Tag Archives: meh

Monroe Mash-Up; ‘Love, Marilyn’ (2012).

18 Oct

Love, Marilyn posterThere are three types of people in this world: those engaged in eternal mourning for the untimely death of film icon Marilyn Monroe, naysayers who deem her an overrated ‘bowl of hot nothing’ and the mediators who lack an opinion either way. Your enjoyment of Love, Marilyn will rest heavily on whichever bracket you fall into, as well as your tolerance for idolatry.

A documentary about the rise and fall of the ‘50s movie star, Love, Marilyn celebrates the recent discovery of Monroe’s handwritten memoirs. Directed by Liz Garbus and featuring a cavalcade of stars, from Uma Thurman to Paul Giamatti by way of Viola Davis and Elizabeth Banks, Love, Marilyn is essentially a 107-minute lecture on the greatness of the eponymous sex symbol. Don’t think she’s that great? Well, this movie exists to change your mind.

Chock-a-bloc as it is with intriguing tidbits of information, Love, Marilyn proves to be an educational experience for those less steeped in Monroe lore. But owners of countless Marilyn books or furious bloggers who tirelessly defend her will presumably already know everything this movie has to offer. Newfound documents only confirm suspicions that she was more than just a pretty face – there’s no grand revelation or shocking declaration to be found in Love, Marilyn.

What one can expect is a flurry of famous faces reciting lines from Monroe’s personal writings, often adding their own dramatic spin. It works on occasion – Banks, Davis and co. pour buckets of soul into their performances, proving themselves to be Monroe devotees – but asking these talented actors to read a chicken recipe Monroe prepared for Joe DiMaggio, among other random trivialities, is a mistake. It does a disservice to all those involved, living or dead.

By far the most engaging aspect of this film is the gleaned insight into Monroe’s relationships. Having met renowned playwright Arthur Miller at a party following the publication of his Death of a Salesman, the internal workings of their eventual marriage and how they impacted one another creatively, prove to be highlights. Archival interview footage with Miller and Monroe’s former co-star friends feels jarringly real in the face of the sporadically loopy acting dotted throughout.

Swap the comma for an exclamation mark, stick it at the end and you’ve got an infinitely more accurate title for Love, Marilyn – it clobbers you over the head with its unfaltering schmaltz and unwavering reverence. Die-hard Monroe fans will be pleased, and those lacking an opinion on the starlet could indeed be swayed in her favour. Her detractors, however, won’t be budged.

Simon says: ‘LOVE MARILYN!’ would be a far more honest moniker for this love-letter.

[Written for GCN]

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A Pirate’s Life; ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013).

12 Oct

Captain Phillips posterMe nerves! Having just recently recovered equilibrium after the tension-fest that was The Call, I’m called upon to review Captain Phillips and thereby jettison my anxiety levels to another extreme, and not for the right reasons. Why do I do this job?

One could also ask why Captain Phillips (aka Tom Hanks) does his job in this decidedly unpleasant, if absorbing film, which unfortunately forgoes artistic finesse for a gung ho, pro-USA mantra.

The good Captain is a seasoned sailor of the seven seas with a knack for clairvoyance. Following a gratuitous ‘he loves his wife’ opening scene, Captain P sets sail aboard a colossal, Kenya-bound freighter. As the ship approaches the Horn of Africa, a gang of Somali pirates swiftly seizes control before speeding off aboard a sealed submarine-like lifeboat, with Hanks on board. A biopic of the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, this movie draws inspiration from his terrifying 2009 ordeal.

Good docu-dramas aim to underpin what the audience already knows with some revelatory or hitherto unearthed information, as expertly demonstrated by 2013’s Academy Award-rumbling Zero Dark Thirty. Although Captain Phillips concerns itself with atomically smaller stakes (ZD-30 shook us with conspiracies and a likely apocalypse; this has an assortment of skinny men), what really sinks this ship is its unflinching dedication to two-dimensionality.

At dubious loggerheads with the rationale that cargo ships are looted to combat impoverishment, or at least for some mix of socio-political reasons,Captain Phillips paints its pirates as mindless, greedy villains. While the boat’s crew and the Navy SEALS display robotic proficiency at their jobs, and the good Captain himself proves to be the sole benefactor of any characterisation whatsoever, the dead-eyed Somalis behave like hyperactive children on cocaine.

Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the commander of the invaders, is granted a few throwaway lines about the bullying nature of larger nations (who overfish in Somali waters) and his duty to local warlords (who pocket the bulk of the pirates’ plunder), but the rest of his screen-time is spent chewing khat leaves, barking orders and generally acting like a monster. The film submerges any humanising of Muse beneath swathes of inexplicable menace, making Hanks look positively saintly by turn.

Director Paul Greengrass is no blinkered defender of world superpowers – his Bloody Sunday is a thoroughly detailed yet impassioned examination of Britain’s negative legacy in Northern Ireland – but here his portrayal of the heroic white American hero’s immeasurable suffering at the hands of antagonistic African thugs comes off as crass. Sure, the movie sticks to the facts, but the choices Greengrass makes are just embarrassing.

On the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds in giving us two hours of stressfully claustrophobic tension, with the sort of melodramatic ‘old white guy in peril’ role that could guarantee Hanks another coveted Oscar. To deny the movie’s gripping nature would be doing it an injustice, but to label it as much more than star-spangled flag-waving would be an even graver affront to the complex truth that lies behind the growing problem of piracy on the African seas.

Simon says: bring some sea sickness tablets.

[Written for GCN]

‘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.

Retreading, Extremely Dull; ‘RED 2’ (2013).

2 Aug

RED 2 posterThe original RED is a great film. Aside from the star-studded ensemble cast and boisterous script, what solidifies that film’s reputation as an above-par action flick is its lightness of tone. From the tirade of gritty superhero reboots to the countless films centred on the total annihilation of Earth, action movies have been rather dour and noticeably pessimistic recently.

Much its predecessor, RED 2 is a quirky, tongue-in-cheek affair that clearly doesn’t take itself, its subject matter, or its audience very seriously. Retired CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is back, though this time he’s settled down with his former pension-giver turned wife Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). However Frank is forced to reinvigorate his former black-ops days by reuniting with fellow operatives Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren) to save the world from an atomic bomb, while at the same time evading expert hit man Han (Byung-hun Lee).

RED 2 is clearly a graduate of the Fast & Furious school of thinking, as it abruptly throws any and all notions of realism, physics or continuity out the window for the sake of sheer entertainment. Bullets can rip through cars yet fail to penetrate overturned coffee tables, there’s a ridiculous plot twist roughly every five minutes and ludicrously mismatched fights always end in the lone man’s favour, rather than the fifteen henchmen he’s fighting. Like Vin Diesel and company, both RED films revel in their nonsensicality; but it’s RED 2 that wins the loony prize.

However it seems that the quirky sense of humour which characterised the original RED was the sacrificial lamb at the altar of silliness. Yes, it’s still bizarrely entertaining watching Dame Helen Mirren be a total badass; yes, John Malkovich is as reliably goofy as ever; yes Bruce Willis still kicks shedloads of ass in every action role he’s in. But the whole affair just feels so by-the-numbers and frankly rather lazy. It’s as if this movie was written by a robot which was programmed solely to write over the top action movie scripts, with the occasional joke thrown in.

Don't believe the tagline; the best are INDEED resting. Fast asleep, even.

Don’t believe the tagline; the best are INDEED resting. Fast asleep, even.

John Malkovich is quoted as saying that he only does these movies (the former RED included) for the resulting paycheque and it really shows. The veteran cast could do what they do in their sleep, and I’m not wholly convinced that all of them were awake during filming. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up for next to no reason, and none of the baddies are even slightly menacing. The leads are all fine. They do what’s expected of them and nothing more; though again it’s undeniably refreshing to see Helen Mirren beat people up.

RED 2 is still an entertaining evening at the cinema, yet is undoubtedly a marked regression from its predecessor. A real shame…

Simon says: imagine a follow-up to The Big Red One instead? A man can dream.

Go see ‘The East’ (2013) if you want, but leave twenty minutes early.

6 Jul

The East posterThe East is an example of a frustrating film. Why so? Well, the premise for one is interesting: a young but battle-worn female spy, Sarah Moss (Brit Marling), whose allegiance to the American flag has been plundered by the lure of private enterprise, must go undercover to investigate the mysterious anarcho-eco group who call themselves ‘The East’. Ah capitalism, you dependable seductress you.  ‘The East’ target massive multinationals responsible for subversive crimes against nature and humanity, such as energy and pharmaceutical companies,

Thus a character is introduced, is made conflicted, and, what’s more, is given genuine things to be conflicted about. The undoubtedly morally reprehensible acts of the corporations (polluting nature, poisoning water, indirectly killing children etc.) are contrasted with the ethically dubious methods the protesters use to get their message across, and as such Moss is pulled in two opposite directions. In doing so, The East forces us to reconsider our own position on such matters; while many would not dispute painting a CEO’s mansion with crude oil the same way he contaminated the ocean, how comfortable would you be knowing his life was at stake?

But before you could say “self-sufficient and sustainable anarchist hippie commune”, the movie flicks the autopilot switch and devolves from interesting character study to plodding action film. Instead of challenging the viewers with an ambiguous philosophical message and thus charging us with a certain amount of personal work, The East cops out in the most shamelessly blatant way possible. Rather than letting us make up our own minds on what is a fascinatingly complex issue, with the ending this film bellows “HERE IS THE ANSWER“.

This infuriatingly safe conclusion would be less of a catastrophe if the film hadn’t already gone into uncomfortable territory. The East frequents some rather dark and unexpected places, and as such could be described as a challenging film on many levels. One would assume, nay expect the movie to focus on and build the eventual direction Moss takes as a narrative totem from which the boiling tension of her loyalty spills over into either side, but it’s handled in such a pat, compromising way that instead of leaving audiences scratching their heads, they instead wipe their brows, relieved to be relieved of any expectations on their part.

The scenes involving the group are easily the best the movie has to offer.

The scenes involving the group are easily the best the movie has to offer.

Compounding this dramatic failure is the fact that the first two thirds of the movie are actually quite enjoyable, if themselves a little flawed. Brit Marling is a promising actress who plays a convincingly blank former FBI agent here, while Alexander Skarsgård steals the show as the charismatic and inherently sexual group/cult leader. However, as per usual Ellen Page did little other than annoy the hell out of me; speaking of ‘hell’, Moss is introduced early on as a Christian – she prays, listens to Christian radio, twirls rosary beads and so on. But the film sort of forgets about this, as it never impacts the story or influences her actions in any way.

This movie reminds me of 2012’s Flight in that it’s a interesting, well-written and  competently-acted film whose train is completely derailed by a devastatingly ‘safe’ third act. The East unfortunately strays from its promising path, and nullifies its audience’s minds with a Disney Channel ending.

Simon says: go anywhere else but East.

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!

‘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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