netflix) **
Mud (Netflix US) ****
True Detective (Sky Atlantic) *****



'Alright, alright, alright...'

It's about time for a Matthew McConaughey retrospective in light of his brilliant role as Rust Cohle in Sky Atlantic's terrific series True Detective which reached it's climax on Saturday night.

He's been cropping up in a number of roles over the past few years in critically acclaimed films that you may or may not have seen, and his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club set tongues wagging about his recent 'comeback', but in truth he's not been anywhere. If he has, it's was a few years basking topless in mediocre rom-coms such as The Wedding Planner (2001), How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Failure to Launch (2006) and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009). 

Since then, however, I can only conclude that he had a light bulb moment and realised that typecasting himself as the go-to handsome guy for romantic comedies wasn't doing his career any favours. Either that or it was a brilliant piece of strategic planning, churning out forgettable film after forgettable film, knowing full-well that his resurgence in a number of serious, edgy roles would only compound his amazing transformation.

Anyone who's seen A Time to Kill (1996) will know that he's always been a fine actor, but maybe it's taken this long for him to grow into his face. His good looks may have until now stood in the way of him getting the kinds of meaty roles that his talent deserves and now in his 40's, McConaughey has developed an oaky, wizened complexion to toughen up those previously-soft features. Having a few creases in his skin and losing the surfer-blonde look has opened him up to a variety of roles and so I've gone back to watch a few a few films that initially slipped under my radar and which are available to view on Sky or Netflix.

The Paperboy

In 2012's The Paperboy McConaughey plays Ward Jansen, a Miami journalist who arrives back in his hometown to investigate the murder case of a death-row inmate Hillary van Wetter (John Cusack). 

Along with his writing assistant Yardley (David Oyelowo), his younger brother Jack (Zac Effron) and Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a woman obsessed with the condemned man after an ongoing correspondence relationship with him, the quartet look into van Wetter's case and find that he may not be guilty of the crime after all.

It's shot through a filter, giving it a dated, hazy look and I quite enjoyed the way it made everything look humid and sweaty, providing a real sense of location. However the story is a little befuddled and it doesn't really know what kind of film it is. It's less intrigued in the actual murder mystery and more focused on the dynamic between these very different characters. There's no real tension despite touching on racism, homosexuality and murder, resulting in a pretty unsatisfactory climax.


Magic Mike

On first appearance, it would be quite easy to dismiss Magic Mike as a chick flick given that much of the screen time is filled with muscular dudes dancing naked on stage, however appearances can be deceiving. 

Director Steven Soderbergh is an interesting filmmaker, if not always consistent and this is one to add to that list of films that don't quite work for me. While it's not bad, it isn't particularly interesting despite providing an insightful and (from what I can tell) fairly accurate portrayal of life in the male stripping business.

Channing Tatum plays beefcake-with-a-heart Mike, a savvy stripper as well as an entrepreneur and businessman who takes young and dumb Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing, introducing him to the world of male stripping and all the perks that come with it - women, money and good times. 

Matthew McConaughey is Dallas, head honcho and compere of the Tampa strip group. It's a brave choice, given the solo routine he has to perform halfway through but he throws himself into the role of the wily old-hand who's shrewd enough to realise he requires younger flesh than his own to display if he's going to fulfil his dream of taking his show to the big leagues in Miami. 

It's a dream come true for 19-year-old Alex who ends up living la vida loca just a little too ferociously and the film follows his journey from naive and shy pretty boy to debauched sex machine.

It's loosely based on Channing Tatum's real experience as a Tampa Bay stripper when he was 18 and there's real authenticity to the film, showing the professionalism and pride that these guys take in their work as well as the partying lifestyle that accompanies it. The problem is it's a little too life-like. Most of the action that happens away from the club, the beach barbecues, the house parties, the general everyday life stuff, is mundane. The dialogue is boringly realistic and by the end I found myself wanting these guys to shut their yaps and start dancing again as the stripping scenes are by far the most entertaining part of the film.

There are plans for a sequel to Magic Mike (Even Magic-er?) and with Steven Soderbergh no longer on the scene to direct (he's happily retired) perhaps we'll lose some of the mumblecore elements that turned Magic Mike to decidedly Average Joe.

Mud

Just when you thought this Matthew McConaughey special was turning into a bit of a damp squib, Mud happily comes along to give this review a well-timed boost as our star is once again given a leading role to get his crooked fake teeth into.

The film follows two 14-year-old boys named Ellis and Neckbone, who find a large boat stuck high up in a tree on an island in the middle of the Arkansas River. They claim it for themselves but soon find out that it's being lived in by a mysterious stranger called Mud (McConaghey), a charismatic loner who inspires a sense of adventure in the boys, gaining their trust and befriending them. It soon dawns on them that Mud is living on the island for a more pragmatic reason and they agree to help him fix up the boat so that he can sail off with his true love (Reece Witherspoon) and evade his pursuers.

Mud is a great little adventure film. It has the feel of a Mark Twain story and while the ending seems to switch genres entirely, turning from slow burning character tale into a shoot-em-up, it's an enjoyable romp with some great performances from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the mischievous teen duo and from McConaughey, who's great as the worldly-yet-naive Mud. 

Jump in with both feet.

True Detective

I came late to True Detective which was something of a blessing as it allowed me to watch the first 3 episodes all at once (my preferred method of watching a series).

It's remarkably good. Completely different from any other investigative police show on tv in terms of mood and the sheer brilliance of the writing.

Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey play detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle. Marty is the senior officer. On the surface he's a regular family man, hardworking and very much a typical genre-cop. Rust is foisted upon him, transferred in from another state having worked for years undercover, and immediately his style of police work and psychological mutterings begin to test their relationship to the limit, only surviving because of Marty's admiration for his partner's abilities as a detective.

The pair are assigned the case of a murdered young girl, killed in ritualistic fashion, leading to their investigation into disappearance several people across a 20 year period, seemingly connected to something altogether more sinister.

Over 90 minutes this wouldn't work. Across 8 hour-long episodes however, the characters are given a chance to develop and the tension allowed to quietly simmer away. It's shot in such a way that the audience only picks up clues as they are being fed to us by Rust and Marty while being interrogated in the present day about events surrounding the original 1995 case. For the entire first half of the series we still don't know why they are being interrogated and it's a terrific plot device, revealing pieces of the puzzle in flashback, letting the audience play detective as we try to figure out what's going on. 

It's the best television series I've seen since Breaking Bad and although the ending is a little underwhelming (the final episode is unfortunately the weakest of them all) it's a thoroughly well-written, brilliantly-acted and engrossing drama, playing more like an 8-hour film than a typical tv series. Woody Harrelson is excellent as Marty but the series belongs to McConaughey's brooding, lone-wolf Rust.

True Detective completes McConaughey's return from critical obscurity (the McConaissance?), establishing him as the best actor on our screens at this moment in time.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Filmdog Weekly #11 (Noah, Muppets Most Wanted)

This week The Filmdog urges you to bring an umbrella as we get all biblical on your ass with Noah. Then it's another not-quite-as-great Muppet caper in Muppets Most Wanted...



Noah (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'You won't Adam and Eve it'

What is immediately evident on sitting down to watch Noah, Darren Aronofsky's take on the biblical story of God's genocide against humanity, is that the director is not particularly bothered about sticking rigidly to the source material. 

Unlike, say, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's telling of Jesus' torture, crucifixion and (SPOILER) eventual resurrection, which was as far as I could tell a fairly straight-up and accurate version of the events detailed in the Bible, Noah plays fast and loose with it's details in order to best serve the director's vision for his story.

I personally have no issues with that. A director should be able to deviate from the source material in order to tell a more entertaining story and in the case of the story of Noah and the ark, it's only a little over 2000 words long and so logic tells us that it needed to be fleshed out to fill 138 minutes of screen time, creating some fanciful characters and inventing some family drama to go along with all the rain and woodwork. 

Similarly to The Passion, this film received waves of criticism from various religious groups across the world prior to release, forcing the director and his leading man Russell Crowe to strongly defend the film throughout the promotional tour, suggesting people shouldn't criticise the movie before seeing it for themselves. He even gained a meeting with Pope Francis who gave the film his blessing.

The bad news for Aronofsky and Crowe, the latter of whom is one of my favourite actors (and a fellow Bristol City supporter), is that I have seen it, and dear God it is pretty awful.

My heart sank 2 minutes into the film after watching a terribly hashed montage sequence covering the genesis of the world involving a fluorescent stop-motion snake, a fairly unappealing apple and then the aftermath of Adam and Eve's ejection from paradise, leading to armies of bearded men wandering the world and being all kinds of evil. You'll know the evil ones. They are dressed in black.

However, that wasn't the worst of it. This came with the introduction of 'The Watchers', a race of fallen angels cast out of heaven due to their desire to help mankind, and now living on earth in the shape of huge rock-giants. It is from this that the film never recovers and became more of a fantasy-film than a biblical epic. These 'Watchers' would not look out of place in Tolkein's world, indeed they bare an alarming similarity in look and voice to Treebeard and the Ents from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. If you want to fuck up a film, put some rock-giants in it.

With all hope gone for mankind in the film and all hope gone for me as a viewer, the next 2 hours dragged by as we watch Noah go from child to man, speaking with God (never name-checked, always referred to as 'the Creator') through visions while asleep and proceeding to build an ark in order to carry out his master's grand plan to wipe evil of the face of the earth. This evil is personified by a poorly cast Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain, leader of the baddies, akin to those same clad-in-black beard-faced fellows that we saw at the start of the film. We know they're still bad because they still wear black and eat animal flesh without using a knife or fork. They're none too happy when Noah tells them of their watery fate and so they plot to take the ark for themselves.

Some sub-plots involving Noah's children fill up the rest of the running-time. There's Shem (the handsome one), Ham (the horny one) and Japheth (the one who doesn't get a line in the film). There's also Emma Watson as Ila, a girl Noah saved and took in as his own daughter and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, their hermit of a grandfather who possess magical powers that nobody cares to explain. 

Russell Crowe is generally good in these kind of films but the dialogue lets the whole cast down, making them only slightly less wooden than the ark they've built. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson are wasted in secondary roles and ironically the only person who isn't guilty of ham-acting is Logan Lerman who gives a human performance as Noah's troubled middle-son. Everyone else is reduced to long stares, dramatic turning and earnest statements. It's very theatrical and doesn't quite convince on the big screen of being anything other than actors pretending to be characters.

Noah is grand in scale but I'm not sure it's really a film that needed to be made. Much like the Hobbit trilogy extending itself thinly across 3 films, this suffers from a lack of substance in terms of its source and so is forced to invent a new mythology, one which ultimately won't appeal to those who believe in the bible and which will also fail to excite the imagination of those who enjoy a good fantasy film. 

I've tried to stick clear of puns and cliche but I'm afraid Noah almost made some members of this audience walk out two by two. 

* *

Muppets Most Wanted
'Muppets least needed?'

Following a successful return for The Muppets in 2011, combining the much-loved characters with the Flight of the Conchords team of director James Bobin and songwriter Brett McKenzie, who together injected some much needed life into the ailing franchise, Muppets Most Wanted returns to cash in on their current popularity, and they're not the only ones.

The amount of cameos in this film is quite astounding with familiar faces popping up at every turn. Cynics will claim that the majority of them are simply trying to give their careers a little boost but it doesn't really matter. The Muppets has never worked without having a host of celebrities to make fun of and this film is no exception. Even when there are some odd cameo choices, it's all the better because the joke is really at their expense. Ray Liotta returns for another stint (he appears in Muppets in Space) but looks quite bewildered as a singing, dancing inmate of a Siberian prison.

The plot follows the similar shenanigans of all Muppet films as the gang naively sign up with nefarious music agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who takes them on a tour of Europe. Can he be trusted? Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Constantine the frog has escaped from prison and plots to steal the Crown Jewels of England by switching places with his doppelganger Kermit and performing a number of raids in Berlin, Madrid and Dublin before the climax at the Tower of London. Hot on their heels are Interpol agents Sam Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) who get the movie's best song while conducting an interrogation, whilst in Siberia, Kermit tries to persuade prison warden Nadya (Tina Fey) that they've got the wrong frog.

While it's not as good as The Muppets it's still a lot of fun. The decision to sign up with Bobin and McKenzie for these last 2 films was the best thing the studio could have done as the humour and songs that made Flight of the Conchords so successful translates perfectly to the surreal, madcap stylings of the Muppet world. Ty Burrell is the real star for me as the Clouseau-like detective, directing some well-placed gags at the expense of us Europeans. Tina Fey is also very good (as usual) and Ricky Gervais once again plays himself under a different name. 

Picking 3 of the best comedy actors on television was a clever piece of casting and it's these periphery characters, human and Muppet alike, that provides us with the most fun. Sadly the real weakness of Muppets Most Wanted lay at the door of it's leading stars. Kermit and Piggy, while likeable enough, have little to do here except go through the usual romantic dilemma that occurs in every muppet outing. Frankly I'm just a bit bored of them. Give me more Pepe the King Prawn. Give me more Sam Eagle. Give me more of everyone else. It might not please traditionalists but give me a Muppet film where Kermit and Piggy take a nice long honeymoon for the duration and let everyone else have a bit more screen time.

* * *




Friday, 28 March 2014

Filmdog Weekly #10 (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)


Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Major Snoozefest...'

As a general rule of thumb I usually try not to read other critics' reviews before I have written my own in case it affects my opinion. It's very easy to think 'hmmm...I should have thought of that' and then pass it off as your own observation and that's not really the point. The good thing about movies and music, amongst other things, is that they are completely subjective. One man's masterpiece is another man's wallpaper. 

On Thursday, however, I found myself drawn to a review on The Guardian by Peter Bradshaw titled 'Marvel's dullest superhero' and couldn't help but sneak a peak. Having seen the film on Wednesday (at mid-day alongside several other lone males of a similar age) at my local Greenwich Picturehouse, my thoughts on the film had already been formed and so I was interested to see what Bradshaw thought of it. Unsurprisingly his views were not wildly dissimilar from mine.

In this second instalment of the super-soldier franchise, his third overall after his run out with The Avengers, our hero's character is firmly established. Steve Rogers, a man genetically modified to combat the Nazis in WWII, frozen in ice and time after battling the evil Red Skull, revived in modern day USA, enlisted as an agent of SHIELD and now resuming his duties as the all-American protector of his homeland and the wider world.

The first Captain America film, 'The First Avenger', was an enjoyable twist on the genre, which had until then been mostly set in the present day, giving us a retro superhero who despite possessing awesome strength and speed, still uses a gun to kill his enemies. He was the ultimate do-gooder and this was made fun of in Avengers Assemble where he was a fish-out-of-water, struggling to adapt to the generational changes in attitude and technology that took place during his 70-year freeze. The reason why that film works so well (and is ultimately the best Marvel film so far) is the badinage between Cap, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man, deftly guided by writer and director Joss Whedon.

In 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier', the fish is well and truly back in the water. No longer troubled by the gulf in his personal timeline, he's happy again. He's at home using the internet ("very useful"), he's making a small catch-up list of pop culture (which bizarrely included the 1966 World Cup final for UK audiences) and he's even managed to hook up with 100-year-old Agent Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) to reminisce about the old days by her bedside.

He goes about his duty, leading missions alongside Avengers' Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson as former KGB agent Natasha Romanov), shoehorned into this film to give it some star quality and who's primary concern is trying to hook up Cap with a girlfriend.

So there's not much wrong really apart from a little internal conflict about whether he wants to continue being a soldier. Step up Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, with the ingenious idea of putting 3 super-bastard-sized-spaceships in the sky that can each target and wipe out a million people at the same time. Why? For our own protection of course. Cap's not happy with this idea, suspecting it might infringe on the peoples liberty just a little bit and uses his superhuman powers of perception to figure out that this might not be a Dragons Den-winning idea after all.

The rest is pretty formulaic. A host of new characters, including Robert Redford as scheming SHIELD executive Alexander Pierce, Anthony Mackie as Cap's new sidekick Falcon and mysterious new bad guy The Winter Soldier (who could he be? You've failed if you can't figure it out after 20 minutes), join established faces Nick Fury and Black Widow to make this as much as an ensemble as Avengers Assemble and unfortunately that's a damning indictment of Captain America's (and Chris Evans') power to pull an audience.

It's quite an enjoyable film despite the endless bursts of 'TAKATAKATAKATAK' machine gun fire that crops up throughout, and the sooner they get rid of those boring super-spaceships the better. A scene in which Cap takes an eventful ride down an elevator is a standout in terms of action, while Anthony Mackie gives some much needed camaraderie as fellow soldier Sam Wilson. 

However, the real fault of the film lies at its heart. What made Captain America fun in the first place was seeing a man struggling to adapt to his new surroundings and keeping hold of his morality while still reluctantly fulfilling his fighting duties, much like the Wolverine does. That's all gone now. Here, he's happy to chat with Agent Romanov about girls while letting a man (albeit a bad guy) fall to his death from the top of a tower block, the scene deliberately pointing to the fact that he's become more morally flexible. In trying to modernise him, the filmmakers have shed much of the pathos that made him appealing in the first place. An attempt to re-conjure those feelings of self-conflict, whereby he spends much of the film moping about because his best buddy died in The First Avenger, feels phoney, serving only as a plot device for the climax. And try as they might, there is no sexual chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and the impressively muscular Chris Evans, somewhat of a real-life Hulk.

Evans has said he may quit acting and move into directing after his six-film contract with Marvel is finished. That leaves another three outings at least for Captain America and you have to wonder if the man in the red, the white and the blue will come through after all. 

Captain Charisma he most certainly is not and I can't help but agree with Peter Bradshaw. He is Marvel's dullest character and Chris Evans struggles to impart any charm upon him, which is possibly the reason to include several other big stars to prop up the poster boy in this. Sadly it seems he's such a dull character that he can't even be trusted with the lead role in his own film.

* * *