Army Surplus – A review of 300: Rise of an Empire

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I didn’t like the first 300. It was a dull, headache-inducing and seemed to have been written by a 14 year old boy. Nevertheless it was a monster hit, and with its mix of history with stylized violence and sex was hugely influential. It’s a surprise then that the sequel has taken such a long time coming.

Well, I say sequel, though it’s more of a story happening parallel to the events in 300. It follows Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) who leads a war against the Persians, led by Artemisia ( Eva Green), a bloodthirsty warrior of the giant god-king Xerxes. The premise of looking at the other side of the war in 300, instead of just doing a prequel or sequel, is an interesting choice. Of course, following the Spartans after 300’s ending would make an Olympic event of logical gymnastics. I went in to the movie not expecting much, but hoping it would be stupid dumb fun. A guilty pleasure.

How wrong I was. It’s astoundingly boring. Lena Headey, returning as Queen of Sparta, starts the film with so much voice-over exposition that it’s as though the Star Wars opening scroll has been left running until it reaches the edge of the universe. It is supposed to enlighten us as to how Xerxes went from ordinary man to the giant deity he is, but this possibly interesting back story is explained away by Xerxes submerging himself in a magic pool and emerging fully transformed. How did he change? What was that pond of screenwriting convenience?  Why is dressed like a Brazilian Mardi Gras dancer? These are questions that I would be wondering if I cared at all.

Themistocles is a character without a glimmer of personality other than ‘tough’. At least Gerard Butler, the original’s protagonist, had a tongue in cheek wit, and lines so memorable that people now wear them on T shirts. Here, Stapleton’s Themistocles has dense dialogue, without any irony or humour, and every line is delivered with either a frown or a shout.

The idea of a female antagonist is an interesting one, especially since the first film was one of cinema’s biggest sausage-fests, yet Eva Green is far too femme-fatale elegant to convince as a brutal war lord. In fact, rather than gender balance, I suspect the only reason a female villain was included was to shoe-horn some boobs in.

The heavy use of computer graphics and slow motion gives the fighting a video-game look, which becomes very tiring, sort of like watching someone play PlayStation. The action in this film is on a much larger scale than it is in 300, yet is actually less exciting. While Zack Snyder, the original’s director, clearly has an eye for cool visuals, director Noam Murro thinks it’s all about quantity. So we get huge amounts of battle ships, thousands and thousands of soldiers, massive explosions. But the more we get the more we take it all for granted. And since it’s all clearly been programmed by men sitting at computers there’s no real sense of awe.

While the original had flaws, it was bold. It created something new, a film that looked like nothing we’ve seen before, and led to a barrage of copy-cats. This film is feels like yet another imitator. It doesn’t attempt anything new, just more of the same. It may have abs, but it doesn’t have balls.


Posted in Cinema, Opinion

Should films tell the truth?

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Films based on true stories are as popular as ever with the Academy Awards, with five ‘Best Picture’ nominations this year based on real events. But while Philomena has been praised for its accuracy, The Wolf of Wall Street and Captain Phillips have both been criticized for twisting the truth.

In the case of the Wolf of Wall Street, the real problem stems from the memoir written by real life ‘wolf’ Jordan Belfort, which the film follows very faithfully. Belfort is a very unreliable narrator, but then again what can you expect from a con man? Scorsese understands this and throughout the film has Belfort ( Leonardo DiCaprio) break the fourth wall by turning to the audience to tell his story, implying we are listening to this man’s own self-glorifying and possibly delusional tale of events.

However Captain Phillips, which is the far more straight-faced of the two, has raised controversy over whether the true story has been altered for dramatic effect. Many of the real crew members claim that Richard Phillips was no hero, and was an arrogant man who put lives in danger by ignoring numerous warnings of Somali pirates. It has raised concerns that director Paul Greengrass, despite his trademark use of documentary-style handheld cinematography, has made a Hollywoodized version of the truth where the Average Joe, played by the king of Average Joes Tom Hanks, overcomes the extraordinary and becomes a hero.

It’s easy to understand the concerns over accuracy. Films are popular, and bring exposure to real events and history that people may not be that informed about, and therefore one might assume the filmmakers have the responsibility to stick to the truth. This would especially be the case for recent events that deal with delicate subjects, such as Captain Phillips, where fabrication would be looked upon as bad-taste. This was very much the case for Diana, the biopic of the late princess, which was mauled by critics for having the stench of melodramatic artifice. Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate arrived with a tidal wave of bad press over it’s apparent dishonesty, with Julian Assange writing to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor portraying him, to drop his involvement, afraid that the general public would be grossly misinformed about his organization. He needn’t have worried. It was the biggest financial flop of 2013.

However should inaccuracy be considered as a valid criticism? A film should primarily exist to entertain, and engage, rather than inform. In the hype surrounding the release of Django Unchained, many shook their heads in distaste at the thought of Quentin Tarantino treating a story concerning slavery with the same cartoonish excessiveness of Kill Bill, yet they only needed to look at how brilliantly entertaining his World War Two film Inglourious Basterds was to put their fears to rest. Inglouroius Basterds proudly gives the finger to historical accuracy, creating an alternate WWII closer in tone to the Captain America comics than Saving Private Ryan. By doing this, Tarantino liberates himself from the facts and focuses on giving us a good time.

The same can be said for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, perhaps one of the most famous examples of Hollywood getting history wrong big time. Braveheart aims for the drama and romance of a Robin Hood legend, throwing in a crackpot love affair between the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace and the English princess, even going as far as to say that Edward III was Wallace’s son. By being free of the constraints of a factual biopic, Braveheart seems to mythologize William Wallace as much as his countryman do, which is what makes this film so enjoyable.

Many much-loved films have sacrificed authenticity for the sake of drama, among them Amadeus, which creates a largely fictional relationship between Mozart and fellow composer Salieri, Idi Amin biopic The Last King Of Scotland, where the protagonist is a fictional proxy for the audience, and A Beautiful Mind, which greatly exaggerates the hallucinations of it’s real life subject, mathematician John Nash. In fact, the man who is guilty for some of most blatant falsifying for dramatic effect is also the most revered dramatist ever, William Shakespeare, who spiced up his historical plays with ghosts and witches.

If filmmakers and the audience want the truth and nothing but the truth, then documentaries are where they should find it. Films should have the creative license to be as inaccurate as they like, as long as it makes them more gripping, interesting and entertaining. Audience members must remember that the cinema is a place of escapism, one where the facts will always have a liberal dash of fiction.

This article was first published in the February edition of The Insiter. Grab your copy from the designated pick up points.

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The Lego Movie: Review

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When I first heard about The Lego Movie, I had no clue what the film could possibly be about. After all, when I played with Lego, all I had was a box of bricks that clicked together, and their potential for a block-buster (pun, I’m afraid, intended) seemed pretty slim.

However, the Lego universe includes countless sets, figurines, video-games and direct to DVD movies based on popular franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This allows directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord to fill their film with crazy worlds and a host of pop culture icons.

The film follows Emmet (Chris Pratt), an extraordinarily ordinary figurine, who goes about his days in a city made entirely out of Lego. There, people listen to the same song over and over, and knock down buildings only to rebuild them again. It’s a looped cycle of satisfied routine, similar to The Truman Show’s town of Seahaven. However, Emmet meets a woman named Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) , who looks like a Lego version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who tells him that he is ‘the special’, the only individual who is capable of thwarting the Evil Lord Business’ (Will Ferrell) plans to freeze the world. This leads to an adventure where Emmet meets the ego-centric Batman (Will Arnett), a spaced-out spaceman (Charlie Day) and a wizard played by everyone’s favourite pair of vocal cords, Morgan Freeman.

The film is clearly made to appeal to adults just as much as it is to kids, if not more so, thanks to its tongue in cheek irony and self-referential sense of humor. The movie also has several amusingly bonkers moments that come close to what I imagine it’d be like to take LSD in Legoland. So many gags fly at you it’s hard to keep up. Many hit, but many miss, and the film seems as though it’s trying too hard to prove its own hip-ness. And I have an ominous feeling I’ll be hearing the ‘Everything Is Awesome’ song for years to come.

The worlds themselves, from the sprawling metropolis to the old west, are incredible to look at. These landscapes are computer generated yet have a stop motion appearance, and faithfully work within the confines of real Lego constructions. There really is something intricately beautiful about seeing everything made of tiny plastic bricks. However, when it comes to the many action sequences, the screen erupts into explosions of little bits and pieces, and can be frustrating to watch. In fact, the film is packed with a few too many action scenes, which would doubtless please kids, yet is a bit too hyper for me. I prefer the simpler storytelling charm of Pixar’s Toy Story films.

That being said, Toy Story is clearly an inspiration. Like Toy Story, the characters are fun and get great lines, especially Batman who steals the show, with Arnett gently parodying Christian Bale’s overly-brooding take on the character (which he both deserved and needed right now). The film’s ending also matches the very best of Pixar. Blockbuster films, especially kid’s films, tend to get tiring by the third act when the story needs to be wrapped up and originality is put to the side. Here, however, Miller and Lord give the plot a surprising turn that completely elevates the movie, from just daft fun to something quite special. You will leave the cinema with your heart warmed and a nostalgia for childhood playthings. Now where did I put those Lego bricks?

Posted in Cinema

12 Years A Slave: Review

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12 Years a Slave is director Steve McQueen’s ( The British artist turned filmmaker, not Bullitt) adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir, an account of how he was kidnapped from his well-to-do family life and sold into slavery in pre-civil war era America. Like Anne Frank’s diary, Northup’s memoir was at the very heart of the darkness, and McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley should, first and foremost, be commended for bringing such a historically important work to the wider attention of the public.

Yet historical importance doesn’t always equal great film. I wasn’t a fan of Spielberg’s Lincoln, for example, where something as significant as the abolishment of slavery made for a frankly tedious movie. Thankfully, however, 12 Years a Slave has a fantastically gripping story. In some respects there is something fairy-tale like to it. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is lured into a trap by the promise of working in the circus from two flamboyant men, who reminded me of the fox and the cat from Pinocchio. Like that living-puppet, Northup goes on a perilous journey. He is sold to the sympathetic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is bullied by Ford’s slimy worker (Paul Dano), and eventually becomes the captive of a monstrous villain, Epps (Michael Fassbender), the Stromboli of the film. The Pinocchio comparisons may not be intentional given it’s a faithful adaptation of a true story, yet it gives the plot a classical feel. It’s the age-old ‘beware of strangers’ bed-time story splattered with the violence of slavery.

McQueen, director of Hunger and Shame, is a director known for stylistic touches, and 12 Years has plenty. Sometimes they are over-indulgent, such as the occasional needlessly long take, yet the film’s bold visuals are hard to forget. There are moments where characters are lit by spotlight, against oily black backdrops that lend the feeling of watching a play, or a piece of performance art. Of course, McQueen was formerly a performance artist, and something of that background has remained in 12 Year’s DNA. McQueen infuses 12 Years with a sense of dread akin to a horror movie. The cinematography creates an ominous atmosphere, such as when the camera creeps through the bamboo leaves as though it is the point of view of a predator. This sense of foreboding terror is heightened by the music by Hans Zimmer, which is strong and unsettling at parts, reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood. Unfortunately, other parts of the score sound as though Zimmer rummaged through his waste-paper basket and recycled his Inception music, leading to some annoying auditory déjà vu.

On a performance level, the film soars. Chiwetel Ejiofor is completely believable in the lead role of Northup, as is Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsy. Fassbender is terrifying as Epps, a portrayal of an aggressive bully so good he may become type-cast as Hollywood’s go-to bad-guy, like Ralph Fiennes after Schindler’s List. Paul Giamatti makes an enjoyably despicable slave trader (the second slave trader he has played: he was an orangutan selling humans in Planet of the Apes), while Benedict Cumberbatch pulls off perhaps the most intriguing character in the film. He is a product of his a time, a slave owner, yet he is kind ray of light in Northup’s descent into hell, like Mr.Brownlow in Oliver Twist. However, Brad Pitt (who also produces) saddles his film with its biggest flaw. Pitt has the baggage of being a huge movie star, and while that has worked out great in black comedies such as ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Burn After Reading’, here he is distracting and out of place. On top of that, he resurrects his awful southern drawl from Inglourious Basterds, another film in which he was terribly miscast. Maybe the role was a ‘thank you’ from Steve McQueen to Pitt for helping get the film made. Next time a box of Quality Street (or some acting-class vouchers) might be a better idea.

Nevertheless, this is a remarkable piece of storytelling, as gripping a tale as it is an important one, and is much needed after the Looney Tunes excess of Django Unchained. McQueen, you had my curiosity. Now you have my attention.

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Tales of Hoffman : My Top Five Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances

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On the 2nd of February, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away from a drug overdose, at the age of 46. He was perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, one whose name on the credits meant there was at least one great thing worth watching a film for.

He was born in 1967 and shared his mother’s passion for theatre. He began acting in high school, and then started out with small roles in Law and Order and Scent of a Woman, in which he was noticed by wunderkind director Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson gave him a small but memorable role as a cocky loud-mouthed gambler in Hard Eight. They collaborated four more times, each role displaying a very different yet similarly fantastic Hoffman.

He took part in an eclectic variety of projects, from small independent films like ‘Happiness’ to Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Mission Impossible 3’ and ‘Catching Fire’, and was able to turn each role into a scene-stealing master-class of bravura, or a work or understated perfection. He was both a great supporting actor and a leading man, and won an Oscar for the title-role of Capote. He also made his directorial debut with ‘Jack Goes Boating’ and was acclaimed for his work in the theatre, starring in ‘Death of a Salesman’ in 2012.

He leaves behind a wealth of terrific performances, each one displaying his versatility and charisma. These are just 5 of my personal favourites. Honourable mentions must go to his roles as a sycophantic assistant in The Big Lebowski, a love-struck gay boom operator in Boogie Nights, a priest accused of paedophilia in Doubt, and for being, by far, the only good thing in Patch Adams.

5) Freddie Miles, The Talented Mr. Ripley

Hoffman provides this haunting drama with a spark of lively comic relief as the brash snob Freddie, and is the vulgar self-assured foil to Matt Damon’s nebbish Tom Ripley. It’s a film packed with great actors, including Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Cate Blanchett, yet from the moment Hoffman blazes onto the screen in a red convertible, he steals the show.

4) Truman Capote, Capote

The role that won Hoffman the Oscar, and rightly so. Hoffman doesn’t usually change his accent for roles, yet here he does a spot-on impression of Truman Capote’s high pitched voice without turning it into a caricature. Hoffman shows a determined intelligence behind the camp socialite façade. It’s the role he’s best known for, and it’s clear why.

3) Lancaster Dodd, The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson has always directed Hoffman to great performances .The Master, though, is Hoffman’s best work, where he plays the Master himself, Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a pseudo psychological cult called The Cause. The character is based on L. Ron Hubbard, but, with his theatrical flair and powerful persona, seems equally inspired by Orson Welles. Hoffman’s charisma leaves you in little wonder why so many would devoutly follow his mad theories.

2) Caden Cotard, Synecdoche New York

This is a puzzling masterpiece that’s filled with dream-like surrealism, yet is grounded by a remarkably restrained performance by Hoffman. Caden is a pretentious playwright who has the wild ambition to build a life-size replica of New York and populate it with actors, in order to portray life as truthfully as possible. It is Hoffman’s most understated performance, portraying a lonely man afraid of the inevitability of death. In the wake of Hoffman’s own death, it feels more profound than ever.

1) Sandy Lyle, Along Came Polly

Talk about stealing the show : Along Came Polly is a passable Ben Stiller romantic comedy. Not terrible but definitely not extraordinary either. That is, of course, unless Philip Seymour Hoffman is onscreen. He is hilarious as washed up former child star Sandy, a delusional doofus, blissfully unaware about his lack of acting talent or basketball skills. Hoffman had always been good at comedy, but this is him at his show-stopping best. It’s a mark of how great he was that he could turn even the most mediocre script into something sublime to watch. That is why Philip Seymour Hoffman was my favourite actor. And you’ll never hear Daniel Day Lewis talk about ‘sharting’…

Posted in Cinema, Culture, News

Pros and Cons: a review of American Hustle

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David O Russell’s American Hustle begins with the claim that ‘some of this really happened’. This pretty much sets the tone for the film. Russell isn’t interested in sticking to the facts, but instead uses the true story of Abscam scandal of the late 1970s as a springboard into crafting an entertaining crime caper.

That caper centres around Irving (Christian Bale) a con man, who, with his partner in crime (Amy Adams) is convicted and forced to work for a cop called Richie (Bradley Cooper). Richie wants to entrap Jeremy Renner’s charismatic New Jersey Mayor, Carmine. Meanwhile Irving’s bitter wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) starts to become involved with her husband’s work. The story becomes increasingly complicated as a fake Arab sheikh, the mob, and politicians become involved.

I tend to find heist films difficult to follow, and staying on top of a plot involving con layered upon con can lead to occasional ‘what’s-going-on’ frustration instead of more than ‘what-will-happen-next’ intrigue , at least on first viewing. However the film has a lively swing to it, with flowing camera movements and elegant slow motions that beautifully match its fantastic Jukebox soundtrack. This stylish use of cinematography and music is reminiscent of Scorsese’s Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

I think that it is this breezy charm that has led the film to be classified as a comedy by the Golden Globes, who awarded it for Best Picture. However, to call the film a comedy would misrepresent it. It isn’t funny enough to truly be a comedy. A better description would be a quirky crime drama. As with the films of the Coen brothers, much of the humor comes from the idiosyncrasies of the characters, and the odd period details, such as their flashy costumes and silly hair, which make the cast look as though they’re attending a seventies-themed fancy dress party.

The hairstyles and costumes don’t just establish the decade though, they also establish perhaps the major theme of the film, that of reinvention. The opening shot is of Bale applying fake hair and forming a comb-over, in a futile attempt to fool people into thinking he isn’t bald. This idea of disguising the reality about who we are reappears throughout the film, not only for the purposes of the con, but also in the relationships between the characters: lonely, desperate people wanting to change their lives for the better. And it is in those characters, and intimate depiction of them, that ‘American Hustle’ excels.

Each actor is given a juicy role to sink their teeth into, and each gives an incredible performance. Bale once again transforms himself physically, this time putting on a beer belly that makes him look more like The Penguin than Batman. Yet it’s a testament to Bale’s skill that it never feels like an attention grabbing gimmick. He inhabits the role of Irving so comfortably you forget about the physical change and believe completely in the character. After the po-faced humourlessness of the Dark Knight films, it’s refreshing to see him have so much fun with a role.

Amy Adams, like Bale, has proved herself to be one of the most versatile actors out there, capable of playing Disney princesses, timid nuns or tough bartenders , and, for an infatuated fan like myself, any film she is in is worth watching ( even the God-awful Man of Steel). This is perhaps her best performance yet, ranging from sexually-charged confidence to heartbroken vulnerability.

Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner are also very convincing, and conform to the crime genre staple of the cop being a far less respectable person that the man he’s chasing. Cooper’s character is an unlikable one, highly-strung and aggressive, with a fiancé he doesn’t acknowledge, and this contrasts nicely to Renner’s popular mayor Carmine, an honorable family man, yet one who is willing to bend the law for the benefit of the people in his town.

However, it is Jennifer Lawrence who is undoubtedly the stand out. She gives a firecracker of a performance, infusing the alcoholic Rosalyn with vindictiveness, loneliness and mental instability, a cross between Lady Macbeth and Jersey Shore. A second Oscar in a row looks like a strong possibility. Let’s hope she doesn’t trip this time.

Posted in Cinema