30 November 2013

Movie Review: Carrie (2013)



2013, 109mins, 15
Director: Kimberley Peirce 
Writer (s): Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Stephen King (novel)
Cast includes: Chloe Grace-Moretz, Julianne Moore, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer, Ansel Elgort 
UK Release Date: 29th November 2013 

Let’s play a game. It’s called guess the film. Ready? Okay? Here we go. It’s a remake of a beloved genre picture with Julianne Moore. It’s pointless and style deficient with a director ill-suited to the challenges of building tension. The lead actor is ostensibly meant to be playing a troubled and deeply scarred introvert with serious mommy issues, but proves too polished and naturally communicative for the task. Got it yet? No? Well, the answer is Gus Van Sant’s maligned 1998 “Psycho” redux. Want To play again? No? Fair enough. I guess I’ll review Kimberley Peirce’s “Carrie” remake instead.

Traumatised by her peers and fanatical mother (Julianne Moore), Carrie White (Chloe Grace-Moretz) is a teenager desperate to fit in. After some classmates pull a particularly cruel prank during Carrie’s first period, one-time bully Sue Snell (a vacant Gabriella Wilde) endures pangs of guilt, recruiting handsome boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to accompany Carrie to the Prom in penance. Whilst initially sceptical about the proposal, Carrie is eventually seduced by the promise of normality, ignoring her mother’s urges to avoid the sinful soiree. With her dress readied and her hands steadied, Carrie arrives prepared for the night of her life, much to the chagrin of spiteful enemy Chris (Portia Doubleday). Chris has something hideous in store for Carrie, but unbeknownst to the villain and her accomplices, the former-victim has a special and potentially lethal defence mechanism.

Adapted from a book by Stephen King and heavily inspired by Brian De Palma’s 1976 version, “Carrie” circa 2013 proves a strident miscalculation from the start. Director Kimberly Pierce has an intriguing pedigree, but she lacks any semblance of visual style – the cinematography and shot composition in “Carrie” ranking amid the year’s ugliest. The film has an uninteresting and heavily muted palette, only ever sparking to life when Pierce can find a way to smuggle obtrusive digital effects into the frame. If you cast your mind back to the De Palma incarnation, scenes boasted virtuoso camera work and a palpable intimacy, here pivotal moments (including the legendary menstrual mishap) fall flatly by the wayside. It’s a nuts and bolts affair, tacked together coherently but without flair or pathos.

The cast range from good to awful, with a miscast Moretz falling somewhere in-between. The young actress has transformed herself into an A-lister thanks to the “Kick-Ass” franchise and Scorsese’s “Hugo”, emerging from both with supreme confidence. However she’s too dynamic a screen presence to tackle Carrie White, emanating the mentality of a wallflower as opposed to the irreparably damaged soul at the heart of King’s tale. Moretz tries hard, but she can’t grasp the character’s tragic essence, instead conveying flighty angst. Julianne Moore and Portia Doubleday impress when they have maniacal meat to chew on, but Ansel Elgort is beyond amateurish as Tommy. His line delivery is slack and at no point do his rapports with Carrie or Sue feel natural.

The novel explored a wave of fascinating themes, including burgeoning adulthood, the outsider and an exploration of suburban fear. These feel glazed over in Peirce’s incarnation, the director maintaining a loud anti-fundamentalist religious angle, but amidst the shallow booming and shrieking she actually has very little of worth to say. Similarly the squandered opportunities for schoolyard reflection are alarming. Those familiar with the narrative will know how fertile the ending seems in a post-Columbine world, but again Peirce lets screeching sound-design and tacky special effects supersede commentary. How powerful would it be to have Carrie haunt the corridors, camera propped above her shoulder, as kids below scramble and beg for mercy? What about CCTV footage of Carrie mercilessly slaughtering the masses in a cafeteria, replete with cries of terror and upturned tables? That’s frightening imagery, but Peirce jettisons it in favour of having the blood-soaked anti-hero use her telekinetic powers (aka lots of dodgy CGI) on a car. Wasteful is an understatement.

Suspense is rarely mounted to any sustainable degree, Peirce’s stuttering direction lacking the control, timing or momentum to incur fear. It doesn't help that the usually dependable Marco Beltrami provides an incredibly rote musical score nor that De Palma’s kinetic designs hang over the barren mise-en-scene. Like its namesake “Carrie” is an unwanted beast, but at least she mounts a visceral and memorable last stand. Peirce’s ho-hum retread doesn't even get close. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

29 November 2013

Sound-Tracking 2013 #2 - Oblivion


This excerpt is the second in my Sound-Tracking 2013 series, looking at the wonderful score crafted by M83 for Joseph Kosinski's already underrated sci-fi cracker "Oblivion". The content is from a review I penned for The Boar in June. Placed below is a compilation of the serene and melancholic motifs from the feature.  

Following a successful partnership with Daft Punk on the soundtrack for his debut feature TRON: Legacy, director Joseph Kosinski turns to synthpop outfit M83 to score his sophomore sci-fi epic Oblivion.
Given the feature is an unusually pensive and graceful blockbuster, M83’s unlikely musical motifs work well, melding with Kosinski’s picturesque backdrops and devotion to apocalyptic contemplation to deliver a lugubrious tone entrenched within whitewashed beauty. As a solo experience, the album also pulses with life and mournful vitality, beginning with the hypnotically ethereal ‘Jack’s Dream’. The opening chapters of the disc communicate the emotional heft and visual expanse of the movie spectacularly, bringingM83’s distinct sound and channelling it through the offbeat action set-up that informs Kosinski’s filmic vision.
Other notable tracks in the first portion of the album include the seductively epic ‘Tech 49’ and the bellowing-yet-immersive ‘Earth 2077’, which ditches some of the M83 staples in favour of providing a more traditional Hollywood sound. It’s a nice and merely temporary deviation within the work that suggests the electronica band have a future beyond discos and cult fascination.
‘Canyon Battle’ takes the soundtrack in another direction, blending synthesisers with the machinations of fully-powered action movie scoring. Once again, this reinforces the work’s admiration of sci-fi tradition, as well as emphasising the stylistic curveball deliberately inserted in the form of M83’s sublime, trancelike musical fusion. It’s an expressive offering courtesy of an artistic contributor who understands the cinematic legacy Kosinski’s film adheres toward (if you’ve seen the picture, it cribs quite liberally from celebrated genre tropes), spicing up  proceedings with a sonic sound that combines smoothly with Kosinski’s eye for glacial beauty.
The album concludes with a collaboration with Norwegian songstress Susanne Sundfor, which harks back to a different era of cinematic music, when theme songs and operatic vocals were par for the course. This retro touch influences the film’s unique identity right at the death, providing an amiable and unexpected helping of certifiable closure. All in, the Oblivion OST is an album worth consuming; a sensory and urgent delight which should please M83 fans as well as those seeking an innovative musical accompaniment alongside whizzing celluloid.

25 November 2013

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2013, 146mins, 12
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer (s): Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt, Suzanne Collins (novel)
Cast includes: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Sam Claflin
UK Release Date: 21st November 2013

It’s generally accepted that the Harry Potter franchise came of age with Alfonso Cuaron’s gothic and notably matured third entry “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. The picture boasted a complete and adult sensibility, engaging with characters and the magical world on notes that superseded the candy-floss tonality of the earlier Chris Columbus ventures. Cuaron was able to make the tale his own, combining deft individual touches with Rowling’s celebrated prose to excellent effect, transitioning the cinematic incarnations from toy commercials for their popular literary sources into respectable and unique pop culture creations in their own right. It would appear that “The Hunger Games” cycle has done one better, hitting a confident stride with its first sequel “Catching Fire”. Based on immensely lucrative fiction by Suzanne Collins, last year’s “The Hunger Games” was a box-office success but also a minor artistic disappointment, finding itself imagined through the eyes of Gary Ross, a talented film-maker unsuited for the demands of modern blockbusting. With “Catching Fire” Ross has been replaced by talented visual technician Francis Lawrence (2007’s” I Am Legend”), the new blood providing this entry with a smoother aesthetic, allowing the actors and story to breathe freely.

 Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) remains haunted by her victory at the 74th Hunger Games, unable to shake the event from her psyche as her achievements stimulate active disquiet in the Districts. In a bid to quell rebellion, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) insists Katniss maintain a romantic façade with fellow winner Peeta (a much improved Josh Hutcherson) and make a spate of public appearances, but these events only seem to cement her revolutionary lustre further. Snow and accomplice Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) realise the only way to reinstate the status-quo is by finishing the girl on fire for good, forcing her, Peeta and a selection of other champions to return to the games in honour of their 75th anniversary.

“Catching Fire” gets off to a slow and moody start, the air filled with ice, rain and stinging despondency. Lawrence takes his time establishing the newfound awkwardness between Katniss and Peeta (the latter now fully aware of their hollow bond) and uses his leading lady’s incredible emotive range commendably. Jennifer Lawrence was one of the chief redeeming facets of the initial adaptation - and in the interim period has deservedly scooped academy recognition – her work retaining the same naturalistic glow here. In “Catching Fire” Katniss becomes nothing short of a remarkable heroine, duelling with internal horror, romantic disillusionment and the practical threat of death with courageous dignity, fuelled by Lawrence’s athletic and measured chops. She remains the chief point of triumph for this series, but there’s no denying this time she has a more assured production surrounding her.

In his short Hollywood career Francis Lawrence has proven adept at conceiving worlds, his creations ranging from the desolate New York of “I Am Legend” to the beguiling, ethereal wonderment of a period circus in “Water for Elephants”. His flair in this department provides “Catching Fire” with a firmer grasp of the social commentary gently addressed in part one, the director envisioning squads of faceless government goons enacting feats of grotesque violence and a capital city sickeningly saturated with wealth and privilege. It’s hardly a hyper evolved critique, but at least this time the undercurrents and conscience of the piece are tangibly realised, helping to fill out the spectrum of characters more fully as a consequence. As the sinister Snow, Sutherland is intimidating and awash with villainy, whilst new-comers like Jena Malone’s psychotic competitor and the conflicted Finnick (Sam Claflin) help instil the games themselves with added personality. Of course it all comes back to Katniss though, the competent dystopia presented helping to develop personal concerns and enhance her standing as a noble, sturdy lead upon whom to prop the narrative.

Lawrence has definitely benefited from a higher budget, allowing the games to become more interactive and the CGI to undergo an upgrade. “Catching Fire” still suffers from an overcooked runtime, with some of the action in the middle third failing to overcome vanilla conception (a set-piece with monkeys feels especially uninspired), but it finds an energized groove come the finale, leaving things on a cliff-hanger of substantive potential. Only time will tell if “The Hunger Games” has the firepower to transcend its box-office credibility on a more meaningful level, but this sequel is certainly an encouraging step in that direction. There’s a bit of Azkaban in this one.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

21 November 2013

Sound-Tracking 2013 #1 - Steve Jablonsky


Composer Steve Jablonsky
In the coming weeks I’ve decided to sample some of 2013’s best movie music. Music is an integral component of both the film-making and viewing processes, so it seems fitting to plug the interim between now and the year’s end with some choice selections. Each entry will comprise of two tracks either from the SAME MOVIE or from the SAME COMPOSER. Today I’m going with the latter, providing Steve Jablonsky’s work on “Ender’s Game” and “Pain & Gain” with a chance to take centre stage. I was a big fan of “Pain & Gain” and less enamoured by the flawed “Ender’s Game”, but in both features Jablonsky moulds the essence of story with his own distinctive, electronically influenced style. It’s particularly rewarding to see the composer attempt and succeed in delivering something more traditional with the operatic melodies of “Ender’s Game”, but the pulpy, pulsing music for “Pain & Gain” also wonderfully personifies that film’s wobbling moral compass and kinetic aesthetic. Enjoy some sample tracks below.
"Ender's War" from the soundtrack of "Ender's Game"

"I Got Saved" from the soundtrack of "Pain & Gain"

14 November 2013

Movie Review: Don Jon



Don Jon 
2013, 91mins, 18
Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt 
Writer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt 
Cast includes: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly
UK Release Date: 15th November 2013

Looking at the established visionaries Joseph Gordon-Levitt has worked with over the years; it’s not hard to deduce how the actor might’ve been bitten by the film-making bug. With key roles in pictures helmed by Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, the former “Third Rock from the Sun” moppet must’ve picked up a few tricks for his directorial own debut “Don Jon”. The tale of a hunky New Jersey bred lothario with a pornographic addiction; “Don Jon” is a clinical and amusing Hollywood comedy, albeit one that’s aim possibly outstrips its means. The feature trundles along entertaining and provides sprightly performances from a committed cast, but Levitt seems to lose focus in the dying throws; “Don Jon” meandering toward its climax sans the confidence of its earlier portions.
 Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a weight-pumpin’ bartender, with a proclivity toward routine and the seduction of the fairer gender. Every weekend Don hits the town alongside his buddies and ends up with a fresh, voluptuous conquest on his arm, and more importantly in his bed. However despite his carnal success - Don has a secret - he finds internet smut far more gratifying than the actual act of sex. Indulging a regular masturbatory cycle amid his daily practices  Don’s world is shaken when he meets the gorgeous Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a city gal who doesn't immediately fall prey to his charms. Don begins to court Barbara traditionally -slowly winning her affections – but when she uncovers his self-pleasuring habit their relationship comes under substantial strain.

 “Don Jon” is filled with strong ideas and for the first hour Gordon-Levitt toys with each one successfully. He draws accurate faux parallels between mainstream Hollywood product and porn. The uber-vain strain of acceptable machismo that infects 21st century society is succinctly detailed. He essays the uneasy relationship between the modern male psyche and traditional values of Christianity; painting a world so secular that sin can be measured and abolished satisfactorily with arbitrarily ascribed degrees of penance. The problem with “Don Jon” isn't in the exploration or observation of these themes, it’s in the sketchy and rudimentary style of the film’s dramatic aesthetic. Gordon-Levitt only manages to cultivate surface-level relationships here, whether it’s between Jon and ideal squeeze Barbara, his insecure mother (gamely portrayed by Glenne Headly) or a bond that builds between him and night-class cohort Esther (Julianne Moore). All of these arcs are fashioned acceptably into a traditional narrative, but they’re never pulled apart as fully as one might expect. “Don Jon” is fun cinema, but it’s not tangibly soulful.
 The gags are of a high-quality (some might prove shamefully relatable for the male contingent) and at 90 minutes the movie doesn't overstay its welcome. It helps to have supporting players like Johansson and Moore on dependable form alongside Levitt’s admittedly excellent title turn, but ultimately it’s not enough to provide the piece with the finesse it crucially lacks . Ambition is not the movie’s issue, but rather the wrapping of its theories and conceits into a radical or visibly challenging storytelling entity. “Don Jon” is concretely better than most Hollywood rom-coms and boasts a far edgier sensibility (prudish mothers aren't acceptable viewing partners for this one), but I can’t help ponder if something emotionally rawer might’ve better sealed the deal. From a dramatic standpoint “Don Jon” is a mirror of the pornography it so bravely boasts; enticing in the moment but hardly memorable.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

11 November 2013

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)


NOTE: I rarely supply a special note on 3D in my reviews, but in the case of "Gravity" I endorse the use of the technology and advise you to see the picture on the largest screen possible.


2013, 91mins, 12
Director: Alfonso Cuaron 
Writer (s): Jonas Cuaron, Alfonso Cuaron 
Cast includes: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris 
UK Release Date: 8th November 2013

“Gravity” is a remarkable cinematic achievement, leaving a dynamic visual imprint with an epic 13-minute opening take, and somehow building from there. It is visceral roller-coaster cinema with a soul, welcoming back director Alfonso Cuaron (last seen helming 2006’s critical darling “Children of Men”) to the industry with a honking great bang, allowing the Mexican film-maker to unfurl all manner of aesthetic magic before our eyes. Of course despite a plot deficient structure “Gravity” also delivers serious thrills, solid performances and a rich thematic undercurrent in keeping with the auteur’s registered fascinations concerning life and death. It’s a complete package from start to finish, a work of vast importance that ratchets up impeccably wrought feats of fright and awe over a refreshingly snappy 91 minutes.

Sent into space for the purpose of satellite repairs, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and cocksure astronaut Kowalski (George Clooney) are left stranded when a rogue shower of debris ravages their mission, the impact pushing Ryan into the vast ocean of blackness, and labouring Kowalski with the unenviable task of rescuing her. As they eventually regroup, the pair bond in an attempt to reach several space-stations that might represent salvation, battling the harshness of their environment and a dwindling oxygen supply en route.

I can’t recall a film-maker in the modern era using technology and their camera with the dexterity Cuaron does here; capturing the vastness of outer space through long-takes and expansive wide shots, allowing viewers to soak up the sense of isolation that envelops the film’s protagonists. The freeness and stillness of the environment is playfully depicted in the opening scene, tricking its heroes into a false sense of security, the only threat coming from Ryan’s half-digested lunch. However “Gravity” is a movie intent on defying expectation and unearthing deeper existentialist truths, exposing both the life-giving and deathly elements of our universe, forcing the audience and its central characters through hopeless moments of unbearable tension, assailed by the danger of the very Zero-G frivolity that make the initial sequence so disarmingly soft. When disaster strikes Cuaron gets gloriously ballsy; extreme close-ups (the camera manages to get everywhere here, including the inside of the astronaut helmets) to promote humanity and intimacy contrasted alongside massive, wide vistas to convey the endlessness of space and its perpetual menace. It’s a recipe that may sound simple on paper, but in execution it’s a complicated and disorientating myriad of creativity and insight.

Bullock is handed a basic (but fertile) arc to work with and dissembles it expertly, emoting with a deft combination of Hollywood showboating and subdued turmoil, gifting “Gravity” a gripping emotional hook in its final act. “Gravity” explores faith and religion through its trajectory and imagery; the notion bubbling over potently during a moment where Ryan is assailed by a cackling devil and his baying dogs via rogue transmission. The sequence is a startling highlight, the appearance of an angel and Steve Prince’s rousing score fashioning enough mainstream lustre and necessary pathos to sell Ryan’s conflict. Bullock must also be commended, it’s the best the actress has ever been. If she can win an Academy award for her stoic but unexciting work in 2009’s “The Blind Side”, she’s got to be a serious contender with “Gravity”.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is effortlessly rich, each still so believably detailed and deliberately framed that it could qualify as a valuable painting. Cuaron and Lubezki seem to enjoy a healthy synergy with “Gravity”, admiring and recoiling with equal measure, basking in the beauty of an aurora borealis before letting the frame become consumed with nightmarish stretches of dark nothingness. The world is explored and observed sharply, with CGI perfectly rendering the outposts on which many of the piece’s scariest set-pieces explode. The incomparable 3D work is particularly useful here, Cuaron not so much forcing items out of the screen, but rather slowly pulling viewers in, often just before a fast-paced and almost tangibly realised threat comes hurtling out of the ether. Not since “Avatar” has this technology had a case that argues so compellingly for its future as “Gravity”.

The finale boasts a certain ambiguity for those willing to engage with subtext, the Eden-esque visuals presented offering up a multitude of readings when aligned with earlier shots. “Gravity” can be enjoyed as a superbly mounted palm-sweater or as a more meditative contemplation on existence, but for maximum gratification I would advise you to embrace it as both. That way you’ll digest 2013’s most exhibitionist work as the indisputable gem it is. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013

2 November 2013

Movie Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2



Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
2013, 95mins, U
Director (s): Cody Cameron, Kris Pearn 
Writer (s): John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein, Erica Rivinoja 
Cast includes: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Terry Crews, Andy Samberg, Neil Patrick Harris 
UK Release Date: 25th October 2013

In the last few years I can recall few features as euphorically surprising as 2009’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who also provided appropriately wacky service to the “21 Jump Street” revamp), “Cloudy” was an absolute delight, packed with bizarre fits of family friendly comedy, cute characters and a believable emotional core.  Despite its definitively off-colour tone, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” was a capable box-office performer, paving the way for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2”. Lord and Miller have jumped ship, allowing filmmakers Cody Cameron and Kris Pearn a chance to evolve the franchise’s refreshingly eccentric spirit, bolstered by a wealth of returning vocal talent. Unfortunately this continuation is a sobering affair, with Pearn and Cameron delivering a considerably more mechanical and forced work. There are broad guffaws, and the mise en scène retains a fittingly buzzed aesthetic, but “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” feels more knock-off than knock-out.

With their hometown polluted by leftover food, Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) and the inhabitants of Swallow Falls are transported to the mainland, so a clean-up led by Flint’s childhood hero - scientist Chester V (Will Forte) - can begin. Chester provides Flint with temporary employment, keeping his own nefarious intentions protected, intending to use the source of the original chaos (Flint’s FLDSMDFR machine from the first movie) to improve the recipe of his famed nutrition bars. However it quickly appears that things on Swallow Falls are not as they seem, with an ecosystem of living food-animals springing into existence, spelling failure for Chester’s initial expedition to retrieve the tech. As a result, Chester manipulates Flint into undertaking a reconnaissance mission of his own, with girlfriend Sam (Anna Faris) and other chums in tow.

Sounds pretty barmy, right? The problem with “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” isn’t a lack of crazy; it’s the questionable nature of the crazy with which we’re presented. The initial foray had a fluid strangeness that organically encouraged the production of genuinely surrealist touches, but here the sillier elements feel forced and overthought. In a bid to honour the original, the film-makers have tried too hard to replicate its unique charisma – a misjudged creative path to tread. “Cloudy 2” has nothing to match the macabre sight of an overgrown man-child being devoured by sentient rotisserie chickens (an ACTUAL joke in the 2009 flick) or the presence of Flint’s irreverent inventions, instead relying on (admittedly clever) puns concerning the edible livestock that  now inhabits Swallow Falls. Jocose wordplay will only carry a 95 minute endeavour so far, and it’s here that “Cloudy 2” stumbles. There’s nothing hugely memorable within its visual or storytelling lexicon. Its determination to trot faithfully in Lord and Miller’s warped shadow actually undercutting its value as entertainment.

The cast remain chirpy, with Forte handed a larger role and Terry Crews capably filling in for Mr. T. It’s amusing to watch these characters goof-off, but the original feature also ensured the key players were given engaging arcs; and in its entirety offered an accessible and genuine message about the value of self. Here we receive nothing of the sort. Any romantic notions that previously existed between Sam and Flint have been jettisoned, with James Caan’s aloof paternal figure forced to undergo the same beats the first movie delivered so successfully. The father/son element that characterised large swathes of that story is pasted crudely back into this one; just with infinitely less soul. Similarly, whilst there’s a moral to be taken away from “Cloudy 2”, it feels too deliberate and calculated to work as anything other than a “Go Green” seminar for the incredibly young. I understand the intention on this front is respectable, but the execution is unconvincingly hollow.

In fairness “Cloudy 2” does have some energetic set-pieces and creature designs (although a budget cut leaves this installment looking slightly cheaper), but with expectations ratcheted up, these moderate positives aren't enough to satisfy. You may giggle in spots and even receive a nostalgic pang for the 2009 foray during this sequel’s few inspired beats; but ultimately “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2” feels charm deficient by comparison.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013