Friday, 31 December 2010

Tron: Legacy

In 1989, Kevin Flynn, CEO of ENCOM disappears without trace. 20 years later, his son Sam is the majority shareholder in the company but wants nothing to do with it. After Kevin’s long time confidante Alan Bradley receives a page from Flynn’s abandoned arcade, Sam investigates and soon discovers his dad’s secret office behind the Tron machine. But, when Sam is accidentally transported into The Grid, he discovers more than he could have bargained for; his dad got trapped inside after his computer program, Clu, went rogue and took over. Can the reunited Flynns, and a young program called Quorra, save The Grid and save the day?

So here we are, 28 years on from the original Tron, finally we get to see the true potential of The Grid in Tron: Legacy. Things have changed in The Grid somewhat though, things look a lot better now, everything’s shinier and everyone’s young and beautiful. Yep, it’s technology 2010 style. The film had a lot of potential, Jeff Bridges was back and the bad guy was going to be YOUNG Jeff Bridges?! Personally, I had been looking forward to this since that tiny bit of test footage featuring the test for Clu emerged from Comic-Con 2008, back when the film was potentially labelled ‘Tr2n’. Since then, we’ve had endless teasers, trailers, stills and clips, mercilessly hyping up the ‘3D event of the decade’. Does it live up to the hype though? Ehhh....

More than anything, I was disappointed, but that’s more than likely because I had very high expectations for it, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t good. For everything that was positive, there was unfortunately a negative. The main gripe is with the buzzword of 2010: 3D. This is a gripe I’ve had for a while, but Tron has exemplified my problem with the technology. I should say that I was actually impressed with the 3D in Tron: Legacy; for the first time since Toy Story 3, I found it immersive and forgot I was watching it in 3D. Now, this may be because Toy Story 3 was entirely and Tron: Legacy was almost entirely digitally created, we weren’t looking at the real world here, thus making it easier to create 3D effects. Alas, what 3D giveth, it taketh away. In any 3D film, the main problem I have is that as soon as you put on those dark 3D glasses, you lose 30% of the colour on screen and with Tron: Legacy, a film which has a predominantly black and blue colour palette, it becomes a tough watch at times. As bright and shiny as the film is, the 3D glasses steal some of that brightness away and it’s a real shame.

That brings me onto the look of the film. One word: Stunning. It’s really, really good looking. It’s sharp, it’s attention grabbing, and it’s great; probably the most impressive CG film I’ve seen so far. Recreating a young Jeff Bridges to be Clu was risky, but they pull it off well. So well, in fact, that we see more of digitally created young Jeff Bridges than the actual Jeff Bridges himself. We do also get a small glimpse of a digitally created young Bruce Boxleitner as Tron in a flashback, but he they either spent too much money on doing young Jeff Bridges or they considered Boxleitner less important so any more glimpses of Tron are done with Tron wearing a black helmet hiding his face. Nice. However, having a really good looking film without a decent story to back it up leaves it feeling a bit shallow, it’s more of a visual treat and less of an overall film product. That’s a tad disappointing, as it weakens the entire reasoning behind creating a film in the first place. That does indeed lead me onto the story...

It’s a bunch of crap. It’s a flimsy, overcomplicated device to hold together all the pretty pictures. The narrative also irritated me. For a 2 hour film, it takes an ENTIRE HOUR to go through the THREE different back stories; what happened between Tron and Tron: Legacy in the real world, what happened between Tron and Tron: Legacy in The Grid and what Sam Flynn is getting up to now and how he ends up in The Grid himself. Only after all that is out the way do we finally get to why we’re here, what the film’s primary narrative is and it just drags. The most damning evidence I can give to this is a quote from one of my friends who I saw the film with: “Once they were in The Grid, I was awake, but while they were in the real world, I was falling asleep and waking up and not really feeling like I’d missed anything”. He wasn’t alone; I counted at least 5 people falling asleep during the 2D real world sequences before at the start of the film which goes on for a good 20 minutes. 20 minutes! Even after that, once Sam does get into The Grid, it takes another 20/25 minutes for something important/relevant to happen.

The acting. Hmm. Jeff Bridges is back, hurrah, that was good, but he doesn’t actually play Kevin Flynn is this. He plays The Dude, what with people harshing his Zen, man. Garrett Hedlund as Sam Flynn could easily be replaced by any number of young Hollywood leading guys. Olivia Wilde as Quorra is actually quite good. When I say good, I mean hot, Olivia Wilde is quite hot. I’ll also mention Michael Sheen here, because I feel so sorry for him, I do. He’s given the worst role of his life, being forced to play a version of Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s horrifying, and surely something he’ll want to forget.

I did like the soundtrack. The sound track was good, and was partly what the film was sold on. Daft Punk have scored the entire film and it’s on par with The Social Network for best soundtrack in 2010. The music interacts with the pictures wonderfully and it’s a near-perfect relationship between celluloid and audio. Kudos, Daft Punk.

Overall, it breaks my heart to be so negative about a film I was so looking forward to but it completely earned it. Whether it was because of bad writing or a pre-existing problem with 3D, the film is an odd combination of being really quite impressive and really rather poor at exactly the same time. The acting is generally poor, but the look of the film is impressive. The 3D is immersive yet a let-down. The story is garbage, but the score has been well executed. It’s sad to see this let itself down, but there you go. It’s worth seeing to see the graphics and hear the music, but don’t expect to see a Citizen Kane. Perhaps the inevitable sequel will have a better story but less impressive visuals.

Rating: ***

Love and Other Drugs

Jamie is a salesman with the gift of the gab, able to charm women in an instant. When he gets fired from his job at an electronics store, his brother informs him of an opportunity to work for Pfizer selling various drugs to local hospitals and doctors. As he attempts to peddle his wares, he comes across Maggie, a young woman with early onset Parkinson’s disease. Through sheer perseverance, Jamie finally charms Maggie and the two become somewhat of an item, just as a certain wonder drug hits the market, giving Jamie the chance to hit the big time. Can the two overcome their various obstacles and stay together?

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to the start of this year and start comparing it to another film: Up in the Air. I loved Up in the Air, I thought the mood, tone and story-telling was all done extremely well through some brilliant direction, some excellent performances from its leads and a definite sense of direction in as far as it knew what it wanted to do with itself. Love and Other Drugs tries to achieve the same thing with much the same elements, but somewhere along the way, something just seems to go wrong.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a bad film; it’s an enjoyable near-two hour rom-com, one of the best I’ve seen in a while. The problem is, even though it’s a rom-com, it tries so hard to be like Up in the Air, that it forgets to remove the large amount of testosterone Up in the Air contained. It even tries to add a little bit of Seth Rogan/Jonah Hill-esque frat house/gross-out kind of humour at times. With all of these things going on, the film seems disjointed, the pace jumps about and doesn’t flow at all well; it makes for an uneasy viewing experience at times. It doesn’t know what it wants to be, even though the story it offers makes it pretty clear what it SHOULD have been. It’s a real shame, because aside from the deviance into various other genres and genre tropes, it is a cutesy love story with an edge which could have made this an appealing film for all audiences. It just seems to trip over itself consistently.

The lead performances from Jake Gyllenhall and Anne Hathaway are to be commended, and I’m sure that’s what you’ll have heard from this film in prior critics’ reviews. Well, that and the numerous sex scenes containing Anne Hathaway’s boobs. Shock horror! The princess from The Princess Diaries is getting her boobs out in her film. Indeed, during the first third of the film, it’s almost as if the director wants to make the most of an opportunity and delivers a gratuitous amount of boob shots, but after it, it calms down somewhat and moves the focus from pure titillation onto the relationship between Gyllenhall and Hathaway. They do what they have to do well, they both play their characters well, especially Hathaway who seems to have a knack of nailing a character dead on, hence her Oscar nomination for Rachel Getting Married. The problem is with the supporting cast, in particular Josh Gad, who plays Gyllenhall’s brother, who’s also called Josh just in case he gets confused. He brings the frat house/gross-out humour I spoke of earlier, but it just doesn’t fit in the film and only serves to bring it down, meaning he’s one of the low points with the film.

The only problem I find with Jake Gyllenhall is not his acting, but his character. Gyllenhall does absolutely nothing wrong, he does the best with what he’s given, but that’s where he falls down. He plays this role almost exactly like George Clooney in, yep, Up in the Air. Believe me, when you see Gyllenhall dressed in a suit wheeling around a mini-suitcase playing the womaniser, you’ll immediately see the similarities. Gyllenhall is just as culpable as the script writers here; he doesn’t make the role his own. He could easily be replaced by any generic, good-looking Hollywood leading man. The story is fine but by the final third, once everything’s been established, it falls into so many holes; the story, the characters and the dialogue all submit to various rom-com clichés and it becomes predictable and very-samey. It’s a shame, but you can kind of see it coming, so it’s not so much of a surprise when it finally does arrive.

Overall, it’s fine, and I’m sure Anne Hathaway will get a Best Actress nod at various award ceremonies (Edit: Anne Hathaway has been nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes. Jake Gyllenhall also got nominated for Best Actor) but it’s not really memorable. You can see why it’s been released now, at the start of the award season, but it’s not particularly outstanding, and by the end, it just falls into all sorts of rom-com clichés. At the end of the day, it’s everything Up in the Air wasn’t, but in a bad way. One gets the feeling that this film should have taken one of those ‘magic blue pills’ to keep itself going all the way until the end.

Rating: **1/2

Friday, 17 December 2010


Nev Schulman is a young photographer living in New York with two filmmakers; his brother Ariel and Henry Joost. When Abby Pierce, an 8 year old child prodigy painter living in Michigan, sends Nev a painting of one of his pictures, the two quickly strike up a pen pal friendship. That soon leads to Nev getting to know her family, ultimately entering into a Facebook relationship with her older half-sister, Abby. The relationship progresses to the point where Nev travels to Michigan to finally meet Megan, but the results of the trip are somewhat unexpected...

After The Social Network, a film recounting the creation of Facebook, we now have a documentary depicting its use and role in modern day life. A story of a relationship between two people who meet through a mutual friend on Facebook and gradually escalate their relationship by exchanging Facebook messages, songs, pictures, text messages and phone calls. But nothing in this world goes perfectly, and something seems off with this whole thing. What they discover is extremely intriguing and somewhat alarming.

This is a film of two halves. The first half of the film establishes the premise of the documentary; our protagonist Nev strikes up an online relationship with a young painter called Abby. Their pen pal relationship leads to Nev being integrated into Abby’s family through Facebook, speaking to Abby’s mother Angela about her talented daughter and then Abby’s older, highly attractive half-sister Megan. It’s about this time we enter Nev’s life through Ariel and Henry’s cameras and follow his online relationship with the Pierce family, especially Megan. Nev and Megan start flirting, which quickly turns serious and leads to Nev wanting to fly to Michigan to meet her. Everything progresses quite quickly and it’s played out light-heartedly, attempting to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. However, there are a few seeds of doubt planted which only seem to drive Nev into finding out what’ll happen if he goes to Michigan.

This leads to the second half of the film, where Nev and our two directors fly to Chicago and drive to Michigan to finally meet Megan, Abby, Angela and the Pierce family. I’ll say no more in fear of spoilers, but I will say this half of the film is definitely the better half. The second half turns the film from a documentary into a tale of mystery, deceit and intrigue. After a very exposition-like first 35 minutes, the film takes a sudden twist and becomes engrossing viewing. The final 40 minutes, in particular, are so intriguing and full of revelations that is certainly leads you to doubt the legitimacy of this documentary and makes you feel you’re watching a finely acted, astutely written drama.

Certainly, the performances we see on screen don’t feel staged, it looks and feels naturalistic. Unfortunately, what I feel has brought upon all the doubters this film has attracted is the way the fact that the cameras are rolling at just the right moments. Things just seem to happen, revelation is followed by revelation. If it’s drama, then it’s well written and it plays up to its climax quite nicely. If it’s reality, then it’s squirmingly good and a somewhat disturbing story about social networking. This is a tale of a Facebook-born relationship, something which is commonplace in 2010. It just so happens that this one was caught on film and turned into something which is truly a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream.

Overall, it’s not hard to see why this film has attracted the amount of buzz and internet hype it has; it’s a light-hearted whimsical documentary which turns into a complex, engrossing mystery. Catfish is a pretty good companion piece to The Social Network, allowing viewers to break down both the creation and use of Facebook and showing that there is a dark side to social networking. Indeed, if you’re going to take away anything from this film, it’ll be the question of how much we should be trusting of Facebook and other social networks. This film very neatly raises the question and emphatically answers it. You’ll be thinking about this one for a while, and it’ll definitely make you doubt all those internet ‘friends’ whom you’ve never actually met that like and comment on your status updates. After you’ve seen this, you’ll almost certainly have an answer to the question that Facebook poses on a daily basis: What’s on your mind?

Rating: ****

Friday, 10 December 2010

A Serbian Film

Miloš is a retired Serbian porn star, living a happy life with his wife and son but financial worries cause him to accept one last job: The starring role in an “art film” being directed by a wealthy pornographer where he won’t know the script or the plot until shooting begins. It quickly becomes clear that the film isn’t at all what he believed it would be, as he is forced to have sex with a physically abused woman in front of a young girl. However, his reluctance to take part in such acts reveals the darker side of the director and his film crew, and things quickly turn violent...

Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the film that I'm sure by now you’ve heard so much about. The most censored film in the UK in 15 years; it contains extremely graphic depictions of rape, necrophilia, sexual violence, child rape and incest. I understand there’s a morbid curiosity in many people to watch a film which has been banned or censored or contains extremely graphic scenes. Indeed, it’s what’s led me to watch films like A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist and Irreversible. A Serbian Film has decided to go for the graphic, horrifying imagery and has just gone complete berserk with it, throwing everything it can think of at you. Unfortunately, this has fallen victim to ‘Paranormal Activity Syndrome’ where it’s been overhyped somewhat so people are expecting it to be worse than it is. Whilst it’s not pretty, it’s not exactly the worst thing ever committed to celluloid either.

Somewhere amongst everything that happens on screen, director Srđan Spasojević insists the film is a political statement: "This is a diary of our own molestation by the Serbian government... It's about the monolithic power of leaders who hypnotize you to do things you don’t want to do. You have to feel the violence to know what it’s about." This is all very well and good, but while you’re watching this, it’s just difficult to look past the visuals and to try and read any kind of political meaning from this. At one point, the director Vukmir goes on a rant about children and the Serbian government (he’s a child psychologist, the film’s being partly shot in an orphanage) and at the end, the ‘real, happy Serbian family’ is turned on its head and made unrecognisable. It’s a strong statement made explicitly clear once you can get past the strong visuals, that is, IF you can.

The main character, Serbian ex porn star Miloš, is repulsed by what he’s told to do and is extremely disturbed by what he’s shown by the maniacal director Vukmir. I can only imagine how Srđan Todorović, the actor playing Miloš, felt during filming; I’m pretty sure even the most professional actor would have a problem simulating sex with a headless corpse whilst covered in blood. Sergej Trifunović is genuinely demented as the art film’s director, seemingly fixated on seeing his twisted perception of pornography come to fruition, backed by his intimidating film crew. Slobodan Beštić plays Miloš’s brother Marko with a sense of creepiness but with a disappointing lack of presence.

The plot of this film is merely a device to loosely connect the horrifying scenarios Miloš, and in turn the audience, is presented with. The story isn’t at all great, and starts out very generic with the main man wanting to provide for his family so he takes that ‘one last job’ to secure the family’s finances but inevitably it’s all going to go wrong. Of course, when it does start to go wrong, it becomes a car crash for poor Miloš. It seems as if Spasojević wrote down a list of everything taboo and still has the power to shock a film audience and made sure he put it into his script. I will say this for the film though: 1. It doesn’t relent. It doesn’t start to go all the way then wuss out like so many films do these days; it goes all out. 2. It’s not a consistent shock-fest. The film doesn’t try and deliver 99 minutes of shock and awe; it begins rather calmly in fact, but once the shock starts, there’s no going back and it certainly escalates throughout, all the way to its conclusion. 3. The ‘newborn porn’ scene. Whilst it is bad to see it, it does look amateurish, which is its only redeeming feature. It doesn’t hide the fact it’s still an awful thing to see on a cinema screen.

Overall, it’s a shining example of ‘shocking’ cinema and I’m sure this film’s status will give it a long life. It’s an exploitation film which cranks up the vile and sickening to 11 and smiles while it does it. It’s a brutal view, and it’ll take a strong stomach to get through some of the more disturbing moments; it won’t be the gore that gets you, it’ll be the visuals and the ideas. The story is complete guff, but you know as well as I do that this film isn’t about the story. If Srđan Spasojević was trying to make a political statement, then he’s made one which makes its point in the most shocking way possible. This is unlike any film you’ll have watched, I’ll guarantee it. If you do decide to watch this out of morbid curiosity, you will be mercilessly punished for being so inquisitive.

Rating: *1/2

Friday, 3 December 2010


After a NASA space probe crash lands in Mexico, alien life-forms begin to spread across half of Mexico, leading to the ‘infected zone’ being cordoned off and put in quarantine. Six years later, Andrew, a young photographer, is tasked by his wealthy boss to bring home his daughter, Sam, from Mexico to the United States. However, they only have 48 hours to get back to the USA before all routes home are blocked due to the aliens migration season. Events conspire against the pair, and before long, they’re left with only one route home: A treacherous journey through the ‘infected zone’...

Gareth Edwards must surely be a masochist. Not only did this visual artist conceive and write this low-budget film, he also directed it, took charge of the cinematography and, naturally, created all the visual effects. Considering this film has taken him way outside his comfort zone, he’s ended up creating a film with all the skill of an experienced filmmaker. His writing is subtle and underplayed, his direction is intelligent and refined, his cinematography is intriguing and tonally appropriate and the visual effects are ambitious and stunning. Well done, sir.

It’s a simple story: Two people are forced together to make a journey home through hell or high water. This time, though, the ‘hell’ is the aliens who now inhabit Central America and the ‘high water’ is the massive wall the United States Border Control has constructed between the US and the ‘infected zone’. In the midst of this story, some classic cinema tropes are on display; the couple who are forced together ultimately become friends and then lovers, their simple route home is blocked so they’re forced to take a more dangerous way home. It all sounds like such a simple sci-fi drama film, but it all comes together with great aplomb, helped by two great performances by the lead actors, some stunning visuals, and a fair few realistic-looking visual effects.

What really helps the film along are the performances of, and the chemistry between, the two lead actors; Whitney Able playing Sam and the brilliantly named Scoot McNairy playing Andrew. The two are, in real life, a couple, and so all the chemistry they have on-screen is genuine, which is a nice bit of casting by Edwards. Other than their chemistry, they both play their individual roles brilliantly. It’s not overacted; it’s all nice and naturalistic, in-fitting with the documentary feel of the film with its shaky handheld camerawork. Also, considering there are no other major characters (no-one else in the film appears on screen for more than 10 minutes), it’s important to have that strong performance in order to carry the film through to its conclusion.

The idea of the film itself is an interesting take on the monster/invasion genre. To put it simply, it’s what would have happened if they had kept the cameras rolling after the end of Cloverfield, after all the initial chaos and destruction, after what happens in your typical invasion film. It’s six years on, and the aliens are just a part of the way things are now. The might of the army couldn’t defeat them, so they’ve left the aliens to have their own zone in which to inhabit, albeit fenced off and under constant supervision. Think District 9, but in Mexico and with giant arachnosquids (my term, not the official term). The film also uses the idea of the invading monsters to unsubtly comment on the controversy surrounding the US-Mexico border. The aliens have landed on the US’s front door, they’ve resisted letting them cross the border by building a massive wall but they’re not actually looking to wreak havoc, they just want to settle down in peace and are only attacking when provoked by the belligerent US military. We’re definitely thinking District 9 here.

Of course, how the aliens look and act, as well as what kind of influence they have on the film is down in no small part to Gareth Edwards’ technical genius. With a shoestring budget, he’s used his experience in visual effects to create some genuine-looking monsters. He’s also sparing with how often they’re seen; mostly it’s just a close-up of a few tentacles or a far-away look at them. When you do get a close look at these monsters, they’re visually stunning and wonderfully rendered; they’re curiously beautiful creatures with the potential to be a threat. There’s a scene at the very end of this movie featuring the aliens which feels so human. Considering that’s a scene created from a shot of a blank night sky with digital animations placed over the top, it’s a phenomenal feat Edwards has pulled off here. Let’s not forget though he’s also created almost all of the scenes of destruction (destroyed buildings, destroyed cars) and landscape features (the US border wall) digitally, along with all the fine touches like road signs and news reports. It must have been a painstaking effort; going through scene by scene, adding so much into the film digitally. Ultimately, it’s paid off.

Overall, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The acting’s great, the story may be predictable but it’s simple and you know where you stand with it, the scenery is breathtaking and the monsters look stunningly real. You can tell this was a real labour of love, what with the amount of post-production work that was clearly required on it and with the small budget it’s been made with. And yet all this has come from a first-time writer/director? It’s fantastic, and gives hope to all the wannabe filmmakers out there. With a good idea, a little bit of money, a lot of help, some off-the-shelf editing software, a lot of time and a lot of patience, maybe you could create something as outstanding as this. Though probably not.

Rating: ****1/2