Film Review: Transcendence

This review was originally posted at The Orange Post on Sunday 11th May 2014.

The problem with movies entrenched in the technology of the day is that they do not age well. As with last year’s godawful Paranoia (smart phones, wow!) technology soon surpasses the “future” depicted onscreen, rendering the film irrelevant (Hackers) , or at best, a museum piece for us to gawk at with amusement (The Net).

Conversely, every decade or so produces a standout film foreboding the dangers of artificial intelligence. In the sixties, we had (arguably) 2001: A Space Odyssey. The seventies gave us Westworld and the eighties, WarGames. Terminator 2: Judgment Day sprung for the nineties, and the last decade produced er, Eagle Eye.

I’m not sure yet which category Transcendence will eventually fall, but for the moment, let’s just call it a thoughtful slow burner of a sci-fi thriller, with legendary cinematographer Wally Pfister firmly in control of proceedings until the very last reel, when it all gets a bit silly.

Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are brilliant computer nerds who have developed an artificial intelligence system known as PINN. Alongside their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany), the scientists struggle with the ethical consequences of their work, however, when Will is fatally injured by anti-technology extremists, led by Bree (Kate Mara), they are forced to upload him into the digital work, a process known as transcendence. As the online Will grows exponentially into an omnipresent “god”, government officials Buchanan and Tagger (CIllian Murphy and Morgan Freeman) attempt to shut the experiment down. But how do you switch off god?

Pfister is best known for his cinematography work alongside director Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. On his directorial debut, Pfister has assembled a cast to die for, and even manages extract a nuanced performance from the usually mugging Depp.

As expected, Transcendence looks beautiful, particularly the scenes set in New Mexico. The CGI is flawless and believable within the context of the storyline.

Throughout the screening I kept thinking that the film could so easily have been the pilot episode of TV’s Revolution, or a prequel to the Terminator films. Perhaps it is proof that the film is a little too slow paced that my mind was wandering slightly, but overall, Transcendence worked for me. A box office failure worldwide, I hope it eventually finds an audience in the home video market.

With this promising directorial effort, I look forward to Ffister’s next project.

 

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:09  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Bad Neighbours

This review was originally published on the Orange Post on Monday 5th May 2014.

Bad Neighbours certainly has a fine comedy pedigree with Nicholas Stoller (writer of the recent 2 Muppets films and director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) at the helm, and dependable comedy writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg in the producer seats. The good news is that the film (entitled Neighbors in the US) is one of the better comedies in recent years, with star comedy turns from Rose Byrne and Zac Efron.

Mac and Kelly (Rogan and Byrne) are a newlywed couple settling in to their first home with a new baby. Struggling with the loss of their independence and social lives, their peace and quiet is soon disrupted by the purchase of the house next door by college fraternity Delta Psi, led by the all testosterone, no brains Teddy and his second in command, Pete (Dave Franco). Initially the couple attempt to ingratiate themselves as the cool parents next door but it soon turns into an all out war.

There are actually three films I’d be happy to sit through at play here: the generation X parents struggling to hang onto their youth, neighbours at war and frat boy leader Teddy stepping into the adult world where drinking, drugs and the social pecking order of Delta Psi is irrelevant. Combined into one film, I was often distracted by my brain wanting to follow a particular plot further, but the jokes and gags, mostly filthy and bawdy, come so often that you’ll be laughing too much to care (much).

Rogan is his usual teddy bear of a man-child character, but the film is almost stolen by Byrne, who shows remarkable comedy timing. Already tested in the ensemble waters of Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids, Byrne proves that she deserves more comedy leads. Zac Efron draws plenty of laughs and pathos as the muscly but rather doughy Teddy. Is there nothing Efron can’t do?

Although the humour may be a little filthy for some, Bad Neighbours is a solid comedy that is all worth your time. In an era where crappy parodies take up too much space in the multiplex, this one deserves attention.

Film Review: The Raid 2

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 29th March 2014.

Welsh director Gareth Evan’s The Raid (2011), shot in Indonesia, is easily one of the best martial arts action flick ever committed to film. With a simple, video game-like structure, policeman Rama (the kinetic Iko Uwais) must fight his way from the ground floor of a criminal infested tower block, all the way to the boss fight at the top. Featuring wince inducing bone crunching action sequences, The Raid found a small but enthusiastic audience on DVD.

Two years later, Evans returns with The Raid 2. Picking up minutes after the final moments of the original, our hero Rama is thrust undercover into a criminal melee between the Japanese Yakuza, local Indonesian mafia and crooked cops, or something like that. Don’t ask me to explain the plot any further. It’s the action that counts.

With a more complex and sprawling plot structure (and obviously a bigger budget), Evan’s is able to transfer his now iconic visceral action to more locations, including a car chase scene which had the premiere audience applauding and cheering.

Featuring new villains, including the rather obviously named (but deadly nonetheless) Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, The Raid 2 does not disappoint, but be warned, it is not for the faint hearted. Is it better than the original film? Perhaps not, but it is easily on par and will be hard to top in the action flick stakes this year. Highly recommended.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:09  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Noah

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 29th March 2014.

“Visonary” director Darren Aronofsky’s latest opus is his take on the Biblical tale of Noah and the Ark. With an uncredited original story by, well, God, screenwriters Aronofsky and Ari Handel have concocted a strange, convoluted film that frankly left me cold. A humourless concoction, it’s part Transformers, part The Shining and part Gladiator, which deviates too far from traditional takes on the story for religious folk and is way too weird for everybody else.

Noah (Russell Crowe in serious mode) and his family are the world’s first vegans, scratching amongst the rocks for tasty lichens and moss, when word comes from “The Creator” (God is never mentioned by name throughout the whole picture) that the human race will be wiped out by a worldwide flood. Descendants of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins playing a wizened man, much like his role in Thor: The Dark World), they are tasked with building an ark to save the innocent, that is, the animal kingdom.

At this point, the unbalanced nature of the film reveals itself. With a forest miraculously springing up around them, the ark is suddenly built in a single edit, with not a montage in sight. This is all due to the assistance of “The Watchers”, archangels trapped on earth, encrusted in stone. Think rock Transformers. A jarring instrument, I’m not surprised that they do not appear in the film’s trailer.

As the leader of the ancestors of Cain (as in Cain and Abel), Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain is appropriately nasty. Knowing that the ark is his people’s only salvation, their attempt to hijack the Ark is thwarted by the Transformers, er, Watchers with only Winstone sneaking aboard.

With the ark ready, we are rushed along to the flood and onto an inordinate amount of screen time at sea.

Once on the ark, the films takes a turn to The Shining territory with Noah determined to put an end to the human race with a plan that will result in the demise of his wife (a gaunt Jennifer Connolly), his sons Ham (logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japheth (leo McHugh Carroll) as well as his pregnant adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). Although Aronofsky’s decision to give us the story from Noah’s perspective is admirable, it is pretty hard for the audience to empathise with any of the lead characters, particularly when the titular protagonist becomes the antagonist midway through the feature.

As for the CGI animals, they indeed enthusiastically board the ark two by two and then are promptly put into magic hibernation. I guess that saves on the catering problems. With Emma Watson’s Ila becoming pregnant pre-flood and giving birth on board, the menagerie must have been pretty hungry after nine months of sleeping. Add to this gap in logic a bunch of mysterious glowing fire making stones dug up from the Garden of Eden and you have a fairly simple premise that is sunk (pun intended) by too many elements, including Noah’s quick turn into alcoholism.

The performances are all uniformly strong, although the script often slides into melodrama. Crowe is deservedly the lynchpin of the film, but I would have appreciated just a hint of humour or warmth.

By the end of the two hour flick, I was yearning for dry land and the inevitable incest dilemma (both animal and human) to commence. Worn thin by this curious beast of a motion picture, I wholeheartedly agreed with Noah when he proclaimed, “We are all being punished.”

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Wolf Creek 2

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 5th March 2014.

Back in 2005, I wandered into a screening of Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek to discover that I was the only person in the cinema. What followed was a visceral horror experience that I loved and hated at the same time. Nine years later, John Jarratt’s iconic serial killer Mick Taylor is back and unfortunately, the shock value has gone and for horror fans it’s more of the same.

Wolf Creek 2 opens with everyone’s favourite ocker pig hunting psycho encountering a pair of highway patrol police. With Mick in the interesting position of the bully being bullied, I was hopeful for a change of direction in the franchise with the killer switched into the protagonist role, or at least being portrayed as the underdog.

An exploding head or two later, it became clear that this was not to be, as the audience was instead taken back to familiar territory, both figuratively and literally.

Remember that point in the Elm Street series where Freddy Kruger jumped the shark and transformed from a mysterious killer into a wisecracking comedy character? I would place it somewhere between the third and fourth instalments. With Wolf Creek 2, Taylor has already become a walking and talking cliche. Swear a bit then stab someone in the spine. Decapitate a backpacker and give us your catchphrase. Repeat ad nauseum for 106 minutes and you have yourself a box office hit.

As our doomed tourists, Shannon Ashlyn, Phillipe Klaus and Ryan Corr are perfectly fine, although a lack of introduction time meant that I cared very little when the stabby stabby stuff began. The charismatic Jarratt once again disappears completely into his most famous character to date. With his unnerving laugh and hatred for all things carrying a backpack, Mick Taylor deserves a better second outing.

For the majority of the film, there is simply no tension. The claret flows freely but besides a few wincing moments of gore, there is little to make you want to watch through your fingers, unlike the original. A road chase scene harking back to Steven Spielberg’s Duel and the final twenty minutes which involves a pub quiz with the highest stakes ever are suggestive of a much more terrifying experience that I would have preferred to see.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 22:52  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: The Wolf of Wall Street

This film review was originally published at The Orange Post on 28th January 2014.

The first 2 hours of The Wolf of Wall Street are arguably the best American filmmaking I have seen in the past ten years. Director Martin Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) have crafted a spectacularly witty and amusing exposé based on the real life criminal escapades of former stockbroker Jordan Belfort. With a completely dedicated cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio (in his fifth collaboration with the director), Jonah Hill and Australian rising starlet Margot Robbie, this sprawling confessional is all about money, drugs, hookers and excess. Did I say that the film is all about excess?

Through a mixture of voice over, dialogue and direct conversation to the audience, DiCaprio shines as ambitious penny stockbroker Belfort. After his Oscar nominated turn in Moneyball, Jonah Hill proves once again that he is capable of so much more than gross out comedies with his portrayal of number one disciple Donnie Azoff, complete with false teeth and bad hair (and reportedly working for minimum wage). As Belfort’s second wife, Margot Robbie sports a flawless Brooklyn accent in a revealing performance which has already introduced her to the Hollywood A leagues. And look out for Matthew McConaughey, who seemingly can do no wrong at the moment, in a show stealing cameo as Belfort’s first Wall Street mentor, Mark Hanna.

Excess is the name of the game. Dwarf throwing, cocaine, alcohol, quaaludes and orgies are all depicted as part of Belfort’s everyday life in the nineties, the latter being featured perhaps a few too many times. I’m sure part of this expression of excess is the 3 hour running time. I experienced The Wolf of Wall Street with a packed preview audience who howled along with every outrageous moment for the first 2 hours. By the third bum numbing hour, the crowd was noticeably quieter as fatigue set in. Excess is exhausting. My advice is to take a packed lunch and move around regularly to prevent pressure sores and DVTs.

Much has been made of the lack of remorse expressed by Belfort onscreen in the film. Indeed, we are never shown the victims of his deceptions. Nor do we really see the consequences of his crimes. I don’t have a problem with this. This is no morality tale. From the outset, it is clear that this is Belfort’s story. Scorsese and Winter have made the brilliant decision to give the audience enough credit to draw their own conclusions.

The Wolf of Wall Street deserves its place in Scorsese’s fine catalogue of work. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still in my top ten films at the end of the year. I highly recommend it.

Published in: on February 18, 2014 at 22:51  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

This film review was posted on the Orange Post on Sunday 19th January 2014.

Two years ago, Kenneth Branagh proved he was capable of helming a fun, superhero flick with Marvel Studio’s Thor. He now returns with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the result is a taut and slick action thriller that will keep you on the edge of your popcorn.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit revives the film franchise based on the late Tom Clancy’s popular series of pageturners, although this is the first entry to be inspired by the characters and situations rather than a specific book. Essentially a reboot, this time the titular hero is a product of 9/11.

Chris Pine is the fourth actor to portray Tom Clancy’s CIA junior analyst turned field agent, following   turns by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. After ably filling William Shatner’s Starfeeleet issued loafers in the revitalised Star Trek franchise, Pine is a suitable mix of reluctant hero and ass kicker.

Just like last year’s Man of Steel, any scene featuring Kevin Costner, as CIA mentor Thomas Harper, is instantly elevated. Costner was apparently in line to play Jack Ryan in the nineties. I couldn’t help but think that this film could so easily have been a passing of the torch with Costner in the Jack Ryan roile and Pine as newbie Agent Magilacutty.

Keira Knightley works well as the female love interest / spouse in peril but I was distracted by her choice to sport US accent. And Branagh is menacing as the villain de jour.

With the Bourne Franchise setting a trend in this genre for shaky cameras and kinetic action scenes, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a welcome throwback to a more traditional style. Although not a killing machine, Ryan would rather use brains than his fists but is capable of defending himself or evading capture when required. Branagh frames these scenes so the audience can actually see what is happening.

The film is not without its problems. Some of the dialogue is exposition heavy and the True Lies inspired subplot involving Knightley’s Cathy being unaware of Ryan’s occupation and then suddenly being thrust into a CIA mission does not really work. Ryan’s chronic pain problems are forgotten midway through the film. And I have some questions. Would a counter terrorism mission spanning two countries really fall on the shoulders of just two agents? And why couldn’t I take my eyes away from Knightley’s immoveable forehead?

Unlike last year’s failures of Jack Reacher and Jack the Giant Slayer, I’ll be more than happy for another instalment in this revived franchise.

Film Review: Saving Mr Banks

This film review was posted on the Orange Post on Sunday 19th January 2014.

I saw Saving Mr Banks several days ago and the sense of satisfaction that I experienced as I departed the cinema has since dissipated. The more I think of this biopic, the more problematic the film and it’s plot holes seem to be.

That’s not to say that the film is not an enjoyable look at the making of one of the most beloved children’s films ever. I am really drawn to films about the making of films. And Emma Thompson gives a powerhouse performance as the acerbic author of the Mary Poppins books, Australian born P.L. Travers. It’s just that a Disney produced biopic about a Disney produced film is not a good sign of an objective warts and all portrayal of real life events.

For instance, Walt DIsney himself was present for Travers’ arrival in Los Angeles, however he soon left California to avoid having to deal with the difficult author. In this film, Disney is a constant presence. I guess there is no use in paying Tom Hanks to be a supporting player.

Rumours persist that Walt Disney was a misogynist, a racist and an anti-Semite, with Disney’s own grandniece supporting these allegations. It’s not surprise then that Tom Hank’s portrayal of Disney is instead the caring fatherly figure that we all imagine the creator of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland to be. Fair enough that Hanks has picked up the unique walk and smoker’s cough but if you’re going to show Travers with all her irrational ideas and quirks, then why DIsney-fy Disney?

The scenes where Travers picks apart the work of composers The Sherman Brothers (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) and writer Don Dagradi (Bradley Whitford) are great fun. Her demands such as the colour red not appearing in the film and her objections to lead actor Dick Van Dyke demonstrate how protective the author was about her famous character. However, the script by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith lets the film down by never resolving these demands. Obviously Dick Van Dyke starred in Mary Poppins and no primary colours were missing in the sets and costumes so how was Travers convinced to sign off on the rights?

Travers was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and unlike the Disneyland and Disney Studios scenes which are appropriately recreated, or in the case of Disneyland simply aged back to 1961, the Australian components of the film disappointingly look like the backlot of Universal Studios (which it actually was).

The flashback structure explaining Travers’ love and dedication to her alcoholic father (Colin Farrell) is a little clunky but leads to a nice revelation at the end and goes some way to explaining many of the aspects of the Mary Poppins persona, on page and on screen. Less effective is the kind hearted limo driver (Paul Giamatti) who was created for the film for Travers to warm to, and therefore defrost in the eyes of the audience.

Saving Mr Banks wears its heart on its sleeve, much like Mary Poppins the movie. Despite some great performances, you can’t help but feel that the filmmakers aren’t quite telling you everything.

Apparently P.L. Travers travelled to Ireland to adopt twins but returned with only one. This son ended up an alcoholic, and eventually met his own twin by accident. He too was an alcoholic. There’s a much more powerful film there already.

Film Review: Man of Steel

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Wednesday 3rd July 2013.

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel is a mixed blessing. At times it soars, just like the breathtaking depiction of Superman’s first flight. However, at times, and particularly in the final hour, it drags and is reminiscent of the director’s poorly received Sucker Punch.

Snyder retells Kal-El’s origin story, giving Krypton a much grittier and organic feel when compared to Richard Donner’s glowing crystalline depiction in Superman The Movie from 1978. Through a series of flashbacks, he recalls important moments in Clark’s early years on Earth and then thrusts us into what is essentially an alien invasion, as Kryptonian criminals General Zod and company arrive in search of Kal-El and some alien maguffin thingy.

The problem with man of Steel is that it takes Superman’s perspective rather than ours. It’s very easy to imagine that Clark / Kal-El is apprehensive about revealing himself to the world. Unfortunately, he waits until Zod demands that he be turned over to don his tights and cape. Snyder never shows us how the non-US military world reacts to his existence. Instead, we cut straight to brain numbing Transformers-lite fighting. You and I dealing with a superman amongst us is far more interesting than an alien’s angst about dealing with us mortals.

And that brings us to stakes. In Man of Steel, there are none. From the outset, it is established that Superman and General Zod are practically invincible on our planet, so when the film heads down the slippery slope that is two guys fighting in the air and crashing through buildings ad nauseum, it is pretty hard to care. We’ve already seen the battle sequences in Man of Steel before, in the Transformers franchise and again last year in The Avengers.

It’s not all bad though. The actor most maligned on the internet for his casting, Kevin Costner, is really solid and brings a gravitas to Jonathan Kent, Kal-El’s human father figure. Also charismatic is Russell Crowe who has clearly stayed off the pies to fit into his Kryptonian super suit as Jor-El, Superman’s real father. The talented Amy Adams is a determined and ambitious Lois Lane who has great chemistry with her boss at the Daily Planet, Perry White, played by Laurence Fishburne. It’s a bit of a shame that this chemistry is not present with the guy in the tights.

Henry Cavill certainly looks right for the part of Superman, but as the storyline takes place before he dons his glasses and becomes a mild mannered reporter, there is not really any duality. Without the Clark Kent persona, Cavill has little to do but look concerned. He might be the perfect Superman, but I think that may well be a matter for any subsequent instalments.

I was most looking forward to seeing how Michael Shannon, one of my favourite actors, would fare in his first major blockbuster role as General Zod. For his first couple of scenes, I had a great time with Shannon’s intense, bug eyed performance, however, it soon became clear that this was a one note performance and I grew tired of it. I hope that this isn’t his only foray into mainstream film.

The final act of the film consists of two very long and tiresome CGI laden fights that will leave you walking out of the cinema exhausted. Only when the dust had settled and we got just a few moments of Clark joining Lois on the staff of the Daily Planet before the end credits rolled did I catch a glimpse of the Superman movie I really wanted to see.

Published in: on July 4, 2013 at 00:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: World War Z

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on 23rd June 2013.

Marc Forster’s World War Z (pronounced zee not zed) has more in common with 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later than the George A. Romero series of zombie flicks. These Z zombies can run, fast. They also leap and stack on top of themselves en masse to climb walls, like a heaving ant nest or a jenga tower. I’m not sure why becoming one of the undead transforms you into a super athlete. All I know is that with my lack of sporting prowess, I’d be a very hungry zombie.

Brad Pitt, complete with foppish nineties hairdo, is a retired UN investigator. When a mystery contagion outbreak occurs, turning millions worldwide into zombies, Pitt’s Gerry Lane must get his family to safety before traversing the planet (well, Korea, Israel and Wales) in search of the origin of the epidemic.

World War Z’s source material is the title of the novel by Max Brooks (son of Mel). Practically nothing of the book, which is written in an oral history style as told by multiple survivors, has made it into the screenplay of this troubled production. I’m not precious about these things. Look forward to a compendium of my movie reviews to be published under the title Dead Serious: Attack of the Zombies. Hey Hollywood! Buy the rights, use the title only, do what you like.

World War Z had a difficult gestation.  The original release date was pushed back to allow a seven week reshoot of the rewritten final third of the film in Budapest. Star Pitt also reportedly clashed with director Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum of Solace).

The good news is that the final product hangs together nicely. The thrill ride starts from the first moments of the film and doesn’t let off until the end credits roll. The action is unrelenting and doesn’t stop for anything, including character development. This is Pitt’s film. Supporting characters, such as James Badge Dale’s Captain Speke, appear briefly and are then quickly dispatched. At best, Pitt’s character can be described as an inquisitive investigator who does some investigating.

The zombies in World War Z are mostly of the CGI variety with little attention given to them as individuals. I would have liked just a little subplot involving the ramifications to those left behind when a loved one is turned. In this film, it is literally one bite, some convulsions and twelve seconds later you are one of the running dead, and on with the show.

Strangely, these zombies only seem interested in biting the living, not eating them. The final set piece of the film, set in a laboratory in Wales, takes a tonal shift from the earlier spectacles in the US and Israel. An effective cat and mouse style set piece (that would be one mouse and tens of zombified cats) with locked doors, long corridors and glass cubicles, it is only after the film ends that you realise that it makes little sense. Why are the zombies so intent on chasing the living down, if only to bite them?

On further thought, this would be pretty much the same film if you replaced the zombies with rabid bats, sparkly vampires, teen werewolves or killer tomatoes. The film isn’t so much about the undead, but rather how Brad Pitt saves the world from catastrophe.

Leave your brains at the door (the zombies aren’t interested in them anyway) and enjoy this action packed, not very scary action thriller. I would recommend experiencing World War Z in 2D. I cannot recall a single moment which would have been improved by the extra dimension, or annoying glasses.

Published in: on June 30, 2013 at 16:15  Leave a Comment  
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