Archive | August, 2013

Awkward adolescent angst: ‘The Way, Way Back’ (2013).

31 Aug

There’s something to be said for films that adhere to the standard tropes and archetypes of a choice genre, that disregard any and all notions of innovation, but also manage to churn out something memorable. The Way Way Back is a total ‘formula’ movie in this regard, yet what it does with the established recipe is so marvellous that it’s impossible to criticise its lack of originality.

The directorial début of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (two intelligent and very funny Groundlings whose repertoire includes Community and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), The Way, Way Back stars Liam James as Duncan, a quiet and unassuming teenager who keeps to himself. At the behest of his unhelpful mother (Toni Collette) and awful stepdad Trent (Steve Carrell), Duncan is forced to spend the summer at a beach house. He escapes the unfolding drama at home by landing a job at the local waterpark, and making an unlikely new friend in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s manager.

What sounds like a clichéd and potentially dull film is bolstered by actors who really play to their strengths. Liam James personifies awkward, and now that he finally has a great movie under his belt I’m curious as to where he’ll go next. Steve Carrell plays his second douchebag of the year (following Burt Wonderstone), espousing the acting range he clearly has. Maya Rudolph is as charming as ever, but it’s a draw between Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney (Duncan’s soul-brother and the waterpark and his awful neighbour, respectively) for the comedic highlight; virtually every line from each conjured a giggle.

Probably my favourite aspect of this film is that Faxon and Rash realise and empathise with the plight of the introvert. Duncan’s parents, their friends and the insufferably low-functioning beach girls all endeavour to coax him out of his metaphorical shell in many different ways: forced socialising, teasing and general prodding only serve to make things worse. The directors know that the problem isn’t his shyness; it’s the seemingly endless amount of unsympathetic people Duncan’s surrounded by, which is exemplified upon his discovering the waterpark.

In flogging the tired tropes and clichés of “that one summer than changed everything” movies, Faxon and Rash have hit a homerun with The Way, Way Back. Sprinkled with just the right amounts of sweetness and melodrama and garnished with sterling performances and deft writing, this is one of the better movies you’ll see all year.

Simon says: Adventureland for the new generation.

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‘Elysium’ (2013) and the question of the sci-fi allegory.

26 Aug

Elysium posterSometimes, allegorical movies can drive the point home with a gratuitous amount of gusto. Take director Neill Blomkamp; his two major movies thus far have been 2009’s Disctrict 9, and the recently-released Elysium. District 9 was widely praised by critics, though its message was hardly a subtle one. It wasn’t about apartheid – it was about APARTHEID! In a similar vein, Elysium tackles the issue of INCOME INEQUALITYwith the brazenly blunt force of a sci-fi battering ram.

Elysium is a perfectly fine lesson in dystopian sci-fi escapism: Matt Damon is among the millions of poor (literally and figuratively) unfortunates stuck on a dilapidated yet futuristic, advanced yet crumbling Earth, which acts as a gargantuan sweatshop for the fortuitous few that reside on Elysium, an orbiting space station bursting with pomp and luxury. It’s 2154 AD, and wealth disparity has grown interstellar.

Cue spaceships, robots and the reliably unreliable acting that typically graces these sorts of films. It’s all fairly standard – it’s nicely shot and people speak in funny tongues (Jodie Foster in particular sounds like a member of Tom Hanks’ futuristic tribe from Cloud Atlas, what with her bizarre pseudo South African/Oceanic accent). The plight of an underdog versus the elite is an immortal one, captured in many cinematic genres over the years.

But lets get to the allegory for a second. Elysium examines, albeit through a highly dramatised and exaggerated lens, the modern-day notion of the ‘99%’; a social movement, predominantly encapsulated by American capitalism, headed by groups such as Anonymous and movements like Occupy Wall Street. This is a current, modern and ongoing problem. Those who fall into the negative side of income inequality will have a tough time affording healthcare, education and will, therefore, suffer a lower quality of life.

Even this image could be construed in a modern context: be it from the Middle-East or 'Gears of War'.

Even this image could be construed in a modern context: be it from the Middle-East or ‘Gears of War’.

If the teeth of District 9 can be pulled as a result of its tackling of an already-solved problem (apartheid), then Elysium can also be lampooned as an unnecessary allegory. In the past, science fiction acted as cautionary tales rather than analyses of current affairs. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers famously warns of Communism; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is about the inevitable task of facing one’s mortality; The Andromeda Strain is a look at the threatening aspects of space exploration and the discovery extraterrestrial life. The list goes on.

Elysium is fun for what it is – a picture where Matt Damon represents the proles against their dictatorial robot masters. But to label this as ‘science fiction’ is dubious at best; this is an action movie set against a futuristic backdrop of spacial wonder. Its allegory is unnecessary – if you’re going to make a film about income inequality, make it a documentary, a drama; as a sci-fi movie, it falls flat.

Simon says: Matt Damon blowing stuff up is cool. Plugging in social commentary downgrades the whole experience.

‘Kick-Ass 2’ (2013): Too much Ass, not enough Kick.

18 Aug

Kick-Ass 2 posterIf the original Kick-Ass was the perfect blend of extreme comic book violence with awkward teenage humour, then its follow-up is what happens when a different director takes the reigns, adds nauseatingly gratuitous shaky cam, several framed pictures of Nicholas Cage and a below-par Mean Girls subplot. While newcomer Jeff Wadlow is not exactly inexperienced (his directorial curriculum vitae includes Never Back Down and Cry_Wolf), as he is also head writer of the whole shabang the blame lies entirely with him for the litany of problems that plague Kick-Ass 2.

Set in the aftermath of its predecessor, Kick-Ass 2 again revolves around title star Dave Lizewski, aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), though this time Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) plays a much bigger part. Tracking their parallel lives in the build up to a rather explosive final act, the movie is essentially two intertwining storylines: Kick-Ass’s return to fighting crime through an Avengers-like consortium of “superheroes” (led by Colonel Stars And Stripes, or Jim Carrey), and Hit-Girl’s descent into high-school cliquery in an effort to leave her darker, more awesome life behind. But soon a new foe, The Motherfucker, rears his unimposing head, and they must unite once again.

Inconsistencies of tone plague this film like something from the middle-ages. Wadlow very unartfully juxtaposes the 14 year-old toilet humour (mass puking, bathroom sex etc.) with eye-gouging and hand-severing, but his worst crime is the injection of a tired and shockingly out of place school drama. Riddled with post-Mean Girls cliché and featuring a stomach-churning Union J cameo, it’s near total anathema to the outstanding and random violence, which the director juggles with about as much skill and talent as a double-arm amputee trying to do so with his head. On a treadmill.

Although Kick-Ass's character graces the title, this movie really focuses on Hit-Girl.

Although Kick-Ass’s character graces the title, this movie really focuses on Hit-Girl.

All of this could be forgiven if the film was fun, but it’s simply not. Aside from several goofy moments involving Jim Carrey (whom I only recognised through a mental process of cast elimination; he looks so different), the verve and panache of Kick-Ass’s first adventure has been surgically removed by Wadlow. The action sequences, which are probably very well choreographed, are near-totally obscured by the cameraman having some sort of medical episode; he may as well twirl the damn thing on a rope. Extreme violence endeavours to ape the provocative and audacious nature of its precursor, but in the end Kick-Ass 2 is ugly and kind of stupid.

This movie left a fist imprint on my face. Not from assault, but from my dedicated struggle to stay awake. The last twenty minutes are fun, but it’s too little too late. The performances are all great, but it’s too tonally confusing and nonsensical to take seriously.

Simon says: I was promised ass-kicking, not ass-scratching. Lazy.

‘Grown-Ups 2’ (2013) and the wider problem of Adam Sandler.

11 Aug

Grown-Ups 2 posterI’m not going to waste your or my time talking about Grown-Ups 2 in detail, for there’s simply nothing to talk about. Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade and Chris Rock all show up, record themselves dicking around doing absolutely nothing interesting, go home and eventually cash their paycheques. The fart, urine and shit jokes (‘shit jokes’ in both senses of the phrase) are bad enough on their own, but the fact they are rolled out a good four or five times each somehow makes the overall experience even worse. All of the women are there to be ogled, and there’s even a gay panic scene. That’s all one can say about this shit heap.

But today I’m here to talk about Adam Sandler himself. A veritable juggernaut of modern ‘comedy’ films, his movies are a regular staple on cinema listings these days. He trots out roughly one of his own features every year, while lending his goofy visage and characteristic Brooklyn drawl to other roles – often those with his cast-mates in Grown-Ups 2 at the helm. A former host of the immortal Saturday Night Live, Sandler was educated at NYU and previously enjoyed a successful career as a stand-up comic. The man is, according to Wikipedia, speculated to have a net worth of around $300,000,000.

Adam Sandler is a genius. Yep, you read that right; a genius. Why so, Simon? Well, he somehow manages to coax Sony to fork out a good seventy or eighty million dollars to make these movies. From the horrendous That’s My Boy to the frankly terrifying Jack and Jill, with the possible exception of Punch-Drunk Love, his output is categorically awful. Swamped with dreadfully unfunny scatology, a breathtakingly offensive sense of white male privilege and the universal lameness of the “family is important” message, the only thing worse than his films are the low-functioning adults who buy the damn tickets.

He may look harmless, but make no mistake; this man is waging a war against cinema as we know it.

He may look harmless, but make no mistake; this man is waging a war against cinema as we know it.

Despite the guaranteed critical panning, his movies do attract widespread audiences. The original Grown-Ups grossed over $120,000,000 in the USA alone. His rom-com Just Go with It made almost $215,000,000 at the box office, and even the horrifying That’s My Boy, a movie that undeniably normalises and almost glorifies paedophilia, made well over fifty million. While they rake in the dough, their expenditure remains low; all of his productions are filmed on a set somewhere, with minimal use of special effects, so they can’t cost anything to make. Throw into the mix the shameful amount of product-placement in his movies, and that’s another however many mil into the coffers.

Adam Sandler works the capitalist machine to a tee. He’s a smart, suave businessman who knows exactly what the masses want, delivers precisely this with minimal effort and at the lowest costs possible, and makes off like Al fucking Capone. He doesn’t care about the artistry behind film-making or acting. He knows full well that people will settle for this subpar, bonehead humour, and earns a killing in profits as a result. Sandler is literally an evil genius… All he’s missing is a twirlable moustache and a helpless damsel tied to the train tracks.

Simon says: STOP GIVING ADAM SANDLER MONEY. YOU’RE PART OF THE PROBLEM IF YOU DO THIS.

A lesson in fossil preservation; ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ (2013).

10 Aug

Alan Partridge Alpha Papa posterDirector Declan Lowney knows full well that his latest filmic endeavour, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa will only appeal to a very select body of people. Such a group includes fans of Partridge’s many appearances on BBC Radio 4, general appreciators of Steve Coogan and those who enjoy the sorts of syndicated television shows that appear on Dave and G.O.L.D… That’s about it, really. The director made famous by his managing of the immortal Father Ted is all too aware of this, and caters accordingly. As a fan of such homely British comedy, I found this film to be an absolute hoot.

Just to be clear; Alan Partridge is a fictional character portrayed by Steve Coogan. He is a ridiculous, hilariously uncool yet strangely endearing disc jockey for North Norfolk Digital FM, who hosts a drive-time talk show, with the odd Fleetwood Mac or Willie Nelson tune thrown in for good measure. As the radio station is bought over by some shallow business-types with the intentions of making it trendier and more ‘cool’, the evening show run by Partridge’s colleague Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) winds up as collateral damage and is cut altogether. The disgruntled Farrell goes AWOL and besieges the station, shotgun in hand; but if Alan Partridge can’t save the day, then who can!?

Steve Coogan's Partridge manages to be simultaneously repugnant and charming.

Steve Coogan’s Partridge manages to be simultaneously repugnant and charming.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is a quintessentially British affair that relies on good ol’ fashioned wit, funny facial expressions and situational comedy to deliver the laughs, rather than inflicting us with a tirade of swear words or unlikely slapstick. When compared to the two other comedic movies out right now, it (thankfully) lacks the scatology of Sandler’s catastrophic Grown-Ups 2, and there are no foul-mouthed Melissa McCarthys or awkward Sandra Bullocks to be seen, as in The Heat. Rather, this is the sort of film that uses actual jokes to tickle our collective funny bones. From the comically obtuse to his beleaguered assistant Lynn (played by Felicity Montagu) to the demented Farrell, this movie seldom lets up in the humour department.

However, that said, I know for a fact I’ll forget everything that happens in this movie in a week’s time. It brings absolutely nothing new or shiny to the comedy table, and to call it unoriginal would be an understatement. Sure, the juxtaposition of hilarity against the backdrop of a siege is doubtless entertaining, and some of the writing displays flashes of absolute genius (the assorted pokes at the Irish are unanimously hilarious), but in the end this is the sort of film you’ll see on Netflix in a few months and say “Oh yeah, I think I saw that”. But while you’re in the cinema, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is breezy fun. Just make sure you’re into this sort of humour.

Simon says: one for the fans.

‘The Conjuring’ (2013)… Scared the hell out of me.

9 Aug

The Conjuring poster 1When was the last time that you were genuinely frightened at the cinema? Ignore the torture porn of Saw and peekaboo jump-scares of Paranormal Activity for a moment; has there been a film, of late, that truly sent shivers down your spine? Such movies are few and far between these days, but The Conjuring does a fantastic job of reminding us just how effective horror films can be.

Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, respectively) aren’t your typical couple – he’s a demonoligist capable of performing exorcisms, while she’s a powerful clairvoyant. When they’re not giving lectures to apparently open-minded university students, they frequent various hauntings around the country, solving supernatural quandaries and collecting creepy memorabilia along the way. This movie centres around a particular case in 1971 at the rural Perron family farmhouse, headed by Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor, where ghostly happenings are becoming increasingly malevolent.

What separates The Conjuring from the vast majority of recent horror flicks is in its approach to scaring its audience. This movie takes a leaf from Hitchcock’s book by making us more afraid of what’s not seen; a door will slam shut here, someone will feel a chill there, framed pictures will crash and many more small, seemingly insignificant events will occur. This gradual process of applying layer after layer of tension forces the audience into a state of frenzied paranoia, so that when something truly grim does happen the results are absolutely terrifying. This is the sort of movie where you dread the sound of handclaps, let alone dark forays into the dusty basement.

"So... Who brought the Scooby Snacks?"

“So… Who brought the Scooby Snacks?”

This is also a rare example of a scary film that looks great. The old farmhouse, where most of the events unfold, is spectacularly and quite nefariously spooky. It’s the exact mental image one would associate with a ‘haunted house’; it’s got a squeaky floorboards, a cobweb-covered basement and all of the doors creak, all the time. The acting is superb too – Wilson and Farmiga nail their ethereal otherworldly personae while remaining grounded here on Earth, the five kids are all convincing and Ron Livingston, one of my favourite actors, remains godly. Lili Taylor officially atones for her appearance in that god-awful Haunting remake, and I’m glad to welcome her back from the dark side.

The Conjuring is an anomaly among modern horror films. It’s the fruits of wonderful acting mixed with some truly great writing, and with beautiful locations and décor it truly is deliciously 70’s flavoured. Not since REC have I been so frightened in the cinema.

Simon says: a real fist-chewer.

Unleashed in the East: ‘The Wolverine’ (2013).

6 Aug

The Wolverine poster2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was universally panned and is (rightfully) considered an absolute disaster. A joyless production full of exposition and a noticeable lack of fun, the quicker we forget about its existence the better. Unfortunately, like spilled wine or, more accurately, a stroke, there were lasting implications: Wolverine as a character really needed a revamp. While The Wolverine may not quite rid the air of the putrid stench caused by Logan’s previous endeavour, it does manage to freshen things up.

Directed by James Mangold (the enigmatic man behind Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma), The Wolverine is based on the popular 1980’s comic miniseries in which our troubled hero goes to Japan. We learn that Logan saved a solider’s life during the American bombing of Nagasaki, and in doing so fostered a lasting sense of admiration in his indebted friend. Decades later, and quite out of the blue, his almost-dead comrade contacts Wolverine to speak with him one last time. However things quickly turn sour as everyone betrays each other and reveals their nefarious intentions.

Hugh Jackman reprises his role as Wolverine for the sixth time now; he officially holds the record for playing the same superhero the most amount of times in film history. This time he’s one hundred percent committed, and he’s not alone; joined by first-time actress Rila Fukushima in the form of fellow badass Yukio, the pair combined kick untold amounts of ninja, samurai and robot ass. This is an impressive début for the young actress and I look forward to seeing her in later roles.

At times this film felt like it had a checklist of ‘Cool Japanese Stuff’ and would not rest before ticking off every box: there’s a bullet train, ninjas, a love hotel, samurai, honour suicides, katanas, and virtually everyone wears a kimono at some stage. While this fevered collecting of Japanese references isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, it does start to get a little bit silly after a while. I kept waiting for a jujitsu dojo or a trip to the fabled Pokémon Centre.

Jackman is cool, but this movie hits you over the head with Japan references.

Jackman is cool, but this movie hits you over the head with Japan references.

Two problems: the ending gets very cartoony very fast. While any film set in the Marvel universe will unavoidably contain elements of escapism and certain breaks from reality, this movie goes cuckoo-bananas in the last act without any real rhyme or reason. In a similar vain, the lack of gore in The Wolverine further undermines any sort of alleged dabbling in ‘realism’. I’m sorry, but if a superhero’s foremost characteristics are these metallic claws that shoot out of his knuckles… Maybe there should be a little more blood.

The Wolverine doesn’t quite manage to knock the original X-Men off the Marvel mutant pedestal of greatness, but it comes damn close. Featuring some of the series’ most spectacular moments, this movie is leagues better than that horrible film from 2009.

Simon says: hit and miss, but this is the best representation of Wolverine on film to date.

Simon says: 

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