Thursday, 31 December 2015

Movie Review: The Good Dinosaur/Holding The Man (2015)

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Since we’re at the point where Disney has such a monopoly on the world’s entertainment, making a statement like “They’re having a good year” would be rather redundant. It’d be like saying General Electric has made a profit; it sets off ‘no shit’ alarms pretty quickly. That said, even for a company as prolific as Disney, this has been an amazing year for them: The continuing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Inside Out, the latest iteration of Cinderella and let’s not forget the hype singularity that is The Force Awakens. And even outside of their commercial write-ups, their average for quality has been far better than previous years; hell, my top two films of the year are both Disney properties. So, considering all that, I can think of no better way to close out the year than with a look at another release from the House of the Mouse. So, for the first part of the finale of my insane month of reviews, let’s take a look at Pixar’s second release for the year: This is The Good Dinosaur.

The plot: In an alternate history, where the asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs never hit the Earth, said dinosaurs have continued to grow and thrive and have even evolved to the point of being able to speak. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an Apatosaurus, lives on a farm with his father Henry (Jeffrey Wright), his mother Ida (Frances McDormand), his brother Buck (Marcus Scribner) and his sister Libby (Maleah Padilla). When a freak accident causes Arlo to be washed away in the nearby river, alongside a human child he named Spot (Jack Bright), Arlo must traverse the dangerous prehistoric landscape and make it back home safely.

Pixar, when they are legitimately trying, can come up with some truly gorgeous CGI that stands as a testament to the art form. The animation here, at least for the scenery, is seriously close to Walking With Dinosaurs-level quality. The weather effects, the texturing, the fact that they gave some form of character to different types of water; this is easily some of the best I’ve seen from this studio with a lot of photorealistic detailing. The dinosaur designs, on the other hand, aren’t as good. Not to say that they’re bad, far from it, just that it feels a little too cartoonish when put on top of the beautifully realized backgrounds. That said, credit is definitely deserved for how they didn’t immediately go for the easy designs for the dinosaurs. Apart from a few of the more recognizable creatures, we’ve also got some nice mid-transition looks like the semi-chickens that Arlo and his family farm for I’m guessing the eggs. Yeah, even with how well they portrayed that farm in relation to those dinosaurs without dialogue, some bits of it don’t hold up as well as others.

Speaking of what is portrayed without dialogue, I once again have to congratulate a studio that has the nerve to use the visual medium in a family film. While there is dialogue, and it is mostly well-written and delivered, a lot of the more crucial points are delivered just through what we see. There are two examples in this film that are genuinely heart-melting in how they handle emotion through the visuals, and oddly enough they’re both incredibly sad moments. One of them is how the first on-screen death is handled, which is very sombre and tear-jerking without needing to even say “I’m sorry. _____ is dead.” The other involves Arlo trying to explain the idea of ‘family’ to Spot using sticks in the ground. Very little dialogue, most of which is comprised of the word “family”, and it is easily one of the most emotionally hard-hitting moments I’ve seen all year.

During the first act, while definitely being impressed by the animation and music, I couldn’t help but feel that this is the kind of story that seriously didn’t even need to involve dinosaurs. It basically plays out like a Western, even includes herding cattle alongside Sam Elliott as a T-Rex, with hints of the ‘boy and his pet’ sub-genre mixed in there as well. But as the film progresses, a thought started to sneak in: What if you replaced the dinosaurs with humans and played this as a live-action Western? Maybe have Spot be played by a dog or a wolf alongside our farm boy Arlo. Well, if that was the film that we got, it most certainly would not be marketed towards kids.

This is an especially dark story in that light, considering some of the characters that Arlo runs into along the way. We have Thunderclap (Steve Zahn) and his fellow pterodactyls that worship “the Storm” and basically act like a surrogate for Christian ministers, rescuing people from the aftermath of a natural disaster. Of course, ministers aren’t usually known for eating those that they rescue in those situations. Add to that the story of how Butch (Sam Elliott) got the scar on his face and a threat he makes to Arlo at one point, and all of a sudden this is a Wild West story involving cannibals. There’s also casual decapitation of an insect by Spot, the insect in question being about three times his size, and Arlo and Spot being the first creatures in human history to get drunk (or possibly stoned) after eating rotten fruit. Basically, this film stands as a monument to exactly how much can be snuck by kids when the right facades are put in place. In all honesty, I have to commend the filmmakers for creating an incredibly dark cowboy tale and wrapping it up in a child-friendly package.

Here’s the weird thing, though. I know that applying that same mindset of swapping the surrogate creature with a human can make a lot of different tales a lot more adult by comparison. However, the reason why I use it in this case is because I think the filmmakers want us to see that way to a certain degree. Spot’s very canine mannerisms and movements, right down to shaking his leg when he gets scratched, Arlo and his family’s very human-looking farm, the Southern accents given to most of the scavenging dinosaurs (whom usually want to eat the main characters) and even how the T-Rexs’ movements resembling a man riding a horse, much like a cattle rancher would; in a few subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the film is trying to humanize the characters and settings it presents to us. Under normal circumstances, the attempts to humanize these dinosaurs combined with the gruesome implications would make me question exactly how child-friendly this film really is. Of course, I’m the kind of filmgoer who loves the dark and unexpected; I can only see this as a selling point, really.

All in all, I freaking love this movie. It’s essentially a gruesome coming-of-age Western disguised as a children’s film, portrayed through excellent voice acting, spectacular animation and writing that manages to work both on a surface level and as a nice serving of Fridge Horror. This may not be the best Pixar film ever, but that doesn’t mean that this should be completely discarded like it seems likely to be. This is still quality Pixar work that deserves to be seen. It’s better than Straight Outta Compton as, even considering my own love for all things hip-hop, that falls short of the tremendous respect this generates for the sheer balls this film has. However, even with that in mind, the utter fascination created by The Death Of “Superman Lives” wins out in comparison.

The short that precedes the film, Sanjay’s Super Team, is an encapsulated bit of just how amazing Pixar can be. The animation, the pacing, the juxtaposition of Hindu religious icons and modern-day superheroes and the questions that such a comparison raises; this more than holds up to the company’s pedigree for shorts.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Movie Review: Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) & 3 (2015)



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When Saw first came out to phenomenal box office returns, people soon became familiar with director James Wan’s supposed ‘torture porn’ style. After taking a producing role for the rest of the series, and his subsequent releases Dead Silence and Death Sentence barely received any critical attention (let alone positive attention), it seemed like he was going to stuck with that label for the rest of his professional career, if it would even survive beyond all that. Then came Insidious in 2009, and audiences took note. Rather than the industrial grime and twisted morals that have been attached to him thanks to the original Saw, Insidious blasted its way into cinemas and showed off Wan’s true style: Old-school horror thrills reminiscent of the haunted house flicks of the 70’s and 80’s. After that film set a far better preconception for the man, he would go on to even greater success with The Conjuring and even show his proficiency in genres outside of horror. However, same year that Conjuring was released, he went back to that staple that gave him the credit he desperately deserved… and critics weren’t all that into it. Time to dive in and see if it really deserves the flack it got. This is Insidious: Chapter 2.

The plot: Shortly after the events of the first film, Josh (Patrick Wilson) has been possessed by a spirit from The Further. As his wife Renai (Rose Byrne) and sons Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor) notice that he has been acting strangely since their encounter with the Red-Faced Demon, his mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) calls in Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) to help her get to the bottom of what is still haunting their family.

Patrick Wilson is still a great actor and, thankfully, the character he’s playing this time kind of is as well. Not only does he get to slip into his old shoes as Josh, he gets to have some fun as Parker Crane, making for some nice Dolarhyde-lite thrills. Lin Shaye was extremely distracting in the opening scene, where her voice was very jarringly dubbed over Lindsay Seim playing a younger version of her character, but her cheery attitude is still welcomed. Whannell and Sampson are still great as the comic relief, even making for a legitimately touching moment when they discuss how Elise’s death affected them, considering their line of work.

Despite its seriously goofy moments, particularly the climactic encounter with the Red-Faced Demon, it still did wonders at producing scares through more classical means. Now, James Wan’s old-school sensibilities when it comes to horror only fully bloomed in The Conjuring, which came out shortly before this film did; the original Insidious showed a good progression towards that, but still a little frayed around the edges. This is a sequel that producer Jason Blum (yes, it’s another one of his productions) and it shows, especially with how the camera and editing have shifted between films. For some reason, they decided to go into found footage-style cinematography, primarily in a scene where Specs and Tucker are investigating Parker’s old house with their camcorders. Now, while that scene in it of itself felt unnecessary, the found footage mechanics snuck into the editing as well. In a lot of the Paranormal Activity films, especially the earlier ones, the editing would look a bit jumpy like moments of dead air were just cut right out of it. We have the same effect here, except not during the scene with POV camera footage. As a result, we have a film that feels like it wants to be found footage but isn’t.

Then again, this being shot in exactly the same way as the original is kind of excusable. After all, this film takes a different direction in comparison. Instead of focusing so much on the atmosphere and being playing like a tribute to the traditional haunted house flicks, this is more like a supernatural possession thriller that pays tribute to a different kind of horror film. Namely, Josh/Parker’s motivation feels like elements of Red Dragon got poured into the script, crossed with The Cell given how he is taken down in the end. I like Whannell’s talents when it comes to carrying narrative through a film series, and admittedly this film does a decent job as a follow-up to the original in terms of plot. However, that affinity isn’t enough to excuse how this film feels like Wan’s influences are being pushed even closer to the surface than previously. Then the film gets to Parker’s mother, and suddenly it becomes a cross between Sleepaway Camp and Mommie Dearest. Unless you are a literal miracle worker, that combination is always going to look silly. Really, the only consistent element that has survived from the first film is the soundtrack… and given how that includes the histrionic string section, which still made me laugh right at the title sequence, that’s probably the last thing I was anxious to see return for this movie.

All in all, it’s a good follow-up to the original, but not that great a horror film on its own; it left me at a similar point that The Marked Ones did last year. The characters are still engaging, the story feels like a good way to continue from the previous installment and there are some decent moments of suspense, but ultimately it feels like it has strayed way too far from what made the first film good in the first place. Now, we have unnecessary found footage elements and performances and plot developments that clash heavily with the atmospheric tone the film is still trying to set. It’s better than Upstream Color, as the plot here isn’t nearly as irritatingly obtuse. However, since this ultimately fell short as a horror film, it also falls short of Jack Reacher, which succeeded in its primary genre.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Movie Review: Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked (2012) and The Road Chip (2015)/Beasts Of No Nation (2015)



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I have so little a genuine opinion on the Chipmunks that, for this review, I’m also going to squeeze in my thoughts on their last film as well; mainly because my reactions to either of them aren’t enough for a full review on their own. This is Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked and The Road Chip.

The plot: [Chipwrecked] While on a cruise, the Chipmunks Alvin (Justin Long), Simon (Matthew Gray Gubler), Theodore (Jesse McCartney), and the Chippettes Brittany (Christina Applegate), Jeanette (Anna Faris) and Eleanor (Amy Poehler) end up going overboard and marooned on a desert island. As they try and survive on the island, with the help of fellow castaway Zoe (Jenny Slate), Dave (Jason Lee) and Ian (David Cross) have also found their way onto the island.

The music, this time helmed by Devo front-man Mark Mothersbaugh, isn’t as annoyingly over-produced as the previous films. The covers are fewer this time around, with a couple of original pop songs included like LMFAO’s Party Rock Anthem, but they are at least enjoyable here. More so than before, at the very least.

Rather than focusing so much on the music, this film seems to be making an active attempt at character growth, particularly for Alvin because there’s a reason that he is named in the band. Through a frankly absurd concept involving Simon and the effects of a venomous spider bite, we unfortunately don’t get Spider-Munk and instead get him turning into a faux-French explorer called Simone (now voiced by Alan Tudyk, not that you’d notice). Because of this, Alvin is forced to realize just how much he has been annoying the audience… I mean Dave, by proxy. Not that any of this actually pulls through as the writing and acting aren’t quite strong enough to make the idea work too well. However, because this shows that the writers are actually trying this time around, this automatically is the best of the series so far. Don’t read too heavily into that, though.

The comedy, while a marked improvement, still reaches desperate levels on more than a few occasions. Maybe it’s just more embarrassing watching this three years after the fact, but the internet meme reference jokes are especially painful to sit through: Honey badger, double rainbow, Charlie Sheen “winning”? This is dangerously close to Seltzerberg style humour, a comparison I most certainly do not make lightly. This isn’t helped by the presence of Zoe, who is crazed without being engaging, a combination that should not be possible.

All in all, I will admit to being surprised that this wasn’t completely awful, but that doesn’t mean it’s particularly good either. Credit where it’s due for attempting to give some character growth, the improved music quality and a couple of moments that legitimately made me laugh, but this only makes it better than its predecessors, not exactly a high mark to reach. This series may have a while yet before I can call it “good”, but it’s at least showing signs of improvement. It’s worse than Red Tails as, even with its standard George Lucas writing faults, it still made for a more entertaining watch overall. However, this film still showed at least some effort was made, which honestly made it work better than The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The plot: [The Road Chip] As Dave gets closer to his girlfriend Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and the Chipmunks get closer to her vicious son Miles (Josh Green), Alvin and Miles realize that if the Dave and Samantha get married, they’ll be stuck with each other. Not wanting this to happening, they take a road trip to Miami, where Dave is producing music for pop star Ashley grey (Bella Thorne), to stop him from proposing.

After being pleased about the lack of LMFAO in the last film, imagine my chagrin at seeing RedFoo in the first scene of the film. Sometimes, it actively feels like a film is taunting me. Other than that, this continues the previous film’s path of downplaying the song covers and the music in general. While kind of strange, and ultimately making the idea of another Chipmunks movie redundant, the music is usually weak anyway so I won’t complain too much. That said, the music here is honestly a lot better than I was expecting. While a lot of the songs are bland and pretty forgettable, this film totally makes up for it in a single scene. Now, full disclosure here, the main reason I was dreading this film was because of how badly they butchered Uptown Funk in the trailer; if you can make that song sound bad, you’re in deep trouble. Then the actual scene with Uptown Funk happens in the film and, between the genuine energy on-screen and the brass-heavy instrumentation, I actually… enjoyed myself? Yeah, probably the last thing I was expecting to think while watching a Chipmunks film, but it happened. Based on that alone, the music checks out with me.

This is a road trip movie, so plot isn’t important in comparison to the set pieces that take place during it. Honestly, it’s just the same schtick from the last three films for most of it: Alvin causes mischief, Simon is the straight man and Theodore talks about food; set on shuffle for 90 minutes and you’re sorted. To shake things up at least a little, we have the initially sadistic Miles, whose personality slowly disappears the more he warms up to the Chipmunks, Bella Thorne as Ashley showing up in a couple of scenes (and not singing, despite playing a pop star) and barely featuring the Chippettes. Yeah, they’re hosting American Idol for most of the film, save for the obligatory musical number at the end, and completely absent from the events of the film. Means less flat characters to write for, so that ultimately ends up doing the film a service.

That also means that there is more room for Agent Suggs, who is easily the best part of the movie. Rather than just go through the film like he’s just doing it for the pay check like David Cross did, Tony Hale gives a Christopher Walken in The Country Bears performance and plays it dead straight. Thanks to how well he manages with his lines, he immediately raises the mood of every scene he’s in; he kind of makes the film worth watching just for him alone. Oh, and to see John Waters in a cameo where they name-drop Pink Flamingos. You know what, I’d normally question what kind of parents/kids it would take to get that reference, but I’ll let it pass because that was probably the funniest part of the entire film.

All in all, I can’t believe I’m about to say this but this was actually not that bad. The music, when we actually get it, is passable and even legitimately good in parts; good to see Mark Mothersbaugh start to redeem himself, given what else he’s been attached to lately. The jokes are only just above par for the series as a whole but, thanks to Agent Suggs carrying this film on his back in his scenes, I’d almost recommend this film just to see Tony Hale be entertainingly insane for every scene he’s in. Almost. It’s worse than Dumb & Dumber To, as this has nowhere near the kind of comedic timing or even intellect of that film. However, since the few good points about this film are legitimately good, this still fares better than the anti-musical Strange Magic.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Movie Review: The Ridiculous Six/Suffragette (2015)

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I hate Rotten Tomatoes. Despite how it’s widely considered to be a good barometer for how good/bad a film is, it’s surprisingly broken if you actually look at the scores. Some of the reviews that are listed as Fresh or Rotten, if you actually look at even the blurbs on the site itself, are extremely arbitrary, the actual overall score is tucked away underneath the big percentage rate, and said percentage only amounts to how many people liked a film vs. disliked a film. Not how much, just whichever way their opinion falls. For a site that’s meant to help show an overall opinion, being misleading is probably the worst thing you can do. However, with that said, they are especially good in one certain area: The 0%; the films that absolutely no-one defended. Given how this illustrious list includes films like C Me Dance, Fred: The Movie, A Thousand Words and Keith Lemon: The Film, easily some of the worst films I’ve ever seen, that integer still carries a lot of weight. So, what does that say when today’s subject is only one of the three released by Happy Madison Productions to have received a 0%? I mean, that’s means that this is even worse than The Master Of Disguise, That’s My Boy and Paul Blart: Mall Cop, among so many others? Is this truly that bad? Time to, reluctantly, find out. This is The Ridiculous Six.

The plot: Tommy Stockburn (Adam Sandler) is a white man who has been raised by Native Americans under the name ‘White Knife’, after his mother was killed by an outlaw. When his estranged father Frank (Nick Nolte) arrives in his village, and is subsequently kidnapped by Frank’s former partner-in-crime Cicero (Danny Trejo), Tommy sets out to obtain enough money to secure his freedom. Along the way, he comes across five of his half-brothers: Burro rider Ramon (Rob Schneider), farm hand Lil’ Pete (Taylor Lautner), mountain man Herm (Jorge Garcia), former Presidential bodyguard Danny (Luke Wilson) and saloon musician Chico (Terry Crews). Together, the Ridiculous Six set a blazing trail across the West, robbing every do-no-gooder they come across.

This is easily the most literal one-joke cast of so-called characters I’ve seen all year; not even Superfast! was this bad. We’ve got Sandler as the badass knife-slinger with Native American powers, because it’d be a true miracle if he didn’t stroke his own ego in one of his own films (not to mention his wife Jackie as Never Wears Bra), Lautner as Simple Jack with even less dignity, and Schneider as Ramon, the Mexican who lugs around a donkey with diarrhea. Then there’s the just-plain weird ideas, like John Turturro as Abner Doubleday who spends his entire scene inventing baseball, and Vanilla Ice as a gangsta posturing Mark Twain. Rather than simply point out how all of these characters are bizarre, and not in any of the good ways, I’m going to throw this film its ounce of mercy and say that some of these characters could have worked in better hands. Wilson as Danny could’ve made for some funny moments given his backstory, and Crews is usually a saving grace in any film he’s in, and even Harvey Keitel’s bar owner was at least semi-engaging for the one segment he was in. However, this isn’t the League Of Gentlemen we’re talking about here, who are more than capable of turning basic one-note caricatures into truly fleshed out characters; this is Happy Madison territory. Quite frankly, I should be thankful that Sandler is able to play the straight man as well as he does throughout this film, making for the only consistently watchable performance in the entire production.

There is no plot here. Despite whatever synopsis I gave earlier, there is no actual logical progression of events to be seen here. Instead, it’s like Sandler and co-writer Tim Herlihy had a bunch of ideas for gags in a Western setting and just constructed the robbery angle to string them all together. It’s more video game than film in terms of plot: PCs need X amount of money, follow path given through clues by NPCs while robbing towns till you reach X. Now, once again, this would be perfectly fine if it weren’t for two key problems. First off, some of these one-off scenes are insanely out-of-place. Some of them like the poker game with General Custer (David Spade) and Mark Twain are surreal, but acceptable. The whole baseball sequence is incredibly jarring, even for how silly the rest of the film is, and ends up doing nothing more than putting another nail into John Turturro’s career as an actor.

The other problem is one that you probably would have guessed as soon as the words ‘Adam Sandler’ were brought up: It’s not funny. Actually, scratch that, it isn’t just that it’s not funny; it’s that this is that special brand of not funny that constantly sabotages its own jokes. Whenever there was even the slightest inkling of a good joke and/or punchline, it is dragged out to the point of no jocular return and then dragged even further to make sure that even the back row got the joke. Insert your own snipe about the intelligence levels of people who watch Happy Madison productions and them needing to have the joke explained here because, unlike an unsettling amount of critics out there, I’m not so big an asshole as to call people stupid and/or retarded because of their tastes in pop culture.

Okay… need to take a breather. How about we discuss the supposed ‘message’ behind this film? Between Tommy’s upbringing to the ethnic diversity of the Ridiculous Six itself, it seems to want to make some sort of statement about the racist attitudes of the time, or even those shown by past Western cinema. However, much like when Sandler tried to use his comedy for a better social purpose with I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, this indulges in those same stereotypes far too much to make any pretence of commentary viable. Between all the sexist, racist and even ableist gags used throughout, it feels more like the attempts at ‘satire’ are more like a scapegoat so that Sandler can do the exact same thing over again like he has with some of his worse films.

All in all, this is not a 0%. To say that this film is worse than the shockingly offensive That’s My Boy or the excruciatingly vacuous Paul Blart: Mall Cop is laughable. However, that by no means makes this a good film. Out of all the Happy Madison productions I’ve seen this year, even those that I stepped up to defend in whatever small way, this is easily the worst. Between its lazy characterization, its abysmal pacing and jarring tonal shifts, there is literally nothing to be salvaged from this aside from a couple of barely-audible chuckles. It’s worse than The Wedding Ringer, as that film at least had a decent stretch of watchable content; this just coasts on lameness for its two-hour running time. However, this wasn’t nearly as draining to sit through as Aloha.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Movie Review: The Death Of "Superman Lives": What Happened?/Daddy's Home (2015)



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Every year, thousands of films go into production all over the world. Some get global releases, others are more local, some go straight-to-DVD, others to online outlets, and some just don’t get released at all or, at the very least, get delayed countless times from being released. But then there are times when, for one reason or another, production just stops dead. All that work done by the numerous cast and crew members to realizing an artistic vision, all those man hours that goes into the concepts and attempts to actualize them, all that potential for could very well be a masterpiece; just gone to pot. There are a lot of stories like this, particularly in the realm of superhero movies: The third Joel Schumacher-helmed Batman film with Courtney Love as Harley Quinn; the Green Lantern film starring Jack Black in the lead role; all those Spider-Man spin-offs and sequels Sony had planned before Amazing Spider-Man 2 turned off the entire world. However, far more than any other, there is one story that has captured the minds of a lot of film and comic book geeks: A collaboration between the poster child for modern-day Goths, the biggest comic geek-turned-filmmaker and an actor known for his legendary scenery-chewing. This is The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?

The plot: In 1996, Kevin Smith approached producer Jon Peters with a different take on a Superman film, based on a subpar script he had obtained called ‘Superman Reborn’. Based off of the classic Superman comic book story ‘The Death Of Superman’, it was set to have Tim Burton as director and Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel himself. Director Jon Schnepp, through access to the many writers and conceptual artists that were attached to the film as well as the original artworks, looks into the behind-the-scenes story of Superman Lives, the film that was never was.

There were three key writers involved in the production of Superman Lives: Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick who wrote not only the Doom movie but also the Nightmare On Elm Street remake, and Dan Gilroy, who wowed everyone with his work on Nightcrawler last year. Knowing Smith’s history concerning his Q&As and the fascinating stories he has to tell, bringing him on to talk for a documentary is already an amazing step forward. He recounts his now-infamous story about meeting Jon Peters and his reactions to the guy’s phenomenally weird and pretty stupid ideas, only now we have footage of Peters himself corroborating most of it. Something about the notion that Peters legitimately wanted a giant spider fighting Superman or polar bears fighting Brainiac or that he would have liked Tim Burton’s Batman to have the titular hero say “I’m Batman, motherfucker!” is instantly hilarious. Strick gives some decent tidbits about his involvement in the crux of the film’s production after Smith had left, but he does seem to fall in-between two far more interesting interviewees because Gilroy gives some great insight into why production ultimately got pulled. Considering how badly Warner Bros. was doing financially at the time, and how much of a risk they were taking on Burton’s vision of Superman at the budget they had projected, it unfortunately makes sense that it didn’t go forward.

Since this film largely exists in the conceptual stage, it makes sense that a lot of the original conceptual artists would be asked to give their two cents on the production. This is easily the most fascinating aspect of the film, as the audience is given a surprisingly in-depth look into what ideas were being put into it. The concept art showed a lot of promise for what would have been at the very least an interesting take on the character, which is helped by some animation and even a bit of live-action re-enactments of some of the more visual ideas. Said live-action segments literally look like they were filmed alongside an episode of the Nostalgia Critic, but that attempt to visually present those ideas for consumption is appreciated nonetheless. The amount of effort that was put into the suit alone is great to watch, as they detail the different materials and lighting configurations that, when you see the suit itself, actually look pretty damn good. Like, even considering this was all done during the late 90’s, this holds up. It also helps that there is no bias when it comes to what ideas are presented in the documentary, as we get a good sampling of the good (Drawings for Krypton), bad (early concepts for the black Kryptonian suit) and just plain weird (Brainiac with Christopher Walken’s face).

Were it that this film was made, it certainly would’ve been a paradigm shifter given how ambitious it is. However, what makes this even more compelling is just how influential this non-existent film has become if you really think about it. A lot of the concepts for Brainiac where he is essentially a human head with spider legs ended up being used in another fashion, given how Humma Kavula turned out in the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy movie. Kevin Spacey was originally slated to be Lex Luthor, a role he would end up taking in Superman Returns and ultimately becoming the best part of that entire film. But probably the most telling, and the reason why this film was released at easily the best time possible, is the approach to Superman himself. The crew behind the production clearly wanted to create a darker version of Superman than people were used to, similar to what Burton himself did with Batman. This idea of treating Superman the same way they did Batman, at the end of the day, is the same mindset that went into 2013’s Man Of Steel as well as the upcoming Batman Vs. Superman film. Burton did agree to the project because, given how Superman is more a creature of sunlight than the gloomier characters that he is used to, he wanted to challenge himself and learn from the experience. However, that doesn’t affect how that aspect still remains in a lot of what the other interviewees mentioned: A darker, possibly grittier version of the character that would be based on a story line where the character would die. Given how badly Man Of Steel turned out, and how extremely disheartening BVS looks just from the trailers, it’s kind of disheartening that this didn’t get made but that film is going ahead.

All in all, this is an utterly fascinating look into the filmmaking process for a film that, unfortunately, didn’t even get to the stage of filming. The use of concept art and expert use of editing (seriously, this might be the best edited film of the year) to further illustrate what the film could have looked like is excellently handled, the interviewees all bring interesting quips about its background and the timing, given how close we are to the latest iteration of Superman on film, couldn’t have been better. For those with any interest in what goes on behind-the-scenes for a film, or just those that wondered how Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel could’ve gone, I highly recommend checking this one out. It’s better than Straight Outta Compton, purely based on how well this did at portraying a story that never reached its finale as opposed to dramatizing a true event. However, it ranks just below Truth because, as well-constructed as this film is, it falls short of the genuinely amazing dialogue of that film.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Movie Review: X+Y/Joy (2015)


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When a person is discovered to have what is considered above-average intelligence, there is a certain expectation that they will fulfill their potential. Now, to a degree, this is understandable: Knowing how many truly stupid people exist in the world, it really would be a shame if someone with genuine intellect would just let it go to waste. But then, there’s the side effects that that kind of expectation can have on the person in question. I remember my last day of Year 10 excruciatingly well, as probably one of the best and one of the worst of my entire school career. Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I managed to top the class in my English School Certificate. The next year, I was “heavily advised” to go into the Advanced class, despite my best wishes. This would end up culminating in my HSC two years later, which officially broke me because not only was it clearly beyond my abilities, but that I was expected to pass it by my teachers. Sure, hindsight is a miracle worker and let me understand that all that work really doesn’t mean jack shit later on in life, but in a vacuum it is a horrific experience. Keep that idea of the supposed responsibility to one’s own intelligence as we get into today’s subject. This is X+Y, otherwise known as A Brilliant Young Mind.

The plot: Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is a teenaged mathematics prodigy, whose main goal is to make it into the International Mathematics Olympiad. With the tutelage of former maths Olympian Martin (Rafe Spall) and the support of his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), he makes it to a maths camp that will decide if he is one of the six to make it to the IMO. However, when confronted with others like him, he finds that he may not be ready for the social possibilities presented to him.

Asa Butterfield previously knocked the socks off of the critical masses with his turn as the lead in Hugo, probably making for one of the best showcases for child acting in recent memory. Thankfully, he hasn’t lost an inch of his touch, as he portrays Nathan’s social disconnection and confusion of the world around him expertly. Edward Baker-Close does a terrific job as the younger Nathan, showing a real-life sense of naivety and freshly learning about the world that would go on to confuse him later on in life. Rafe Spall makes for a more rattled mentor role than is usually seen in what is essentially a sports movie, balancing aloofness with a hint of tragedy surprisingly well; good to see his experience with Edgar Wright hasn’t gone to waste.

Detailing a teenager’s social inadequacies is hardly anything new for the realms of coming-of-age cinema. However, what genuinely impresses with this film is how honed-in it feels. I’ve seen how adults act when they are trying to show that they approachable to run-of-the-mill teens, let alone teens who have diagnosed on the spectrum. This doesn’t carry any of that hokeyness nor feel like it’s aiming for what it can’t reach. Instead, through Butterfield’s down-played performance coupled with the atmosphere afforded him by the camera work, editing and score, we get a real sense of a kid who doesn’t fit into social circles. The film ties a lot of the actions of the characters into the idea of patterns and recurrence, beyond just the realm of mathematics, and how people feel most comfortable when they established their own. Through Nathan, we see the comfort he takes in solving mathematical equations, and through Martin, we get something more self-destructive in a downward spiral with his lack of self-worth and dependency on pharmaceuticals. We also see how changes in said patterns can affect people who operate so heavily on routine, like those on the spectrum. Whether it’s seemingly minor changes, like flying overseas for the first time, or drastically major ones, like the loss of his father, it is a palpable feeling even for those who can’t exactly connect with it.

However, the big surprise of the whole production comes about in the form of one of the side characters, that being Luke Shelton played by Jake Davies. Now, from his first handful of scenes, he is shown as even more socially awkward than most others, coming across as cold and inflexible and, if I’m being honest, a bit of a prick. Really, he kept making me think of the almost inhuman socializing Sheldon from TBBT would partake in, and God knows that reminding me of that isn’t going to help anyone. Then, through a single scene involving him watching an old Monty Python skit on a computer, there is a total paradigm shift. Being considered clever brings with it a lot of pressure to fulfill what is considered to be your obligation to use your cleverness in schooling. Of course, there’s the fact that we are social creatures and, regardless of how we may come across, every one of us needs interaction with other people. If given the chance, I’m willing to bet that most people would give every bit of intellect they have, if only it meant that they could get along better with others. Hell, just because they’re in a room with people that are like them with similar interests, that doesn’t change the fact that that crippling shyness is still present.

What I’m getting at with all this is that, with how Luke is portrayed as trying to connect with the other mathletes, it should be reluctantly relatable for the more introverted audiences out there. Hell, given how much I’ve been cramming my days full of films to review over the last few weeks, that feeling of trying (and failing) to connect with people on terms that you feel most comfortable with really hits home. Through how he reacts to the pressure of not only succeeding academically, but also in the social sphere, Luke actually becomes the best character in the film; it’s undeniably tragic how badly he wants to fit in but, from all outward appearances, he seems to just hate everyone.

All in all, this is a deeply resonating emotional drama about the pressures that society places on people to use their God-given intellect and the attitudes that result from it. The acting is great, particularly from Butterfield and Davies and the writing portrays social anxiety brilliantly, balancing out the characters’ evident smarts with their lack of knowledge about interacting with others. This probably ranks higher with me because I still remember going through similar situations myself from a few years back, but that doesn’t negate how well executed the production is as a whole. It ranks higher than Secrets In Their Eyes, as the romance here feels a lot better set-up and has a far greater payoff. However, as much as I commend this film for compassionately portraying what are essentially First Brain Problems, Lead Me Astray for a more completely enthralling experience as an overall film.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Movie Review: Escobar: Paradise Lost/Nightmare On Elmo's Street (2015)


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It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which around here is going to involve keeping a promise I made about a year ago. Back when I reviewed Mockingjay Part 1, I brought today’s film and how I wanted to check it out based on the strength of Josh Hutcherson’s performance. Well, as I inch closer to the end of my December double feature-fest, I figure now is as good a time as any to give it a try. This is Escobar: Paradise Lost.

The plot: Canadian surfer Nick (Josh Hutcherson) has moved to Colombia to help his brother Dylan (Brady Corbet) run a local surf camp. He soon falls for local girl Maria (Claudia Traisac), whom Nick later finds out is the niece of local drug runner Pablo Escobar (Benicio Del Toro). As their relationship grows more serious, Nick gets dragged further down into the world of crime that is Escobar’s terrain, making him question if the potential benefits are worth the prices he will have to pay.

This film feels like two separate ideas for the same story were sewn together at the middle, and they don’t mesh together in the best of ways nor does the film as a whole commence on the best foot. It basically starts out like your standard romance that just happens to have Pablo Escobar involved in it; Benicio Del Toro’s performance is good but, especially when compared to his work in Sicario earlier this year, it’s nothing too special. Not only that, Hutcherson as Nick doesn’t leave much of an impression either; he’s not bad but, for the first half, he just plays spectator for the events happening around him. His relationship with Maria also feels undercooked, playing out like yet another teen romance without much meat on the bones.

Then we get past the halfway point, and the film suddenly picks up tremendously. As we pick back up where the cold opening left off, with Nick being asked to kill someone, it not only feels like we’ve stepped into a different movie but a substantially better one as well. The bum-rush pace gains some stability, making the very dark events that take place feel a lot more stable. Del Toro’s previously bubbling menace gets pushed over the cliff, resulting in a genuinely unnerving antagonist. Hutcherson gets to tap into some proper emotional distress as his character cracks under the pressure of his circumstances, bringing back shades of what made his performance so strong in both parts of Mockingjay. This is honestly kind of surprising since the starting point of the film’s uphill climb, the confrontation between Nick and the person he has to kill, is a bit wonky. The script bluntly brings up how he has a wife and child in a bid to make Nick reconsider his actions, and show the audience what the dangers of what he has to do for Escobar. This would have been fine if it didn’t feel like it was being brought up solely to raise dramatic tension, rather than for legitimate character reasons.

Anyway, despite that hollowness, the proceeding hour of film is really damn good. Hutcherson’s performance as he frantically tries to get to his family and friends before Escobar’s men do is palpable and very intense. This is heightened by the direction, which combines fluid movements that show how Nick evades the cartel with optimal camera work, particularly the framing in the scene where he has a cover over him as he hides in a car. As we see Nick make his way from landline to landline, contacting people to try and tell them to get out of Dodge quickly, the inevitable outcomes for most of them hits like a brick thanks to the acting that I can’t stop gushing over and Max Richter’s ideal score. This all leads to a climactic encounter that, while diminished a bit by the epilogue, serves as a near-perfect finale for the tragic events that have transpired over the film’s final act.

All in all, while the first half is honestly pretty underwhelming, the second more than makes up for it as the stakes get raised and the acting improves alongside them. Hutcherson brings back that intensity that first grabbed my attention in the Hunger Games films and Del Toro shows more menace that he has built a healthy reputation for, while the writing around them shows just how dire Nick’s situation is and what he has to do to survive. It’s better than Last Cab To Darwin, which also has similar problems involving inconsistency but this film wins out because all that makes it good is saved for the end, making the film as a whole worth sitting through. However, since this really only amounts to a literal half of a good film, it falls short of Tangerine. Sure, that had tonal issues, but what made that film work kept working throughout its running time.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Movie Review: Dilwale/Loving A Vegetable (2015)


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I’m kind of surprised and, honestly, kind of disappointed that it’s taken me this long into the year to talk about another Bollywood movie. Given how we had not one but three arrive at my local last year, I honestly thought that we’d get more coming in this year. However, probably as a result of the release drought in response to no-one wanting to directly to compete with Star Wars, as well as the mass releases on Christmas Day, this is one of the few new releases that have come in in the last few weeks. Well, even given my admittedly limited exposure to Indian cinema, I reckon I’ve taken a look at a semi-decent sample: There was Kick, which started out shaky but ended up pretty good, there was Happy New Year, which was alright but a bit forgettable, and then there was PK, which was legitimately surprising in the best way possible. Time to see how today’s film measures up to the minor experience I’ve had previously: This is Dilwale.

The plot: Veer (Varun Dhawan) is a mechanic who works with his brother Raj (Shah Rukh Khan), whose repair shop is frequently getting robbed as well as being shaken down local crime boss King (Boman Irani). He finds himself falling in love with Ishita (Kriti Sanon) but, because of a previous incident involving a woman named Meera (Kajol) that ended badly, Raj doesn’t want him doing anything stupid. In the ensuing conflict, we see both sides trying to make up/break up the relationships around them.

I had the ‘privilege’ to see this in a theatre where the guy working the sound system was apparently asleep at the wheel, since the volume was roughly fifty times louder than any other film I’d seen previously at my local. I’m just going to chalk that up to a fault with the cinema rather than the film itself just to be safe, although the sound design in this thing is extremely annoying regardless of that point. Not since Inspector Gadget have I heard a film be this obnoxious when it comes to its sound effects; it’s at the point where they actually think playing the ‘wah-wah-wah’ trombone sans irony was a good idea. However, even that would be excusable if it weren’t for the random I-can-only-assumed-to-be-comedic noises that are littered throughout the film. Of course, this is nothing compared to what happens during the ‘dramatic’ scenes, where things actually start to become funny… for a time, at least. There’s a scene that features a slew of dramatic revelations said one right after the other, and all of them have a dramatic music sting right after them. These get exceptionally soap-opera in how melodramatic they are, but they are made even worse by how badly the music wants us to take them seriously. But even the ironic comedy value is short-lived since, for as funny as it is the first time they do it, it is significantly less humourous the tenth or eleventh time it’s done in the space of a single minute.

The premise is pretty convoluted and the star-crossed lovers aspect has been done to death; however, that isn’t what makes this plot fail. Instead, it’s because of just how badly the relationships are written, even the platonic ones. Everyone comes across as incredibly naïve or insultingly hypocritical towards each other. For some reason, characters are more than willing to forgive each other for stealing from right under their noses or nearly getting someone killed. It gets that hokey that I kept expecting one of them to go full Ferris Bueller and admit that they were faking it; if only this film was that self-aware. Then there’s the main relationship between Raj and Meera, which consists mainly of alternating acts of rampant double-crossing, and then somehow acting surprised when the other person acts cold towards them for it. Don’t get me wrong, Shah Rukh Khan is very good at badass portrayals of coldness, as he showed last year with Happy New Year, but it doesn’t work nearly as well here because of the dickish context it’s given. Then there’s the classic ‘conflict fuelled by misunderstanding/lie’, which reduces the film to just being yet another ticking reconciliation clock that makes everything around it feel like a drag.

Speaking of everything surrounding the main plot, this film has an extremely weak sense of humour, not to mention desperate. How desperate, I hope you’re not asking a page full of text? Try “Just because he’s fast doesn’t mean you have to be furious” and “Dude, where’s my car?” I think my facepalm in the theatre resonated through the entire cinema, I did it so hard after hearing those lines. Then there’s the outright bizarre dialogue choices, like the fence Oscar who talks in a mangled version of rhyming slang; it’s not funny, it just makes him sound like a Berkshire Hunt. Or the scene that involves a hefty amount of bullshitting in the form of using whatever is on a nearby TV to construct their story, because that’s something that needed to be brought back.

What makes all of this film’s faults that much more irritating is that, every few scenes, something comes along that actually looks good. The fight scenes, while a little too flashy in their editing and wonky in their choreography, are nice and visceral when we actually get them. Raj and Meera’s five minute date is well shot, looking like something from a stage production that manages to translate well to film. And the musical numbers, while a bit lacklustre in terms of the actual music, are definitely shot with a certain level of ambition and damn good use of landscape. Save for the final sequence which is played during the credits; it was done in a hurry and, both visually and aurally, it shows.

All in all, this is a right ol’ mess. The sound design is shoddy, the acting is very off in places, the properly entertaining moments are few and far between and the plot is up there with some of the most insipid rom-coms I’ve had to sit through in the name of these reviews. It is admittedly good to see Shah Rukh Khan on screen again, and when he gets a chance to he definitely impresses, but he sadly isn’t enough to rescue the rest of the film around him. It’s worse than Strange Magic as, while both definitely have their moments that are unintentionally hilarious, that film didn’t manage to sabotage itself in that regard whereas this film did. However, since this doesn’t reek of missed opportunities as the plot doesn’t offer nearly enough of them, it fares better than Poltergeist.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Movie Review: Clouds Of Sils Maria/Slow West (2015)



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Back when I reviewed Still Alice, I found myself unable to remove the mental association about SWIMNOT’s involvement in the Twilight films. Looking back on it, I definitely ended up doing her a disservice and treated her largely as a punchline. Given her work as Bella Swan, that is probably to be expected to a certain degree as that is definitely the kind of film series that is custom-made to damage careers. However, after seeing her outright impressive turn in American Ultra, I think we’ve reached the point where she has earned her place as a legitimate actor. So, as we take another look into this indie Cinderella story, and if that sounds trite forgive me for picking the most appropriate phrase possible, I’m putting an official embargo on Twilight jokes. This is Clouds Of Sils Maria.

The plot: Maria (Juliette Binoche) is a famous actress of stage and screen, having gotten her start in both the play and film versions of Maloja Snake by Swiss playwright Wilhelm Melchior. However, in the wake of the sudden news of Wilhelm’s death reaches her shortly before an award ceremony that he was meant to win, a theatre director approaches her to once again perform in a rendition of Maloja Snake. Only this time, instead of playing the younger Sigrid as she did all those years ago, she is to play her older counterpart Helena. As she reads through her lines with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), and comes to terms with the renegade actress Jo-Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) that will starring opposite her, she begins to realize just how much she holds dear when it comes to this role.

Playing around with the boundaries of reality is certainly nothing new in the realm of film. After all, what is cinema but convincing people of a false reality for a 90-or-so minute duration? This film does much the same, only in a refreshingly subtler way than usual. Whenever the line between fiction and reality is blurred, like with the works of Satoshi Kon or Charlie Kaufman, it’s done with a psychological bent that is meant to actively make the audience question what the reality of the film actually is. Here, by contrast, it’s done in a more immediate sense, meant to directly draw the audience’s attention to the line while keeping it as distinct as possible. Basically, the main way it is accomplished here isn’t to confuse the audience; it’s more to show just how good the actors are, both in and out of the film’s universe. When Maria and Valentine are doing line reads for the play, through the clever writing as well as the phenomenal acting from Binoche and Stewart, the parallels that are drawn make for impressive set pieces. The reason why the acting works as well as it does is that it makes for incredibly smooth transitions between them reading lines from the play and them just talking, yet doesn’t make either line of discussion feel stilted. It’s incredibly natural both ways, which gives credence to Maria’s abilities as an actress as well as to the story of the film overall. They even manage to generate comedy out of the frustration Maria feels about flubbing her lines.

Since the comparison is pretty much inevitable, I’ll make the one and only Birdman comparison here and now. While Riggan’s ego was about staying true to himself and doing what he believed was right, Maria’s ego is about staying true to not only herself but also the legacy of her role. The core of the film, that being Maria returning to perform a role opposite the one that made her famous, is a surprisingly prevalent tradition with more classical actors: John Gielgud went from playing Cassius to the emperor he plotted to kill in two separate versions of Julius Caesar, and John Hurt went from protagonist Winston Smith in 1984 to antagonist Adam Sutler in the 1984-esque V For Vendetta adaptation. Here, through her difficulties in dealing with her shifted perspective in a story that means something very dear to her, she is not only dealing with a straight-up mirror of how much time has passed but also trying to reconcile all of it so that not only her own legacy is upheld, but also that of the writer/director Wilhelm Melchior.

Then there’s the differing stances on that fictional line on the other side of the screen, as we see how the audience responds to it. The centrepiece when it comes to this perspective is through a conversation between Maria, Valentine, Jo-Ann and her lover Christopher (Johnny Flynn). Both Jo-Ann and Chris admire Maria, but in different ways. Jo-Ann isolates a film that she did with Harrison Ford, where her performance was that emotionally effecting that it is what drove her to become an actress. Chris, on the other hand, brings up seeing her at a screening of one of her earlier French films and brings something she said in response to a question that he found inspiring. That lack of bias when it comes to where and how an artist affects the audience and which is more important is also shown through how Maria and Valentine react to Jo-Ann’s latest film, a rather astute send-up of modern superhero flicks. Valentine shows a certain understanding of Jo-Ann’s character and her emotional woes, whereas Maria sees it as pop psychology hidden under a patently absurd premise. Neither of them are right, and neither of them are wrong because they don’t exist when it comes to the effect of art, particularly cinema. A lot of the dialogue involves differing interpretations of certain texts, mainly the play at the centre of everything, and it never comes across like some or any of these characters were written to abjectly “not get it”; instead, they just give differing opinions and, in most cases, give adequate reasons for why that is. Even the titles used enforce this: the fictional play Maloja Snake and the actual film Clouds Of Sils Maria are referring to the exact same thing, just worded differently.

There’s also some screen time devoted to different brands of reality outside of film and theatre. When dealing with a film that focuses on actor ego, it’d be surprising if it didn’t deal with celebrity news in one form or another. For the most part, despite how she’s on screen nearly as much as Stewart or Binoche, it’s centred on Jo-Ann’s character. We see her attitudes to the paparazzi and the reasons why she is doing the projects she’s doing, but probably the sharpest point made is how she is seen by the rest of the world, Maria and Valentine in particular. Jo-Ann, from how the tabloids, interviews and film panels portray her, is a rebellious teen in that ex-Disney sort of way; it feels like she’s overcompensating for some sort of pre-existing image that she wants to shed. However, Valentine takes an immediate shine to her because of the fact that she is so abrasive and, after she sees more footage of her online, Maria starts to understand that mindset and reciprocate it. It definitely mirrors how some people view Kanye West in today’s day and age: Yeah, he’s an asshole, but some people love him as this cult of personality because he’s such an asshole; he’s entertaining in a different way from everyone else. Hell, so long as an artist keeps making good content, it ultimately doesn’t matter how they are in the real world; they make works of fiction, not autobiography.

All in all, this film has astounding respect for the art of acting, both for the artist and the audience. It takes a look at the boundary between what is real and what is acted out, how they both can affect people on similar levels and, by film’s end, realize that it ultimately shouldn’t matter how and where inspiration comes from. As someone who has learnt an awful lot from the world of fiction, I have immense respect for this kind of message, especially when it’s delivered with writing this sharp and acting this resonant. It’s better than Avengers: Age Of Ultron, as no part of this film felt unfulfilling… save for maybe the ending, which kind of betrays the approach about not going the abstract route. However, even though both films are probably on par when it comes to how well they’re written, Mr. Holmes just hit harder emotionally.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Movie Review: The Guest/Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)

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It genuinely pains me to do this but, when faced with two films that I can’t really conjure that strong a stance on, I’m almost forced to do it. It’s time for a more slapshod double feature review than I ever expected I would make this month, as I look at The Guest and Far From The Madding Crowd.

The Guest

Dan Stevens has never really struck me as that captivating an actor. I barely even remember him in A Walk Among The Tombstones and he didn’t really rise above the one-joke role he was given for The Cobbler. The only time I can vividly remember a performance of his would be from Night At The Museum 3 as Sir Lancelot, but I’d probably that chalk up to him being pretty much the only interesting character in that entire film. Well, I think I need to pay a bit closer attention to him in future because he is stone-cold fantastic in this film. He goes through every scene he has in the first two acts like he’s too cool for the room and knows it: His poise, his calm demeanour, his ability to handle himself in a fight; he just oozes badass from every pore. Yet, at the same time, it’s very clear that there is something very off about him; the way he acts when he’s on his own in the frame, coupled with the awesome 80’s throwback soundtrack, makes him look like he’s coming up with a dozen ways to kill everyone within a five-mile radius just in case he needs it. Then the third act kicks in and, while maintaining his stoic presence, he delves into the more action film villain side of his character and adds some pants-wetting to the cooing over just how awesome he is.

After seeing two other so-called ‘thrillers’ with similar plots about dangerous house guests this year, it’s genuinely nice to know that there’s a film that actually does it right. For a start, the acting is strong enough to carry out the idea: Outside of Stevens embodying charm for 100 minutes, Maika Munroe from It Follows delivers yet another great performance as the intrigued but cautious Anna and Brendan Meyer works really damn well as the rather nuanced Luke. Luke’s character and his reaction to the truth about David, in a weird way, echoes how the audience is experiencing the events of the film: He doesn’t try and deny that David is a bad guy, but he’s just that cool that he’s willing to overlook it to remain his friend.

For another, the plot follows a reasonable progression and, while getting a bit cluttered in the third act, works nicely as one of the few action-thrillers that’s come out recently that actually pays off on both ends. It doesn’t have any of the hokey or just plain hateful characterization that plagued those other films. The thrills are stable and quite gripping, even during the bizarre haunted house sequence at the end, and the action scenes are hard-hitting and rather brutal, yet never get too gratuitous and exploitative; it hits that sweet spot. It also benefits from not trying to completely detail David’s backstory, going into just enough detail to have it make sense but not to the point of bogging the film down. Given how a previous cut of the film did detail it further, while I do admit being a bit curious, that lack of mystique might have made me appreciate David Collins slightly less.

Probably this film’s greatest strength, aside from Stevens, is its dark sense of humour. Part of why David’s character works as well as it does is that the script has enough awareness to not take itself too seriously. Probably the biggest example of this, and also the funniest moment in the film, is when Laura and David meet with Luke’s school principal. Without spoiling it, it kind of plays like more anti-PC gold that is delivered and written brilliantly. Between that, the aforementioned haunted house and the in-universe character who follows real-world logic of rooting for the villain despite how scummy he is (until he just goes too damn far), it’s tongue-in-cheek enough to allow for actual fun without pretending to be smarter than it is, yet mature enough to make the scarier moments work.

All in all, this is a very fun action thriller, with a solid cast and expert balancing of both the flashier fight scenes and the tenser suspenseful moments. All the points go to Dan Stevens, whose portrayal of David feels like the Jason Statham role that we should have gotten in The Transporter Refueled but never did. It’s better than While We’re Young which, despite being a bit deeper in terms of writing, isn’t as consistently good as this was; no cheapness to undermine it. However, even if the main character isn’t nearly as good, American Ultra made for a more entertaining watch overall.

Far From The Madding Crowd

There’s a recurring trend among filmmakers with lower-than-low-budget beginnings that, once they start being given reasonable wallets to work with, they probably make the best use of it of all their peers. Think Peter Jackson's Braindead beginnings, and then look at how he handled Tolkien. Enter Thomas Vinterberg, probably best remembered for his contributions to the Dutch filmmaking movement Dogme 95, who does a masterful job at staging every single scene in this film. From the set locations to the costuming to the wide use of space to show off the beautiful countryside, this is a drop-dead gorgeous looking production. I mean, when even a simple scene of a man walking on a beach front looks like it had very clear time and effort put into it, credit needs to be given where it’s due. This also goes for the cast, particularly Carey Mulligan who does a great job as Bethsheba. Even if it feels like certain dramatic opportunities haven’t been afforded her, she embodies the ahead-of-its-time strong female character that Thomas Hardy was best known for; certainly does better than the last time she portrayed the female lead in a film based on a classic work of literature. I swear, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Baz Luhrmann for his butchering of The Great Gatsby.

And speaking of actors from far lesser adaptations of novels, we have Michael Sheen as one of Bethsheba’s male suitors. As much as I applaud this more theatrical actor for showing his skills in something that isn’t Twilight: Breaking Dawn, I really hate to admit it but I liked him better in Breaking Dawn. Don’t get me wrong, he’s far better written here and acted with a lot more dignity, but he doesn’t have nearly as much impact here as he should. And, at the end of the day, that’s the biggest problem this film has: For as immaculately produced and well-acted this film is, it really doesn’t leave that much of a lasting impression. I’ll freely admit that I’m not as familiar with the original novel as I am with Hardy’s other masterpiece Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, having studied it like so many other high school students did, but this story doesn’t feel like it has the immediacy that it should. Just glancing at the CliffNotes for the novel, because let’s face it everyone with access to the Internet did when they were looking at it, the story shows a lot of promise for drama/melodrama that isn’t cashed in on. Juno Temple’s Fanny Robbin is probably the best realized character, embodying the sense of tragedy and unfairness that pervades the era, but even then the obvious reactions to what happens to her aren’t shown.

All in all, while undeniably well made, it just barely registers out of a certain lack of narrative direction and just good acting. That last one particularly sucks because, having seen them in other works, the cast here is genuinely capable of making this work. It’s better than Ricki And The Flash, as this doesn’t have nearly as many narrative progression issues. However, purely in terms of engagement, Oddball honestly made for a more fulfilling watch, goofiness and all.