Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay | Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams | Cinematographer John Schwartzman | Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi | Length 153 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015

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Three Short Reviews of Recent Popular Films: Gone Girl, Interstellar and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Unlike in 2013, I haven’t been writing reviews of every film I’ve seen this year. I also had trouble finding enough enthusiasm to write about some of the big tentpole blockbusters of the year, mainly because so many others have cast in their two cents, that mine seem entirely beside the point. Still, you’re more likely to have seen these films, so I thought I should at least write a few sentences to give my opinions, and you can disagree with me in the comments if you wish! (For what it’s worth, I’ve also taken to adding my ratings for unreviewed films on my A-Z and year pages.)


© 20th Century Fox

Gone Girl (2014) || Seen at Odeon Camden Town, London, Tuesday 7 October 2014 || Director David Fincher | Writer Gillian Flynn (based on her novel) | Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth | Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris | Length 149 minutes || My Rating 3.5 stars very good

David Fincher continues to extend his auteurist credentials with another film dwelling in the twists, turns and dead-ends of narrative fiction, shot in a coolly modernist style, with dark corners and muted colours befitting the shifting allegiances and motivations of the characters. Ben Affleck does well as the put-upon husband Nick in small-town America whose wife has gone missing, and Rosamund Pike has a piercing intensity as that New York-born and bred wife Amy, but beyond those plot points it would not be wise to stray, suffice to say there is a twist, and more than one at that. It’s a film that doesn’t just find its drama in the orchestrated chameleonic performances of its core cast, but is itself about performance, about lives moulded by societal or parental pressures (whether the expectations of precocity and feminine perfection as forced upon Amy by her author parents, or the expectations of marriage taken on by both leads, or the requirements of the ‘gone girl’ narrative when reconfigured by the media). In a sense — and to this extent I agree with criticism of its misogynistic underpinnings — it’s about a clueless husband taken advantage of by a conniving woman deploying rape allegations and other standbys of the tabloid press, but yet the film seems too self-aware of the ways that all of its protagonists shape and control their representation for it to fully fall into that trap. However, basically what I’m saying is that this film, more than most blockbusters of 2014, would seem to repay further investigation.


© Paramount Pictures

Interstellar (2014) || Seen at Science Museum (IMAX), London, Tuesday 11 November 2014 || Director Christopher Nolan | Writers Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan | Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema | Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine | Length 169 minutes || My Rating 3 stars good

Christopher Nolan is another kind of auteur, though he seems to specialise in unselfconscious pomposity (or at least, so it seems to my mind). Seen on a 70mm IMAX screen, this is undeniably big and undeniably epic in scope, with huge bassy rumblings and the kind of sound design and picturesque cinematographic vision engineered to convince of the earnestness of the undertaking. Without giving away any prized ‘spoilers’, it increasingly suggests an updating of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (also recently on re-release) albeit without the kind of understated intelligence of design that Kubrick’s films always exhibited. Aside from some affecting early scenes with McConaughey’s astronaut/engineer/farmer and his children, I’m not even sure the more upfront sentimentality always works in the film’s favour, as it progressively becomes more loopy — and it certainly seems to me that the almost mystical treatment afforded to black holes and other astral phenomena are somewhat akin to religious texts’ relationship to God (though with that latter concept somewhat ponderously replaced here by Gravity and/or Love). Some of the ideas seem rather too incredulous, at the same time grounded in character interactions which smack rather more of cliché, but I cannot deny that it held my attention effortlessly for three hours, and should at least be given points for trying something bold, epic and heartfelt.


© Lionsgate

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Monday 24 November 2014 || Director Francis Lawrence | Writers Danny Strong and Peter Craig (based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins) | Cinematographer Jo Willems | Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Josh Hutcherson, Natalie Dormer | Length 123 minutes || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable

Another instalment in the ongoing young-adult dystopianism that’s been part of all our lives for the last decade or so (whether under this franchise’s title, or previous ones you may guess at; even if you haven’t read any books or seen any films, you can’t possibly be unaware of the trend). I certainly enjoy the range of darker and more complicated emotions this kind of thing leads to, even if the way they’re handled remains strictly teenage (although most mainstream entertainment pitches itself to that age range, to be fair). With Mockingjay, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss starts to really doubt her own abilities to lead a revolution as the stakes become more serious (the film is largely based in the underground compound of District 13, as they make periodic sorties to disrupt the Capitol and its propaganda), though even when crying in a dark corner, Lawrence remains effortlessly watchable. If there are any ‘games’ here, they take place in the real world of the film (Panem), which seems to make them curiously less engaging than the engineered ones of the previous two films. It also seems to squander an obvious cliffhanger ending point, but I’ll undoubtedly be back next year to see how things wrap up.

The World’s End (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Edgar Wright | Writers Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg | Cinematographer Bill Pope | Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan | Length 109 minutes | Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 24 July 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Universal Pictures

It seems like the 1990s was a fertile time for the emergence of a new generation of British comedy, when there were a number of new star writers and performers coming through on television who in the following decade would go on to make their first films. Among these, comedian Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright made a strong impression with their Spaced TV series and then the film Shaun of the Dead (2004), a witty parody of the zombie genre transposed to leafy middle-class North London. Like many I’ve been a big fan of their work, particularly the second film Hot Fuzz (2007), which takes a quite different genre (the cop film) and imbues it with a great deal of generosity towards its small town setting and well-meaning central characters.

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Last Night (1998)


FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Don McKellar | Cinematographer Douglas Koch | Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley | Length 95 minutes | Seen at home (VHS), August 2000, and at home (DVD), Saturday 6 July 2013 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Lionsgate

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

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This Is the End (2013)

No matter where this directorial debut from Canadian actor Seth Rogen may go — and it goes to some pretty ridiculous places — it always seems to retain the goofy charm of a low-key stoner movie, something like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) but far more self-referential. After all, everyone in the film is playing a (clearly fictionalised) version of themselves, partying and hanging out in Los Angeles. It’s a brittle conceit, and it works better than by all rights it should, but you can at least imagine all the guys in this film — and it is very much a guys’ film — being friends in real life.

The set-up sees Jay Baruchel arriving at LAX to stay with his old friend Seth Rogen while he’s in town. Both grew up in Canada, and while Jay is concerned Seth is being swallowed up by Los Angeles, Seth’s LA friends see Jay as a last link to the Canadian past he needs to slough off, leading to tension between Jay and the rest of the cast. After a bit of bonding over video games and weed, Seth drags Jay along to James Franco’s housewarming, at a deranged brutalist bunker decorated with kitschy art and populated by a large number of familiar faces. It’s here that the core cast is introduced. If Franco is a preening whiner, then Jonah Hill is chanelling a more right-on holistic West Coast vibe as the ‘sensitive’ emotional actor, while Craig Robinson is a no-nonsense party guy who spends the whole movie wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Take Yo Panties Off”. There’s little point mentioning any of the celebrity cameos here, as part of the fun is in spotting the faces, but it’s fair to say that (as many critics have already pointed out) Michael Cera gets the standout role.

These are enjoyable scenes, certainly, but this is a film about the Apocalypse, and it doesn’t take too long before things get biblical. Part of the joke is that when it comes — and it starts with the Rapture, when the souls of the worthy ascend to Heaven — only actors are left behind, such that Franco’s party becomes something like a gathering of the living damned. Eventually only a handful are left holed up in Franco’s home; they must try to survive and find a way out of the apocalyptic hellscape that Los Angeles has become.

For a film that trades so heavily on Christan iconography, it’s interesting that almost all of the film’s creators are of Jewish upbringing, but perhaps that’s a key to the film’s success. They get plenty of anarchic fun out of their premise, one which trades on the more skewed aspects of theistic belief that are part of the American cultural upbringing, and which have naturally been inculcated through generations of Hollywood fantasies. For the most part Rogen and Goldberg tap into that (there are all kinds of movie-literate quotes, not least from The Exorcist), abetted by their ensemble cast.

It does at times feel strained by its limitations. One such is the fact that this is a very male-dominated film. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies do, after all, tend to be the preserve of a certain kind of nerdy fanboy and indeed, the opening scenes position Rogen and Baruchel rather neatly as such. To be fair, the film tries to critique its own limitations, such as when Emma Watson shows up briefly, but the guys’ subsequent conversation — with its self-consciously parodic ease at outing one another as potential rapists — still feels in rather poor taste, even if Watson’s response is just right.

However, it always manages to pull itself back on track, with goofy and well-meaning charm. Some of that may be dependent on how much you like the core cast members — they are playing versions of themselves, after all — but for me, the insouciance at the heart of the enterprise was sufficient to carry me through even the most adolescent of dick jokes. There are quite a few adolescent dick jokes. But I laughed even so.


© Columbia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg | Cinematographer Brandon Trost | Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 29 June 2013

My Rating 3 stars good