Film Review: Birdman (2014)

Birdman (2014). Co-written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. The film opens with a meteor streaking across the sky. It then switches to the dressing room of a New York theatre, where Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is floating cross-legged in his underwear. He receives a Skype call from his daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), querying what flowers he wants. This is my second attempt at watching Birdman. The first time I made it about half an hour in, but the rather talky and pretentious nature of the content just turned me off. So I tried again, and made it all the way through this time. I can appreciate the film technically: it's well acted and shot, it's clever how the film appears as a single take, the drum solo soundtrack is interesting and original, and even the CG is excellent. But I just didn't enjoy the story. I've only watched one review subsequently, and the reviewer seemingly got a lot of existentialism from the film, among other things. I didn't, I just saw a bunch of mostly irritating characters that I had no interest in or sympathy for. I'm guessing if you like theatrical feeling films, even though it's mostly set in and around a theatre, you might get something from this. 2/5 (Poor)

Film Review: Wild Tales (2014)

Wild Tales (2014). Written and directed by Damián Szifron. The film starts on a plane mid-flight. Two of the passengers get talking and discover they both know a young man called Pasternak. A passenger behind them pipes up that he also knows Pasternark, followed by another passenger. Wild Tales is a mixed bag of a film, somewhat in the vein of Tales of the Unexpected. There are six short stories, including the very short story at the start of the film. For me, none of the stories are particularly mind-blowing; some are fun, some are rather predictable, and some are just odd (and not really in a good way). It feels like the general trend is downhill during the film. Certainly the acting, direction, and cinematography are all competent. The CGI is average, but it is a low budget film. If you're a fan of short story films and stuck for something to watch, then it's worth a punt I think. 3/5 (Average)
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Film Review: When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014). Co-written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The film starts at a school. A young girl, Anna, sits on a bench separate from other students. She is sketching children at the playground. The teacher asks to see her drawing but is distracted by a child that has hurt himself. Anna thinks that she feels outside from others and hates herself, then suffers an asthma attack and collapses. I'm a poor Studio Ghibli fan, because for some reason I thought The Wind Rises was the last film they were making, on the assumption they definitely stop. It turns out there are two more, of which this is genuinely the last. Anyway, I really enjoyed When Marnie Was There. It's not enormously heavy on story, so I was wavering at the start, but then got caught up in the atmosphere. The story is ultimately a fantasy, but not of the types such as Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro; it's a much more human tale. The story builds perfectly, ending on a very emotional crescendo. The animation is wonderful, as per usual. Recommended for those who like gentle but emotional tales. 5/5 (Excellent)

Film Reviews: It Follows (2014) and Run All Night (2015)

It Follows (2014). Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell. Set in 80s USA, the film starts with a girl running from a house on a suburban street. A neighbour ask if she's OK and needs help, but she says she's OK. Her father leaves the house and asks if she's OK, and she runs back into the house. Seconds later she leaves the house again, gets in the car in the driveway, and speeds off. Some hours later, at night, the girl is by a lake. Her worried father calls and she tells him she loves him. Some hours later she's in the same spot, brutally murdered. It Follows is a curious horror. It manages a low budget 80s feel, which adds to the odd atmosphere of the film and story. Although it does rely a little on shocks, it's more a case of maintaining an atmosphere of tension, which is does pretty much throughout. I don't get the kicks from horror films that I once did but I still enjoyed this, as something a bit different. Inevitably recommended for horror fans, who are also looking for something a bit different. 4/5 (Good)

Run All Night (2015). Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. The film opens with Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) lying mortally wounded by a lake, and reflecting on life. The story is then told in flashback several days earlier. Jimmy works for crooked businessman Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). Jimmy's best days are past him, and he's now a somewhat useless drunk, supported by Shawn. Shawn's son, Danny, is trying to broker a drugs deal with the Albanian mob which he takes to his dad, who refuses to agree to it. Danny is warned by the Albanians that he must returned the money that was fronted to him. Run All Night is pretty familiar territory. Liam Neeson plays a grizzled gangster, rather than a grizzled cop, dad, or something else. I found the story passable. Inevitably recommended for those who can stand another familiar Liam Neeson film. 3/5 (Average)

Film Reviews: Project Almanac (2015), Chappie (2015), and Mad Max 1, 2, & 3

Project Almanac (2015). Written by Jason Harry Pagan and Andrew Deutschman, and directed by Dean Israelite. With the aid of his friends David Raskin (Jonny Weston) is filming an application for MIT based around gesture control of drones. Subsequently he gets into MIT, but without the scholarship he required to be able to afford it. Later he's digging around in his attic and strays across an old video camera of his dad's, who died when he was ten. He finds a video of his tenth birthday party and spots his adult self for a split second in a mirror. Twas with a groan that I realised Project Almanac was a found footage film, but I stuck with it. Annoyingly there was no real need for the found footage approach, and the film would have worked just as well if not better without it, for me at least. I also got the feeling that if Project Almanac were filmed in the 80s or early 90s it would have had a bucket load more charm, but this 2015 version is lacking. Despite that the cast do seem to be giving it their all, and the story is reasonable, albeit starts to get wearing towards the end. Probably best enjoyed by the teenage demographic it's aimed at. 3/5 (Average)

Chappie (2015). Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp. Set in the near future in Johannesburg, the police are successful reducing crime by utilising humanoid robots known as Scouts. The robots' software has been developed by Deon Wilson (Dev Patel). The success of the Scout robots has upset another developer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) who wants to trial his much larger but human operated Moose robot. Meanwhile, due to a bungled robbery three criminals are in debt for 20 million rand with another gang. They want to rob an armoured car but know they have no success while the Scout robots are functioning. I watched Chappie with low expectations, having avoided it at the cinema due to the poor reviews and a bad feeling, but it wasn't as bad as I expected. Yes, it is somewhat like a harder edged Short Circuit, but it isn't a complete rip-off. The story is a mix but overall scraped entertaining for me. I didn't find Die Antwoord (the South African rap group playing the main criminal pair) too annoying. The rest of the characters are passable. Recommended for fans of science fiction action who aren't too choosy. 3/5 (Average)

Mad Max (1979). Co-written and directed by George Miller. Set in Australia in a dystopian near future, the Main Force Patrol (MFP) keeps the peace from car and bike gangs. One such gang member, Nightrider, has escaped from prison and is being chased by the MFP. After three police units fail to catch Nightrider they call for Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson). I must have first watched Mad Max in the 80s. It's a minimal low budget affair that went on to hold the record for most profitable film for twenty years. The story is fairly basic and involves a feud that's triggered between Nightrider's gang and Max, and is a fairly unpleasant watch in places. For me I was just about entertained. Recommended for fans of raw low budget action. 3/5 (Average)

Mad Max 2 (1981). Co-written and directed by George Miller. The film starts with some exposition for the dystopian near future setting, along with explaining who Max is. The action starts with Max being attacked by a gang on the road. Two of the cars chasing him are destroyed and Max returns to salvage the fuel. The remaining enemy biker cuts his losses and retreats. Mad Max 2 is a significantly different beast to the prior film, with a higher budget, a lot more story, and a much bigger cast. Despite still feeling a bit low budget and also rather dated I find it a lot more entertaining than the first film. Recommended for science fiction action fans who don't mind it being a bit dated, raw, and still a bit low budget. 4/5 (Good)

Mad Max 3 (1985). Written by Terry Hayes and George Miller, and directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie. The film opens with Max driving a caravan of camels across the desert. He is attacked by a small plane and knocked from the caravan. Max gives chase but the pilot steals it. Max continues on foot until he reaches Bartertown, where he agrees to assassinate a member of the town in exchange for information about who stole his caravan. Mad Max 3 continues along much the same lines as Mad Max 2. The budget is improved again, and is demonstrated in a number of bigger sets and a huge cast. I find the story excellent in the first half although sadly that's tempered by the somewhat silly Peter Pan-like second half. The first half was clearly a huge influence on the Fallout series of games. Recommended for science fiction action fans that don't mind it's a bit dated, and can cope with the mixed script. 4/5 (Good)

Film Reviews: Parasyte Part 1 (2014), Maggie (2015), and Max Max: Fury Road (2015)

Parasyte Part 1 (2014). Based on the manga by Hitoshi Iwaaki and directed by Takashi Yamazaki. The film starts with a spore of unknown origin in the ocean. The spore floats towards a dock where it produces tiny creatures that enter into shipping containers. As the containers are moved inland the creatures leave and start infecting people, entering into their bodies via the ear. The infected people struggle briefly, then seem at peace. One of the creatures enters the house of teenager Shinichi Izumi and tries tries to enter his nose, but Shinichi stops it in time and throws it to the floor. It attacks again and enters his hand, but Shinichi stops it from moving further by applying a tourniquet at his elbow. The next morning at school he notices that his right arm now has strange powers. The story of Parasyte Part 1 is interesting and hard to predict at least. For me it was somewhat reminiscent of the 2009 game Prototype, albeit the original manga predates this (1988-1995). It relies on a lot of CG, which is a smidge ropey, but not bad enough to get in the way of the storytelling. The pacing was a little slow, and after a while the story feels a bit repetitive. The story also ends somewhat abruptly because as the title suggests a second part will be released this year. Ultimately I think for fans of niche science fiction who like the body snatcher type stories. 3/5 (Average)

Maggie (2015). Written by John Scott 3 and directed by Henry Hobson. The film is set on an Earth in the grip of the Necroambulist virus, which is essentially turning people into zombies. Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is searching for his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) who has contracted the virus from a bite. Maggie has gone into the city to be quarantined, and to spare her family from her inevitable death, but Wade manages to find her and get her released from the hospital by calling in a favour. He takes her home to her stepmother where they all try to come to terms with the situation. Maggie is certainly a brave attempt at a different take on the zombie film, at a much more personal level. In fact for me it doesn't feel like much of a zombie film at all, and there are only brief moments of the usual trope. It's great to see Schwarzenegger in a different type of role, and he does a reasonable job of it. Breslin is also OK as the daughter. Ultimately though the story felt like it got lost fairly early on and just didn't know what to do with the idea. Overall a somewhat poor story balanced against reasonable performances that for me managed to carry it through, just. For those who don't mind slow character driven films. 3/5 (Average)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Co-written and directed by George Miller. Set in a post-apocalyptic future the story starts with Max (Tom Hardy) contemplating his past. Max senses someone is approaching, gathers up his gear, and jumps in his car. He is pursued by a gang of War Boys who capture him and take him to the Citadel, where the cult of King Immortan Joe resides. He is used as a "blood bag" for a sick member of the cult, and Max is seemingly doomed. For the most part Mad Max: Fury Road is a thing of beauty, horrible horrible beauty. The film comprises a handful of long action sequences which are more or less unrelenting; the first sequence lasts 20 to 30 minutes, and I felt like I was holding my breath until it finished. The sequences are extremely well filmed, whether capturing detail or the wider action. My mind boggled at the vast number of both vehicle and physical stunts required, that for the most part feel genuine rather than CG, or at least are very well blended. There's also a real epic sense to both the sets and action, which at times are on a massive scale. The performances from Hardy, Charlize Theron and the rest of the cast are superb. I had some niggles though. One side effect of the almost unrelenting action is that it feels odd when it stops, almost as if the film's "engine" has run out of petrol briefly and is sputtering. Some of the writing is a little strange, as characters do and say things that either seem odd or just silly. There are also moments where a suspension of belief is required, which some might be able to put down to artistic license. Despite Charlize Theron's heroic central female character the story is incredibly misogynistic, sickeningly so. You can of course argue that this is the whole point of the story, but there were several times where I found it markedly unpleasant. I was able to get past all this, but some might not find it so easy. Overall though I thought it was an incredible film that is a must watch for those who love dystopian action. 5/5 (Excellent)

Film Review: Unbroken (2014)

Unbroken (2014). Based on the biography by Laura Hillenbrand and directed by Angelina Jolie. The film is initially set in 1943, during World War 2, with a number of US bombers attacking the Japanese island of Nauru. The story focusses on one of the bombers which is damaged by flak and struggles to land on the return to base. As with all biographical tales I find myself wondering how much of Unbroken is true and how much is artistic license, but I didn't easily find an answer to this. Not that the film feels embellished as such as the pacing is fairly slow and the story doesn't feel very overblown. Also as per usual it's perhaps difficult to say watching people suffer (in a wartime environment) is entertainment, but it's certainly a somewhat interesting story. I found the film to be competently acted and directed, although this isn't so much about standout performances as it is nuanced. Fans of darker wartimes stories should enjoy it. 4/5 (Good)

Film Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Co-written and directed by Matthew Vaughn. The film is set initially in the Middle East. A helicopter with soldiers hanging from it approaches a military base, and said soldiers take out the guards. The soldiers try to interrogate one of the enemy, but he has secreted a grenade and pulls the pin. One of the soldiers leaps on the grenade, saving his comrades. For me Kingsman felt like a bit of a mess, but a lovely charming fun mess. There's an interesting mix of actors including the young Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, and Samuel L Jackson. Firth is particularly brilliant, and is involved in one of the best fight scenes I've seen. The story is interesting, and despite being a homage to spy films manages to bring something interesting to the genre. If you're just after some action entertainment with a bit of brains to it then it's definitely worth a watch. 4/5 (Good)

Film Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter Ascending (2015). Written and directed by The Wachowskis. The story is initially told in flashback, about 20 years in the past in Saint Petersburg. Maths professor, Aleksa, spots astrophysicist Maximillian Jones stargazing with his telescope while she is leaving the university where they both work. The two start talking and ultimately fall in love, resulting in Aleksa becoming pregnant. When their home is invaded by a gang intent on robbery Maximillian is shot and killed. Aleksa travels to the USA, and gives birth to a daughter, Jupiter, on the voyage by ship. The introduction to Jupiter Ascending doesn't give a great flavour of the rest of the film, which is essentially space opera. The film it most reminded me of was John Carter, which was clearly a very expensive but ultimately empty film, for me at least. Jupiter Ascending is somewhat similar, with characters that you don't really care about and a rather dull story. Channing Tatum plays the hero of the piece, and looks faintly ridiculous with bleached hair and goatee, and pointy ears. The CG is good, but that wasn't remotely enough to save it. Those who enjoy space opera might get something from it, as long as they're not too worried about the plot. 2/5 (Poor)