Friday, 26 July 2013

The Wolverine (12A)

The transformation of much loved characters from page to silver screen is both a blessing and a curse - on the upside you have your ready-made audience, but on the downside that ready-made audience already has a very fixed idea on what that character is all about.

So it is with Wolverine, sometime X-Man, sometime Avenger, general hater of authority figures and quippy men in spider costumes, lover of a beer and a cigar and a sarcastic put-down. (I'm sure I've started a review on a similar theme before. It might bother me enough to check before the end of this...)

One of Marvel's best-loved characters, Hugh Jackman pretty much nailed the be-clawed one back in X-Men, then again in X-Men 2 and even survived The Last Stand with his credibility in tact. Then came X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first of a planned raft of origin stories that did so well the second one is surely to be announced any day now.

Now we have The Wolverine. Why 'The'? No idea. We've had four films already to establish there's only one (even if Origins gave us a brother), plus an X-Men: First Class cameo. Still, I'm sure someone somewhere decided this was the title that best summed up the movie.

It doesn't. Well, it sort of does, but you've got to think about it - and after two hours of this, that's not something you're going to do willingly.

Things start off well. Picking up after The Last Stand (an obvious starting point, a mere seven years after that film did its best to ruin the good work done in the first two), Logan (OK, you may not be a fanboy, my bad - Logan = Wolverine. They're the same man) is living rough with the bears trying to forget what happened.

He killed his One True Love Jean Grey, in case you've had other things to think about since 2006, and this is bothering him some. He's also haunted by other stuff, which is why it's just him, his radio and a stash of whisky bottles in his cave. Turns out Logan is now a bit of a thinker.

But he's not alone. He's being tracked by Yukio (the excellent Rila Fukushima, who if IMDB is to believed is only on her second film), sent by the man Logan saved from a nuclear holocaust at the end of World War II. (Geek note - no sign of his brother. The brother he fought alongside during the war in Origins. That brother. Seems he went to a different Japanese bombing target).

Turns out the old man Yashida (played by veteran Japanese actor Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is none too well and wants to say farewell to the man who made it possible for him to die of old age. There's some fighting, some quips, Yukio shows she can use a sword - it's all perfectly good stuff.

And then Logan is persuaded to fly to Japan, and as the pair head East the whole thing goes south.

In Japan, one thing leads to another and Logan comes under attack from all sides trying to save Yashida's daughter Mariko (Japanese supermodel Tao Okamoto making her debut) from various factions, groups and plots. It's arguably more convoluted than it needs to be, but even at this point you can still go with it.

It helps that director James Mangold has made Japan look stunning, capturing perfectly the way old and new sit side-by-side. As an advert for the place, he does a good job (assuming you're not in the 'at risk from ninja gangs' group). And, to be fair, that's true of the whole film - it looks beautiful. Sadly, he gets easily distracted by things that look beautiful which is why we have far too many lingering shots of Mariko. Yes, she's a supermodel. Yes, she looks good. But it does feck all for the film as a whole.

Over the course of two long hours, there are some good fight scenes (a couple of them even feature good comic deaths) and some breathtaking scenery, but there is also a hell of a lot of Logan coming to terms with what's happened and what's happening, all while falling in love. Again.

Now, as I may have mentioned, Logan is not one of the Marvel universe's contemplators. You want to overthink stuff? Danny Rand and Matt Murdoch can help. Want to wallow in the 'what ifs'? Steve Rodgers, Bucky, Peter Parker and Tony Stark know a thing or two about that. Want a man to wade in and hit stuff? Call Logan.

It's the way things are.

And if the writers (Mark Bomback and Scott Frank) had stuck to that, we could have shaved a good 30 minutes off the running time and just got straight down to the big final fight. Instead we have a misguided attempt to give the film heart and emotion. It's bad enough that he's talking to ghosts...

Another problem is Viper - the super villain of the piece. Played by Russian starlet Svetlana Khodchenkova (who proved she can act in Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy), Viper should be all sex and slither, menace and allure - a woman who you know will kill you, but you don't care.

Instead, we get some sort of pantomime performance where what I assume should be a sexy swagger just looks like she's slightly unsteady on her feet. And there's no menace. No fear that something bad will happen at any given moment.

It's also like that with the relationship between Logan and Mariko. Nothing from either party suggests they have any feelings for each other. No clues, no little looks, nothing. And yet suddenly there they are.

The whole film feels like there were two ideas going on here, and neither side won so we get a movie no one actually cares about.

It's not all bad. Jackman does what he can without his sarcastic remarks (there are about three) or his cigar and Rila Fukushima really does shine as the underdog with real bite. It could even have been her film if people didn't insist on making models attempt to act. But that really is it. And that's borderline criminal.

Granted, it's not Origins bad, but it's not First Class good either - in fact the Logan cameo there outshines everything here. It's laboured, drawn out, pedestrian, tedious... but, hey, Japan and Tao Okamoto look nice.

There is still one highlight, however, and it's a goodie.

Now, as anyone who has seen more than one Marvel movie will tell you, the rule is simple. You may have sat in your seat for two hours, your bum may be numb, your feet may have forgotten what the floor feels like (OK, that may just be me), but you know not to leave before the credits have ended. Makes you wonder why so many people got up and left straight after, but hey, no one said humans were intelligent.

Where was I? Oh yes. If you go see The Wolverine (and there's no need, seeing as YouTube exists), stay 'til the credits roll. It's not like Iron Man 3, you haven't got to stay all the way to the end, it's like Avengers - a short wait. Two minutes at most.

I won't spoil the surprise (it'll be all over the internet by Monday anyway), but stay in your seat. The film may have bored you, but the post-credit teaser will get you all X-cited...

Now, about that intro - nope, like they makes of The Wolverine, I don't care enough...

Friday, 19 July 2013

The World's End (15)

If you listened to people at the moment, you could be forgiven for thinking the world is actually ending - the heat, this insufferable heat, which is baking down and cooking us all, must surely be the End Of Days.

It's not. Far from it. It's just summer (the thing we moan about not having most years).

The World's End is, in fact, a pub in Newton Haven - the focal point of the latest collaboration between Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.

The film's set-up is simple - one man (Pegg's Gary King) wants to relive his youth by attempting the pub crawl he failed to finish when he was a teenager. To recreate the event fully, he needs to get his old gang back together, and in next-to-no-time we have Oliver (Martin Freeman), Andrew (Nick Frost), Peter (Eddie Marsan) and Steven (Paddy Considine) sitting on High Wycombe station wondering what the hell they're doing.

And then the real fun begins.

As with the first two parts of the 'Cornetto Trilogy', Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, there is a genre game being played here. In this case, we're in sci-fi mode as aliens take over a small town, and as with all the best sci-fi films, it's not really about that. It's about growing up, alienation, detachment, fear of the future... and aliens.

And because Wright and Pegg are involved, it's also about having a damn cool soundtrack.

One of the great things (and there are many) about The World's End is the pacing. What worked so well in Shaun Of The Dead (even if it wasn't true to the genre) was the fast cuts, something which didn't work quite so well in Hot Fuzz.

Here though, at The World's End, the film is more measured, slightly slower, and Wright's trademark rapid-fire editing has been toned down, meaning that when it is used it has greater impact. The slower pacing (and it's not snails pace by any means) is also in keeping with the classics of the genre, allowing time for drama and tension to build - which it does.

But it also allows for the laughs to be bigger and better. By giving the gags room to breathe, the funny is funnier - something that is helped enormously by the stellar cast. As well as the boys, we have Rosamund Pike and David Bradley both playing at the top of their game and adding to the heady mix of aliens, suburbia and beer.

And that's another great thing about The World's End. Not only is Pegg acting at the top of his game, but Nick Frost has moved into the spotlight more - stealing scenes in places and adding to the gravitas and drama in others. At the same time, his comic chops come into their own, particularly during an early toilet showdown with Pegg.

The key to all this is fun. The cast are clearly having a blast, and as a result the audience are having one too. From the many cameos to the asides to the big gags to the many, many fight scenes, the one thing that is constant is just how damn enjoyable the whole thing is.

Part of that is, as mentioned, down to the performances, but a big part is the writing. Here, Wright and Pegg have crafted characters you actually care about. Marsan's car salesman is gentle and warm, Considine's fitness freak is reserved, Freeman's estate agent is smooth and sweet... and then there's Gary.

In King, Pegg may have crafted his finest comic character. Alongside all the usual madcap capers and OTT reactions, there's a fragility (introduced fairly early on) that under-writes everything. You shouldn't like him. He is, ultimately, an ego-centric, self-obsessed tosser who lives in his own little world - but beneath that is a scared man who genuinely believes he has already lived the best night of his life, and all that's left to do is recapture it. And it's this mix of git and victim that Pegg absolutely nails, causing you to root for someone you want to punch.

A rare trick to pull off, but he does it.

One of the other things I love about The World's End is how unashamedly inclusive it is. Sure, you can watch it having never seen Shaun or Fuzz, there are no plotlines crossing over, but if you have seen the first two you're now in The Club.

Unabashed geeks to a man, Wright and Pegg clearly delight in their nods and in-jokes (and there's some litter at the end that will have you laughing out loud) that - if you get them - you almost congratulate yourself. You're with them. You're 'in'. And that's ace.

Basically, in a nutshell, what I'm getting at here is just how much damn fun this film is. It's got laughs, it's got violence, it's got heart, it's got pathos, it's got beer, it's got great performances, it's got aliens (not robots, robots are slaves...) and it's got a bloody big grin on it's face while it's doing it.

It also made me go home and listen to Sisters Of Mercy while writing this, which is another bonus.

History has shown that when the sun is shining, people don't tend to go sit in a cinema, which should not be the case. For a start, they have air conditioning, so you won't bake.

For seconds, everyone knows on a hot day you should grab yourself a Cornetto...

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Monsters University (U)

A lot has been written recently about the demise of Pixar. According to those in the know, the fact they have felt the need to bring is Monsters University is proof positive that the well is dry, the ideas have run out, the magic dust has turned to ash...

Which is, of course, balderdash.

Sure, at first glance, the story of how Mike (the green one) and Sully (younger versions of the stars of Monsters Inc, voiced by the now older John Goodman and Billy Crystal) came to be friends wasn't one the world was clamouring for - but then, no one knew they wanted a Cars 2, but still it came...

Essentially the problem is that, in the world of Pixar, the bar is unfathomably high. The people who brought us the aforementioned Inc, Up, Finding Nemo (yeah, no one was bitching when that swam back in 3D...), Wall-E, Brave, The Incredibles AND the Toy Story trilogy (again, no one was accusing Pixar of running on empty when Woody and co returned for more high jinks) have, these days, got to come up with something extra special just to maintain standards. Let alone raise them.

But does that automatically mean Monsters University is a bad film? Just because someone, somewhere, decided to tell the tale of Mike and Sully's school days (albeit 12 years after the first film growled onto our screens) rather than plough the cash into a new story, does that mean there are no more stories to be told?

Of course it doesn't.

What it does mean, of course, is that someone somewhere did some maths (it has an 's' on it America, deal with it), and worked out that of the millions who saw Monsters Inc (a film that currently has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), a lot would now have children. Children who would like to see a film about monsters. No, not the one the parents already owned, another one. This one, in fact.

Because if there is anything wrong with Monsters University (and there isn't much, to be honest), it's that it has the feel of a film made to hit certain marks on a chart, with all the marks adding up to many, many box office dollars. And that is a bit of a shame - especially when all the best Pixar films manage to hide the financial hopes behind films full of heart and soul.

But, like I said, that doesn't mean Monsters University is a bad film.

The story is nice enough. From a school trip, we are shown how Mike falls in love with the idea of being a scarer, creating the screams that power Monstropolis (a certain amount of knowledge of Inc is required in places) - but to become one, he must get into the Scare Programme at MU. Here he meets Sully (the big blue one), joins a frat house, enters the Scare Games, has scrapes and follies, learns stuff, becomes a better monster and grows up a little bit.

And this is another slight failing of the film. Where Inc (and many, many others - including Ratatouille, which I forgot about earlier) triumphed was the heart of the story about our heroes and a little human girl (Boo), which tugged at the heart strings while making us laugh. Here, the heart strings are being pulled so tight everything turns to mush - effectively becoming Monsters Sesame Street, where people's mistakes are Learnt From so we can all Become Better Monsters.

It's not exactly subtle when aiming for the emotions.

But again, that doesn't make it a bad film.

It's funny, it's fast-paced, it has nice little touches for the uber fans (even if it sets itself up for a fall from those same fans), and it looks good. The voices are, again, top notch, with Helen Mirren in particularly fine form as the head of the university. Doesn't need the 3D, granted, but even that doesn't detract from what is a very entertaining 90ish minutes. It's a perfectly fine, funny family movie.

But that, maybe, is the problem. It's only fine. We expect more. Even if you ignore the other Pixar films, you can't ignore the film this follows (even if it's actually telling the story before the first one). And that was a great Pixar film. Still makes me laugh now, which sadly won't be the case with University, mainly because while it's fun in front of the eyes it doesn't manage to lodge in the brain long enough to leave a lasting impression.

(A geeky aside - feel free to skip this bit if the finer intimate details of a film's universe bore you. There are two problems with the storyline of this movie. The first is the fact the whole premise of University is that it's when Mike and Sully meet. Only, according to Monsters Inc., they've known each other since Fourth Grade. Then there's Steve Buscemi's character Randall - or Randy, in his university years. Nothing wrong with his performance or character, it's just it feels like he was brought into the new film because he was central to the first.

Now, and this could just be me, nothing in the first film suggested the three of them were anything other than work colleagues, so why suddenly introduce him as a fellow graduate and brief room mate? Do we need it explaining as to why he became evil and sinister? Not really. And given how little he has to do here, why not just give us a whole new monster and be done with it? Sure he gets a good line at the end of the film, but it's hardly a big enough pay off.)

And we're back...

So, sure, it's not a stinker. It's no Phantom Menace. But I remain uncertain that we actually needed this story telling.

It ticks a lot of the right boxes, and the younger audience members who missed the Inc. years will enjoy it a lot. Probably. But if this had skipped the big screen and gone straight to DVD (something Disney are very fond of doing), no one would have complained and it might have made a bit more sense.

Still, that yellow snail fella is funny...

(Oh, and one other thing. Who the hell decided Motley Crue's Kickstart My Heart - a song about bassist Nikki Sixx being brought back from the dead after a heroin overdose - was the right choice as the soundtrack for a trailer for a kids' film? What's next? Rocket Queen to be used in Planes? Sink The Pink for Finding Dory?)

Friday, 5 July 2013

The Bling Ring (15)

The sun is shining. Summer has arrived and the obvious thing to do would be sit in the garden and wait for the tennis to start.

So naturally I head to the cinema.

Normally I'd be taking the first option, but I've got stuff to do so grabbing a screening of The Bling Ring at half eleven in the morning does actually make sense. As long as you don't think about it too much. And anyway, nice day for a drive...

For those unaware of what The Bling Ring has to offer (and Emma Watson dancing in a nightclub, there's not been much in the way of hype - Paris Hilton would not approve), it tells the tale of a gang of teenagers who decide a profitable use of their spare time is tracking down the empty homes of celebrities and "burglarising" them. Not a word we needed, America, but there we go.

The film is "based on the Vanity Fair article The Suspects Wore Louboutins" (dunno, shoes probably) and "real events". Not sure which real events have been added, but Nancy Jo Sales' article is pretty much the whole film.

And that's all you can really say about The Bling Ring. It happened. Both the film and the actual burglaries. The 'why' of either is something to be discussed at a later date.

As with all Sofia Coppola films, The Bling Ring is not fast-paced, but it does look nice. And LA looks nice. We know this because we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at it when moving the story along would have been more appreciated. One can only surmise that some serious padding was needed to hit the 90 minute mark, because we spend at least a third of the film watching the teenage gang driving, partying, taking drugs and sitting around talking crap.

And by crap, I mean both the subject matter and use of English. And when I say padding, Sofia manages to make a short film feel twice as long.

Now, I know it's been some time since I was 19, but my memory of teenagers isn't that we sat around barely able to string a sentence together. These are supposedly intelligent people, yet they struggle to be monosyllabic. (There's a drinking game to be played when this comes out on DVD - every time a character says "wow", "my God" or "bitches", drink a shot. You'll have passed out before the film ends).

But it's not all bad. As I say, it looks good. And the performances, assuming they are aiming to portray six vacuous narcissists, are spot on. Emma Watson (on whom the film is kinda being hung, which causes its own problems) does a fine job stepping out of Hermione Granger's shadow, while newcomer Katie Chang leads the cast well. Israel Broussard, another newbie, is also fine. He looks a little confused, but then he's not the only one.

You see, the main problem with The Bling Ring is it actually has nothing to say.

A group of teenagers decided to go on the rob, but we are offered no reason as to why. Rebecca's obsession with Lyndsey Lohan is mentioned a few times, but that's about it. No hints at bad parenting, disaffection with society, none of that - they just did it.

Alternatively, we're saying some celebrities are so stupid as to leave their door keys under the mat (I'm guessing that bit isn't a real event, but it's Paris Hilton so let's not make assumptions). If that's true, sympathy's going to be hard to drum up.

Alternatively, there's an issue in these modern times with privacy. If a bunch of teenagers can use the interweb to track celebrities movements, find the relevant address, scope the place using Google Maps (other global satellite mapping systems are available - probably), pop round in one stolen car, leave in another, and not raise much in the way of an eyebrow, then are we not being a tad too open? Is there not a chat to be had about what can and can't be made available? Yes, clearly, but not here. Not in The Bling Ring.

And even if you ignore the fact this film does not answer any of those questions. Even if you let it get away with not actually bothering to ask those very questions and just watch it as a straight re-telling of a story, it hits problems.

Chang's Rebecca is the ringleader here. She's got Broussard's Marc wrapped around her finger. Everyone else just seems to happy to follow. That's fine. So why, in the final act, do we focus entirely on Watson's Nicki? Why, in fact, once the cops have finally caught up with them, do we ignore everyone apart from Nicki and Marc? The problem has got to be in the script.

In the real world, Alexis Neiers ("television personality, aspiring model and convicted felon", according to Google) is the one attributed with being the ring leader, and yet from what I've read it would seem Watson's character comes closest to being her. It's as if someone decided to not say Neiers did all those things she denies doing (I'm NOT suggesting for legal reasons, let's be clear about that, eh?), and pinned the blame on someone else - but forgot what was happening with the ending.

Further research also reveals the investigating officer got in to hot water with his bosses when he started working on The Bling Ring before the gang got to trial, with a clash of interests being not unreasonably cited. This would add weight to a possible theory that things had to get hastily re-written somewhere...

So, it's upset one of the Bling Ringers and Lohan (but not Hilton, who despite having her self-portrait cushions held up for ridicule is happy to appear in the film - 'nuf said), it doesn't hold anyone or anything to account, holds no shocks or surprises (the car crash is not so much flagged up as given its own parade) and will rob you of a sunny day in the garden during the next week.

So why go see it?

Well, for Watson, really, who is in fine form. And as a piece of cultural record - these things did happen, even if it wasn't exactly like this. And because if you watch it the cinema, you won't be tempted to try the drinking game. Oh, and rock star Gavin Rossdale provides a genuine laugh-out-loud moment. He doesn't mean to, but the dialogue is so badly written it's a wonderful comic interlude.

But also to spark your interest. Behind all the things Sofia isn't saying is a strangely compelling story that continues to rumble on. Those that stole from celebrities have now gained the status they took advantage of, which if irony and karma are on duty, is something they'll come to regret when the copycats come calling.

In her blog (which is well worth a read), Neiers claims no one knows the real story about the Bling Ringers. Well, if nothing else can be said about the film, that much is certainly true.

(Oh, and as she berates celebrity obsession, the first comment posted asks her if she's going to the premiere. You've got to laugh...)

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Now You See Me (12A)

You can tell the summer's here - weather is all over the place, Polish players at Wimbledon are being badly mispronounced on Sky Sports News, and the blockbuster movie is all over your local bus, advertising hoarding and multiplex.

And sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes the big summer blockbuster is a thought-provoking effort that looks to stimulate the brain as well as the eyes (like as what Chris Nolan does). Sometimes it's made by Michael Bay.

And you can tell it's a summer blockbuster because it has a massive ad campaign, a plethora of stars and... actually, that seems to be all you need. A plot is always handy, obviously, but that's far from essential these days. Just look at the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise.

Now You See Me is certainly going for it on the 'stars' front. As well as reuniting Zombielands' Jesse Eisenberg with Woody Harrelson, we have Isla Fisher (of The Great Gatsby, Rango and Home & Away fame), Dave Franco (recently of Warm Bodies), Morgan Freeman (not playing God), Michael Caine (who obviously fancied a weekend in Vegas) and Mark 'Hulk' Ruffalo.

So that's all good.

And it's fast paced, and looks pretty, so that's good too. Just don't expect to have to think too much.

The set-up is quite simple. Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher and Franco are all street hustlers and illusionists recruited by a Mystery Man to perform three daring tricks. At least that's supposed to be the plan. While Franco's Jack Wilder is certainly hustling, Eisenberg's Daniel Atlas is a bit more well known, Harrelson's Merritt McKinney is a 'mentalist' who's fallen on hard times and Fisher's Henley Reeves seems to have a perfectly successful escapology show going on. But go with it.

The idea of the three tricks is crime, starting with the bank job in Paris featured in the cinematic trailers (he stressed, to avoid anyone yelling "spoilers" at their screen). Because it happens in Paris, Interpol naturally send their best... ok, an agent (the woefully underused Melanie Laurent) to help solve the caper.

From here, the fun begins. Or should.

As Ruffalo races across America leading the FBI hunt like a headless chicken (helped by Interpol, obviously), mega-rich benefactor Arthur Tressler (Caine) watches as Freeman's TV magician-turncoat Thaddeus Bradley (no, really) explains to anyone who'll be patronised how it's all being done.

And that's pretty much it.

Obviously there's "more" to it than that, but there isn't much. There's lots of smoke and mirrors (actually, there's not much smoke but a hell of a lot of mirrors) as we are enticed to guess who's behind the whole shebang - with red herrings and false leads popping up like clowns from an over-stuffed car.

And that's part of the problem with Now You See Me. So keen are the writers (there are five in total, and it shows) and director Louis Leterrier (whose short CV boasts the first two Transporter movies, the second Hulk film and Clash Of The Titans) to make magic the star of the show, they forgot to actually add any depth. Look behind the curtain and there is nothing there. Maybe just a half-chewed carrot, left by a bored bunny.

Because that's what is missing from this film - genuine emotional depth. I'm not talking Broken levels of social realism here, just a bit more meat on the bones. Hell, some would be good, Even a bit of gristle.

The main four are introduced so quickly at the start, turn up late and you'll have no idea who they are - not that it'll alter your perception of the film, because so little back story is revealed as to render the first 10 minutes pointless. Especially as we get more background during the one time Ruffalo gets to quiz the gang.

(Ever seen the phrase 'quiz' in a headline? It's always used in relation to the police. As in 'Police quiz bank raid gang'. It's a terrible word to use, and always leaves me with the impression of four suspects sitting around a table writing their answers down while one copper throws out questions about the charts in 1990.)

Sorry, I digress. But that's the thing with Now You See Me - there's so little mental stimulation, your mind is prone to wander...

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the repetition. It feels like the main bulk of the film was written - where expanding on the magic gang's characters works well - and then someone else decided we needed a whizz-bang beginning, so they just told the same story a different way.

It could be deliberate, of course. The writers could have been trying to draw parallels with looking at magic tricks in many different ways. But it's not that clever a film. Looks pretty though.

And the casting is odd. Ruffalo - an actor I have come to like - is simply channelling all the cops he's played before, Harrelson looks like he's having fun without putting any effort in, Fisher seems to be permanently puzzled, Eisenberg's doing his best but doesn't have much to work with, and Caine and Freeman are sleepwalking through the whole thing - probably mentally spending their fee while delivering the lines.

The two who come out of this film with real credit are Franco - who shines as the youngest member of the gang - and Laurent, despite everything she's got to contend with.

It's not her fault at all, but her character serves no real purpose other than to provide a probable love interest for Ruffalo (probably after someone decided it wouldn't work between Eisenberg and Fisher) which the film really doesn't need. Yes, she also adds to the puff of smoke and many mirrors, but so does everyone (at some point you'll have suspected everyone of doing what they shouldn't). She brings finesse  and charm to the role, and the camera clearly loves her, but if her character had hit the cutting room floor you wouldn't have missed much.

Which is frankly a waste.

So, when the smoke has cleared and the mirrors have been put away, what's left? Not a lot.

Yes, it's slick, extremely fast-paced (to the point Leterrier forgets to allow room for any tension to build), slick, polished, slick and full of magic tricks. Yes, there is a final twist that was a genuine (if slightly implausible) surprise. Yes, there's a cute bunny in it. There are even a few laughs.

Sadly, though, just like so many cinema snacks, it's not very filling and leaves no lasting impression...

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

The East (15)

The secret to anything is good timing. Producers and film companies can do everything in their power to publicise a film, but occasionally something happens in the world to drive their message home in a way they couldn't have hoped for,

And it's unlikely, living all the way over there in America Land, that writer/producer/star Brit Marling and writer/director Zal Batmanglij could know that here on our little island homestead we have our own version of The East unfolding - as politicians debate undercover policing and questions being raised about the way big businesses are treated.

You don't have to be aware of such stories, of course, to enjoy The East, but it adds another dimension to an already enthralling, captivating tale. We should all be aware of such stories just because they effect our daily lives, but that's a lecture for another day.

For those who have missed the buzz, The East are a group of anarchists who have decided giant corporations should pay for their crimes against the world - crimes that we see going on all the time. Oil spills, drugs with harmful side effects, pollution - all are punishable acts in the eyes of The East.

Now obviously Johnny Smartsuit doesn't like being targeted, and so a private security firm is brought in to try and infiltrate The East and bring to an end their nefarious doings. And so it is that Brit Marling's Jane (aka Sarah) is tasked with getting the inside scoop on the gang.

And it's through Brit that we see the black and white world dissolve into a thousand shades of grey. Which is where the film comes into its own.

By getting to know the gang and their personal stories, we see the lines blur between right and wrong as the convictions of those who feel wronged are put up against the wrong-doers who see themselves as the victims.

And that is just one of the beauties of this film - there is no moralising, there are no sides taken, nothing is clear cut. There may be messages to take home (and you will, or certainly should), but no one is sitting in judgement here. The story is allowed to play out in its own time, leaving the audience to decide which side of the fence they are on.

And it's not just through Brit's conflicted character - as she is forced to undertake 'jams' (assignments, attacks, call them what you want - The East call them jams and I'm not gonna argue with them) to maintain her cover - that you are drawn in. It's the way the rest of The East are portrayed that will have you hooked.

Through leader Benji (the compelling Alexander Skarsgard. He has an accent over the second 'a', but my life is too short to work out where the hell I find it on this keyboard), feisty Izzy (the ever brilliant Ellen Page), the brooding Luca (Shiloh Fernandez, last seen in Evil Dead) and the troubled, injured Doc (Yorkshire's very own Toby Kebbell in stunning form) we are drawn into a world of warm, passionate people who are driven by a common cause.

By making the gang so, for want of a better word, likeable, you are drawn quickly into their world. These aren't the raving lunatics portrayed by an establishment-favouring media, these are human beings who genuinely believe they are righting the world's wrongs - and the grievances they target are genuine and moving (and utterly believable).

In Skarsgard's Benji, Marling and Batmanglij have created a warm, passionate, driven character who you can't help falling for. If they'd made him a lunatic cult leader, this would have been a very different film, but by making him human - yet portrayed with a core of steel as only Skarsgard can muster - you remain transfixed while he is on screen.

But this isn't just a film about the little people going up against The Man. This is an intelligent thriller built around human characters, a thriller that doesn't flag up its twists and turns but leaves you guessing throughout (I was caught out at least twice as the unexpected came to pass). No fanfares either, everything is delivered with the same subtle, measured pace. The East is almost two hours long and yet felt half that (something some shorter films have failed to manage) as it kept you fixed on the screen.

The real star here is, of course, Brit - someone I've seen dubbed as 'the darling of the Indie scene', when she's much more than that.

This isn't the first film she's written - she's also responsible for the much-lauded Sound Of My Voice, and the divisive yet not panned Another Earth - nor her first acting role (she was subtle yet brilliant in Arbitrage at the start of the year alone), but here she's pulled off something special.

Her character is living a double life, a life that makes less sense the more she discovers, yet at no point is she anything other than captivating. It could have been a risk taking on so many roles within one production, but she balances her many hats (there's an image) with aplomb, producing a performance of staggering maturity.

As I said, this is a film that will keep you guessing - and it will make you think. It's not compulsory, sure, but if you don't find yourself seeing the world differently afterwards I suggest you go watch it again.

Driving home after watching The East I found myself judging every company vehicle I saw, wondering what crimes they may have committed against the world and what The East would do about it. I was behind a van for Viking. The poor sods only do office supplies, but I don't trust them after watching The East.

In fact I don't trust anyone anymore. Except Brit. You can trust Brit.