Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Ciné File Vol. 27

Normal service can resume this week as I've actually watched a couple of films: instead of just hiding in a cinema and seeing Cinderella again as I did the week before...

Along with my favourite Batman films, I've seen teen hits The DUFF and Insurgent; tried to watch John Wick but the cinema was evacuated half an hour in; and finally squeezed in A Thousand Times Goodnight on Sky Movies. It's been a varied film week then!

* * * *
Sky Movies // 2005 // DVD

"After training with his mentor, Batman begins his war on crime to free the crime-ridden Gotham City from corruption that the Scarecrow and the League of Shadows have cast upon it."


Batman Begins is the Batman movie the world didn't know it needed: director Christopher Nolan created a dark, gritty, serious comic book adaptation that succeeded because the focus remains firmly on the characters and the emotion rather than capes, tights and fancy fantastical gadgets. By anchoring the caped crusader firmly in reality - albeit a dangerous, crime-ridden one in the fictional Gotham - Nolan is able to primarily play with psychology and story, adding multiple layers to the film before even considering exploring the addition of enormous action set pieces, exciting fight scenes and special effects. He strips away the ridiculous nature of earlier adaptations and builds an original, entertaining and confident movie around iconic well-loved characters and plots. It works because it takes itself so seriously - a smart decision on Nolan's part that pays off in spades.

For all intents and purposes this is purely an excellent action film, and the fact that the protagonist dresses like a bat to fight crime is almost irrelevant. It has heart, a brilliant ensemble cast and all of the high octane visual delights of a superhero movie: Batman Begins really does tick every box going.

* * * * *
2008 // DVD

"When the menace known as the Joker wreaks havoc and chaos on the people of Gotham, the caped crusader must come to terms with one of the greatest psychological tests of his ability to fight injustice."

So epic, so chilling, and so utterly thrilling. It's 150 minutes of pure brilliance, and in my opinion, Batman has never been better on screen (which is saying something particularly as sequels are usually a disappointment...). I have goosebumps just thinking about Heath Ledger's Joker...

* * *
2015 // In U.K. cinemas now

"A high school senior instigates a social pecking order revolution after finding out that she has been labeled the DUFF - Designated Ugly Fat Friend - by her prettier, more popular counterparts."

It's been billed as "Bridesmaids meets Mean Girls", and while its intentions are definitely in the right place, The DUFF doesn't quite live up to the lofty expectations placed upon it by the marketing campaign, although it has a rather serious stab at it. As far as teen comedies go it's not bad at all, and I'd imagine that the target demographic will absolutely love this - it's packed to the rafters with social media from the onset, highlighting the perils of going viral, this generations obsession with finding fame via a YouTube channel and how friendships seem to be ludicrously reliant on an intricate database of social media profiles. Ridiculously I felt like Jenko and Schmidt in 21 Jump Street: this version of high school makes very little sense to me, and honestly it looks absolutely terrifying. How anyone survives school surrounded by camera phones documenting every excruciating detail in a torrent of tweets, snapchats, vines and Instagram pictures is beyond me. I came out of the cinema feeling very old indeed.

Clearly The DUFF is trying to break boundaries and challenge the teen film stereotypes, starting - and ultimately finishing - with protagonist Bianca (the brilliant Mae Whitman). On the surface she fits neatly into the traditional 'alternative' outsider box: she's plain; wears a uniform of dungarees, flannel and Doc Martins; is mildly socially awkward; writes for the school paper; and is constantly overlooked by peers and teachers in favour of her more conventionally attractive friends. So far, so typical teen movie. However, rather wonderfully Bianca never falls into the klutz/dork/total nerd stereotype, instead showing character traits from all of them but not conforming to the standard over-the-top mould. Most impressively she has a real self-awareness of her place within her school's system, and owns it in a sincere and endearing manner. It helps that Whitman's comedic timing is on point, expertly making Bianca's unpredictability and vulnerability funny at exactly the right moment. It may be brutally honest at points but Whitman ensures it's never upsettingly so, by delivering lines dripping in sarcasm or subtly altering her body language to the point that you can't help but chuckle.

While Whitman's performance is nuanced - and Allison Janney steals every scene she's in as Bianca's recently divorced motivational speaking mother - the film really does have its faults. Director Ali Sandel goes to great pains to explain away the offensive-sounding moniker "DUFF" - Designated Ugly Fat Friend - such that it seems like he's constantly on the defence about its usage throughout the film. Apparently it doesn't necessarily mean the intended target conforms to all of the description - they don't have to be ugly, or fat - it's more that they're the approachable one in a friendship group, basically the gateway to the more desirable friends. No matter how many times Sandel highlights that it's purely a relative acronym that stuck, it still feels like he's constantly covering his back. Plus, rousing speeches about the ills of cyber-bullying, believing in yourself, and the teenage obsession with technology are enormously overdone and annoyingly shoe-horned in: a subtler touch would have been much more successful.

The DUFF definitely tries to break free of the well-worn Hollywood teen film formula, but it never quite achieves it. For all of its boundary breaking with the character of Bianca, the rest of the film rehashes every teen plot of the '90s and '00s. Within five minutes it's blindingly obvious exactly who's going to fall out with who; which characters are going to end up in love with each other; and who's going to receive a makeover at the end. At least it's funny enough to temporarily look past the unoriginality, but it's not exactly going to stand the test of time. Bridesmaids and Mean Girls this is not.

2015 // In U.K. cinemas now

"An ex-hitman comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters that took everything from him."

I wish I could review John Wick properly - I had every intention of doing so - but in an unpredictable turn of events half an hour into the film the entire cinema was evacuated due to a fire (not serious, thankfully!). I've never experienced that before! Missing the majority of the film is annoying but certainly not the end of the world, and as it stands I've only seen the first half an hour of John Wick so felt it unfair to rate the film or even try to review it as normal.

Unfortunately, though, I'm in absolutely no rush to see the rest of the film as the part I saw wasn't exactly impressive. Within 30 dull minutes both John Wick's wife and new adorable puppy have died, providing textbook motivation for the straight, white male lead to take up arms and exact his revenge. I know the film is nothing more than a basic revenge movie - it's the central premise and fundamental selling point, doing exactly what it says on the tin - but even so... it's a ridiculously annoying start! All the reviews I've read talk about how excellent the action is, and how Keanu Reeves is really in his element here particularly during a violent nightclub scene, but sadly I didn't see any of that. I'm assuming that the (supposedly) brilliant action sequences make up for the boring, standard plot, but I'll have to wait for John Wick to appear on Sky Movies or Netflix to see if that's the case...

* *
2015 // In U.K. cinemas now

"Beatrice Prior must confront her inner demons and continue her fight against a powerful alliance which threatens to tear her society apart with the help from others on her side."

Even with a generous explanation of the story and all I'd missed in Divergent from a friend, I still struggled with Insurgent. Forgive me, but the plot is just bonkers. It doesn't help that it's the middle film in the series so inherently suffers from a lack of excitement: as with most, by the time it's dealt with the fall-out from the first film it's laying the foundations for major revelations and action in the next. As a result although lots must happen - and rest assured, it does - it simultaneously feels like nothing has at all. Insurgent is merely a bridge, and unfortunately it's not exactly a good one at that.

From what I can tell it's a solid adaptation of the hugely popular young adult novel, not deviating too wildly from the book to annoy fans but fleshing out certain points well enough so they make sense for the non-initiated amongst us. That being said, if you haven't seen or read the first instalment then I'd catch up before popping to the cinema. I think fans will like it, but coming in here - mid-way through - it's extraordinarily hard to be blown away by the plot or actually feel for the characters. It picks up several days after the events of Divergent, with Kate Winslet's Jeanine waging war against fugitives Tris (an enormously unconvincing Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James, Downton's poor doomed Mr Pamuk). They inexplicably take refuge in Octavia Spencer's Amity Faction but when hunted down by Dauntless henchman Jai Courtney they're forced on the run and back into the city.

The special effects are good, particularly during the simulation scenes (largely seen in the trailers) and the sets are fantastic. In order to differentiate between the Factions the design of their homes are drastically different. Empire's Helen O'Hara describes them perfectly: "Amity is based in a sort of Grand Designs eco-home, the Factionless look like Mad Max rejects painted by an Old Master and baddies Erudite live in an Apple store." Visually it may be great, but the hugely talented supporting cast is just awful. From the Oscar-winning Kate Winslet and Octavia Spencer, and Oscar-nominated Naomi Watts; to rising stars Ansel Elgort and Zoë Kravitz; and the normally brilliant Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, and Daniel Dae Kim they all pretty much phone in their dull, underwhelming performances. Thank goodness for Miles Teller who brilliantly injects humour and wit into an otherwise bleak landscape.

Sorry, but I'm not a fan at all. To me it seems like a knock-off Hunger Games, and sadly I just can't get on board with it.

* * *
Sky Movies // 2013 // DVD

"Rebecca is one of the world's top war photographers. She must weather a major emotional storm when her husband refuses to put up with her dangerous life any longer."

In the first fifteen minutes, Juliette Binoche's celebrated war photographer Rebecca is seen carefully documenting the ritualistic preparations of a female suicide bomber. She silently observes at a graveside in Kabul, watching through the lens of her camera as a young woman emerges from the grave surrounded by women clad in black, before transferring indoors and the bomb is strapped to her body. Rebecca even follows in the van, snapping photograph after photograph as the suicide bomber edges ever closer to her target. It's only at the last minute that Rebecca abandons her post and begins to retreat to a safe distance, alerting the crowds as she moves, but she's still inevitably injured by the blast. Such a tense and remarkable opening scene from Norwegian photojournalist-turned-director Erik Poppe sets the tone for the rest of the film, opening up questions of morality and the ethics of war reporting. However, despite his best intentions, the film doesn't quite work.

The opening of the film promises a tough, tense ride, but as the action shifts to Dublin where Rebecca is forced to deal with the repercussions of her job on her marine biologist husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and their two young daughters it starts to falter. Rebecca is torn between her risk-taking and highly dangerous career and the responsibilities she has to her family, and it's wonderful to see this explored on screen, particularly as it's the wife and mother that so clearly struggles with domesticity. It's still frustrating that only female characters are allowed to tussle with the work-family balance, but it's good to see Rebecca fall down on the side rarely explored. Binoche's complex and conflicted Rebecca is unrelenting in her beliefs and openly finds run of the mill home-life difficult to adapt to after the dangers of a hostile and hazardous war-zone.

It's a beautifully shot film - the Irish landscapes and beaches look stunning - and while Binoche soars fantastically the film falls a little flat. Yes, it touches upon the moral quandary of war photographers and the dangerous situations they put themselves in to acquire the perfect picture, but it feels almost restrained. It's certainly not as tough or harrowing as the opening scene (or the mother-daughter trip to Kenya) suggests, and it could have been much more affecting. A Thousand Times Goodnight is, however, an engaging character study into one woman's balancing act between an unbridled passion for her dangerous, globe-trotting career and her familial responsibilities at home, and in this sense it succeeds magnificently.

* * * *
Film4 // 2001 // DVD

"After his master dies, a peasant squire, fueled by his desire for food and glory, creates a new identity for himself as a knight."

A Knight's Tale is silly, whimsical and endearing, and in a Game of Thrones-esque ultra violent era it's refreshing to revisit films like this and see a Medieval tale without the gore. Sometimes smoothing over reality and forgoing historical accuracy is the best move and when done well - as it is here - the end result is really rather special. "We Will Rock You" chanted at a jousting competition? If that's not pure, fun entertainment then I don't know what is!

What have you seen this week? Is there a new release you'd recommend or a Netflix gem that can't be missed? Do let me know in the comments below!

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