Tuesday, 20 August 2013

jOBS (2013)


I must first preface this review for Steve Jobs’ first posthumous biopic by declaring I own not a single apple device. That being said, I was always in awe of Steve Jobs and was interested to see how Ashton Kutcher portrayed the magnanimous CEO and innovator.

Ashton Kutcher delivers a surprisingly deft performance as Jobs here. I think his acting reputation suffers greatly from his days as a goofus on That 70’s Show and other slapstick comedies over the years. However Kutcher can act, and demonstrates it in jOBS. He is helped by the fact that he does resemble the Apple founder and he even does a remarkable job portraying the signature Steve Jobs gait which becomes more pronounced as he neared middle age. He falls even more into the role as the make-up team gives him the signature receding hairline Jobs had his second go around at Apple.

Where Jobs falls flat is it feels really rushed. For such a large life story, I am amazed at how much they omit or gloss over in this one. This is especially true when it comes to Jobs’ personal life. They touch briefly on his time at Atari and college in the first 15 minutes and then it just flies into a frenzy of dialogue and character introductions. At one point we jump from 1985 when Jobs was ousted from Apple to his return to the company in 1995. In that time frame we go from a egomaniacal quirky version of Jobs to a peaceful family orientated complacent suburbanite version, without adequate explanation or exposition. I felt that could’ve been touched on more. The meat of the plot is primarily focused on the development of the Apple II and the Macintosh,  and infighting within Apple’s corporate structure in the early 80’s. I would even say there isn’t too much content in regards to the actual Apple products that changed the computing world forever.  The writers picked a lane on this one for sure; Steve Jobs was really smart and loud but he was a bit of an asshole too. And that’s it.

The film is cast well and all the main players do the best they can with a mediocre script. Josh Gad is lovable and funny as Steve Wozniak and Dermot Mulroney has his moments as Mike Markkula, Apples initial angel investor. A tip of the cap to Kutcher for a vivid portrayal and then let’s just forget about this one. Aaron Sorkin is adapting Walter Isaacson’s biography on Jobs--let’s be honest--we know that one is worth waiting for.

Spring Breakers (2012)


Director Harmony Korine is no stranger to controversy. Writing the screen-play for Kids (1995) (with fellow provocateur Larry Clarke) at the tender age of 19, and taking experimental turns with Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (2004), and later Trash Humpers (2009), his latest offering Spring Breakers (2013) delves into the sordid hedonism and debauchery of the all-American institution of ‘Spring Break’. On a broader scale however, it asks the question ‘are people always who they appear to be?’ and more importantly, it explores the concepts of good, evil and morality – both within ourselves and within the world around us. 

The film follows a group of friends – the action-seeking and rambunctious Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) and devout Christian, aptly named Faith (Selena Gomez). These all-American college girls are bored with their life of studying and responsibility and want to escape to the sex and drug fuelled neon wonderland that is ‘Spring Break’. Low on funds, the more fearless girls in the group decide to rob a local chicken restaurant to fund their vacation. With the immoral attitude that the robbery will be easy - “just like a movie or a videogame” and decked out in their denim mini-shorts and balaclavas, the girls pull off the violent smash and grab and persuade the pious Faith to tag along on their adventure.

On their arrival, the girls are bombarded with, sun, sex and illicit substances as far as the eye can see. Music blares as drunken, tanned, even naked teenagers cavort along the beaches. These girls love this place – there is so much excitement, so much temptation all around. Despite their fun however, after running amok in a hotel room, the girls are arrested for drug use and lewd conduct and thrown in jail. Uh oh! Nobody can save them now – right? Wrong! Their knight in ‘bling-ing’ armour, drug dealer/gangster Alien (James Franco) comes to rescue them, bailing them out of jail and taking them under his wing. To most of these girls, this grill-wearing, tattoo-covered stranger seems dangerous mysterious and even alluring. But is this stranger’s enticing world of fast cars, guns, and flowing cash really where these young girls should be? After questioning her own devotion, Faith decides this is a place of danger and sin and sets off home to a more wholesome environment. The other girls however, who are not religious, stay to continue experiencing Alien’s wild ride. Things escalate and the girls fall deeper into the grips of Alien’s enticing world – with a crazy and violent conclusion.

The whole film seems like one extended rap video complete with partying, scantily clad women, drugs, booze and ‘swagger’. All of this seems to be real, but it is superficially real - an idealised version of reality – what a teenager hopes reality is like. Spring Breakers SHOWS a ridiculously excessive world of money, women and drugs – as Alien so eloquently puts it – “Look at all my shiiiit!” but it is poking fun at this over-the-top lifestyle. This rap-video subculture is tacky and sleazy but it is precisely that which makes it enticing - the same can be said for the film itself. Spring Breakers is fascinating in the way that it simultaneously lampoons these teenagers’ vacuous lifestyles and raunchy, drug-fuelled behaviour, while also inviting us to glamourize and celebrate it.

Korine sets his films in hyper-real worlds – it seems part documentary, part teenage fantasy, part MTV reality show. The film can be read as a tongue-in-check social commentary on teenagers today. Their excessive, wild, and often pornographic behaviour makes us suspicious (and horrified) that this is how young people really act when left to their own devices. Korine wants us to think “look at these pathetic kids and the nonsense they are partaking in!” but simultaneously think “Wow! That looks like a raring good time!” While watching, we are simultaneously disgusted and envious of these girls’ adventures.

The characters in Spring Breakers are purposely underdeveloped, shallow and unlikeable. Despite being in college, these girls appear dumb, ditzy and uninterested about their futures. In a brilliant stroke of comic irony, Korine intentionally casts these ‘young and innocent’ actresses who have previously had wholesome Disney personas to further blur the lines between who is good and who is bad. These girls are confronted with sheer bewildering excitement, but at the same time, potential danger and sleaze at every turn. The most apparent theme in Spring Breakers is the obvious dichotomy of ‘good and evil’- both in our own behaviours and in our own moral judgements. This exploration is most clearly explored through the character of Faith. Faith struggles with her own Gnosticism – simultaneously wanting to stay true to her Christian beliefs while being surrounded by wicked Earthly temptations.  The other girls however, do not fear the inherit danger of their situation – perhaps because they do not fear judgement from God.  But just because they do not believe in God, does that mean these girls are immoral? What is a heavenly excess for some is literal Hell for others. These ‘seemingly sweet’ college girls find themselves falling into a ‘sinful’ world of crime, drugs and violence, and while it may be seedy and forbidding, it is also exhilarating and refreshing – just like the film Spring Breakers.

Now You See Me (2013)


In what amounts to a magician/trickster-heist movie, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is tracking a group of performance magicians as they seem to be robbing banks and getting away with it since, well, magic isn't real, is it? Rhodes is joined by Interpol agent Alma Dray (M
élanie Laurant), while our heist crew is made up of Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Wilder (James Franco) and Reeves (Isla Fisher). If you haven't had enough stars yet, Morgan Freeman and Michael Cain round out the supporting cast.

With that cast, and a budget of $75 million, Now You See Me could have been so much more. There is nothing spectacular about either the magic tricks we see, and there isn't a great deal of magic in the way the film is shot, either. The ambition is clearly to create a gripping caper movie in the vein of Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006) with a taste of Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002), and this venture simply doesn't reach those heights. The best performance comes from fast-talking Jesse Eisenberg, of whom I've always thought heighly, long before Facebook in his debut in the little-known indie flick Roger Dodger (2002); Ruffalo and Fischer stand out as similarly strong performances, while Cain and Freeman deliver the reliable support we can expect from them.

What really turns me off is the ending. It cannot be discussed without spoiling the movie, but I can say that it feels incredibly cheap. It is a cop-out and I felt cheated by it. Where we needed one good writer to craft a clever ending, five writers fumble it and give us something unbecoming of the time, money and acting talent available. It's worth a watch, but beware the disappointment.


Friday, 16 August 2013

Elysium (2013)


I have been anticipating the release of Elysium ever since seeing the trailers, and for two main reasons. First, it's is a blockbuster sci-fi film from somewhere other than Marvel or DC (I’ve had enough for 2013), and second, Neil Blomkamp in only his second feature is all over this one, writing, directing, and co-producing…and if you loved District 9 as much as I did…you know the potential this film has.

Elysium opens with a brief overview of a dystopian Earth (we start in a very dusty L.A.) where pollution and overcrowding have finally made the planet a global slum. The privileged have since moved to a lush habitat in space, 'Elysium'. The structure is magnificent and the habitat is modeled maybe after a lovely gated community in Beverly Hills. On Elysium there is plenty of sun, food, luxury, and an army of robotic servants to perform every menial task. More importantly they have Med-Pods, tanning booth-like machines that can cure any ailment known to man… including cancer. These Med-Pods play an important part in the social undertones of this film. Earth-dwellers pay violent criminals large sums of money to be smuggled into Elysium and cured in these Med-Pods. Think healthcare debate 2154. While some critics have given it flak for not emphasizing the social justice aspect of the story, there was really nothing more to be said without falling into tedium.

Max (Matt Damon) is a semi-reformed local criminal who through a freak radiation accident at his factory job…has only days to live…unless he can get to Elysium. This ignites a period of indentured servitude as he is forced to perform an intellectual property heist in exchange for safe passage to Elysium. The story is busted wide open there and the bullets start flying.

Where I feel it succeeds is the weapons and 22nd century technology Blomkamp drags out for Elysium. Weapons, vehicles, the exoskeleton suit, they are all done in a way that makes them remarkably believable to the viewer, while being incredibly 'cool'. At a running time of less than two hours, Blomkamp had to leave out a lot of details as to the origins of Elysium and it’s technology…a small price to pay for all the other bad ass weaponry. The director has a real niche in his ability to amaze us with portrayals of future technology and I look forward to more films like this from the South African. 

Jodie Foster is decent as Elysium’s callous Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt, although I’ve no idea what type of accent she is attempting to pull off. Copley is absolutely magnificent as Agent Kruger, an off the grid sadistic hit man of sorts that Delacourt (Foster) utilizes to neutralize Max’s (Damon) migration to Elysium. Enough cannot be said of Copley’s performance here…you can almost smell him through the screen he’s so menacing. Matt Damon delivers as usual with Max, I am used to seeing him in trouble against bureaucratic forces from the Bourne series. However, it was great to see him lace up his sci-fi boots for the first time and I hope he continues to do so; the genre can always use such monumental talent.

Elysium is shot beautifully, the characters are very well casted (despite Foster's ludicrous accent), and the CGI and props are top notch. I think it will please most sci-fi lovers and many sci-fi skeptics, so I must recommend it. What it lacks in occupy wall street rhetoric it more than makes up for in really cool shit to look at. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Conjuring (2013)


The Conjuring has been one of the most anticipated films of the Northern Hemisphere's summer; it was made on a relatively low budget (for a studio project) and helmed by director James Wan, made famous by his groundbreaking Saw franchise and, more recently, Insidious. As an accounting entry, it looks like a really smart move on the part of the studio: a small-ish budget, a good cast, and a well respected director with experience in the genre. That should be all the necessary components to make a really successful film... right?

The truth is, I hated it. I was genuinely bored by it, and not just slightly. I really found myself counting down the minutes. However, were we go by it's reception at the box office, I'd be completely rebuffed. Financially, The Conjuring has been the most successful film of the year in terms of ROI, costing $13 million, and earning ten times that in it's first weekend in the United States alone. By the objective asses-in-the-seats figures and the subjective word-of-mouth reviews I've heard about it, it has really won over a huge portion of the cinema-going customer base. So am I being a snob? Why such a disconnect?

First, I must explain my hatred for it. The Conjuring basically displays every single haunted house movie trope that has ever been used. The more cliched the trope, the more likely you'll find it in this movie. The creepy puppet, the 'dog's can sense ghosts', the what's-in-the-mirror-isn't-there, the Salem witch trials backstory,
the creepy jack-in-the-box, the possession/exorcism gambit, the certain time and/or date is significant. I think I could easily fill three blog posts running through all the tropes used in this film. From an otherwise innovative director (and local boy) James Wan, I think we can expect more. Or am I being cynical? Is there an alternative explanation for the film's success?

Catherine Bray on BBC's The Film Programme offered an alternative explanation: audiences had too many big robots and macho superhero films to chose from and clearly couldnt see all of them; so when a smaller horror film came along, everyone could see that. I don't buy it; if that logic held, then last year's The Woman in Black should have broken $100 million too, but it didn't. Could it be that positive expectation and critics' predisposition to praise the movie gave rise to a wave of positive reaction, despite the film being mediocre? (which would be the inverse and opposite of The Lone Ranger experience, as Johnny Depp and co-stars are now blaming presumptuous negative reviews for the poor performance of The Lone Ranger at the box office). If that were so, It would be a rarity in cinema history.

In the case of The Conjuring, I give up. I just can't understand why such nothing-new, a run of the mill horror flick has performed so fantastically well. I could file it under 'these young kids haven't seen the classics' and 'I've seen too many movies to be impressed by this', but the thing is, I'm only 28, so, this one will remain a mystery.

Monday, 12 August 2013

2 Guns (2013)


You’re shooting a gritty cop thriller; so, when in doubt, pick up the phone and call Denzel Washington’s agent. This often is sufficient in at the very least salvaging your box office hopes heading into pre-production. That appears to be the case with 2 Guns as Icelandic Contraband director Baltasar Kormakur goes for his third American production. With 2 guns, Kormakur again teams up with Mark Wahlberg, casting him alongside Washington. Although good opening weekend box office figures rolled in on Sunday afternoon, proving again that Denzel Washington is arguably Hollywood’s most reliable brand for action drama releases, 2 Guns does the star a great disservice. It’s lack of originality and overly calculated chaos fail to give his character in any sort of depth as we are used to seeing from Washington. Wahlberg can coast through performances with limited dialogue and cutesy tom foolery, but when we see Washington on a poster, we expect a bit more characterization.

2 Guns does not break the mold of most undercover cop dramas released in the last 15 years or so. Our protagonists are two bag men who unbeknownst to either, turn out to be working for different federal agencies. The plot unfolds rather quick at that point and I think that is part of the problem with 2 Guns: it lends no time to figure out exactly who these men really are and what motivates them. Deb (Paula Patton) plays the love interest to Bobby Trench (Washington) and delivers a very forgettable damsel in distress performance and leaves us wondering why the character was even written, as the storyline carries fine without her. Michael Stigman (Wahlberg) just provides comic relief and boyish charm, nothing about him made me sympathetic to his character’s plight. Bill Paxton’s Earl plays a shady overlord of sorts. He plays the part well, and I wish we could have explored this thread in greater detail. It all culminates a climactic shootout (of course), and while I love crime thrillers, this one is as predictable as it gets.

The action sequences are shot brilliantly and vividly which may have been the saving grace for 2 Guns if Hollywood hadn’t already showed us that it can and will be done better elsewhere. Oliver Wood (of the Bourne series fame) onboard as cinematographer is one of the best working today, and should be applauded for bringing us another beautifully shot film full of excellent sequences and perfect lighting.

Kormakur’s 2 Guns has all the necessary ingredients, and Denzel Washington will always provide smooth bad-assness. However, it simply lacks in depth. I left this one not knowing anything about what truly motivated our protagonists. That is what made Man on Fire such a joy to watch. In 2 Guns we get a lot of bangs but no real drama is to be found at its core.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Iron Sky (2012)

I'm glad to follow my Django Unchained review with Iron Sky; they are two films made with a similar idea in mind, but with completely different execution. The concept is that, during WWII, the Nazi's sent a colonizing fleet to the dark side of the moon, and in 2018, they're returning to conquer Earth. Like something Tarantino would make, it nods to the rather ridiculous exploitation films of the 1970s and (hopefully) makes from that a fun, watchable film. The idea came from co-writer Jarmo Puskala, who, apparently, had a dream about Nazis on the moon. He shared the idea with fellow Finn and director Timo Vuorensola in (fittingly, for Scandinavians) a sauna. Vuorensola agreed he'd direct the movie only if they could get 70s exploitation icon Udo Kier on board to star. For a number of years, the duo shopped around with a trailer of a film which didn't yet exist attempting to get financing for it. In the end, about 10% of the film's financing came from fans, Udo Kier did indeed sign up for a role, and Iron Sky was made.

I say it has a completely different execution compared to Django because where Tarantino succeeds is in taking the feeling, the look, the music, the sound and the tropes of old exploitation films, but not the plot. While 'Nazi's from the Moon Attack' necessarily has a 70s exploitation film plot just from the inception, there just isn't enough depth of character to pull it off. Udo Kier is great in his role, although he doesn't get much screen time. Christopher Kirby hams it up, and not in a good way; any time he is on screen, I quickly lose interest. The action set pieces are predictable and, at times a little boring, and the dialogue lacks creativity.

Where the film finds some success is in the gags about current world politics. The Sarah Palin expy president, played by Stephanie Paul has her moments, but is altogether too heavy-handed. In a movie about space Nazi's, the trick really should have been subtly in other areas. I'm disappointed in Iron Sky more than anything because, with better execution, we could have had a romping good cult classic of sci-fi comedy action. Instead, it's a rather bland and slightly immature action flick based on a bizarre concept, and will not stand the test of time.