Cinderella (2015)

Cinderella 2015Having lost her mother at a young age, Ella (Lily James) is later deprived of her father, too, leaving her in the care of inter-rim step-mother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). At first cohabiting with the Tremaines, including step-sisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), Ella is soon demoted to mere servant as dwindling funds necessitate the dismissal of staff. Eager to marry either of her own children off to Prince Charming (Richard Madden), Lady Tremaine escorts them to a ball at the palace, leaving Ella — now dismissively referred to as cinder-Ella, on account of her sleeping by the fire — to make preparations for their return. Ella’s Fairy Godmother, however, has other plans: a few waves of her wands and Cinderella is transformed into a princess, complete with transportation and entourage, and the Prince is soon transfixed by her presence.

Not that this review even needs a synopsis, given how ingrained the Cinderella story is in modern-day popular culture. Whether you know it from the original European folktale, the 1950 Disney animation or the character’s cameos in the Shrek series and last year’s Into The Woods — not to mention the countless other adaptations, be it in film, theatre or ballet — the narrative never really changes: there’s always a girl, a prince and an evil step-mother involved somehow. Director Kenneth Branagh takes perhaps the fewest liberties yet in his Chris Weitz-scripted, Lily James-starring big screen translation, which strips the story of its musical moments and post-modern subversions to focus on emotional realism rather than romantic fantasy. Like Alice In Wonderland (or Underland, misheard by young Alice) and Snow White and the Huntsman (which took the dwarves to war), cinder-Ella wants to be about more than just magic.

The problem, however, is that without that enchantment Cinderella isn’t all that much fun. Successive storytellers have tried to make the character compelling but she is always outshone by The Fairy Godmother or The Fairy Godmother’s transfigurations. Whereas Branagh managed to ground Marvel’s Thor in the present without compromising on either humour or high fantasy he has turned Cinderella not into a modern-day princess movie for all but a rather staid period drama too tedious for children but not interesting enough for adults. In fact, the audience spends more time with Ella’s ill-fated mother than they do with the aforementioned fairy, meaning that the famous — and still pretty fabulous, it must be said — transformation sequences seem out of place when they should feel right at home. Bonham Carter is terrific fun as The Fairy Godmother, her performance relatively restrained but still characteristically deranged, but worse than being understated she is also underused. For the most part, the actress is relegated to voice-over duty and forced to narrate the less interesting aspects of Ella’s life.

Instead, Branagh spends his time explaining plot developments that nobody needs explained and establishing characters that most have known since childhood. It doesn’t matter how Cinderella came to live with her evil step-mother, and yet this latest movie spends almost its entire first act focusing on that precise string of contrivances. It seems strange that Branagh — and indeed Weitz — should spend so much time simply naming their protagonist (why oh why couldn’t they have just christened her Cinderella in the first place?) only to then glaze over the fact that a lizard has been magically transfigured into a footman. However, as with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh’s last cinematic adaptation after Thor, the main problem is the uninspiring and ultimately anonymous cast (though the inclusion of Rob Brydon is almost as noteworthy as Michael Starke’s appearance in the former). Rather than casting spells, Cinderella seems intent on breaking them: even in her trademark glass slippers, newcomer James fails to sparkle, while television actor Madden isn’t nearly charming enough or Blanchett sufficiently evil to live up to their respective titles. By attempting to humanise their characters the actors have robbed them of their identities.

Although better than both Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, Cinderella continues to do nothing to inspire confidence in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptations of its classic animations — Joe Wright’s Pan is next, scheduled for release in July. Branagh’s latest is all pumpkin, no carriage.

2-stars (1)

 

 

Insurgent (2015)

InsurgentIn the ruins of future Chicago — its citizens walled in and divided into five factions according to mutually exclusive virtues — leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet) is trying to open a mysterious box. In Amity, meanwhile, having survived Erudite’s hostile takeover of Abnegation, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley), boyfriend Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and fellow survivor Peter (Miles Teller) take short-lived refuge in the home of Johanna (Octavia Spencer). When Eric (Jai Courtney) and his team of soldiers track them down, however, they are forced to flee once more, this time escaping aboard a train back into the city — all except Peter, who surrenders. En route, and for want of a better plan, Four reveals that he was born Tobias Eaton, and that his mother (Naomi Watts) is raising an army of factionless individuals with which to overthrow Jeanine.

If you are planning to see Insurgent — the second instalment in Summit Entertainment’s Divergent series, adapted from Veronica Roth’s bestselling books — then it can be reasonably assumed that the first film’s many, many, many flaws were not enough to put you off; that, for instance, the derivative plot, paper-thin characters and non-existent internal logic were of little importance next to an attractive cast and — well, an attractive cast. The ensemble has indeed returned — in body at least, most of them having gone on to bigger and better things in the meantime — but so too have the same unanswerable questions. What is divergent? How are they any different from the factionless? Where on Earth did Roth get the impression that you could meaningfully differentiate between personality types? The script throws out one or two ideas, but nothing remotely satisfying.

The sequel poses equally baffling questions of its own, too. When did Tris find the time to highlight her hair while on the run? What use would a faction called Candor and comprised only of honest people possibly have for a truth serum? How does being divergent — belonging in more than one faction, apparently — grant you super-strength, blanket weapon skills and immunity to tranquilisers? In fact, Insurgent only contains one single revelation, though unfortunately everyone in the audience will have guessed the resultant twist within the opening moments of the movie, if not sooner. Luckily, however, there are more diversions this time around, and thanks to a substantially increased special effects budget (along with replacement director Robert Schwentke’s eye for a set piece) the film is occasionally visually exciting enough to distract you from the fact that none of it makes the slightest bit of sense.

The simulations are back, as divergents are put to the test by Jeanine in an attempt to unlock the box’s secrets, but rather than having the subjects perform relatively mundane tasks the obstacles have been scaled up in every possible way. The Dauntless simulation, for instance, sees the subject navigate a crumbling and re-configuring cityscape in an attempt to save a loved one, while Abnegation pits them against themselves in a fight to the death. When Tris is inevitably put through her paces, being 100% divergent or whatever, her success during the Erudite test leads to one of the most unexpectedly and unnecessarily beautiful sequences of the year so far. It is ultimately hollow praise, however, as being unable to engage with the characters — nobody apart from Watts (“Do you want to tuck him in or should I?”) makes the slightest impression — or begin to comprehend what’s at stake — not a single death, betrayal or reconciliation carries any dramatic weight whatsoever — you can only appreciate it on the most superficial of levels.

While not quite as infuriating or insulting as the original, The Divergent Series: Insurgent does nothing to suggest that the series has any intention of actually diverging from the worst cliches of the Young Adult genre. For insurgency in 2015, you’d more than likely be better off waiting for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II or The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials.

2-stars

Home (2015)

HomeHaving been mercilessly hunted across the galaxy by the Gorg, the Boov claim Earth as their latest hidey-hole. Transplanting the natives to Humanstown, Captain Smek (Steve Martin) leads Oh (Jim Parsons), Kyle (Matt L Jones) and the rest of the Boov in their Moving Day celebrations. However, when Oh accidentally invites the entire universe to his flatwarming party, he is banished from the community as the elders attempt to intercept the message before it reaches the Gorg. On the run, Oh is cornered by Tip (Rihanna), a resentful but resourceful human girl who — along with her pet cat, Pig — was overlooked by the Boov transports. Tip is searching for her mother (Jennifer Lopez), and will only let Oh go free if he promises to help her find her first.

Adapted from Adam Rex’s 2007 children’s book ‘The True Meaning of Smekday’ and directed by Antz‘s Tim Johnson, Home was originally scheduled for release late last year, but was later supplanted with a more surefire hit better suited to the competitive holiday season — namely Penguins of Madagascar. Both were announced in 2013 as part of an elaborate and exciting twelve picture release schedule, one that would see the 2oth Century Fox distribute three films a year through to How To Train Your Dragon 3 in 2016, and which would reset the status quo to ensure more stand-alone films were produced than sequels or spin-offs; but the under-performance of Rise of the Guardians, Turbo and Mr Peabody & Sherman forced a large-scale reshuffle within the studio that resulted in a significantly reduced slate and the loss of hundreds of jobs. With the likes of B.O.O and Me and My Shadow being withdrawn back into development, Home was lucky to get a release at all.

Perhaps worryingly, then, Home is a somewhat middling affair, ranking higher than many of the studio’s original properties but well below the standard set by Madagascar 3 and How To Train Your Dragon 2. The first twenty minutes are almost laugh-free — an untenably turgid introduction to the Boov race that quickly establishes Oh as one of the most insufferable leading characters in an animated movie. Voiced with the utmost self-satisfaction by Parsons, and reduced to speaking in pervasive and poorly imitated broken English, Oh outstays his welcome almost immediately. “I too has to break pee” is a particularly irksome example of the character’s jarring diction, but there are many more to choose from. Given that Todd Wilderman directed an energetic and entertaining alternate introduction — distilling the Boov’s defining traits and Oh’s own quirks into an admirably efficient four minute sequence — to be attached to screenings of Mr Peabody & Sherman, it’s disappointing that the version that made it into the film itself is so unremarkable, uninspiring, and so likely unmemorable.

Thankfully, however, Home has other things going for it, not least the exceptionally high quality of the animation that has become the studio’s defining feature. DreamWorks, who last year upgraded their animation and lighting software, continue to push the envelope — the cute and superficially crude character designs belie a complexity and attention to detail that remains second to none. Oh may talk utter nonsense, but his face is so expressive that his gestures take on a life of their own; his mannerisms are not only coherent but completely captivating. The background detail is impressive too, one example being the Boov’s bubble technology that allows them to access any building and effectively dispose of any item deemed unnecessary — everything from umbrellas to toilet bowls. There is also a heartwarming theme of family and friendship, which doesn’t differentiate between terrestrial and extraterrestrial aliens. Ultimately, though, it’s Tip herself who stands out, even among the Annas and Eeps and Meridas of contemporary children’s cinema. The success of the character cannot be solely attributed to the animators either, regardless of how amazing their efforts might be; perhaps surprisingly — particularly if you’re familiar with her work on Battleship — Rihanna cuts a perfectly charismatic and compelling voice actor.

Home isn’t an easy film to like, let alone love, but for all of its flaws it at least has its own distinct personality. You could say that DreamWorks Animation have built what at first inspection appears to be an almost derelict house, but which over time becomes a gradually endearing home. You could. If only it weren’t a question of equity.

3-Stars

Run All Night (2015)

Run All NightWhen limousine driver Mike Conlon (Joel Kinnaman) is witness to an incident involving Danny Maguire (Boyd Holbrook), the rebel son of reformed crime lord Shawn (Ed Harris), he finds himself being targeted by everyone Danny has on his payroll. The situation is further complicated when Mike’s father Jimmy (Liam Neeson), an old friend of Shawn’s who left his own family to serve the crime boss’ as their go-to hitman, kills Danny while defending his son and incurs Shawn’s wrath in the process. As Mike fears for his young family, evacuating them to a lakeside retreat from his past, Jimmy fights his way through the ranks — starting with their new hitman, Mr Price (Common), in an attempt to stop Shawn before the latter can exact his revenge.

Although Liam Neeson’s bewildering action-man makeover started with the Luc Besson produced Taken series, director Jaume Collet-Serra was also complicit in making the actor so ubiquitous within the genre. Having collaborated on Unknown and Non-Stop, two preposterously high-concept Euro-thrillers that — respectively — saw Neeson forget his part in an assassination attempts and face off against apparently well-intentioned terrorists aboard a crashing plane, the two reteemed for Run All Night, a rather more realistic and grounded sins of the father saga set in New York. However, what truly distinguishes Run All Night from Unknown and Non-Stop, and any other Neeson actioner for that matter, is that it’s actually quite good.

Neeson carries on pretty much as usual, but Collet-Serra has this time chosen to surround him with a higher caliber of supporting actor — Julianne Moore notwithstanding — of which Ed Harris is undoubtedly the most familiar face. Always watchable, Harris brings real conflict and complexity to Shawn, a character driven to avenge in death a son he wasn’t necessarily too fond of in life. However, lesser known talents include Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6), Vincent Philip D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) and Common (Selma), while Joel Kinnaman (of the much-maligned RoboCop remake) quickly redeems himself as Mike. It wouldn’t be hard to imaging Run All Night going straight to DVD, its poorly photoshopped cover replete with embarrassed-looking A-listers phoning in performances for an easy paycheck, but the actor’s here really earn their cinema release.

While undoubtedly Collet-Serra and Neeson’s most inspiring collaboration to date, Run All Night is sometimes a little too audacious for its own good. Stylistically, the computer-enhanced tracking shots that whisk the action from one location to the next jar horribly with the gritty, down-to-earth aesthetic established elsewhere, while a Christmas setting serves almost no purpose at all — save perhaps for a third act skirmish set to A Fairytale in New York that is barely eventful enough to register. It’s also needlessly violent, especially for a film about families each endeavoring to reinvent themselves as peaceful and legitimate. Jimmy spends the whole film insisting that his son doesn’t pull the trigger, all the while killing just about anyone who appears in his sights. It’s also a little confusing that such an apparent pacifist as Mike should coach boxing and work for Shawn (as a chauffeur, admittedly) in the first place.

Neeson’s best film since The Grey (not, of course, including his inspired, self-effacing voice work on The LEGO Movie), Run All Night is an unexpectedly taught, tense and intelligent thriller. With the actor teasing another two years of action hero-ing before he finally returns to more genteel roles, however (he will forever be the dad from Love, Actually, in my eyes at least), the question is whether he can keep it up.

3-Stars

 

CHAPPiE (2015)

CHAPPiEHaving designed law-enforcement drones for Tetravaal, a weapons manufacturer based in Johannesburg, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) has subsequently turned his attention to artificial intelligence, despite CEO Michelle Bradley’s (Sigourney Weaver) insistence that her company isn’t interested. Before he can install his prototype programme into a damaged robot, however, Deon is kidnapped by gangsters Ninja (as himself), Yolandi (as herself) and America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who want to use the drone for one last heist in order to pay off crime lord Hippo (Brandon Auret) — leaving him with no option but to activate the A.I. and leave it in their hands. While Ninja and Yolandi raise CHAPPiE (Sharlto Copley) as their own, Deon returns to Tetravaal to find rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) — whose own creation, MOOSE, has been deemed too heavy-duty for the police force — has declared war on CHAPPiE.

Whichever way you look at it, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 was something of an empty promise. For some, it set a standard that the director’s later films have yet to live up to; for others, District 9 itself felt like little more than a show-reel designed to impress rather than entertain. Whatever criticism you throw at his sophomore project — Matt Damon vehicle Elysium — however, it feels much more like a movie in its own right. CHAPPiE again feels like the natural progression for a filmmaker still developing his style, and while it too is not without its flaws there is a comprehensiveness to it that District 9 arguably lacks. CHAPPiE is impressive for all of the reasons Blomkamp’s previous efforts are impressive, but for really the first time the story and characters match up with the aesthetics and themes.

CHAPPiE itself/himself is a marvel, both beautifully realised and vividly performed. Having previously played anti-heroes and straight-up villains, it’s refreshing to see Copley given something ever so slightly lighter to play. Like the best movie robots CHAPPiE is relatively crude and uncomplicated on the outside (a tool, rather than a Transformer), but incredibly complex on the inside. Given basic moral parameters by Deon under pressure — do not kill; do not steal — CHAPPiE is then raised by dayglow gangsters who try to manipulate him into doing just that, first by lying to him and then by making him question his creator’s authority. If Deon indeed loves him, why did he give CHAPPiE a damaged body with limited battery life? It is thanks to CHAPPiE that the film dodges unflattering comparisons to RoboCop or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with which it shares a great deal in terms of themes and plot; Copley’s motion-capture performance has its own distinctive personality — from the actor’s telltale accent to the character’s muddled expletives.

Although named after the aforementioned robot, CHAPPiE is effectively an ensemble film — though admittedly an ensemble film that is greater than the sum of its parts. Patel, Jackman and Cantillo are by no means the best actors in the world, while Ninja and Yolandi aren’t even actors, but they are undeniably characters. Blomkamp makes full use of his multinational cast, including an inevitable cameo from genre staple and resident American Weaver, who has marginally more to do here than in The Cabin in the Woods or Paul, and while their individual performances might not always convince their relationships still manage to be compelling. As interesting as the film’s discussions of artificial intelligence are, evoking immediate comparisons to the likes of Ex_Machina, it’s the scenes exploring the quasi-familial bonds the machine eventually develops that are the most fascinating — from Deon fretting about bad influences to Ninja and Yolandi slowly adjusting to their roles as surrogate parents, CHAPPiE both moulds and is moulded by those he comes into contact with.

Funnier and more emotional than either District 9 or Elysium, CHAPPiE is Blomkamp’s most engaging film to date. It is also the director’s most ambitious, and though the ideas and plot mechanics don’t always sit together cohesively what matters is that the solutions Blomkamp finds are always creative. Having now tackled extra-terrestrials, future politics and artificial intelligence, Blomkamp couldn’t be more ready to embark on Alien 5.

4-Stars

 

Still Alice (GFF 2015)

Still AliceAt the age of fifty, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is struggling to remember the occasional word — as an esteemed linguistics professor at Columbia University she is presumably aware of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, which becomes more prevalent with age — but when she forgets where she is while running a well-trodden route she begins to worry that something else might be behind her forgetfulness. Alice is diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s, a rare form of early-onset dementia with devastating implications for her offspring. Having confided in her husband prior to diagnosis, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) helps her break the news to their three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

Few diagnoses can carry quite the same weight as Alzheimer’s Disease, surely a fate worse than death that leaves your body intact while ravaging your mind one memory at a time. It impacts different people in different ways but always to the same end — ultimately robbing the sufferer of their achievements, relationships and their very sense of self as they forget more and more of their lives. And yet, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name seems to suggest that for Dr. Alice Howland the diagnosis is especially tragic. As an independent, intelligent, successful linguist her inability to remember the word “lexicon” is Alzheimer’s Disease at its cruelest.

It’s hard, however, to take issue with Moore’s performance. Having researched the subject and interviewed a number of sufferers she is certainly convincing in her portrayal of a demented and tormented soul. At first simply absent-minded, misconstruing a conversation or misplacing trinkets, she soon begins to feel the full effects of the disease. Although she attempts to conceal and even counteract the progressive symptoms with memory games and messages to herself, episodes of unintentional rudeness, moments of crippling confusion and a movement towards compulsive behaviours begin to take an impact on her family too. In many ways Bosworth’s Anna takes the brunt of it onscreen, but for audiences its Baldwin and Stewart whose pain will be most keenly felt. A third-act scene between the two of them, in which Stewart returns home to help look after her mother, it truly heartbreaking.

And yet, as moving as the movie is it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s also a being a little patronising, too. The Howland’s affluent lifestyle is such that they never need to worry about the financial repercussions of losing half of their income, even though they have recently put two children through university and are now in the process of subsidising their third’s acting career — all while employing a cleaner-cum-carer. Alice may worry for her children’s futures but her concern seems unwarranted. Given how many people Moore is reported to have spoken to in preparation for the role it’s disappointing to see the Alzheimer’s community all but ignored within the film — Westmoreland and Glatzer largely limit their discussion of the disease to doctors and lecturers, conceding only so that Alice can speechify to a crowd. As a scene its supposed to be rousing — Alice loses her place on the page, but finds it again without help — but it just comes across as condescending.

An incongruously noble portrait of a fundamentally ignoble affliction, Still Alice only ever brings Alzheimer’s Disease into soft focus, when ideally it should be spotlighting an underrepresented form of dementia. It seems preoccupied with articulating the indescribable when the real horror should surely be purely experiential. That the film is unsatisfying it inevitable — Alzheimer’s and narrative don’t exactly go hand in hand — but it’s unfortunate that it should also be unmemorable.

3-Stars

It Follows (GFF 2015)

It FollowsLeaving the apparent safety of suburbia and travelling into the city to meet a man, Jess (Maika Monroe) encounters a strange and sinister force that soon follows her home, to the house she shares with her mother and her younger sibling, Kelly (Lili Sepe). A creature that stalks its prey, always on foot and rarely in the same form twice, it always catches up with her eventually, wherever she tries to hide. With the help of her sister’s friends, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jess and Kelly set out in search of answers — by trying to track down Jess’ recently disappeared boyfriend (Jake Weary) — before seeking refuge at Greg’s familial holiday home miles out of town.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the scariest. What if there was someone following you, wherever you go, with malicious intent? Unstoppable monsters are nothing new in horror, but there’s something about the antagonist of It Follows that stands it apart from the typical boogeyman and the usual forces of darkness. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows feels more akin to J-Horror than its Western relation, only instead of a cursed videotape or cornea it posits a cursed seed, to be passed on through intercourse. But what is “It” a manifestation of? Scripted references to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Tomb” would seem to suggest the slow march of time, and the inevitability of death and decay, but the premise speaks to a sexual dimension too. Whether it’s a spin on Original Sin or the AIDs epidemic,”It” seems to be the personification of a stigma you just can’t shake. After all, the fact that only the cursed can see their assailant leaves them ostracised from society and facing down death alone.

Only Mitchell’s second feature, It Follows is an astounding achievement. While not exactly innovative, it feels remarkably fresh and remains incredibly frightening. The sight of lumbering strangers is a familiar one, as fans of zombies, slashers and even The Borg can attest, but “It” redefines the implications of this slow-motion chase. Yes you can run, drive, sail away, but however far, fast and frequently you travel you will have to stop eventually — otherwise what is the point in escaping death if not to reclaim some sort of life? Even if you are successful in passing the curse on, however, you can never truly rest in the knowledge that “It” has left you alone, for a mistake further down the chain will leave you the target once again. It’s easy to appreciate what this means for the characters because the audience is forced to be equally ever-vigilant, and even the most innocuous scenes and encounters are mired in dread as viewers search the screen for that tell-tale shuffle. Whereas most horrors these days depend on intermittent jump-scares to stimulate their audiences, It Follows builds and maintains an oppressive atmosphere of tension that seems determined to stress you out.

Maika Monroe is exceptional as Jay, building on her recent success in The Guest (which — coincidentally — also featured a heavily synthesised score) to very encouraging effect. More than just a simple scream queen, though she can undoubtedly shriek with the best of them, Jay is a complicated character who is called upon to make some incredibly difficult decisions. Usually love triangles hold precious little interest, but forced to choose which of the men in her life to curse forever Jay’s dilemma becomes suddenly intriguing. Her relationship with Paul, her younger sister’s friend, proves particularly fruitful, positioned as he is as the film’s ingenue. Smitten — and a little obsessed — with Jay, he spends much of the movie pining after her, repeatedly offering to place himself in mortal peril for her own peace of mind — if only she would have sex with him. It might have felt predatory, or at least pathetic, but there’s an innocence to Keir Gilchrist’s portrayal that prevents Paul from coming across like a total loser. The film is just as interested in its characters’ lives as their deaths, and unlike more conservative horror films, It Follows isn’t looking to punish promiscuity, more often than not using sex as a means of salvation.

It’s not often these days that you get to pronounce a horror movie genuinely horrifying, but It Follows really is as scary as everyone is saying. Like The Babadook, like The Descent, like Ringu, Mitchell’s film is your new nightmare. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the cinema.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

February 2015 – That’s such a Boromir thing to say

The InterviewAlthough much of this month has been spent preparing for, commuting to and writing about the Glasgow Film Festival, I did have time to catch up on February’s wide releases before getting stuck into the programme.

February started strongly with Selma, Ava DuVernay’s rousing account of Martin Luther King’s march to Montgomery, and The Interview, perhaps the funniest satirical action-comedy since South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Either might have made my film of the month, but as moving as Selma might be I doubt it didn’t have quite the same impact as the movie that nearly broke freedom of speech and almost ruined Sony in the process.

Things tapered off a bit after that, with the disappointing Shaun The Sheep Movie, the vanilla Fifty Shades of Grey and the inconsistent Project Almanac. Only Jupiter Ascending really made an impression, though that was as much for its inanity as for its intelligence.

Glasgow Film Festival also started strongly, with Noah Baumbach’s unexpectedly crowd-pleasing comedy drama While We’re Young. Over the first weekend I also watched the excellent Theeb, the surreal Wild Tales, the moody Monsters: Dark Continent, the cantankerous Grump and the tender Short Skin, reviewing most for HeyUGuys and covering the left-overs for this blog here.

I ended the month with another marathon, rounding off my experience of GFF 15 with Fright Fest films The Samurai, Clown, It Follows and The Woods, a documentary about the making of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. At the time of writing it had been an unusually consistent year, setting the bar astoundingly high for Edinburgh International Film Festival in the summer.

Film of the month: The Interview

Wild Tales (GFF 2015)

Wild TalesOn a crowded flight two neighbouring passengers (María Marull; Darío Grandinetti) realise that they both have an acquaintance in common. At a late-night diner a young waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) recognises an old tormentor (César Bordón), but refuses the cook’s (Rita Cortese) offer to plot long-overdue revenge. Having reprimanded another driver (Walter Donado) for slowing him down, a businessman (Leonardo Sbaraglia) soon finds himself regretting his actions when a breakdown leaves him stranded and vulnerable. His car unfairly impounded, a demolitions expert (Ricardo Darín) spends his daughter’s birthday refuting the fine. After a hit-and-run perpetrated by his son, a wealthy father (Oscar Martínez) bribes his caretaker into taking the blame. A wedding party is rocked when the bride (Érica Rivas) learns of her groom’s (Diego Gentile) infidelity.

These six standalone segments comprise Wild Tales, television and film writer-director Damián Szifrón’s darkly comic anthology film and his native Argentina’s shortlisted entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. The collection opens confidently with Pasternak, an assured if not slightly absurd tale of revenge at twenty thousand feet that effectively and efficiently sets the scene for what is to come. Each short is self-contained, stylishly shot and conspicuously Spanish (or Argentine-Spanish, to be precisely) — making for an altogether more cinematic sextet than those traditionally televised at home on British TV. Think Crackanory or Inside No. 9, only with five times the budget and a tongue in each cheek instead of just one and you’re almost there.

Pasternak is followed by The Rats, an atmospheric and very amusing story of aiding and abetting. Both, however, are eclipsed by The Strongest, a superb little short that pits tailgater against road-hog in a story so simple yet so perceptive that it might have been written by Stephen King. It’s the closest Wild Tales comes to being genuinely unsettling, combining as it does both a primal fear with a relatively plausible setting; even as the violence escalates (and the verisimilitude deteriorates), Mario — the road-hog — continues to intimidate. The Stranger is so good, however, that it cannot possibly be outmatched, and though entertaining the successive instalments do suffer by comparison. Little Bomb and The Proposal have their moments, but neither has quite the same impact.

At just over two hours in length, Wild Tales is too long, particularly for a series of shorts without cross-over or even a defining theme. Front-loaded as it is, the obvious answer would be to sacrifice a story from the film’s back half in the name of brevity. Though Little Bomb and The Proposal might lack the same surrealism, they are satirical enough to compensate; instead, it’s the final short — Until Death Do Us Part — that feels like the weakest link. The performances are strong enough — Rivas in particular is a deranged delight — and it’s perfectly well staged — the filmmakers make great use of the venue — but the premise feels a little staid and ordinary when you consider what insanity came before. Perhaps if Szifrón had saved the best until last, however, it wouldn’t feel like such an anti-climax.

That said, even in its weaker moments Wild Tales remains deliriously good fun, with more than its fair share of stand-out moments. Inconsistency is to be expected, but what is truly impressive is just how comprehensive the collection ultimately feels. No wonder it was nominated for an Oscar.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

 

Monsters: Dark Continent (GFF 2015)

Dark ContinentTen years have passed since Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) limped across the US-Mexico border to find that extraterrestrial MTRs had broken quarantine and spread into the States. In that time the creatures have made it as far as the Middle East, exacerbating the war on terror as American troops work to neutralise both local insurgency and the wider alien invasion. New recruits Michael (Sam Keeley), Frankie (Joe Dempsie), Shaun (Parker Sawyers) and Inkelaar (Kyle Soller) — lead by Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris) — are deployed on a rescue mission after four American soldiers are deemed missing in action.

There was a time when every science fiction series seemed to be switching genres with each new instalment, usually starting life as a horror only to be reformatted into an action movie before finally descending into parody. (Except Terminator, anyway, which made the transition into action-comedy with relative success.) Essentially a romantic drama, however, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters seemed to buck the trend, focusing on the developing attraction between two survivors while keeping the aliens themselves confined to the background. Tradition has now been restored by Tom Green — a British television writer best known for E4’s Misfits — who has directed a war movie for a sequel.

At first, it seems as though Monsters: Dark Continent couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, to the extent that you begin to wonder whether it was developed explicitly as a sequel to the 2010 movie or simply tagged Monsters to bank on whatever brand recognition the title might be presumed to hold. Where Monsters was quiet and contemplative Monsters: Dark Continent is brash and unabashed; where the first teased its MTRs the second flaunts them; where McNairy and Able humanised the drama Michael Parkes and company soon have you rooting for the enemy. Given the manner in which Monsters analogised Mexico-American relations you might expect the sequel to satirise the Iraq war (it is a prolonged invasion after all), but for the first hour at least it’s more American Sniper than Starship Troopers.

Just as Green helped audiences sympathise with juvenile delinquents in Misfits, however, he eventually manages to redeem Parkes, who as the regiment’s situation deteriorates is stripped of both his bravado and brothers-in-arms. It’s a strong, surprisingly sensitive performance on Keeley’s part, and Parkes’ non-traditional hero’s journey from alpha male to whimpering mess is a counter-intuitive but compelling one. These days anything — including Evans’ original — with a big creature in it is reflexively labeled Lovecraftian by lazy commentators, but Dark Continent truly justifies the comparisons, seeing as it does a mortal man unmade by his experience of the supernatural. Keeley is equalled only by Harris, whose own struggles as Sgt Frater — a serial tourer — successfully undermines the first act’s apparent propaganda.

It all comes together at a terrorist compound where the surviving soldiers are being held captive. Given that the monsters were previously shown to seek out light sources their migration to the desert seems a strange one, but their arrival at the facility — attracted by the security lighting — re-establishes the characteristic. Parkes and Harris escape on motorbikes, finding themselves at a burnt-out school bus filled with the smoldering corpses of small children and flanked by the remains of a young MTR. It’s a shocking sequence, but leads to a scene of almost absurd beauty — similar to the petrol station set-piece from the first film — in which simultaneous funeral rites are performed by Persian women and an adult alien — both overlooked by Parkes. Green never quite reconciles his parallel between terrorists and extra terrestrials, but the general theme seems to be that there are no monsters, only misunderstand motivations.

Monsters: Dark Continent won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and even fans of the original might struggle to re-connect with the mythology. (Unlike Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, there are unlikely to be many who view the sequel as superior.) That said, for all of its differences Green’s film at least feels like a spiritual successor to Evans’, and providing you make it through the first half — warning: it’s a long one — there is still plenty to admire.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.3-Stars

 

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