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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Avengers

There's really no need for an introduction for this film but just a quick note to let everyone know that I haven't forgotten about last week's films, I just haven't gotten around to them yet. Look out for those soon. Not that anyone's so much as going to remember that those films even exist after this weekend.


Before moving on to the review itself, I realize that The Avengers only opens up in the US next week so for those who are worried about reading on any further, this is a strictly spoiler-free review. I tend not to give away plot details in my reviews anyway but that goes doubly so here. Anyway, on with the show... 

It's just unfair how talented Joss Whedon is. He has, in his very prolific career worked on and created TV shows, films, comics and even used the writers strike of a few years back as an opportunity to launch a sensational web-exclusive musical short. Along the way he has written songs, blended genres and created some of the most beloved characters in the history of television. And yet, he has never tackled anything anywhere near as big as Avengers before. He's always been ambitious but all of Whedon's past work, even his films (co-writing Toy Story and writing and directing Serenity) have played out on small, intimate canvases. Just how on earth was a guy whose claim to fame is characterization and dialogue going to deal with a CGI-laden, action packed Hollywood blockbuster?

The answer, as you may have guessed, is that he dealt with it brilliantly. Not only did Whedon pull off what is easily one of the year's most anticipated films but he made it look easy doing it. You will never notice it as the film itself plays out - it's far too gripping for that - but, upon reflection, it becomes abundantly clear that what Whedon has accomplished here is nothing short of extraordinary. The Avengers is the culmination of five separate blockbusting superhero films, each of which spent at least part of its time building up to this moment and each adding to a mounting level of unparalleled rabid fan-expectation. It's a film that, along with this already back-breaking baggage, has to balance more than half a dozen main characters, each of whom either already have their own starring vehicles or could easily support their own franchises in the future. Those are the kinds of expectations and challenges that could cripple even the most veteran of filmmakers and yet Whedon, who has had only one feature film directing credit to his name to date, managed it beautifully and again with a sense of ease that belies what must have been a very intense filmmaking process.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Albert Nobbs

This is the last of this week's films for the time being. I do hope to see Pirates soon but I'm going to wait to see it in 3D. For now though, we'll just put a cap on this week's new releases with a really rather odd little film.   


That Albert Nobbs somewhat unnerved me has little to do with its subject matter of a woman dressing like a man in order to get work in late 19th century England (that's just a reversal of the old Shakespeare plot device anyway, isn't it?) and it certainly has nothing to do with the fact that the woman in question is a lonely lesbian trying to find love. What it comes down to- and ultimately the real reason to watch the otherwise fairly ordinary film - is Albert Nobbs himself/herself, played by Glenn Close in typically excellent form.

Much can be and has been made about the sexual persuasion and identity of the title character, but the reason why Albert Nobbs is so compelling a character is not because of his/her sexuality but because he/she is so damaged because of it. Indeed, had it not been for a well-adjusted cross-dressing, lesbian supporting character and the fact that his/her need to live in secret is the cause for much of what's wrong with him/her, I could easily see gay and lesbian groups taking up against the film's portrayal of its central, homosexual character.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Young Adult

Another film that I saw ages ago but I probably have a bit more to say about this than yesterday's entry.


Despite what the poster might suggest, Young Adult features the reunion of both the writer and director of Juno - Up In The Air is good enough and all, but why mention it rather than underlining the fact that this is a film by the same team behind Juno? Weird marketing aside, though, that this is a follow up of sorts to Juno does mean that it comes with certain expectations. Juno is a mostly beloved little film with a flavour very much its own so it's not unfair to expect Young Adult to go some way towards recapturing a bit of that old magic. And, you know what, it kind of does exactly that.

It's worth mentioning that since Juno, its director, Jason Reitman, went on to make a multi-Oscar nominated film in the form of Up In The Air, while writer Diablo Cody indulged her inner geek and made the largely ignored, but actually damn entertaining Jennifer's Body. Young Adult oddly hues closer to Jennifer's Body and Juno than Up In The Air and, without denigrating Reitman's excellently indie direction, it's clear whose voice is more prominent  in this writer/ director collaboration.

This story of an immature and emotionally damaged writer of young adult books (the title cleverly refers both to her profession and her own emotional state) who returns to her old homestead to try and win back her old high school sweetheart. The film plays out with all of those Diablo Cody trademarks that people either love or hate - the stylised dialogue, the pop-culture references, the focus on an engaging but far from perfect central female character - but it has a darker edge than Juno, occasionally even resurrecting the off-kilter strangeness of Jennifer's Body.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Puncture

OK, so after two relatively lengthy reviews, here's a bit of a quickie about a film that I saw months ago and, as such, took me a little while to remember. This doesn't mean it isn't any good, though...


Now, admittedly, though Puncture is not the most memorable of films, having read the IMDB's plot synopsis, I do actually remember liking it quite a bit. For a start, Chris Evans is really good in it and he proves once again that he is way more versatile than one would think on first glance. In fact, it's kind of his Erin Brokovich, if Erin Brokovich was more drug-addled-mess and less blonde-bimbo-or-is-she. It's based on a true story and, it has to be said, the true story is pretty damn interesting. In short, Evans plays a very troubled lawyer who ends up taking on Big Medicine, after one of the US's biggest medical corporations stops its hospitals from making use of a life-saving, but not cost-effective, syringe whose retractable and one-use-only needle would protect the healthcare workers from, among other things, HIV infection. It's a jaw-dropping story that more than deserves to be told and that it has so troubled a character at its centre only makes it all the more effective as a film. Its filmmaking is fairly ordinary and it has as forgettable a title as it is possible to have, but Puncture is more than worth a watch, especially for fans of legal dramas.





Monday, April 16, 2012

The Hunger Games

Moving onto this past weekend's releases, lets starts off with yet another review of The Hunger Games. Reactions have been mixed, but read on to find out what I thought.


With Harry Potter done and dusted and the Twilight saga limping to its conclusion in a few months, it's no surprise that Hollywood has turned to another kids/ teenage/ young-adult literature phenomenon for its next big cash cow. To its credit though, The Hunger Games draws more heavily on the likes of Kick Ass, Hannah, Lord of The Flies and Battle Royale than on the adventures of sparkling vampires and boy-wizards. It's not perfect and, yes, questions of originality are not ill-deserved, but The Hunger Games is a refreshing change of pace after the dreariness of the Twilight Saga and comes dangerously close to actually living up to the hype.

You may have heard much of this before but the story of the Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where a great war has left the "have" and "have nots" more divided than ever. While the "have not" masses are divided into 12 districts, the wealthy minority get their kicks primarily from the titular "Hunger Games" - a reality TV show where two children from each of the districts are pitted against each other in a "Battle Royale" to the death.  

Before getting into what works and what doesn't about the film itself, there's no two ways about it: The Hunger Games did not exactly come out of nowhere. The Japanese cult hit, Battle Royale, is clearly its most obvious "influence" (I haven't read or seen Battle Royale but even I know enough about it to know that the plot is very, very similar) but there are rather blatant traces of everything from The Lord of the Flies' kids-unleashed social commentary, The Running Man's central conceit, The Fifth Element's sense of fashion and a setting that brings to mind just about every dystopian science fiction story ever told.  

For all of this, however, The Hunger Games is far more than the sum of its parts. If nothing else, the fact that it takes such explosive, potentially upsetting and undeniably interesting subject matter and aims it squarely at a young, populist audience makes it a far more worthwhile phenomenon than its harsher critics would suggest. I haven't read the books but if they're anywhere as good as this film, they clearly deserve all their massive success and they should make for excellent companion pieces to classic allegorical science fiction literature like 1984 and Brave New World (put down those pitchforks, I'm not saying it's as good, but The Hunger Games clearly works on a similar level but will undoubtedly be more widely read by this generation of teenagers) .

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Take Shelter

There's no two ways about it, it's been a busy couple of weeks at the cinema and though I really do still need to see Aardman's Pirates! there's still plenty to talk about. 


However, though I will probably still do roundups when the films really pile up, I've decided to from now on give each film its own specific post, regardless of how short the review is. This basically means that new reviews may well come out on a more regular basis from me and that it should be easier to find what you're looking for when navigating the site. I may go back and do this for older reviews as well but for now, this will be the new format going forward.


Anyway, on with the show with one of the more interesting films released this year, Take Shelter. 


Take Shelter is, at its heart, about a subject that isn't often tackled in American Cinema: the thin line between insanity and religious revelation, specifically the idea of prophecy. Now, admittedly, this does make Take Shelter something of an acquired taste but even if the subject matter doesn't resonate with you - though, I have to say right off the bat that I personally found it to be endlessly fascinating - the sheer excellence of the filmmaking should strike a chord with all art-house film goers.

The basic plot is simple enough: Curtis, an average blue-collar worker, starts having visions of an oncoming storm of biblical proportions but are these visions a look at things to come or are they simply a sign of a sudden descent into madness? As he becomes more and more obsessed, it becomes unclear even to Curtis himself whether the true threat lies in the fulfillment of his apocalyptic "prophecies" or simply is his own increasingly erratic behaviour.

The film plays out as a straightforward psychological thriller and has all the building tension and deliberate pacing for which the genre is known, but it's at its best when it goes beyond these trusty generic conventions and digs for something a little deeper. It's a powerful character study of someone who is, in effect, a modern day Noah but a Noah whose faith is constantly challenged by a world of "reason" whose skepticism is based on years of psychoanalysis and scientific empiricism. Its master stroke though, is that as much as the film is interested in the spiritual, the religious and the supernatural, it doesn't necessarily embrace any of these concepts. In the world of Take Shelter, Noah may well be nothing more than a deranged schizophrenic.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic 3D!

I do also want to review the fairly excellent Take Shelter but I will leave that for the near future, probably to be covered with next week's releases. For now, I simply have to throw my two cents in about a film that virtually everyone in the world saw before me and about the mind-bogglingly stupid idea to "retrofit" it into 3D. 








Now, before getting to my thoughts of the film itself, which, as I have mentioned previously, I had never seen before the screening for this 3D re-release, we need to deal with the whole 3D thing. James Cameron apparently spent millions of dollars and two years converting Titanic into 3D and, would you know it, he really needn't have bothered. Say what you want about films designed and shot in 3D, post-converted, "retrofitted" 3D films always look terrible and, even if the millions of dollars and thousands of working-hours thrown at the film prevent Titanic 3D from looking entirely naff, it's still an entirely pointless gimmick that becomes really annoying as you're stuck with those stupid bloody glasses for 195 minutes.

I am, in fact, all for re-releasing "classic", "older" films on the big screen and, without spoiling what I actually think of the film, there's no doubt that Titanic really should be seen on the big screen to get the full effect. So, yes, money grab or not, I'm all for re-releasing Titanic into cinemas for its 15th anniversary - in the same way I would be all for being given the chance to see Apocalypse Now, Casablanca, Gone With The Wind or Annie Hall projected as they were originally meant to be - but the pointless and expensive 3D gimmick detracts from rather than adds to the experience.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

American Pie: Reunion

We actually have one of the better weekends for films coming up so we might as well begin with a very pleasant little surprise - especially for those of us who have also been out of school for a mind boggling thirteen years...


Also up at Channel24



What it's about

Jim, Stiffler, Oz, Michelle and the rest of the American Pie gang reunite at their old hunting grounds for their thirteen-year school reunion where they find that however much has changed for them over the years, some things can't help but stay the same.

What we thought

Being in matric (our equivalent of the US's “senior year”) and 17 years old at the time, I was at exactly the right age to get the most out if it when the original American Pie hit our screens way, way back in 1999. Not only was I the exact target audience for the film, I was also the same age and at the same point of my education as all of the main characters in the film. And now, thirteen years later and at the horrifyingly old age of thirty, I am still the same age as these characters and, though my life circumstances are not precisely the same as any of the old American Pie gang, I certainly can relate to pretty much all of them.

What this means then is that I can't help but approach American Pie: Reunion (or simply American Reunion, if the opening credits of the version of the film I saw are anything to go by) with an equal amount of bias and nostalgia, effectively putting me in a position to get as much out of this film as there is possible to get. It's a stretch to say that American Pie is anywhere near the top of the list of my favourite films, but it's still a movie for which I have a tremendous amount of affection (nostalgic or otherwise) so it's tempting not to bump this sequel's rating up by a star or two purely based on how well and how unashamedly it plays on the memories of those of us who were there the first time around.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Margaret

This coming Friday (or, well, Thursday presumably, what with Easter and whatnot) we have a number of noteworthy films coming out but, before I get to the five or so releases that I want to talk about, lets just finish off last week's new movies with Margaret - a film that spent half a decade in the editing suite alone. 


It's tempting to simply write Margaret off as an irredeemably awful exercise in self-indulgence - which it is - but it's not often that a film comes along where its sheer badness is actually something worth examining, something that is in many ways the most interesting thing about it. This isn't a Project X or a Born To Be A Star: The Bucky Larson Story where the film's failings are obvious and are clearly the work of the kind of unimaginative, creatively-bankrupt idiots that give mainstream Hollywood a bad name. No, this a film with a potently effective premise (girl tries to come to terms with the part she played in the death of an innocent woman), a top-notch cast (Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Alison Janney, Matthew Broderick and an excellent lead performance from a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin) and a director whose previous work was widely acclaimed and whose heart, in making this film, was very clearly in the right place. And yet, for all of this, it's an excruciatingly bad misfire, the likes of which we haven't seen since M Night Shayamalan torched his career with the similarly mind-boggingly awful, Lady In The Water.

Of course, when you consider the film's history, it's not particularly surprising that it is such a train wreck. Originally shot back in 2005, Margaret has spent the last six years being edited, re-edited, re-re-edited and re-re-re-edited again. Director Kenneth Lonergan could not get a cut of it with which he was even remotely happy, no matter how many times he re-edited the footage and since then, it has been passed from editor to editor to try and do something with the hours of film he shot - including none other than Martin Scorsese. Now that they finally got a version of the film out there (I've heard rumblings that Lonergan wants to release a full 6-hour cut of the film), it clearly need another five years to be re-edited into something usable.

What we have instead is a 2.5 hour-long movie that contains either one hour of story of fifteen hours of story, depending on how you look at it. The primary story is under-developed as it is but, to make matters worse, it is also constantly derailed by a thousand subplots (and I may not be exaggerating), most of which clearly want to be in an entirely different film. In particular, 9/11 looms large over much of the film and there are several lengthy discussions about the nature of terrorism and, of course, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (all because the main character is "half Jewish") but they never amount to anything other than pointless, self-indulgent diversions.

And that, right there is the problem - the fatal problem - with the film. It constantly and at every turn undermines itself by not having faith in the potential of its own subject matter. As a result, what should have been an intriguing character study about a very broken - and lets not kid, rather unlikable - young woman trying to come to terms with her own guilt in a horrific accident ends up as a tedious, infuriating and incoherent mess that overstays its welcome by at least an hour. Lonegan hasn't returned to filmmaking since trying to put Margaret together and I can only hope that when he returns its with a co-writer, even a co-director to keep his indulgent meanderings and endless tangents at bay.