Thursday, 17 April 2014

Locke

Sadly not an entire feature film about Lost's greatest character, Locke is in fact a fantastic slice of claustrocore with Tom Hardy in a chunky-knit sweater. I wrote some words about it for The Shiznit when it was on at the London Film Festival; why not read them? Then you'll know how good it is and want to go and see it.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Abandoned idea #216

I'm sure I had a point to make when I started this, but by the time I'd finished I had no idea what it was. Sorry.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2:
Electro Boogaloo

It seems important these days to preface any discussion of a given film by outlining your feelings about that film's prequels or previous incarnations (in various media), just so that people know whether you're on their wavelength or talking out of your shitpipe. So, for the record, here are my qualifications for having an opinion on The Amazing Spider-Man 2; you can decide for yourself whether what I'm about to say in the rest of this post is likely to reflect your own views or make you want to kick me in the dick.
And so it was with the taste of two-year-old dog shit lingering in my mouth that I approached The Amazing Spider-Man 2, still cross about the premature rebooting of Spidey's barely-cold corpse and even crosser about what a colossal waste of time it was reliving his origin story for one hour and watching him piss about with an abysmal CG lizard man for another. Fortunately the great thing about superhero Part Twos is that with the origin story out of the way, we can crack on with superpowered angst, human relationship drama, villains afforded a decent amount of time and all that stuff that gets added to Part One as an afterthought, and in this case it's doubly good news that Part One is over because it was so skin-flayingly awful.

It also means that without the bits that made me want to chuck stuff at the screen last time, I can now appreciate what Marc Webb's version of Spidey does so much better than Sam Raimi's, and those things are plentiful. Most obvious is ol' Webhead himself, who, after years of clunky CG, finally convinces as he lobs himself through the canyons of New York, and who is also the wisecracking chucklemonkey from the comics - something Tobey Maguire never quite pulled off. Andrew Garfield is brilliant here, selling the comedy and the emotional stuff so well that you barely notice that the middle of the film is almost entirely Spider-Manless. The question still remains, though: how does he fit all that hair into Spidey's mask? Turns out, as these exclusive stills show, they use CGI to digitally shrink his head in post-production.
Sally Field's Aunt May and Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy are also in a different league to their preboot counterparts (for the sake of argument, Stone's counterpart is Kirsten Dunst), not least because you don't want a bad guy to pull all their limbs off one by one because they're so hair-tearingly annoying. In fact two scenes, one with each of them simply sharing well-written dialogue with Garfield, caused me to get something in my eye. It was popcorn, because well-acted, well-written dialogue scenes really exacerbate my hand-to-mouth co-ordination disorder.

Main villain duties fall to Jamie Foxx's Electro, although for a main villain he too is largely absent from the film's mid-section. His character has the pathos with which Stan Lee liked to imbue many of his bad guys, and his first face-off with Spider-Man is well-handled: the Electrovision is a cool touch, sparingly used, and Hans Zimmer and Pharell have given him a bonkers theme song that sounds like Eminem having a row with Daft Punk in the cellar of a lunatic. Unfortunately he's got the world's dullest supervillain costume (except for his magically self-repairing electropants), a million miles from the lightning-masked loon of the comics, but what he lacks in style he makes up for in mentalism: his bedroom is eerily reminiscent of that of Jed Maxwell, Alan Partridge's unhinged stalker.
 
Once again, I find myself asking of a supervillain: how does he wank?

Dane Dehaan, who still hasn't grown into his ludicrously deep voice, borrows Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man 3-era emo haircut to play Harry Osborn, with mixed results. It's hard to buy him and Peter as BFFs, and he's too sinister not to turn psycho, but the Parker / Osborn mythology is given an interesting new twist to prevent another retread of the Raimiverse. When the inevitable Goblinisation rolls round, you'll have to decide for yourself whether it's a terrific addition to the supervillain canon or if it is, in fact, just a little bit too silly.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is far from perfect (it isn't even amazing); like every modern superhero film it's too long, it doesn't really add anything useful to a bloated genre and it wastes a fun hero/villain dynamic at the expense of a subplot that sits apart from the rest of the film. But it's very funny, boasts a handful of excellent scenes and performances, and delivers some first class comic book action. It's not quite the Iron Man 3 to its prequel's Iron Man 2, but it's enough of an improvement to re-pique my interest in the franchise, and frankly I imagine that was its only goal.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Happy 22nd birthday Empire magazine!

Astute readers of monthly movie waffle merchants Empire magazine cannot fail to have noticed that this year it celebrates 25 years of active service. Like a lady made of paper and words, Empire has been menstruating film chat every month for quarter of a century, and its menopause is, thankfully, nowhere in sight. Long may it continue to discharge the blood and mucosal tissue of its smart and witty reviews, exclusive features and crap photo captions into the sanitary towels of our eyes, and may it forgive this unpleasant metaphor which I began without fully realising the horror of its inevitable conclusion.

As far as I'm concerned, Empire is in fact a mere 22 years old, as I didn't start reading it until early 1992. I still remember the day Empire and I first met: bored shitless during my lunch break from a Saturday job at Lloyds Supersave chemists in my home town of Whitchurch, Shropshire, I ventured into WHSmiths in the hope of finding something to take my mind off an impending afternoon of stocking shelves with IZAL medicated toilet paper. Browsing the magazine rack, I was alarmed to be confronted by Kevin Costner gurning handsomely at me from the cover of Empire issue 32. I didn't care much for Costner at the time, so the thought of paying money for something with his face on it gave me pause, but I was a big film fan and it certainly appeared that this magazine might just have something about films in it.
I must have flicked through it in the shop, because nothing on the cover of that issue could possibly have convinced me to part with what probably amounted to half my weekly salary from Lloyds Supersave. Frankie & Johnny? BORING. JFK? BORING. I was 17 and excited about The Last Boy Scout and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, not free cardboard posters of two films I'd never even heard of. But inside were reviews of The Last Boy Scout and Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, so while Empire may not have had me at "hello", it certainly had me at "take your shoes off and make yourself comfortable".

I've remained more or less faithful to Empire ever since, although I should confess that I've cheated on it with Total Film, Hotdog and Neon (the latter of which was by far its best companion and I mourn its loss to this day) for a while, and I downright deserted it for about six months some time in the late 1990s. I can't remember the cause of that temporary separation, but I'd stayed true throughout those long years of every article ending with a maddening ellipsis, so whatever it was must have been serious. Maybe it was those paltry three stars for The World Is Not Enough, so clearly a four-star film, right?
Shut up.

In 2009, faced with another house move involving lugging several tons of magazines from one postcode to another, I donated my 17-year collection of Empires to a recycling bin. It was a tediously practical decision, and while I don't regret it (I don't think I ever looked at an old issue once the new one came out), I do regret dumping issue 32. I could buy one on eBay for 99p but it wouldn't be the one I fondled so vigorously that Saturday lunchtime over a turkey sandwich and a cup of instant coffee that tasted like IZAL medicated toilet paper.

In my final year at university I had written to Empire's editor, Ian Nathan, asking for work experience on the magazine. I'd included my review of Ron Howard's Ransom, a piece of writing I now recognise as one of the most unpleasant things ever to happen to paper, and that includes IZAL medicated toilet paper. Mr Nathan, displaying the kind of judgement which has kept him at the magazine for so long, did not reply. But fifteen short years later I circumvented him by pestering reviews editor Nick de Semlyen to let me write short DVD reviews, and in issue 271 Empire and I finally consummated our relationship as I penetrated its pages with my three-star review of the home entertainment release of Mr Popper's Penguins. Movie journalism had entered a brave new era.

I dip my toe into this stinking cesspit of self-indulgence because, being old and grumpy, I don't get excited about much, but being even the tiniest of cogs in the Empire magazine machine gets me all sorts of tumescent. It's been such a constant part of my life for so long that I can't imagine being without it, so helping to make it (even if I'm only helping to make it worse) feels like an enormous privilege. Who, having read it for so long, wouldn't want to write for Empire? Only last week at their annual awards shindig, Online Editor James Dyer chatted amiably with Arnold Schwarzenegger; regular freelancer Olly Richards shook hands with Tom Cruise (twice, he'll happily point out); and diminutive, beardular, subnormal Features Editor Dan Jolin felt the warm embrace of courageous, manly, distinguished icon Hugh Jackman (adjectives added at Dan's insistence). It's getting to do shit like that FOR A LIVING that makes the people who make Empire make it as fun to read as it is. They're all film geeks living the dream, and that enthusiasm drips off the pages like... well, let's not get into period metaphors again.

So without wishing to sink any further into a bog of sycophantic muck sloshed liberally over an occasional employer, I'll simply wish Empire a happy 25th birthday and thank it for everything it's given me since January 1992. Keep up the good work guys, and if you're interested, I have a terrific Ransom retrospective piece up my sleeve...

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Noah

Batten down the hatches, there's a storm a-comin': a storm of absolute batshit mentalism from which even the sturdiest umbrella won't protect you. You may as well just pop your Speedos on now and prepare to drown in the boundless biblical bonkersness of Darren Aronofsky's Noah, a film which - while no more crackers than its source material - is simultaneously completely wonderful and utter dreck. It's brilliantly awful, and I cannot wait to see what the world makes of it.
"Fucksake, God. I JUST hung the washing out."

In the beginning, Darren creates an opening sequence showing mankind turning the shiny new Earth to shit, and the audience will see that it is good. Then he said, "Let there be a clichéd prologue where young Noah, wearing a hoodie for some reason, is given a backstory as old as time." This the audience will call 'a bit ropey for a biblical epic written and directed by one of modern cinema's most singular talents, but carry on.'

Having thereby diced dangerously with audience goodwill in its opening minutes, Noah soon reveals that it genuinely doesn't care for your expectations, and ploughs on with a story that consistently surprises in the most boggling ways while churning out a low-rent melodrama of baffling banality. On a mission from God - sorry, The Creator - to build a massive wooden box, stuff it with animals and wait for rain so furious that it erupts from the ground and the sky, Noah (Russell Crowe) is aided by Watchers, huge knobbly rock-beings that resemble giant angry Nik Naks. This is the kind of stuff that makes you glad to be alive while Darren Aronofsky is making films, but it's not long before attention is focussed instead on a soppy teenage infatuation between Noah's Burberry model son (Douglas Booth) and adopted Burberry model daughter (Emma Watson).
Seriously, let 'em drown.

And so it goes on: Ray Winstone, whose character may as well be called Ant Agonist, rocks up like a faded drunk panto star, chewing up both the scenery and precious endangered species while Russell Crowe grumps about po-facedly and talks in Historical Epicish to anyone who'll listen. It's a clash of styles which typifies the film and renders it senseless.

When the flood arrives, which it takes its sweet time doing, it's suitably biblically wrought and things start to look up. By this point we've got a lead character who hears voices telling him to ensure the destruction of the human race - including those nearest and dearest to him - being thrashed about on the waves while the planet's remaining souls clamber over each other to high ground, screaming in terror at their horrific fate. All this torment should make for an emotionally devastating piece of cinema, but Aronofsky ignores the plight of humanity, directs Russell Crowe as if he's troubled by nothing more than a stone in his sandal and bimbles on with the tedious teen soap opera that should be restricted to the status of minor subplot. It's hard to get involved in one man, burdened with a terrible purpose, when his wife is conducting pregnancy tests using half a coconut and some hemp.
As wildly entertaining as Noah is, it feels like a missed opportunity for a truly great biblical epic. It's maddening that a director with Aronofsky's vision would hire such a vacuous cast (Crowe and Winstone excepted) to tell a story with such huge themes, and utterly bewildering that he would allow it to so frequently sink into comically turgid mush, enlivened only by the occasional sub-Lord Of The Rings action sequence (and, let's be fair, a truly magnificent montage of the creation of all creation). But its unique spirit can't be denied, and so it is with no small amount of confused admiration that I celebrate it. It's a one-star film and a five-star film bundled together in an insane spin cycle, and the result is a three-star flawed masterpiece. God knows what you'll think of it.

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Double

Given that The Double is about a mysterious doppelgänger (Jesse Eisenberg), physically identical to but psychologically different from the original (Jesse Eisenberg, obvs), it can't be a coincidence that Richard Ayoade's second film feels strangely familiar, yet at the same time distinctively odd. Set in a bureaucratic nightmare world as much 1984 as it is Brazil, it evokes a number of cinematic dystopian fantasies but is essentially unlike any of them. Perhaps Ayoade's greatest achievement is to have made a film that's Kafkaesque, Orwellian and, uh... Gilliamish (definitely a word), while maintaining a distinct style of his own - even though he doesn't really have one.
ZOMG there's totally, like, two of them

That's not a criticism; it's just that stylistically, The Double is such a stark contrast to Ayoade's first film - cold, impersonal and fatalistic where Submarine was warm, heartfelt and optimistic - that were it not for the fact that he's re-cast almost everyone from his first film in his second (plus the odd face from The IT Crowd), you'd be hard pressed to work out who was behind the camera here. As a result, I'm already looking forward to the director's third feature just to see where the hell he goes next.

For now, though, this will have to do, and while it's a treat for the eyes and ears - Ayoade has an absolute riot with production and sound design - it's a curiously hollow experience. Chuckles are injected along the way to alleviate the crushing greyness, but a lack of LOLs isn't The Double's problem; it's the absence of any tangible meaning behind the surreal happenings on screen. Sure, the meditations on identity, the notion of the self, the pressures of society blah blah blah are all great, I get that, but I found them a lot more enjoyable in '60s TV triumph The Prisoner - specifically the episode The Schizoid Man, if anyone's interested.
ZOMG there's totally, like, two of them

The Double lost me in its final act, when it became harder to reconcile what I was seeing with what I thought the story was trying to say, but maybe that's just me. I am a bit thick after all, and nobody likes a film that's cleverer than they are. Eisenberg is fine as both sides of his character (although no better than Michael Cera - for whom Eisenberg is, ironically, often mistaken - in Youth In Revolt), and Mia Wasikowska is charming as Hannah, whose palindromic name reflects her link between two identical people. I imagine.

The rest of the cast are equally adequate, but the fact that most of them were in Submarine draws attention to the film's artifice to such an extent that it must surely be deliberate. What's Ayoade saying here? That The Double is Submarine's evil twin? Unlikely. That actors must access alternate versions of themselves as part of their daily life? Doubt it. That he just likes working with those guys? Probably. It doesn't really matter: the film is open to interpretation, and whether you want answers or not is up to you. At least you'll enjoy watching the question unfold.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Labor Day [sic]: suspiciously familiar

Now that Labor Day [sic] is out in cinemas and we can all enjoy Josh Brolin sticking his fingers in Kate Winslet's moist, warm peach pie, I think it may well be time to lift the lid on its source material. Jason Reitman might claim that he based his screenplay on Joyce Maynard's book of the same name, but from where did Joyce get the idea? The answer to this question, as the answer to most questions should be, is Roger Moore.
Nice raised eyebrow, Kate. WHERE DID YOU GET THAT IDEA?

Specifically, Sir Rodge's 1992 non-hit Bed & Breakfast, which was only recently covered so thoroughly and painfully on the pages of this very blog. Now I suspect I may be the only person in the world to have seen both Labor Day [sic] and Bed & Breakfast, so naturally it falls to me to uncover this act of plagiarism. So without further ado, let's examine the evidence:

Labor Day [sic] and Bed & Breakfast spoilers ahoy!

LABOR DAY [sic]
BED & BREAKFAST
A sexy crook on the run (Josh Brolin) goes into hiding in a sexy single woman's homeA crook on the run (Roger Moore) goes into hiding in a single woman's home
The sexy single woman (Kate Winslet) has a young, naive son who fancies a local girlThe single woman (Talia Shire) has a young, naive daughter who fancies a local boy
The sexy crook turns out to be quite the handyman, doing odd jobs around the houseThe crook turns out to be quite the handyman, doing odd jobs around the house
The sexy crook is a whizz in the kitchen, whipping up a peach pie while talking in sex metaphorsThe crook is a whizz in the kitchen, whipping up a curry while talking in a racist Indian accent
The sexy crook becomes a father-figure to the sexy single woman's sonThe crook becomes a father-figure to the single woman's daughter
The sexy crook gives the sexy single woman the hot, steamy sex she's been missing for yearsThe crook gives the single woman the rusty pensioner sex she never knew she wanted
The citizens of the small town begin to wonder just who this mysterious, sexy man could beThe citizens of the small town begin to wonder just who this mysterious, old man could be
The sexy crook's past eventually catches up with him and he's forced to leave his surrogate familyThe crook's past eventually catches up with him and he's forced to leave his surrogate family
Eventually the sexy crook is reunited with the sexy single woman and they live happily ever afterEventually the crook is reunited with the single woman and they live happily ever after
The naive young son grows up to be Tobey MaguireThe naive young daughter grows up to be Tobey Maguire

I haven't been able to clarify that last point but I'm pretty sure it's the case.

The floor is hereby left open to Jason Reitman and Joyce Maynard to defend themselves. We're waiting, guys!

*waits*