Stand back Superman

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I never got round to writing May’s reviews at the time, so this post is going to be May and June all in one. That would be fine, given that I saw very few films in May… except I saw a crazy amount of films in June, so long post is going to be long…

May

The first two films I saw in May were, in their very different ways, concerned with rites of passage. In some ways, the most interesting thing about 21 and Over is the story about it having a completely opposite meaning in China to the one it has elsewhere. In the version I saw, Chinese student shuns overbearing father to embrace American debauchery – the moral of the tale? Drink is good, parental pressure is bad. Ah yes, that time-worn classic. In the Chinese version… notsomuch that story. Anyway, it’s pretty much every young men go out and get drunk and have hijinks film you’ve ever seen. It’s been called a junior Hangover, but it’s not as good as that – although I chose to watch this one, unlike Hangovers 2 and 3, so maybe it’s Junior Hangover 1 and a half?

Mud on the other hand, is going more for a Stand By Me type of vibe, featuring two younger boys who row out to a mysterious island where they meet a strange man (Mud) and become embroiled in his various problems. Matthew McConaghey has been rightly praised for his performance here, and the two kids, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) are equally good. However, the film itself is a curious beast. It’s much better than The Paperboy (which it is actually somewhat similar too in many ways) but it’s not perfect. The likes of Michael Shannon (who you may see again in this round-up), Sam Shepard and Reese Witherspoon are wasted in small roles. But the main problem is the narrative perspective. Whose story is this meant to be? For much of the film we assume it to be Ellis’s story, but then there are moments where it switches to Mud, and the ending leaves us with Mud’s story and not Ellis’s. Likewise, it seems that it should be about two young boys discovering the perils of adulthood, but often it’s just about the perils of adulthood. So overall, it’s perfectly alright, but it’s a bit too confused to become great.

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Expectation upon going into films seems to play a key part in how you feel about them and I often find myself going in with low expectations and then being pleasantly surprised. But the film I was most excited about seeing this year was Star Trek: Into Darkness and you know what it’s like when you desperately want something to knock your socks off… I was pleasantly surprised by the first JJ Abrams Star Trek and this was probably no worse than that, but it felt worse, because more was riding on it this time. That’s not to say I didn’t like it but it was problematic. Now, I love a geeky reference as much as – or even more than – anyone. But there are in-jokes (and some really nice ones here) and there’s referencing past films so much you fall off a cliff of ludicrousness. And that’s what happens here. There is just too much reference to the past in ways that don’t really make sense and that are too hammy that you want to tear your eyes away (there are two such moments, both of which involve Spock, that were just PAINFUL). By all means reference the past – we want it and we love it. Where it makes the best sense, then feel free to rework or revisit it in greater depth – but for the most part, this franchise needs its own stories. I just spent the whole time missing proper Star Trek. On the telly. As a replacement, it needs to do a lot more to be any kind of suitable substitute.

The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, I was a little nervous about it and loved. Spectacular visuals (obviously), good performances, and faithful to the text for the most part – if anything, TOO faithful, as I could hve lived without the whole book being narrated at me. But spectacular viewing, making me want to rewatch all of Luhrmann’s output again. Well, except that Chanel No 5 ad.

I went to see The Big Wedding as one of those Unlimited preview screenings they do and we were waiting forever for it to start all the time looking at this splash screen calling it an ‘uproarious comedy’. Is that even a word? Anyway, this film’s been resoundingly panned, and I can see why, but I think that’s because it doesn’t have the courage of its convictions and ends up being just a formulaic family/romcom hybrid. It’s a shame because you’ve got an amazing cast to work with and there are some blistering jokes here, which are much more rude than you’d expect – so it could be a much more vicious, cutting comedy and subvert the genre. At the end it becomes somewhat farcical with all manner of ludicruous revelations (one review I read said it felt French in this respect and the French had actually done this kind of film before, which does make a lot of sense as this could easily be a bad remake) and so it could become a farce. Instead it sits in this rather strange nowhere space. It needed to decide what it wanted to be and embrace that wholeheartedly rather than becoming what it is – bland, confused and much more sappy than cutting.

June

And Michael Shannon’s back! I could tell you about The Iceman in great detail, but I bored myself just thinking about it. Murders, gangsters, moody, yadda yadda. It was made a bit more bearable by Shannon, I suppose but it was incredibly dull most of the time. At least it gave Winona Ryder something to do.

The Purge was such a missed opportunity for a film. The premise is tantalising – one night a year where all crime is legitimate. If there was ever a film where the macro, rather than the micro, was interesting, this would be it. Instead, we stay with one family and the whole thing becomes a fairly rote cat and mouse film with a very predictable twist instead of an exploration of what could happen in the circumstances. So disappointing. It has some really creepy masks in it though, and Lolly 2 (Adelaide Kane), so bad in Neighbours, is surprisingly decent in this although given very little to do.

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Not to spoil what’s coming or anything, but Behind the Candelabra is my favourite film of May and June. It’s based on a memoir, so obviously you have to take it as it is – one person’s story (Liberace’s ex-partner) rather than the ‘whole truth’ but even with caveats, it’s fabulously shot and all the glitz puts even the Gatsby film in the shade. (The moral of the story seems to be a bit of glitter and some fabulous bling and I’m sold – but then I do think cinema should be spectacular). I assume some of the props and costumes were Liberace’s own, although I don’t know. Matt Damon and Rob Lowe are the recipients of some very odd makeovers (which are in keeping with their characters and with Damon’s character needing to start out as a young man) but are great, and Michael Douglas is a complete revelation – playing so far against anything I’ve ever seen from him, he really embraces the role – although occasionally veers a little too over-the-top – and who knew you could be over-the-top when playing Liberace? – in that he seems to be in on a joke in places rather than geunine. Those are probably only two or three small slip-ups though and for the most part, he is a joy to watch. I’d have liked to know a little more about the characters as all the backstory is a bit broad-strokes but other than that, it’s a fabulous piece of film.

the audience

The Audience was my first experience at seeing theatre in the cinema. The cinema is always banging on about these other events so it was about time I saw one. t cost me the extra that it would normally cost on top of a cinema ticket, with my Unlimited card covering the regular ticket costs. For the most part, watching a play in the cinema was fine – not really much difference to watching a film even though you know it’s supposedly happening live elsewhere. However, they put it in the second-biggest screen, Screen 8, because it was so popular (it looked to be sold out from what I could see) and sceen 8 is next to the biggest cinema, so at very quiet points, the rumbles of the super-noisy IMAX bled through, which wasn’t ideal. The play itself is good but a bit cheesy and not particularly realistic. Mirren is great though, as were her supporting cast of PMs. The ending was a bit weird with people not knowing whether or not to clap – something of a contrast to Les Mis earlier in the year where people clapped spontaneously – which suggests that, good as it was, it wasn’t the showstopper it could have been.

When I went to see Admission there was a sitcomesque bout of hilarity at the refreshments stand that was acting as the Box Office that day over my asking for one for admission… That was about as funny as it got. It was a film that had Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in it, and for that reason alone, I was wishing it well, but the two bits of faint praise I can damn it with are: a) It had Tina Fey and Paul Rudd in it; and b) it’s not the worst film I saw this month…

Populaire is a fairly slight film in many ways – you know what will happen; it does. But (sub-Pygmalion) storyline isn’t really its appeal – it’s the lovely retro 1950s stylings, the cute-as-a-button lead turn from Déborah François and some neat support from Bérénice Bejo and Romain Duris. It’s not going to set anyone’s world alight but if you want a bit of pretty French fluff on a DVD night then you could do worse.

Stuck in Love is one of those ‘alternative takes on romance’ films like last year’s Crazy Stupid Love. It’s a LOT like that film, in fact – notsomuch in the storylines but in the tone. It’s all pretty predictable but it has an excellent cast. No Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone though, so…

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And now for the worst film I’ve seen all year (to be fair on it, lots of things looked so bad that I didn’t even see them) – the excerable Man of Steel. I knew it had bad reviews but I could weather that – Identity Thief was roundly slated and I enjoyed it plenty so I thought there might be something in this I could love. And it has Amy Adams and Michael Shannon in it, and I love both of them! And it’s associated with some good names on the production front! Anyway, this film is just diabolical. Cavill is by far the best thing in it but Adams, though fine, never really convinces as Lois Lane – mainly because the character as presented here is hard to get a handle on. In fact, all the characters are terrible, the dialogue is atrocious and the plot is just STUPID. As an example? Superman’s Dad: ‘Everyone on Krypton is born to fulfil a purpose, but you were born to have free will and make your own choices. And your purpose, which you must fulfil, is to save Earth’. NOTHING IN THIS FILM MAKES SENSE, especially not the characters’ motivations. The baddy’s motivation is spectacularly dumb as well as having been done a thousand times better by a dozen or more Star Trek films and TV episodes. Also, the scenes on Superman’s home planet are boring as all hell and they take up at least half of the film. Metropolis is mostly absent, along with any hints of fun. In fact, the only bit I liked was the very last scene, and that was super-cheesy. Also, having sat through Peter Parker losing his uncle twice in recent years, Spock seeing devastation and losing people himself and all manner of other origin stories, I couldn’t give two hoots about Clark Kent’s tragedies in this film. Enough with origin stories. Enough with gloomy looking superhero films. Give me fun, give me action, give me some proper baddies to root against. Dumb fun would actually be about 1000% less stupid than this abomination was. Awful.

Despicable Me 2 is much more like it, and Marvel/DC etc could learn a lot from it. It’s not as good as The Incredibles, but it’s probably on a par with the first film. It’s much faster than recent superhero/supervillain films, it has more jokes (even if some weren’t to my taste – but hey, I’m not the target market) and it has several great female characters, which is ridiculously rare. The minions are still the best thing in it. It’s not the most original storyline ever, but it’s a good burst of energy.

I saw World War Z immediately after Despicable Me 2 and the similarities in storyline were remarkable (to say more would spoil things) although a lot is unexplained, particularly what is going on and why. I’d be interested in reading the book to see if any of it is explained there – from what I’ve heard, the book is remarkably different. The storyline is somewhat underdeveloped and the whole thing is a bit silly (plus there is an interesting development in the middle east peace process) but it has some wonderful set pieces with scores of zombies, which is what everyone wants, really. In the league table of 2013 zombie things, it ranks below In The Flesh, The Returned and Warm Bodies, but then this year has been a spectacular year for the undead – in any other year it might have come across more favourably. As it is, it’s a decent enough bit of fluff that will keep you entertained but you don’t really need your brain for it.

Spike Island is a bit of a curious one. I didn’t see Made of Stone because I heard it was for hardcore Roses and/or Shane Meadows fans only but thought I’d try this out. It’s the story of some young Roses fans who want to see the Spike Island gig, with a splash of romance thrown in. It stars all your favourite young actors from the last few years of telly: Carl from Shameless, Newt from Hollyoaks and all those period dramas, Danaerys from Game of Thrones, Alesha from Misfits, Tom from Being Human, various people from My Big Fat Secret Diary, whatsisfce from The Syndicate, the paedophile one from EastEnders and, for some reason, Lesley Manville. But playing spot the cast member is about the most interesting thing about this. The problems are threefold: firstly, it doesn’t make a whole heap of sense. The ‘kids’ seem to be about eighteen (although that’s pushing it as all the actors are clearly older) but they’re still at school and wear school uniform – it’s also established that several of them are not very academically gifted, so surely if they were in education at all, it would be at college doing a vocational course and many of them would be in work or on YTS. If they’re meant to be about 15-16 then they definitely can’t get away with that as they look way too old. So already it doesn’t convince as authentic youth experience. Then there is the paper-thin storyline. The whole thing seems to be about saying ‘weren’t the Stone Roses brilliant?’, but beyond the good soundtrack, there’s not much to say. Finally, it doesn’t seem to know who it is there for. There isn’t enough nostalgia for the over-30s (surely its core demographic) and too much of it for the youngsters (whom it seems to also be trying to pitch itself at), so it falls between two stools and doesn’t really work for anyone. It’s also too Stone Roses-centric to have a broad appeal, and, let’s face it, they were hardly The Beatles, or even Oasis, in popularity. The attention to period detail is somewhat erratic, too – in some scenes it seems like they’ve taken painstaking care and then other scenes have blatantly 21st century signage or scenery in. On the plus side, there are some scenes that really capture the sense of exuberance you want from a film celebrating youth and music, and it’s better than that Superman guff whilst presumably costing a fraction of the price to make.

Before Midnight is the sequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and is very similar in tone to those films – most of it is Jesse and Celine talking, some of it is arguing, some of it is romantic, some is funny, some is tragic, some is touching. Like the other films it never quite hits the spot (for me) but has enough in the dialogue and performances to make it worth watching. I didn’t need to spend so long having to look at Julie Delpy’s breasts, though (especially as Ethan Hawke stays clothed for most of it). By the way, if visuals are part of a film’s appeal for you, the scenery is absolutely amazing.

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Like so many films this month, the final two I saw fall into the ‘almost but not quite’ camp. This is the End is a weird one – the actors play heightened versions of themselves and it has a wealth of cameos from lots of other celebrities as it poses the question of how celebrities would react to the end of the world via the medium of daft comedy. It sort-of works as a satire on celebrity, or at least it works better than you might expect, but it’s not quite right. For one thing, there are too many rape jokes. For another, yet more male dominance (would it have killed them to have one or two female leads?) – although Emma Watson is pretty awesome in her cameo appearance (as is Michael Cera). For another, there are some bizarre religious overtones that jar somewhat, and make you feel a bit preached at – not what I expected. The jokes are sometimes very funny but there are also lots of incredibly crass jokes and the penis references get a bit repetitive. I am probably not the target audience but that’s part of the problem here, as with other films – it has a bit more to it than your standard gross-out flick, but that only makes it worse when it resorts to dumb jokes – you know they are capable of more. Some of the effects are much more shocking (in a good way) than you expect, which is a nice suprise. The denouement goes on forever, which is not. I do think this is one of those films to be watched on DVD with a few mates, some junk food and a load of booze – it would work much better in that setting than a sober, solo afternoon in the cinema. I wouldn’t see it again but it was an interesting experiment that almost succeeded.

The East is another project from prodigious actor/writer/producer Britt Marling, who was very good in Another Earth. It’s yet another one that’s a bit weird, though. The trailers suggest it will be a thriller where our lead character has some sort of moral dilemma as she infiltrates an anti-capitalist movement whose tactics are a bit more extreme than you’d expect. And, for the most part, that’s what it is, although I wouldn’t say it was pacy enough to be a true thriller. However, there are again some bizarre religious overtones for our lead character; and the movement, The East, are portrayed as a bit of a cult which seems to hinder the film’s attempt to get us to think about their (entirely understandable) protest. Some of the characters’ stories are a bit weak and the ending somewhat forced. There is also no understanding of how hair dye works. However, it’s not by any means a disaster – there are some great performances and some nice twists and turns. The concept is good, but it just needed some people to ask a few more questions about it in the process in order to elevate it from a decent enough watch to a cracking and unusual film. Hooray for having some strong female characters though.

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