Archive | April, 2013

MEDIC!!! ‘Dead Man Down’ (2013).

26 Apr

Dead Man Down posterDead Man Down… What the hell does that even mean!? I get ‘dead man’, and ‘man down’ is a traditional battlefield cry for help, but together? I’m stumped, and this ambiguous title only goes to highlight the main problem with this movie: that this is essentially two conjoined stories which really should have been separated at birth.

This super serious movie stars the super serious Colin Farrell and the also super serious Noomi Rapace as two super serious people with a mountain of super serious secrets. From the moment they catch the other’s despondent gaze, a blossoming relationship forms as he comes over to her house for cookies, and she visits him for… Glasses of water. However, the aforementioned secrets begin to rear their ugly heads as light is cast on both Farrell’s illegal dealings and Rapace’s lust for revenge. Can they sweep out the skeletons from their respective closets before driving off into the sunset?

Dead Man Down is brought to us by director Niels Arden Oplev, the Danish guy behind the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film of 2009, and as with many international directors his introduction to Hollywood isn’t a memorable one. Farrell is a henchman, a crony if you will, for some mob boss (Terrence Howard) involved in the narcotics business. Not only does he attempt to downplay his Irish accent (which is semi-successful), but his character is actually a Hungarian who is also trying to hide his native tongue. The result is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a tongue which is as funny as it is distracting.

But Farrell’s amalgamation of a dialect is merely the tip of this iceberg of problems masquerading as a film. Dead Man Down is simply trying to be two things: on the one hand, we get a gritty crime thriller about the trials and tribulations of the trigger-happy underground lawlessness, while on the other we’re treated to a fledgling romance between the two neighbours. Apart they could have been great, had each story been given more of a polish and the scripts rewritten, but as it is the film remains a jambalaya that disappoints rather than dazzles.

Farrell and Rapace's relationship is tough to buy, and not very well written.

Farrell and Rapace’s relationship is tough to buy, and not very well written.

There’s a fairly awesome shootout right near the beginning, but from there the story devolves into a decidedly uninteresting spiel about death threats and Farrell’s backstory that moves at a snail’s pace. Couple this with the tiresome love plot involving  Rapace, a young lady apparently horribly mauled in an accident (yet who is still ridiculously attractive; the wounds look like a Henna tattoo). Literally the only sliver of entertainment in this film comes from Rapace’s French mother, played by Isabelle Huppert, a hilariously nosey deaf woman. As the sole source of comic relief, without her this film would be zero fun whatsoever.

Erratic pacing, continuity errors (Rapace claims she can no longer work, yet she works just fine later on), needlessly convoluted plot threads (death threats, phone-tapping, jigsaw puzzle pieces) and a distinct lack of fun all combine to make Dead Man Down a total drag. I’m lucky I had a coffee beforehand, because otherwise I’d have been asleep.

[Written for The Student Standard]

Simon says: leave him there, don’t be a hero!

‘Evil Dead’ (2013): an advertisement for avoiding the woods forever.

25 Apr

Evil Dead posterDirector Fede Alvarez is walking a tightrope with Evil Dead. As he perches on the pedestal, waiting to tip-toe across the wire, he gazes down below. His eyes meet the stares of the crowd: film critics, horror lovers, die-hard Sam Raimi fans and general cinema-going folk. They collectively chant: Don’t mess this up! Don’t ruin our beloved franchise! PLEASE don’t be terrible! Alvarez shuts his eyes, breathes deeply, and darts. Unfortunately, he gets knocked off almost instantly… By a tree root.

If you’ve seen the original 1981 horror classic, then you know the deal. Five kids (David, Eric, Mia, Olivia and Natalie – cool, huh?) all head out for a relaxing getaway to the great outdoors. However, instead of toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories, they decide to explore the incredibly creepy basement. Amongst the dead cats they find a book bound in human skin. Ignoring the blood-written warnings to NOT read the incantations, which are scattered throughout the pages alongside pentagrams, goats and general unpleasantness, one curious party member just couldn’t help himself. Hell proceeds to open up and bits of people fall off.

While the new Evil Dead doesn’t feel like a betrayal or an insult to the original, it’s still awful. It absolutely bombs as a horror film: I was not scared even once. This movie takes the modern screechy and unsubtle approach to horror: it fails to inspire any sense of actual dread. But all of the scares are so telegraphed, you could see most of them coming from the lobby – every damn time the music stopped, something jumped out at you moments later. It’s tiring, annoying and I’m bloody sick of it at this stage. Actually, ‘bloody’ is the right word – Evil Dead is gory as hell… The sound effects are so gruesome I was squirming in my seat.

Aww heya.

Aww heya.

BUT… I laughed for 70% of the movie. As soon as the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan and good ol’ Beelzebub infects the female lead via unwanted floral penetration, the violence is so over the top that it’s hilarious. The dialogue is dire, the acting is terrible, and the script could have been written by the demon itself – none of the characters have personalities (aside from one, whose defining characteristic is that she ‘is a junkie’), they act like chimps for no good reason (and they’re not just dumb – one’s a doctor!) and the film implies that one of the two sibling leads turned their grandfather into a dog.

I liked Lou Taylor Pucci, the gloriously-named actor who plays an ex-member of The Black Crowes called Eric, and I thought lead actress Jane Levy (who looks like a Kristen Stewart/Emma Stone hybrid) did a decent job, considering she spends much of her role trapped in a cellar, yelling. The rest of the cast was made up of blank slates – Shiloh Fernandez is no Bruce Campbell, all Jessica Lucas does is shower and get puked on, and words cannot describe how horrendous Elizabeth Blackmore is as Natalie.

Evil Dead has me upside-down. On the one hand, it’s a terribly-made, laughably ham-fisted attempt to remake what is essentially the Citizen Kane of horror movies. But on the other, I had such a good time cackling like a hyena at how awful it is. Fans won’t be insulted, horror aficionados won’t be scared, but everyone should have a blast at this.

Simon says: groovy. 

Israel? Nah, rural USA. ‘Promised Land’ (2012).

20 Apr

Promised Land posterWith such a blatant reference to the Middle-East in its title, one could be forgiven for presuming Promised Land is about Israel’s turbulent history, a commentary about unwanted American presence there, a documentary about Islam, or even about oil-drilling… But no! The last one is sort of close; this is a movie about fracking, and that is all it’s about.

Matt Damon stars as Steve Butler, a representative for ‘Global’, a fracking company, who has a great track record of going into Small Town America to persuade them to surrender their land to the frackers. He teams up with Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), and through buying flannel shirts and using his own background in agriculture, the pair win (read: buy) over a lot of people’s land. However, an uppity environmentalist (played by John Krasinski) threatens to sabotage their plans with pictures of dead cows. Who will win?

For those unaware, ‘fracking’ is a process which involves drilling into the earth and injecting it with a cocktail of water and less friendly chemicals in order to extract the natural gas lurking below the surface. While it appears to be less of an environmental burden than those gigantic oil refineries, seismologists point to the increase of earthquakes in areas which allow fracking, and ecologists note how the various chemicals involved may spill into drinking water. The goal is clean energy, but the process itself is undoubtedly harmful.

So an interesting moral dilemma is set up: Damon and McDormand are peddling an obviously flawed business (though Damon’s intentions are pure – the injection of capital into this little town will revitalise it, which failed to happen with his own rural commune back in Iowa). Yet they are the protagonists, and are much more likeable as people compared to Krasinski’s sneakiness and dishonesty.

Way too much of this film takes place in a field.

Way too much of this film takes place in a field.

But this is about all that’s worthy of compliment about this film. Everything else is just so bland: characters are barely developed beyond minimal backstory, it’s overlong and drags in many places, and not a lot actually happens. There is no actual fracking, only a threat of fracking, and as such is almost like some kind of heady green horror movie. The only interesting characters are played by Hal Holbrook and the gloriously-named Titus Welliver, a teacher and guns/gas/guitars/grocery shop owner, who barely get any screen time whatsoever. McDormand is the sole source of humour for the entire showtime, but her dry wit is unfortunately sparse.

The big problem with this film is one which is critical of its genre, really: if you’re going to make a ‘message movie’, i.e. one that has a clear agenda, then be subtle. Mask it, hide it but never completely obscure it. Documentaries can get straight to the point, but as a drama this is only about fracking, and nothing else. Rather than an anti-fracking movie masquerading as a drama, Promised Land is so blunt and hits you over the head with its message. You have to hide the heartworm pill in the dog food, otherwise he won’t eat it.

It’s long and it’s boring, yet you can’t fault the performances or the eco-friendly agenda. Promised Land is as middle of the road as they come, but on the dual carriageway of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, I’m afraid it’s driving the wrong way down the latter. I wholeheartedly agree with the message, but it’s just not a good movie!

Simon says: be safe, be green!

‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ (2013): a shrinkwrapped TV show.

18 Apr

TPBTP“If you ride like lightning, you’ll crash like thunder” proclaims shady mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) to a  scruffy Ryan Gosling, our atypical hero. Not merely a nod to the Metallica “wifebeater” shirt he’s wearing, this line quite accurately sums up the main problem with The Place Beyond The Pines, which is that while the movie is trying to be this big, quasi-Greek tragedy of an epic, it ultimately fails in its quest and plummets back to Earth in a shower of underdeveloped characters and silly tattoos.

Gosling plays Luke, a handsome but damaged stunt biker who hurtles around one of those spherical cages on his trusty motorbike along with two of his equally mad colleagues. But upon discovering his young son, which he discovered spawned from a fling he had with Romina (Eva Mendez), a bedraggled waitress. Pushed to robbing banks, Gosling runs into Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a similarly-aged son to Gosling’s. The movie focuses on Cooper’s ascendency to the political realm for a while, before finally turning to the final chapter, which chronicles the two boys of the aforementioned fathers.

This is a long movie. A triptych in which each segment builds on the former, this is a story in three parts: the first third deals with Gosling, the second with Cooper and the final one with their offspring. Despite its gratuitous runtime of 140 minutes, it remains too short for what it wants to be: director Derek Cianfrance manages to butcher what could be a well fleshed-out story, and instead leaves us with a bare bones tale which simply can’t support the massive weight of its ensemble cast, extended time frame and a heady “sins of the father” theme. In a perfect world, this would either be a two-part movie or a serialised TV programme; as a standalone flick, it feels squashed.

I think of a film like Cloud Atlas; an even longer picture with a similarly large array of characters. What separates the two (and what makes TPBTP significantly worse) is focus. Cloud Atlas may be just shy of three hours long, but it never lets up for even an instant throughout – from forbidden romances to awesome sci-fi battles, it refrains from being boring. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Cianfrance’s latest effort; unlike his previous Blue Valentine, this is a very unfocused romp that spends an awful lot of time setting things up, with relatively little returns.

So many little things annoyed me in this film: Eva Mendez’s pointy nipples in her first scene, Gosling’s ridiculous squeaky “tough guy” yell, that inexplicable scene where they dance with a dog, Cooper’s ridiculous sportswear… Actually, this film makes me wonder why the film-makers decided to hire three of the most ridiculously attractive faces in Hollywood to play grungy, grimy and impoverished urbanites. This is how actors like Ben Affleck got chosen for movies back in the day; why can’t we get appropriate-looking people? Gosling or Mendez at their least flattering are still going to look like movie stars.

Gosling looks less like a tough biker and more like a rejected application for art college.

Gosling looks less like a tough biker and more like a rejected application for art college.

There’s some very irritating foreshadowing that really drives me up the wall – for example, you know as soon as someone says that “___ might go off the rails!” then you know they’re gonna go off the rails! It’s a sign of really weak scriptwriting, as is relying on television news broadcasts divulging more information that would be realistically acceptable about dead criminals, purely for the sake of enlightening other characters. This happens more than once and really undermines the quality of the acting on display, particularly from Cooper, who is rarely not great in anything he’s in.

But he and the others all suffer from the same devastating flaw: nobody in this film is likeable, save perhaps Avery’s dad (played by Harris Yulin). Gosling means well but robs banks; Mendez consistently blames others for her own mistakes, Cooper is a liar and their kids… My god, their kids. Naming their actors may be giving them away, but it’s safe to say that both are infuriating, especially Cooper’s, who plays a rich white boy who pretends to be straight out of the ghetto. Since almost everyone is inherently unlikeable, it’s really tough to get behind any of the characters in this, and as such we as viewers have nobody to root for, when we’re clearly supposed to feel sympathy or empathy; all we get is apathy.

An underdeveloped plot that’s almost as malnourished as most of its cast, The Place Beyond the Pines is a grandiose snooze that paradoxically manages to be too long, yet not long enough for what it wants to be. Brooding and overly self-serious, it’s not very enjoyable. Still, points for trying!

Simon says: too little and too much all at once.

 

‘In The House’, ou ‘Dans la Maison’ (2013).

16 Apr

In The House posterA film released here in Ireland with an English title to appeal to us subtly xenophobic non-Francophones, In The House stars Fabrice Luchini as Germain, a charismatic teacher of literature at a local lycée, or high school, and opposer of school uniforms. Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is a pupil with a knack for writing fiction, and he donates two pages of an episodic love drama to his professeur each day after class. However, the line between fiction and non-fiction begins to blur as remnants of Claude’s writings slowly creep into Germain’s personal life, and pique his interests. Where on Earth is this going to go?

I was surprised at how consistently I laughed at this. World cinema often relies on visual or situational gags to tickle the funny bones of us uneducated anglophones, and while In The House does adhere to this tactic once or twice, much of the humour is down to the script. Mainstream movies tend to rely on tone and pronunciation to carry jokes; often how something is said is actually funnier than what is said, and that this movie can have such witty dialogue yet remain in a foreign language testifies to the strength of the material. True wit shines through the language barrier.

That’s not to say this In The House is a comedy, or anything like it. In reality, it’s a risqué and oh-so-typically French film about romance,  betrayal and general sauciness, all filtered through a modern surrealist lens. Germain’s tale about the struggling English teacher aiding his gifted pupil is juxtaposed with the much more audacious tale of lust and brazenly sexualised adolescent fantasy. Without giving anything away, the story heads down some unexpected roads, and the various twists sprinkled throughout the film are genuinely surprising.

French cinema tends to be strong on the acting front if nothing else, and In The House doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Ernst Umhauer is great; he pulls off the slightly unhinged yet friendly loner with ulterior motives perfectly. A breakthrough role for the young actor, after appearing in 2011’s adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, we’ll certainly be seeing more of him. Luchini really fits the role he’s in; he just looks like an English teacher, you know? His wife, Jeanne (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) provides much of the comic relief, and often at the expense of her failing hipster art gallery.

Director François Ozon gives us some extremely tense scenes.

Director François Ozon gives us some extremely tense scenes.

This film has a very interesting method of dealing with its problems: as roughly half of the film is set in Claude’s fantasy fictional land, under Germain’s supervision most of the issues with the story are ironed out in front of our very eyes. Needless scenes or plot points are called out for their flaws almost before we can realise their ineptitude, and this process of continuous editing does actually correct most of the movie’s shortcomings. This meta approach is very cleverly handled, and only goes to show how well-made the film actually is.

However, there is clearly meant to be some kind of giant emotional upheaval near the end which simply didn’t work for me. Amidst the clarification of all the preceding wackiness, quite a hullabaloo is raised which swiftly culminates in a quiet, sentimental and intentionally bittersweet final scene. But it packs such a light punch, that in comparison with everything that’s gone before it seems to fizzle out rather than close with a bang. It’s actually not all that strange or even shocking in comparison to previous plot twists; all of the sexual vaudeville of the rest of the movie desensitises us to practically any sexual immorality at that stage.

A crazypants black-comic commentary on the philosophy of teaching and the student-tutor divide, In The House is a clever and meticulously crafted romp which manages to be both serious and wonderfully light-hearted too.

Simon says: c’est magnifique!

Running up that ‘Pilgrim Hill’ (2013).

13 Apr

Pilgrim Hill poster 3Pilgrim Hill is a movie which proves that even the most mundane subject, in this case farming, could be turned into an incredibly powerful film in the right hands. But to say this is a picture about the trials and tribulations of working the land and rearing cattle would be doing it a disservice; Pilgrim Hill is a dark, sombre examination of loneliness, isolation and, primarily, depression.

Jimmy Walsh (played by Joe Mullins, a Killinaskully vet) is a middle-aged, single farmer operating in the rolling hills of deepest rural Clare.  Between a critically ill father, an infuriating younger relative (Muiris Crowley) and a persistent sense of loneliness, Jimmy’s life has been tough lately. However, it’s about to get a whole lot worse, as not only is his longing for company, both romantic and simply Platonic, starting to get the better of him, but a problem with his livestock threatens to capsize his only real source of income.

While the movies are in no way alike, what Pilgrim Hill reminded me of the most was 2011’s The Grey, that film in which Liam Neeson and co had to survive in a snowy wilderness bursting with bloodthirsty wolves. I link the two purely because they both surprised me in the same way; while I expected this to be an agricultural drama, and likewise presumed The Grey would focus on wolf-related escapades, it turned out that both movies primarily concerned themselves with a palpable sense of existential grief.

Jimmy is a friendly and likeable guy with an admirable work ethic, but he longs for another human face to have around the house. He mentions having conversations with the cows he milks, and throughout the film only converses with six people: his work-shy, new-age yuppie cousin  Tommy, his sister Ann, a Garda who stops and breathalyses him, a shopkeeper, a barman and his dying father, and those final two don’t answer back at all.

What begins as a mere sadness, which Jimmy seems to brush off with relative ease, slowly progresses into what seems to be full-blown depression by the end of the film. He is in a sense grieving for what he never had; the prospect of having a family moves him almost to tears, and the realisation that the chances of such a development would be slim is absolutely heartbreaking. His terminal dad, combined with the prospect of losing his cattle, which are like family to him, proves to be the final twist of the knife.

Not a lot actually happens in this film. Its slow pacing mirrors the subject matter, yet manages to never be boring.

Not a lot actually happens in this film. Its slow pacing mirrors the subject matter, yet manages to never be boring.

This crushing sense of loneliness is not only revealed through his facial expressions, but also during the introspective interview-style scenes where Tommy speaks to the camera. While this framing device is never actually explained, we presume it’s for the makers of this very film, which if true would be an impressively meta way of handling the premise. This lack of clarity is of zero detriment to the movie itself though; rather, it adds yet another layer to this already detailed story.

Joe Mullins deserves major credit for his performance, which is less of a step up and more of an astronomical leap up from the funny if nonsensical TV programme Killinascully. He really gives it his all, and I struggle to think of a ‘famous’ actor who could have handled the role any better. Director, writer, producer and general cinematic Swiss army knife Gerard Barrett is without doubt one to watch, as this is a truly masterful début.

As a philosophy student, I found the echoes of Nietzschean nihilism tantalising, and present real food for thought. I honestly can’t recommend this enough, and at 88 minutes it won’t take up too much of your day either. What with the excellent Earthbound and the well-named Good Vibrations, Irish cinema is on a roll at the moment, and long may it continue!

Simon says: a distressingly real look at grief, depression and loneliness. Moving.

‘Oblivion’ (2013) fails to live up to its grandiose name.

12 Apr

Oblivion-Movie-PosterOblivion is undoubtedly the most astoundingly average science fiction film I’ve seen in a while; it is not merely the vanilla ice cream of cosmic escapades, but a medium-grade, slightly yellow vanilla that you’d get in those dodgy-looking cheap food shops in the city. Like the dessert itself, while being fit for consumption, Oblivion will give you what you need without doing anything special. Presumably, in going to a Tom Cruise film set in space, you’re looking for three things: Tom Cruise, space and vintage progressive rock records… Right?

The notoriously loopy star is among his more literal namesakes; he lives with Andrea Riseborough in an implausibly idyllic floating condo, thousands of miles from Earth. Having engaged in a devastating war with alien invaders (which the film constantly reminds us that humanity won, lest we forget), Earth became inhospitable due to the silly amount of nukes needed to shoo the nasties away. The destruction of the moon didn’t help matters either, so what was left of the population relocated, downsized if you will, to the cosmos! Cruise plays Jack, a guy whose job is to find and fix fallen droids which crash land on Earth. But soon he finds more than he bargained for, as memories of another life are slowly flowing back.

Science fiction movies are kind of inherently silly, but they often at least demonstrate a certain level of intelligence in storytelling and character development. Oblivion  is an uncommon example of a dumb science fiction film which disregards any deftness in narrative technique or logic in general for the sake of spectacle, and robots. Earth is ruined, allegedly radioactive, but every time Cruise lands on the planet I noticed a distinct lack of debris. Aside from the ruined Golden Gate Bridge, a levelled apartment complex and the odd smouldering droid, Earth is now 99% sand. While a green glow would be silly, a leaf or two should be taken out of Fallout‘s book.

Perhaps the lion’s share of the budget went towards the special effects, which are simply wonderful. The super-shiny space station sparkles,and the droids were one of my favourite things about the movie; the balance of an adorable machine with their senseless tendencies for murder made them memorable. That said, Tom Cruise spends the majority of the film in a suspiciously retro space suit (the movie is set in 2077), and the gun he wields is clearly hollow, and made of plastic. As per usual, he gives a sterling performance, and I can find no fault with him other than having his character named Jack Harper, and not Jack Reacher like last time. Riseborough returns from Welcome to the Punch, and displays a better performance here, though she is still ‘the woman’ whose main job is to nag and rely upon the man for emotional stability.

Say what you will about his personal life, but Tom Cruise is a movie star.

Say what you will about his personal life, but Tom Cruise is a movie star.

A side-note must be given to the music – through flicking through his record collection we discover that Cruise’s character is a fan of Blue Oyster Cult, Asia and Pink Floyd! Not only that, but we are treated to several Led Zeppelin songs, which had my inner classic/progressive rock snob was figuratively jumping with joy.

Joseph Kosinski directs, and continues his trend of crafting aesthetically impressive yet ultimately soulless blockbusters – this is the guy who made Tron Legacy, after all. Remember that scene from A New Hope when Luke Skywalker is hurtling through the Death Star, all the while being chased by Vader and his legion of TIE fighters? Well, Oblivion sure does, because the exact same bloody thing happens about halfway through. However, this is just the tip of the giant iceberg of plagiarism that floats throughout this movie; it starts out like a wonderful mashup of Omega Man and Moon, before slowly descenting into a convoluted sub-Independence Day cheese-fest.

However, I was never bored, nor did I get a sense of time passing like I do with most bad films. While I didn’t have a bad time, Oblivion lacks any ‘wow’ factor, and suffers as a result. It’s a competently acted, aesthetically pleasing non-story about dystopian adventures through Earth, which while never boring makes no sense, and is about as essential as a hernia.

Simon says: it’s far from out of this world.

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