Wednesday, 23 April 2014

There are a lot of superhero films these days, and I've dismissed some previous entrants into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as by-the-numbers, ticking-all-boxes, not-actually-that-clever jobs. I was worried that the sequel to 2011's enjoyable period adventure The First Avenger, starring Chris Evans as the genetically-enhanced GI, would end up like this, struggling to fit its lead into a twenty-first century setting and with the fact that my lefty British mind really shouldn't like a character with such a patriotic and gung-ho name as Captain America. Based on the name alone, the Captain is the kind of hero I'd expect to be advertising McDonalds from his 4x4 while on his way to bash some communists. And OK, there are some big-ass cars in this film, but I should never have doubted - Captain America: The Winter Soldier is more than just another superhero movie.

In fact, it's also a bold political thriller - proving we're far from the days of this character being a pro-America propaganda tool, The Winter Soldier is very relevant in its criticism of government surveillance. Yep, just as we're all starting to feel uneasy about the NSA and hide our web history, Captain America's suspicions turn to SHIELD - a twist coming just at the right time in the series, after Nick Fury's gang had saved the world enough times for us to start to trust them. And who better to play the scheming politician at the head of it all than Robert Redford, who may be Hollywood's greatest liberal but comes with connotations of classic conspiracy thrillers, from Three Days of the Condor to All The President's Men?

Yet as well as these '70s gems, The Winter Soldier also brings to mind Paul Greengrass' much more recent Bourne films in its handheld action sequences. An opening confrontation in which Cap is tasked with rescuing hostages from a tanker sets the tone - a visceral, kinetic, brutal style of action which is a brave departure from than the typical comic book stylings expected of Marvel and really works to create something quite unique. This continues through a number of chases and punch-ups around Washington DC, culminating in one massive battle which, while lengthy, packs in enough strong character moments  to prevent it from becoming tiresome.

The Winter Soldier develops its existing characters well, allowing Black Widow and Nick Fury to hold their own parts of the storyline rather than being overshadowed by the eponymous lead. Well, if you had Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson in your film, you wouldn't be too bothered about someone else having to be the main character, would you?

The sequel also bridges the World War Two antics of its predecessor with the current world nicely and adds some great new characters - let's not overlook Anthony Mackie as Falcon, a war veteran who touchingly shares his experiences of PTSD with the Cap (and also can fly).

As to the Winter Soldier himself - well, he's not quite as major a character as the title suggests, but, without spoiling too much, sets up a big story arc to come - one of several intriguing stories this film puts in motion.

A surprisingly strong addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe which really shakes up what we've come to expect from this series, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that rare thing - a superior sequel. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have taken us on an enthralling, twisty ride with genuine character depth, thematic craftsmanship and political resonance on top. I'm sold on the next one...

Monday, 21 April 2014

Transcendence could have been a brilliant film had it been written and directed by Christopher Nolan and shot by Wally Pfister. But it wasn't. 

Nolan’s former cinematographer-of-choice Pfister is clearly trying to emulate the great films made by this partnership in his own directorial debut – like Inception, it’s a sci-fi epic with a brain. It does have a strong concept; Johnny Depp’s Doctor Will Caster, obsessed with understanding the world through computing, uploads himself to the internet and becomes a supremely powerful cybernetic intelligence – the classic sci-fi idea of a scientist turning himself into a god (see Doctors Moreau or Frankenstein) crossed with contemporary issues surrounding internet surveillance and near-future ideas like nanotechnology. Indeed, it’s a timely plot full of clever twists, allowing for a combination of head-scratching thought and neat action set pieces; at its best, Transcendence is a captivating piece of speculative fiction.

The problem is that it fails to connect with its characters, who plod their way through the plot but have little depth to make us care about them. A great cast, including Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and a bored-looking Depp, are wasted on mediocre writing, and it’s sad to think how great the story could have been if a better writer had taken their pen (well, their Final Draft app) to the crumbling relationship between Caster and his wife Evelyn (Hall), at first determined to bring her husband back to life through whatever means necessary but increasingly aware of the worldwide danger she’s causing.

I also got the feeling that the film is fifteen minutes too long, and there are clear sections that scream to be cut down. The trailer gives the impression that Doctor Caster gets shot, dies, but uploads himself into the computer system, right? No. He gets shot, magically recovers, prances around for ten minutes showing off his big, shiny computers, then falls ill and dies. Then becomes the internet. Oh, and there are some weird plot holes, such as the FBI sitting on their arses for two years before deciding they should probably take a look at the massive computer complex from which Johnny Depp’s quite clearly taking over the world.

Hey, at least, coming from Pfister, it must look good, right? Well, not that good. There are some scenes where his experience as a cinematographer shows in inspired choices of shots, combining the beauty of the natural world with high-tech futurism, but as a whole, his cinematographer Jess Hall doesn’t have the same talent as Pfister himself in finding the perfect shot to bring drama and energy into a scene, leaving the film often looking as dry as the dialogue sounds.

Despite my criticisms, I did enjoy Transcendence, more than other critics seem to have – maybe I have a soft spot for this genre, but there do seem to be a lot of good ideas piled into this film. But it could be so much better. To put it another way, I wasn't as bored as Johnny Depp seemed to be, but Pfister should stick to what he’s good at.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

So I have a Letterboxd account now. I first saw the film-based social network a couple of months ago and thought "eh, maybe later" but this week had an immense amount of uni work to do, so signed up for it. I've been keeping a loose personal film diary for a while, but hopefully letting my thoughts be more open to public scrutiny will push me to make them be better, as thoughts go. Or I'll forget to ever use it again. The point is, it's encouraged me to write up short reviews of everything I watch, and those reviews which end up being medium as opposed to short might as well be posted here too.

Anyway, I watched Black Swan last night...

I can’t say ballet’s ever appealed to me. Watching dance isn’t my ideal evening, and what it does to toes is just icky.

Nevertheless, the bitchy and ruthless behind the scenes goings-on at a production of Swan Lake is the perfect setting for a Darren Aronofsky film – Black Swan isn’t about ballet, it’s about obsession and psychological turmoil. Like Pi and The Wrestler, this film follows a character who becomes so obsessed with something to the point of psychological ruin (the ending in particular is very comparable to that of The Wrestler).

It’s an intense and unrelenting film in which Natalie Portman’s meek Nina is oppressed by all around her, from her overbearing mother to her promiscuous rival, as she tries to find the rebellious black swan within herself. As her story reflects that of Swan Lake, Aronofsky’s edgy direction reflects the ballet, with powerful orchestral music drawing scenes together and Matthew Libatique’s rough yet fluid camerawork, as intrinsically part of the dance as it is part of the psychology, dancing around the characters majestically and synching gracefully with the tense emotional beats. 

Combined with Portman’s fierce performance, this all creates a restless yet exquisite drama that continues to surprise and is hard to take your eyes away from. Except for the shots of battered toes. Ugh…

Friday, 18 April 2014

On 18.4.14 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

The four hundredth issue of Starburst Magazine is out today, and I'm very proud to have contributed to the big anniversary feature - a look back at how sci-fi, fantasy and horror have developed across the lifetime of the magazine. My section covers the 2000s and onwards, as I'm the young and energetic kind of writer, except for the energetic bit.

Unfortunately, my copy's currently across the Pennines from me (going back to York for my final term of university on Sunday... eek), but I can tell you it's (probably) a landmark issue worth buying.