31 January 2014

The Big Old January Review Shuffle

Catch-up time. I've had one of those months where real life and other writing work has kept me from updating the blog, and I'm permanently trying to do better with that. In the meantime, here's a selection of some stuff I saw in January and didn't get around to reviewing on here, including Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Devil's Due, Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davies.

On top of that, I did find the time to write reviews of some films for sites that weren't this one, which means I've been cheating on you with Den of Geek again. Links to those reviews follow...

American Hustle (a three-star movie, with five-star performances)
August: Osage County (the longest, dreariest Mrs. Brown's Boys ever made)
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (better than the fourth instalment and, to jump ahead slightly, far better than Devil's Due)

Forgive me! I haven't even got started on last Friday's releases yet, but here's what I have seen...

Around a week after I saw Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit in the cinema, I saw 1994's Clear & Present Danger for the first time, on More4. The major difference between these two films, (aside from tone, structure, and the lead actor's ability to snarl righteously in the face of corruption and political wrongness) is that the Bourne trilogy (plus one) happened in the two decades between them, and the latter film is quite obviously subsumed in the oft-imitated, seldom equalled style of those films.

It's also the first in the Jack Ryan series to use that brand, in the title of the film. It also happens to be the film which regenerates Tom Clancy's analyst-cum-Marine-cum-spy-cum-US-President(!) into a younger body than ever before, making Chris Pine the figurehead of a Casino Royale-style reboot. Riding high from his well-received rendition of Thor, director Kenneth Branagh clearly has a mind to make a good old-fashioned spy thriller, as Ryan begins his CIA career by facing off with Viktor Cherevin, a Russian oligarch who plots to crash the US stock market. But it quickly becomes clear that the studio weren't on the same page.

The result is a slightly harried film, with Branagh sitting men down on benches and in old-timey cinemas to exchange information/exposition, while the second unit stuff is made up of punchy-kicky-chasey stuff, largely shot with a shaky camera, which seldom serves to actually advance the plot. On one hand, it's a classy, modernised Len Deighton-style thriller, but on the other, it's frenetic and convoluted nonsense. The disparity comes from the fact that it's automatically not as good at being Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, just because it's sadly far better at being The Bourne Legacy- when was the last time you thought about that semi-reboot, before I just mentioned it?

It's far from dreadful, but when it comes off more as a franchise starter than the classy spy genre piece that was evidently within Branagh's ability, it will probably be judged as a disappointment. Judging the sequel potential of Shadow Recruit, it may only be Kevin Costner we'll be seeing again, in the long-mooted adaptation of Without Remorse, another Clancy novel that features his CIA handler, William Harper. Costner gives a solid supporting turn here, while Branagh makes a bold choice in directing himself as the villainous Cherevin, (this doesn't happen often- I can only think of Citizen Kane, arguably?) But Pine definitely suffers by comparison to previous screen Ryans. He's brilliantly cast as Captain Kirk, but you wouldn't cast William Shatner as this character either.

Not to add insult to injury, but ultimately, Clear And Present Danger still looks sharper and more intense and engaging than this one, despite being 20 years older and about 40 minutes longer. It's not all about comparison, mind. Mostly, I just wish I had the foggiest idea of what a shadow recruit is.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

Devil's Due is another January film that's dogged by shaky-cam and incoherent storytelling, but to a much more severe degree. Then again, it's a found footage horror film, and it happens to be the found footage film that's convinced me that the format has well and truly ran out of steam. It's another in a long line of films that pitches cameramen rather than characters- the Paranormal Activity films are most guilty of this, killing off all of their sympathetic characters so that the next film can spend another 45 minutes catching up with the audience.

Our cameraman here is Zach, who lenses the blissful wedding, mysterious honeymoon and subsequent unexpected bundle of joy that he shares with the love of his life, Samantha. It soon becomes obvious that she's not experiencing an ordinary pregnancy, but if you got that from the trailers, then the film has even less surprises in store for you. The antagonists are as vaguely drawn and deliberately oblique as in a PA sequel, and all the money shots and escalation have been blown in the marketing. That wouldn't necessarily be the film's problem as much as the product of shoddy marketing, but for three crucial reasons:

1. The scares we were shown ahead of time weren't even that good. That the film has no more to offer than the rote, uninteresting trailer, is an indictment of how uncreative it really is, especially because...

2. ... the film comes from two of the filmmakers involved in Radio Silence, the collective which was reponsible for the superb 10/31/98 short in the midst of the otherwise excruciating V/H/S, and I'm deeply disappointed that their feature debut wasn't even slightly imaginative.

3. Most of all, the marketing wasn't shoddy. They pulled off one of the most talked-about viral videos of last month by rigging up an animatronic baby in a remote-control pram, and scaring the shit out of New Yorkers. The video is far, far more creative in its 109 seconds, than the film was in its 89 minutes.

I can understand the arguments of some reviewers, that this is just a mediocre example of the genre, which doesn't need to be singled out as particularly awful. I personally just hate it when a film bores me, but doesn't that argument really mark the point of stagnation for a film trend? If Devil's Due is only above a drubbing by the virtue of not being the worst ever found-footage film, then it's time for found-footage films to go away for a while.

Devil's Due is still showing in cinemas nationwide.

Coming back around to the good stuff, part of what's so enjoyable about Nebraska is its simplicity, and that makes it perfect material for a shorter review. Alexander Payne directs this character study, in which elderly Woody Grant upsets and confuses his family with his insistence on setting off to collect a $1 million prize from a publisher's clearance lottery, on foot, all by himself. His exasperated son agrees to drive him there to settle the matter, and learns more about his father, without necessarily growing closer to him, during an unplanned stop in Woody's hometown.

Woody's personality is just about the most complicated thing in the film- this is a character study in which our hero gives nothing away about himself, and our perspective on him hinges entirely on what we learn about him from others. Bruce Dern, with a well-deserved Oscar nomination under his belt, embodies that abrasive charm, and has some wonderfully hands-off chemistry with MacGruber actor Will Forte, who's a revelation as his screen son. Revolving around this unlikely duo of hero and de facto protagonist, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk and  Stacy Keach lend ample support, along with a whole variety of non-actors, (locals from the film's shooting locations) giving charmingly untrained performances.

Nebraska is a breath of fresh air in the midst of a typically overwrought awards season, and well worth checking out if it's still showing near you. It's uncomplicated and exquisitely underplayed- I can think of a few actors and directors who could stand to challenge themselves as Payne, Dern et al have done, in making such a thoughtful film with no frills.

Nebraska is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide, and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 14th April.

Inside Llewyn Davis has something in common with Nebraska, in terms of having a closed-off lead character and a muted palette, but it's far more abrasive too. That's clearly a touch of the Coen brothers' magic, as a whole bunch of recurring motifs from their films (from folk music to errant cats) intersect in a film that could easily alienate. It measures up most closely to 2009's A Serious Man, a clearly personal and quite inaccessible project that still gained them a bunch of Oscar nominations.

This almost seems to be a pushback against that, even if many fancied it as a frontrunner in this year's awards season. It's 1961, and the eponymous penniless wastrel tries to scrape a living as a folk musician in Greenwich Village, while also grappling with his uncanny knack for making the worst possible decisions. The film, largely divested of narrative momentum, is rich in symbolism and character detail, delivered with the brothers' usual reluctance to spoon-feed such information, while simultaneously teasing certain readings of the film in a brazen fashion.

You find yourself having to pay close attention to a cat that Llewyn accidentally kidnaps early on, and you wind up looking so closely that you miss a vital pointer in the dialogue in the first ten minutes, because it's glossed over in the natural style of the script. From the surface alone, I wouldn't blame anyone for disliking this one, or for failing to get a read on what exactly the Coens are getting at, but as usual, they've made a film that rewards post-film discussion and multiple viewings. If that's their racket, you'll never catch me complaining.

On that surface level though, Oscar Isaac's performance is immediately remarkable, making great use of his training as a classical guitarist, while also proving prickly, deeply dislikeable but utterly watchable. Likewise, Bruno Delbonnel's wintry cinematography (which should be recognisable to fans of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, another film he shot) lends to a fluorescent pallor on top of the bleakness of it all, and the music is inevitably amazing. I still haven't stopped singing the abominably catchy Please Mr. Kennedy in my head, and it's slowly driving me nuts.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an odyssey through the mundane, with which roving creatives may find more sympathy than the mainstream audience would. It's a tough film to like, but it's not dour to the exclusion of their usual dark sense of humour, and even as a minor Coen brothers movie, it's worth a watch. It's also a perfect one to end this post on. It's cold, uneventful and rather bittersweet- they've essentially made January: The Movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis is now showing at selected cinemas nationwide.
See? Always late, but worth the wait. If you've seen any of these movies, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until normal service resumes, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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