Month: June 2013

The Impossible (2012)

During the Christmas of 2004, the third largest earthquake ever recorded triggered a huge tsunami in the Indian Ocean which took the lives of over 200,000 people and affected countless more. The Impossible seeks to explore the sheer horror and magnitude of the real life catastrophe by affixing the audience into the lives and emotional experience of one particular family, who find themselves split in half after the wave’s initial impact with their holiday resort in Thailand.

The Bennett family, led by mother and father Maria (Noami Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor), are based on the real life family of María Belón and Enrique Alvárez , with the former being heavily involved in the film’s production. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and many others involved with the making of The Impossible have cited the universality of the story being told as the reason for not specifying the nationality of the original Spanish family in the film (there is some clunky dialogue in the beginning to try and paint the family as origin-less, travellers without a definite home – although they are quite clearly British). It’s a contentious issue, one which we don’t feel entirely qualified to delve into at great length. We were certainly worried in the film’s opening that The Impossible would be an entirely white, middle-class experience of a tragedy that affected people of all walks of life, something not entirely helped by the less than subtle allusions to the family dynamics in the introductory scenes. Mother is a doctor who won’t let her eldest son drink a sugary coke when there’s perfectly fine water to be had, whilst husband and wife debate on the plane as to whether they set the house alarm before they left. It’s all very hokey and awkward, but all signs of this disappear once the devastating waves make impact.

From here on out, The Impossible really finds its footing. The tsunami scenes are nauseating and claustrophobic, with the sheer brutality of the event never in question. Despite its frequent categorizing as such, The Impossible is not a disaster film. This is not an escapist piece of adrenaline-fuelled cinema without consequence or heart. This is a ruthless and visceral reconstruction of real life catastrophe in our recent memory. When tree branches pierce the skin of our heroes, they do not brush it off. We feel the impact as an audience. The mortality of Maria and her family is inescapably evident. Indeed, the three children’s realisation of their parents’ mortality is perhaps the strongest emotional through line in the film. The eldest boy Lucas (a confident and assured performance by youngster Tom Holland) finds the image of his mother in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami as she stands before him bleeding and exposed so shocking he turns away admitting “I can’t see you like this.” It’s a heartbreaking line that resonates throughout the narrative, especially when both parents admit to being scared to their children.

Ewan McGregor gives one of his best and most emotionally exhausting performances in recent memory, but the film’s strongest scenes lie with Watts and Holland as the isolated Maria and Lucas. This is no surprise, as the relationship between mothers and sons was expertly and beautifully handled by Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez in their previous collaboration, 2007’s The Orphanage. Also similar to that Spanish language film is The Impossible’s delicate balance between visceral horror and devastating emotional investment, with the narrative constantly teetering between both.

All in all, The Impossible rises above its clunky opening to deliver a disturbing and passionate account of a large scale disaster, which, whilst it focuses for the most part on one family, manages to convey also a heartwarming sense of community and strength in the face of adversity, whilst never diminishing the utter horror of such events.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013) (1623)

Well, doesn’t this feel like a gift? In between helming mega franchises, Joss Whedon has crafted this little, sex-comedy bauble. Shot in his own home on a $20,000 shoestring budget and starring a cast of trusted friends and seemingly anyone who was knocking about, Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is faithful to Shakespeare and still indelibly a part of the whedonverse. Fanboys will be sated.

Whedon has professed a love of Much Ado above Shakespeare’s other comedies, possibly explaining his decision to make this so relatively recently after Kenneth Branagh’s justifiably exalted version from 1993. Although, in a world where Spiderman origin stories exist  barely a decade apart, perhaps this isn’t such a shock. Whilst Branagh’s film was a bawdy, Tuscan romp (with Keanu as the bad guy), Whedon’s version is a tighter, more world weary vision, a careful observation of love shot through with pathos rather than a saucy seaside postcard if you will.

Ostensibly a play about Claudio (stoner from Cabin In The Woods) trying to secure Hero’s (new) hand in marriage despite the scheming machinations of Don John (doctor from Firefly), Much Ado is much more focused on getting sparring ex-lovers, Beatrice (Fred from Angel) and Benedick (mini-Giles from Angel) to fall in love despite their collective bitterness concerning the ideals of marriage. These plots are helped, hindered and investigated by Hero’s father, Leonato (SHIELD guy from The Avengers), Don Pedro (some guy from Dollhouse, which we never watched) and bumbling flatfoots, Dogberry (Firefly captain) and Verges (one of the nerd-herd from Buffy). This familiarity of cast is a stroke of genius as firstly, they worked for free and, secondly, for the warmth and comfort with which they deliver their lines, the cadences and syntax of Shakespeare’s flowery, old english rendered into twenty first century gossip and bickering, flowing as free as the ever present wine.

Whedon’s skill has always been in being fully aware of the rules of the genre he’s working within and subsequently subverting them gently, yet plausibly. Here, he takes Shakespeare, remains faithful, albeit with a cut here and there, and shoves it through his knowing prism, fracturing a brash comedy into a fragile, delicate, worried tramedy. He bravely leaves in a racist slur from the original, instead using it to highlight our discomfort and ability to turn a blind eye to such things. His decision to shoot in the softest of black and white’s  gives this comedy an austerity that grounds it in reality (despite the conceit of a woman “dying” of shame, which must of stunk in the sixteen hundreds as much as it does today) and lends an honesty to the broken relationship of Beatrice and Benedick.

So, Whedon gives us this, a deft, little gem, blending a classic with his own comfortable style, creating a work as pleasurable to view as it clearly was to make. A Shakespeare adaptation that can sit with McKellen’s Richard III, Branagh’s trio of this, Hamlet and Loves Labours Lost and er….10 Things I Hate About You as the best of recent times. Let’s see him do that with the Avengers sequel……

Man Of Steel (2013)

Zach Snyder hates skyscrapers. I mean really hates them. In 20 minutes of spectacular action he destroys more of them than The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the whole Chitari race put together.

But skyscrapercide apart what he has done here is taken, what is seen by many, as the poisoned chalice of Superman and formed a thoroughly entertaining film full of intense performances.

As my co-veiwer rightly pointed out, Superman has been done to death. We’ve had George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Dean Cain, Tom Welling (Smallville), Brandon Routh, (seriously, what has happened to him?) and now Henry Cavill. That’s a lot of water under the spandex.

Because of all this history with the big blue Boy Scout a different approach was needed. We’ve only ever seen the same kind of Supes. Of course Christopher Reeve was the definitive version and every subsequent Superman or Boy has basically played Christopher Reeve playing Superman. However, here we don’t. We get our own, very Dark Knight inspired Superman. (The Clark Knight anyone?)

This Clark is brooding and intense. You feel that the burden of him growing up and having to hide who he truly is weighing down on him. As such he doesn’t fit in and so lives a nomadic existence, helping those who need him and then moving on again before he’s discovered. He’s a fisherman one day and a waiter in a backwater town the next.

The first hour of the film is great but not perfect, Snyder forgets that he’s giving us a backstory that 98% of the world already know and he includes everything, including a prolonged visit to Krypton. Although spectacular the scenes on Krypton at the beginning could have been trimmed down a little, we meet Clark’s real Mum and Dad, (a quite buff looking Russell Crowe) and the big bad General Zod, (an intense as always Michael Shannon). Gone is Terrance Stamp’s camp Zod, you would not spill this fella’s pint. We see Krypton as it is collapsing around in inhabitants and a battle ensues in which our Super Bairn escapes.

The rest of Clark’s growing up is dealt with via non-linear flashbacks. We meet his adoptive Mum and Dad, (Dianne Lane and Kevin Costner, both very good) as they struggle to impress on Clark his importance to the world and how he may be rejected out of fear of the unknown.

In giving us everything, the running time of the film is well north of 2 hours. It’s at least an hour or so before the cape and boots finally get an airing but it’s worth it when they do. The action set pieces are absolutely breath-taking. When Zod and Co finally arrive and start beating the living krypton out of Clark, it is stunning. Snyder’s eye is well and truly in when it comes to the fighting. We see what it would be like if these God like beings actually punched one another. Buildings are hewn in two by the impact of one of them being ka-powed right through a foundation. Trains are thrown like Aerobies, (anyone else remember them?) and beatings are handed out all over the place. But. There’s always a but. Snyder seems to enjoy the rough stuff and the explosions so much that he doesn’t know when to stop. Some of the action goes on sooooooo long that you start to become a little overwhelmed and desensitised to it. Because of this the feeling of peril for much of the cast is lost, save for one scene where Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White is helping a colleague trapped under a building.

Lois Lane is no longer the wise cracking sass machine. Amy Adams version is a tough as nails war journalist. Her and Clarks relationship is different to the ones we’ve seen before. This time she knows who Clark is and is the only person on Earth who manages to track him down. She also isn’t just a screaming girly who seems to be falling off buildings the whole time. She is integral to the overall victory of Big Blue.

Cavill does a grand job as Superman, he looks incredible, (man crush engaged) and is believably nails but it’s Shannon’s show. Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor and here he turns what could have been clunky dialogue into an intense, brooding performance that even has you appreciating his point of view regardless of how genocidal it is.

One criticism we’ve read several times is that Man of Steel takes itself too seriously but honestly, I think it has to. The DC universe IS a darker and more serious place than its Marvel counterpart. Superman has never been a wise cracker and shouldn’t change just because The Avengers are quick with a pithy remark.

All in all this is a really solid effort and Super-enjoyable. There was a lot that could have been tightened up and trimmed down and there may have been one to many Christ allegories but generally good stuff. Welcome back Kal-El it’s good to see you again.

After Earth (2013)

Contains spoilers, for all that it matters.

The original idea that After Earth is based upon comes from one William Smith Esq. If that original thought was “Let’s put my son in the movies!”, then it succeeds admirably. If it was an idea that was hopefully going to begat an enjoyable slice of sci-fi then it fails on almost every level imaginable.

Will Smith plays joylessly against type as an emotionless, highly decorated general who must connect with his son, played almost as joylessly by real life son, Jaden Smith. In deference to the new rules for future names thrown up by the success of The Hunger Games, Smith Snr IS Cypher Raige and Smith Jr NEARLY IS Kitai Raige. Humans left Earth an indeterminate time ago after yet again laying waste to their own planet (The eco-fable pointers are heavy handed and ugly to the point of offensive as real life footage of, for instance, the Japanese tsunami of last year is used.), after populating Nova Prime (Bizarre names ran out for planets) the human race is horrified to discover that an inadequately explained race of aliens has engineered another race of aliens specifically to hunt and kill humans by feasting on their fear. Really. After a military mission goes awry due to a vomit of technogabble, Big Smith and Little Smith find themselves the only survivors of a crash landing on a strange planet that is definately the ruined husk of Earth. In an excellently shoehorned way, they also managed to bring one of the fear monsters with them, which escapes.

After the crash the film plays out exactly like the derivative and practically unplayable computer game version that has inevitably been thrown together to accompany the release. Big Willie, finding himself injured and confined to a chair guides his worried little clone through a sucession of increasingly difficult “levels”, using bad props and a sword thing called a cutlass that probably has a whisk attachment and maybe the one that could remove a stone from a shire horse’s hoof. There is a space level, a bit where the controls are explained, a map screen, a jungle level, an ice level, a cave level, a volcano level and a weird level where Kitai has to make friends with a giant fucking bird, before the inevitably unsatisfying “boss” showdown.

Whilst the recent Star Trek sequel threw logic to the wind with gleeful abandon and succeeded through a sheer belligerent exuberance that papered over the plot holes, After Earth hoists itself high through a po-faced seriousness that never, ever cracks. No smiles, no fun, no cleverness or knowing nods with or to it’s parent genre. After Earth sits there, limp and dying, stewing in it’s own illogical leaps that glare back out, daring anyone to question them. Cypher tells his son that everything on Earth has evolved to hunt and kill humans, but how can this be if no humans were present all this time. Earth freezes over almost totally every night due to erratic climate changes but almost the entire film is spent tramping through verdant plant life. If you’re going to give your son a magic mood suit that changes colour to indicate impending danger or toxins in the atmosphere, maybe tell him before it turns black and an angry baboon attacks him……the list could go on.

By the time After Earth mercifully ends the overwhelming conclusion is that Earth doesn’t look too bad, a metaphorical lick of paint and a fairly hefty clean-out of the shed and attic and we could zap back there in a second, especially as on our new planet we get attacked by genetically modified monsters who can smell our fear. Oh, and Cypher continually refers to a lava spewing volcano as a mountain…..and Moby Dick is referenced by mentioning or quoting the book THREE times……and it’s directed by M. Night Shyamalan and that doesn’t make it worse….. and…sorry, we’re done. Absolute garbage.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace picture had been kicked around the studios a fair few times before HBO signed a cheque to fund it. Shown exclusively as a TV movie on the home of quality drama, Behind the Candelabra has managed to break out of the flatscreen and receive a cinematic release in the UK this month and a July release in Australia.

Detailing the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his secret lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), Soderbergh’s latest isn’t a biopic in the strictest sense. There’s no watching young Liberace climbing the ladder of success or deciding on which glittery suit best matches the tone of his tan. No, we meet him when Scott does; playing boogie-woogie in Vegas and at the top of his game. At a speed that would leave a whirlwind breathless, Scott has moved in with old tinkletoes and they blossom into a fully symbiotic relationship; palatial kitsch and all. Naturally, the course of true love never did run smooth. Ignored and ridiculed by Liberace’s house staff and considered a minor blip by his agent, Scott struggles to cope living in the shadow of his elder boyfriend and begins to turn to drugs.

Damon and Douglas are truly captivating. Douglas in particular is spellbounding as Liberace, taking the performance beyond a simple impersonation. His Liberace cares for Scott with wild love and an even wilder jealousy. As Scott, Damon goes under a number of facial reconstructions – something Liberace did to Scott in real life – but it never distracts. Both actors treat their parts as the living breathing couple they were. When they hold each other in bed and share a gold-plated spa, they are two people living in a bubble of Liberace’s creation.

And it doesn’t just end with the main attractions, as Rob Lowe is outstanding as Dr Jack Starz; Liberace’s plastic surgeon, Scott’s gateway to drugs and the closest you’ll get to a real life Ken doll crossed with the Child Catcher. He oozes charm through, what appears to be, very alcohol-saturated breath. Debbie Reynolds, as Liberace’s mother, is equally memorable. Adored by her son in public, she is seen as a burden behind closed doors despite appearing to be very accepting of her son’s closeted lifestyle.

Soderbergh’s direction is never flashy. In fact, for a film about someone as flamboyant as Liberace, it’s surprisingly restrained. The only real flashes come during a black and white flashback detailing Liberace’s born again Catholicism and a tear-stained funeral scene that the real Liberace would be envious of were he alive to see it. This isn’t a criticism however, it’s more about how Soderbergh ensures we focus on the central performances and the relationship between the two.

Blackly comic and full of heart, Behind the Candelabra is an exquisite film of love that never really judges Scott or Liberace for the things they do.

Identity Thief (2013)

Craig Mazin’s co-writer credits include The Hangover Parts II and III, and Scary Movie 4 and 5. With this knowledge, a sense of foreboding is completely justified going into Identify Thief; a road movie starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman and written solely by Mazin. Bateman plays buttoned down accountant Sandy Patterson, who becomes a victim of McCarthy’s con artist, Diana. After she has a wild weekend on his credit card details, Bateman finds himself under suspicion for drug smuggling and assault. To clear his name he hits the road to track down McCarthy and get her to own up to her misdemeanours.

Let’s start off saying this. It’s a good thing that Arrested Development season 4 has finally come to fruition, because at least for now, there’s no danger of Identity Thief 2 ever arising. You know how the best bits are usually in a trailer? This is equally true of Identity Thief. And those bits are all in the first act. In hindsight, there’s a reason why they didn’t take anything from the rest of the film.

Identity Thief is another one of those comedies that have been coming out over the last 12 months where apparently a run time of just less than two hours is okay. Apatow we are looking at you! This is your fault. Maybe a two hour comedy can be justified if it’s consistently funny, but Identify Thief is not that film. It produced, at best, two gut laughs and both of those were clearly adlibs, so you can’t even praise the script for them. We know Bateman and McCarthy are capable of much better but the material lets them down. Identify Thief seems to try and get a lot of mileage out of using a loud scream as a setup, joke and punchline. Anyone who has seen Tom Green’s slacker comedy, Freddy Got Fingered, knows that this isn’t a solid foundation for comedy. This kind of loudness is only reserved for children’s Saturday morning cartoons and riots.

The film does take time out to add a bit of heart amongst the vomiting and vagina jokes. However, like the aforementioned screaming, it happens so often that it just grates. A ‘jokey’ sex scene is bookended with both characters crying about what they want from life. It’s just uncomfortable. You’d have to be watching another film entirely not to realise within the first five minutes of meeting McCarthy that her Diana is just a misunderstood loner. But by Christ, the film is going to make sure you really get it with numerous scenes of her looking off camera or gazing at her navel, reminiscing about some deprived childhood.

Adding insult to injury is not just the B-Plot (gangsters are after Diana) or the C-plot (a bounty hunter is after her as well) or the D-plot (get revenge on mean boss), but the other sub-plots that pop up like whack a mole. There is no restraint. The film flails around wildly like a child given control of a golf cart. How this got past the editors unscathed is beyond us.

With an internal logic that makes no sense (the police know he’s a victim of identity theft, but come back to arrest him on charges they’ve just proven he couldn’t have done), a ridiculous running time and a script that is the equivalent of a fart in a jar, Identify Thief may well be one of the worse comedies this year.