Monthly Archives: May 2013

Quickie: Moon

tumblr_lordged86n1qhzdcmo1_500Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of his contract overseeing the mining of gas from the Earth’s moon. It is just he and robot pal GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) until a moon buggy accident sets off a series of peculiar and puzzling events.

Moon is the debut feature of director Duncan Jones (otherwise known as David Bowie’s son) and was clearly made on a somewhat ‘small’ budget (around $5,000,000). However, financial limitations have clearly not impeded Jones in making an intimate and concise film that can easily stand up to, and in some cases head and shoulders above, some of the more heavyweight science fiction films of the past decade or so. The film has a story that would be easy to over-complicate but is kept relatively simple here. It gives you the main twist pretty early on which does lessen its impact a little but does help you to connect the dots as you go along rather than after the film has finished.

The film’s design is also pretty simple, but it works perfectly. Some of the models used will have you thinking all the way back to Star Wars and there are several nods to Kubrick’s 2001 but yet the film never feels dated. The score from Clint Mansell is also superb and adds a huge amount to the film’s overall feel.

Mention should be made of Sam Rockwell who does an excellent job and is proving to be a very underrated actor. Here he is acting largely on his own (kind of), yet manages to carry that burden admirably. Moon isn’t the most groundbreaking film you’ll ever see but it has more than enough to establish itself as one of the most satisfying sci-fi films of recent years.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-movie-poster-03When Eva (Tilda Swinton) fails to bond with her firstborn child Kevin (Ezra Miller), the relationship between the two becomes more and more volatile over time. As Kevin grows up he learns how to push Eva’s buttons and she has a hard time dealing with his cold demeanor and vicious actions. However, when Kevin does something beyond anyone’s worst nightmares, it brings Eva’s life crashing down around her.

I’m going to start this review my spoiling It’s a Wonderful Life. You know at the end when the whole town give George money and bail him out and everyone’s super happy because they all pull together and you get type 2 diabetes because it’s so sweet? Yeah, well We Need to Talk About Kevin is the polar opposite of that. There are no smiles here, no jokes; it’s a film with a bleak outlook that asks some difficult questions of its audience and refuses to let but the smallest glimmer of light escape from its dark and twisted core. But it’s brilliant.

We see Eva in the present day, alone, with the entire town gunning for her because of some monstrous event that’s occurred. We’re then shown, through a series of flashbacks, what it is that has cause such a reaction amongst everyone, and it’s in these flashbacks that we get the real meat of the story. It invokes myriad reactions and emotions and throws up endless questions with no easy answers. Kevin is clearly a troubled individual, but why is he like that? Was he born evil? Did Eva not show him enough affection? Should some people never have children? Can a mother always forgive her child? These are just some of the things you’ll find yourself conflicted about during the film and likely for a long while afterwards.

What really makes the film, however, is the central performances. Tilda Swinton is totally believable as a mother who wants to love her child but finds it immensely difficult and then struggles with everyday life following her son’s atrocity. It’s a performance filled with heartbreak, frustration and inner turmoil and is matched only by that of Ezra Miller opposite her. It’s slightly disturbing how convincing Miller is as Kevin, his cold, piercing stare as unsettling as anything you’ll see in any horror film. Despite that, it’s absolute joy to watch a young actor take on a role like this and deliver it with such aplomb.

The film is adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name, and it’s clear there are certain elements that would work much better on the page. This is a story that requires as much depth as possible to the relationships within the family to try and discover why Kevin is the way he is. The film does a decent job of examining these issues but it never feels quite as thorough as it needs to be or, although whether it’s even possible for the film to be that thorough is debatable.

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t an easy watch and some may find it a little too dark. However, it is stunningly shot, features an excellent score from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood and revolves around a fascinating nature vs nurture argument. There’s a real intrigue to the story, and whilst you may be shocked at what happens, why it happens is the most fascinating part.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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What is… a Jump Cut?

A jump cut is an edit whereby the camera position of a shot varies only slightly or not at all from the preceding shot.

In continuity editing, filmmakers should adhere to the ’30 degree rule’, a principle whereby the camera in consecutive shots should move position by at least 30 degrees. This makes it clear to the audience that a cut has been made and that they are now looking at a totally different shot. If the camera moves less than 30 degrees between shots, then the cut will be abrupt and jarring for the audience, thus creating a jump cut. They can be created either by editing together two separately-filmed shots (spatial jump cut) or by editing out the middle part of a single shot (temporal jump cut).

A jump cut may be used to show the passage of time in a scene and also to add a sense of speed. A jump cut may also be used as a Brectian-esque device to draw your attention to the fact you’re watching a constructed medium made of up separate shots. George Méliès, of Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) fame, is widely thought of to be one of the first to use jump cuts, having discovered them accidentally. He would use them to create on-screen illusions, although he would try and disguise the cut to make the illusion seem more authentic.

One film that has become famous for its use of jump cuts is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 French New Wave classic À Bout de Souffle (Breathless). The film’s producer apparently asked Godard to reduce the length of the film, and one way he did so was during some of the conversations. Godard explained: “Instead of slightly shortening one and then slightly shortening the other, and winding up with short little shots of both of them, we’re going to cut out four minutes by eliminating one or the other altogether, and then we will simply join the [remaining] shots, like that, as though it were a single shot.”

Here’s a video showing jump cuts in À Bout de Souffle

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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Double Review: Before Sunrise & Before Sunset

Before Sunrise

Before SunriseJesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have a chance encounter on a train. An instant connection between the two, they both get off the train in Vienna and spend the night getting to know each other knowing that they must part company the following day.

Before Sunrise does sound a little generic but its strength is in its simplicity. Both Ethan and Jesse feel like real people upon whose world we happen to have stumbled upon. Sure, it’s a romantic film but it never feels gratuitous in its fromage; instead we just have two young people who genuinely seem to have a connection and are exploring that in the little time they have together. It’s a situation that is likely to ring true with many, which is another one of its real strengths. So many love stories, whilst undeniably soppy, aren’t all that realistic, whereas Before Sunrise feels like a genuine snapshot of these characters’ lives (it was based on a real encounter director Richard Linklater had with a woman he met in Philadelphia) and that we’re eavesdropping on the start of an actual relationship.

However, whilst the situation itself is one that feels real, some of the dialogue comes across as somewhat forced and a little unbelievable. Ethan quoting W.H. Auden, a street poet writing the world’s most pretentious piece of poetry, and conversations about reincarnation and spirituality just don’t feel in keeping with the film’s naturalistic approach. This isn’t always the case, but when it does happen, it’s a little jarring.

Both Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy carry their roles superbly and there’s real chemistry between the two, although it’s slightly mystifying as to why, when their encounter comes to an end, they can’t communicate via phone or mail at all. Maybe I missed that part. However, whether you’re a fan of romantic films or not, Before Sunrise is a film that almost everyone will be able to relate to in some way, which is something not many films manage to achieve.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

Before Sunset

Nine years after their night in Vienna, Jesse has written a book about the experience and is promoting it in a bookshop in Paris. When Celine turns up out of the blue, they spend the afternoon together catching up and reminiscing, but with Jesse married with children and Celine also in a relationship, they wonder what could have been.

It would have been easy to make this sequel based six months after Before Sunrise when the two arrange to meet. However, Before Sunset leaves that night in Vienna as an isolated incident, which helps to firmly distinguish the two films and give them a tone that is similar but very much their own.

Both Hawke and Delpy are on top form from the off once again, perfectly capturing the awkwardness that can arise having not seen someone for a long period of time and wondering what on Earth to talk about. They slowly slip back into familiarity and they become much more comfortable around one another once more. There is still real chemistry between the two and it’s clear that that one night had a huge impact on both their lives.

One of the few issues with Before Sunset is a similar issue that cropped up with the first film – the slightly pompous nature of some of the conversations. These two people who have not seen each other in nine years could be talking about their lives and what they’ve been doing, and there is a part of that, but instead there are philosophical and ethical discussions that just don’t feel all that natural. However, this problem is more prevalent in the first portion of the film and later conversations appear much more genuine and consequently carry more emotional weight. Celine’s near breakdown in the back of a car is a particular highlight.

Without the need for an initial meeting like the first film, Before Sunset trims a good chunk off its running time. However, this makes it a much more succinct package and more closely resembles time as it passes in the film. Before Sunrise could have easily existed on its own without the need for this sequel, but Before Sunset does a fine job of taking us back into these characters’ lives and letting us in on the next chapter in their story.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Star Trek Into Darkness

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Following a huge explosion at a Starfleet building in London, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the Enterprise crew are tasked with brining the man responsible, one of their own agents, John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), to justice. However, Harrison is a much greater foe than they had first feared and threatens to bring Starfleet and the world to its knees.

If any franchise was in dire need of a reboot it was Star Trek. Beloved by many, it was starting to fade away and was on the verge of disappearing into deep space forever. 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis would be the last a lot of people would hear of it until J.J. Abrams made the franchise relevant again with 2009’s Star Trek. Now Star Trek is just as much a part of the fabric of sci-fi cinema as it once was and, whilst not without its flaws, Star Trek Into Darkness should see it stay that way for the time being.

Whilst there are still the customary money shot set pieces throughout, the film does feel a little more grounded. Despite zooming across the universe a fair few times, the story never really feels that far from home, which could, in part, be due to the obvious allegorical main plot centered around terrorism and the conflict between those who have a desire for true justice and those with an itchy, revenge-motivated trigger finger. The film is rarely short of excitement and the pacing is damn near perfect throughout, although a few too many action movie cliches and a slightly underwhelming climax is a little disappointing. Also, some of the characters’ motivations do feel a little flimsy and at times you might sometimes find yourself asking why everything is happening.

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With any reboot, it’s absolutely essential that much-loved characters are well represented and Star Trek Into Darkness takes the foundations built by its predecessor and builds on them. The relationship between Kirk and Spock is starting to feel much more developed and genuine, which is vital as neither character feels anywhere near as strong without the other. Bones (Karl Urban) feels like a an integral part of the crew and Scotty (Simon Pegg) has a significantly larger and more important role this time around. However, characters such as Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) feel a little surplus to requirements despite efforts to find them something worthwhile to do. We also get introduced to new character Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), although it’s unclear exactly what narrative purpose she has whatsoever. Her inclusion feels nothing more than an excuse to shoehorn in a new character and provide a little more eye candy.

Then, of course, we get the new villain with his super evil name, John Harrison. Benedict Cumberbatch is suitably menacing as the one man wrecking machine, unsettling calm one minute and violently crazy the next. Despite Cumberbatch’s excellent showing, the character does feel a little underused. He seems to spend rather a long time about to do something rather than actually doing something, which does make it seem as if no-one is ever really in massive amounts of danger.

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Just like its predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness (pretty sure there should be a colon in there somewhere) looks superb. From the Indian Jones inspired first scene on a distant planet to a futuristic London, everything looks rich, expansive and, more importantly, believable. Oh and there’s lens flare. Lots and lots of lens flare. So much so, in fact, that it is actually a little distracting at times.

With Abrams taking the helm of Star Wars Episode VII, his future with the Star Trek franchise is currently unclear. However, if he is to walk away from Kirk et al, then he has left it in good health. Star Trek Into Darkness is fast paced and fun, and if he can reinvigorate Star Wars in the same way he has with Star Trek, then it can only be good to have the two giants of sci-fi duking it out once more.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Winter’s Bone

Winter's BoneRee Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) looks after her mentally ill mother and two siblings when a bail bondsman shows up telling her that her father is out on bail for producing methamphetamine, and if he doesn’t show up to court, she risks losing her house as part of the bond. Ree then goes in search of her wayward father, risking everything to prevent her and her family becoming homeless.

There’s a bleakness to Winter’s Bone that never lets up. Even during its lighter moments, which are few and far between, there is a ubiquitous, unrelenting dreariness that could drown lesser films. However, Winter’s Bone uses it to its advantage, totally enveloping you and drawing you into Ree’s struggle. This family isn’t as much living as surviving, and there is always the sense that Ree’s life could have been so much more. However, the fact that her family comes above everything else shows that there is real purpose to the character and this is film’s driving force.

The two main roles on display here are Lawrence’s Ree and her uncle, Teardrop, played by John Hawkes. Both actors are superb in their roles and well worthy of their Oscar nominations in 2011. Lawrence in particular shows that she is more than capable of handling a lead part, and it’s no surprise that bigger roles have since come her way.

Winter’s Bone isn’t the most accessible of films, and some may be put off by its somewhat slow pace and largely uneventful (not a criticism) plot. However, it’s an affecting film that will resonate with many as a tale of austerity and family struggle, and one that has a real warmth under its icy exterior.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Iron Man 3

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Following the events in New York (as seen in The Avengers) Tony Stark is having trouble sleeping. However, when a new foe enters the fray in the form of global terrorist The Mandarin, he must put his anxieties to one side to protect those closest to him.

Some people loved The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble here in the UK) whilst others hated it. No matter how you felt about it, it can’t be denied that it was Marvel’s biggest movie to date, and so it was always going to be a pretty daunting task to follow it up. Fortunately, the task fell to Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr, probably the most enigmatic and popular of the Avengers crew.

Iron Man 3 also sees Shane Black brought in as writer/director in place of Jon Favreau (who still keeps his role has Tony Stark’s muscle Happy Hogan) and he’s done a decent job of building upon the previous two films. Iron Man 3 rattles along at a fair old pace as you’d expect from a Marvel superhero flick, although it does take more time to focus on the man inside the tin can. Here we see more of Stark the man and the film is richer for it; part of what makes the franchise so appealing is Stark’s witty dialogue and there’s plenty of that on show here.

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Now, the Mandarin. I’m no comic book fanboy but I understand that the Mandarin is kind of a big deal. A lot of people were very excited to have him in the film, and, without giving anything away, the direction in which the character has been taken is likely to prove hugely contentious. It’s a bold move and there’ll be some who like it, but there’ll be plenty who are downright outraged. In terms of the narrative, the character works reasonably well although your enjoyment of the film could well depend on your expectations of how the Mandarin will be handled.

Iron Man 3’s other villain is Aldrich Killian played by Guy Pearce. Killian has developed a drug/treatment thing called Extremis (also apparently a big deal in the comics) that can regenerate limbs and also cause the recipient to raise their body temperature to dangerous levels. Killian starts the film as a relatively minor character but gets more and more important as the film goes on. Unfortunately, the character isn’t nearly as interesting as the Mandarin, which when you see where the plot goes, makes the film all the weaker. It’s also not 100% clear as to Killian’s motives, which can make it a little confusing as to the actual point of the whole film.

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There are various other smaller story arcs going on throughout the film, some of which are significantly more successful than others. Stark’s beau Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) gets a much more developed role and the introduction of a kid sidekick for Stark is nowhere near as annoying as it could have been. There is also a rather malnourished side plot revolving around the Vice President and his daughter which could have been pretty interesting had it been fleshed out a little more.

Iron Man 3 may be a little shallow but it’s also a lot of fun. Tonally it sits somewhere between the lighthearted feel of The Avengers and the grittier world of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy but it’s difficult to say it can be held in as high regard as either. However, should this the last in the Iron Man franchise, which it could well be, it’s still a decent note to go out on.

3 and a half pigeons

3.5/5 pigeons

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Film Review: Ruby Sparks

Ruby SparksWriter and titular star of Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan, has some pretty big shoes to fill. She’s the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, whilst her grandfather is the legendary writer and director Elia Kazan, most famous for On The Waterfront. That’s quite the heritage, but if this, her debut as a writer, is anything to go by, she’s obviously picked up a thing or two.

Ruby Sparks, directed by husband and wife duo Jonathan Drayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame, is the story of Calvin War-Fields (Paul Dano), a young novelist hailed as the next big thing in American literature thanks to his debut novel. However, his follow up is proving a struggle and he doesn’t know where to begin. Calvin starts writing about his perfect girl, called Ruby, and is shocked when the girl he’s invented comes to life and he’s able to control her entire life through his writing.

The film starts sweetly and simply enough. Calvin has everything except someone to love and have love him back. So, when he is able to create his perfect woman, everything plays out almost like an indie romantic comedy. And this girl is real, by the way, not just a figment of his imagination. His whole family can see her, so this is no examination of split-personality disorder or anything like that. So, it’s a relatively happy, quirky film, but in the second half things take a much darker twist, and this is Ruby Sparks’ trump card.

As Ruby starts to live her life, Calvin discovers there are things he doesn’t like about her and decides to change her. Calvin becomes a control freak and doesn’t want Ruby to have a life outside of him and ends up almost completely rewriting her. This is an obvious look at how someone in a relationship may try to control and change someone else and the destructive effects this can have. It’s quite an unexpected turn the film takes but it’s one that gives it much more depth it might otherwise have had.

Something that is bound to be a bone of contention is the film’s ending. It is one that seems simple upon first viewing but the more you think about it, the more different interpretations it can have, many of which are, unfortunately, rather unsatisfying. It’s a shame that a film that feels so original is let down by an ending that, in an attempt to be clever, ultimately feels awkward. Of course, many others may feel differently about this and feel that it works perfectly.

It’s a relatively small cast but performances are great all round, which really helps build a tight and focused film. A sub plot regarding Calvin’s mother and step father feels a little underdeveloped but doesn’t at all hamper enjoyment. Despite some misgivings about the ending, Ruby Sparks is a delightful debut from Kazan and a hopeful sign of great things to come.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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Quickie: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May MarleneWhen Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes from a commune, she goes to stay with her sister but struggles to adapt to normal life. As she continues to alienate herself from those around her, her grip on reality gets looser and looser.

MMMM is apparently loosely based on the Manson Family cult, which gives the film a much more sinister undertone, one that comes to the forefront as the film progresses. We see Martha’s experiences in the commune through a series of flashbacks, each of which gets progressively unsettling. And it’s ‘unsettling’ that best describes the film. There’s not much to scare, but plenty to unnerve thanks in part to the remote rural setting and constant perturbing use of sound.

It can be rather slow paced at times and the distinction between present and past is sometimes (deliberately?) ambiguous, which may prove slightly confusing. The film’s conclusion is also likely to be contentious for many. Without giving too much away, it’s hugely open-ended and relies on the audience to fill in quite a few gaps. This abrupt ending may be frustrating for some but it does leave you mulling over the various interpretations and the possibilities of what may or may not happen.

This is Elizabeth Olsen’s second picture after 2011’s Silent House and she does a superb job throughout. As Martha (Marcy May & Marlene are names she picks up in the commune) she is perfectly on edge at all times, whilst John Hawkes as commune leader Patrick is also excellent.

MMMM is not an easy watch but it’s one that gives more the more you invest in it. Its quirky Instagrammed look becomes slightly tiresome and you do have to work hard at times, but there’s enough here to keep you intrigued to the end.

3 and a half pigeons

3.5/5 pigeons

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