Saturday, 28 February 2015

AMERICAN MARY

Starring: Katherine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, Tristan Risk
Writers: Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska
Directors: Jen Soska & Sylvia Soska


Medical student Mary Mason (Isabelle) is a gifted would-be surgeon whose financial problems lead her into the underground world of body modification in this original, stylish and unmissable slice of horror from Jen and Sylvia Soska.

Initially, Mary is reluctant to even meet the people who want these procedures but the lure of financial security draws her in and this lucrative sideline allows her to continue funding her studies, where she is attracting the attention (in more ways than one) of experienced surgeons. However, what looks like an opportunity for Mary to break into this medical inner circle has unexpected and devastating consequences for all concerned, sending Mary on her own very personal mission, assisted by her underground contacts...

Anchoring all of this is a truly amazing performance from Katherine Isabelle and she carries the movie brilliantly. Mary's not the most sympathetic of characters and she does some pretty horrible things over the course of the plot but even so I was genuinely concerned for her and, although fearing the worst, I was clinging on to the hope that everything would work out for her in the end (which, of course, I'm not going to give away in this review). The transformation of Mary is fascinating to watch as her surgical skill and underground notoriety grows and Isabelle's portrayal always keeps the viewer on edge. Like the people around Mary, you're never sure of what's exactly behind those eyes. She's formidable and fragile at the same time. Just when it seems as though she's warming to someone, she'll say something ice cold. Mary is a thoroughly rounded, intriguing character and Katherine Isabelle brings out all of her contradictions. I have to say it: she's awesome.

There's also terrific support across the board. Tristan Risk is memorable as the sweet but tough, surgically-crafted Betty Boop-alike Beatress. As Billy, the owner of the club where Mary meets most of her body modification candidates, Antonio Cupo starts out as a guy who comes across as a bit of a sleaze but shows more and more humanity and vulnerability as the movie progresses. Credit to David Lovgren too, for leaving an indelibly slimy mark as the arrogant and utterly horrible Dr. Grant. It's probably wrong to say this but boy I wanted something bad to happen to him.

Given the subject matter this could have been a real bloodbucket job but the Soskas are smart enough to show the audience just enough, knowing when to pull away and, in one key sequence, knowing when to show you nothing at all which makes matters all the more tense and terrifying. The quieter moments between the main characters work superbly well too; they're well-written, convincing and give valuable, sometimes heartbreaking insight into what makes these people tick. When something awful happens to one of the supporting characters near the end of the movie it's a genuinely upsetting moment because the film has taken time to allow the viewer to get to know these people. That said, it's by no means a slow plod and there's plenty of incident to keep things moving along nicely.

American Mary is an absolute triumph, a beautiful, confidently shot film centred on a strong, intelligent, complex female character who refuses to be a victim. There's precious few of those movies around in any genre, let alone horror, so let's celebrate this excellent piece of work and hope that plenty more of its ilk follow. If you haven't seen it, you should. If you have seen it, watch it again. You know you want to.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

BLACKHAT

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tang Wei, Viola Davis
Writer: Morgan Davis Foehl
Director: Michael Mann

Michael Mann turns his attentions to cybercrime for his latest thriller in which convicted hacker Nick Hathaway (Hemsworth) is recruited to help track down a hacker whose attack upon a computer system in China has triggered a power-plant disaster there. This joint American-Chinese operation reunites Hathaway with an old college friend, the two of them having written the first version of the code which has resurfaced in the malware that triggered the events in China. Also in tow is his friend's tech-savvy sister (Tang Wei) who will in no way be drawn into a relationship with Hemsworth during the proceedings, he said with a theatrical wink.

Full marks here for portraying the world of hacking in such a realistic way. Everything here is done practically, there's no outlandish technical gadgetry and, being a bit of a code spod myself, it was nice to see touches such as having to type commands in order to connect external devices to servers before you could get any information from them. In other movies the hero would just plug something in before being greeted with a fabulous CGI rendition of all the files he was copying over, all pf this with no interaction needed other than perhaps a push of an oversized "DOWNLOAD FILES NOW" button on the screen. It may be sad but seeing Chris Hemsworth type a syntactically correct "mount" command at system level made me smile (Yeah! Mount commands! Rock and roll! This is why you read my reviews!). It also provoked a response of "I have no idea what you're talking about" from Mrs. G.

Also, as you'd expect from a Michael Mann film, there's plenty of energetic action, shot handheld so you're dropped right into the middle of the mayhem. The violence is brutal and shockingly effective, the chases tense. More plus points there.

So why am I about to tell you that I thought the film was just okay as opposed to excellent?

Well, as with Miami Vice, the movie becomes bogged down in a romantic subplot that doesn't really convince. Granted, it's better than Colin Farrell's interminable wooing of Li Gong during the middle third of that flick, but it's not that much better. Chris Hemsworth and Tang Wei make an attractive enough couple but there's not a great deal of chemistry between them and I wasn't especially sure as to why they hooked up in the first place. Okay, they get out of a scrape together but their relief at still being alive turns into a full-on snog and fully-clothed hump without much more of an explanation. For the rest of the movie they behave more like office colleagues than lovers, tapping away at laptops, searching for IP addresses and looking at online accounts. Hot stuff, eh? Control yourselves.

There's also the re-appearance of that familiar plot device in which a sympathetic character is blown up at the exact moment you think they're going to be blown up, which is closely followed by the re-appearance of that familiar plot device in which another sympathetic character is shot at the exact moment you think they're going to be shot. There's also a chat between Hathaway and his friend about his dating of the friend's sister where you really should have your "Cliché Bingo" sheet ready. As for the bad guy, in one sense he's refreshingly real but he's horribly bland and not especially threatening either - and he didn't seem all that smart at the movie's climax considering his supposed intelligence.

All of which takes the sheen off what could have been a genuinely smart and exciting movie. Unfortunately, I was tapping my watch when I should have been on the edge of my seat. Having said that, it's beautifully filmed and any film which has Hemsworth attacking a group of bad guys with stuff bought from the Jakarta branch of B&Q has to be worth a look. It's unlikely, however, that you'll be blown away, unlike those victims of the familiar plot devices.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

INHERENT VICE

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

It's 1970 and pot-smoking private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Phoenix) is called upon by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Waterston) to investigate a plot to kidnap her current beau, who happens to be a billionaire real estate developer. Of course, the investigation turns out to be far from straightforward, taking in Nazi bikers, cults, drug trafficking and dentistry. All the while, boorish LAPD Lieutenant "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Brolin) is on Doc's case. You see, Bigfoot's got a severe dislike of "hippie scum"...

So here it is, Paul Thomas Anderson's screen version of Thomas Pynchon's novel, trailing some stellar reviews in its wake but also tales of audience members giving up on the movie and leaving. I have to report that during the screening I attended no fewer than twenty people walked out, the last two of them departing after two hours of the film had elapsed. Not sure why that last couple didn't see out the last half hour considering they'd already made it through the bulk of the running time but there you go. With its languid pace and very little that resembles a plot, you could say it's something of a patience tester.

The thing is, it all starts off very nicely as the viewer is introduced to a series of fascinating, wacky characters and spins them into a plot that you feel could go absolutely anywhere. And, to its credit, the plot does go anywhere and everywhere, but the problem for me is that few things really gel in any kind of satisfactory way so I felt I was watching a series of very loosely connected vignettes, some of which are amazingly good, some of which are interminable (yes, that means you, gratuitous nude scene near the end).

Recently I complained about the resolution of A Most Violent Year for being just a bit too neat and how I wanted a messier ending. Well, I got it here in spades because this film is the definition of messy. Stuff just happens, plot threads are introduced and never resolved, characters drift in and out, sometimes having a profound effect on the story, sometimes having little or no effect at all. On one hand, I should be praising this approach because, after all, that's how life tends to be. On the other hand, Inherent Vice is so chaotic that, unfortunately, it's difficult to warm to it.

I have absolutely no complaints about the performances. Joaquin Phoenix is memorable as the P.I. who's described as one point as smelling of "patchouli fart". He's not your stereotypical stoner, which is refreshing to see, and Phoenix plays him as a chilled out sort, sympathetic to others but no one's fool either. Brolin's cop is an amusingly horrible and ultimately tragic figure and Waterston convinces as Doc's mysterious ex. There's also fine work from Reese Witherspoon as an assistant D.A. (and, somehow, Doc's current girlfriend) and Benicio Del Toro as the guy who helps Doc out of sticky legal situations although his speciality is really maritime law.

With such a magnificent cast, it was really enjoyable just watching them play off each other for a while. However, at about the halfway point I was struck with the thought that almost nothing was actually going on and there was still seventy-five minutes to go. Still, I was ready for the plot strands to start coming together and for the pace to pick up. What can I say, I was in an optimistic mood that evening. Of course, my luck wasn't in and the film shambled on for another hour and a quarter.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. I loved his previous film, The Master, which you really should see if you haven't already done so. Punch Drunk Love is a movie I can always cite when people moan that Adam Sandler's never appeared in anything decent. Unfortunately, unlike Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler character in PTA's Boogie Nights, the length's the problem here (I apologise humbly for making that joke, I couldn't resist it). Inherent Vice will take up two and a half hours of your time and you may feel like it's twice that. It's self-indulgent and although it has a beginning, a middle and an end they may not be the kind of beginning, middle and end that you're used to. Yes, there are some truly excellent moments but for me there just weren't enough of them. In the end, I left the cinema appreciating the undoubted quality of the film-making but having been left cold by the film itself.

One thing I can't say is that Inherent Vice goes for the lowest common denominator but for me, and apparently a lot of other people, it's a difficult movie to love. That notwithstanding, and very much like Doc's relationship with Shasta, maybe I will give it another try...

Saturday, 7 February 2015

JUPITER ASCENDING

Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne
Writers: Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski
Directors: Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski

Jupiter Jones (Kunis) is not especially happy with her lot in life, living in cramped conditions with her extended Russian family and cleaning toilets for a living. What she doesn't realise is that she's actually galactic royalty and bad guy Balem Abrasax (Redmayne) wants her out of the way before she lays claim to her birthright and stops his (bwah-ha-ha) nefarious schemes.

The latest movie from the Wachowskis shares some DNA with the Matrix trilogy and certainly looks the part, with otherwordly landscapes, spaceships and creatures beautifully, imaginatively rendered. Visually, we're talking an absolute feast here. Unfortunately, the plot is absolute cobblers, the action sequences are curiously uninvolving and in Redmayne it has a quite frankly rubbish villain. I feared that a slight breeze would snap him in half and he constantly looks as if he's about to burst into tears. He also allows Jupiter to knee him in the plums. Huh, some tyrant he is.

The problems don't end there. Mila Kunis, as stunningly attractive as she is, is given virtually nothing to do except be rescued time after time by genetically engineered beefcake Caine Wise (Tatum looking like the military version of Teen Wolf). Also, I would have expected Jupiter to take more control of her destiny than she did but instead she's used as a pawn in a game of cross and double-cross between Redmayne's character and his siblings (played by Tuppence Middleton and Douglas Booth, who at least look like they were enjoying themselves even if I wasn't). For someone who's supposed to be the focal point of the plot she's just a bystander whose only purpose is to react to the mayhem going on around her.

Also thrown into the mix is Sean Bean as Caine's one-time commander, part bee (I'm not making this up) and custodian of the best Sheffield accent in the galaxy. He plays the Basil Exposition role here and his character's own particular motivation will throw yet another spanner into the works, not that I was the slightest bit bothered. Allegiances shifted so often in this flick that I soon gave up trying to predict who was on which side and I was checking my watch long before the first hour was up.

Sorry folks, but I have to report that this is a dud. True, there's innovation in the designs and the CGI work is exemplary but Jupiter's plight doesn't grip. This should have been spectacular but I genuinely couldn't wait for it to be over. I may have actually enjoyed Mortdecai more than this and that's a worrying thing to be saying.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Director: J.C. Chandor

New York City, 1981. A year that, statistically, was one of the worst years in the city's history in terms of violent crime. Against this backdrop, ambitious businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) attempts to expand his heating oil business in a cut-throat market. He's trying to play by the rules but his competitors aren't exactly playing fair, his drivers are being attacked, his trucks are being hijacked and an equally ambitious D.A. (Oyelowo) is looking to make a name for himself by bringing potentially business-destroying legal proceedings against Morales.

Despite the title, this film isn't awash with violence and is all the better for it. There are umpteen opportunities for the plot to descend into sub-Goodfellas nonsense but the restraint shown by writer/director Chandor is admirable and so when the violence actually does happen it's all the more powerful and shocking. The performances are, as you'd hope with this cast, all terrific. Oscar Isaac is an incredibly versatile and watchable actor, putting in a much more controlled turn here than his showier recent role in Ex Machina but still carrying an air of power and presence. Jessica Chastain is great as Abel's formidable wife, as is Albert Brooks as the Morales' somewhat world-weary, seen-it-all lawyer and Oyelowo as the smart, politically-motivated D.A. The tension builds very well and there's a genuine air of menace hanging over the proceedings. So why didn't it work as well as I hoped it would?

My main issue is that the film's pace is so glacially slow that fatigue sets in during the second half. Also, the plot resolved itself rather too neatly for my liking. After piling on problem after problem for its main character, my reaction to the denouement was "Well, that was all a bit convenient". Don't get me wrong, it doesn't stretch credibility to breaking point but I would have preferred things to have been messier, to have more things left unanswered. I was expecting no easy way out of the moral maze Abel found himself trapped in (if indeed there was a way out at all), so I was disappointed to find that someone had chainsawed a crafty path through the hedgerows and plonked down a big, flashing neon arrow pointing to the exit.

It's an interesting, well-acted but ultimately flawed movie that I feel doesn't fully reward the patience of its audience. A shame, really.