Tag Archives: 2013

Film Review: Upstream Color

Upstream Color

Whilst a club Kris (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped and drugged using some kind of larval parasite which makes her incredibly susceptible to suggestion. After eventually being freed by her captor, Kris has no knowledge of what’s happened to her and meets Jeff (Shane Carruth) who appears to have suffered a similar experience and with whom she has some kind of instinctive bond. 

Think of Upstream Color’s narrative as a balance beam covered in washing up liquid. The first few steps are pretty easy but at some point you’ll probably begin to wobble and slip. You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on staying on course and if you lose your concentration for a moment then you’ll likely fall off. However, if you concentrate then you might just make it to the end.

See, there’s a good chance that at some point during Upstream Color you’ll wonder what the hell is going on. Just when you think you fully understand what’s going on and you start to relax, it’ll throw you a curveball and make you question everything you’ve already seen. You’ll question what’s real, who’s who and what on Earth the pigs have to do with it all. It doesn’t quite cross the line into surrealism but there’s definitely an abstract nature to it that lets the viewer come to their own conclusion on meaning and significance.

Upstream Color

The film has a very oneiric, almost other wordly, quality throughout which adds to the belief that not everything is as it seems. The score (also done by Carruth) also plays a big part in this, the near-constant, often monotone music rising and falling throughout, almost as if trying to lull you into a trance.

Whether Upstream Color is for you will very much depend on what you look for from your films. If you want something with a traditional narrative that you can switch off to then stay well away. However, if you want something that’s going to test you a little and you don’t mind having to join some of the dots yourself then there’s a lot here to enjoy.

Personally, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t totally understand what was going on at all times. I definitely wobbled on that balance beam a few times but just managed to stay on, and the film’s conclusion does just enough to wrap things up if you’ve paid enough attention. It might be a little too abstract for its own good at times but the majority of the film is mesmerising and wholly unique, at least to my eyes.

You’ll likely either enjoy Upstream Color or not take to it at all, but it’s without a doubt a film you’ll have an opinion on. Some will love it, others will hate it, but I guarantee you won’t have seen anything like it.

Pros

  • Unique concept
  • Great cinematography
  • Mesmerising score

Cons

  • Sometimes a little too abstract for its own good

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), along with his trusty news team Brian (Paul Rudd), Champ (David Koechner) and Brick (Steve Carell), are back and are about to become the face of a new televisual sensation – 24-hour rolling news. However, the course of good news never did run smooth…

Gone are the days when a simple trailer, a couple of posters and maybe a few press interviews would make up the entirety of a film’s marketing campaign. Now it often seems the case that more effort is actually put into the marketing than the film itself. Unfortunately that feels the case with Anchorman 2.

The backdrop of Anchorman 2 is the 1980s but it actually has something to say about the state of news today, and this is where it has more substance than the first film. It makes a comment on the way we are fed news but also how we consume it. Once upon a time, much of what we consider ‘news’ wouldn’t even be entertained in newsrooms, but it’s now become something for that very purpose – to entertain – and that’s the message at the core of Anchorman 2.

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But we’ve not come along for that, have we? We’ve come along for the jokes, which unfortunately are a very mixed bag. Now, the film does have some very funny moments, but too often does its jokes labour or miss the mark completely. What we get is jokes recycled from the first film or overplayed so that they no longer become funny. For example, Ron struggling to come to terms with having a black boss is amusing at first, but after the third or fourth instance, the joke gets a bit thin. There’s also an incredibly bizarre 20 minute section involving a lighthouse and a shark which just seems ridiculously out of place and consequently feels unnecessary.

But Anchorman 2 isn’t a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, and for fans there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Brian showcasing his collection of condoms is a particular highlight, whilst Steve Carell’s Brick is still one of the funniest things about the whole film. There are also a couple of interesting new characters, namely Jack Marsden as young and stylish anchor Jack Lime, and Kristen Wiig’s Chani Lastnamé as a love interest for Brick.

Whether Anchorman 2 ever becomes as beloved as the original film remains to be seen, but there’s nothing here to convert those who aren’t already big fans of Ron et al. Even when the film isn’t working, there are still laughs to be had, but just like watching 24-hours news, it can start to feel a little stale all too quickly.

Pros

  • Interesting comment on the state of news
  • Very funny in places
  • Steve Carell’s Brick

Cons

  • Not as funny as it needs to be
  • Recycled jokes
  • Starts to feel a little long by the end

3 and a half pigeons3.5/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Frozen

frozen-poster-smallAfter Queen Elsa’s (Idina Menzel) icy powers inadvertently trap the town of Arendelle in an eternal winter, Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell) teams up with man of the mountain Kristoff (Jonathon Groff) and snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) to track down Elsa and return summer to Arendelle.

With the huge success of Disney Pixar films over the past two decades, it can be easy to forget that Disney are capable of creating some pretty great films on their own, and Frozen is a perfect case in point.

The Mouse House has made a concerted effort to include strong female protagonists in recent years and Frozen continues this trend. Elsa and Anna have very different personalities but are both very headstrong and perfect for young girls to look up to.

In terms of the other characters, the only other real standout is Olaf the snowman. Whilst largely incidental to the film’s plot, Olaf provides much of the film’s humour and it’s impossible to imagine the film being as successful without him.

As you’d expect, Frozen is sprinkled with some fantastic musical numbers with highlight ‘Let It Go’ sure to have you humming away for days afterwards.

Although likely to be more seasonal than most other Disney films, Frozen is very much in the mould of other established Disney stories, such as Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. However, it feels plenty original enough to sit proudly alongside those classics.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of merry dwarves, along with Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) continue their quest to reclaim the dwarf homeland of Erebor from the clutches of the mighty dragon Smaug.

Stepping back into Middle Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was like meeting an old friend after several years. However, just like bumping into an old chum, things often are never the same and you long for how they used to be. An Unexpected Journey was good but it definitely wasn’t to the standards we remembered from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The good news is The Desolation of Smaug is a definite improvement over the first chapter, although there are still a few issues here and there.

One criticism of An Unexpected Journey was that it was too slow and plodding, particularly at the start. Well The Desolation of Smaug  has no such problem and jumps straight into the action, which is what you’d expect from the second part of a trilogy. This films also ramps up the threat level, which is another needed improvement over the first film. Here our heroes actually feel in danger whether from pursuing orcs or that scaly British dragon.

In terms of performances, everything is pretty much as before. Martin Freeman is still perfect as Bilbo, whilst the rest of the cast also perform admirably. This time around we do get a few new faces (and a voice) in Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel the elf, Luke Evans’ Bard and of course Smaug the dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Both Tauriel and Bard are interesting new additions and help to add depth to the overall story.

One issue that also cropped up in An Unexpected Journey is the use of CGI and how surprisingly poor it is. The Lord of the Rings trilogy tended to opt for more practical effects than CGI, but both Hobbit films thus far have significantly increased the amount of special effects and a lot of it looks rather cheap. Whether this is due to time or budget constraints is unclear, but the CGI often doesn’t blend well with its surroundings which does pull you out of the film. It should be noted, however, that Smaug himself, however, is superbly rendered and looks fantastic.

Is making The Hobbit into three films stretching the story too much? There is definitely an element of that, and certain sections of both films so far do feel overly long and drawn out. However, it’s still a pleasure to experience Middle Earth and if you’re a fan of the franchise then The Desolation of Smaug should keep you well entertained and eager for the final installment.

 Pros

  • Interesting new characters
  • Increased level of threat
  • Martin Freeman’s Bilbo
  • Smaug

Cons

  • Some dodgy CGI
  • Too drawn out at times

 

4 pigeons4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: The Act of Killing

In the 1960s, the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. Anyone siding with the government was branded a ‘communist’ and was killed. Anwar Congo was one of the men responsible for the killings and, along with some of his cohorts, re-enacts the killings as dramatic works of fiction

I don’t think it’s too much of a sweeping statement to say that everyone’s aware of the events of World War II and the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews. But I’d put a good deal of money on not many people knowing that virtually the same thing happened in Indonesia in the 1960s. I certainly didn’t.

There’s no two ways about it; The Act of Killing is an incredibly difficult watch. I can’t think of any other film that has literally left me open mouthed and dumbfounded at what I was watching, and much of that is because of the way director Joshua Oppenheimer (you can read an excellent interview with Oppenheimer here) has chosen to go about telling the story.

Getting Anwar Congo and his sycophantic sidekick Herman Koto to re-enact the killings on film and create dramatised versions of the events is a work of absolute genius and serves only to further highlight their atrocities. They create scenes covering various film genres including gangster films, westerns and musicals, each twisted and disturbing to watch as they laugh and joke their way around the subject. Oppenheimer doesn’t need an agenda here; just letting it play out as it does tells its own story.

The casual, almost banal, way they talk about the killings is really quite startling. They proudly hide nothing and openly discuss killing hundreds and thousands of people as if swatting a troublesome fly. For example, when watching one of the scenes back in which he demonstrates his favourite method of killing, Anwar becomes visibly uncomfortable. However, we soon learn that it’s because he realises he’s wearing the wrong kind of trousers on the film to those he wore in real life. That’s the level of casual sadism we’re dealing with, and that’s just one example of many.

There has been some criticism levelled at the documentary in that it doesn’t address the role the US played in the killings, effectively supporting what was happening at the time. However, Oppenheimer has simply chosen a different route to take with the film and that’s his prerogative. It would simply be impossible to cover this topic from every angle, and those wanting more details should take it upon themselves to do some research.

This is by no means a comprehensive account of the killings but is more than enough to provide a truly horrifying snapshot into events that have somehow gone largely unreported. The Act of Killing is eye-opening, shocking and most of all important.

Pros

  • Incredibly inventive way of telling the story
  • An important historical event gaining wider coverage
  • Illuminating interviews with the subjects

Cons

  • Some slight production value issues

5 pigeons

5/5 pigeons

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Film Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Following the events of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdean (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are paraded round as celebrities by the powers that be in The Capitol. However, worried about her Katniss’ growing popularity amongst the repressed Districts, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) creates the Quarter Quell to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, sending Katniss, Peeta and other previous winners back into the arena.

The second installment of a trilogy is often the darkest; just look at Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as examples. And it’s this way for a reason. We’re at the mid-way point in the story where the threat is usually at its highest and still a way off finding a resolution for the characters. This is where we’re at with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

The first Hunger Games film was a surprisingly adult affair considering its young adult demographic and featured a strong female lead, an attribute many considered an advantage over its Twilight peers. It was also a satirical look at today’s society, examining the class system and adding a modern twist to Orwell’s ‘big brother’ ideas.

Catching Fire is essentially split into two parts. The first focuses on Katniss coming to terms with the events of the first film and how she’s struggling to deal with having killed people and consequently being hailed as a celebrity because of it. This half may seem a little slow to those expecting the intensity to instantly match that of the first film, but it’s necessary to evaluate the past events as well as set up the second half of the film.

The second half plays out in a very similar fashion to the first film and, as such, feels a little repetitive at times. There are a few added elements and new characters but it does tread familiar ground perhaps too often. The film does also feel rather flabby with its two and a half hour runtime. There are a few scenes which probably could easily have stayed on the cutting room floor to make it a much tighter film which, considering the rather rushed denouement, is a little damaging to the pacing.

Now, onto the film’s tone and just how dark it is. The first film wasn’t exactly sweetness and light, particularly with its Battle Royale theme, but Catching Fire takes it to a new level. Here we have public executions and torture, as well as a really quite disturbing turn of events that isn’t dwelt upon too much but adds another dimension to the second half of the film. It’s a brave decision from director Francis Lawrence to run with a darker tone but the film benefits massively as a result.

Catching Fire’s cast have also developed along with the film. In the first film, it was Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch who really stood out but here pretty much everyone else has upped their game. Elizabeth Banks as Effie is a much more human character this time around, whilst Stanley Tucci as TV host Caesar Flickerman is fantastically creepy. However, it’s Jennifer Lawrence who really steps up to the plate. There was little wrong with her performance as Katniss Everdean last time around but she’s matured so much since then. She shows real conflict in her actions, perfectly portraying Katniss’s strength one minute and frailties the next.

Catching Fire has done exactly what it needed to do. It’s still true to the first in terms of style and message but has evolved the story and the main characters just the right amount. Splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two films is a somewhat risky choice, but thanks to Catching Fire the franchise is doing nothing but growing in strength.

Pros

  • Great performances from Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks
  • A real dark undertone to the film
  • An interesting comment on society
  • Fantastic costume design

Cons

  • Rushed denouement
  • Some characters feel underdeveloped
  • A little too long

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Blackfish

A documentary looking at the treatment of killer whales kept in captivity and used for entertainment, and how this can have disastrous consequences.

Even for the most ardent animal lover, it can be easy to get swept up in seeing animals such as killer whales perform backflips and carry humans around on their nose. Witnessing such massive and majestic creatures do such tricks is simply fascinating. However, when the show’s over and everyone’s gone home, the cold, harsh reality is that these creatures have been pulled out of their natural habitat, separated from their family and forced to live in cramped environments, and that’s what Blackfish wants everyone to know.

We hear from various ex-SeaWorld employees who have seen first-hand how these animals are treated and the effects captivity has on the killer whales. They talk fondly of their affection for the animals but have become horrified at the distress these animals are in. This distress sometimes manifests itself in not-as-rare-as-we’re-led-to-believe incidents in which trainers are killed or badly injured.

This is shocking enough, but what truly hits home is the mental anguish the whales are in. Not only do the whales attack each other after being cramped up for so long but their mental states also disintegrates. Seeing footage of a whale mourning the loss of her calf after they’re separated is genuinely heartbreaking and gets the message across far more effectively than the incidents with humans.

However, Blackfish does have one fundamental flaw, and that’s how one-sided it is. Whilst it’s fine enough for a documentary to push a message, it owes it those involved, as well as its audience, to offer some kind of counter-argument. In this case, we only really hear from those against using killer whales for entertainment. You may strongly agree with that view, but the opposition still have a view worth hearing. To give the filmmakers their due, they did ask SeaWorld for a comment but the invitation was declined at the time (although they have since responded). This isn’t the filmmakers’ fault but the documentary is poorer as a result.

Despite that, the facts are presented very well, and they simply cannot be argued against. It’s an incredibly powerful documentary that goes far beyond the what the public see when they pay their SeaWorld admission fee. If you think these shows look like good entertainment, Blackfish may well make you think twice.

4 pigeons4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Philomena

After having a child out of wedlock, Philomena Lee (Dame Judi Dench) was forced to give up her son by Catholic nuns. 50 years laters, journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) hears about Philomena’s story and helps her to search for her long-lost son.

When I wrote my review of Danish film The Hunt, I said that it made me incredibly angry, an emotion that very few films have evoked in me. However, it didn’t take too long for another film to do the same, and Philomena left me seething as I walked out of the cinema.

Philomena is another of those films inspired by a true story – it’s based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Steve Coogan’s character, journo Martin Sixsmith – and it’s this that makes the film all the more harrowing.

Without wanting to spoil anything, the film has its highs and lows, with certain groups portrayed less than favourably, namely journalists and the Catholic Church, and it’s the latter from which my anger emanated (although it’s not totally one-sided). What’s excellent, however, is that it doesn’t ram a particular message down your throat and, for the most part, lets you draw your own conclusions and pick your own side. At times it does feel slightly manipulative in trying to make you feel sympathy for Philomena when it really doesn’t need to; the general story does that by itself.

The two central performances of Dench and Coogan are fantastic and play off brilliantly against one another. For much of the film, they are very much ice and fire personalities, with Philomena’s simple, perhaps naïve, view of the world contrasted with Sixsmith’s much more negative (albeit probably realistic) view.

Despite the title, Philomena is just as much Sixsmith’s story as the titular character’s. At the film’s outset, we see him unsure of whether he’d stoop as ‘low’ as a human interest story but by the end we really see a transformation, and it really adds an extra dimension to the film. It would have been easy to just solely focus on Philomena but Sixsmith’s story is almost as compelling.

And what’s somewhat surprising is just how funny the film is. Coogan’s touch is all over the script (some lines could come straight out of Alan Partridge) and both main characters get their fair share of laugh-out-loud lines. It’s similar in subject matter to Peter Mullen’s excellent The Magdelene Sisters but comes at it from a much more light-hearted (but no less heart-wrenching) angle. This humour is needed, too; without it, the film could be very dour and a little too heavy, so kudos to Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope for getting the balance just right.

After watching Philomena, you’ll likely side with one of the two main characters (I certainly did), and it’s this duality that the film hammers home, which should ensure almost everyone will come away with a different experience and opinion. It’s not always the happiest of films, but it’s filled with heart and at its most effective is one of the most powerful films of the year.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Gravity

GRAVITY

During a routine spacewalk, astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are caught up in debris caused by a Russian missile strike on a defunct spacestation. Stranded above the Earth and running low on oxygen, they must do what they can to survive.

There’s not much point in talking about Gravity without starting with how it looks. From the opening shot to the moments the credits role, the film is a technical marvel. It’s freakin’ gorgeous.

Director Alfonso Cuarón initially wanted to make Gravity a fair few years ago but was not satisfied that technology was advanced enough to take his vision to the big screen. However, with various technological advancements, was finally able to make the film he wanted to make, and to stunning effect.

Never before has the line between CGI and live action been quite so blurred. The teams at Framestore and Prime Focus have done an amazing job and the biggest compliment I can pay them is that it made me genuinely believe the whole thing was filmed in space rather than Pinewood and Shepperton Studios in London.

For a setting so vast, the attention to detail is staggering (you’ll not find anything about factual inaccuracies here). From Sandra Bullock nonchalantly brushing past debris during a spacewalk to the inch perfect shot composition, Gravity is a film that is so meticulous in its construction yet so simple and natural in its presentation.

Floating high above the Earth, there is no up, no down; everything just revolves and spins in zero-gravity and its a genuinely immersive experience. You really feel as if you’re floating there with them, and part of that is due to the 3D. I’m no fan of 3D whatsoever but it feels so intrinsic to the overall effect of Gravity that I would urge everyone to cough up the extra cash and give it a whirl in 3D. It’s not gimmicky or distracting; it just really helps convey the vastness of space.

It’s not all style, though, and thematically there’s plenty going on. There are themes of rebirth, loss, hope and even evolution. At time it also clearly uses Kubrick’s 2001 as inspiration.

GRAVITY

Clooney and Bullock are the leads here, and to be honest, they’re pretty much the only characters in the film. Bullock takes centre stage, however, and delivers a superb performance. She’s fine when Clooney’s wise-cracking at her, but it’s the times when she’s on her own that stand out as she really helps convey her loneliness and helplessness.

The film isn’t perfect, though. It’s easy to get blinded by the visual splendour of the film, but I had a few (minor) issues. The dialogue, Clooney’s in particular, is a little on the corny side and does briefly pull you out of the experience. It sometimes feel like a George Clooney character rather than a character played by George Clooney. My only other gripe is that the story is a little repetitive. It occasionally felt like a series of set pieces rather than a fluid story, each time something else going wrong and putting the astronauts in danger. Repeat to fade.

These really are only slight issues though. Gravity is a film that should not be missed and on a technical level deserves to be mentioned alongside films such as Metropolis2001Titanic, etc. So do yourself a favour; find the biggest screen possible, sit back and just drink it in.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review – Thor: The Dark World

With the Frost Giants defeated and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in prison, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is helping to return peace to the nine realms. However, after Jane (Natalie Portman) discovers an ancient force known as the Aether, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), leader of the Dark Elves, hatches a plan to harness the Aether to return the nine realms to darkness.

The unique thing and the Thor franchise compared to the other Marvel films is that its hero comes from somewhere other than Earth. This presents its own set of pros and cons, but what it does ensure is that it has the opportunity to stand proud from its peers such as Iron Man and Captain America.

Thor: The Dark World takes advantage of other worldly locales more than the first film and it’s better for it as a result. We get to see some of the other realms, albeit briefly, and Asgard feels more fleshed out, starting to feel like a living, breathing world. This is no doubt down to director Alan Taylor who has also directed TV fantasy epic Game of ThronesWe still get a good chunk of the film set on Earth, however; this time in London. This split between the recognisable Earth and fantasy of Asgard is well balanced and adds excellent variety to the film’s locations.

One area where the film really excels is in its humour. Marvel films always have a rich vein of humour running through them but Thor:TDW turns it up a notch. It’s genuinely funny in places, with much of the humour coming from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. His biting remarks towards Thor are frequent (maybe even a little too frequent) and more often then not will raise a giggle. Thor himself also some amusing moments, ensuring he’s not totally outplayed by his on-screen brother.

And it’s in the chemistry between the two brothers where the film really shines. Chris Hemsworth is a little held back by the nature of Thor’s character but still manages to inject a bit of personality into the role, particularly when he’s so obviously out of place during his time on Earth. Tom Hiddleston was undoubtedly the best thing about the first Thor film, and arguably also in Avengers Assembleand he’s similarly brilliant here. He manages to perfectly balance Loki’s smarmy yet scared persona masterfully; we see him goading Thor and hatching devious plots throughout, yet we also see a sadness and vulnerability that shows a deeper side to the character.

Unfortunately, this characterisation does not translate to the film’s villain. Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith is a frankly banal enemy devoid of personality or threat. This isn’t Eccleston’s fault, merely that of the character, and is a trend all too common with the recent batch of superhero movies.

Superhero films a ten a penny these days and it’s easy to become jaded by their familiarity and somewhat formulaic nature. Likewise, if you’re not a fan of the genre, there’s little here to suddenly change your mind (well, Chris Hemsworth maybe). However, thanks to some excellent set pieces and laugh out loud humour, Thor:TDW establishes itself as one of the best films in the Marvel series so far.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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