Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Case for Short Term Memory

Its not often I go to a film that I know virtually nothing about except that it received over 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Even the name of this film eluded me both before and after I saw it, and I had to refer to my ticket to remind me of the name of the movie that I had just seen.

Not that the film itself is unmemorable – not in the slightest.  In fact Short Term 12 is definitely deserving of its high rating.  It is not a film for everyone, doesn’t have amazing effects or a super star studded cast, it doesn’t have a big budget or a particularly long running time.  All it has are some amazing performances, an engaging story, and lots and lots of teen angst and drama.

It’s not a perfect film really, but it doesn’t pretend to be.  It’s all about damaged and abandoned kids, both the young ones and the more mature.  There are laughs and tears and secrets and twists.  And it’s all told perfectly well.

Holding it all together and selling the film is an incredible turn by Brie Larson as damaged social worker Grace, a dry, strict mothering force in a residence for runaways and abandoned kids.  The adults and kids around her all bring their a-game along as well, and they are all excellent, but it is really Larsen, almost eternally straight faced with a hint of sadness but a beautiful smile just waiting to come out, who holds everything together and brings everyone along for the ride.

There is not much else to say about it really: as well told as it is, the troubled teens tales and the damaged adults stories are ones that have been told before (if you are into that kind of thing), but here they are packaged in an accessible, entertaining package.  

Verdict: Short Term 12 is a perfectly formed film telling an affecting story with amazing performances.  The subject matter is not really one that would have blockbuster appeal, but its one of those films that, despite its occasionally depressing subject matter, has you smiling at the end and feeling like there are worthwhile films out there.  10 short terms out of 12.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Case for a Dozen Years

12 Years a Slave is good.  Very, very good.

Yet surprisingly for a film about human cruelty, I was not blubbering away at any stage (this may have had something to do with the odd cellphone text alter that went off during the screening which boiled my blood and made me want to stand up and yell - which I did not).  The acts were monstrous,  some of the wounds terrible to behold, and the story incredibly engaging, but even one of my fellow attendees who was convinced she would be crying throughout the film ended up feeling angrier more than sad.

12 Years a Slave follows Solomon (an amazingly expressive Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he gets separated from his family when white men impressed by his musical ability sell him into slavery and he then gets transported down South where he becomes the property of a variety of different masters.

And yes, again, it is every bit as depressing as it sounds.  Solomon encounters a broad variety of people, from black men who will never be slaves to those who are waiting for their "owner" to come rescue them, from white men who see blacks as equals to those that see them as a source of evil in the world.  In a way it is harder on the women slaves: one loses her children as they are sold separately, whilst another (the beautiful Lupita N'yongo) becomes a sex object for her "owner" (a remarkably hateful Michael Fassbender), much to the envy and anger of his bitter wife.

Brad Pitt also shows up for a bit of preaching, but mostly the film lets the action and Solomon's face speak for themselves.  There are many shots lingering on the beauty of the Southern States, and the film doesn't hurry in telling its tale, though things are never boring.

The ending is an interesting one.  Without trying to give anything away, the final scene is oddly less emotional than I thought it would be.  It may have been that it was a sign of the times: reactions were muted as emotion was just not expressed the same way.  The film does try and stay faithful to the times by having characters speak with an endearingly tortured way of expressing themselves.

But that is not a criticism.  The film is incredible on so many levels, its just interesting to mention the bits where I didn't react as I expected to.  And it is nice to be surprised - even if what is surprising is actually pretty unpalatable.

Verdict: 12 Years a Slave is brutal but brilliant.  Not sure if it should win Best Picture Oscar over Gravity, but it is bound to come away with a bundle of awards - and deservedly so.  10 whippings out of 10.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Case for PG for Robocop

After the fantastic disappointment of the "re imaging" of Total Recall, I came at the new Robocop with a sense of wariness, even if the cast featuring Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and Samuel L Jackson seemed pretty impressive.

I knew this one would be more... serious the original, but that didn't necessarily meant it would be less fun.

But of course, it was.

It's not the fault of the cast though.  Joel Kinnaman (Murphy/Robocop) is convincing as a soulless robotic warrior with flashes of his own murder and a taste for riding a big motorbike.  Keaton, Oldman and Jackson are similarly all solid, but its more what they are given to do which leaves these strong actors a little shaky...

For example, Keaton is CEO of Omnicorp, a robotics firm that sells the hulking ED209 and smaller human shaped robots to the US military for policing duties in occupied countries (in an uncomfortable opening sequence, Jackson hosts a Fox-like show that claims these bring peace and order while at the same time demonstrating that they do not) but who wants to sell the technology to the only market that matters, the US. However, there is no real plan about engaging with the Police in a partnership, nor are there any hints that this incredibly powerful company holds any sway with any American politicians whatsoever.  In fact, the whole company seems completely reactive in its proactivity, tactical rather than strategic.

Meanwhile Oldman, as Dr Norton, is a mass of contradictions: a man of high morals who does not like to kill but who will strip a person of their freedom, will and dignity without a moments thought.  Brilliant in robotics, unparalleled in cerebral engineering, cutting edge in artifical intelligence and human-computer interfaces, he nonetheless waits until one minute before a press conference to download 30 years of raw data into an untested human brain, even though the data itself is totally irrelevant to the press conference EXCEPT after the download goes wrong.  

This Robocop is less interested in crime then than it is in exploring the technology and the family dynamics of Murphy's change from man to mostly machine.  It's a big shame then that the tech is boring (even if it does look kind of cool) and I ended up hating Murphy's wife and his son becomes pointless about halfway through.

And the "classic" violence?  Well, there is a huge amount of gun fire but no blood at all - I was never quite sure if he was tazer-bulleting people or if Robocop was actually killing them.  There's an improbable bike jump scene that makes no sense to my admittedly limited knowledge of physics, and quite how a half dozen ED209s are allowed into the country with fully loaded cannons to provide augmented security cover when, as I understand it, they are banned by Congressional order again was a bit of a mystery.

And then there is the shaky cam... Normally I can kind of handle it, but in the quieter scenes, where it is just flipping between two mostly motionless, seated characters, was it really necessary?

On the bright side...  Well, it looked great.  And I got free tickets for the screening on Wednesday night, which was wonderful.  While I noticed someone lean forward in their chair at one stage, the response to the film was mostly muted.  There was some laughter at a few jokes and references to the previous film ("Dead or alive, you are coming with me"), but the general impression I got was that people were not bored rather than impressed.

Verdict: Robocop has a lot going for it, but a lot of that is the good will from the original and an incredible cast.  Story-wise, its a bit of a mess and, worse, a tad tedious.  In aiming for a (kind of) family friendly story in among the main Robocop tale, the movie kind of flounders along, never really committing to anything, and feeling a bit cold, distant and yes mechanical.  6 6000SUXes out of 10.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Case for Walking

I have to admit, I went into Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with a lot of trepidation.

Not because of the cast.  With the awesome Idris Elba in the lead role and the stunning Naomie Harris as his eventual wife Winnie, there was never any doubt that the acting would not be incredible.

And the film looked completely amazing: from the busy streets of South Africa's townships to the beautiful dry countryside and some of the tribal villages, from the cramped squalor of the black "suburbs" to the cramped spartan prison cell to which Mandela is sentenced.

But my reservations came from how they would treat the life of the man.  I had heard that the film makers tried to find a balance, showing some of his flaws (his unfaithfulness and involvement in terrorist bombings) as well as his eventual rise to become one of the most beloved world leaders.  So I was a little concerned about quite how they would manage to pull that off.

In the end, I was worried about the wrong things.  They do an amazing job of showing snippets of Mandela's life, showing how he got involved in the ANC, his imprisonment and eventual release and rise to the presidency.  But the thing I found most... disappointing was that I found it hard to comprehend the why of what was going on - the transition from non violent protest to armed struggle I got, but I never quite got when he converted back again, or quite how South Africa shifted to universal voting, and quite how Mandela's words brought about an end to fighting in the streets.

What I really got a sense of was how Winnie Mandela was forged and shaped by the incarceration of her husband, and how she became hard, bitter and more extreme than her husband.  While Mandela's imprisonment was cruel, Winnie's detentions and humiliations were public, made worse by the fact she had two young daughters at home, waiting and depending on her.

Overall though, the film is very good, well acted and informative.  Well, to people willing to watch - a young couple at the far end of the row from me talked about what was going on for the entire duration of the two hour long biopic.  I seethed inside but couldn't draw their attention without raising my voice, and so I consoled myself by thinking that the perennially weeping girlfriend might have been a bit slow and so her boyfriend was doing the kind thing by explaining the extremely obvious things that were going on in front of us.  Or perhaps I missed my own opportunity to have the transitions between the phases of Mandela's life explained to me.  I will have to seek them out next time.

Verdict: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is a very worthy film with amazing actors and a story worth telling.  It didn't convince me in that I didn't quite understood why things happened, but it did a great job in showing the what.  7 loud shirts out of 10.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Case for Hustlings

American Hustle came into town with a lot of Jennifer Lawrence posters with big 70s hair and cleavage revealing gold outfits.  It was a hit at the Golden Globes and even if the previews were a bit uninspiring, the movie was on my must see list. 

First off, the Golden Globes to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence are well deserved.  Adams, in particular, playing con artist Sydney Prosser is incredible, beautiful yet every so often, with the layers of make up scraped away, plain (one could never call her “ugly”) and vulnerable.  Lawrence meanwhile is insanely hilarious and, as a Silver Linings Playbook fan, I don’t think she ever once shares a line with Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso). 

As much as Adams is the standout, she is unfortunately not the main character: that honour goes to Irving Rosenfeld, played with relish as a fat, balding semi-slob (yet still seductive – he does score both Adams and Lawrence!) by Christian Bale, and he narrates most of the movie.

There is a bit of narration really, though it is not always used consistently.  It is used for back story but never for letting us know what is going on in people’s heads or their future plans.  The camera is constantly on the move, as if this were a Peter Jackson film, and lapping up the huge amount of boobage on display and DiMaso’s perm. 

Storywise… well, it is a little slow, I have to admit, and it doesn’t seem to make a huge amount of sense (I still can’t figure out how the initial con actually worked long term), but with Prosser smouldering away while Rosenfeld makes sure things run to plan, I wanted to believe that anything was possible.

DiMaso’s appearance throws a spanner in the works as he is… well, I get the impression he is meant to be smart but eager, but he comes across as being more on the stupid side of the spectrum with the odd flash of inspiration.  Quite how he manages to get in with Prosser and Rosenfeld, considering his erratic behaviour, never really made sense to me, and his relationship with his boss and his family is occasionally a bit funny but mainly seems unnecessarily cruel. 

DiMaso’s spanner then messes up both the con and my enjoyment of the movie, to a certain degree.  It’s not Cooper’s fault really; it is just the character is such a pain.  And then things get bigger, occasionally funnier, and Lawrence comes into her own, making the twisted and probably insane yet highly intelligent Rosalyn incredibly enjoyable for all her high maintenance attributes.

Verdict: American Hustle is a fun film, but not really a great one.  Some incredible performances worthy of recognition make it a film to see, but the story is a bit slow and predictable, even if the script is actually rather funny.  8 swindles out of 10.