Sunday, January 29, 2012

Haywire (2011)

 (Image from IMP awards)

Haywire (2011)

It's not often that you get an action movie that is better received by critics than it is by the movie going public, but Haywire appears to be finding itself in just that atypical situation. This is perhaps fitting since it is an atypical action film, which may help to explain audience apathy. As one patron said to another as they left the screening I attended  (to paraphrase) "the trailer was like, sick, but the story was confusing".

In fairness, the story is a tad convoluted but not especially confusing. The film begins 'in media res' with a woman named Mallory (played by former MMA fighter Gina Carano) forced to go on the run with a hostage (Michael Angarano), to whom she recounts her tale. Mallory is an agent/operative for a private agency run by a man named Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) that carries out contracts like rescue and protection (and possibly other stuff). Following a rescue operation carried out with fellow operative Aaron (Channing Tatum) she's quickly pushed into another job, a cushy babysitting job that turns out to be anything but, one that leads to her being betrayed and hunted down by her agency and the authorities. Also in the mix are Michael Douglas as a government agent who hires Kenneth's agency for a contract and Antonio Banderas as a shady middle man.

On the surface it's a typical 'wrongfully accused hero on the run and out for revenge' tale. Actually it's essentially that beneath the surface as well, but as I said before it is atypical. The plot is silly and nonsensical but still compelling enough to drive the action. Steven Soderbergh isn't really known for making run of the mill films, and this is definitely a Soderbergh film through and through. There are many quiet periods and copious amounts of small character moments and detail throughout, and the dialogue is garrulous and delivered in a monotone that is occasionally punctuated by dead pan humour. It's visually slick, with distinctive colour filters employed, and it has an energetic and, well, 'cool' musical score.

In terms of action, there's surprisingly little of it, which may be one of the reasons people lured in by the trailer expecting non stop ass kicking may feel cheated. Despite the story being over the top, there's a grittiness to it and a believability to the central character - there are moments where Mallory seems vulnerable, like the brilliant scene in which she makes an escape walking furtively along a street, hyper sensitive to every sound and movement around her, sensing imminent danger.

Speaking of fights, they may be sparse but when they happen they are fast and furious and brutal, with a lot of wide shots and long takes making for very entertaining action sequences. Gina Carano may not be an actress, but she does have the magnetism that many other non actor action stars have, from Bruce Lee through to Schwarzenegger, and a physical presence that completely sells the action. She doesn't lose any fights, but she does take some brutal blows along the way. There's an impressive sequence where she's climbing and jumping along rooftops in long takes that aren't showy but are impressive for simply being her actually doing these things.

Carano isn't great in the talky scenes, nor is she bad; she seems just right for the tone and style of the film. The rest of the very impressive cast more than compensate for any deficiencies in the acting department with their performances, including when they get their asses handed to them at some point or the other in a brutal beat down!

Haywire is a very good action thriller that stands out from the crowd in the same way Hanna did last year (my review) by being a film that embraces the genre it represents while also transcending it in many ways. I guess an interesting and talented filmmaker can always bring something to the table, even when that table is a well worn and cliche ridden genre.

Super (2010)

Image from Imp Awards

Super (2010)

Lonely loser Frank (Rainn Wilson) manages to wind up married to hottie / recovering drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler). When an unscrupulous strip club owner / drug dealer (Kevin Bacon) manages to steal Sarah away from him, he goes over the edge and becomes a super hero, The Crimson Bolt. Together with his friend Libby (Ellen Page), he fights crime by beating people senseless, with the ultimate aim of rescuing Sarah.

It's a very odd film, vaguely like 'Kick Ass' but leaving a much sourer taste in your mouth afterwards. That's mostly because of its wildly inconsistent tone that veers between comic absurdity to cringe inducing violence, from pathos to laugh out loud funny. The funny bits are truly funny, and the shocking bits are truly shocking, and in that sense it's a well crafted film.

It builds up like a real world superhero origin story only unlike Kick Ass it doesn't slowly transform into an actual superhero story; instead it sticks within its real world confines where violence and conflict have bloody consequences. At some point the line between hero and villain becomes truly blurred as The Crimson Bolt sends people to hospital for relatively minor infractions. Frank is clearly mentally unstable, as is Libby, but the film doesn't really go anywhere truly interesting with that other than playing it for laughs. The bloody tale culminates in a traditional and exciting action sequence filled with copious amounts of gore.

Wilson is superb as the unhinged Frank, scary and sympathetic in equal measure and always funny in that absurd deadly serious manner that made him so good in the US version of 'The Office', and Kevin Bacon is perfectly cast as the sleazy villain. Page is manic and demented and loads of fun to watch. It's low budget but doesn't look or feel it for the most part - writer/director James Gunn seems to have a knack for making the most of his scarce resources.

At the end of the day it feels like a story in an identity crisis, and while I'm guessing this is intentional it made the film hard to really love. I liked it, though I'm not really sure I'd want to see it again.

Friday, January 20, 2012

I Have Seen the Future of Theatrical Exhibition

And its name is IMAX.

OK so IMAX has been around for a while now but it has only recently started to be regularly adopted by mainstream Hollywood with films like The Dark Knight having entire segments shot specifically for the IMAX format.

The most recent big budget spectacle to embrace the format is Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Many of the reviews for this film have mentioned the visual impact some of the scenes have in IMAX, and having recently seen the film in said format I must concur.

So what's great about IMAX? Mostly, it's all about one thing - the screen size. It's simply enormous and at a 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the conventional 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 ratios one finds at cinemas, it fills out significant space in both the horizontal and the vertical. MI:GP is presented mostly in standard format but occasionally there are sequences shot in full blown IMAX where the screen expands vertically to fill most of your field of vision, creating a feeling of being 'in' the film in a way the much vaunted future of cinema Hollywood is pushing so aggressively, 3D, could only dream of doing (in its current form at any rate).

The much vaunted Burj Khalifa tower sequence in this film, for instance, is breathtaking and lives up to the hype, a rare feat in big budget blockbusters. Shots of the cityscape of Dubai taken from the vertiginous upper floors of the tower are among the film's highlights and help create an edge of your seat experience as Tom Cruise and/or his stunt double dangles precariously alongside the tower (no CGI stuntmen here as far as I could tell). Doubtless part of the reason these scenes are so effective is due to the director, cinematographer, and editor's stellar work, but to say that IMAX enhances the effect would be an understatement. To say it doesn't would be an outright falsehood. Apart from the screen size the audio formats are also different and the quality of the audio presentation is also among the best I've heard.

The cost of watching something in IMAX does set you back a bit more than a regular cinema, but that slight markup makes for a markedly better experience that is, in my humble opinion, worthwhile. Disclaimer: I've only been to one IMAX cinema, the BFI in London, which is quite highly regarded. I am aware that there are some 'IMAX' screens that are apparently not up to the mark in terms of screen size. Caveat Emptor!

In short I would like this to be the future of theatrical exhibition. Even the regular non IMAX sequences are still more impactful at this scale than on a regular cinema screen. Most of the features of regular theatrical exhibition can now be replicated in one's living room with a decent screen or projector, surround sound system and a blu-ray player, and the cost of buying or renting a blu-ray is significantly less than that of going out to the movies. And considering the quality of some cinema halls out there, the living room experience can sometimes be the superior one! With IMAX, however, you get something that you simply can't recreate at home (unless you're amongst the vile 1%).

Multiplex cinemas are dying a slow death at the moment, and perhaps this is how it should be. There are so many alternative forms of leisure activity and means of consuming media like films that in order for it to survive the theatrical experience must change. The reality is that the world has changed and the industry needs to get with the program. Perhaps only the die hards will pay a premium to enjoy the communal experience of being in a cinema hall watching a film in IMAX with fellow like minded cinephiles. Instead of being a pastime for the masses (like those who keep their phone on and talk during the film) it'll be an activity only real fans will indulge in, while everyone else consumes content on their home television setup, or on their phone or tablet computer. You'll pay a bit more but it'll be much more of an event than going to the cinema is right now.

This may mean that theatrical exhibition ends up being a relative niche market with films primarily being distributed online and on disc in parallel or shortly after their cinema release dates, but if that meant an improvement in the quality of the experience, then so what? The industry has monetised physical media distribution quite well, and if it figured out how to leverage online distribution as effectively there may yet be an equilibrium where the industry stays alive through a combination of a smaller premium theatrical presentation in conjunction with many other distribution mechanisms, which would allow people to continue to enjoy films through their preferred devices. That's my $0.02 on this subject!

As for the film, MI:GP was very good, my second favourite of the series after the first one. I wouldn't buy it or even watch it again, but it does what it says on the tin by being an effective action thriller with some terrific action sequences, a strong ensemble cast and a story line that is propulsive and makes some kind of sense (as opposed to part 3 where the heroes race against the clock to acquire some indeterminate thing). In case you didn't get the hint, I'd recommend watching it in IMAX, it's quite the experience!

Winter's Bone (2010)

Image from IMP Awards

Winter's Bone (2010)

The critically acclaimed Winter's Bone, directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, is an atmospheric film set in a small community situated in the rural wilderness of the Ozark mountains. It is based on a novel (that I haven't read) that tells the story of a teenage girl named Ree (Lawrence) who looks after her impoverished family of two young siblings and a mentally unsound mother. Life's already a struggle, but when it comes to light that her drug manufacturing (think meth lab) father has disappeared days before being due to appear in court while leaving their family home as a bond, she embarks on a quest, one that forces her to grow up and fully bear the weight of being her family's matriarch.

Ree's quest - to find her father and get him to appear in court - forces her to become entangled with her sordid extended family and her father's nefarious associates; it is a quest that puts her life in danger. The narrative is slight - this is much more a film about character, setting, and atmosphere than about plot. The nature of this remote society with its idiosyncrasies and distinctive style of language are a large part of the film's appeal. The mystery isn't solved Sherlock Holmes style, instead it's based on vague second hand and unreliable information; the audience is just as blind as Ree as to what's actually going on, and we stumble along with her as the clock ticks away. What stands out is Ree's unwavering determination to save her family. In many ways the plot is incidental, with its conclusion flying in the face of narrative convention by not neatly wrapping things up. Contrary to what you'd expect there's nothing unsatisfying about this, and I'd cite it as a perfect example of how a plot isn't necessarily what a film is about.

Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in the lead role and there are a handful of character actors in this who round out a very good cast. It's visually and aurally stark and gloomy, reflecting the downbeat dreariness that flows through the community it depicts. It takes its time easing us into its setting but doesn't feel slow.

Having extolled its virtues, however, I confess it never really connected with me as much as I'd like. This admission notwithstanding I will say I'm glad I saw it; I found it rewardning and interesting and I'd urge anyone with more than a passing interest in films to check it out.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

London Film and Comic-Con 2011 (7,8,9 July)

***My extremely timely thoughts on this! (This post was saved as a draft ages ago)

I had heard that there was a Comic Con in London a while ago but never got round to looking in to it. It was apparently not high profile enough to be newsworthy, even within geek circles. A few weeks ago though I chanced upon an advert for it in Empire magazine mere days before it was scheduled to start. Needless to say, I made time to attend!

As predicted, it was a relatively low key affair but there was enough to see and experience to make the trip worthwhile. There were several stages set up, with the main one featuring talks and QA sessions with actors such as Brent Spiner, Christopher Lloyd, and Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame. The snippets of talks that I caught were the typical QA affairs where you learn nothing surprising or new. Brent Spiner - whose session I caught the most of - was very lively and engaging and drew a large crowd.

There were other smaller stages featuring talent shows, auctions, and demonstrations of costuming and film fighting (among others). The majority of the floorspace in the hall was taken up by myriad stalls whose purpose was to sell you stuff. 'Stuff' ranged from toys and comic books through to prop replicas and movie memorabilia.

There was a large area dedicated to celebrity autograph acquisition, an activity in which I did not partake (don't see the point, especially when prices seemed to start at £10 for the lesser known 'stars'). There were a few relatively big names present that set geek pulses racing, such as the aforementioned Spiner, though the biggest draw by far was Christopher Lloyd, who commanded long queues the whole time I was there. There were also photo booths tucked away in a couple of places where you could have your photo taken with your chosen celeb (for a price, of course).

I was struck by how many, umm, less well known celebrities were around. I felt a little sorry for some of them sitting there, expectantly or morosely waiting for an autograph hunter to come along. I suppose for some of these guys the convention tour is an important part of their livelihood. It does reek of desperation, but then again, there must be some kind of market for this to make it worthwhile for these guys to show up.

The remainder of the floor space was taken up by workshop areas teaching things like comic book art styles (for instance). There were a few random attractions there as well, such as the sixties Batmobile and the Delorean from Back to the Future, as well as a Nintendo area where games were being demoed.

The one element that really made the event were the crowds, who turned out in droves. True to form, most of the audience was young and male but not as massively skewed as I had imagined based on most observable geek demographics! The hall was fairly crowded throughout (and a little stuffy as a result) and most people seemed to be enthusiastic and having a good time. There were many people in costume, including the serious cosplayers, which really enlivened the whole place and elevated it beyond the typical bland trade show type event.

I'm not sure I'd attend this again as it is very commercial in nature and much of it does not appeal to me beyond the level of curiosity (which has now been sated). Having said that I did enjoy the 4-5 hours I spent there and would recommend it to the geeky and the curious.