Category Archives: 2013

Movies released in 2013.

Guest Review: The Borderlands

Director: Elliot Goldner
Year: 2013
Score: 7.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

"Dammit Mike, I warned you about listening to One Direction! I told you this would happen!"

“Dammit Mike, I warned you about listening to One Direction! I told you this would happen!”

Unlike many proper film people, I’m a fan of ‘found footage’ horror films. The criticism levelled at them is that the shaky handheld aspect of the footage negates the need to have any real cinematic craft, and in many cases this is true. Sometimes however, when they hit the sweet spot, they can throw out something a bit good. And that rather neatly brings me on to The Borderlands, one of the more intriguing found footage horror films that I’ve come across.

The film follows a team of Vatican investigators sent to debunk an apparent miracle that occurred in a small West Country church. All footage is courtesy of head cams and fixed point cameras that are positioned around the church in an attempt to capture/catch out the potential miracle. As they begin to experience paranormal activity occurring throughout the church they desperately search for a rational explanation, and there are some genuinely scary moments generated through a skilful use of the found footage medium.

What is particularly notable about The Borderlands is the ending. Where many films stoop to a lazy jump scare to get their kicks, this has a beautiful crescendo building up over the course of about half an hour that is one of the best I’ve seen in a horror film. You’re built up to a point where you think you’re going to jump, but then it just carries on building and building to the point where you find yourself ready to scream ‘I can’t take it just scare me now!’, and when it actually happens you’re genuinely shocked by the twist that they come up with.

The characters are realistic and easy to identify with, and aside from the horror elements the plot is actually quite deep and absorbing. If you are the kind of person who would normally dismiss a Paranormal Activity style found footage film as not for you, I would urge you to give this a whirl; it may just surprise you.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

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Guest Review: Pompeii

Director: Paul W. S. Anderson
Year: 2014
Score: 6/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Rock paper scissors for the sword? Are you serious?!

Rock paper scissors for the sword? Are you serious?!

Woo historical accuracy! As a proud member of the Archaeological Pedantry Society, there are moments in this film which are absolutely laughable. I would be prepared to bet that, given enough time, I could go through the entire film and not find a single fact beyond the limerick-esque ‘there once was a town called Pompeii’.

To paraphrase Futurama’s Robot Devil, however: this movie is as lousy as it is brilliant.

The special effects are as grand and spectacular as you would imagine a volcanic eruption to be and the gladiator battles are so glorious that you understand why the Romans loved them so much. The plot itself is quite weird; the story follows this guy who gets captured by the Romans, but who happens to be an unbelievably good gladiator who can talk to horses. That second fact is strangely incidental to the plot, but is enough to make a rather pretty girl fall in love with him. Sadly Jack Bauer is there, accompanied by the worryingly named Proculus (allegedly played by Sasha Roiz but is quite obviously Bear Grylls), and he decides that he’s going to marry her instead. Then a volcano goes off. It’s hardly Hamlet, but as an action film it’s quite entertaining. Drenched in bravado and testosterone-fuelled fight scenes it’s easy to enjoy, even if it is found wanting for things like substance, subtlety, character development, plot, historical accuracy, originality and suspense. It does however have a volcano, which makes up for a lot of those shortcomings.

Is it as good as Gladiator? No. Not even close. Does it have the epic story of Ben-Hur? No. Even so, it’s hard not to like Pompeii; it’s a good old fashioned historical action thriller that delivers on what it promises: a volcano.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Theatrical Edition

Director: Peter Jackson
Year: 2013
Score: 6/10

Toilet Dwarf™, the perfect accessory for any rustic restroom. Make your own King Under the Mountain!

Toilet Dwarf™, the perfect accessory for any rustic restroom. Make your own King Under the Mountain!

The Two Towers is my least favourite entry in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, suffering as it does from middle film syndrome (lacking both the joy/wonder of introducing us into the world and the catharsis of ending the story), so it makes sense for me to have similar feelings about The Desolation of Smaug. Of course, I won’t know for sure until the release of The Battle of the Five Armies later this year, but I’m guessing I’ll enjoy that more than this.

Many of my criticisms of An Unexpected Journey apply here too: over-length, unnecessary action sequences, padding the story out with extra bits that don’t add enough, and sticking too closely to the formula established in the previous trilogy. There are also some more specific criticisms to be made: the opening scene lacks ‘oomph’; the ending is weak, lacking even a semblance of finality, let alone resolution; the Kili-gets-injured-and-winds-up-in-a-love-triangle subplot is entirely superfluous and irritating, especially since the two other members of the triangle (Legolas and a female elf created for the movie and played by Kate from Lost) aren’t supposed to be in the movie at all; in the motion-captured-character-redeems-movie’s-final-act stakes, Smaug is no Gollum; the entire Lonely Mountain sequence is muddled; and Thranduil’s arseholishness, with no real redeeming features, quickly grates.

Having said all that, there are still some fairly enjoyable parts (the barrel sequence, for instance), and all the usual elements worthy of praise in a Peter Jackson Middle-Earth movie (action, visuals, music, casting, etc.) are still there too. As for acting, Orlando Bloom continues to think that squinting is the sole form of emoting available to him, Stephen Fry overdoes it a bit as the Master of Laketown, Sir Ian McKellen is solid as ever but seems to be overusing the move-bags-under-one’s-eyes-to-indicate-drama technique, and everyone else is fine.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Extended Edition

Director: Peter Jackson
Year: 2012 (theatrical version) / 2013 (extended edition)
Score: 7/10

The real reason for the extended edition, of course, was so we finally get naked dwarves. The fans... go... wild.

The real reason for the extended edition, of course, was so we finally get naked dwarves. The fans… go… wild.

I’m a big fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and my initial viewing of the theatrical (non-extended) version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in 48fps 3D, left me quite impressed but a tad concerned. It was an immensely fun ride, with Jackson’s familiar brand of humour-infused action, constant winks at the fans, a largely excellent cast (both new and returning), and a brilliant adaptation of the novel’s crucial ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter in the final act. Mostly it was just great to be back in Jackson’s immersive world; it isn’t quite Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but it’s equally impressive in its own ways.

I did, however, have reservations about the film’s length, the sense that many of the action sequences were shoe-horned in to pad it out as the first part of a trilogy (case in point: the entirely unnecessary rock-monster boxing match scene), the decision to split a fairly short children’s book into three lengthy films, and the often slavish beat-for-beat recreations of moments/sequences/arcs from the original trilogy. In a sense all of these concerns come down to the fact that this isn’t just a film adaptation of the novel; it’s very specifically JACKSON’S adaptation, in the style, vein and scope of his Lord of the Rings. That means we lose the childish frivolity and lightness I remember from the novel, and instead get a dose of Sauron-y seriousness and a bunch of extra bits, all designed to create parity with the original trilogy so this (together with the next two movies) will serve as a stylistically and narratively cohesive prequel trilogy.

I can't decide if the Great Goblin's chin testicles are as bad as or worse than Peter Griffin's.

I can’t decide if the Great Goblin’s chin testicles are as bad as or worse than Peter Griffin’s.

Watching the extended edition in preparation for the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I had roughly the same response but if anything my concerns grew: this is, after all, an even longer version – 13 minutes of additional footage! – of a movie I already regarded as bloated. For some reason I disliked the Great Goblin character (portrayed by Barry Humphries) more this time round. On the other hand, I found the emotional climax (Bilbo finding his courage and being accepted by Thorin) considerably more affecting, though I don’t recall any changes to the scene in this version that would have made it so. I also noticed and enjoyed the dwarves’ theme music, within Howard Shore’s excellent-as-always score, more than I previously recall.

For anyone choosing between the theatrical and extended versions, the bottom line for me is this: when I watch the trilogy in the future, I’ll be putting aside my concerns about length and unnecessary action set-pieces and ill-advised movie-splitting, so I might as well take the completist route and watch the extended version; the extra bits aren’t by any means fatal to the overall length, and they tend to play OK in a home cinema environment. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment.

Guest Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

Director: J. J. Abrams
Year: 2013
Score: 8.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

This is where Nick Frost should be standing! It's written in my contract that Nick Frost would be here!

This is where Nick Frost should be standing! It’s written in my contract that Nick Frost would be here!

Whilst I’m not a fan of Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, this really is an excellent run out for one of television’s most revered sci-fi franchises. What this and its predecessor do so well is pure adrenalin-fuelled action, at the expense of sticking character development on the back burner; Zachary Quinto continues to do an excellent job of playing Spock; with Abrams less dependent on the character in Into Darkness than his first attempt.

Benedict Cumberbatch proves once again that he can’t be type-cast by taking up the role of Khan, a super villain with far superior strength and mental abilities who wears a long coat. This is a touch unfair as he does a very good job; both actor and role feed off each other and he provides an impassioned performance despite his character’s cold and clinical nature.

There comes a point (that I won’t spoil for you) in the plot that is so very out of touch with the rest of the film that it borders on the tedious, but the action recovers to a thrilling climax that reeks of Abrams and could be transposed into anything that’s gone before and sadly will probably remain the template when Star Wars VII: Milking The Cash Cow comes around. Don’t get me wrong – it works and it’s really good so it’s a bit churlish of me to complain, it’s more of a warm blanket of familiarity than the cold tedium of inevitability.

In summary: watch it, enjoy it.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Guest Review: V/H/S/2

Directors: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sánchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans & Jason Eisener
Year: 2013
Score: 8.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

The child version of Doom did not prove a huge success.

The child version of Doom did not prove a huge success.

A couple of things – I love found footage horror films, and I haven’t seen the original V/H/S. All good? Right. This film is unbelievable, and is by a clear margin the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time. For those unfamiliar with the premise, V/H/S/2 follows the found footage of two reporters who get into the house of a missing teenager, and then sit and watch a collection of found footage videos.

It just has everything. Ghosts, crazy cults, monsters, zombies… it just goes on and on. There’s several different short films, and although each is only about fifteen minutes long I found myself completely absorbed and at points genuinely frightened by what was going on. Particularly the cult one. Part of me would like to meet the people who dreamt this up, but the other part of me thinks that if I did it would be my civic duty to beat them to death and prevent them inflicting any more of their unfettered madness upon the world.

I know there’s divided opinion on found footage films. Many don’t like them, arguing that they’re lazy, unrealistic and difficult to lose yourself in. There are instances where this is true, and there is some absolute dross out there. You do, however, get some real gems. The Last Exorcism is fantastic, Paranormal Activity created a whole new genre and The Blair Witch Project (deal with it), whether you like it or not, will go down as a film that truly changed the horror landscape. As unusual as it is to say this about a sequel, V/H/S/2 deserves to sit alongside if not above all of them. Genuinely frightening, cleverly tied together footage wrapped around the most important quality a film of this nature needs: a reason for the protagonists to be holding a camera the whole damn time.

If you like horror films, you HAVE to see this one.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Guest Review: Monsters University

Director: Dan Scanlon
Year: 2013
Score: 6.5/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Note: this film was previously reviewed by Movies and Bacon here.

"And we're just about done! I won't use these obviously but just to finish off the film, why don't you pop your clothes off?"

“And we’re just about done! I won’t use these obviously but just to finish off the film, why don’t you pop your clothes off?”

Oh, Pixar, what have you done?!

Pixar are one of my favourite companies in the whole wide world. The way that they take any situation, however benign and insignificant it may be, and just dream about what story might become simply staggers me. And they do it over and over – A Bug’s Life, Toy Story and its sequels, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., and let’s not even get on to the masterpiece that is Up. Every single one shares something in common; good triumphs over adversity. Now however we have Monsters University, and the message is as stark as it is cold – no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you want it, no matter how dedicated; sometimes, you will never be good enough. And that, to me, is very very sad.

As the title suggests, the plot follows Mike and Sulley through university life, long before they’re working for Monsters Inc. Sulley’s character has been very cleverly reverse engineered from the original; an overly confident slacker relying on hereditary talent to get by, eventually learning the value of good work ethic, strength of character and morality. Mike on the other hand shares no resemblance to his original form; hardworking and calculating, and filled with burning ambition. A likeable character of course, but not connected to the original.

Goodman and Crystal turn in excellent performances, as does a surprisingly impressive Helen Mirren (voicing Dean Hardscrabble), and all add depth to a plot desperately trying to distract you from an inevitable ending of disappointment. It also contains some surprisingly epic lines (“When you lose, no one will remember you” “Maybe, but when YOU lose, everyone will remember you”) and the relationship between Mike and Sulley grows and develops in a charming way. But you just can’t get away from the disappointment of cold cutting reality that rings through the whole film like the dull toll of a lone funeral bell; no matter how hard you try, you will never be good enough.

I don’t want this from a Pixar film! I don’t care how hard you try and sugar coat the ending, it’s failure. If I wanted to think about a world of failure and misery and cold crushing reality, I don’t need a film for that, I have reality. I want to believe a goldfish can swim halfway across the world to find his disabled son. I want to believe that an old man can fly his house to South America using balloons and a fat kid. I want to dream! And shame on you Pixar for pissing on my chips.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Director: Declan Lowney
Year: 2013
Score: 8.5/10

There's something so compelling and yet so disturbing about this image. Inevitably it brings to mind Buffalo "It puts the lotion in the basket" Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

There’s something so compelling and yet so disturbing about this image. Inevitably it brings to mind Buffalo “It puts the lotion in the basket” Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

Disclaimer: I’m reviewing this as someone with no prior exposure to Alan Partridge; I’m guessing I would have enjoyed it even more if I was already a fan, though it’s possible fans could be disappointed by it if the TV and radio shows that preceded it were better. I found this utterly hilarious. I would say it made me laugh as much as or more than any other single movie I watched in 2013 (and bear in mind that I watched 364 others). The script is incredibly witty, and Steve Coogan – clearly a master at portraying this buffoon, having done so many times in the past – adds much to that wit with his delivery and performance. Somehow even just the scenes of Partridge singing along to songs on the radio are comedy gold. Regional commercial radio is a pretty easy target for ridicule and the satire on show here is merciless and spot-on. Sometimes film adaptations of TV shows feel pointless (e.g. Get Smart), drawn out (e.g. The Inbetweeners Movie) or just like a longer episode of the TV show (e.g. The Simpsons Movie); in this case, while I may not be the best judge as I haven’t actually seen any of the series, it feels just right. Parts of the last third do drag just a little, and I could have done with more humour from some of the supporting characters, but those are really my only complaints.

Review: Prisoners

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Year: 2013
Score: 7.5/10

Oh, deer. According to the credits, "American Humane Association monitored some of the animal action. No animals were harmed in those scenes". Presumably this wasn't one of the monitored scenes...

Oh, deer. According to the credits, “American Humane Association monitored some of the animal action. No animals were harmed in those scenes”. Presumably this wasn’t one of the monitored scenes…

At its heart, this grim drama is basically just a police procedural. Like many of its kin it features red herrings, convenient coincidences, surprising twists, and no proper exploration of the motives of the criminal(s) responsible for the central crime(s). However, it’s able to rise above these genre tropes thanks to strong performances from an excellent cast (Hugh Jackman is especially good; I’ve generally thought poorly of him but this very much redeems him in my eyes), assured direction from Canadian Denis Villeneuve, and some effective emotional moments. The relentlessness of the movie’s bleakness brings to mind David Fincher’s Se7en, and that’s no bad thing. After the revelations in the last half hour, I’m not convinced it all actually makes sense. In fact, it really is that final stretch – with twists and resolutions that don’t really match the power of what precedes them – that lowers this from a potential 8.5 or 9 down to a solid 7.5. Interesting piece of trivia: cinematographer Roger Deakins was nominated for an Oscar and lost (to Emmanuel Lubezki, whose work on Gravity was admittedly outstanding), making it 11 losses from 11 nominations.

Review: Machete Kills

Director: Robert Rodriguez
Year: 2013
Score: 5.5/10

There's only one possible caption for this: WINNING!

There’s only one possible caption for this: WINNING!

The joke wore thin before 2010’s Machete finished, yet Robert Rodriguez and Danny Trejo have attempted to wring another movie out of it (and based on the fake trailer at the start, there’ll be a third one too – this one set IN SPACE!!). They succeed probably as well as they could; it’s still got the same sense of fun and ridiculousness, there are some funny cameos (I haven’t enjoyed Charlie Sheen – billed here as Carlos Estévez – this much in years), and it remains somehow joyous to see Trejo in a lead role. Overall, though, there probably aren’t quite enough gags that work, there’s too much plot (who cares about plot in a Machete movie?!), and far too much of the second half seems to have the sole purpose of setting up the space sequel. Still, if you enjoyed the first one, and you go in with the right mindset, you’ll enjoy this one too.

Review: Touchy Feely

Director: Lynn Shelton
Year: 2013
Score: 6.5/10

This is either an extreme close-up of the skin of one of the characters or a Windows 95 wallpaper option.

This is either an extreme close-up of the skin of one of the characters or a Windows 95 wallpaper option.

This lightweight indie comedy-drama has a lot to like, particularly the performances; Josh Pais has never been better and Alison Janney is never not awesome. It also has some really nice moments, such as the scene in which Rosemarie DeWitt’s character recounts memories and the one in which Pais climbs onto a reiki table. Ultimately, though, the story’s a bit too muddled for it to really hold together narratively or dramatically. Changes in people’s circumstances and behaviour aren’t really explained and things (particularly in the second half) just seem to happen, often without much rhyme or reason. Still worth checking out if you’re a fan of any of the talent involved.

Guest Review: The Great Gatsby

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Year: 2013
Score: 4/10
Reviewer: Drew Pontikis

Welcome to a brand new feature on Movies and Bacon: guest reviews! Today’s guest reviewer is Drew Pontikis from Obscene Gaming. Here’s his take on The Great Gatsby, a film previously reviewed by Movies and Bacon here.

You sit there and think about the terrible film you've made!

You sit there and think about the terrible film you’ve made!

A Baz Luhrmann film is the girl equivalent of a Michael Bay film, and The Great Gatsby follows this format as much as Moulin Rouge does. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, sporting the ropiest accent this side of Janet Street-Porter, the story is told through the eyes of Spider-Man Toby Maguire; a man so infatuated with Gatsby it is hard to build any rapport or empathy with the characters without feeling just a little bit sick.

The set and scenery are overly decadent and grandiose, buried elbow deep in the art deco styling of the time the film is set. Unfortunately after the first five minutes this becomes blinding, and as the film goes on it lacks the ability to impact you in the way it is apparently intended.

From start to finish the film lacks any suspense, clarity of plot, and the twist at the end is so telegraphed that it could have been dreamed up by the World Wrestling Federation. It strikes me as the sort of film that is targeted specifically at girls in their early teens whose mothers have let them watch Titanic as an example of what love looks like, and who now need a further hit. Like I said, the girl equivalent of a Michael Bay film.

I’ve never read the book, so I may be doing Baz Luhrmann a great disservice. This is, however, the film that ‘they said could never be made’ – frankly, I wish they hadn’t bothered.

Drew Pontikis is an avid gamer and film fanatic. A fan of racing sims, first person shooters and horror films, Drew is notable for talking almost exclusively using Futurama quotes. Follow him on Twitter as @drew060609 or read his game reviews at http://obscenegaming.wordpress.com.

Review: Elysium

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Year: 2013
Score: 5.5/10

This futuristic facial reconstruction sequence is a lot like watching one of those time-lapse videos of animals decomposing - but in reverse. Cool.

This futuristic facial reconstruction sequence is a lot like watching one of those time-lapse videos of animals decomposing – but in reverse. Cool.

Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to one of my all-time favourite sci-fi movies, District 9, was always likely to disappoint me, but I was surprised by just how much. It has some cool ideas and visuals, and some of the action is staged well, but it’s dramatically defective. No matter how hard they push the childhood flashback angle, there’s very little emotional impact of anything that happens, let alone the final sacrifice. Also, amusingly, the climactic plot device is basically a variant of ‘Have you tried switching it off and back on?’. Matt Damon is passable; Jodie Foster, on the other hand, overacts and uses a weird accent. Oddly, they share no scenes together. Does this mean District 9 was a fluke? I’ll be watching what Blomkamp does next with interest to find out.

Review: The Kings of Summer

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Year: 2013
Score: 7/10

Board gaming with Alison Brie and Nick Offerman. Why does this only happen in movies and dreams?

Board gaming with Alison Brie and Nick Offerman. Why does this only happen in movies and dreams?

This enjoyable indie comedy’s greatest strength is its hilarious supporting cast – Nick Offerman, Megan Mullaly, Alison Brie, Tony Hale, Kumail Nanjiani, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and more – all of whom are used well for a change. Offerman in particular is funnier and better in this than in anything else I’ve seen him in other than Parks and Recreation. He gets the best line of the movie: “Get the fuck off my porch before I knock your dick in the dirt”. There’s also great work from Moisés Arias as the strange and inscrutable Biaggio; he steals most scenes he’s in (which is quite a few). As for the story, there’s little originality, particularly in the coming-of-age romance elements, but it’s entirely inoffensive. It could certainly be funnier, but I did get some laughs out of it.

Review: Escape From Tomorrow

Director: Randy Moore
Year: 2013
Score: 4.5/10

Creepiest cameo appearance by Winnie the Pooh and his friends in cinematic history.

Creepiest cameo appearance by Winnie the Pooh and his friends in cinematic history.

A film worth watching only to see how Randy Moore and his small cast and crew managed to shoot it surreptitiously on location at Disneyland and Disney World without permission from the murine authorities. It’s a low-budget black-and-white psychological horror flick with some pretty awful acting and even worse visual effects (which appear to be used whenever particular scenes couldn’t be practically shot at the theme parks themselves). There are some effective parts, particularly in the first half, mostly those that riff on the interpersonal conflicts that invariably crop up between family members at theme parks. The second half, though, goes off the rails and veers into surrealism and narrative ambiguity that don’t really work; it ends up becoming quite a slog to get through. Nonetheless, if you have any interest in ‘guerrilla filmmaking’, or you’re a fan of the Disney parks, it’s probably still worth checking out. The most disturbing line of dialogue (by a considerable margin) is the following, yelled out by a woman during a sex scene: “Fuck me. Feel my vagina. I think you found my Hidden Mickey. Hysterectomy!”.

Review: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Director: David Lowery
Year: 2013
Score: 7.5/10

You could insert this into a trailer for Malick's To the Wonder and nobody would notice.

You could insert this into a trailer for Malick’s To the Wonder and nobody would notice.

Occasionally devastating drama starring three excellent actors, Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster. Great to see Keith Carradine (who in my mind will always either be singing ‘I’m Easy’ in Nashville or getting shot in Deadwood) in a supporting role. Ruminative and enigmatic, it brings to mind the films of Terrence Malick (my favourite director), conveying a similar sense of film as visual poetry and deliberate precision in seemingly haphazard juxtaposition of sound and image. It doesn’t reach Malick’s heights by any means, but the ambition is clearly there and there’s considerable merit in the attempt, though I imagine it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. The cinematography is a major asset. I’ll be watching what writer/director David Lowery does next with keen interest.

Review: Dirty Wars

Director: Richard Rowley
Year: 2013
Score: 6/10

Jeremy Scahill is so self-obsessed that he insisted the documentary include a shot of himself looking at himself on a TV screen while being filmed. I just hope the DVD release includes, as a special feature, a clip of him watching this scene.

Jeremy Scahill is so self-obsessed that he insisted the documentary include a shot of himself looking at himself on a TV screen while being filmed. I just hope the DVD release includes, as a special feature, a clip of him watching this scene.

Disappointing documentary that’s gotten more acclaim (including an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary) than it deserves. It tackles undoubtedly worthy subject matter – covert military operations (including assassinations) undertaken by US special forces, particularly the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), in places such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia in recent years – but it does so in a naïve, somewhat clunky way. The two main problems are that the protagonist/journalist Jeremy Scahill is included in the documentary as a character far too much – this should be about the frightening activities under investigation, not about the journalist undertaking that investigation – and the absence of any meaningful historical context (e.g. what led to JSOC’s establishment in 1980? What was it up to in the ’80s and ’90s?) to allow the audience to understand the disturbing trend at the heart of the film. Scahill also presents all of his findings as startling new revelations, when in reality (as I understand it) lots of other journalists and writers have known about and reported on this stuff for a long time. The stylistic flourishes in the vein of thriller movies tend to misfire, and I could maybe have done without some of the footage of dead kids. Having said all that, I should acknowledge that there’s some powerful stuff in the film and it’s certainly watchable enough.

Review: Man of Steel

Director: Zack Snyder
Year: 2013
Score: 5.5/10

Henry Cavill attempting to nail his 'Superman is concerned!' look. As usual, he succeeds only in making me laugh.

Henry Cavill attempting to nail his ‘Superman is concerned!’ look. As usual, he succeeds only in making me laugh.

I’ll try to put aside my general lack of enthusiasm for superhero / comic book movies in order to fairly review this.

It seems an odd decision to reboot Superman so soon after 2006’s Superman Returns. However, it’s not a fruitless decision, as it allows a retelling of the Superman origin story, which I regard as the most interesting part of a superhero’s mythology. It also means Brandon Routh – who was sterile and unmemorable in Superman Returns – gets replaced by Henry Cavill, who isn’t great (and has some laughable facial expressions when attempting to look serious or concerned) but is at least an improvement. The other casting is quite good too, with talented performers such as Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne and Richard Schiff in key roles. I enjoyed the treatment of Superman as an alien; the people of Earth (and the authorities in particular) react to his presence and power much as they would any powerful extraterrestrial being suddenly discovered here, which is a refreshing change from the standard you’re-a-superhero-fighting-for-good-so-we-love-you response.

As for negatives… well, there are quite a few, and they’re biggies. Though he’s better than Routh, Cavill is no Christopher Reeve. Costner isn’t given a whole lot to do as Superman’s adoptive father Pa Kent and Shannon is regrettably one-note as the villainous Zod. Apart from the origins-of-Superman stuff, which is fine, the story is weak, consisting mostly of convoluted silliness involving conflict with Zod over the Kryptonian ‘codex’ (a MacGuffin if ever there was one). Many of the action scenes are Michael Bay Transformersish or akin to watching a video game unfold before our eyes (speaking of video games, the acting, dialogue and action in some of the early scenes on Krypton bring to mind the worst kind of video game cutscenes). In some cases, most notably the climactic sequence involving the ‘world engine’, it’s pretty hard to know or care what’s going on. A few scenes and devices are particularly preposterous, such as the preserved consciousness of Superman’s father Jor-El (Crowe) appearing on board the Kryptonian villains’ spaceship to guide Lois Lane (Adams) through a series of attacks. There are also quite a number of nits I couldn’t stop myself from picking and questions I couldn’t stop myself from asking even though I knew the answers were all ‘shut up and suspend your disbelief and logic, it’s a superhero movie!’, such as why the Kryptonians would rely on the least secure form of security I’ve ever seen (pegs that fit into holes!), why they speak English, why Superman’s parents don’t flee Krypton with him, etc. And lastly, a minor complaint: it’s a shame that John Williams’ iconic Superman theme isn’t used at all, even briefly as an homage.

Review: The Selfish Giant

Director: Clio Barnard
Year: 2013
Score: 9/10

Does it still count as 'kitchen sink realism' if the kitchen appears to - quite unrealistically - not have a sink?

Does it still count as ‘kitchen sink realism’ if the kitchen appears to – quite unrealistically – not have a sink?

Poignant, immersive drama about two working class boys in Northern England who collect and sell scrap metal to a local dealer. On paper it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s really something special. It’s a slice of life in this poverty-stricken community, a portrait of quite a beautiful friendship between the two boys, and a thoughtful (and very loose) reimagining of the Oscar Wilde short story from which it draws its name. Writer/director Clio Barnard draws heavily on the style and voice of Ken Loach; in particular, there are strong echoes of Kes. The adult cast, largely unknown to me (the only actor I recognised was Ralph Ineson, who played Chris ‘Finchy’ Finch in the UK version of The Office), is solid enough. However, it’s the young actors who play the boys – Conner Chapman as the hyperactive but resourceful Arbor, and Shaun Thomas as his gentle horse-loving friend Swifty – who truly shine in their film debuts. Chapman is especially good, showing maturity well beyond his years with the power, precision and restraint of his performance. I highly recommend this film and will be keeping a close eye on what both Barnard and Chapman do next. A warning to accompany the recommendation: the final act is kind of devastating (I bawled).

Review: Her

Director: Spike Jonze
Year: 2013
Score: 9/10

Joaquin's impression of his dead brother.

Joaquin’s impression of his dead brother.

Wow, what a remarkable piece of cinema! Spike Jonze has such an inventive, creative mind, and it’s a pleasure to experience a slice of it. Though I loved his three other feature films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both written by Charlie Kaufman, and Where the Wild Things Are, written by Jonze and Dave Eggers, adapting Maurice Sendak’s book), this is the one that made me appreciate him most, since not only did he direct it perfectly, but it’s an original screenplay (never was the term so apt) he wrote alone.

On the surface it’s an exploration of love in the digital future and the question of what it means to be human and to love, but beneath that it’s basically a movie about a man coming to terms with the collapse of his marriage. There are loads of wonderful ideas and it all hangs together into a solid dramatic whole. It’s also frequently very, very funny.

Joaquin Phoenix is memorable and entirely committed to his role; it may be his best performance to date, though to be fair I haven’t seen I’m Not There yet. Amy Adams continues her recent string of strong work; she’s a real talent. Scarlett Johansson is great too in a voice-only part, helping to create ‘Samantha’ as a fully realised character in our minds, which is crucial to the movie succeeding.

The production design is ingenious and the costuming is hilarious (especially the ubiquitous high pants) without being implausible in the least. I also love that the film never bothers to tell us precisely when in the future it’s set, since it’s too busy being awesome. I can’t recommend this highly enough; even if you don’t end up loving it as I did, you’re bound to find plenty to like.