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Thursday, 26 February 2015

Project Almanac

(M) ★★½

Director: Dean Israelite.

Cast: Jonny Weston, Sofia Black D'Elia, Sam Lerner, Allen Evangelista, Virginia Gardner.

It truly was an impressive toaster.
THE lost filmmakers in The Blair Witch Project, the super-powered teens of Chronicle, the city-smashing monster of Cloverfield - these are some of the best examples of what clever directors can do with the found footage genre.

Aside from these good demonstrations of what you can do with a shakily held camera, there have been dozens of lesser ones, most of which are horror films of the "we found a killer's video camera" variety or one of the countless spin-offs/prequels/sequels of the Paranormal Activity series.

Project Almanac is certainly not a great movie, but at least it's a different take on the found footage genre. In it we have a bunch of teenagers who have a penchant for filming everything (naturally) and a gift for science... oh, and they also have in their basement the instructions for how to build a working time machine.

The clumsy set-up (there's more to it than that, but not much) is a necessary hurdle the film has to jump before it can get into the question at the heart of its premise - what would you do if you had a time machine?

As with the party-to-end-all-parties found footage film Project X, Project Almanac's best element is its wish fulfilment. Most of the movie is breezy and enjoyable as we follow the five friends as they live out their increasingly daring desires, and although the characters are under-developed, they're good company and provide a few good laughs.

But naturally the resulting consequences of getting what you want come into play, as the usual time travel movie issue - cause and effect - starts to demonstrate the unexpected ripples that follow a dive-bomb into the space-time continuum.

As such, it's an incredibly predictable film. You know that the minute they make a set of rules to follow, someone will break them, and you know that their efforts to undo what they have done will create more things to undo. The result is a film that never surprises you and does little to stick out in your memory, unlike such great time travel films as Looper, Back To The Future or 12 Monkeys.

And as with many found footage films, the need to squeeze in particular plot points and explanatory dialogue means there are quite a few "why would anyone film this?" moments. The best example of this is in the first act - an introduction that's as shaky as the majority of the footage - that ends up being distracting.

When it gets going, Project Almanac is mildly enjoyable, with a few cool special effects and good ideas (particularly the ending), but largely it's predictable, under-developed and ultimately forgettable.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Jupiter Ascending

(M) ★★½

Director: The Wachowskis.

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton.

Not even the weirdest bit of this movie.
"BAFFLING" is perhaps the best word to describe the latest directorial effort from The Wachowskis.

This far-flung space opera is as confounding as the filmmaking siblings' career. Since ground-breaker The Matrix, they have directed the much-maligned Matrix sequels, the downright-hated Speed Racer, and the ambitious misfire Cloud Atlas.

While Jupiter Ascending doesn't deserve to be much-maligned or downright-hated, it has all the makings of another ambitious misfire. But while it shares that present designation with Cloud Atlas, it also shares that film's destiny - both films are flawed cult-classics-in-waiting.

Kunis stars as the wonderfully named Jupiter Jones, a young woman who works as a cleaner with her mother and aunt, blissfully unaware that she is set to have a pivotal role in a messy feud between three members of the galaxy's most powerful family (played by Redmayne, Booth, and Middleton).

Jupiter's blissful ignorance is shattered when various aliens come looking for her. Among them is Caine (Tatum), a part-human, part-wolf, part-albino former soldier hired to keep her alive and take her to the other side of the galaxy to meet her destiny.

The reason Jupiter Ascending is likely to live on with a niche following is there is so much going on and so much to be impressed by, but sadly it's too much. They've created an incredibly rich universe of human hybrids, multiple alien races, and futuristic technologies that has the potential to be pored over by obsessives keen to learn everything about the Wachowskis worlds.

Unfortunately, such depth and design comes at the expense of such mainstream concerns as trying not to confuse the audience at every turn. So much of the film is spent wondering "why did they do that?", "what is that?", "who is that?" and "what the hell is going on?". There is bound to be a longer edit out there that takes its time to make sense of its characters, worlds, allegiances and "what the hell is going on?".

Seemingly important elements are given incredibly short-shrift, yet a difficult-to-follow spaceship dogfight over Chicago drags on, as does the fiery conclusion. Other bits make no sense whatsoever and, perhaps most bizarrely, one entire sequence that pokes fun at bureaucracy appears to have dropped in from a completely different movie, most likely Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy or perhaps Terry Gilliam's Brazil (Gilliam cameos just to ram that point home).

Amid its dumb mistakes, there is something oddly engaging at work. The Wachowskis have made a sporadically beautiful film containing a handful of intriguing characters. Kunis and Tatum are fun as Jupiter and Caine, and Bean's side role as Stinger is equal parts fascinating and perplexing, much like the film itself.

Meanwhile Redmayne, likely to add an Oscar to his awards cabinet on February 22, is just plain odd as chief villain Balem, who he portrays as some kind of cross between a lizard and Prince Phillip, and who says everything in a cross between a hiss and a whisper (a hissper?).

Balem is just one moment of weirdness in a film that consistently asks you to accept weird things, often with little explanation. While not having everything explained is refreshing in this age of dumbed-down blockbusters, this goes too far in the other direction.

Ultimately, Jupiter Ascending is like a Rubik's Cube - initially exciting and colourful, but predominantly baffling.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

50 Shades Of Grey

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Sam Johnson-Taylor.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden.

"... three, two, one, okay, ready or not, here I come!"
I CAN'T believe I'm saying this, but the film adaptation of Fifty Shades Of Grey is far better than it has any right to be. Don't get me wrong - it's not great. But it's not terrible, which is what I was honestly expecting.

Given that the source material is a novel that began life as a piece of kinky Twilight fan fiction which was "dull and poorly written" (New York Times), "a sad joke" (Huffington Post), and "made Twilight look like War & Peace" (Sir Salman Rushdie), and which I've regularly heard derided as rubbish by people who've read it, my hopes were not high.

So it's a pleasant surprise that the film version of a book that spawned the term "mommy porn" and did more to boost handcuff sales than a police-themed dress-up party is reasonably solid, especially for a movie that is essentially plotless.

That's the main issue here because otherwise Fifty Shades of Grey is beautifully shot, well performed, occasionally funny, and weirdly intriguing. But the thrust (ahem) of its story is basically "boy meets girl, boy whips girl, the end".

There are lines of dialogue that hit the ground harder than a broken bed ("I'm 50 shades of f**ked up," says Christian Grey in all seriousness as if that's a common phrase), and the film edges into melodrama too often. It's also tempting to criticise its tendency to mistake "creepy" for "romantic" but I figured that was kind of the point of the whole thing. After all this is a film that exchanges love for whips and chains, and has two confused characters trying to meet somewhere in the middle.

Instead of a plot, we get a character study of a shy girl-next-door-type named Anastasia Steele (Johnson) and a sensitive-new-age-Patrick-Bateman-type called Christian Grey (Dornan), as well as an exploration of the sexual world of dominants and submissives.

Johnson is great and it's her performance that's the most impressive aspect of the film, given that it's her character's conflict that drags you along. Ana's transformation from Plain Jane Wallflower into someone who is questioning what they want and what they're willing to sacrifice to get it is compelling, as is her balance between naivety and inner strength.

Dornan is less impressive but could have been worse considering how poorly written his character is in places - given the strangeness of the subject matter (man wants woman to be his contracted sex slave) it's no wonder the script creaks under the weight of trying to explain his motives while keeping him likeable.

For all the film's faults, I can't help but feel that if this was subtitled and in Polish or French or something, then critics would be losing their collective shit over it, awarding it four and five stars for its examination of unconventional sexual peccadilloes, un-Hollywood-like denouement, and its eschewing of traditional plot techniques in favour of character exploration and inner personal journeys.

While I was totally prepared to unleash my poison pen at this film, I have to admit that was probably premeditated snobbery on my part and I can't help but wonder how many of the bad reviews it receives will be because of critics unwilling to concede it's not that bad.

Let me reiterate - it's not great. It's a bit hit and miss and it's climax (sorry) will leave some perplexed. It's definitely not as sexy or as explicit as people might think it to be, but again, I figured that was kind of the point. This is about a relationship that is basically contractually agreed-upon domestic violence.

The writers and director have dug through what was essentially an elongated Penthouse Letter Of The Month and come up with a disturbingly engaging tale about loss of innocence that serves as an allegory for spousal abuse, and in that sense, it's an intriguing film.

Or am I missing the point?

Friday, 6 February 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Samuel L Jackson, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine.

Firth knew he would regret coming to Bridget Jones Con 2014, and he was right.
REMEMBER when James Bond films used to be a bit bonkers?

It was back in a time before The Bourne Identity hit cinemas and changed the genre forever and before Daniel Craig re-invented the 007 mantle in a trio of excellent (except for Quantum of Solace) but oh-so-serious instalments of the superspy series.

Those were the days when villains had insane plans for world domination and henchmen with bizarrely useful physical attributes. Those were the days when literally anything could hide a weapon and when watches did far more than just tell the time. Those were the days when there was always a big clock counting down to armageddon and when faceless baddies couldn't shoot straight.

Kingsman: The Secret Service remembers those times and misses them dearly. It imagines an alternate history where Colin Firth was picked to play Bond instead of Pierce Brosnan and where modern movie sensibilities merged with the sense of fun found in the Connery and Moore days.

Firth is the Bond-like agent Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad and member of the ultra-secret group the Kingsman, who is charged with investigating the death of a fellow Kingsman and to put forth a candidate as a replacement.

The possible new guy (aka audience surrogate) is a young geezer from the wrong side of the tracks named Eggsy (played by coincidentally named newcomer Egerton), whose father was a Kingsman that Hart owes a debt of gratitude to.

If Eggsy can survive the recruitment process, he might just get a chance to save the world from the clutches of lisping tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (Jackson).

It's all reasonably formulaic but then that's the point - first and foremost, Kingsman: The Secret Service walks a fine line between spoof, homage and rip-off of the 007 series, so when it does deviate from what we expect (which only happens a couple of times) it actually packs a punch, which is nice.

When it's not winking at the audience with its over-the-top ridiculousness and the occasional John Barry-esque musical cue, it embraces a style all its own that sits somewhere between its comic book origins and the hyperactive editing style of modern action movies. The difference here is that we can actually see what's going on - the stylised cinematography enhances rather than gets in the way of the action.

And there is plenty of action, and the film doesn't just wear its MA15+ rating lightly. Unlike 007, Kingsman revels in getting its hands bloody and dropping a few F-bombs along the way.

But that's half the fun of the film. When was the last time we heard Michael Caine call someone a "f**king prick" or saw Firth kill a large number of people in a matter of minutes? The answer is "probably never" (unless you go to more interesting parties than I do) and it's part of what makes this such a ludicrous guilty pleasure.

Kingsman is Vaughn's second adaptation of a Mark Millar comic but it is a far looser take than Kick-Ass. It does share some similarities beyond the presence of the always dependable Mark Strong - notably the gleeful silliness, the genre subversion that's going on, and the love of a well placed bullet or curse word.

After all, it's not every film that features heads that explode in a mixture of fireworks meet mushroom clouds.

But that's the kind of thing that Kingsman revels in and it's the kind of thing that will make you see this as either an enjoyable frivolity or an absurd disappointment.

I'm going with the former.