Monday, 13 April 2015

Daredevil

Alright, I’m going to get it out of the way right now… “Daredevil” is better than most of the Marvel movies. I love those, but right now the list goes “Avengers”, “Winter Soldier”, “Iron Man” and then “Daredevil”. And guess what, it also has the best villain.

“Daredevil” stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil and is a Netflix series created by Drew Goddard. It’s set in Hell’s Kitchen, corner of New York that suffered heavily from the Chitauri attack as seen in “The Avengers”. It follows Daredevil’s fight against business man Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin, played by the brilliant Vincent D’Onofrio. At the same time, Daredevil’s alter ego Matt Murdock is trying to build up a legal practice together with his friend Foggy Nelson, played by Elden Henson.

There are only three points of criticism that can be brought up against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Weak villains, inconsequential character deaths and the same climax to every movie. “Daredevil” crushes all three of those.
The Kingpin is well-known to comic book fans as the nemesis of Daredevil. A lot of the Marvel movies so far went for the bigger and badder version of the hero for the villain. Daredevil and Wilson Fisk are very different. Daredevil is basically a ninja, while the Kingpin is a Juggernaut. Matt Murdock is a small-time lawyer, while Wilson Fisk has a gigantic business and little regard for the law. What connects them, what creates the tension between them is that they essentially want the same thing, to make Hell’s Kitchen a better place. And here, “Daredevil” does something amazing and actually treats Fisk almost like a second protagonist. Fisk sacrifices just as much as Murdock does, feels just as much pain and has his own enemies and obstacles to conquer.

The second point… let’s be honest, when we are watching a Marvel movie these days, we don’t really believe at any point that our heroes are not going to be triumphant in the end. Sure, there might be setbacks, but in the end, everyone will be okay, even if it takes a TV series to resurrect a beloved character. I don’t want to talk about character deaths in “Daredevil” because I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it, but let me assure you, Daredevil is far from invincible. He spends as much time stitching himself up as he does fighting. He is vulnerable because he has friends who also fight against Fisk, without the protection of a mask. And, unlike all the other inhabitants of the Marvel universe, he actually has a secret identity and struggles with that too.

Finally, there’s no giant flying thing crashing into New York in the final episode… probably just because it’s already been done. The action in this series is of a smaller scale, but it is exceptionally well-shot, better than a lot of movies these days. Rarely do television series actually manage to completely grip the audience just by the way a scene is shot, but “Daredevil” does. This, together with the fact that one episode of “Daredevil” probably sees more blood flowing than all of the movies combined (slight exaggeration) makes the action so insanely gripping.


Now, this is just supposed to be a short review, so I’m not going to go into how good Charlie Cox is, how well he plays off of the other actors, how the whole series is basically structured like a game of chess with a few more factions thrown in or how much I want Daredevil to appear in Civil War. What it all comes down to in the end is that “Daredevil” is not only very good, it is one of the most engaging series I’ve had the pleasure to see. I don’t know if it’s quite on the level of “Game of Thrones”, “Breaking Bad” or “House of Cards”, but one thing is for certain. The first season of “Daredevil” makes the first season of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” look like a school project, and I actually enjoyed that.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Chappie

If it hadn’t been for that one scene in “Birdman”, Oscar season has been very light on explosions, as usual. So after watching some really great artistic accomplishments, it’s time to blow stuff up again… finally. It’s still going to take a few weeks until summer blockbuster season kicks off earnestly, but spring usually gives us a few more experimental action pieces. Case in point, “Chappie” and “Kingsman”, one of which has been a big success so far.

„Chappie“ is Neill Blomkamp’s third movie and stars Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman and the South African Rap/Rave duo Die Antwoord. It is set in Johannesburg in the near future and follows the robot Chappie, voiced by Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley, who is the first actually functional AI, created by Dev Patel’s young programmer Deon Wilson. Deon works for a weapons manufacturer and has invented a robotic police force that has been adapted by the Johannesburg police force.

There has been much talk about Neill Blomkamp lately. This is due to him having a hugely anticipated movie coming out and his next project already announced, one little known property called “Alien”. After his Oscar nominated debut feature “District 9”, Blomkamp has been lauded as one of the most interesting young directors working today. Then his follow-up “Elysium” failed with the critics and people started worrying if he was a one-hit-wonder, similar to one M. Night Shyamalan. So obviously his third movie has been eagerly awaited. Personally, I think that three movies are not enough to see a trend. Akira Kurosawa took ten movies to create his first masterpiece. Of course, then he started to crank them out one after another. So whatever my opinion of “Chappie”, I am still going to be there for whatever the next “Alien” film will be called hits theatres.

Whatever your stance on Blomkamp, he is a visual effects wizard. “Chappie” looks amazing. The scout robots look realistic and cool, explosions and firefights are as good as they get. Also a staple of Blomkamp’s work, the film takes place in his backyard, Johannesburg, a fascinating city. It gives the film a unique feel and is part of Blomkamp’s inspiration. Speaking of inspiration, for this film, it is split in two. On the one hand, this is based on Blomkamp’s first short film, “Tetra Vaal”, which is also the name of the weapons company in this film. On the other, it is heavily influenced by his love for the music group “Die Antwoord”, borrowing a lot of the stylistic elements from their music videos and songs.

But before we dive into Yo-Landi and Ninja’s involvement in this film, let’s look at the other players involved. By now it is clear that Blomkamp can get a good performance out of an actor. Specifically Sharlto Copley, his childhood friend, who has been a part of all of his three feature films, and is great in all of them. He also plays fundamentally different roles in each film. Here, he gets to play a child again, as Chappie needs to learn what the world is all about. Between Wikus van der Merwe, Kruger and Chappie, this might be the most standard fare he has done for Blomkamp, but it is effective nonetheless. The standout in this film is clearly Hugh Jackman’s mulleted villain Vincent, rival to Dev Patel’s Deon, a religious aussie ex-soldier who has invented another robot, the Moose, that gets overshadowed by the immense success of Deon’s scout program. His antipathy towards Deon comes from a believable place, as he is worried about the implications of a fully functional and unshackled AI… there’s also a bit of religion playing into that, but he still has a point. Finally, Sigourney Weaver is in this movie as Deon’s and Vincent’s boss. The role didn’t necessarily require her talent specifically, but it is always nice to see her in these films, showing her love for the sci-fi genre. Most importantly however, her involvement in this film led directly to Neill Blomkamp getting hired for another “Alien” film, which is awesome.

Alright… Enough beating around the bush… “Die Antwoord” are terrible. Oh my god, are they bad. And what’s even worse, they play themselves. They are bad at playing themselves. I don’t really know if I can truly convey how irritating they are. It even took me a while to actually figure out that they are really playing future versions of themselves. Until that point, I was wondering why Yo-Landi and Ninja are wearing “Die Antwoord” merchandise. One thing that can be said about the two is that they are apparently completely above self-flattery, as they are playing not only themselves, but also two of the most stupid characters I’ve ever seen. Also unlikeable. Also annoying. Also did I mention irritating? When I said that Blomkamp knows how to get a good performance from an actor, I meant actor. If he takes away one thing from “Chappie”, it’s that he has to stop trying to cast his favourite rappers in his films. He tried to have Eminem in “Elysium”, he got Matt Damon. You can’t really go wrong with Damon. For “Chappie” Blomkamp could have gone out on the street and grab the first two people he met and he would have been better off. At least I will now always have an answer to the question which movie was ruined by a bad performance alone.

Because honestly, I loved everything else about this film. Apart from some small script issues where focus could have been shifted to some of the bigger questions, maybe giving Patel and Jackman more time together, everything apart from “Die Antwoord’s” acting is so enjoyable. I didn’t even mind the heavy influence that “Die Antwoord” have on the setting and design of parts of this movie. If only someone else had played them.


All in all, as long as you can manage to somehow replace “Die Antwoord” in your head, “Chappie” is a really good Sci-Fi film. It gives you a lot of stuff to think about and discuss, between religion and science, it has some really good acting… and “Die Antwoord”… and the effects are amazing. It also prepares us for the AI driven films coming up, although I doubt that Ultron will be as fundamentally nice as Chappie. Also he’s probably going to aim a little bit higher than car theft.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Outside Hollywood Episode 9 - The 87th Academy Awards

After a prolonged winter break, Outside Hollywood is finally back. I'm sure our two listeners missed us. This time, we talk about the Oscars, all the winners and losers, the individual films, and the ceremony itself. Also we take a look at the biggest news that dropped in the last few weeks... namely Spider-Man.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Whiplash

I really tried hard to find a good opening joke, but I blanked… Anyway, that’s not going to stop me from doing this: Badumm-Tss… You see, because it’s about a drummer…

„Whiplash“ stars Miles Teller and Oscar winner J.K. Simmons and is directed by Damien Chazelle. It follows young and hopeful Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Teller) as he tries to become the best at what he does. He comes closer to this dream when prestigious teacher and conductor Fletcher sees him play and decides to make him part of his studio band. Only when Andrew is at his first rehearsal does it become clear that Fletcher is not only very strict but also a violent and abusive teacher. But Andrew is determined not to give up and to impress Fletcher.

All bad jokes aside, I’ve played in a Jazz band for a short time and my conductor was a nice person. However, it is a huge part of a conductor’s job to tell you when you are doing something wrong. There’s not many things that are more embarrassing than being the one guy who messed it up and being singled out for it. And that’s all without chairs being thrown around. So the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is a very interesting one.

Andrew as portrayed by Miles Teller, who is brilliant by the way, is single-minded. He wants to be one of the great Jazz drummers of his time and he puts all his energy into that. He practices alone after everyone else has left and he doesn’t have time for friends. He is not liked by anyone in the conservatory he is attending and his family doesn’t seem to grasp exactly how good he is at the drums. The longer the film goes on, we find ourselves in the same spot his father is, wondering whether we want him to proceed, because he clearly isn’t putting his own happiness first. And this is where Fletcher comes in. His philosophy is that if he is able to stop you from being great through abuse and strictness, then you weren’t great to begin with. He is the obstacle that Andrew has to overcome and in the end the question remains whether Fletcher was actually trying to help him succeed or if he was his enemy all along.

The film relies heavily on Simmons and Teller, to the extent that Miles Teller is in every single scene and the fourth billed supporting cast member, Melissa Benoist, has four scenes in the whole movie. Both actors give an incredible performance, Miles Teller did all his own drumming, which is pretty amazing, because this is not simple stuff. It surely helps that he started drumming about ten years ago, but unless he already played Jazz, I’m thinking the extra lessons he got were certainly necessary. Simmons also gets to stretch his fingers a little bit on the piano, but most of his time is spent creating a character where you can never really be sure whether he is the devil or just an extreme version of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey from the “Rocky” franchise.

If so far you’re thinking, well this sounds all very nice, but Jazz? Somehow doesn’t scream conflict now, does it. Believe me, this film will prove you wrong. I watched it a week ago and I still randomly launch into an acappella version of the song Whiplash from time to time. This movie will have you on the edge of your seat more than most blockbusters have lately. That is mostly due to the two incredible performances, but also because of the tight editing, which also got an Academy Award by the way.


All in all, I fully expect “Whiplash” to show up in my Top Ten list at the end of this year, and we still have ten months to go. It is one of the most intense films I’ve watched and definitely has one of the best showdowns ever put to film.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Into the Woods

Agony beyond power of speech… but is it?

„Into the Woods“ is an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical of the same name. It is directed by Rob Marshall and stars a great ensemble cast with Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine. The plot mixes up a bunch of different fairytales including but not limited to Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk. It connects them through our main characters, the Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt), who are sent on a quest by the Witch (Streep) to alleviate a curse that she placed on them.

First of all, I am glad to do something I have not had much reason to in recent years, I get to praise Johnny Depp for a performance. Depp plays only a small role as the big bad wolf, but he fits in perfectly, reminding the audience of his performance in “Sweeney Todd”, which was probably the last time he’s been really good in anything. He only gets one song with Little Red Riding Hood, played by Lilla Crawford, but damn do they make something of it. We all know the story, but “Into the Woods” puts a particular undertone to it, that I won’t spoil if you can’t guess it, and Depp and Crawford play off each other perfectly.

That, of course, is only a very minor part in a movie that runs for two hours. However, there is no reason to worry, as the rest of the cast give performances that are on par or better. They pull off the singing very well, complete with some intentionally hilarious performances by Chris Pine, who reminds me a bit of Nathan Fillion as Captain Hammer in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” (And if you haven’t seen that… it’s only 40 minutes, I’ll be waiting). I don’t want to talk about everyone, but a few cast members deserve special recognition. James Corden and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and since “Looper” and “Edge of Tomorrow”, I just can’t help but be excited every time Emily Blunt is in a movie. They both have serious singing chops, which Corden was already able to demonstrate in this year’s “Begin Again”, another wonderful movie. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody by now that Anna Kendrick can sing, seeing as she is already gearing up for her next musical performance with “Pitch Perfect 2”, and her indecisive rendition of Cinderella is fun to watch.

Oh yeah, and Meryl Streep is in this movie. With this film in the bag, she’s probably only one movie away from her twentieth Academy Award nomination. From everything I had seen in the trailers before seeing the film, I was sceptical if the Witch was a role that deserved an Oscar nomination or if the Academy just stopped looking after they saw Patricia Arquette in “Boyhood”. I was wrong. The Witch is such a cool character, and Meryl Streep is the best actress on the planet, which results in a memorable performance. She is menacing, funny, smart, loving and angry. That’s tough to pull off, but she is such a joy to watch. Also her first song is a rap… so let that sink in for a moment.

 I should mention quickly that this film looks amazing. I was particularly impressed by the fact that Marshall decided not to overuse CGI to make a huge spectacle of the bigger events in the musical. He concentrates on the characters and the music. And that is where this films true strength lies. Stephen Sondheim is Musical royalty. In “Into the Woods”, he created a subversive take on fairy tales and manages to be funny and convey an important message at the same time. The stage version is split into two parts, a dichotomy that is still there in the film version. However, large parts of the second half are cut out of the film, which is unfortunate, because this is where the piece becomes really intelligent. The film still works and the message is intact, however the last thirty minutes of the film feel slightly disjointed because of this.


In conclusion, I can only quote the Witch and say “Go to the Woods!” This is a very smart and entertaining film. Be aware that there comes a point in this film where you might think that it will end soon. That is the end of the first half of the original musical. You still have about half an hour to go, so don’t get impatient. If you can manage that, you’ll get to enjoy the best songs in the whole movie… except for “Agony”, nothing beats that.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Foxcatcher

How to summarise “Foxcatcher” in one sentence… Well, I’ll have to paraphrase my immediate reaction to the movie: That was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever watched. It’s also a unique experience, that’s for sure.

“Foxcatcher” is directed by Bennett Miller and stars Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve Carrell and Steve Carrell’s fake nose. The film is about John du Pont (Carrell) and the brothers Mark (Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Ruffalo). DuPont is a rich heir who has set his mind to creating a top-notch wrestling team called Foxcatcher. To do so, he hires Mark Schultz, winner of an Olympic gold medal, to train his team. However, tensions rise between Schultz and du Pont, as both of them do not go into their partnership without baggage.

First of all, this is not a sports movie. It might be centred on a wrestling team, but there is no great fight for redemption waiting at the end and the training is not shown in montage style. “Foxcatcher” deals strictly with personal drama. And there’s a lot of that. The three lead characters (this is clearly an ensemble piece, no matter what the Academy thinks) each have fascinating connections to the other two. Tatum’s Mark desires to rise from the shadow of his brother, while at the same time being overwhelmed by the attentions of du Pont. Ruffalo plays a family man who doesn’t trust du Pont’s generous offer immediately and tries everything to protect his little brother. Du Pont, finally, is looking for the respect he feels he deserves.

The performances are incredible all around. Tatum once again shows us how good he is at portraying, to put it politely, a simple character. Mark Schultz is a lumbering, slow man, not smart and really only very good at one thing, wrestling. Tatum adjusts his posture and stride and gives an impression of constant bewilderment. However, when he gets into his element, it’s an amazing sight, suddenly moving with speed and grace. A great sequence early on shows us a training session with his brother, almost a dance that reveals a lot about both characters and their relationship, without any dialogue. Ruffalo and Tatum apparently trained every evening after shooting, which translates to the screen as they seem completely proficient in what they do. The most surprising performance however has to be Steve Carrell’s. Whatever you think about the rest of his work, if you only saw “Foxcatcher”, you would never believe that Carrell was a comedic actor. Director Bennett Miller stated that he wanted to cast someone inconspicuous for the role, and Carrell is perfect. With the aid of extensive make-up and prosthetics, he creates a chilling character, but also one the audience can somehow understand.

Bennett Miller did not go easy on the actors, which is something he is known for. However, it seems like they were all more than willing to take the challenge, as Miller’s two other movies, “Capote” and “Moneyball” both showed that he can get amazing performances from his actors. So far that has always translated into Oscar nominations and a win for Phillip Seymour-Hoffman. He was instrumental in turning around Jonah Hill’s career, setting him on the path towards more dramatic roles and working with Scorsese. Maybe “Foxcatcher” will have the same effect for Carrell.

However, all the praise aside, one thing is certain. This film is an experience, but it is not a pleasurable one. I’m glad that I saw it, but I doubt that I will ever see it again, because the mood that Miller creates is so intensely uncomfortable and the atmosphere so filled with dread that you are constantly on the edge of your seat. It becomes really hard to sit still, as even scenes that should be rather standard fare turn the tension up to eleven. A huge part of this is Miller’s decision to let the film run with almost no background music. Everyone knows that music has a huge influence on the tone of a scene, but Miller shows us that the absence of music is a stylistic device in itself.


Overall, “Foxcatcher” is a great movie, but if you are not into indie-dramas and mostly look for entertainment in movies, you’d probably better stay away from this one.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Selma

Martin Luther King was a very brave man. But so is Tim Roth, because I would not want to be seen anywhere near to a person such as George Wallace, yet he decides to impersonate him on-screen. That takes balls.

“Selma” stars David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and is directed by Ava DuVernay. It focuses on King’s attempt to remove voting restrictions for black people by staging a protest in the small town of Selma, Alabama. He has to find a way to pressure Lyndon B. Johnson into signing further legislation against segregation while facing hostility towards himself and his family.

There is no other way to say this, “Selma” is an impressive movie, convincing on every level. Martin Luther King is arguably one of the greatest fighters for human rights in history. His “I Have a Dream” speech has been heard around the world and his accomplishments can be felt to this day. This together with the events in Ferguson gives this movie an undeniable topicality. Simply put, you can’t half-ass it working on a film like this.

Thankfully, nobody does. David Oyelowo is hypnotizing as King, emulating his intonation and speech patterns perfectly, even though he didn’t have any of King’s actual speeches to work with (studio politics… it’s insane). The script gives him the opportunity to show us different sides of King, a man shouldering a huge responsibility. We see him at his strongest when he has to confront the President or giving speeches and we see him almost break down from doubt, coping with the victims that his fight demands and trying to mend the strained relationship with his wife. We also see how his organization worked, trying to apply public pressure by provoking conflict while staying non-violent. “Selma” doesn’t sugar-coat, there is conflict inside the movement and between different groups.

The depiction of President Johnson has attracted some controversy, because some people found him to be depicted as opposed to the civil rights movement. I found him to be a fascinating character, a great portrayal by Tom Wilkinson. It’s not so much that he doesn’t want to help, he just feels that he’s taking a great risk in doing so. So he keeps his options open as King puts more pressure on him with each day of protest. George Wallace, played by Tim Roth, is another story. A man whom Roth himself described as a monster (no “the villain is the hero in his own story” here, Roth talks about being genuinely appalled by the original Wallace, as he grew up during the Civil Rights Movement). Wallace is a spineless racist who could have fit into last year’s “12 Years a Slave” without problem. All the more respect to Tim Roth for taking on the character.

The film is well-structured, although it sometimes feels as if it is following a four step plan on repeat, President, protest, doubt and marital problems. However, it works, so I’m not complaining.


All in all, “Selma” is a great film, probably even an important one, because it serves as a reminder that no matter how far we think we have come, the fight for equality is far from over. I’d suggest marching to your nearest cinema right about now.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Interview

I don’t really see what all the fuss was about…

“The Interview” stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzie Caplan and Randall Park. It’s directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and I have the feeling this is certainly not the first time you’ve heard about it. If you haven’t though, the film follows James Franco as Dave Skylark, a celebrity talk show host, and his producer Alan Rapaport, played by Seth Rogen. They get the opportunity of interviewing Kim Jong-Un, the supreme leader of North Korea. Things get complicated when the CIA approaches them with the request of using the opportunity to kill the dictator.

The film attracted an enormous amount of controversy after North Korea declared that should it be screened for audiences, they would consider this an act of warfare. Later, during the Sony hack scandal, this movie was given as the reason behind the attack. So is this movie a work of bravery, shamelessly calling out the injustices committed by the mad dictator of a poor country? Well… a little bit maybe?

Most of all it is a Rogen/Goldberg comedy. They’re usually funny, rarely packed with meaning, this one definitely more so than “Pineapple Express” or “This is the end”. And, I have to say, it doesn’t do too bad considering how touchy the topic is. What remarks it has about politics, it shares them pretty evenly between the terrible dictatorship and the hubris of the CIA trying to assassinate its leader. The actual interview from the title does a pretty good job here at seeing the bigger picture.

Nevertheless, this is a comedy in the first place, the satire comes later. And as a comedy, this is one of the funnier ones I’ve seen recently. Rogen and especially Franco play clowns, but they are good at it, and it works way more often than it doesn’t. Their chemistry is established and they do not stray too far from familiar territory. There’s drug use, dick jokes, everything you would expect from a movie starring these two. The movie also shows us our characters actually having a good time, without trying to make a joke out of it, which I find important in a good comedy, because it makes us like the characters without dropping the mood. There is a slower section in the middle where the two main characters are split up. At this point I thought that the film might have needed another side-character to keep the jokes running.

The movie also has a surprisingly good villain in Randall Park’s Kim Jong-Un, a very charismatic turn and well done, because playing a parody of a real life dictator could easily go very wrong very fast. It doesn’t however and Park and Franco play off each other with an easy chemistry.


All in all, I was surprised at how much fun I had with this film. It’s not “The Great Dictator”, but the film treats its subject with as much respect as you can expect from a comedy and it delivers in spades when it comes to the jokes, which, let’s be honest, is all that really matters.

Spiderman is in the Marvel Universe!

An hour ago I was asleep. I was very happy when I was asleep. But then I guess my Spider-Sense was tingling and I woke up to find a message from Cinemartian.

So here's what happened. In a move that is completely unprecedented, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Sony Pictures Entertainment of last years hacking scandal, more on that further down, and Marvel Studios have released a statement that said that Spider-Man will appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Also, Kevin Feige, the genius behind those movies, will be co-producing upcoming Spider-Man movies, the first one set for release on July 23rd, 2017.

So what exactly is going on?

Spider-Man is one of the most popular superheroes in the world. He's in one league with Superman and Batman in that. The movie rights to Spider-Man were sold to Sony somewhere in the 90's, meaning that only Sony had the right to make Spider-Man movies. The same thing happened to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, who both went to Fox, and a bunch of other characters, most of which got one film made, failed completely and then reverted back to Marvel. With the exception of the Ghost Rider and the Punisher, who got to fail more than once before they went back home.

In the meantime, Marvel had enough of seeing film studios butcher their properties and decided, if you want to have it done well, you have to do it yourself. So they founded Marvel Studios, their own film studio, in order to have their own production. The rights to their most popular characters were all gone, so they took a risk and adapted "The Avengers" to the screen, and we all know that didn't exactly turn out bad for them. A few years later and Marvel is the absolute boss in the blockbuster business.

Sony however struggles with Spider-Man, with an extremely mixed output, that got heavy criticism on at least two out of the five Spidey outings they produced. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" was so bad, that even though it did solid business, Sony decided to hold a big Spidey summit (their words) in January, to decide the creative direction they will take in the future. (Their previous direction seems to have been to meddle with the creative choices as much as possible, which has led to the abysmal quality of ASM2.)

Their decision is unprecedented in so far that two big studios have never cooperated on a single property like this. And there are good reasons for that. There is some weird overlaps with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, because they are X-Men and Avengers, but apart from that, it just tends to get very complicated. Sony retains creative control over Spider-Man, so they can potentially veto every decision Marvel makes. Every line Spider-Man gets in a MCU movie is therefore a possible conflict between the two studios. Does he get enough lines? Are they cool enough? Can we still sell toys with this Spider-Man (no joke, you wouldn't believe how much money a studio makes with toys and merchandise. Which, by the way, ended the Batman franchise until Nolan showed up, but that's another story)? That's the reason why this hasn't been done before.

So is it even a good idea then?

Well, that's certainly not an easy question. Let's go through some pros and cons.

First, Spider-Man is immensely popular. It's never really a bad decision to add something popular. Still, if there is one company in the world that doesn't need Spider-Man right now, it's Marvel Studios. One of their most successful movies is based on a property that not even the biggest comic book geeks knew much about. Yet people flocked to see "Guardians of the Galaxy", and it was awesome. At this point in time, Marvel can do anything and the fans will trust them. Getting Spider-Man into their movies is just showing off.

On the other hand, it's also a huge gamble, because now whenever they want to put Spider-Man into one of their movies, they have to deal with Sony. And Sony has not exactly shown good judgement pertaining to him. That spells trouble and it touches on the point that worries me the most. Sony Pictures as a company is on the ropes right now. They had a huge scandal last year and just fired one of the people responsible for making it as big of an embarassment as it is, Amy Pascal. She got a really nice severance package with a new studio under Sony, but she is no longer leading one of the biggest movie studios in the world. And guess who is partnering up with Kevin Feige to manage this crossover. It's not Scott Rudin, who was the other guy getting a lot of coverage in connection with the Sony hacks (He's also the one who was right in that particular argument about the Steve Jobs movie, but again, beside the point). So, I don't know how capable Amy Pascal is in the end, when the last Amazing Spider-Man movie was a complete mess with multiple members of crew and cast speaking out against it afterwards, blaming studio interference. Now Kevin Feige is a very smart man and I doubt he would have made this deal if there wasn't some regulations in place that limit Sony in their ability to interfere.

What it comes down to on the business end is this: At this point, nobody would have been surprised had Sony just outright sold the rights for Spider-Man back to Marvel. If that had been the news this morning, hell, I'd probably be dancing on my chair right now. This way, I think is very likely to cause problems down the road. I would rather have seen Sony actually man up and try to make a decent movie by themselves for a change or, if they don't think they can do that, give it back completely.

So that's the business side, interesting in their own right. But what about the character, about the Cinematic Universe... well, I might catch some flak for this, but I don't see Spider-Man play an integral role in the MCU. Take a look at the trajectory "The Avengers" are on at the moment. They are going global, with "Age of Ultron" reportedly taking place all around the world, for example that big brawl everyone is waiting for, "The Green against the Machine", Hulk vs. Hulkbuster, is set in Johannesburg, South Africa. We have yet to see even a hint that Spider-Man can work outside of New York in a movie. Hell, they haven't been able to make him work in New York for all it's worth. But that is Spideys home turf. Sure, the comics see him branching out from time to time, but he is firmly New York based. In that, and in his powers, which let's be honest, put him somewhere slightly above Black Widow in the MCU, he is more on the scale of "The Defenders", Marvel's Netflix property.

More likely, Spider-Man will take a part in Civil War, and I don't expect it to be the part that he takes in the comics, because Black Panther has been put in his place and they won't change that after they announced it on a stage in front of the fans, and then we will see him in his solo movies. Of which there will be less. Because if they are serious about working together with Kevin Feige, they will have to work around his schedule, and he has a whole universe to manage. So I don't see a "Sinister Six", "Venom" or any other spin-off film happening any time soon.

And that is a pity, because I was really hoping for a Spider-Man cinematic universe. What Sony doesn't seem to realise is that they had a perfectly fine universe of their own to play in, and in that they needed Marvel as little as Marvel needed them. Spider-Man has such a great rogues gallery, which if treated right, gives you so many options. Now clearly, everything is on a smaller scale than the MCU, but scale doesn't matter if the movies are done well.

By which we come to an overwhelmingly positive point. From this point on, they are going to be. So all that talk, it doesn't really matter, because what Sony was lacking was someone in charge who actually cared about the property Spider-Man. Now they have Kevin Feige on board, who knows exactly how far a studio can get involved and when to let the filmmakers do their thing. He takes risks and makes them work. So whatever the role he will be playing, however bad or good this decision has been for Sony and Marvel, there is one person who profits from this in any case, and that's Spider-Man. And when Spider-Man profits, we all profit. Except for Andrew Garfield, who is probably going to be recast, although nothing is confirmed on that yet. Which is a shame, because he was the best thing about the last two Spider-Man movies, and by that I mean he was really really good.

Small edit: It has been pointed out to me that I entirely missed the fact that the new Spider-Man movie will take the release date of "Thor: Ragnarok" and push the rest of the MCU movies back a bit, delaying for example "Black Panther" for half a year, until we are getting back into the original release schedule with "Avengers Infinity War Part 1". However, this is more of a minor annoyance than something that actually worries me.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Boyhood

People say that it was a bold choice by director Richard Linklater to film “Boyhood” over the course of twelve years. I say it was bold to cast his own daughter as Mason’s big sister, who deserves a slap in the face on multiple occasions.

“Boyhood” is directed by Richard Linklater and stars Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. It’s the most insane coming-of-age film ever made. And no, that is not hyperbole, because Linklater actually shot a boy (and his own daughter in a supporting role) growing up for twelve years. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason Jr. and the plot revolves around him growing up, nothing more and nothing less.

It’s really hard to go into more detail, because the details do not necessarily form a cohesive story, just as life doesn’t. The script, which I suspect has gone through a lot of changes during the twelve year development of this movie, doesn’t help you either, because it avoids hitting clichés at all times. This film does not go from one first to the next, first beer, first joint, first kiss, first girlfriend and so on. It doesn’t give you these neat chapters. There’s also no “One Year Later”. Linklater gives you hints, a song, a new haircut or new friends, but the rest is left to you to piece together. This makes it that much more effective, especially as it almost forces you to reminisce. I am a bit older than Mason, but still I could see myself, my brothers, my sister, my cousin, hell, my whole family and everyone I know, somewhere in this film. I remember going to a “Harry Potter” event to get the new book by the stroke of midnight. I remember when I saw my first “Star Wars” film. I also remember when my sister was into “High School Musical”. This is how the film structures itself and it makes for a unique experience. It is the perfect time-capsule for anyone growing up in the 2000’s, which might make it less relevant to people twenty or thirty years from now, but for people my age it makes it special.

I made a joke in my review for “St. Vincent” about how bad child actors seem to be extinct, and this film proves me right, because Coltrane and Linklater are perfect. They play children the way Stephen King writes them (think “Stand By Me”), foul-mouthed, mean to each other and childish. Linklater has a particularly obnoxious scene very early on that cracked up the audience completely. In the early scenes, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke do a lot of the heavy-lifting as the parents, living in separation, but the older the two children get, the more they become their own characters, growing into their roles… see what I did there? It’s really fascinating to watch. It seems weird that it would make such a big difference when films have younger versions of our main characters all the time, played by younger actors, but it changes everything.

But the adults are remarkable as well, netting nominations in both supporting categories, with a pretty much guaranteed win for Patricia Arquette, who has to go through a lot in this film. We see her struggle with being a single parent, an alcoholic husband, a bunch of other stuff and finally seeing her children off to college. It’s a remarkable performance. The same goes for Ethan Hawke, as a father who doesn’t quite know himself at the beginning of the film and who struggles to stay relevant in the life of his children. It should also be noted that he has made about twenty movies in the years this movie was filmed in and still came back to the production and got back in the character. The same obviously goes for Arquette, who did a television series for a large part of that time.


All in all, it would be an understatement to call this movie memorable. The sheer ambition of this film is amazing and it is almost guaranteed that you will find yourself somewhere in this film.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Birdman

I study English, so I noticed the passage that was quoted from “Macbeth”… are you impressed yet?

“Birdman” is directed by Alejandro G. Inárritu and boasts an ensemble cast consisting of Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis and a bunch of other talented actors. It follows Riggan Thomas (Keaton), an actor who used to be famous for playing a superhero called Birdman. However that was twenty years ago and now he is washed up, divorced and hears the voice of Birdman in his head, prodding him about his lost glory. He tries to win back respect and credibility by putting on a Broadway play that he adapted himself.

So much for the synopsis, however if you want to know what the movie really is about… think grand themes, love, life, self-respect, people… there is little that this movie doesn’t touch on. Every single character in this film is fleshed out and has his or her own problems to deal with. The script has a quality about it that reminded me of “Good Will Hunting”, where you could clearly see any characters point of view. No one in that movie is wrong, it’s just that they want and need different things and that’s where the conflict comes from. “Birdman” is exactly the same. It’s a very rare thing and especially in films it goes wrong all the time (prime example of late would be “The Imitation Game” in which we are just asked to accept that Turing is right and everyone else is wrong).

But even a great script could fail if the actors can’t deliver. Well, they can and they do. Keaton of course is first and foremost, realizing his character with a gruff exterior and some spectacular personal issues. However, he is never in danger of becoming unlikeable, because as we see him interact with different people, we see that there is a warm side to him, especially in his scenes with Naomi Watts’ young actress (reprising her role from “King Kong”?) whose dream of being in a Broadway play comes true thanks to Riggan.

Edward Norton manages the same thing, although with an almost completely different character. He plays the second lead in Riggan’s play, prestige actor Mike Shiner, who turns out to be troublesome backstage and on-stage, throwing tantrums left and right, being a cruel boyfriend to Naomi Watts and hitting on Riggan’s daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone. However, just as Riggan shows that he is not completely self-obsessed, in his conversations with Sam, he slowly reveals his own insecurities. We also see his growing respect for Riggan and that the two of them might have more in common than they initially thought when the two of them have separate altercations with a theatre critic.

Also deserving of praise are Zach Galifianakis and Emma Stone. Galifianakis anchors large portions of the movie as Riggan’s manager, showing his talent in a much more serious role than we usually see him. Stone has a few memorable moments all to herself, when she opens up to her father about her drug rehabilitation and explains viral videos to him.

One important aspect of this film has gone unmentioned so far. In true Hitchcockian manner, Inárritu decided to shoot the film with the intent to make it look as if it was one long take. No cutting back and forth between characters during dialogue, no simple scene transitions, nothing. The camera follows the characters, switching from one to the other at times, incorporating smart ways to hide the passing of time, it’s all quite breath-taking. This could of course be dismissed as a gimmick, but it simply isn’t. Because we don’t cut away when a pivotal scene is over for one character, but instead just follow another, we see how much they actually rely on each other, be it because Riggan needs Mike to be his second lead or because Sam finally gets Mike to open up a bit off-stage. All of these things are connected to each other, which makes this such a great ensemble film, even if on paper Riggan might be the main character.

The only thing I could say that I didn’t love 100% was that in the end most characters find some kind of gratification for their character arc, or show some clear growth, except for Norton’s character, who is left hanging a bit. I might see that differently if I watched it again, but for now, I would have liked to get a little bit more out of that character towards the end.


Overall, “Birdman” is probably one of the greatest ensemble movies of all time. It is a fascinating film and I really want to see it again if I find the time. So far, this is definitely my pick for best picture this year and I would be surprised if it doesn’t win.

Also, check out my friend Cinemartians review over here.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Imitation Game

I’m sure that in some corner of the internet, people rejoice to hear that Benedict Cumberbatch plays a gay character, validating their hopes for the future of Sherlock and Watson… the internet is a weird place…

“The Imitation Game” stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley and is directed by Morten Tyldum. It focuses on the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who managed to crack the German Enigma code, significantly helping the Allies in WWII. Oh, and also he is gay in a time in which that was a criminal offence, so it’s kind of “Satan’s Alley” with maths, and if you understood that joke, congratulations. It definitely caught the eye of the Academy, netting eight nominations.

The story of Alan Turing is frankly amazing, there’s no doubt about that, and for some reason this is the first major film made about him. Benedict Cumberbatch, who was my major concern about this movie, is well-cast and he creates an interesting character. I was worried that he would just rehash his “Sherlock” performance, which launched a well-deserved career, but also became kind of expected of him. At this point I’ was actually not convinced that Cumberbatch has great range as an actor. And I remain unconvinced, but that does not mean that this wasn’t a great performance. Cumberbatch manages to remove Turing and Sherlock from each other, although not very far, selecting a slight stutter over Sherlock’s rapid speech. The script also moves him in the direction of Asperger’s instead of being a high functioning sociopath.

Knightley also shows acting talent that surpasses most of her performances before this, playing a smart woman that has to deal with her place in society. This helps her understanding of Turing and the two work well together.

At this point however, sadly the positives run out. As much as I enjoyed the two lead performances, I was disappointed by the script. There are two aspects of Turing’s story that make it worth telling and interesting. The fact that he was helping the world with his work as much as he did but had to hide his true personality at all times is inspiring and shocking at the same time. The revolutionary work he conducted in math and most importantly computer technology is the other aspect, and this is almost non-existent in the film. The actual logic behind the code-breaking is so scarcely hinted at that the one moment that shows us the deciding idea that makes Turing’s machine work falls flat. If we don’t know what the problem was, how are we supposed to care for the solution? “The Theory of Everything”, where the science was clearly secondary but still explained effectively, managed to balance a personal story and give us an impression of the great scientific mind that is Stephen Hawking. “The Imitation Game” goes all-out on the personal drama and neglects the mathematical genius that is Alan Turing. The math is not even that hard to explain, Numberphile on Youtube managed it in two ten-minute videos. The filmmakers could have easily cut the mostly inconsequential childhood scenes and added some more cryptography.

My second criticism is historical inaccuracies. I do not expect a movie to be one hundred percent accurate, there has to be a balance between reality and storytelling. But once again, “The Imitation Game” is unbalanced, overplaying Turing’s social problems, hinting at autism where by all accounts there was none. This also puts it in danger of enforcing the association of gay with weird, acting against the films agenda of tolerance. When the Bombe machine (which was not named “Christopher”) finally works, the film leaves reality completely, forgetting that Turing was not the only real person in this film and takes a lot of creative licence with the supporting characters. This actually happens over the course of the whole movie, in an effort to create villains within the story.

Morten Tyldum’s direction, which I am only mentioning because he got nominated for an Oscar, is mostly boring. The performances he gets from his lead characters are great, but the rest of his direction is merely standard, with not one outstanding scene or interesting shots.

All in all, the film is still good, but honestly, I think Alan Turing deserves more than a good movie, his story deserves a great movie, with a better script and a better director. I can only imagine what this film would have been with a director who actually knows how to make science and personal drama interesting, someone like David Fincher for example.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Wild

„Legally Blonde“ this ain’t…

“Wild”, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the early nineties in an attempt to get her life back under control. Along the way she deals with multiple issues plaguing her, including the death of her mother, played in flashbacks by Laura Dern.

To say that Cheryl Strayed had fallen on hard times before the hike that makes up most of this time would probably be an understatement. After her mother dies, she begins a downward spiral towards heroin addiction and meaningless sex with everyone who asks. At last, she is shocked out of her self-induced anaesthesia by the divorce from her husband and an unwanted pregnancy. On a whim, she decides to walk herself back to the woman she once was. So she picks up a book about the PCT and starts out on her journey back to self-respect.
What makes her so interesting is that underneath all the drugs, numbness and grief, she is a very smart woman. She is well-versed in poetry and when the divorce papers are filled out, she gives herself a new last name, “Strayed”, which seems like a very self-aware form of punishment.

All this has to be the basis for Reese Witherspoon’s performance, but she actually takes it even further. She goes to all the dark places that her back-story needs her to go, shown in flashbacks, which I’ll get to later. She also does all her own walking, which is a lot, even though through the magic of movie-making, it’s probably not quite the original 1,100 mile trek. It’s an incredibly physical performance and we can see it in every facet of Witherspoon’s performance. At the beginning of the journey, we meet a woman who is as down as you can get. A motel-clerk takes her for a drugged-up hooker and she’s not that far off. But soon the tired face of a drug addict is replaced by the tired face of a woman who goes to her limits, thinks about quitting and then pushes on.

Reese Witherspoon has won an Oscar for her role in “Walk the Line”. Her performance in that movie was great, but this is better. That becomes clear from the first scene, which wipes away the image of the All-American darling Reese Witherspoon. I don’t want to spoil anything, but when that scene comes around again, it’s even more haunting.

Laura Dern gives another strong performance, although I would have thought that she would get her Oscar nomination for her role in “The Fault in Our Stars”, which is similar but with more depth than this one.

Jean-Marc Vallée follows up his success from last year, “Dallas Buyers Club”, with a movie that is quite different. Where “Dallas Buyers Club” was a conventionally structured film with a few contemplative moments thrown in, this is all-contemplation. The idea of most biopics is to give the audience a way into the head of the subject and “Wild” is a masterpiece in that aspect. Flashbacks are often sequenced into films, mostly to provide necessary information, as one block. The flashbacks in “Wild” are less exposition, more stylistic device. The reason for Cheryl’s trip is never much of a mystery and is not treated as such. Instead, the flashbacks are shot and organised in a way that basically lets us read Cheryl’s mind. She has a lot of things to work through and we get to see that process in a very organic way. For example her inner monologue would list things that she misses about the civilized world, like good food, friends and the Minnesotan snow (the last one maybe not so much). The next thing we see is a short clip of her in a restaurant with a friend. Then we see her hike on, but the memory has surfaced and then gets expanded upon, showing us an integral scene of the past. It works like a charm, we always get to see what triggers the memory that follows. The film is episodic in that way, but at the same time, all these things are on her mind at all times, illustrated by the way short flashback moments are intercut with each other. The flashbacks are also not limited to complete scenes, sound bites and music are used to similar effect.

I could write so much more about this film, it impressed me on all levels. It manages to take the audience on a journey and doesn’t fall into clichéd territory. No easy third-act redemption to be found here. It’s also very funny in some places. It’s an impressive film and the greatest performance of Witherspoon’s career.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Theory of Everything

For a man who enjoys chess this much, Stephen Hawking apparently threw around a lot of chess boards in his early days…

“The Theory of Everything” is the Stephen Hawking biopic, directed by James Marsh, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Saying this film is a Stephen Hawking biopic doesn’t really do it justice though. More than on his struggles with Lou-Gherick’s disease or his scientific work, “The Theory of Everything” focuses on his first marriage to Jane Wilde, played by Felicity Jones. The film is also based on her book "Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking". Thus, Redmayne and Jones share equal amounts of screentime and we see both of their stories unfolding at the same time.


The two lead performances are amazing. Felicity Jones plays a woman who, when Hawking is diagnosed, is given the chance to bow out but doesn’t. She stays with him, against the doubts of his family and against Stephen’s initial will. She is a strong woman, but she also gets tested more than most human beings. Where Hawking is the brilliant scientist, she is a devout member of the Church of England. This and many other things weigh on her marriage and Jones portrays the hard work that is her life and the effect it has on her admirably. Eddie Redmayne on the other hand has a much more physical role. The movie opens with Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair, playing with his children, but then moves back in time (just as Hawking did in his work) to his early days, racing his friend Brian on a bike. However, at no point in this movie is he not affected by his disease. Early scenes show him slowly losing control over his hands and the film never pretends that this is just clumsiness. However, his disease is only put into focus when it is absolutely necessary, for example at his first diagnosis. Everything else rests mostly on Redmayne’s shoulders. He goes from slightly shuffling to using a cane to not being able to climb the stairs and finally to the wheelchair. It is an extremely demanding performance and it’s probably going to prove almost impossible for Redmayne to top it in his future career. He deserves his Academy Award nomination and so does Jones.

The movie really lives from those two performances, but it is also well-directed and beautifully shot. The story offers a unique look into the life of arguably one of the greatest person in human history and his family. At times it isn’t exactly comfortable to watch, but the film manages to find a heartfelt approach to all stages in Hawking’s life and manages to insert some good laughs here and there. Look out for a reference to a popular British TV-series in particular.


Overall, this is a must-watch for the two lead performances alone, especially since the Oscars are coming up fast. Also, while it certainly isn’t easy fare, it is preferable to emptying a bucket of ice over your head to raise your awareness for ALS.

Friday, 16 January 2015

A short reaction to the Oscar nominations

So the Oscar nominations have been announced and I'm super excited to see who is going to be taking away statues this year. I'm not going to go into full detail, but there are a few things I would like to address.

First, very little appreciation for "Nightcrawler", which is a shame. If you've read my top ten list of last year's movies, you know that "Nightcrawler" took one of the top spots. With only eight out of ten possible nominations for best picture, I don't really see why it was left out. An almost even bigger shame is that once again Jake Gyllenhaal gave a transformative performance and is getting no credit from the academy. However, it's an undeniably strong category this year, so it didn't really come unexpected. And from what I'm hearing about "Selma", the Martin Luther King biopic, the omission of David Oyelowo seems to be much more controversial.

Second, "The LEGO Movie" got snubbed for best animated feature. In a category in which one out of four eligible movies get a nod, the Academy managed to leave out the one movie that most Oscar predictions actually handled as the big favourite. I watched it again tonight and it is simply an amazing movie with great style, a lot of fun and even more heart. Apart from all that, it also manages to perfectly capture the abstract concept that is "playing with LEGO's". This is probably the one thing I am most disappointed about.

It was not the only disappointment though, because Billy Boyd did not get nominated for his amazing contribution to the final "Hobbit" film, the original song "The last Goodbye". This song captured the feel of the whole "Middle-Earth" saga, and the journey of making it, so well that I had it on repeat for days. Them feels...
But at least "Everything is Awesome" got nominated, so that's my new favourite in this category.

Apart from that, I can only say that it's a really strong field this year and that I can't wait to see all of these movies. As I haven't seen any of the best picture nominees yet, I can't tell you who's my personal favourite right now, but I've got a feeling that "Whiplash" might end up there. I don't know if it will win, but by the way the awards season has been shaping up so far, it seems to be between "Birdman" and "Boyhood". We will have to wait and see, on the 22nd of February.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

John Wick

Keanu Reeves has been trying to come back into action for a while now… Yeah, I’m thinking he’s back.

“John Wick” is Keanu Reeves’ return to action, after “Man of Tai Chi” and “47 Ronin” didn’t perform as well as he might have wanted, co-directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. On the surface it is a simple revenge thriller about a professional assassin who comes out of retirement to kill the son of a Russian mafia boss who stole his car and murdered his dog.

Keanu Reeves is one of the most dedicated action stars that Hollywood has ever seen. He is not a martial artist in his spare time, but on-screen, he is extremely serious about it. Between 2010 and 2012 he took a break from acting and put a lot of time into studying cinematography and camera-work, partly with the purpose of finding new ways to film fight scenes. So when he came back, he started working on directing “Man of Tai Chi”. While that film wasn’t a complete success, neither on an artistic level nor on a financial level, but it had some really amazing fights. John Wick, directed by Chad Stahelski, who has worked with Reeves as a stuntman since “The Matrix”, is a success on every level and might just put Reeves back into the action-star role that he so deserves. If you don’t believe me, watch this.

So whether you believe any of that or not, Keanu’s zen-like style works perfectly for the role of John Wick, ex-assassin who quit when he found a woman he loved. He is elegant and carries himself with a good deal of melancholia, but when the fighting starts, that elegance turns into almost superhuman deadly precision, in some brilliantly choreographed fight scenes. Think of the knife-fights in “The Raid” and put in a pistol. The directors both started out as stuntmen, something that to my knowledge has never turned out well before. Only this time, it does. They get some help from cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who has previously worked on movies such as the at least beautiful (we won’t talk about the rest) “Max Payne” and “A good Day to Die Hard”, which… wait what? And the movie is produced by Eva Longoria from “Desperate Housewives”? How did this movie ever turn out so well? Anyway, “John Wick” looks really good, and Sela’s work provides an intoxicating atmosphere to the different setpieces, be it a hotel bar that is realised in some very strong green tones or a loud club that is home to one of the coolest action scenes I’ve seen lately.

Which brings me to the movies second strong point, maybe even more important than the great action and fitting actors. The world that this movie is set in seems so special and draws you in unlike anything I’ve seen in an action film since “Scott Pilgrim”. Where “Taken” has only one really interesting set-piece in its slave auction towards the end, “John Wick” checks into a hotel that is a kind of demilitarized zone for the mobsters, led by a mysterious “management”, that enforces its one rule, no business in the hotel, with cold efficiency. Where Liam Neeson kills people left and right, never fearing that he might encounter people who are not his enemies, Wick’s world is populated with car mechanics, cleaning crews, hotel managers and other assassins, all of them merely small characters with minimal screen time, but characters nonetheless. They know John Wick and his enemies and they have some stance towards them. The result is a fascinating world that actually managed to make me want to explore this world deeper before Reeves has even landed his first headshot, of which there are plenty.


In conclusion, this is a return to form for Reeves and a surprisingly good movie. It is my favourite action movie since “The Raid”, mostly because of the great world-building. It even beats out “Taken”, and I loved that movie. So if you find yourself with the choice between Liam Neeson throat-chopping a bunch of random bad guys for the third time (not counting “Taken-on-a-plane” and “Taken-in-Berlin”) and this, “John Wick” gets my recommendation. If you want to take your girlfriend, you can get her excited for it by telling her about the cute dog that’s in this (a lot of “awwwwwws” during the first fifteen minutes), just don’t show her the trailer.

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Hobbit - Why your argument is not as good as you think it is

So last time I wrote about the reasons I think that the “Hobbit” films are good films, though I acknowledge that they are by no means masterpieces. The thing is, when you’re fighting the internet, good arguments do not matter. What matters is destroying you opponent, so if you hate on the Hobbit, be prepared to be insulted with some homophobic slurs…
Or I'll just try to challenge some of your arguments, like a sane human being. Maybe I can change a few minds.

Now, I want to make one thing clear from the get-go. All film is subjective and if you didn’t like any movie in “The Hobbit” trilogy, I have no problem with you. However, I know a few people that refused to even give the movies a chance, based on arguments that I can only describe as shaky.

Because if you tell me that “The Hobbit” is simply a cash-grab and then you go watch “Taken 3”, then you’re an idiot. But one at a time.

Beware, there are spoilers down below, because if you argue against the movies and haven’t seen them and read the book, I am already not listening to your arguments. And when I say “and”, I mean it.

“The Hobbit” should never have been three movies!!!

There’s a few things to say about that. First, if your argument is that because “The Hobbit” is one book it should be one movie, then that’s a very arbitrary thing to say. Why would that be the case? Where does it say that no book can be adapted as two movies? Or three?
Have you read the book? Now, at this point I want to just talk about a book being adapted into more than one movie, not specifically three movies, that’s later. First let’s talk about how much actually happens in this three-hundred page book.

For example the whole process of killing the dragon takes up two and a half pages. By the way, the black arrows are set up on those pages as well. And that’s the graphic description of it. Our heroes, the dwarves learn of it from a bird. As a screenwriter, that poses a problem. When our company of dwarves set out to take back a mountain from a dragon, it’s heavily implied that they will kill said dragon. But that’s not how the book goes. So not only do you need to build a strong action scene based on one page, which becomes the opening of “Battle of the Five Armies”. Also, the actual heroes have to have some confrontation with the dragon, preferably coming out on top. So you have to add an action scene taking place in Erebor. And that is just on the surface. You also need to have a dragonslayer that has enough character for audiences to latch on to.

There are more examples like this, several scenes have to be extended to be cinematic, and a lot of things have to be expanded upon simply because Bilbo falls asleep halfway through the action.
What I just did for the death of Smaug can be done for a lot of the other scenes in this wonderful book. That alone puts it from one to two movies at least, if you ask me. And just to give you a hint of what else needs to be addressed when you adapt this book, a lot has been made about the lack of characterization for the dwarves in the films. Eight out of thirteen dwarves in the book are characterized only by the colour of their hood.

So now we have our two “Hobbit” movies, and it’s great, two fast-paced adventure movies with great action and maybe you can even fit in some characterization for a few characters between all the action. What puts it from two to three is the connective tissue between the two trilogies. Now in my personal opinion, if they had done it right, this could have been two movies, but I like it as three as well, for one last reason.
We have never before seen an adaption from a book that actually committed to putting more to screen than is in the book. There is a reason for that, because rarely does a book have enough backstory to warrant that. Middle-Earth has that, and more, which arguably has presented the filmmakers with problems in the editing room.
Anyway, this is all I’m going to say about that, there’s more where that came from though. The second argument that people usually bring is a little bit easier.


It’s just a cash-grab!

The Hobbit trilogy had a budget of 745 million dollar. That is not how you do a cash-grab. You do not try to revolutionize cinema by introducing high frame rate, no matter how well that worked. You do not hire some of the most successful actors working in Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. What you do is take something cheap that people liked and copy it. That is what the entirety of the Horror genre seems to be about these days and I don’t doubt that we will see that in the upcoming “Taken 3” as well.

Apart from that, accusing a film of trying to make money seems like an exceptionally stupid thing to do. After all, the movie business is just that, a business. We are lucky to have a lot of people in the filmmaking business that love what they are doing and are ambitious about delivering quality movies, but the people that are actually responsible for getting these movies to our screens are running a business.

To take this back to the “Hobbit” films, the two people who were most responsible for this movie are certainly Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson. These two are some of the best examples in the business right now for filmmakers for whom art is the primary objective, not success. Look what Jackson has done with his success after “Lord of the Rings”. He made “King Kong”, a passion project for him. Del Toro has committed huge amounts of his time lately to get the sequel to “Pacific Rim” made. That’s all I’m going to say about that.


So that’s it, those are the arguments against “The Hobbit” that I have real problems with, simply because they are unsubstantiated and target the making of the movie more than they talk about the actual films. They are also often simply repeated without any other thought put into them, especially the first one. Most of us have never written a screenplay or made a movie, yet we indulge ourselves in judging the work of people who put a lot of work into something. With that I don’t want to say that there are no bad movies or that we can’t say so. But when we start forming our opinions before we’ve actually seen a frame of the movie, that’s something we should be careful about. “The Hobbit” is a great book but it’s not exactly written in a cinematic way. In adapting it, Jackson and his crew had to compensate for a lot of things such as Bilbo’s tendency to fall asleep when stuff starts going down or the lacking characterization of Thorin’s company. And remember that “The Hobbit” was Tolkien’s first step into Middle-Earth, a world that he fleshed out much more with “The Lord of the Rings” and his other works.

Fun fact by the way, “The Lord of the Rings” is only three books because of the publisher. Tolkien wrote it as one book in six parts. In the making of the “Rings” trilogy, the project went exactly the same way the Hobbit did. First it was one movie, then two, and then it became a trilogy.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Hobbit - Why they had to make them

So my dear friend Cinemartian is taking part in a Middle-Earth marathon right now and if I hadn’t been to one last month, I’d be so jealous. Instead I have to read people on the internet hating on the Hobbit films, and it’s annoying as fuck. So I decided to go ahead and finish up this post in defence of the Hobbit trilogy. And yes, Hobbit-haters, I'm splitting it into three parts.

A lot of people on the internet (and I’m not talking about reviewers, I mean people on the internet) have levelled a lot of criticism against the Hobbit films. Some of it’s warranted, a lot of it isn’t. Critics have been a lot more positive towards them, with each of them being above 60% on Rotten Tomatoes. Personally I’ve liked all of them, not only for the opportunity to revisit Middle-Earth, but also because I genuinely think that they are very good movies.
The most important thing to get out of the way is the unfairness of comparing these movies to “The Lord of the Rings”. The Rings trilogy are some of the greatest movies ever and all one can ask of the “Hobbit” trilogy is that they deliver something that is worthy of the original trilogy, something that justifies making these movies, just like the “Star Wars” prequels didn’t. Because of this, I want to start by giving you a short list of things that these movies did that enriches what the Middle-Earth saga was before. I’ll try to respond to some of the more specific points of criticism next time.

Riddles in the dark
Technically the pivotal moment of the whole trilogy, chilling out at the beginning of the third act. The one ring passes to Bilbo and he becomes the ring-bearer, later passing it on to Frodo, starting the defining chapter of the third age of Middle-Earth, the war for the ring.
This is one of two scenes where it’s not even debatable, this is on the level of the original trilogy. It brings back Gollum, the most amazing character from the original trilogy, once again portrayed perfectly by Andy Serkis. Freeman and Serkis play off of each other perfectly and despite the action fuelled scenes that follow, Bilbo and Gollum playing a high-stakes game of riddles is the emotional climax of the film.

Don’t wake a sleeping dragon
For two movies, we had to wait to finally see Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, the last great fire-drake of Middle-Earth, and let’s just say, it’s intense. Once again, the actual, action-filled climax is preceded by an amazing battle of wits (something that most action films don’t find necessary these days) as Bilbo tries to find the Arkenstone and accidentally wakes the dragon, even though Balin specifically told him not to do that. What follows is a little hobbit playing for time, trying to escape and carry out his mission at the same time.



Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins
I’m on record saying that I find Martin Freeman’s performance to be one of the best in the complete Middle-Earth saga. Bilbo Baggins is one of the most interesting characters in Middle-Earth and throughout these movies, they even managed to enrich the character.
Bilbo has a multi-layered emotional arc. He is away from home, on an adventure for the first time and has to find his courage. Also, he tries to earn the respect of the dwarves and we as an audience see the influence of the ring.
The movies have found this wonderful way into the relationship between Bilbo and the dwarves through Bilbo’s love for his home. For this, some key scenes have been added, like Bilbo’s conversation with Dwalin when he is thinking about quitting the company. (Which is something you can bet I will bring up when I’m addressing the whole 3-movies-question)

So these are just three aspects of the prequel trilogy that I was very happy to see. I truly believe that it would have been a crying shame had we never got to see these things play out on the big screen. Things that make these films not only good movies, but also worthy parts of the Middle-Earth saga. These are also part of the reason why I think that ten years from now, nobody is going to care that they made the prequels into three parts, 48 fps and that they had the audacity to earn any money from them, those dirty cash-grabbers. The simple fact is that all three films have been good. They are not masterpieces, but they are great adventure movies, always entertaining and made with care and love.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

St. Vincent

Have child actors gotten better? It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie with a child actor made me hate him for being so bad… apart for Joffrey of course, but that’s because he is so good at it.

“St. Vincent” is directed by Theodore Melfi and stars Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher, but mostly Bill Murray. The film follows the relationship between Oliver, a young boy who moves into a new neighbourhood with his mother, and Vincent, a misanthropic old war veteran, who becomes his babysitter, because his mother has to work long hours to support them both.

Bill Murray is the strong-point of this movie, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, being that he is one of the greatest actors in Hollywood. The role of Vincent seems to be tailor-made for him, making full use of his dramatic range and perfect comedic timing. Also, it develops in a way that elevates it over similar characters, which put Murray in the awards conversation, even if he might not be up there for the big ones in a season that is as packed with great performances as this one is.

Also surprisingly good is Jaeden Lieberher as young Oliver, a kid who has to deal with his mother’s divorce, a new school and a new neighbourhood. Lieberher gives a likeable performance and at the same time manages to give the audience a way into Murray’s character, who could easily come off as unlikeable, considering the things he does throughout the movie. Another surprising performance comes from Naomi Watts as eastern European stripper/”dame of the night”. She steals most scenes she’s in and has amazing chemistry with Murray.

 The one person I was worried about was McCarthy. She was incredibly funny in “Bridesmaids”, but since then, she has been doing the same thing Johnny Depp has done since he played Jack Sparrow and recycled that performance again and again. Only unlike Depp, she doesn’t have a gigantic filmography full of diverse performances to convince me that she is more than a one-trick-pony.
But maybe she really isn’t, because she is very good in St. Vincent. Instead of playing a scenery-chewing over-the-top femme fatale, she actually played a human being. While she is not the focus of the movie, she actually manages to bring out a lot of the emotion in her character in a short amount of time. It’s a performance I didn’t expect from her, and I was happy to see it.

The one problem I had with this movie is that, for most of the time, it’s absolutely predictable. I say “for most of the time”, because it does throw one very interesting curve-ball towards the end of the second act, but while that helps to elevate Murray’s performance, it doesn’t change the trajectory of the movie at all. It goes on to a by-the-numbers end. However, none of it is executed poorly in any way, and the finale was actually extremely touching, so this all falls into the category “minor gripes”.


Overall, first-time feature director Theodore Melfi managed to create a heartfelt movie with great performances and as I said, in a different year, Murray would have gotten a lot more attention for his role. As it’s still getting awards attention across the board, so I doubt anyone involved is losing any sleep about it.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

My Top 10 most anticipated movies of 2015

2015 has finally come around, and from a film-nerd perspective, I can tell you that I’ve been waiting for this since 2013. There are so many upcoming movies that I want to see, it was really hard to limit it to ten films for this list, but hey, that’s the job. There is an improbable number of films that I want to give honourable mentions to, but instead, I’m just going to put them in a list at the end, so you can google them yourself. But now let’s get going.

Number 10: “Jurassic World”
I’ve been looking forward to this since I saw the first pictures. It would probably be higher up on my list, but the trailer didn’t blow my mind as much as others have. Doesn’t mean I’m not super excited about Chris Pratt riding with dinosaurs.
The plot sees Jurassic Park up and running for the first time. However, people are actually becoming bored by dinosaurs, so the people behind the park have actually taken it upon themselves to create a new attraction by genetically modifying known species into a new and smarter dinosaur… like that never goes wrong.

The trailer is right here and the film drops on June 11th.



Number 9: “Entourage”
This made my list probably based on the fact that I’m rewatching the series right now and it’s just so much fun. The trailer looks like they’re doing everything right so far. The chemistry between the crew is perfect and it’s simply fun to watch.
Not much is known about the plot except that Vincent Chase, after the end of the series, has turned to directing a movie for Ari Gold, now a big studio head. Apart from that, look forward to lots of shenanigans between Vince, E, Turtle and Drama. And a lot of furious screaming by Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold.

The film also comes out on June 11th and there's a trailer right here.



Number 8: “Ant-Man”
Being excited for a Marvel movie is kind of a given thing these days. Anyways, this film had a lot of problems getting to the screen, with Edgar Wright leaving the project. Still, I’m excited to see what they can bring to the cinematic universe and I can’t wait to see Michael Douglas doing a big blockbuster.
The plot follows Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a professional thief, who has to plan a heist with the help of Hank Pym (Douglas), who gives him the Ant-Man suit. The suit enables Lang to shrink in size while keeping his normal strength.

Ant-Man comes out on July 23rd and there's an ant-sized trailer right here with a full sized one coming out in three days.



Number 7: “Birdman”
Everything I’ve heard about this sounds absolutely fascinating. A complete film made to look like a single shot, if that doesn’t sound interesting, what does? The trailer looks amazing and what I’m hearing Keaton and Norton are both at the top of their game and at the top of the Oscar conversation.
The plot is about an older actor who wants to reclaim some of his past glory by putting together a play on Broadway. However, the cornucopia of problems that comes with the project, including a problematic co-star played by Edward Norton, see him stress out and haunted by Birdman, the superhero role that made him famous.

The film comes out this month, on the 29th, and a trailer's over here.



Number 6: “Whiplash”
And another Oscar contender. Miles Teller is one of the most talented young actors at work these days and it looks like J.K. Simmons is given the role of a lifetime.
The film is about Andrew, a young Jazz-drummer who wants to be one of the greats. His break comes when he is discovered by Fletcher, a prestigious and respected teacher who is looking for a drummer for his band. But when he turns out to be extremely abusive, a psychological war between the two begins.

The film comes out February 19th and there's a trailer over here.




Number 5: “James Bond – Spectre”
“Skyfall” made a billion dollars at the box office, so it’s safe to say that Spectre has some expectations to meet. As a huge fan of Daniel Craig as James Bond, I am confident that they are going to deliver a great movie, especially with Andrew Scott and Christoph Waltz joining him.
The plot sees Bond go up against an old enemy, the terrorist organisation Spectre, which has given him so much grief in the past, then led by Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Will we see a new incarnation of Blofeld? No word on that so far, but if you’ve got Waltz, why not use him for that?

The film comes out over here on November 5th.



Number 4: “The Hateful Eight”
After lots of controversy about the leaked script, Quentin Tarantino luckily decided to go ahead and make the movie anyway. It sees him go back to the western genre and I could stop right there, because that’s all you need to know really.
Apart from that, word of mouth from people who have read the script is great, with the story following a group of travellers that get trapped in a cabin together by a storm. Sounds like a lot of opportunities for great dialogue…

The film sadly doesn't have a release date in Germany yet and the teaser trailer got pulled from the internet and is only available in bad quality.



Number 3: “Mad Max – Fury Road”
Have you seen the trailer? If not, click here. This movie was actually done a year ago or so, but when the studio saw it they liked it so much they gave director George Miller, who has directed the first three movies as well, more money in order to make the movie bigger. Mel Gibson, who is slightly problematic these days, is replaced by Tom Hardy, an actor who has a physical presence unlike anyone else, and he is joined by Charlize Theron who looks like a proper badass in this.
The effects look seriously amazing, with a great mix of CGI and practical effects and the plot is described as one gigantic car chase… count me in.

The film comes out over here on the 14th of May, two weeks after...



Number 2: “Avengers – Age of Ultron”

I’m not sure if I even have to sell you on this movie anymore. If you’re not into the Marvel Cinematic Universe by now, chances are you’ve either lived in a cave for the last years or you won’t get into it anymore. The fact is that the first Avengers film is either the best or the second best comic book movie of all time. And the sequel looks like it’s set to go bigger, better, darker and all the things that sequels do to leave the original in the dust.
 The film follows the Avengers dealing with a threat of their own making, Ulron, a sentient AI that was created by Tony Stark as a peace-keeping force, but went rogue and decided that the best way to keep the piece is to destroy humanity, you know, because we are not the most peaceful species.

The film comes out April 30th and the amazing trailer is right here.



Number 1: “Star Wars – The Force Awakens”
I haven’t watched the first trailer, I don’t want to know what it’s about, I just want to see this movie. The cast is filled with the most talented young actors and actresses the world has seen in the past few years and it’s helmed by J.J. Abrams, one of my favourite directors. Hell, as a kid, I was playing at being a Jedi, and all I had to go on were the shitty prequel movies. Now I know the original films and love them even more, so without even knowing what it’s going to be about, “The Force Awakens” beats out every other movie on this list.

This is the one that we have to wait for the longest. It comes out December 17th, and even though I don't want to watch it, the teaser is here.

So how about you, what movies are you excited for? Why don’t you tell me in the comments? And here is the promised list of honourable mentions. There are many more, but you have to stop somewhere.





Chappie
Silence
Sea of Trees
In the Heart of the Sea
Jane Got a Gun
Still Alice
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Pixels
Tomorrowland
Selma
Mission Impossible 5
American Sniper

Inside Out