26 October 2013

Movie Review: Ender's Game



Ender's Game
2013, 114mins, 12
Director: Gavin Hood
Writer (s): Gavin Hood, Scott Orson Card (1985 novel Ender's Game)
Cast includes: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, Ben Kingsley
UK Release Date: 25th October 2013

With “Gravity” currently dominating the American Box-Office, it’s easy to forget that 2013 hasn't been a stellar year for big budget sci-fi. “Oblivion”, “After Earth” and “Elysium” all comfortably undershot financial expectation (the latter two also underwhelming artistically) during the lucrative summer months, leaving “Ender’s Game” in a precarious position for a more modest Autumnal debut. Adapted from a 1985 text by controversial author Orson Scott Card (due to inflammatory remarks aimed at the LGBT community), “Ender’s Game” imagines itself as a strange mixture of “Platoon”, “Starship Troopers” and “The Hunger Games”, but despite a noble undercurrent of intriguing subtext the picture stumbles under a treacly layer of dubious film-making. Maybe it’s the directorial input of Gavin Hood (last seen battling against his employers with 2009’s little loved “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) or just a misappropriation of the material by the script (also Hood’s responsibility), but “Ender’s Game” gratingly fails to connect on a dramatic or aesthetic level. I suspect distributors Summit Entertainment have the next “After Earth” on their hands, as opposed to the “Twilight” replacement they've been struggling to unearth for the last 12-months.

In the past Earth was ravaged by alien attackers, but due to the efforts of a heroic individual the threat was abated. Now the Commanders of the human race train and assess children, grooming them as leaders, should the threat of intergalactic warfare resurface. Ender (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”) has been brought to the attention of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford); the latter convinced the teen has the steely attitude and tactical instincts required for militaristic brilliance. Recruiting Ender into an intense training facility, Graff tests the boy with obstacles both physical and cerebral, pitting him in violent encounters against other gifted youngsters. As D-Day grows closer, it becomes apparent that Ender will play a key role in Earth’s offensive strategy; something that pressures the boy’s ever depleting conscience.

“Ender’s Game” isn't without lofty ideas or impactful imagery, but these positives are only mild seasoning on an otherwise unsatisfactory dish. The movie deals with the decimation of innocence, the muddy ethics of war and the desensitization of modern youth culture quite efficiently, although its musings lack the depth required to forgive a multitude of pratfalls. I respect Hood for maintaining some connection with the novel’s more nihilistic tonality (the feature isn’t entirely white-washed despite a PG sensibility), but the uneven standard of performance and weak storytelling are debilitating. Asa Butterfield nails Ender’s icy-stare and sporadic internal conflicts, but around him seasoned veterans coast (disappointingly Ford falls into this category), with the younger thespians failing to handle the weight of basic performative demands. Hailee Steinfeld – who was so good in the Coens’ “True Grit” – is watery as a potential point of pubescent connection for Ender; denied to him as a result of the bloody task at hand.

The CGI is indicative of a movie costing over $100 million, but the sets and costuming are distractingly cheap in spots, removing some of the grandiose scale Hood is gunning for. Action sequences are shot competently and with tidy editorial control, but there’s a lack of tension, the script never imbuing the laser-tag style battles or hulking battleship simulations with any semblance of higher purpose. Maybe that’s the point, the movie clearly wants to critique popular culture’s trivialisation of mass violence, but that alone doesn’t render the carnage exciting. We’re given no reason to care; the film-makers carelessly ignoring stakes and characterization in favour of obvious commentary and digital prowess. I admire “Ender’s Game” for its ambition on this front (even if the success is limited), but for a wannabe blockbuster such ignorance toward the current genre audience’s hunger for engaging action will dent its box-office allure. It also makes large swathes of “Ender’s Game” rather boring and soulless.

Stylistically “Ender’s Game” doesn't have many defining marks, reducing the narrative to a glorified montage of sorts. Characters are hurtled from one challenge to another with little detail applied to the emotional rigour required, whilst call-backs to Ender’s family on earth are so perfunctory and thinly fleshed out they border on offensive. It would be unsurprising to find a lengthier cut appear on Blu-Ray, so flimsy are the leaps that fuel the sub-par script. Steve Jablonsky’s rousing musical score allows individual moments some superficial importance, but when distilled, it is apparent Hood’s grasp of the material is too jerky for maximum viewer immersion.

The final act musters a single intensely powerful scene (Ford springing to life) but its ultimate resolution is distractingly scrappy and unfocused. In fact the conclusion borders on incoherent, even going as far to steal away the significance of Ender’s eventual part in Graff’s master plan. Still, it paves the way for a sequel, which at the time probably seemed like a chief concern for greedy executives. Yet having seen the final product, I’m doubtful the demand for an “Ender’s Game” follow-up will justify such corporate mentality. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

24 October 2013

This Week in Capsule Reviews - 24/10/13

R.I.P.D (2013) - D+

Given the film's already squalid reputation, "R.I.P.D" is surprisingly alright. For about 25 minutes.

A giddy cartoon aesthetic and quartet of fun performances (Bridges, Reynolds, Bacon and Mary Louise Parker all outstrip the material easily) keep things competently afloat for a short while, but serious scripting deficiencies, hollow emotional beats and sub-par action quickly transform the movie into a Titanic style situation. The final hour is tedious and over-produced Hollywood bunkum, far too reliant on generic science-ficion tropes and repeat gags for comfort. The rules of the world aren't well demonstrated and often feel disjointed, and nobody has an onscreen dynamic that supersedes quips or unearned dewy-eyed sentiment. Given its dire box-office rejection, I can't really claim to be disappointed, but there's no doubt it boasts a cast deserving of much better.

 After Earth (2013) - C-
The best film Shyamalan has made since 2006 and not quite as unbearably awful as the vitriol of last June suggests. It has many problems, not least that Jaden Smith gives an appallingly amateurish leading performance, but there are oddly competent stretches as well. The screenplay is uneven and rife with ghastly dialogue and unearned allusions to high culture (clumsy "Moby Dick" references are scattered to underline the man vs. nature theme)but some of the action stuff is serviceable, whilst both the musical score and cinematography maintain a decent standard. I'm not saying it's good, but I reckon there are enough positives to render "After Earth" mediocre rather than deplorable.

The Bling Ring (2013) - C

Moments of sporadic inspiration are evident here, but the film is too distant and blunt to leave a deeper impression. Maybe the surface level message and repetitious format are meant to be indicative of the vapid teen protagonists, but even so it doesn't much help an audience engage with the piece sociologically, intellectually or even as entertainment. Cast are quite good, although characterization (particularly with the male lead) feels distractedly uneven. If you want a 2013 release that deals with material obsession, the corruption of the American dream and is based on a real crime, I would recommend Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" much more readily.

Prisoners (2013) - B+

“Prisoners” is a compelling mystery with stellar performances, rich thematic undercurrents and sturdy procedural plotting. Gripping, harrowing and with some of the year's most graceful cinematography. Hugh Jackman makes a strong, early gambit for next year's Best Actor Oscar. It’s very impressive stuff.

The storytelling is impeccably paced and structured, but what really provides weight and elevates the feature above the majority of genre work is its doggedly realist tone and shrewd references to fearsome, contemporary military tactics.

Reviews by Daniel Kelly, 2013

21 October 2013

Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks



Saving Mr. Banks
2013, 125mins, PG
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: Kelly Marcel
Cast includes: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford 
UK Release Date: 29th November 2013

1964’s “Mary Poppins” has passed enthusiastically from generation to generation; its blend of infectious music and spirited moralising concretely embodying the live action ethos of Disney Studios and its founding father. The movie’s creation makes for an interesting story in its own right, encompassing a lengthy dialogue between Walt Disney and Poppins’ creator P.L Travers, the latter insistent that her super-nanny had no place at the House of Mouse. Now in the hands of John Lee Hancock (2009’s overrated “The Blind Side”) the relationship between Travers and Disney has been gifted a traditional Hollywood dramatization, incorporating in thespians like Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks to help maximise the picture’s business potential. However despite a workmanlike first hour, “Saving Mr. Banks” actually morphs into a legitimately heartfelt work before the finish, rooting itself in a thematically satisfying direction. It helps that Hancock has amassed a crew of dependable craftsmen and talented performers to bring the tale to life, but one cannot overlook the rewardingly sincere catharsis Kelly Marcel’s screenplay eventually accomplishes.

Threatened by financial strife, author P.L Travers (Emma Thompson) is forced to consider selling her famed “Mary Poppins” character to Disney. Long having resisted the notion, Travers embarks to Los Angeles where she meets screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford), musical maestros the Sherman Brothers (B.J Novak & Jason Schwartzman) and Walt himself (a boisterous Tom Hanks).  The film-makers attempt to nullify as many of Travers’ concerns as possible, but she constantly finds issue with their proposed plans, refuting attempts to bring songs or animation into the mix.  As the creative process powers forward, Travers begins to reflect on her life growing up in Australia, and the effect her whimsical but troubled father (Colin Farrell) had on her literary creations. Spying a point of connection, Walt begins to try and accommodate Travers’s familial history through their forthcoming cinematic collaboration.
“Saving Mr. Banks” looks terrific, whether it be traversing a nostalgic 1960s L.A or exploring vast Australian environments. Cinematographer John Schwartzman has a traditional style, but his lighting and frame compositions are rich enough to render “Saving Mr. Banks” positively decadent, complimenting the film’s tender heart with slight but gorgeous photography. The entire enterprise boasts a pure and hopeful tonality, Hancock amassing an experienced team (including composer Thomas Newman in hyper twee mode) to help flesh out a rose-tinted and imaginative family feature. It’s hard to accurately summarise how genuine this representation is (we know Walt Disney wasn’t all smiles behind the scenes) but it’s still a very pleasant and capably sculpted slice of entertainment


It takes Hancock’s direction and Marcel’s narrative a little time to escape the cruxes of TV Special plotting, but when “Saving Mr. Banks” picks up an editorial rhythm and sense of big-screen grandeur it clings on firmly; using organically inserted flashbacks (boasting a fabulous Colin Farrell) to flesh out the British author marvellously. Of course Thompson’s forceful and reservedly warm performance works wonders, but Marcel’s careful attention to uncomfortable childhood recollections really sets the central dynamic alight. “Saving Mr. Banks” uses the enchanting and heart-breaking bond between a father and his daughter to help underline the unifying power of storytelling, and the distinct coping mechanisms it can provide. It’s amazing how successfully the movie comments on this by the end, especially given the perfunctory note with which proceedings open.
Hancock is a director prone to both cloying sentiment and pacing misjudgements, but on this occasion neither offends egregiously. “Saving Mr. Banks” is certainly not a quick sit, but its joyous personality and celebratory nature help immunise audiences to potential boredom, with Thompson’s magnetic command of the screen forcing their attention to stay interlocked with the narrative. Similarly whilst the picture is undeniably fluffy, it doesn’t cross the line into schmaltz, even if the upbeat portrayal of Disney management renders it a suspect historical re-enactment.

There’s nothing radical to observe here (aside from the stunning contributions of Farrell and Thompson), but “Saving Mr. Banks” is both credibly realised and well-intentioned. Fans of “Mary Poppins” will revel in Marcel’s unabashed adoration for the picture, whilst its blend of tear-jerking and humour is liable to encourage healthy box-office and potential awards consideration; even if the ways it chooses to extract such responses are inherently generic. It’s a sweet and sincere helping of confection, enlivened by sparkly stars and a reassuring message on the vitality of escapism.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

19 October 2013

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine



Blue Jasmine
2013, 98mins, 15
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Cast includes: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K, Peter Sarsgaard
UK Release Date: 27th September 2013

“Woody Allen returns to form!”

The above phrase is quickly translating into the epitome of clich├ęd film journalism, dished out whenever the king of nebbish comedy sees fit to release a new picture. Whether it’s the sultry tones of “Vicky Christina Barcelona” or the surrealist wit of “Midnight in Paris” the film-maker’s contemporary works are constantly labelled as throwbacks to the Allen of old; oases within a supposed qualitative drought that consistently eludes any firm categorisation. In the spirit of this distasteful phenomenon, Allen’s latest effort “Blue Jasmine” is pulling such predictable praise. However the hyperbolic headlines offend even more on this occasion because “Jasmine” is quite unlike anything the director has previously attempted; the movie amounting to both a damning social critique and heart-breaking embodiment of personal destitution. It’s incredible to observe a seasoned director now well into his seventies produce such vital output, all powered by a towering turn from the regal Cate Blanchett.

Following her husband’s implication in severe financial scandal, previously wealthy socialite Jasmine (Blanchett) is left with no alternative but to shack up with sibling Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her macho beau Chili (Bobby Cannavale) in San Francisco. Disarmed by the transition from New York luxury to working class strife, Jasmine attempts to correct the course of her life via study and part-time work; the eventual aim being a return to the lavish abundance of old. However scuppering her ambitions is a crippling alcohol dependency and underlying depression, leaving her soul writhing in perpetual discontentment and guilt.

The superficial similarities with Tennessee Williams’ seminal “A Streetcar Named Desire” are evident (although Allen denies any artistic links) but under that familiar surface “Blue Jasmine” works out to be its own entity. The feature is laced with the acidic and amusing comic dexterity that defines much of Allen’s famed output, but it’s also an emotionally complex and heartbreakingly cynical work, critically underlining issues of class separation and contemporary consumerist ethics. So much of Jasmine’s fall from grace can be attributed to material and monetary woe, Allen eschewing a generation’s obsession with tangible gain and security, watching as the toxic dependency destroys his title character and sends ripples of penetrating grief through those who surround her. Allen has connected firmly with a topical social concern in “Blue Jasmine”, lending it a level of cultural importance that few movies have been able to navigate so skilfully this year.

Blanchett is a magnificent screen presence, transforming Jasmine into a figure of pity rather than sympathy, which given her questionable priorities is perfectly judged. Her journey through the film is performed with power and naturalism, avoiding sensationalist moments of bombast in favour of a quieter, more pointedly tragic portrait of mental collapse. It’s all authentically played and we completely feel the bedrock of Jasmine’s past life wither into meaningless detritus, but Allen never forgets to communicate a wider message of despair; engaging solidly with the notion that “stuff” leaves you soulless. All of this is spectacularly aided by fine supporting turns from Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay, surfacing as familial victims of Jasmine’s lasting selfishness. It’s Blanchett’s film, but there’s genuine value to be found in those around her too.

“Blue Jasmine” is constructed for optimal catharsis (Allen deploys flashbacks effectively) and isn’t without softness in spots. There are laughs to be had and the dialogue carries with it terrific intelligence, but in this case the mirth is outweighed by necessarily rich characterisation and social engagement. It paints harsh images of alcoholism, greed and self-serving sacrifice, without clumsily damning them. They are worrying but very prominent attributes within our world; Allen merely displaying their negative effects as opposed to patronising us with any sort of behavioural diatribe. The cinematography courtesy of Javier Aguirresarobe is also noteworthy, using muted and delicate tones to help visually replicate Jasmine’s frail consciousness.

I will never conclude by citing anything as a “comeback” for Allen. It’s a pedestrian remark, indicative of those who haven’t put enough thought into the cinema they seek to discuss. However “Blue Jasmine” is the film-maker’s most achingly human and sophisticated work for some time; free from indulgence and played entirely as impactful and courageous entertainment. Personally, that’s what I seek from top tier Allen. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

6 October 2013

Movie Review: Texas Chainsaw 3D



Texas Chainsaw 3D
2013, 92mins, 15
Director: John Luessenhop
Writer (s): Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan, Kirsten Elms
Cast includes: Alexandra Daddario, Dan Yeager, Trey Songz, Scott Eastwood, Shaun Sipos
UK Release Date: 4th January 2013

“Texas Chainsaw 3D” begins with a cameo from Gunnar Hansen, the man who portrayed Leatherface during the villain’s first stint on the silver screen. I find this weird. Why would you seemingly give fans a jovial titbit like that, before proceeding to insult them for 92 painfully inept minutes?  It’s bizarre. Like bating a puppy with a sausage before drowning it in a bathtub.

The horror genre has taken an immeasurable beating over the last ten years, and I don’t just refer to the uneven quality of original product. No, alas, much of this infection can be attributed to Hollywood’s newfound fascination with reheating hits of the past, digging up the corpses of once legendary frighteners and reducing them to mounds of unimaginative drivel. Leatherface - the iconic star of Tobe Hooper’s low-fi 1974 chiller “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” - has already endured his fair share of unwanted rebirths. Suffering through several sequels and a competent but unwarranted 2003 remake has soured the monster’s potency, long drained of the mysterious nastiness that made those initial chainsaw whirs so alarmingly macabre. With “Texas Chainsaw 3D” Hollywood continues to dishonour the franchise; belching out an illogical pseudo-sequel unworthy of the original’s name. It’s a horrible affair and a burning condemnation of mainstream cinema’s worst habits. That it topped the box-office back in January - a time when so much quality Awards fare was in prime circulation - is appalling.

Discovering that her crass adoptive parents have kept her true lineage a secret since birth, Heather (Alexandra Daddario) decides to return to her true home of Texas to collect an inheritance left in her recently deceased mother’s will. On arrival (with a predictable posse of foul buddies in tow), Heather is alarmed to find an incredible abode, but one laced with a dark and tragic past. It doesn’t take long for said legacy to rear its head, as her troubled cousin Leatherface (Dan Yeager) escapes from his basement domain, anxious to carve up some teen flesh and make the locals pay for their cruel treatment of his clan.

There’s so much wrong with “Texas Chainsaw 3D” that it’s positively alarming. The screenplay is riddled with inconsistencies (mostly to do with the aging of characters) and boasts no discernible desire to rise above the level of joyless claptrap, quickly devolving into poorly hobbled together stalk and slash formula. Director John Luessenhop is unable to imbue the feature with any significant style or visual imprint (usually a minute saving grace with these things) and his grasp of tension leaves much to be desired. There’s plenty of grisly bloodshed to behold (although even that is comprised of wretched CG gore) but “Texas Chainsaw 3D” just can’t get the creepiness in gear, instead rallying to the predictable call of the “jump scare”; the most beloved weapon in the hack film-maker’s arsenal. It’s not good enough to unleash a maniac and expect audiences to cower. A sense of dread must be maintained or an attempt to manipulate primal fears attempted. Otherwise you’re just cooking up the sort of bamboozlingly dire pap that 11-year old girls giggle at during sleepovers.

The third act works a distasteful and cruddy twist into proceedings, as poorly formed supporting characters float in and out of the picture purely for the writer’s lazy convenience. An abundance of terrible dialogue makes up the majority of the character development, with a selection of young and despairingly talentless Abercrombie stiffs on hand to brave the killer’s tiresome advances. “Texas Chainsaw 3D” is a heartless desecration of an icon and an affront to those who take scary movies seriously.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013