The Martian (2015)

A few years ago I went to see The Counselor and I hated it so much I called it my least favourite film of the year. Which means I haven’t exactly been seeking out the work of Ridley Scott since then. But some friends said hey this new film of his was pretty good and so finding myself with an empty day and having exhausted everything else I needed to see, I steeled myself for 141 minutes of more of his noxious worldview (whyyyyy?) and… well… it was actually pretty enjoyable stuff. But I suspect that’s partly Scott’s directorial vision being paired with a more sympathetic screenwriter in Drew Goddard — most of the battle in making a good film, after all, is starting with a good script. It’s a science-fiction film, but fairly easy on the distancing techy BS that distracts in other efforts. Sure there are actors who pop up just to be savant geniuses (like Donald Glover), but for the most part this is just about determined people trying to do their best with (apparently) very little regard to budget — I guess we should assume the future has solved all its financial problems. Therefore, amongst these driven players — including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent, the mission director, Jessica Chastain as Melissa, commanding the actual expedition, and Jeff Daniels as the NASA director Teddy — astronaut and botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just the most notable, for he’s the one stuck on Mars. Most of the extended running time just lingers on him solving problems, and Scott’s work is to build tension through emphasising his very isolation, and the impossibility of those back on Earth helping him in any meaningful way. In that sense, it has a bit of Apollo 13 to it, and it’s immensely likeable in the way that there are no villains in the piece, and everyone gets their time. Sure, our Everyman character is still a white guy (and Damon’s run into a bit of criticism for his views on that this year), but this is a well-crafted film which fits in easily alongside Gravity as a solid bit of space-based entertainment. I suspect we’ll be getting more of that as 2015 draws to a close.

The Martian film posterCREDITS
Director Ridley Scott; Writer Drew Goddard (based on the novel by Andy Weir); Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski; Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 31 October 2015.

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.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Another attempt to kick-start a veteran science-fiction franchise, this fifth Terminator film harks back to the first one, even repurposing footage from it to create an inter-generational fight scene, which is pretty much the best thing on offer here. That said, I find it difficult to write the whole thing off as awful, because despite a general lack of inspiration — bolstered by a largely vacuous young cast (Jason Clarke’s John Connor at least carries the wounds of war, but nobody really convinces as a battle-hardened veteran) — it never actively offended me, and even offered a fairly entertaining two hours. Sadly, the script is largely at fault, with characters being forced to spend large chunks of screen time explaining the convoluted time travel premise, which involves multiple timelines and allows Kyle (Jai Courtney) to retain memories from the other timeline. At least… I think? It’s hard to really be sure. The big (non-spoilery) twist is that Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor now takes the lead in her relationship with Kyle (thanks to tutelage from a second Terminator/Arnie). Beyond that, the film constantly references plot points and memorable images from the first couple of films, suggesting that were it not for the messy time travel narrative, it could have just been a simple reboot of the stripped-down original, and perhaps that would have been better.

Terminator Genisys film posterCREDITS
Director Alan Taylor; Writers Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau; Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea [2D], London, Wednesday 8 July 2015.

The Terminator (1984)

Re-released to cinemas in time for Terminator Genisys‘s upcoming return to the same events, it’s easy to think of this as an Arnie film, or as a James Cameron film — and it is those things (certainly it cemented Schwarzenegger’s stardom, and was Cameron’s breakthrough) — but it’s also a film that centres on Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, as well as being a film co-written by a woman (its producer and Cameron’s wife for the next five years, Gale Anne Hurd). In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that Arnie’s eponymous character is somewhat peripheral, like a lurking terror, leaving us with a story of two people (Connor and Michael Biehn’s military man Kyle) in a twisted time travel narrative that owes perhaps a little to the modernist Chris Marker short film La Jetée. However, far more than any of those things it’s a shlocky exploitation flick, very much in the Roger Corman mould (one of his favourite actors, Dick Miller, even shows up as a gun shop clerk), a refinement of the kind of things that Cannon Films was putting out during this era. The film’s best lines carry an unmistakable ring of campness (those bouffant 80s hairstyles certainly help), and Arnie’s iconic “I’ll be back” gets a little cheer from the audience I was watching with. It only occasionally overstretches in trying to find deeper meaning, but for the most part it stays on the right side of being a lean and pulpy action film, meaning that it’s aged perhaps a little better than some of its contemporaries.

The Terminator film posterCREDITS
Director James Cameron; Writers Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd; Cinematographer Adam Greenberg; Starring Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015 (and on VHS at home, Wellington, earlier in my life).

Jurassic World (2015)

Let’s be honest, I didn’t exactly hold high hopes for this film, which at times has seemed more interested in creating brand partner synergies for commercial tie-ins, than being actually-any-good as narrative entertainment. Sadly that seems to have been the legacy of Spielberg’s (still quite excellent) Jurassic Park, though it’s hardly something it invented — just that it managed to tap into an enthusiasm for dinosaurs that remains largely unabated over 20 years on. Still, even given that, I remain confused as to why there was an ad before the film for a Lego tie-in. There was no room in the movie for the aforesaid product because it’s a 12-rated action film for a good reason (CGI-created dinosaur terror and mayhem; certainly the human characters weren’t much more than ciphers). Anyway the film’s clear product-placement winner was Mercedes-Benz, just for that smash cut to a perfectly-framed car ad angle of their vehicle after one of the kids says the line “you wanna see something amazing?” Oh to imagine how excited their execs must’ve been when they saw that. Just thinking about such a scenario really brought on some serious feels (not all good, let’s be honest); certainly it prompted more emotions than when a bunch of human dudes were eviscerated in the film (would that they were marketing executives eh).

I could go on about how this cartoonish dehumanisation of violence is an effect of the kind of corporatised culture which was surely intended as a point of satire in the original, but has long since been subsumed under the creature effects and merchandising. However, whatever baggage I might (not unreasonably I feel) load this franchise up with, the thing is that Jurassic World was quite an entertaining ride. Chris Pratt retains an easygoing charm, even if his relationship with prickly park boss Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) remained little more than a doodle in the corner of a page credited to FOUR screenwriters. Perhaps the tenacity with which Claire manages to perform at high speed on all terrains while never shedding (or breaking) her high heels should therefore be applauded as some kind of feminist triumph, but I’ll stop short of that. Still, the kids-in-peril weren’t too annoying, while Irrfan Khan as a wealthy industralist (an heir of sorts to Richard Hammond) and Omar Sy as the French dino-wrangler were nice smaller roles, even if there was no one who could measure up to Jeff Goldblum. And on the whole the mayhem was coordinated rather well, even if it did rip off some of the setpieces almost wholesale from the original film, to lesser effect.

So for a Summer blockbuster it just about works, I just don’t expect to be revisiting it with any warmth in 20 years’ time.

Jurassic World film poster CREDITS
Director Colin Trevorrow; Writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Trevorrow; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Genesis [2D], London, Tuesday 16 June 2015.

May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in May which I didn’t review in full. Find reviews for the following below the cut:

Aru Kyohaku (Intimidation) (1960, Japan)
Aventurera (1950, Mexico)
Belle Époque (1992, Spain)
The Expendables (2010, USA)
Hanna (2011, UK/USA/Germany)
Hit So Hard (2011, USA)
John Wick (2014, USA)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, Australia/USA)
Plemya (The Tribe) (2014, Ukraine/Netherlands)
Tomboy (2011, France)

Continue reading “May 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Criterion Sunday 25: Alphaville: Une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

The title may reference a then-popular detective series starring American expatriate Eddie Constantine, but as per usual this is hardly a straightforward film from Jean-Luc Godard. It’s set in a retro-futurist Paris, though of course Godard didn’t have the budget to build any sets, but rather films amongst the modern 1960s architecture of the city, all glass lifts and big shiny lobbies, not to mention anonymous office corridors at the heart of the computer-controlled corporation that runs the city. It’s a film of alternately banal surfaces and fascinating faces (whether the pitted one of Constantine, or Godard’s muse of the time, the ravishing Anna Karina), matched to the raspy electronically-modulated voice of computer overlord Alpha 60. I can’t for a moment pretend to tell you what actually happens — there are elements of generic detective plot though Caution is fighting on behalf of individualism and free thought rather than anything more base, and Godard punctuates scenes with images of flashing lights and neon equations, presumably to symbolise Alpha 60’s reliance on logic. There’s a troubling relationship to women in Alphaville’s society — a theme that runs through a lot of Godard’s filmmaking — and it’s difficult to be sure whether that’s a function of the oppressive state or something more insidious. Needless to say, it’s a strange and fascinating movie whose images of a modern nighttime Paris have a dark romanticism to them, especially seen at a remove of what is now 50 years.

Criterion Extras: Certainly not all Criterion releases have extensive extras (though more recently they’ve tended to put the bare-bones stuff out on their Eclipse sub-label), but even by the thin standards of some others of this period, Alphaville is particularly negligible. There’s not even a trailer, so it comes down to the two slim pages written by Andrew Sarris on the inside of the booklet, and of course the quality of the transfer. A bit of context to this odd attempt at sci-fi futurism would have been nice, but at the very least the transfer is of excellent quality.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Tuesday 23 July 2002 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 1998 and October 2000, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 March 2015).

Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015).

Chappie (2015)

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this scenario from the director of South African sci-fi film District 9, it’s just that as a finished film it feels a bit all over the place. The director returns to his homeland of South Africa for a story that examines dystopian class distinctions in a police state governed by a huge weapons corporation Tetravaal (whose CEO is played by Sigourney Weaver). If you think RoboCop (1987) you won’t go far wrong, especially as the film starts out with a fake news broadcast to set the scene, and has two competing robot-police projects — the “Scouts” (read: RoboCop) developed by earnest techie Deon (Dev Patel), and the “Moose” (read: ED-209) by gung-ho ex-military Vincent (Hugh Jackman, sporting quite the fiercest mullet and shorts combo ever seen on screen). After efficiently setting up the society and the company’s role, along with its warring developers, the film settles down to follow a group of gangsters (Yolandi and Ninja from the rap group Die Antwoord) who have stolen a Scout being worked on by Deon, the latter of whom has been working on developing a full AI including human emotions and learning. The gangsters proceed to name their stolen robot Chappie and inculcate him with their gangster lifestyle and values (the robot is voiced and ‘acted’ by Sharlto Copley). This would all be fine except that very little of the detail is believable: whether about the company itself (all its staff work in a small open-plan office, and security measures ridiculously lax) or about the interaction between the gangsters and robot. I found it very difficult to believe in the characters played by Die Antwoord or care about their story arc: Ninja is set up as a tyrannical and hateful father figure, but there’s a later twist in which we are required to care about his fate. The film skips back and forth between so many emotional registers that it can become exhausting, and it feels like its natural demographic should be young teenagers, though it’s probably too violent for them. Yet it shows a lot of promise in its filmmaking, in its excellent robot effects, and the big name actors were all a pleasure to watch. Enjoyable enough, but a missed opportunity all in all.

Chappie film posterCREDITS
Director Neill Blomkamp; Writers Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell (based on Blomkamp’s short film Tetra Vaal); Cinematographer Trent Opaloch; Starring Sharlto Copley, Die Antwoord, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 16 March 2015.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a strong directorial vision, who’ve put some pretty good films together (also, admittedly, some bad ones; I do not intend to make a case for any of the Matrix sequels), so when you see the kind of critical mauling that Jupiter Ascending has been getting from some quarters, well I think that’s as good a recommendation as any to get oneself along to the film in question. Sure, it’s a big confusing mess, but there’s nothing in it that seems to invite the derision it’s been getting, though this may in fact be down to a lot of similar factors to Inherent Vice‘s reception — that the plot is so elaborate that it’s turned some viewers off. But, weirdly, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, this is a much an exercise in evoking the fabric of a lost world (or, here, an imagined universe), which should always be something worth celebrating. It’s no mean feat to try and visualise the textures of such a vast system of planets (think Star Wars) and power factions (think Dune), so if there’s a bit of recycling involved, well that’s to be expected — in fact, one sequence has such an indebtedness to Brazil that Terry Gilliam himself turns up. There’s plenty enough that’s unfamiliar — new experiences and imagery, created jargon for new technology — that as a viewer you feel sympathy for Mila Kunis’s titular heroine Jupiter when, like Vice‘s Doc, she is called on to continually express confusion at what’s happening. It’s refreshing too to see a woman playing the central character for such a big film — she is a lowly Russian cleaner who turns out to be (via some method) the owner of Earth — though Channing Tatum (with quite the silliest facial hair of the season) provides plenty of valuable support as the ‘spliced’ mercenary (think Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps) who has her back. The acting star here though is Eddie Redmayne, who chews up the scenery with such a hammy performance that it goes through badness to being sheer genius, and perfectly matches the tone of the film. Other performers can be uneven, and taken as a whole it doesn’t always hold together perfectly, but as an experience it’s every bit the equal in imagination and scope as any other big budget blockbuster, and as a “space opera” it’s more interesting than any nonsense from 1977.


Jupiter Ascending film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015.