Monthly Archives: February 2013

TV Review: House of Cards (2013)

House of CardsLoosely based on the 1990 British miniseries of the same name, House of Cards is the baby of NetFlix, the movie streaming service that is growing from strength to strength. NetFlix pumped over $100m into the series and did something a little different by releasing the whole series online at once rather than adding a new episode each week, as would happen were it on television.

On the surface, House of Cards is a simple revenge tale. When Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood (Kevin Spacey) gets screwed over for the Secretary of State post in the White House, he plots revenge on those who betrayed him. However, it goes a lot deeper than that as Frank manipulates various other characters including young newspaper reporter Zoe (Kate Mara), Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and even his own wife Claire (Robin Wright).

Each episode has a complex and twisting plot that is easy to lose track of. It can take rather a large amount of concentration to follow everything, especially when certain plot lines disappear for a few episodes before cropping back up. This makes the decision to release all the episodes at once a good one as it allows you to plough through it reasonably quickly and keep track of the various plot strands. A knowledge of US politics is also a recommended prior to watching as it can be tricky to work out who does what and why in the White House.

Having said that, the majority of the storylines themselves are immensely absorbing, whether you’re learning tidbits of Frank’s past, watching Peter struggle to handle his drinking problem, or witness Zoe do whatever it takes to get a good story. Sometimes, particularly with Frank’s backstabbing, it can be difficult to see what the consequences of his actions are. You’re often aware that someone has been screwed over but you’re not quite sure how or why.

What can’t be denied, however, is that Kevin Spacey is nothing short of phenomenal. He is manipulation through and through as Frank and he immediately makes you drawn to him even if some of his actions are rather abhorrent. Wright and Stoll provide excellent support work, but this is all about Spacey and Frank. One of the things that makes the character stand out is his fourth wall-breaking asides to camera. These are likely to polarise opinion and those that give you an insight into Frank’s mind are infinitely more entertaining that those that simply explain what’s going on.

House of Cards is an excellent piece of drama, well written, superbly acted and has some stellar talent on board (David Fincher directs a couple of episodes as well as being exec producer). It falls somewhere in between The West Wing and season five of The Wire and is a strong starting point from which to build upon, both as a show and as a model for television production.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Flight

FlightA naked women walks around a hotel room. A man awakes in a daze before taking a huge line of cocaine. He clearly has his vices. He realises he needs to get ready for work and pulls on his uniform – a pilot’s uniform.

Instantly, from the very first scene, it’s clear that the man in question, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), is going to have a pretty tough time of things. The mix of alcohol, drugs and piloting a plane is never going to end happily and so even when he spectacularly negotiates a crash landing, saving numerous lives, a toxicology report leaves him at the centre of an investigation and facing life in prison.

It should be noted that Flight is not a film about flying. Sure, it has planes, pilots, etc, but it’s not in any way about flying. Swap the plane crash for any other disaster and it’s the exact same film. This is very much a character piece about a man struggling to curb his addiction.

The film’s opening third is suitably impressive. We know that Whit is drunk and high on drugs and yet he’s calmness personified captaining his flight. We also know something is going to go wrong and there’s a real intensity and tenseness about the scenes. However, from that point, the film never really regains this intensity and it focuses solely on Whip trying to deal with his addictions before his life spirals completely out of control. This drop in pace is not a criticism as it is largely handled very well, but some may be left wanting for the thrill of the opening act. Similarly, the film’s climax and denouement are somewhat formulaic and don’t do the rest of the film service, although there are few directions it could have gone to achieve a satisfying conclusion. There’s not much here that hasn’t been done before or that comes as a surprise but it’s still handled effectively enough.

What does really helps the film tick along is Denzel. His performance as Whip is superb and really makes you toil with yourself whether to support or abhor him. Washington is more renowned for his action roles but it’s performances like this that show he has much more in his locker. His supporting cast, however, aren’t quite on the same level. His tumultuous romance with fellow addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) feels rushed and her character underdeveloped, whilst Harling (John Goodman), Whit’s dealer friend, feels ridiculously out of place and far too over the top. This is a film about Whit, though, so it’s only expected that other characters may be marginalised slightly.

Flight marks director Robert Zemeckis’ first live action film since 2000’s Castaway and proves that this is where his talents lie. During that time he directed the animated trio of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol but none of them really had the impact his previous work did. Flight, however, is very much a return to form, or at least a step in that direction.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark ThirtyEvery so often a film comes along that courts controversy for whatever reason. A Clockwork Orange was controversial because it featured rape scenes, Brokeback Mountain was considered controversial because of its portrayal of homosexuality, and there are countless others that have had the Mary Whitehouses of this world wagging their fingers disapprovingly. Now Zero Dark Thirty, the latest film from director Kathryn Bigelow, is another to get people jumping on their high horse due to its apparent glorification of torture.

Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the hunt and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It is largely based on fact although it’s fair to say that some embellishment and artistic license has occurred. The original script was about the fruitless hunt for the Al Qaeda figure as it was written before his death, but this was changed to include his eventual demise. More specifically, the film focuses on CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her involvement in locating where Bin Laden was hiding.

This issue of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is little more than a fuss over nothing. Bigelow defended herself by saying that portraying the torture is not the same as excusing it and that’s spot on the money. It’s an honest telling and leaving out the torture would do the film a disservice. Ethics don’t come into it here.

It’s a somewhat slower film than some may expect, punctuated with the occasional terrorist explosion, although the real meat of the story comes in Maya’s constant battle with her superiors. The sporadic action set pieces are, however, a welcome change of pace although they do occasionally feel like the film trying to remind us who the bad guys are and that everything the CIA are doing is justified. The final act, the actual assassination of Bin Laden, is superbly filmed (at times through nothing more than night vision) and is incredibly tense even though you know pretty much how it’s going to play out.

Jessica Chastain gives a very good (but no better than very good) performance as Maya and it’s interesting to see the character grow in confidence and stature from timid at the outset to ballsy and assertive by the film’s conclusion. Jason Clarke and Mark Strong also give entertaining turns in their respective roles of fellow CIA operative and CIA director.

Zero Dark Thirty could well have been flag waving propaganda and there is somewhat of a sense of that at times, be it intended or accidental. Despite that, it’s also an incredibly well made film, superbly paced and with a strong female lead that gives the film more of an identity. However, whether this is how events really did play out or whether this is what we’re encouraged to believe is a different matter.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… The Evil Dead?

The Evil Dead

As I have mentioned before on here and on others’ blogs in the past, I’m not the biggest fan of horror films. I like them in theory as I’m fascinated by the paranormal, myths & legends, and psychological nutcases. However, when it comes down to actually watching a horror film, I’ll quite often want to weep within the first 15 minutes. Even horror films that everyone apparently thinks are awful will quite often reduce me to a quivering wreck. And yet I’m still somehow drawn to them.

I had seen the trailer for the remake of The Evil Dead and thought it looked fantastic, even though after just a two-minute clip I still wanted a massive cuddle afterwards. This intrigued me to check out the original, a film I know is loved amongst cult horror fans and is apparently the inspiration for many horror films that followed. So I turned the lights off (I like to do things properly) and booted it up.

Plot: A group college students take a holiday to a cabin in the woods where they find a creepy old book and an audio tape. When they play the audio tape it is a series of incantations of writings from the book which releases evil demons that one-by-one possess the hapless students.

The Evil Dead was made way back in 1981 and was director Sam Raimi’s first feature film. He had made several short films prior, including Within the Woods which would serve as a trial run of sorts to drum up investment for The Evil Dead.

Bruce Campbell as AshAs shown above, the plot of The Evil Dead is incredibly simple but that’s no bad thing at all; it’s the films simplicity that is it’s strongest element. We don’t need deep back stories or complicated love triangles; instead, we’re thrown straight into the story, essentially just being told to accept what’s happening without giving it a thought. The whole thing pretty much takes place in and around the solitary cabin which gives it a very claustrophobic feel, amplifying the horror.

And it is scary. Despite the fact that it’s obviously become dated and hasn’t aged particularly well, it still remains a lesson in how to do low-budget horror. There are a few jump scares, but the film mixes it up and there are plenty of other techniques used to get under your skin. The camerawork, for instance, is very clever; one scene sees Ash (Bruce Campbell) try to drive his girlfriend away from the cabin but stops the car to get out. It appears that the car is parked on flat ground but was actually parked on a slope and the camera tilted to correct the slope. This adds an eerie disorientation to the shot as Ash walks away from the car at a seemingly strange angle.

As I mentioned, the film hasn’t aged particularly well, which could well be why Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell are revisiting it for the remake. The acting is pretty atrocious, although that’s what you often get with low budget films. You could argue that it’s part of the film’s charm, but there’s no denying that the acting is somewhat laughable at times. Some of the effects are also dated, but on the whole they don’t really take anything away from the film. The OTT effects are a hark back to the B movies that influenced the film and are what gives it some personality.

RaaaarMany cite The Evil Dead has an example of horror/comedy, albeit very dark comedy, but there’s something about that that doesn’t really sit right with me. I believe that this was never intended as a piece of comedy but as a proper, straight-up horror film. However, various things (largely due to the budget) led it to become slightly amusing in places. The bad acting, the over-the-top gore and make-up, etc, now seem worse than they did back then and any comedy drawn from them is likely accidental. Recognising this, Raimi maybe thought he would embrace it with the sequels (of which I haven’t seen but am aware). I could be wrong but I doubt Raimi would have made the film as it was if he had a larger budget, which could well have eliminated much of what added a level of comedy. I have a feeling that people may be laughing at it slightly more than with it.

What is very interesting is the obvious effect The Evil Dead has had on horror films that followed it. I doubt it was the first to feature an isolated cabin in the woods or a cursed book that released the dead, but it’s certainly one of the most influential. It’s hard to think that any filmmaker incorporating anything like that into a horror film doesn’t have The Evil Dead at least somewhere in their mind as they do so. It’s even spawned a number of comedy horrors, such as The Cabin in the Woods and Tucker & Dale vs Evilwhich use The Evil Dead as such an obvious point of reference that they don’t even attempt to hide it.

The film also gained a lot of its cult popularity from the fact that several attempts were made to censor it. Many countries, in fact, banned it for some time. It was labelled as a ‘video nasty’, a title reserved for only the nastiest and most disturbing films. This definitely adds to the film and gives it a certain level of expectation going into it. This could well explain why I was left feeling ever so slightly disappointed by it. It was entertaining enough but it didn’t really enthrall me as much as I was expecting. Perhaps if I had seen this when it first came out I would have a higher opinion of it. I appreciate and respect The Evil Dead’s significance and what it achieved with the resources available but I’m not sure it belongs in the higher echelons of cinematic greatness.

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Quickie: Friends With Benefits

Friends with BenefitsWhen Dylan (Justin Timberlake) moves to New York for a big job, he and his new best friend Jamie (Mila Kunis) attempt to have a purely sexual relationship without any emotional involvement whatsoever. Can they manage it?

Everyone already knows the answer to this question whether they’ve seen the film or not, which is its biggest downfall. Whilst the horrendous amount of product placement is annoying enough, it’s nowhere near as annoying as the fact that Friends With Benefits very nearly managed to escape from the clutches of the middle of the road rom-com that the characters themselves are so keen to avoid, but ultimately ends ups decaying into mediocrity.

There are some genuinely funny moments here and much of the dialogue is witty and delivered snappily by the two leads. There is also a sobering and interesting story arc with Dylan and his dementia-suffering father that probably warranted more screen-time. However, just when you think this could break the mould or even ignore the mould altogether, it delivers exactly what you expect it to with a dulling inevitability. It also ends up feeling like little more than a vehicle for Timberlake, as many an eye is sure to be rolled at him flexing his muscles (vocal and actual) on more than one occasion. Of course, Kunis also manages to forget her clothes occasionally too. All of this doesn’t mean that Friends With Benefits is a bad film, just one that could have been so much more.

3 pigeons

3/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings PlaybookMental illness and family issues are clearly very close to director David O Russell’s heart having dealt with them in some of his previous films, namely The Fighter and I Heart Huckabees. It is also known that he has personal experience of mental illness with his son, which makes Silver Linings Playbook perhaps his most personal film yet.

Pat (Bradley Cooper) has just been released from a mental hospital following a breakdown after he caught his wife having an affair. He meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who has her own problems after the death of her husband and subsequent firing from her job after sleeping around the office. Pat still believes that he and his ex-wife are meant to be together and Tiffany agrees to help him in exchange for him being her partner in a dance competition. Meanwhile, Pat’s father, Pat Sr., is struggling with to come to terms with life with a mentally ill son.

It can be difficult to handle the subject of mental illness subtly in film, particularly in mainstream cinema where things often have to be explicitly spelled out. However, Silver Linings Playbook manages to portray mental illness in a realistic and sensitive way without resorting to straight jackets and in doing so elevates the film way above the standard of the usual ‘romantic comedy’ that it was so wrongly marketed as. The ordinary suburban setting also helps to bring a much more grounded feel to the film, reminding you that mental illness is something that can occur in each and every family.

Silver Linings Playbook is still a film that could have easily descended into mediocrity were it not for the outstanding performances from just about every cast member. Bradley Cooper successfully shrugs off his The Hangover image and gives a superb, wholly believable performance that shows just what he can do with the right role. He manages to convey both the subtle and more drastic sides of mental illness with a deftness many may not have thought him capable. Similarly, Jennifer Lawrence delivers a fine performance and perfectly conveys Tiffany’s constant battle with herself. Lawrence has shown some intelligent role choices already and looks set for truly big things.

Backing up these two excellent leads are some equally impressive supporting performances. Jacki Weaver is beautifully understated as Pat’s mother Delores, whilst Chris Tucker is entertaining as Danny, a friend of Pat’s from the hospital. However, it’s Robert DeNiro as Pat’s father who shines perhaps brightest of all. Pat Sr has his own demons to battle and is clearly not sure how to cope with a mentally ill son. He clearly feels helpless but his willingness to help and unconditionally love his son is truly touching.

Whilst the vast majority of the film strays away from usual rom-com fare, it does revert to type slightly towards the end, although by this point it has earned its ending and gives a payoff most viewers will appreciate and understand. Silver Linings Playbook deserves to be seen to act as proof that romantic comedies can be clever, thought-provoking and can tackle serious subject matter.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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What is… HFR (High Frame Rate)?

Peter jackson & Martin Freeman on set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected JourneyThe ‘What is…?’ feature has been away for a little longer than intended, but it’s back and will be taking a little look at the rather hot topic of high frame rate (HFR).

A lot of the buzz surrounding Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was not about Bilbo or a massive dragon, but rather about the fact that it marked the first time a mainstream movie was filmed and projected in HFR of 48 frames per second rather than the industry standard 24 frames per second (fps).

First, a little background regarding frame rate.

Films are technically still how made how they were over 100 years ago when cinema was invented. They are a series of still images played quickly in a sequence to fool us into thinking they are moving. Each one of those images is a frame and the frame rate (measured as frames per second) is how quickly they are filmed and projected to be seen by our eager faces (if I have this drastically wrong, then please someone point it out!). There was much playing around with frame rates until it was decided that 24 fps would be the industry standard as it was the lowest possible frame rate to produce smooth motion without having to use the longer reels of film needed for higher frame rates. Anything filmed and projected higher than 24 fps is considered HFR.

Shooting at a higher frame rate reduces the motion blur and adds a greater sharpness to the images, allegedly giving a more accurate representation of real life, compared to the cinematic ‘look’ of 24 fps. This is because the viewer is seeing twice as many frames per second, meaning the eyes and brain have fewer gaps to fill in in between frames. This is also the case when watching a HFR film in 3D, producing clearer images and reducing the blur and strobing that can occur.

Although The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is considered the first film to be filmed in HFR, this isn’t the case. Films Oklahoma (1955) and Around the World in 80 Days (1956) are technically considered HFR, being filmed and projected at 30 fps. The first IMAX HD film, Momentum, was shot and projected at 48 fps, whilst special effects experts Douglas Trumbull devised a new film format called Showscan which operated 60 fps.

However, it was indeed Peter Jackson and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released in December 2012, that brought HFR into mainstream cinema. Jackson has been very vocal in his support for HFR, suggesting that this is where the future of cinema is heading, stating: “HFR 3D is “different” — it won’t feel like the movies you’re used to seeing, in much the same way as the first CDs didn’t sound like vinyl records. We live in an age when cinemas are competing with iPads and home entertainment systems. I think it’s critical that filmmakers employ current technology to increase the immersive, spectacular experience that cinema should provide. It’s an exciting time to be going to the movies.

Despite Jackson’s enthusiasm, reaction to HFR has been mixed. Whilst some have said it allows for a much more immersive experience, many have countered by saying it removes their suspension of disbelief and that everything looks too ‘real’. Some have complained it looks like on-set behind-the-scenes footage or a TV production. Other filmmakers clearly believe in its worth, with James Cameron apparently intending to use it for his Avatar sequels, whilst Andy Serkis will use it for his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

This has merely been an overview of HFR; the topic is incredibly detailed and way beyond my brain power. You can go into minute detail about light levels and the ins and outs of the cameras used, but I’d be lying to you (and myself) if I said I understood any of that. There are couple of interesting pieces of further reading here and here, though, should you fancy delving deeper into the HFR rabbit hole.

What are your thoughts on HFR? Is it the future of cinema or is Peter Jackson flogging a dead hobbit?

More entries in the ‘What is…?’ series can be found here.

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