22 November 2014

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 (Francis Lawrence, USA, 2014)

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B+

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1
2014, 123mins, 12
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer (s): Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins 
Cast includes: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin
UK Release Date: 21st November 2014 

It worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, so why not the continuing adventures of Katniss Everdeen? I'm of course alluding to the “Part 1” disclaimer that follows the title of the latest “Hunger Games” outing “Mockingjay”. It's become the done thing that the defining chapter in any popular adaptation should be divided into two, maybe to accommodate purists clamouring for unblemished reverence, but more likely as a means to ensure everybody involved makes an extra buck; except for the audience. By slicing the material with such obvious capitalist intent, movies suffering the symptom incur innate wrath from the consumer, decreasing their odds of making a favourable impression. Nobody likes to feel ripped-off, and this new Hollywood tactic carries a definite whiff of wheeler-dealer salesmanship. It's with some pleasure then that “Mockingjay: Part 1” actually provides a fulfilling cinematic experience, a slower feature than its immediate predecessor (and one would assume next year's continuation), but filled with intelligent ideas and action beats, that whilst sparse, form very real stakes. The political underbelly of author Suzanne Collin's universe is finally bearing narrative fruit, leading to a sobering but intense extension of her dystopian myth.

Every angel eventually falls, and no artist is immune to failure. Jennifer Lawrence (still aged a mere 24) has made a formidable ascension up the Hollywood ranks since her Oscar nominated work in 2010's “Winter's Bone”, rarely faltering en route to becoming a global superstar. For the first time since her debut on the world stage, Lawrence, this year, has communicated an unlikely aura of artifice. Her celebrity veneer has moved from courageously quirky into the realm of oppressively omnipotent, and her work in the otherwise competent “X-Men: Days of Future Past” ranked high amid that film's modest list of problems. Her heart wasn't in the sequel, and it showed in a drearily adequate performance. Thankfully with “Mockingjay” the actress is back to her best, delivering a turn replete with conviction, strength and empathy. Credit must go to the assorted screenwriters, but Lawrence embodies the vigour of a true revolutionary, unpolished but magnetic. It's sad that a film possessing a “strong female character” remains cause for celebration, but in the pantheon of family entertainment role-models come little better, or indeed more human. Every beat in the character's journey is etched with vulnerabilities, chinks in her otherwise kick-ass armour. Just because she cries, and frets for the safety of loved ones doesn't make Katniss weak, it simply renders her real. Very few studio tent-poles would permit their heroes instances of such ferocious despair, but it's these doubts that allow her triumphs to peak with grace. Lawrence is utterly convincing, heart-breaking when she needs to be, and rousing when the film demands it. The skill comes in seeing these separate faces mesh to form a tonally consistent whole, a grand feat of film-making.

The gender issue becomes even more pronounced with the arrival of Julianne Moore, portraying the rebellion’s leader, a clinical force of nature. She's another strong woman (intentionally dwarfing the great Philip Seymour Hoffman in their shared scenes), able to make decisions that others won't. Everything from Moore's intonation to her body language suggests a selfless inner-strength, an unwillingness to bow to pressure, realised through dryly recited speeches and unfaltering laurels. Narratively the figure is used as a glamorous prop, but Moore's turn packs weight. It's a promise there's more to come, and I'm damned intrigued to see what that is. The men on the other hand are softer, victims of rejection (Liam Hemsworth), torture (Josh Hutcherson's Peeta) and crucially fear (both Sam Claflin and in a later, pointed moment, Hoffman himself). These men need to be saved, and only the women of the world are fit to act. Heck, during a dependably well edited and scored sequence, a young girl risks her life to save a cat. It's improbable - even jarring on a storytelling front, a fake heightening of the stakes via an obvious plant and pay-off - but it does underline the movie's devotion to empowerment.

In a way reminiscent of “Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 1” tone, mood and implication override aggressive momentum, the script a hearty study in character. We have a variety of enjoyable roaming sequences, soaking up barbaric images of genocide (testing the limits of the PG-13 rating), indulging a reverse Riefenstahl subplot, in which the rebels stage a variety of propaganda shorts around Katniss and her increasing disdain for injustice. It's an indicator of the feature's mature ambitions, a delightful attempt to infuse the project with ideas that transcend the underlying but simplistic oppressed vs. oppressors mentality of the initial features. There's a social consciousness here that I greatly admired, an attempt to organically express the currency of images in war, the potential for manipulation even in the name of supposed “good”. It's not particularly complex, but it is present, and should inspire some thought and discussion amid younger generations. “The Hunger Games” has morphed from “Battle Royale” lite into something deeper, and more culturally pronounced. “Mockingjay” deftly explores the burdens media inflicts upon war, and the radical consequences irresponsible, unethical practice can usher. That's an invaluable message in my humble opinion.

 Francis Lawrence remains a good fit for the property, mapping out the universe authentically, and executing set-pieces with panache. He's no visionary, but he possesses a meticulous eye and a respect for character, something not always present in the work of his gloss-obsessed ilk. The climax, a stealth operation cut alongside a glorified conference call, shouldn't work, but it's an inspired feat of sound design, camera work and production detail. Lawrence finds so much truth with his close-ups, ensuring that a human face and a tangible emotion governs the wider spectacle of the action, which unfolds within a sterile, minimalist government facility. Film-making on a grand scale is not dependent on bombast. Artfully honed craft and believable feeling are often more rewarding. “Mockingjay: Part 1” contains each in spades.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014






18 November 2014

House-Keeping & All That Jazz

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A few small pieces of house-keeping. 

Firstly, an apology. Last month I confessed that output would slow for the next few months, and I wasn't wrong. For that, I'm sorry. Come December I will make a special effort to update the blog with loads of end of year goodies, and a ton of capsule (catch-up) reviews. 

Secondly, I actually received a response from Paramount concerning my piece on the release pattern for "The Gambler". I stand by the themes  of the article, even if it now transpires the UK will get the film in January after all. Official outlets like the IMDB, still have the picture pegged for May 2015, but the studio are saying otherwise. It's sweet news, and I thank them for their tweet-centric clarification. 

Thirdly, I should be uploading some regular audio content soon, as I've begun to regularly work with Blast106FM in the Greater Belfast area. It'll all be available here on the blog, I assure you. 

Last but not least, a recommendation for some other filmic listening. I'm a huge podcast enthusiast, and have recently been devouring episodes of the John August & Craig Mazin hosted podcast Scriptnotes, the ever listenable /FilmCast & Ian Loring and Mark Foster's rough and ready Dude & a Monkey. Each has a unique style and perspective, but all are awesome fodder for your inner cinephile. 

Just look for them on itunes. Whatever that is. 

Cheers guys,

Dan 

8 November 2014

The Curious Case of "The Gambler" - The Woes of Hollywood's International Release Strategy

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On Thursday a full trailer for Paramount's remake of The Gambler went live, following on from the potty-mouthed teaser. With a cast including Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange and Brie Larson, the film, like the original (which featured James Caan) has a high calibre cast, but more excitedly marks director Rupert Wyatt's first film since 2011's impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Wyatt walked from the equally excellent sequel (this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) back in 2012, for reasons that were never entirely clear, lining up The Gambler as his next project. Despite reservations from original scribe James Toback, the film trundled into production late last year, and wrapped in the first quarter of 2014. Things went quiet for a few months, then came trailers, posters and crucially, release announcements. Like Wahlberg's Lone Survivor the film will undergo a small December exhibition (to qualify for awards consideration) before expanding on New Year's Day. All fine, and more than a little promising. As a fan of the creatives and marketing materials,I was eager to find out when UK audiences might sample the film, presuming that sometime around January/February was probable. The UK release calendar works a little differently than the US, in that we tend to get the big awards contenders a month or two after Christmas, as opposed to 6 weeks before. As a result, I was perfectly willing to accept that there might be some delay with The Gambler. It's an outsider, and Paramount will like any sensible studio, want the film to perform in a comfortable window, without having to worry about an assortment of higher profile pedigree horses. Heck, even March 2015 would be fairly pragmatic. This morning I flicked open the IMDB to confirm it's international release pattern, and was shocked. 1st May 2015. That's almost 5 whole months after it débuts in the States. A full 135 days by my calculation.  

It's not the first time I've been shocked by a delay between US and UK distribution. 20 years ago such protocol would be considered not only normal, but maybe even a little expedient. Travelling back to 1991 we find an almost identical case with Steven Spielberg's Hook, which opened in December of that year State-side, before being unveiled in the UK sometime around April '92. That was fine for then, but not for now. Bootlegs are a click away, no longer is the criminal hobbyist a dodgy bloke with a stack of scratchy VHS tapes, he's a consummate pro who rips, streams and shares punctually. I don't say that as a member of a digital generation which demands everything at its fingertips instantaneously, a hoard of ravenous culture-vultures who would download their breakfast if it meant staying in bed a bit longer, but instead with my (admittedly naïve) business head on. What sense is there in leaving The Gambler to sit around for 5 months, whilst in the meantime screeners and home entertainment releases (which I would conservatively estimate for April 2015, could be earlier though) provide international pirates with the chance to see the picture weeks before its theatrical bow. Not only that, but see it for free. Piracy is an issue in the industry, perhaps not to the degree some producers would have you believe, but it's definitely a coiled rattlesnake always willing to strike. Producer of The Expendables 3 Avi Lerner just days ago speculated the industry might crumble in five-years, citing the leak and subsequent failure of his macho threequel as evidence. He proposed the Stallone starring clunker lost some $250 million due to the picture showing up online three weeks before distribution. I'm not sure where he's pulled such a specific and gargantuan figure, and I think that film in particular had issues way before the piracy incident (it's a tired, low-standard rehash of a now soggy joke), but it's undeniable his production sacrificed some profit over the kerfuffle. Me, I'd guess more in the range of $60-70 million, but in fairness, much of that will have leaked from the potential opening weekend gross. We all know the bigger you bow, the longer you hold. So who knows, maybe old Avi's mystery digits aren't so far off the mark (they are). 

EXHIBIT A
Back to The Gambler. Budgetary details are slight, but the film's probably booking a production worth of around $30 million. Yeah, let's stick with my projection from here on in. It might not be exact, but I bet it's in that ballpark. So it's not a high-risk feature, but it's no slouch either, and will need to rake in around $80-90 million to get Paramount the pay-out it desires. When the film opens in January it'll probably perform solidly, doing battle with a few Oscar holdovers and horror sequels (Amityville Awakening opens simultaneously) neither of which should be discounted. Wahlberg's box-office reputation (credible but rarely exceptional) and the time of year (slooow) mean it's unlikely to clear $60 million domestic, unless it proves to be a real contender. Lone Survivor did a remarkable $125 million, but that's an exception not a rule, an Oscar wannabe driven by jingoism and action do-daring. It's a perfect film for a post-Holiday America, The Gambler- a morality thriller - isn't. Wahlberg has always been more of a local movie star, but the international grosses on his other recent efforts like Contraband, Pain & Gain and 2 Guns have still accounted for substantive percentages of overall earnings. Certainly without them, each title would have been relegated from modest success to tepid failure. And remember, Wahlberg is very much the selling point here, just look at the poster tagged EXHIBIT A. If The Gambler settles at around $50 million domestic (and that number will require passable word of mouth) then it's still got a ways to go before it hits the coveted $80 million, requiring about the same amount Wahlberg's last few films – excluding concept driven stuff like Transformers and even Ted - have averaged internationally ($30 million). This is all in my head, but it seems to me that Paramount need the foreign numbers, and yet, their release strategy belies an ignorance of that fact. Simply put, the gap between releases encourages piracy, and will negatively influence viewership. In an age where information can be shared and attained so fluidly, cinema must adapt, and this is one of the ways it can do so. A man called Charles once discussed “survival of the fittest”, a theory that suggested those who adjust and subsequently thrive in a habitat will victor, leaving the poor sods standing stagnant to suffer. Contemporary media is an ecosystem, and if film doesn't evolve, it'll go the way of the dodo. I'm not promising it'll happen in five years, but consequences ultimately have to be honoured. If Hollywood insists on continuing the practice of releasing movies eons after their American run, it's signing a death warrant. 

Director Rupert Wyatt in 2011. 
Piracy is clearly the buzzword, but we'll retire it for the next diatribe. The delay doesn't even make sense from a short-term viewpoint. I agree that the January/February slate in the UK is much more competitive than it's US counterpart, and consideration of such should be taken, but it's not like May is a bundle of laughs for a mid-range, adult-oriented thriller. The Gambler will open 7 days after Avengers: Age of Ultron assumes control of wallets worldwide, and in a month that also boasts Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, Tomorrowland and Insidious 3. Against that slew of competition I see little hope for Wyatt's venture. In 2012 Peter Berg  suggested Battleship failed on the back of The Avengers, the Marvel romp packing theatres for weeks before it slowed. If Berg was accurate (which, despite his film's faults, he probably was) then what hope doe The Gambler harbour against the sequel, which is shaping to be one of the most anticipated films of all time? I would posit, virtually none. There might be some consolation in the name of “counter-programming”, but that's like getting a medal for taking part. No, I suggest The Gambler would make as much, maybe even more, if  it undertook UK exhibition in Feb or March. That way, the piracy problem is also largely solved. There's that word again.  

Of late, some major tent-poles have been released internationally first. Avengers: Age of Ulton will rank among this select group's numbers (May 1st in the US), with several major Marvel endeavours having popularized the trend since 2008. The delay tends to range from 3-7 days, with studios citing the battle against INTERNATIONAL PIRACY (jeez) as central to their rational. So “shut-up” I hear , “you get the Avengers and we get Wahlberg, what's your fuggin' issue?”. Aside from the fact I'd prefer a Wahlberg vehicle any day of the week, it's the elapsed time that cuts deepest. You wait an extra 5 days. We have to twiddle thumbs for 5 months. In a world rife with war, disease and famine it would be irresponsible to label the action barbaric, but it's definitely anachronistic. Atop that, Paramount are certainly hampering their own business prospects, for a feature they at least have a modicum of faith in (it wouldn't be getting an awards qualifying run otherwise). It hearkens back to a different time, and a more patient generation. The folks who happily queued to see Hook have grown up,  replaced by young people who “WANT IT NOW!”. This generation will stream, torrent and rip to their heart's content, and worse still, forget about things in a heartbeat. In 5 months, with the Oscars done and the internet marketing campaign invisible, which of the UK's many teenage cinephiles will recall The Gambler? Fewer than identify with it now, certainly. It's also possible to argue that some of this crop won't pay for it anyway, Paramount simply resigning themselves to an inevitable loss. Maybe. But surely there's a better chance of catching a 21-year old couple on date night in February, than the same pair who have to weigh The Gambler against Age of Ultron in May. Sometimes the glass can be half full. 

The scattered release calendar remains perplexing, in a sense it always has been. But with The Gambler I see no logic, just a careless loss of money and unintentional promotion of piracy. Of course I'd selfishly like the film sooner, I really want to see it. But even from a cold entirely dispassionate perspective, the UK release of The Gambler feels destined to come up snake-eyes.



An article by Daniel Kelly, 2014

7 November 2014

Review: Interstellar (Chris Nolan, USA, 2014)

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B

Interstellar 
2014, 169mins, 12
Director: Chris Nolan 
Writer (s): Chris & Jonathan Nolan 
Cast includes: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Mackenzie Foy
UK Release Date: 7th November 2014

When all’s said and done, it’s entirely probable that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” will be the biggest movie of the year. Not the highest-grossing or best, just biggest. It’s a film that traverses multiple worlds, varied galaxies and even alternate dimensions, all with a refreshingly heightened (at least to this ignorant soul) understanding of science and philosophy. Everything about the venture screams ambition, from the casting (a list of decidedly in vogue A-listers) to the whirlwind structure, evoking the aura of a genuine event. Aesthetically, it makes “Inception” seem tame by comparison. The screenplay is filled with big ideas and sweeping set-pieces, but what fascinates most is the idea of pitching mankind’s need to explore against a parent’s duty to intimately nurture. This journey belongs to McConaughey, the actor arousing moments of beguiling sadness as he watches his children grow from afar, their relationship blighted by questions of ultimate responsibility, destiny and the cruel realities of science. “Interstellar” has us aching for the southern fried spaceman, and the performer is able to imbue the part with increasingly dependable weight. However, that’s only a percentage of the feature’s overall dramatic sweep, and little else satisfies as cogently. Most of the supporting heads wither under the Nolan’s bright lights, and the second half cuts McConaughey’s internal struggle clumsily, applying focus to the less meaningful or vibrantly evoked dramas of a dying earth. When it’s in space, “Interstellar” manages at the very least to stun, but elsewhere the stumbles are frequent.

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a corn farmer, an increasingly important occupation on a decaying Earth. Reduced to a dustbowl, the planet’s food sources are drying up, leaving NASA determined to seek out other fertile worlds. As a gifted engineer and pilot, Cooper agrees to pioneer a mission to assess alternate planets, using a conveniently placed wormhole for express galaxy travel. Included on the voyage are spiky Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi) and robot TARS (Billy Irwin, R2-D2 complete with linguistic fluency and sarcasm pills). The priority is to find a world habitable for future generations, whilst Professor Brand (Michael Caine) pours over a formula to allow for the mobility of Earth’s populous. If either plan falters, there’s an alternative, but for Cooper that means leaving his children behind.


I've never found Christopher Nolan to be a cold film-maker. The criticism which became increasingly prevalent around the release of “Inception” has always seemed forced, as if suggesting that any film with an iota of calculated narrative must in turn also be a heartless, Xanax pumped crone. Of course anybody with a string of wit can detect the plethora of heart at that film’s centre, the story of a heartbroken husband and father, coming to terms with his responsibilities both past and present. Perhaps it’s not the most nuanced exploration of grief (and it comes with a lot of added slo-mo back flipping), but it’s communicated tangibly, offered almost as much airtime as the labyrinth of narrative trickery.  In terms of “Interstellar” the familial component is gripping, and provides nearly all of the movie’s non-spectacle related highlights. McConaughey’s “Cooper” might’ve been sketched a little finer, but the actor lends gravitas and feeling to his arc, an empathetic quality that causes our heart to fracture in tandem with his own.  For the opening half, this seems like the movie’s chief priority, played out beautifully through painful goodbyes and video diaries, arousing longing, tears and a vast separateness.  God, it’s lovely. Then Nolan sort of gives up. With another 70 minutes to go.

The Spielberg inflection gives way to something decidedly more Kubrickian, as the astronauts charge across visually resplendent worlds, contemplating obligation vs. yearning. It’s a vital question, but it feels slight in comparison to the heartier, teary material which precedes it. Watching a daughter, riddled with a combination of love and despair, unable to say farewell to her father, is dramatically richer ground than scientists disputing philosophical quandaries. The ambition is there, but it translates stagnantly into the realm of character and plot, “Interstellar” halting every so often to lay out its thesis, puncturing drama, action and just about everything else. During one crucial sequence, Nolan succeeds in blending incident and idea, as a character bursts forth from their shell, laying waste in the name of their own prerogative. This portion has a nice surprise appearance to its name (I won’t spoil it) portraying the picture’s most consistently intriguing entity. This figure, an astronaut previously marooned on one of the foreign worlds is a volatile cocktail of courage and cowardice, an oxymoron unable to separate his pangs for societal benefit from preservation of the self. The tension snaps during a finessed and pleasantly low-key burst of fisticuffs, highlighting concept through physical incitement. It’s thought-provoking and entertaining. The rest of “Interstellar” doesn’t always walk that tight-rope so cleanly.

Pacing and character work are where “Interstellar” warbles, the link between the two definite. The 169 minute runtime screams self-importance, a deafening “look at me, I’ve made Warner X amount of dollars and now I have final cut”. There’s no need for the feature to really exceed two hours, but it would be remiss to complain that it does. Nolan’s a titan of a film-maker, and until such a time where that’s not the case, he’ll act like a titan in the edit. Unfortunately much of the flab is thrown in the direction of hollow supporting players, including but not reduced to Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine and errr…Topher Grace. Not one of these characters transcends the realm of superficiality, much less springs to life. McConaughey’s Cooper at least commands a measure of soul, but even with such fine actors attached, the figures around him thud flatly. The second best turn (excepting our mystery cameo) is easily young Mackenzie Foy, radiating adoration for Cooper, and forlorn bemusement at his decisions. Chastain, who plays the character later, never manages the same earnest veneer, although she’s saddled with dumpy onscreen relationships alongside Affleck, Caine and Grace.  When McConaughey’s absent, the film is vanilla, a parade of listless meat-bags harbouring half-hearted concerns. I don’t buy it, and I certainly don’t care if they escape their respective predicaments (i.e. Armageddon).

There’s a well implemented sense of humour (forget iciness, comedy’s been a big Nolan negative) and the aesthetic wonderment is unrelenting. Zimmer’s score makes every triumph that little more sparkly, even offering a lifeline when Nolan gets bogged down in the brainbox stuff. The new worlds that the picture takes us to are less boastfully bedazzled than James Cameron’s Pandora, but each has a simple, effective concept that runs through the design. “Interstellar” doesn’t need ferocious wildlife or tribal smurfs to evoke danger, the crisp, barely habitable vistas communicate that on the most primal level possible. They appear genuine and hostile, able to utilise nature’s simplest tools to devastating effect. Combined with man’s unpredictability, this endows each exploration with unspoken edge. It’s a reminder that this is science-fiction not science-fantasy.


The ending’s a doozy, a haunting summation of what the picture does well. Merging conscience, thought and accountability it celebrates man’s unending need to explore and protect, rounding out the central character arc on a note of fist-pumping brilliance. It, along with several other choice scenes of parental trouble suggest Nolan probably does the Spielberg stuff - the cheap touchy-feely material - more satisfactorily than the odes to “2001” or Tarkovsky. “Interstellar” is an important technical achievement, ripe with consideration and thought, but it’s often when indulging his basest urges that Nolan succeeds most brazenly. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014