30 June 2013

Movie Review: This is the End

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B

This is the End
2013, 107mins, 15
Director (s): Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg 
Writer (s): Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg 
Cast includes: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill
UK Release Date: 28th June 2013

The prospect of entertainers farting around together with mega-budgets for their own personal gratification generally doesn’t encourage pulsating cinema. One only has to cast their mind back three years to recall “Grown Ups” – a picture that allowed Adam Sandler and his cronies to pilfer money from your pocket to fund an unofficial holiday – delivering approximately 1.5 laughs in compensation. “This is the End” sees a variety of comic stars playing themselves (hell, at least they’re upfront about it!), and subsequently pitting these exaggerated caricatures against impending Armageddon. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the picture is uneven and not without some indulgences, but on the flipside it’s also energetically conceived, often funny and gamely acted. I suppose there’s an inherent amount of arrogance in any project that assumes its creators are culturally important enough to play themselves within the confines of a fictitious narrative, but heck, I’m willing to forgive the trespass if the end product is sufficiently enjoyable. In the case of “This is the End” the film-makers comfortably make such a cut.

Jay Baruchel is travelling to L.A in order to spend some time with buddy Seth Rogen, the two having drifted apart since Rogen’s adoption of the VIP lifestyle. After smoking some joints and chilling; Seth coerces a reluctant Jay along to hang with his Hollywood acquaintances at James Franco’s luxurious abode, where a vast party is in swing. Jay is quickly abandoned in favour of the host and various other celebrity icons, leaving him further disenchanted with the charade. However as Seth and Jay’s relationship hits boiling point, the apocalypse arrives, leaving the land scorched and plagued by wrathful demons. Locked alongside Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Franco and a monstrous Danny McBride within the artsy mansion, Seth and Jay begin to iron out their issues, just in time for the world’s implosion.

Kudos must be supplied to the key participants, all of whom fidget loosely and goofily with their media personas. Franco gives his obtuse pseudo-intellectual side a solid spin, McBride goes above and beyond in his depiction of raw douchebaggery and Jonah Hill supplies a healthy dollop of glee portraying a faux-tolerant egomaniac. It’s Rogen and Baruchel who stay grounded during “This is the End” supplying it with a surprising dosage of bromantic sweetness, although Craig Robinson also brings home the film’s message (essentially don’t be a prick) with levity and good humour. Everybody sticks to their angle religiously, but as a gang they have faultless chemistry and bounce off each other with rhythm and precise timing. It’s a joy to watch these cartoony cut-outs duke it out, with a host of funky cameos (Emma Watson, Michael Cera and Channing Tatum the highlights) helping to populate the big screen party with fabulous support.

“This is the End” represents the feature directorial salute from the Rogen/Goldberg outfit, having previously scripted “Pineapple Express” and “Superbad” together. It probably helps that they have a bevy of familiar talent surrounding them, but the pair still infuse proceedings with surprising finesse, handling the jokes, narrative and visual tone with balanced confidence. “This is the End” attains a blockbusting aesthetic without sacrificing its jovial origins, quite a feat to master in any directorial foray, much less a debut. There’s no justifiable reason for the film to exceed 90 minutes, yet it somehow ratchets up to a stocky 107, leaving some of the middle act to lull amid the ingenious fits of crudity that adorn the picture. A tighter edit would've improved the laugh ratio (which is still pretty respectable) and helped subtract some of the movie’s vainer moments. There’s an inspired running gag concerning a “Pineapple Express” sequel which elicits bountiful guffaws, but call-backs to “The Green Hornet” and James Franco’s lesser known past professional exploits are unnecessary, no matter how self-deprecating they may be.

Goldberg and Rogen undoubtedly lean heavily on pop cultural influence, but at times they attain a sort of nerd-vana likely to throw portions of the audience into rapturous ecstasy. An ingenious riff on “Rosemary’s Baby” is particularly memorable and the various celebs that feature in tinier parts are often handed terrific dialogue to fiddle around with. Recent satirical crap-piles have utilized a recognisable face as a joke in itself, something Rogen and Goldberg never do, ensuring the performer is only ever a catalyst for their crude wit. They never use fame as a substitute for mirth, which is refreshing.

The film actually crescendos on a touching note, whilst seamlessly bringing cannibals, gimps and CGI behemoths smoothly into the action. It’s an unapologetically silly diversion, but one that delivers a riotous, likeable if not moderately bloated cinematic treat. “This is the End” will almost certainly spell no such thing for the careers of Rogen and Goldberg anyway. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

21 June 2013

Movie Review: Byzantium

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A-

Byzantium 
2013, 118mins, 15
Director: Neil Jordan 
Writer: Moira Buffini 
Cast includes: Gemma Arterton, Saoirse Ronan, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley, Daniel Mays 
UK Release Date: 31st May 2013

Neil Jordan is dependably interesting as a film-maker, albeit not always successful, his eclectic CV littered with both left-field hits and noble fumbles. “Byzantium” brings Jordan back into the realm of the vampire, creative pastures last traversed with 1994’s thunderously monotonous “Interview with the Vampire”. That clumsy Anne Rice adaptation was crippled by languorous pacing, uninvolving characters and insanely wooden acting (Tom Cruise aside). Few of these complaints can be levied at “Byzantium”, a less operatic tale, but one primed with dynamic thespian contributions, heartening screenwriting and savagely evocative imagery. It’s a tale of familial agony laced with a profoundly Gothic twinge; think Ken Loach cross-pollinated via Tim Burton. The central turns from Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton ooze commitment and eloquence, both young performers achieving masterful feats of human conflict here. “Byzantium” is gorgeous to behold and satisfying to comprehend, a refreshing double-threat amid the moggy summertime humdrum of multiplex culture.

Clara (Gemma Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a dysfunctional mother and daughter. They are cut from very different moulds, Clara’s seedy professional eye clashing with Eleanor’s need to be at peace, their family secret preventing her from integrating into the world. Both Eleanor and Clara are vampires, and after a particularly brutal interaction with a mystery pursuer, the two are forced to relocate, shacking up with lonely Noel (Daniel Mays), an earnest man easily seduced by Clara’s charms. Clara begins to use the abode for prostitution, whilst Eleanor quietly goes about her studies, meeting a strange kindred spirit in the form Frank (Caleb Landry Jones). The pair bond tightly, leaving Clara with a deeply rooted sense of vulnerability, especially as dangerous forces uncover their location.

Since 1984’s “The Company of Wolves” Jordan’s grasp of stark, nightmarish imagery has been unquestionable, the Irishman rallying scenes of werewolf transformation and surreal feminist allegory into unsettling cinema. That picture and “Byzantium” would indeed make a curious double-bill; each stylistically and thematically mirrors the other in obvious fashion. To label “Byzantium” an Angela Carter-esque work of livewire gender debate would be to do it a disservice, it’s a more narratively complete and sophisticated piece than that. Screenwriter Moira Buffini has fun playing with vampire tropes and concocting her own lore, but she also takes time to construct unique characters that interact with sufficient dramatic intensity. As the plot thickens and cultist elements filter into the picture’s delicately designed canvas, working out villain from hero becomes increasingly difficult, heightening the tension and conveying a sense of human depth and introspection to supplement the script machinations. That the actors connect with the material so seamlessly is fortunate, but praise should still be heaped on Buffini for her rounded craft.

Ronan and Arterton are magnificent, allowing “Byzantium” to inch away from vampire theatrics and into domestic woe with blissful ease. Bound by loyalty and blood, the feuding duo use their varied performance approaches to highlight their conflicts. Arterton aims broader, vamping up sex appeal and cruel manipulative tics for the majority, only dipping into subtler wellsprings of maternal distress when the mood commands it. The tactic works well, emphasising several of the tenderer pivots in her and Ronan’s onscreen saga. The “Atonement” star also continues to mature at a staggering clip, even elevating the romantic component with an irksome Caleb Landry Jones. With his quirky, superficial jerks, Jones might have appeared impressive against a less naturally secure companion. As it is Ronan acts him out of the park.  

As with his better works, Jordan blends image and idea together effectively here, coming up with some haunting moments to hang “Byzantium” upon. A literary device is employed that fills in backstory with a degree of poetic integrity and fluidity, helping to avoids gaps in logic without sacrificing character motivation or audience patience. Granted in light of last week’s abhorrent “Man of Steel”, it would be impossible for “Byzantium” to come off an anything less than fleet-footed, but even against sharper fare the hefty expository measures are juggled with care. Jordan also indulges the mythical, transformative and sexual subtexts with impact and relish, the brothel setting is appropriately garish and one image in particular, a delirious Arterton being soaked in an avalanche of blood sears itself into the retinas, oozing malevolent euphoria and carnal promise. It’s a very confident directorial outing. Jordan grips “Byzantium” firmly; dry-brushing memorable bursts of visual invention over his writhing story.


The male character are undeniably thin (probably an intended touch), but that’s only a problem when it comes to the uneven relationship between Ronan and Jones. Elsewhere “Byzantium” is fuelled by grandiose verve and palpable intimacy, a frighteningly eloquent ode to the spirit of legend and the social discontent of 21st century Britain. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

18 June 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

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D

Man of Steel
2013, 143mins, 12
Director: Zach Snyder
Writer: David Goyer
Cast Includes: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane
UK Release Date: 14th June 2013

 
Chris Nolan has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the DC Universe, taking one of their biggest characters and morphing him into a cinematic demi-god, his Batman pictures climaxing last year with the fittingly epic “The Dark Knight Rises”. Clearly wanting to step-back but not utterly abandon the world of comic-book literature, Nolan has opted to act as a producer and creative driving force on “Man of Steel”, the latest attempt by Warner to turn Superman into a viable contemporary franchise. Last time it didn’t go over so well, 2006’s “Superman Returns” was a giddy blockbusting experience, but a box-office chump – killing off any Krypton inspired frolicking for nearly a decade. It’s strange whom Nolan has elected to spearhead this rebirth, Zach Snyder, a man last seen frying brain cells and testing society’s patience with rubbishy passion project “Sucker Punch”. Snyder has dabbled in the world of superheroes before; 2009’s “Watchmen” remains the zenith of his directorial achievements by some margin, but the rest of his catalogue including homoerotic touchstone “300” have been dispiritingly hollow affairs. It’s not surprising to see Snyder slather “Man of Steel” with his usual creative deficiencies, allowing character, dialogue and narrative to wilt under the overbearing heat of his cartoony and juvenile fascination with overwrought action. I expect Chris Nolan’s ambitions were probably noble – but nobility counts for very little when envisioned through Snyder’s pre-pubescent mind-set. “Man of Steel” is a fetid creation; dull, excruciatingly overlong and inexcusably dumb.

Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) is still attempting to come to terms with his incredible prowess and alter-ego, his inhuman origin causing him to slink around the fringes of society as a ghost, helping stimulate apparent miracles along the way. Eventually he comes to the attention of Daily Planet scribe Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who attempts to uncover his identity. However with General Zod (Michael Shannon), a warlord from Clark’s home planet of Krypton insistent on retrieving something from Clark’s blood (macguffin alert!), Earth is soon the subject of attack and Superman is required to save the day.
Henry Cavill apparently underwent most of his preparation for the role in the gym, the actor has a buff physique but virtually no screen presence or warmth. I appreciate Clark Kent was never a motor-mouth rascal in the style of “Iron Man”, but that still doesn’t excuse the actor’s wooden turn here. Snyder hangs the majority of the film on introspective flashbacks and clumsy Christ analogies, potentially interesting notions in the correct hands, but under the director’s insubstantial gaze and placed in Cavill’s lifeless grasp they just die on screen, reduced to a barrage of easy visual motifs and mirthless frowning. The guilt and lack of identity Superman endures are universal themes and ripe for exploration, but there’s just not enough sophistication in the feature or depth within Cavill for the subtexts to blossom, left rotting under Snyder’s moronic guidance. “Man of Steel” is a Superman movie without a worthy Superman, which in itself is a crippling criticism.
Visually Snyder retains his eye for gloss and videogame aesthetic, tasteless given the fact “Man of Steel” aspires to be something richer and darker. It’s laced with potentially striking 9/11 imagery but there’s just no ethical responsibility here, the director floating his supposedly upstanding hero through a series of incomprehensibly manic set-pieces, incurring vast quantities of collateral damage and civilian death along the way. One of the pleasures of Superman has always been his respect and consideration for the common man, yet here Snyder feels content to have the title figure selfishly desecrate entire cityscapes, without so much as nod to the complex moral dilemma involved. So yeah, there’s the second major sin. “Man of Steel” turns Superman into a douche.
David Goyer’s screenplay is disastrous, ladled with clunky expositional characters and lumbering dialogue, rendering “Man of Steel” a structural nightmare from the start. Snyder and Goyer conspire to lace the affair with presumable poignancy and human touch, but simply come up with a jarring and uncomfortable editorial rhythm. The constant references to Superman’s past are assembled with no fluidity or consideration for tone, leaving the picture crippled by a hazy through line and lack of defined supporting personalities. Diane Lane and Kevin Costner are joys as Kent’s conflicted human parents, but elsewhere Snyder hasn’t the focus to afford anybody development worth mentioning. Amy Adams is left with a Lois Lane who oscillates disturbingly between ball-buster and pathetic damsel, whilst a roster of capable thespians including Laurence Fishburne attempt to combat Goyer’s excruciating wordplay via entities we don’t ever know, and more importantly come to care about. During the shallow conclusion we’re expected to feel for these folk, but “Man of Steel” just provides no form of connective tissue for viewer sympathy. The stakes never feel high, which renders both the drama and action tedious, and in honesty Michael Shannon’s work as Zod borders on the laughable. He’s got a lot of bark, but when called to exercise bite the actor is unusually unconvincing and removed from what’s occurring around him, although amid Snyder’s CGI-obsessed frame it’s easy to see how the actor got lost.
Romances form inexplicably and familial neuroses spawn from nowhere. This maybe wouldn’t be so bad if Snyder had made good on the final extraordinary action-packed 45 minutes, but alas he doesn’t, blending this once excitable legacy into an almost indigestible smoothie of cinematic incompetence.  Small things work, such as Hans Zimmer’s rousing musical work, but generally “Man of Steel” is a bomb and another gigantic indicator that Zach Snyder is more likely to kill the visual arts thAn redefine them. It’s a broadly terrible effort, although despite some promise in its promotional campaign, I’m not wholly shocked to be making such a statement. It ain’t no plane, but “Man of Steel” could certainly convince as a bird. A big, fat turkey that is.
 
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013