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The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Mysterious, Beautiful, Erotic, Memorable
I was unimpressed by Peter Stickland's previous film Berberian Sound Studio so the only reason I wanted to see this film was because it starred Sidse Babett Knudson. So let me be honest and get this point out of the way despite the fact this film features no nudity, I found it very erotic. I then asked myself how would a female viewer assess this film and went looking for an answer. Checking the linked critics review on IMDb revealed that there are very few reviews by female critics (that applies to all films not just this one) which certainly gives pause for thought in itself. Of those female critics most gave it an average to excellent rating and did not on the whole consider the film to be exploitative. Jennifer Drewett from I'm With Geek raised the question "how can a lesbian film directed by a man come out without pandering to the male gaze?" before going on to praise the film.
My view is that this film does in part pander to the male gaze and indeed it should given the director set out to make a homage to 1970s Euro-sleaze films albeit filtered through an artistic aesthetic. In fact it's more effective than modern porn because, as in a good horror film, the more explicit material is only implied and occurs off screen. I don't want to labour the point but I do think some other writers have avoided the question of its eroticism or, in some cases, even denied that it is erotic at all.
Putting the question of eroticism to bed (pun intended), how about the other elements of the film? The homage/pastiche elements of the film are done perfectly anyone who has ever seen a 70s European sexploitation film will immediately recognise the stylised titles, the breathy soundtrack, the use of smoke and mirrors to imply you are seeing more than is actually displayed on screen. But deeper than this is a vision that incorporates these techniques into a beautifully realised and exquisitely lit and filmed world of its own which is internally consistent and appealing. The music and sound design are outstanding, the acting is excellent, the dream sequences better realised than almost anything you could compare them with.
The other thing about the film is that it is often laugh out loud funny. Some of the musings and the meetings of the entomological society are absurd and hilarious. The end credits are particularly funny. The humour ensures a good balance of light and shade throughout the film.
Some viewers will, I am sure, find this film pretentious in the way that I found Berberian Sound Studio to be pretentious. For me though Strickland has here found a perfect balance of the mysterious, the beautiful and the erotic. It also passes the test of being a film that I keep thinking about days later, unlike most modern films whose details I forget the minute I leave the cinema.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Stay at home and watch Daredevil instead
We open with a battle in a forest and a castle. The action in the forest is similar to a scene in one of the early Star Wars films. The combination of live action characters, CGI and what may or may not be partially real locations looks like a very well rendered video game. In other words it looks fake and for me has the immediate effect of taking me out of the action. The CGI throughout the film is often very clunky. The mania for 3D is dying down now but it's about time that overuse of CGI went the same way. There's nothing wrong with CGI per se but when a film relies so extensively on it, you can't help but notice it.
The film is nearly two and a half hours in length, though it feels a lot longer. It would have been a much better, tighter film at ninety minutes. Basically you get overlong pieces of exposition followed by some sub-Transformers crash, bang, blow stuff up scenes again and again and again and again. The one liners that frequent this film are a Joss Whedon trademark but the rest of the dialogue seldom rises above the jokes. The plot is barely comprehensible and certainly makes little sense.
It gives me no pleasure to criticise Whedon's work and I can't help but wonder how much of this film is really what he wanted to see on screen and how much of it was mandated by the studio. He's a big earner now but this is miles away from the excellent work he has done in the past. I can only hope he returns to more creative projects sometime in the near future. The work being done on the new Daredevil series by some of his former collaborators such as Doug Petrie and Drew Goddard shows how you can do justice to a Marvel superhero without compromising your principles.
It Follows (2014)
Good but not that good
Peter Bradshaw, Danny Leigh and Claudia Winkleman are all critics whose judgements I trust and they all raved about how good this film was. As a result I was really expecting something out of the ordinary when I went to see it. However I have to say that I came out of the cinema somewhat disappointed. It's not that It Follows is a terrible film. It's actually good but it's not good enough to merit the five and ten star reviews (depending on the system used) that it's received. It's the sort of film that deserves to be discovered as a minor cult film several years after its release.
I'm also puzzled by the fact so many reviewers have said it's one of the few films that they have found genuinely frightening. I wanted to be scared, I really did, but all I experienced was a minor frisson. Several things mitigated against this film working for me. There's a lot of shaky cam and it doesn't work in all films. Sometimes it does work in favour of It Follows but there are several 360 degree pans which are so out of focus as to take you out of the film. Blurring can work quite well in horror but here it would have been more effective to be in focus more often. It's the same story with the music, an electronic soundtrack that sometimes works well but at other times is just plain annoying and distracting.
Homage is paid to several other films and often to the detriment of It Follows. There's a very clear reference to Halloween in the setting and the music. There's a pivotal scene set in a swimming pool at night which puts you in mind of Let the Right One In. This, above all, lets the film down. Where the pool scene in Let the Right One In is dazzlingly disorienting and genuinely frightening, the one we get here is rather pedestrian both in concept and execution.
It's a pity this film has got such good reviews because it deserves to be seen as a minor horror that tries for something different and often achieves it. A more modest reception is what it really deserves. The way it plays with time so that you can never be sure when it's supposed to be set is quite brilliant and really adds to the unsettling atmosphere throughout. Often the look and feel of the film reminded me of David Lynch and I spent a lot of my time wishing Lynch had been the director because I'm sure he could make something really frightening of this material.
A good film and worth seeing but my advice is to lower your expectations if you've been reading the better reviews it has been given.
Europa Report (2013)
Europa Report Report
I have come to hate shaky cam and found footage films, not that I ever liked them much in the first place. Take the Blair Witch Project - please take it because it was largely responsible for starting the trend for unwatchable dreck. I mean Blair Witch my cat is scarier. Come to think of it she's a better film director than whoever was responsible for Blair Witch. (I used to know but I erased it from my memory).
I digress but only because this film seems to have been unfairly compared with Blair Witch in terms of its direction and style. I nearly didn't watch it because of the comparisons. The film is actually made up various interviews, shots from the ship's cameras and video diaries and reports from the crew. These segments are sometimes shaky and sometimes lower quality but there are plenty of high quality scenes and the whole enterprise is woven together with considerable skill. The sequencing of the timeline of events in the film also seems to have caused some viewers brain strain but it makes perfect dramatic sense. The sequencing of the EVA on the journey so that it runs as a flashback before the EVA on Europa works brilliantly on an emotional level.
This film works more on a psychological level than the average science fiction film and often put me in mind of Solaris in tone, if not execution. (I mean Tarkovsky's original, not the Soderbergh snoozefest). If you're expecting some high octane Hollywood blockbuster you will be sadly disappointed. If you like a plot that gets you thinking and is obviously made by people who get the excitement of space exploration then you will most likely enjoy Europa Report.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Cthulu v Transformers
It took two sessions for me to watch this drivel. I fell asleep about half way through and had to see part two the following day.
As far as I can make out this is about giant sea monsters vs transformers. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play the gravediggers from Hamlet, badly. The two stars of Sons of Anarchy prove that they can't act their way out of a paper bag.
Meanwhile Idris Elba puts in an embarrassingly bad performance ( Imagine the key speech from Gladiator written and delivered by Worzel Gummidge.) Action has been replaced by acres of CGI that might satisfy an eight year old but will fail to impress sentient beings evolved beyond the level of igneous rocks.
The only redeeming feature of this film is that it is, at least, better than the pretentious and unoriginal nonsense that was Pan's Labyrinth.
Man of Steel (2013)
A whole new category of bad
On the plus side Henry Cavill did a decent job as Superman and I liked Laurence Fishburne as Perry White.
As for the rest of the cast they were either miscast or forgettable; usually both. Even Kevin Costner was wasted. Despite his sterling Jonathan Kent, the interpretation was the same as John Schneider's in Smallville. I believe Amy Adams was once in the Muppets but I think Miss Piggy would have made a better job of playing Lois Lane.
Now for a few notes on the negative aspects of the movie:
1 My tip for beginning screenwriters is that it's a good idea to have a story and then to write some original dialogue. Mashing together plots from previous films and using dialogue rejected by Arnold Wesker does not count. I flatly refuse to believe Christopher Nolan had anything to do with the storyline as alleged in the credits.
2 Generally supervillains who can be knocked through walls, dropped from great heights and command vast forces cannot generally be killed by breaking their necks following a battle that lasts longer than the running time of the movie. (How did they do that by the way?)
3 The visuals. Oh dear, where to start? Perhaps by noting that CGI and special effects cannot be substituted for storyline but if attempting this tricky route then the visuals had better be the best. In this film good effects have been replaced by blurry CGI, composites that are less convincing than the backgrounds painted on glass in films of the 1950s and whirly things that make no sense either visually or dramatically. I might have mentioned previously that the special effects section of the film is longer than the film itself. I believe the running time of the movie is just less than a week whilst the battle scenes go on for at least a year. (How did they do that by the way?)
I'm generally a fan of superhero movies despite being in my 60s and I hate the way that "serious" critics automatically dismiss films in this genre. I also liked what Zack Snyder did with Watchmen and 300 but this film belongs to an entirely new category of bad. Man of the Steel is the epitome of the film that might impress a ten year old boy but is incomprehensible to a sentient adult. It's that film the critics imagine to be bad by definition before it's even been viewed. It's that film your sceptical friends, who don't believe you when you say superhero movies can be good, will point to and say "See, I told you it was all rubbish." In this case I couldn't even begin to argue with them.
Ender's Game (2013)
At last - a film that is too short!
You know how you sometimes read those annoying reviews by people moaning about how the film is nothing like the book? Well I'm not going to do that. I am going to say that they made as good a film as possible without changing anything significant (other than the ages of the recruits which they obviously needed to do to make the story filmable.)
Ender's Game was much better than I expected and surprisingly so given the years it has been in development hell with various names attached to it. As it turns out Gavin Hood was the director to bring this to life. The design and production values are excellent and I especially liked the animated sequences where Ender enters the computer game crafted uniquely for him. The cast was pretty much perfect and they all played with conviction. I was impressed from the start by the way the film makes clear that Ender progresses so quickly because he is a brilliant strategist and Asa Butterfield is a good enough actor to convey this without resorting to over-acting.
The film does not shy away from the brutality of the lives that these young recruits lead, at least not within the confines of a 12A film, and the ending is as shocking and moving as it should be. My only real criticism of the film is that it's too short, not something you normally hear from me. Ender just seems to progress too quickly and we miss some of the nuances and real difficulties he encounters along the way. Unless sequels are planned then we could probably have done without Ender's family background and relationship with his sister and brother and devoted more to the Battle School.
Overall though, this film was worth the long gestation period. It delivers more than we had a right to expect. Orson Scott Card may be homophobic but the powerful message at the heart of this film says much more than the average Hollywood film is capable of delivering.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
A collection of great techniques in search of a film
First and foremost it has to be recognised that the design and execution of the sound sequences in this film are outstanding. It's almost worth ninety minutes of your time just to listen to this film, the sound design is so good. It's also pretty satisfying if you have a fetish for old sound equipment all those reel-to-reel tape decks and retro-futuristic signal generators and so on. From that point of view and from the sound perspective this film was absolutely up my street. Toby Jones as the lead could not be faulted and I would happily watch anything with him in it.
So what was wrong with it? Well it was sub-Lynchian without ever coming near to the pleasures and terrors of an actual David Lynch film. You can almost hear the director straining to hit the tone of a Lynch film and falling badly short every time. The script was at times very amusing but mostly it was just plain trivial or superficial. The story was incomprehensible, again not in a Lynch fashion where the very incomprehensibility adds to the mystery but in the fashion of someone striving for portentous but merely achieving pretentious.
It's worth seeing/hearing for the fantastic design but as a film it fails to engage and it fails to be half as clever as it thinks it is.
Film noir as science fiction
This film seems to be attracting a lot of criticism on the basis of similarities to other science fiction films. The references (and sometimes they are clearly deliberate) did not particularly concern me. I might have felt differently if it had been done badly but for the most part it was done well. Why should it matter? After all you don't hear many criticisms of other genres along these lines. A film wouldn't be much of a film noir if it didn't have a doomed protagonist, plot twists, cops, private eyes etc. In fact Oblivion strikes me as a good candidate for sharing the DNA of film noir and as being as good a mystery as it is a reworking of some well-known science fiction tropes.
This isn't a ground breaking film and it probably won't make anyone's top ten SF films but it is certainly above average and well worth a visit to the cinema to see on a big screen. Visually it is very striking and quite beautiful to watch. The only visual aspect that disappointed me was the obvious CGI in the shots of the bike being driven over vast tracks of land or ruins (I rewatched Dark Knight Rises the other night and you can see the same problem with Catwoman driving Batman's fat-tyred bike). The CGI is otherwise as good as you will see anywhere and doesn't rely on gimmicks like 3D.
The tone of this film reminds me of Solaris - Tarkovskiy's version not the snoozefest that Soderbergh directed. Tom Cruise, and we as the audience, are being invited to grapple with some interesting philosophical questions here. We can ignore them and just take this as a fun film if we like but this film encouraged me to consider some quite deep questions of identity. I've seen commentary that Oblivion is too smart for some moviegoers and too dumb for others. For me the balance between a good-looking, exciting film and something with interesting questions to ask was just right.
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
In which I am impressed by an actor unknown to me
I nearly didn't get past the first five minutes of this film. All I knew about it was that it involved time travel so I really didn't understand why the first thing you see is a paraphrased quote about chaos theory. The butterfly effect when used in conjunction with time travel is entirely different to the butterfly effect when used in chaos theory.
However, I went on to enjoy this time travel fable in which the main character, Evan, keeps going back in time to try and change the future for the better. The characters were well established by showing the younger versions in extended scenes first, making them more believable. The increasing desperation of Evan as each attempt makes things worse effectively increases the tension and there are some clever devices, lighting and set dressing etc., which effectively code the different realities. You have to accept that the time travel mechanism is just magic but then every time travel portrayal relies on some bogus explanation. If that's going to hang you up then don't bother with any time travel film, ever. It's only a metaphor in any case and done more honestly here than in other films; say, The Time Traveller's Wife, for example.
And just to show how hilariously out of touch I am with some aspects of modern culture I was very impressed by the acting of what I took to be a bunch of unknowns. It was only afterwards that I discovered Ashton Kutcher is apparently well known. I can therefore honestly say I was not affected by knowing anything about him beforehand. As far as I'm concerned he did a good job with this.