Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Case for Obliviati

I am a sucker for a film that has a science fiction bent and looks like it has pretty decent special effects.  Why else go to something like John Carter?

Oblivion, the latest Tom Cruise flick, is a film that looks good and throws quite a few twists and turns as the story progresses.  The moon has been devastated and the Earth pulverised, and Jack (Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are guardians left behind to ensure that the resources of Earth are shipped to humanity’s new home on Titan.  Their main concerns are malfunctioning sentinel robots and remnants of the enemy alien army, continually trying to stop them from achieving their goal.

And… that’s about all I can say, really!  From that interesting if bleak beginning, things go awry, then wrong, then right, then hopeless, then back to hopeful and right again (though I may have missed a few of the twists and turns in my summation).  Along the way, Jack encounters Sally (Melissa Leo), Julia (Olga Kurylenko), Morgan Freeman (Morgan Freeman) and Jamie Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and a whole heap of loud, heavily armed metal spheres.

It’s actually a really small cast for the film, and there aren’t many lines given to people other than Jack.  Jack is very American pie, with his love for things from the Earth of old, and Cruise plays up that schmaltz to an almost irritating degree.  It’s somewhat of a relief when the bullets start flying and things go crazy, though there is still a lot of sentimentality that rears its unwelcome head along the way, bogging the film down until the action comes along to cleanse it away.  

Yes, the film is a bit on the slow side.  I imagine the drawn out moments are designed to add to the atmosphere and the pathos of the moment, but they seemed unnecessary to me, extending what should have been a brisk 90 minute film into something nearer two hours for very little reason.  

Some of the twists can be seen a mile away (well, not to everyone in the audience, as some overloud gasps indicated), though there are plenty of others that keep things interesting.  Besides the fact I ended up rooting for the aliens at one point (humans can be so DUMB sometimes, and rightfully deserve a bit of extermination!), and the unhurried pace of things, Oblivion is quite enjoyable.  Perhaps not quite up to Minority Report levels on the Cruise-o-meter, but not too far off it either.

Verdict:  Oblivion doesn’t hurry to tell its tale, but it tells it well, with some beautiful cinematography and an incredible performance from Andrea Riseborough.  While not an incredible film, Oblivion is definitely better than some.  2 out of 3 Tetrahedrons.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Case for Perkiness

I had not intended to go to Perks of Being A Wallflower originally, until I heard that the cast was absolutely stellar (can’t really go wrong with Melanie Lynskey) and the film itself was really good.

Only one of those is true.

And you can probably guess which by my comment in parentheses.

It’s not that the film doesn’t try.  It ticks all the boxes of the coming of age drama, with a loner boy, Charlie, meeting a group of misfits which includes the girl of his dreams, and, to a hip soundtrack, he slowly comes to terms with himself and dealing with his traumas in a very quick and deliberately “shocking” way.  School consists of one class, in which Charlie excels, and this is run by the one teacher who just “gets” him – and it was about this stage (admittedly about 15 minutes into the film) that I told myself, “This is just like Donnie Darko!  Except… not as good”.

The problem is, everything about the film just tries too hard.  The writer of the book on which the film is based is the screenwriter, and the script flows like (in the words of my fellow movie watcher) an unedited slice of life story.  The aforementioned teacher, highly influential in the Donnie Darko story, has absolutely no relevance to anything else going on in the film, except to point out that Charlie is bright and likes books.  That’s it.  The story itself seems set in the 80s purely to allow the film to utilise an 80s soundtrack and namecheck “cool” bands from the era – in almost every other instance (except for the liberal use of mixed tapes), it could be set in the “now” without too much trouble. 

Charlie’s brother is, for no reason, a star footballer and his absence and return are of no relevance to anything; Charlie’s sister is completely uneven in tone, her character (and dress sense) varying wildly between star cheerleader (well, she is played by Nina Dobrev) and 1950s Mad Men housewife, hoop skirt and headband and all.  Meanwhile, Charlie’s parents are, I think, meant to be strict but fair people, though Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh are given very few things to do and seem to be told “act grim” for the most part. 

Charlie’s friends, given a lot more screen time, are a lot more well-rounded.  Ezra Miller, as poor student and completely out Patrick, has the best part and plays his role with gusto (was he really the psycho kid in We Need To Talk About Kevin?  Yes, he was!  Wow!), and Emma Watson puts on a not always unconvincing American accent to play the gorgeous but not cool object of Charlie’s affection.  Charlie himself, played rather well by Logan Lerman, is a bundle of nerves and awkwardness, but he never really convinces as being a different year from his compatriots, has flawless skin (as do they all) and (SPOILER ALERT) completely fails to convey what was so “shocking” about a fight in which he becomes involved – other than the fact he participated, there was nothing about the fight that I imagine would have caused everyone to suddenly stop. 

But as mentioned, the cast is impressive, and I imagine that they were all lured onto the project by the prospect of being in a film as “profound” and “socially aware” as Donnie Darko (where even minor characters deserved a huge amount of kudos – remember Noah Wylie and Drew Barrymore in there?  I think Melanie Lynskey’s brief appearance as Charlie’s aunt is the only one deserving that much credit here).  It’s just a shame the film is nowhere near that good.

And there are shocks.  The traumas in Charlie’s life are pretty heavy, though the film seems wary of actually dealing with them or drawing too much attention to them.  They are there to be revealed at storyline-relevant moments and to draw gasps from the audience, not really to be issues that Charlie needs to discuss with others or that we need to see being addressed.

There is also a closing monologue before the end credits, which feels very Breakfast Club and really fails to bring things together.  Has Charlie made any friends in his own year?  Was he put on suspension for getting into a fight, and were his parents ever told?  What did happen to Patrick and Brad’s relationship?  None of these plot points seem to matter at the end, leaving the “depth” of Charlie’s final speech more paddling pool profound than oceanic.

Of course, it could just have been me.  Some in the audience cried out at any shock the storyline threw at them.  However, one row of youngsters (teens or early 20s) in front of us discussed with heat some of the storyline points, and not in a positive way.  I think it was a sign of the poor writing that people discussed how it failed to all hang together rather than any of the “themes” it was trying to raise. 

Verdict: Perks of Being a Wall Flower is a try hard Catcher in the Rye (my learned colleague told me).  While the main characters are given a lot of screen time and make a good job of the rather derivative script, the background characters (Joan Cusack!) are there to look serious and get their own Donnie Darko moment – which (except for Melanie Lynskey) never comes.  6 perks out of 10.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Case for Saying Yes to No

It’s a very simple title for a movie: No.

But the film itself is anything but.

The ever cute Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an advertising guru who is hired by the “No” campaign in the lead up to the Chilean referendum whether they should continue with Augusto Pinochet as their President (the “Yes” vote).  The alternative is for Chileans to opt “No” and return to the days of uncertainty and turmoil prior to the days when Pinochet shot former President Allende and assumed control of the country.

Considering Pinochet’s rule was rife with disappearances and executions, the leaders of the “No” movement, and those associated with them, are understandably nervous about the whole enterprise, and from the outset are dubious that Pinochet will allow anything other than a “Yes” outcome.  But while the West supported the coup in the beginning, the international climate has changed, and so, as much as Pinochet and his supporters don’t want to do it, the referendum has to take place.  Each side gets 15 minutes a night to make their case and, in the case of the “No” camp, to try and persuade those afraid of the government and the police to actually go out and vote against them.

Pinochet’s campaign platform is simple: his rule has brought stability and wealth to the country (if not necessarily all its citizens), and probably the highest standards of living in Latin America.  While Pinochet says he supports democracy, equal rights and votes for all smacks of communism – something the General cannot abide.  

The opposition’s view is a bit more fractured, focusing on the torturing and repression of the regime.  Sure, city folk have new cars and beautiful clothes and all the modern conveniences, but dissent from the government line is not tolerated.  For Saavedra though, the idea is not to focus on the bad that Pinochet has wrought, but to focus on the positives that true democracy will bring.

In one of the most intense scenes in the film (sorry to recap the whole story) is where Saavedra pitches his “Happiness is Coming” campaign to the group and one man, who has lost most of his family to Pinochet either through disappearances or executions or exile, reacts with outrage, feeling the light happy exercise completely undermines the pain and suffering inflicted on dissidents over the years.  He walks out shortly thereafter, and it was hard not to feel his anger too.  But, at the same time, and in time, Saevedra’s vision, of a positive and (occasionally) light hearted approach to what is actually an incredibly serious and important decision makes a huge amount of sense, engaging those who might otherwise feel too overwhelmed by the injustices Pinochet has wrought.

The battle then is on – whose campaign will win?  And what lengths will each side go to for victory? 

After a slow and occasionally muddled start, it is a tense journey to the end.  Filmed in a very 80s style in square format and with poor (by these days) film stock, it takes a little while for the strange jumps and cuts to stop, and for the viewer to get used to  the blurry images and washed out colours.  But keeping to period means that the film effortlessly adds real footage from the era into critical scenes, which is a brilliant way to show the real history amongst the acting.

The characters themselves are all fairly good, though it’s the story that is the most compelling piece here.  Not compelling enough for more than a dozen people to attend the screening at the Paramount (though the fact it is in Spanish might have put people off too), but for me, it was great.

Verdict: No is modern history retold in a interesting and mostly successful way.  Having wandered the streets of Santiago and seen the memorials to Allende and the dead and missing during Pinochet’s rule, it probably had an extra impact on me.  But the film shows the power of the media to influence (and coerce) people to make a change for the better (with the help of Christopher Reeve and Jane Fonda of course), and that some revolutions can be peaceful too.  7 rainbows out of 10.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Case for Gee Eyes Too

I did not go into G I Joe: Retaliation expecting a masterpiece.  The first one was rubbish, but a load of fun, so I presumed I would get more of the same.

And the sequel lived up to that promise, helped in no small part by the ability of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson (as Roadblock) and Bruce Willis (as a hard-nosed General) to make barely coherent macho characters entertaining (Willis does have off days though, as his powers evidently failed him in the last Die Hard).  They both have a knowing smirk and a swagger and seem to be okay with having a laugh at themselves (who would really want to mess with the Rock?) and that translates well in this kind of film where everyone is given very little to work with, so on screen charisma counts a lot towards making a character memorable.

While Channing Tatum as Duke has a back story from the last movie on which to found his character, newcomers Adrienne Palecki (as Lady Jaye) and D J Contra (as Flint) are unable to rise above the material to really make impressions – though from some of the stills that come over the end credits, any interesting parts to their backstories may have ended up on the editing room floor, so it may not be entirely the actors’ faults.

The story, such as it is, is pure macho flag waving nonsense: after violating another sovereign nation’s territory, the Joe team is framed by the evil organisation Cobra and end up on the run.  With Cobra intent on taking over the world, the Joe team makes its way back to the United States to try and save their country – and the rest of the planet – from Cobra’s evil clutches.

Amongst all that, there is a side story involving lots of martial arts and the redemption of an evil figure.  Unfortunately, the whole thing feels plucked out of a Hong Kong martial arts film (not that there is anything wrong with that) rather than a gun-heavy, bare-knuckle American manly men flick.  This particular plotline does itself no favours by having RZA as a pompous blind sensei who tends to spout exposition rather than anything terribly enlightening.

A few spoilers in here: North Korea is the butt of quite a few jokes in this film (makes a change from the French I suppose), though from the looks of it, everyone in the world has the same technologically advanced “suitcase of death” technology, even if the cases themselves are made by different fashion houses.  Other things I learned from this film: megalomaniacal super geniuses and their henchmen are kept alive rather than executed, and no expense is spared to keep them that way; with the spare parts from an old 386 computer, one can build a super-fast genetic scanner that has access to every database on the planet; the Rock is contractually obliged to wear an Under Armour spandex muscle shirt in every action film in which he appears (check out Fast Five; no one else seems to be); Israel does have nuclear weapons (though Pakistan does not?); and the destruction of millions of Europeans isn’t as newsworthy as a G I Joe medal presentation.

But it is very hard to complain much about the film, as the silliness and inconsistencies are kind of what I was expecting in the first place.  There was nothing that appeared to me worth seeing in 3D (as I went to a 2D session), especially when one lady behind me screamed at almost anything so I don’t think she could have handled anything whizzing by her had she attended a different session.  But it was great to see an entertaining Willis (redeemed!) and an always jovial Johnson (he is awesome) and his Roadblock’s not-entirely awkward interactions with Tatum’s Duke.  Plus lots of things exploded!  Yay.

Verdict: G I Joe: Retaliation seems a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie, with bits bolted together (and others chopped off) to make a whole that doesn’t look particularly even in tone or pacing, but, given the context of a movie based on a Hasbro toy, kind of works.  If the cartoons had plots which made more sense, that’s just because… well, because.  6.5 Yo Joes out of 10.