Friday, 22 November 2013

Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All (E)

T'other night, a rather cool rock doc was screened at Leeds International Film Festival - unfortunately, we couldn't make it, so our lovely friends at Bang The Drum Magazine donned their shorts and popped along to the Hyde Park Picture House...

On the face of it, this could be just another documentary charting the history of a seminal punk rock band with talking heads, live footage and photos from the vaults and anecdotes from band members past and present. Fairly standard, stuff, right?

Well, no, actually. Few documentaries can cover a rollercoaster career spanning 30 years of revolving line-ups with enough humanity, humility, humour and heartache to draw in more than just the bands’ fans.

The Descendents - Bill Stevenson, Frank Navetta, Tony Lombardo and Milo Aukerman, whose nerdy, awkward looks were streets apart from the leather-clad cool of The Ramones - drew the blueprint for today’s pop punk. If it weren’t for them, there would be no Foo Fighters, no Blink 182 and no Green Day. Probably. 

The film takes us on the journey from late-70s garage band to today’s punk rock stalwarts, exploring each band members’ caffeine-fuelled highs and lows in the Descendents then ALL – the band which followed frontman Milo’s (seemingly) final departure in the late-80s.

The story unfolds as fast as the pumping soundtrack and is full of fond memories, as well as hints of bitterness and regret as former members contemplate their decisions. Hindsight is a wonderful thing...

We’re also given a fans’ perspective in the forms of Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters, Mark Hoppus from Blink 182, Keith Morris from Black Flag and other leading punk rock faces keen to share their affections for the bands that helped shaped their lives. 

“I... worshipped him,” Grohl says of Stevenson. High praise indeed.

Right from the get-go, Filmage is funny. Really funny. There is plenty of laugh-out-loud banter from band members, though every now and again they throw the narrative as the comic timing trips over itself into the next talking head.

Quirky animated sequences also help bring to life odd moments of reflection, such as the time ALL slept in a house full of weirdos, including a psychotic woman’s pet rat which could only run in a clockwise circle. Quite.

But at the heart of Filmage is the powerhouse that is drummer and founder Bill Stevenson and his quest for All. 

This self-created concept of ultimate achievement and always going for greatness, celebrated on Descendents’ album entitled All, actually takes on a darker tone to that of the All-o-Gistics  - a song which lays down the commandments of All – “thou shalt not commit laundry” and “shalt not partake of decaf”. 

Balancing out the food-and-farts light-heartedness, the filmmakers pull the rug from under our feet with a heavy dose of harsh reality in the second half of Filmage – touching on Stevenson’s troubled relationship with his father, which to me was the drive behind his undeterred quest for perfection and control  – for All.

It also revealed Stevenson’s brush with death, twice, as he survived a foot-long blood clot in his lung and a tennis-ball-sized brain tumour. This truly amazing tale is given a bit of a punk rock kick when we see the doctor who helped save his life caught on camera shirtless in a moshpit at a Descendents show. Fact really is stranger than fiction.

And that is why Filmage is such a joy to watch. A story so warped, weird and wonderful should be lifted from the pages of a script, not recited and recounted by those who have lived it.

When does a teenage wannabe happen upon a bass guitar thrown out in the rubbish, or a singer be so torn between touring and becoming a biochemist? Or a musician just deciding to quit the band and set fire to all his gear, or a drummer getting back behind his kit just two years after miraculously surviving a near-death experience?

I’d put Filmage up there with Pearl Jam’s Twenty as far as inspiring and insightful music documentaries go. 

As a huge Descendents and ALL fan, the film is an utter delight. It took me right back to being an awkward teenager, the raw, fast-paced songs I fell in love with still resonating, and now have me rummaging through my box of old vinyl.

“Thou shalt not commit adulthood…”

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (12A)

Following up the massive hit that was The Hunger Games was always going to be a big ask - especially when the source material goes so spectacularly south in book two.

And the promo material doesn't help when it sells Catching Fire as, essentially, nothing more than another round of The Games.

Fortunately, HG2:CF (catchy, no?) is much more than that (and, for once, IMDB gets its description right).

For the seven of you who managed to miss the first film (or the book), a quick recap:

In a world where The Capitol controls everything and oppresses the districts, every year youngsters are picked for The Hunger Games - a jovial bit of fun where 24 kids fight to the death, and the survivor gets proper food for the rest of their lives.

Katniss Everdeen (the ever-superb Jennifer Lawrence) caused a few problems by making sure she and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, who has definitely found his feet now) both survived. President Snow was not a happy bunny.

While Katniss was only thinking about getting out alive, the rest of the world saw her actions as rebellion, and now the downtrodden and mistreated have revolution in their hearts and a poster girl for their hope.

Again, President Snow (a wonderfully sinister Donald Sutherland) is not a happy bunny. The peasants are revolting and putting him off his biccys.

Hence, the new Hunger Games. This time, previous winners must go head to head, ideally killing off Everdeen in the process and saving President Snow more grief.

Yet it's actually the games at play behind The Games that are what the film is really about.

The Games themselves come late on, so if you're planning on another two-hours of children stabbing each other, you're in for some disappointment.

Instead, what we have is wonderful political and personal tension, as Katniss realises her actions had consequences far greater than she imagined. She's also, not surprisingly, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress.

Lawrence captures perfectly the little girl struggling to deal with what she went through, what she must go through again, and how the world now seems to perceive her.

And there are lighter moments too, thanks again to Stanley Tucci's gameshow host maniac (we need more Toby Jones, people) - but even he has a delightfully sinister edge.

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from a few problems.

For a start, it's too long (just a smidge under two hours 20 mins). And it's in 3D (if you choose this option, the last third of the film will make your head explode as you strain to work out who's punching who in the murky gloom). Granted, none of that is the book's fault.

And, much like Pirates Of The Caribbean 2 and The Deathly Hallows part 1 (or Harry On Camping), Catching Fire exists purely to set up the final book/films. The book suffers from this a lot. Fortunately, the film solves this problem.

The love triangle is a bit too Twilight for comfort, too. Yes, it may be in the book, but it adds nothing to the film.

But, by making the impending revolution the focal point, and President Snow the villain of the whole thing (something the book tried to do and failed), the twists and turns, the human torment and angst are all brought to the fore convincingly.

As with the first film, the weakest performance goes to Lenny Kravitz (as dress designer Cinna), but even he manages to up his game this time round.

New to The Games is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who as new Games designer Heavensbee is given the job of helping President Snow bring Katniss down to earth with several bumps. And he'd better do a good job, given what happened to the last guy...

Flaws aside, though (the score needs another run at it, too), Catching Fire is at the very least as good as The Hunger Games. It's possibly even better.

It could have been a risk taking the focus off the fighting, and there was always a chance it would fall flat as it just sets up the next film(s), but all of these issues are dodged by a well-written script, great action sequences and a convincing plot.

Where the first film was looking at a barbaric, dystopian society, Catching Fire has far more to say about Government oppression and power - capturing perfectly the lengths those in power will go to stay there.

It's a message that gets more relevant with every passing year.

So, that's two books down, one book to go. In two films. Which is being done for artistic reasons, obviously - same as it was with Potter and Twilight - and not to milk every last drop of cash out of a limited-run franchise...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Counsellor (18)

There was quite the buzz of excitement when it was revealed multi-award winning author Cormac McCarthy was going to write an original film.

This buzz was elevated further when it was revealed that Ridley Scott was producing and directing the whole shebang. And then we saw the cast list and the world exploded.

A McCarthy film, directed by Scott, starring Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt? What could go wrong?


If you saw the trailer for The Counsellor, you'd understand the excitement - it looked slick, fast-paced, suspenseful, uber cool, sexy and mildly violent. In short, exactly what you wanted given the component parts.

Sadly, something, somewhere has gone ever-so-slightly wrong.

And you'd have to say it's the script.

There's not a bad performance here - Fassbender is fine as a fish out of water lawyer trying to raise some cash for his beloved (the lovely Cruz) by funding a drug deal.

Pitt (the cool middleman) and Bardem (the experienced drug man who's a few wraps short of a full packet) deliver the goods, and then there's Diaz.

For a woman who's made her name at the fluffier end of the spectrum to turn in a performance this sleazy, nasty and vicious is just superb. She pretty much steals the show.

And it looks as cool as the trailer had you believe. Lush, warm tones abound as the beautiful and swim-suited go about their business. Even the prisons and car shops look like places you could tolerate being in.

And when needed, the seedier side of town is made to look so grimy you believe you could catch something just sitting in the cinema.

So why does it feel so cold and detached?

OK, Ridley dropped the ball with Prometheus, and the less said about Robin Hood the better, but he can make a film, the lad. He's got pedigree.

And we can see that here.

It's cool, it looks great, the violence is almost visceral. The pacing is on the slow side, sure, but that works for the most part.

And there are times when you do get caught up in the tension.

The problem is in the characters. And the dialogue.

It matters not a jot that we don't know anything about Pitt and Bardem's characters - we're given enough information in how they play out on screen. That's fine.

But how does a lawyer afford a Bentley when he's doing pro bono work? Is Bardem's loon paying him THAT much? And if he's so strapped for cash that a drug deal is his only way out, what's he doing in Amsterdam shopping for diamonds?

And what does Cruz's character do? Why does she seemingly know so little about the man she's planning on marrying? And when did she become such good friends with Diaz's cheetah-loving uber-bitch that she was happy to spend the afternoon lying next to her wrapped in just a towel?

And how the hell did the cheetahs get out of the car?

Sure, I know some people will say such things don't matter - but the very fact I found myself asking these questions tells you that they do.

But all that pales next to the dialogue.

Now we know McCarthy's a good writer - you don't get a gazillion awards by being a second-rate Barbara Cartland, eh?

But there's a huge difference between what works in a book and what works on the screen, and going by this it's not something he's grasped.

We get deep and meaningful monologues from Pitt's faux cowboy, we get trite sentiment (dressed up as insight) from a woman who pleasures herself on a car windscreen, we get life lessons from a man who goes through life answering every question with "I just don't know".

All this may work on the page, where you have all the time and space you want to paint the characters - but in a visual medium, where the audience is being left to fill in the blanks, none of it rings true.

And that's almost a tragedy.

Because somewhere in here was a great crime thriller just waiting to leap out and tear your head off.

Instead, we're left asking questions. Like how does one get a car windscreen clean after that, and why did I just spend two hours of my life with these people?

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Don Jon (18)

My, how Joseph Gordon-Levitt has grown up. Once the little kid in an alien family, now he's starring in his own film, which as well as writing it he's only gone and directed.

And blow me if the clever little sod hasn't gone and done a damn fine job (although the other men in the screening might disagree).

Because, while the film's publicity centres on JGL's Jon and his addiction to three-minute porn clips, what the film doesn't have is endless gratuitous sex scenes. Which seemed to disappoint the grown men gathered in our local World Of Cine.

What you get instead is a story about human connections, or the lack of them - from the family dining table to the bedroom, stopping at all points in between.

The story is a simple one. Jon's single, likes his sports, car, mates, the gym and one-night stands, but nothing does the trick like the fine women of Pornhub.

Scarlett Johansson's wonderfully captured Barbara Sugarman, meanwhile, has grown up on a diet of romantic comedies so has her own values and ideals based entirely on her own particular viewing habits.

The story centres on this clash of ideals, as a man not used to talking to women is forced to engage in an actual relationship with someone who likes her man to look good, better himself, but not be someone who knows about cleaning products and hoovering.

Into this melting pot ambles Julianne Moore's Esther, a classmate of Jon's at the night school he was pushed into by Barbara and her dreams. Esther's been to the school of life and knows the value of human relationships.

And so our tale unfolds.

It's a tale of human interaction, how our social connections are tempered and tainted by the media we surround ourselves with.

But it's not just about porn and rom-coms.

Jon's family has also played its part in how he deals with the world. His dad (a superb Tony Danza) can't have a meal without the match being on, meaning he spends more time arguing with the ref's calls and lack of replays than he does engaging with his family.

Not that this bothers Jon's sister as she's never off her phone, leaving poor old mum (the brilliant Glenne Headly) to keep the monologue going.

Through Jon, JGL wants us to ask questions about our relationships, how we deal with other humans, and what it is we're actually looking for (as opposed to what we think we're looking for).

It's a finely balanced study that, at times, is perhaps too subtle - leaving other characters to point out what it is you should have noticed already.

And while porn takes a beating and its impact on relationships is shown in a negative light, the fantastical world of the rom-com also gets shown up for the fiction it is.

Yes, Jon's life has got to the stage where he thinks sex should be as good as it looks online, but Barbara's own obsession leaves her chasing ideals that are unattainable while being unable to compromise or listen to reason.

One of the great things about Don Jon is the main pairing.

At first glance it would seem Jon and Babs don't really connect that well or have chemistry, but that's the point - and it's a measure of how good JGL and SJ's performances are that this is captured so well.

Neither is able to fully connect with another human being, because neither has taken the time to live in the real world and realise how humans actually are. Flawed and imperfect.

Which is where Moore comes in.

Through her, the middle ground of actual life is fed in. Slowly at first, but gradually taking over - and Moore's fragile, grounded performance is exactly what this film needs to complete the circle.

While none of the characters are classically likeable, that doesn't matter. They're flawed people taken to an extreme, and the fact you care about what happens is as much a credit to JGL's writing and directing as it is to the main three performers.

The editing is perhaps a bit too fast-paced in the first half of the film, but as this mirrors the quick flashes of Jon's porn-addled brain, it works. The pace slows and scenes lengthen as real life seeps in.

If anything left me puzzled, it was the quick dashes of Jon's in-car anger. While this presumably serves to show how frustrated he can get, it more gives hints at an underlying anger which never fully surfaces (road rage incident aside).

But such niggles are minor.

For a debut self-penned directorial effort, JLG has far exceeded expectations. He has succeeded in highlighting a modern social issue, but has done so in a light-hearted way that never preaches.

He hints at views on religion, but again these aren't preached, and instead draw parallels with how people struggle with forgiveness, or choose instant gratification.

JGL's subtle touches (Jon's decision to go play basketball for example) leave this as a layered piece, with the audience able to take away as little or as much as they want.

Go in with an open mind, and it will probably steal your heart. Go in expecting endless scenes of Kayden Kross and chums, and you'll be both disappointed and missing the point.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World (12A)

And so the Marvel juggernaut rumbles on in the post-Avengers universe - this year we've already had Tony Stark back for more in Iron Man 3, and now Thor has dusted off his hammer for another bash at baddies.

And he's got some ground to catch up.

Pre-Avengers, Thor was a baby of the box office bunch (if you ignore Ed Norton's Hulk attempt, and I am), making a 'mere' $450m and putting him ahead of only Captain America.

But, having now saved New York and beaten his brother for a second time, one can safely assume Thor: The Dark World will play to a wider audience.

Sadly, said audience was spoilt by Joss Whedon's epic - so phase two of Marvel's bid to take over the world has to aim higher. Much higher.

And while Iron Man succeeded by adding a more human element to the playboy hero, Thor finds himself straddling two worlds - both figuratively and literally.

The first film had to obviously set the character up, and then create a baddy who could actually go toe-to-hammer with Asgard's favourite son.

Post Avengers, the world and his mother know who he is, so we can just get on with the action, yes? Well, kinda...

On the plus side, Thor: The Dark World is visually brighter than Kenneth Brannagh's first effort - a dark and moody tone severely hampered by the 3D glasses.

Not a problem this time round.

Even with the glasses on, Asgard shines like never before. And, in places, the tone is noticeably lighter as well, with the comic touches giving the film a welcome lift.

And it needs it.

Written pretty much by committee, at times T:TDW (lets call it that, eh?) feels like a series of vignettes strung together by a pre-arranged narrative (baddy finds a thing that should have been hidden, uses it to try and destroy everything, hilarity ensues etc).

Alan Taylor, making his film directorial debut after some stellar TV work, has also struggled to get a handle on just what sort of story he's telling here.

Which is a pity, because there's so much potential.

Chris Hemsworth has clearly settled into his armour, Natalie Portman is more at ease as scientist-cum-girlfriend Jane, Tom Hiddleston has (rightly) made Loki a superstar, Idris Elba is wonderfully mystical as Asgard's guardian - it's all in place for a wonderful, god-like romp.

But, it just feels flat in places.

When it's good, it's good - Hiddleston shines once more, the comic touches are superb (Thor on the Tube a particular highlight) - but it feels like no one could get a handle on the troublesome elves.

Christopher Eccleston lacks the real malevolence needed for a super-baddy (the effect on his voice being a major problem), while the attack on Asgard is poor-man's Star Wars/Star Trek mash-up.

Then there's good ol' Sir Anthony Hopkins.

At times, he brings his Shakespearian gravitas to bear with good effect (something that was used well in the first film), but at other times it's clear he neither believes in nor cares about what he's saying. Which gives certain scenes a throw-away feel.

And poor old Thor's pretty much on his own.

His cohorts - a good source of levity last time round - are reduced to bit-part players, while Sif's (a strangely muted Jaimie Alexander) feelings for old beardy are laid out for all to see but then never dealt with, and he's never given enough time with either Jane or Loki to get any real screen relationship established.

(Yes, I know you could say that was done last time, but it's needed here too.)

When T:TDW hits, it hits - and Hiddleston steals every scene he's in. And Hopkins aside, there's not a bad performance. Well, OK, giving Jane's intern Darcy (Kat Jennings on good form once more) an intern of her own is a mis-step, but other than that...

It's just that the flat patches are very noticeable. The pacings slow at times, making the brighter moments that much brighter while sadly also highlighting the flaws.

Almost certainly, having shone in Avengers, Loki and Thor will sweep all before them in the coming weeks, but as a Marvel devotee I wanted more.

Gravity (12A)

One of the advantages (and let's face it, there aren't many) to being awake at 6am is that you can get all the tedious stuff out of the way early and head to the cinema for a bit of double-bill catch-up action.

And so, counting my solitary blessing, off I skeedaddled to the neighbourhood World Of Cine to catch Gravity, a film some selfish sod saw fit to release while I was lounging in my friend's sun-baked garden in Abu Dhabi.

I've been excited about this film since first seeing the trailer - an experience that left me breathless. If two minutes can do that, what could 90 achieve...

And not normally one to be bothered with the whole 3D hoodoo, I really wanted to watch this with the sunglasses on. Everything I've read in the build-up suggested it would be worth it.

OK, turns out you could probably see it in 2D and not feel like you'd missed out on much - but, one tiny line of dialogue aside, that's my only complaint.

If you've somehow missed the build-up to all this, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone - a doctor on her first space mission.

She's joined up there by veteran space trucker Matt Kowalski, played sublimely by George Clooney, a man who's on his last mission and would like to take the space walking record back to earth with him.

Sadly, that chance gets kyboshed when a Russian attempt to get rid of one of their own satellites goes a tad awry, resulting in a chain reaction that sends tonnes of debris rocketing around the earth (as fast as a speeding bullet apparently - a line that really jars).

And so, as you'll have seen in the trailer, the fun begins. And 90 minutes later, you'll get your breath back.

To call this film tense, gripping, enthralling and all-consuming is almost under-playing it.

With the subtle use of dialogue, the two characters (and, aside from other voices, that's yer lot) are drawn quickly and clearly, and we start down the road of trying to fix a space thing before the bad stuff comes flying in.

With every bounce, with every knock, you're willing Bullock to grab something to hold her steady, you're almost screaming (but it's a cinema, so you don't) for her to grab Clooney's hand as he spirals past.

And that's just the first half hour.

After that, thankfully, co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (the man who gave us the best Potter film in Prisoner Of Azkaban and the sublime, timeless classic Y Tu Mama Tambien) gives us a few breathing spaces.

But not many. And not really, because as one drama subsides, you know the next one is on its way, and you find yourself scouring the screen looking for any tiny bit of satellite that might cause more mayhem.

It's the subtle touches that help in this regard.

The music is understated, the spaces between score segments as important as the orchestration. The dialogue is all necessary (bullet reference aside). The characters are believable, likeable and by the end they're almost family.

Then there's the look of the thing.

Seeing this film on a plane will be a waste, and to be honest you might need a bigger TV to do this justice when the DVD is launched.

Space is big, as we know, but Cuaron doesn't let that stop him from trying to capture it.

There are scenes where all you're looking at is the stars. Sure, Clooney and Bullock are there, but they're the two dots to the far right of the screen. Maybe. Or that could be a space station.

Cuaron manages to capture that feeling of being tiny and lost in the infinite. You find yourself feeling as small and lost as two people trying to get back to their damaged ship with just a few jet thrusters for company.

Somehow, with so little 'stuff' up there, Cuaron gives you a hell of a lot to look at. And you'll be looking at everything.

As for the 3D (Gravity was allegedly designed to be seen in all three dimensions, but then film makers always say that...), early on I wasn't sure it was needed. The added depth is hard to get across when it's just a sky full of twinkly lights.

But, as with everything else in Gravity, it's the subtle layers that work so well - and there were moments when I was actually blinching (it's a word - go ask A A Milne) and ducking in my seat. And that never happened in Avatar.

On the face of it, Gravity shouldn't work (and there are some who have been happily picking the science apart - don't listen to them) - it's two people for 90 minutes. Floating about.

That may work when it's Before Sunset, but they're wandering about Paris. Not spinning about in the infinite blackness of space while you catch the occasional glimpse of Mother Earth.

Then there's Bullock's performance. Not only does she hold the whole thing together, but she does it while never actually putting her feet down. Sure, it may be wires n wotnot, but her performance is so natural and real it captivates you.

And it's not just the spiralling and spinning and yelling and screaming. It's the emotional journey Dr Stone goes in, as amidst the chaos she manages to take stock of her life and situation down on earth.

Bullock manages to provide so much emotional weight to a film laden with effects you almost want to stand and applaud.

Not wishing to take anything away from Clooney, of course, but he is totally overshadowed here. And he's on top form.

So often you fall in love with a trailer, only to find the film a crashing disappointment (Peter Jackson, I'm talking to you), so to find a film not only meets but totally exceeds all expectations is simply wonderful.

Or out of this world, if you will.

(Oh, and to further labour the point about just how tense this film is, I was 15 minutes into Thor before my pulse stopped racing. It's like being strapped to a roller coaster. In space,)