Monday, July 28, 2014

CAPSULE!: The Purge: Anarchy

James DeMonaco's THE PURGE had an intriguing premise: in a near future, weirdly neocon utopian America, citizens are allowed to go on a twelve-hour, consequence-free crime spree at a predetermined time of the year. But many found this juicy premise undermined by a certain lack of real ideas on screen, with a low budget limiting the movie to the story of a single home under siege. The premise's built-in social commentary was set aside, many felt, to craft yet another home invasion horror-thriller.

The new sequel, THE PURGE: ANARCHY, finds DeMonaco working a bit more confidently on a much larger canvas, setting up three different plot threads that collide on the streets of Los Angeles with the Purge well under way. A married couple run for their lives after their car breaks down just as the Purge is starting; and a mother and daughter are dragged from their home by faceless soldiers for some sinister but unknown purpose. All of these characters suddenly fall in with a taciturn man (known only as Sergeant, played with deep reservoirs of wounded masculinity by Frank Grillo) who's clearly Purging with a mission in mind. This is a summer sequel with a rare, angry social conscience, mindful of the human and social costs of the violent carnage it depicts.

DeMonaco expands also on the breadth of his ideas, probing specifically how middle & lower class people fare in the face of the Purge (and how the thing is deliberately used by the government as yet another means of keeping those troublesome populations under control). There's much to chew over here, and there are enough gaps that one is grateful that DeMonaco gives us space to draw our own conclusions (even if there's lingering suspicion that DeMonaco hasn't quite put it all together himself). One feels like this is the movie DeMonaco would have preferred to start the series with, and hopes that he has several more in him. And even if the final confrontation between Sergeant and his ultimate target seems like it could have been played for greater depth, the final moments of the movie register with power, even grace. Though it feels like DeMonaco is still figuring out both the details of his world and its correlations to our own, in the end he's crafted a story that makes us think as well as feel. One emerges from it shaken, elated, moved. Purged, perhaps.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Editorial From TechUtopia

Jaman HQ is located in Potrero Hill, a southeastern neighborhood of San Francisco. The city's long been a hub of innovation, and recently the second wave of a tech boom has profoundly affected local politics and culture. Landlords are chasing the influx of new tech money, and new condos are going up everywhere as longtime residents of the city are being forced out of their homes. The streets are filled with Google buses, monolithic transports that shuttle tech workers between their Bay Area offices and the San Francisco homes. Many longtime residents complain that much of what made the city special is being sucked out of it by this ubiquitous new influx of tech culture.

Here at Jaman it's hard to miss these stories, or to avoid thinking about our own role in them. Two articles were all over our feeds this week: one was an editorial in the Guardian on the anti-tech backlash in San Francisco which put some fairly vehement anti-tech sentiments into perspective. Writer JR Hennessy argues "...The backlash against this world is democracy manifesting itself; a tacit rejection of the ideological assumptions underpinning the personal tech revolution. People want to define the structure of their own lives, and Silicon Valley's myriad product lines are an unwelcome intrusion into the way we live and interact with one another – and even the way we eat, sleep and procreate."

The second article came from the Verge, with writer Chris Ziegler discussing the month he spent ingesting nothing but Soylent. Taking its name from a cult sci-fi movie (specifically from a food product with sinister ingredients, shoveled into the mouths of an impoverished overpopulation), Soylent is a nigh-flavorless substance that offers solid nutrition in a bland but easy-to-consume liquid for anyone too busy to cook or even think about a meal. Ziegler offers a balanced overview of the pros and cons of the product, but in the end his conclusions are in line with Hennessy's: "...the real problem is that Soylent ignores the social and entertainment value of eating: food is not merely sustenance, it’s a tightly woven part of our everyday lives...A strict diet of beige liquid fundamentally changes the patterns of your daily life, and not entirely for the better. It isolates you in ways you may not necessarily consider."

It's this isolating aspect of technology that we think about time and again here at Jaman. At Jaman we would love to be your first choice for movie searches & recommendations. But we're too much in love with the experience of cinema to want to be your sole source of movies. Granted, we've met wonderful people over the years whose passion for cinema is inversely proportional to the size of the town they live in, and the internet allows them a universe of viewing options they wouldn't have otherwise. But if you could have the cinematic experience as your main means of seeing movies, why wouldn't you? The convenience of streaming has many attractions (no noisy patrons, no leaving your home, eat whatever you want, pause whenever you want, etc.) but some still hold out for love of the cinematic experience (superior depth of film image, moviegoing as an OCCASION, sharing a movie with a roomful of engaged strangers, etc.). The last thing we'd want you to do is cheat yourself of the experience of seeing a movie in a theatre filled with people wanting to share the ride with you. Popcorn goes better with movies than Soylent, any day.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rohan: Great Apes, Puny Humans

(Our friend Rohan Morbey argues that the apes are the only reason to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, though that might be reason enough. We're always happy to cross-post his reviews, appearing as always over at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK; we strongly recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, like any prequel or movie based on a novel, suffers from inevitability. We know how it will end, but the enjoyment should come from how it gets there and how it takes the audience along on the ride. Despite some great acting and truly awe inspiring advancements in motion capture, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the complete lack of interest the story provided. The film could have shown us so much, but delivered so little.

What do I mean by this? We know how it will all end, not just this film but any film which is made until the studio decides that the 1968 original will be the "next chapter." Dawn’s one and only task is to make the inevitable interesting. CGI and motion capture brilliance aside, Dawn tries to make an ‘epic’ (the most incorrectly used term in movie reviewing today) story out of nothing, and stretches the running time of the previous film out by another 20 minutes, yet has none of the intrigue which Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes so effortlessly combined with excitement, sadness, and a cautionary tale. In other words, Rise was the perfect big budget summer movie for those wanting more than the usual nonsense we’re given every year.

That’s not to say Dawn is complete nonsense but for all its attempts to bring a sense of Shakespearean tragedy to a $170 million movie, the human characters are as bland as any you’re likely to see, and the apes become clich├ęs of countless films we’ve seen before. As for the plot; no one is seeing Dawn for any reason other than the apes, and if you’re going to include humans then they’d better serve some higher purpose than a foe to attack. If this were human versus humans going through the same tired plot points no one would forgive it, so why should it be overlooked because of some great CGI? The scandalous lack of depth given to these humans reinforces the screenwriters’ acceptance that they are just there to act as a catalyst for the eventual battle. In Rise the humans had character, but in Dawn they are screenwriting-for-beginners plot beats, which is even worse when great actors like Gary Oldman are given nothing to do and Jason Clarke and Keri Russell are asked to carry the film. Both are fine actors, but these were thankless roles.

Furthermore, the film spends little time giving us any background on what has happened in the years since Rise, other than a mashup of news reports over the opening credits. If a decade of world shattering events is to be washed over, I’d have hoped for a far greater story than the one we get, which spans a few days and could have happened at any time in the course of those ten years. Why is it only now that humans and apes are meeting? Why are the humans stuck in San Francisco when they clearly have cars and gasoline to drive around? And what about other apes and human populations, why is nothing mentioned about these groups if ten years have passed? If the film makers want to save it for the third film, then Dawn is little more than a footnote in the series. 

What the film does well is make genuine characters of the apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). The first thirty minutes is therefore the strongest section of the film because it’s all about the apes; I really enjoyed seeing a non-human character become a father, worry about the wellbeing of his wife and discuss the challenges of fatherhood with an old friend. I also loved the thought of young apes learning to speak English in a classroom, and the community these animals have made. I could have watched an entire film of just the apes and how they have evolved since Rise, especially with the awesome special effects this film delivers. Not once in the film did I think of these apes as CG creations, and this is the movie’s overriding success, and reason enough to recommend the film.

The initial interaction between ape and human also had its moments, with Caesar trying to be a diplomat facing insubordination in the ranks from either side. But all of the nuances developed there are pushed aside for the usual big budget action ending, where apes attack the humans and it all gets very predictable and rather uninspired. Some may argue that seeing apes act like humans is the obvious evolution towards the eventual scenario this is all leading up to (the '68 original), but my point is this: when we see apes speak and act like human in the first film it’s a shock to audiences and there is a wonder and inquisitive element as to how this could possibly be, but when all those questions are answered and handed to us in a neat package, where is the sense of wonder and awe and imagination on the audience’s part? It’s all replaced by milestone incidents which are added to get from point A to B and with big budget action to hide the fact that nothing is left to the imagination anymore.

By the time the climactic set piece arrives (taking place on a skyscraper for no apparent reason), nothing looks real any longer nor was anything in the balance or remotely interesting. It was no better than any other comic book film or superhero movie and therein lies the fatal error with Dawn; it may evolve what can be done with CGI and the series’ storyline (slightly) but it devolves as storytelling. With so many options available to tell the post-Rise story, to think this was the chosen one is quite a disappointment.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: Magic in the Moonlight

What many don't acknowledge about Woody Allen is that he's just not stopping. Yes, his American funding has stopped, forcing him to head outside his beloved Manhattan to make his movies. And yes, his output is crazily uneven, from the Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris and surprisingly biting thriller Match Point to completely forgettable exercises like Scoop and Cassandra's Dream. But his take on other cities besides New York has been surprisingly vivid, and the unevenness of his output only speaks to its diversity. This has been a constant through his career - he could always deliver a stark drama inspired by Bergman one year then follow it up with wacky urbanity the next. The Allen movie is still a wild card, and cause for excitement.

Allen's latest, Magic in the Moonlight, is different to these eyes form his other movies, though no one else could have made it. The stage magic that has been a lifelong passion that Allen has alluded to in other movies, and it takes center stage here. Colin Firth (who is absolutely stellar at delivering Allen's most wicked insults) is stage magician Stanley, who sets aside his Orientalist schtick to visit France's Cote d'Azue, where a young clairvoyant named Sophie (Emma Stone) is impressing many with her gift (and turning quite a profit from it). Though initially skeptical, Stanley finds himself more and more convinced that Sophie's no fake, though he may be too blinded by his growing attraction to her to really see the truth.

It is a sunny period piece, to be sure, but everyone involved takes it seriously. The milieu of the stage magicians, from their onstage tricks to their offstage rivalries, is rendered convincingly, as is the world of 1920s seaside France. Allen staffs the movie with uniformly solid collaborators (and it's worth noting that no one in the principal cast has worked with Allen before), and even when Allen's grip on his material falters everyone involved works overtime to make the story work. Keep an eye on Stanley and Sophie - she's lit luminously throughout, while Stanley always seems to be partly in shadow while investigating her, his light and his costumes favoring lighter colors as love dawns on him. Darius Khondji, shooting his third movie for Allen, deserves an Oscar for his work on it - his lighting practically serves as a chorus throughout, commenting on the growing relationship and the imaginary (?) world of magic and spirit the characters all, to one degree or another, inhabit.

It sounds delightful, and it is, but Allen is unusually concerned with questions of illusion, reality, our capacity (and need) for belief in something intangible, what lies beyond our existence. One wonders if the sincerity of these questions hints that Allen is himself preoccupied with some great End ahead of him. But even at 78 he's challenging himself as an artist, and in the end Magic in the Moonlight considers mortality, but cheerfully abandons finality. Life continues beyond. So will Allen.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

NO MORE: Rohan Thwarted by Transformers 4

(Our friend Rohan Morbey sat through Transformers: Age of Extinction, and all he got for his pains was a cross-post of his intensely disappointed write-up. Rohan continues to write prolifically at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK; we strongly recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)

During my screening of Transformers: Age Of Extinction I could hear a man a few rows away from me talking out loud. I looked over and saw he was telling the kid behind him to stop kicking his chair; the kid didn’t hear him at first so he spoke a bit louder and the message was understood. It dawned on me at this point that this brief dialogue between two strangers had captivated my attention in a way the action on screen had failed to for the past two hours. I welcomed the distraction. Finally something was happening in the room which wasn’t a total bore. I kind of hoped the person behind me might start kicking my chair too, but they were selfishly well behaved and that brief respite away from the film was denied.

Never has a film shown us so much yet given us so little as Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Director Michael Bay throws everything at the screen during a running time longer than any of his three previous entries in the series, using up every last cent of the reported $200+ million budget to deliver state-of-the-art special effects which must have taken each of the creative artist all of the talent and skill to design and create, but fails to meet even the most basic, entry-level results you would expect. Bay’s attitude towards this fourth film is strikingly lackadaisical for a man who has become the king of pushing the limits of on-screen chaos (or ‘Bayhem’ as it has become known); whereas before directors like Peter Berg or Zack Snyder have clearly been influenced by (or plainly copied) his style, Bay has now made a film which looks like an imitation of his own style.

There is not one scene of the innovative action or style for which Bay has become famous. I have often said ‘love him or hate him, no one does carnage like Bay’ but with his latest film he’s simply phoned it in which is something he couldn’t be accused of before. Each set piece is the same as the last in terms of look, setting, execution, lack of tension, lack of excitement, and lack of awe. As much as I disliked the last Transformers film, it did have a five minute sequence of sheer brilliance as a skyscraper collapses and the humans within must hang on for dear life; in this scene Bay showed his best action direction since The Rock 15 years before. Bad Boys II was a nasty, gross film but damn it if that highway chase with the car transporter isn’t still one of the most pulse-pounding and innovative car chases I ever seen. Even the first Transformers film had some decent sequences before it went out of control, showing the audience CGI magic the likes of which we’d not seen before.

Yet Bay offers us precisely nothing here except a complete lack of understanding as to what makes an action sequence work. There is no tension, no build-up or gradual escalation, and no stakes. Sadly he seems to think shooting at the magic hour automatically makes a scene resonate with emotion but it’s all for effect and never for story with Bay. Moreover, with everything looking so false and fake for the majority of the film, the sunsets and red skies have no appeal and look as flat as the rest of the film.

Moreover, the film not only causes chaos in Chicago again but moves the action to Hong Kong for no other reason than to sell tickets in Asia; a wise move from a financial perspective on Paramount’s part, but Bay takes absolutely zero advantage of the change of location. In a James Bond or Mission: Impossible film the film makers would make the sequences unique to the locations, but in Transformers it’s just another load of tall buildings to destroy. And the product placement is obscene throughout the film without the slightest attempt to make it part of the film. I won’t lay all the blame on Bay here but someone needs a slap across the face for forcing this level of blatant and constant brand exposure into any movie.

At 166 minutes, the film is agonisingly too long for the story it is trying to tell, but what makes it even worse is the screenplay by Ehren Kruger, the man who penned the previous two films in the series. In the hands of Kruger and Bay the film easily has at least one awful moment during every minute of screen time; whether it is a camera angle or movement which makes no sense in context with the scene, an atrocious line of dialogue, awful acting, an attempt at humour which falls flat, a music cue which makes you cringe, character motivations which are idiotic even for this franchise, or making the plot (such as it is) become ever more unfathomable. That’s a minimum of 150 uniquely awful moments, minus the final credits.

I couldn’t list all the issues I had with the film because my memory is actively pushing them out as I write this review, but some are proving hard to forget:

• The language is revolting for a film aimed at kids and the ‘family ticket’ with Transformers saying ‘bitch’, ‘ass’, ‘I really want to kill someone’, ‘I want some scalps’, and a human dropping the F-bomb and wanting to run over innocent people whilst they make an escape.

• The inclusion and discussion of statutory rape in a film about aliens which transform into cars.

• The objectification of yet another female lead.

• Why do we need to see a man’s burnt corpse in this film?

• Why do any of the humans, and in particular the daughter and boyfriend, go to Hong Kong? What purpose can they possibly serve?

• Eye gouging and violent fist fights in a film based on toys and cartoons.

• A Transformer smoking a metal cigar – How and Why?

• Optimus Prime can fly – Why was this not used before?

• Who are the massive robots and why do they transform into dinosaurs and how can they breathe fire?

• The entire plot. Nothing makes sense.

If watching this film has taught me anything it is that I will never watch another Transformers film with Bay as director and Kruger as screenwriter again. My friends and readers can use this review as a reminder in two years time when the next one is released. Enough was enough back in 2009 but I stuck around for two more films. I won’t take anymore.

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