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Sundance London: ‘Upstream Color’ (Shane Carruth, 2013)/’The Summit’ (Nick Ryan, 2013)

It’s difficult to know where to begin with Upstream Color. On the surface, at least, it seems to be about a man that infects a woman with a parasite, a parasite that convinces her to hand over her wealth – robbery by worm, if you will. As our perspective switches to this woman, we watch as the parasite is removed by a professional sound recordist/pig farmer and implanted in the body of one of his pigs. In the process, something of the woman’s essence – her soul, perhaps – transfers into the pig. All this, somewhat dreamlike, weaves in with a fledging romance between the female lead and a crooked yuppie (played by writer/director Carruth), as the connection between woman/animal and woman/man grows ever greater and ever stranger.

I was impressed by Carruth’s first feature Primer; a low-budget, hard sci-fi that’s easier to admire than to love. Primer was nearly completely inaccessible on first viewing, cleaning up slightly after further thought as the level of detail and elegance of its time travel device became apparent. I found Upstream Color a more engaging experience, an interesting relationship-heavy mood piece wrapped in a whacked-out premise featuring psychic swine.

Nick Ryan’s documentary The Summit tells the story of the deaths of eleven climbers on K2 in August 2008. Ryan’s film explores the various recollections of events specifically surrounding the disappearance of Irish mountaineer Ger McDonnell, drawing parallels back through history to the first successful assault on the summit in order to demonstrate how changing memories and interpretations can impact on how history chooses to remember an event. The problem with The Summit is that for all the tremendous landscape photography and archive footage, any attempts to view this event through multiple perspectives are sunk by the films own questionable objectivity. Perspectives that vary from that of the producers are disparaged, critiqued or outright omitted as Ryan, with aggressive editorialising, swings the slant of his documentary firmly behind the ‘hero’ narrative built up around McDonnell.

A short, not particularly informative Q&A after the screening did little to challenge the suspicion that The Summit operates primarily as a misplaced vehicle for the grief of the deceased’s family.

Upstream Color – 4/5

The Summit – 2.5/5

‘Iron Man 3’ (Shane Black, 2013)

Much as The Avengers dripped with Joss Whedon, Iron Man 3 is loud with the voice of writer/director Shane Black. Flippant, irreverent, snappy – it’s an interesting view into the future for Marvel as they segue into phase II of their comic universe. Whereas many superhero series lose that individual voice as they progress, the Marvel machine is facilitating bright, strident new ones by handing its first and second sequels to rare, specific talents rather than the usual rent-a-helmer journeyman that dominate late-franchise entries.

This is a standalone sequel in the purist sense, unencumbered by the pre-Avengers build-up that sunk its predecessor, free from the expectations of the big ‘finale’ coming with that crossover, and instead allowing itself a focused, surprisingly intimate look at its lead. Most second sequels drift into elaborate plans and multiple villains, but Black resists that urge (withheld perhaps for further films in the concurrent Avengers series), and instead crafts a sequel strangely lacking scope relative to its budget, with a more independently minded ethos and tighter spotlight.

Where Black’s film fails, and ultimately it does, is that for all its efforts to explore Tony Stark, Iron Man 3 is every bit as glib and frivolous as its protagonist. The Avengers triumphed by hitting that bullseye where consequence and emotional impact intersect with general genre play, taking full advantage of the love for these characters in their own adventures and ramping it up by raising the threat level. Compared to the threats faced by Stark in the crossover picture, this plays, at times, more like a broad studio comedy than a significant addition to the Marvel Universe. That’s fine, if what one desires is a respite from the portent and seriousness that afflicted, say, Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but after trawling through multiple Iron Man pictures I’m getting kinda weary of the lack of meat. Shane Black’s dialogue is sharp and engaging, rolling off Downey Jr’s tongue, but after three films and one spin-off, I can’t help but ask – where’s the substance?

 3/5

Gory Weekend: ‘The Collection’ (Marcus Dunstan, 2012)/’Evil Dead’ (Fede Alvarez, 2013)

I counted 74-minutes from the opening of The Collection through to the beginning of its 8-minutes of credits. To put that in perspective, even the slightest stop-motion and animated features tend to run at least 75-80. The Collector (2009) was very much a mid-franchise knock-off of the Saw films, with the same writers behind the latter four pics in that franchise abandoning the twisted moralising and backwards social conscience of the Jigsaw character in order to focus exclusively on ultra-violent trap sequences. Gone was any frilly ‘story’ nonsense and puzzlebox continuity; this was the Final Destination of torture-porn, the ‘easyJet’ of stripped-back horror fun.

The Collection, to my surprise, is even less substantial than its predecessor. Prior to viewing I would’ve doubted such a thing to be possible, but its unashamedly explicit death scenes are dished up with minimal filler for maximum impact, the sensitivities of all but a midnight audience immaterial as director Marcus Dunstan hacks, blasts and blows apart his cast in the most imaginatively grisly means possible. 

To genre-fans the new Evil Dead should be a refreshing, reassuring return to a beloved cinematic universe that treads much the same ground as Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead trilogy whilst avoiding the glossy/shiny/soulless card that sunk the disastrous string of recent Platinum Dunes horror remakes. The Raimi/Campbell/Tapert team have taken the reigns of their own franchise reboot – a smart move that imbues this latest entry with the integrity of their consent whilst allowing director Fede Alvarez the freedom to carve out his own corner in the Evil Dead world.

As with Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, each instalment of the Evil Dead saga involves, to varying degrees, remaking components of the first film and treading over elements of the same material. It’s a unique franchise in that the story is not so much ongoing, as a fresh opportunity to explore a different facet or angle on the same basic set-up. With the recurring iconography of the cabin, the Necronomicon, the VW Oldsmobile and Bruce Campbell’s Ash (here relegated to a short post-credits appearance), the three follow-ups to the ’81 Evil Dead each respect the wider mythology whilst honing in on a specific area of interest suited to each additional instalment. This new film, with some degree of success, offers a drug-centric explanation for the ‘trip to the woods’ as the lead Mia (Jane Levy) gets caught in demonic hijincks at our favourite shack during a heroin-withdrawal-holiday.

Besides his evident respect and passion for Raimi’s earlier trilogy, where I really give credit to Alvarez is in his enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries of splatty screen violence and intense, relentless bloodshed as far as the 18-certificate will allow. Raimi’s films always indulged in a degree of splashy, cartoonish mayhem, but Alvarez pushes out the blood cannons and gooey, practical fx as far as the frame will allow. For those of us concerned that Cabin in the Woods immaculate deconstruction signalled the end for further Evil Dead projects, Alvarez reminds us that sheer audacity of bodily leakage can always drag us back for more.

The Collection – 2.5/5

Evil Dead – 3.5/5

Blockbuster Catchup: ‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ (Bryan Singer, 2013)/’GI Joe: Retaliation’ (John Chu, 2013)

There’re always losers in a season littered with the forgotten bodies of lesser studio movies. Not everyone can be an Iron Man or Star Trek, riding the wave of hype into enthusiastic reviews and big box-office. GI Joe: Retaliation, as with its predecessor, will turn a small profit once merchandising is factored in, Jack the Giant Slayer on the other hand has sunk courtesy of a lacklustre marketing campaign and disinterested public. As with John Carter last spring, a passable product is guilty of overspending beyond likely returns leaving its flailing studio firing staff.

The best contemporary fairytales (Ella Enchanted, Stardust etc) work by keeping the costs down and keeping the energy up. Some (Alice in Wonderland, Oz) have enough oomph and star names/brand clout to knock aside the competition, but a project like Jack the Giant Slayer needed to keep that budget no higher than $80-120mil, slide gently through production and run a solid ad campaign with energy, humour and a few familiar faces. On the latter point, at least, there’s some degree of success, with the likes of Stanley Tucci and Ewan McGregor appreciating that they’re playing dress-up and hammily embracing the lack of performance boundaries inherent to the ‘big silly fairytale’ genre. It’s that sense of fun that resonates, the string of decent character actor bit parts sculpting something from nothing and helping avoid total catastrophe.

Bryan Singer has yet to really define himself as a filmmaker. The voice that once delivered The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil has been buried behind a torrent of disappointing special effects as he stumbles through a succession of polished, indistinct blockbusters. It’s the exact antithesis of Sam Raimi’s auteurist, style-hungry assault on Oz: The Great and Powerful, which carved a clear, appealing path where Jack offers up only dodgy mo-cap and unimaginative design. The colourful costumes and rural landscapes of the ‘real world’ are, frustratingly, far more appealing than the sludgy, derivative land at the top of the beanstalk – though any film in which Ewan McGregor is dusted with flour and baked into a giant sausage roll is worthy of at least some small amount of credit.

Where Jack the Giant Slayer is an honourable, often-enjoyable failure, GI Joe: Retaliation falls short on the more rudimentary level of containing no material, neither good nor bad, which warrants any form of remembrance. I had to research online simply to remember its subtitle, let alone the content of the work itself. Few studio films are as mind-numbingly lacking in impact as this one, with Bruce Willis on sleepwalker mode after the triumphs of Looper & Moonrise Kingdom; the baldhead photo-shop tool dragged and dropped into another unmemorable action picture, lazily swinging a gun around and quietly praying for a release from the pain.

Jack the Giant Slayer – 3/5

GI Joe: Retaliation – 2/5

‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ (Derek Cianfrance, 2013)

Beyond the brave, raw performances, the thing that appealed most to me about Derek Cianfrance’s debut feature Blue Valentine was the structural and thematic ambition. That film was unconcerned with passing by as another grungy indie romance, aiming high with aspirations beyond its suburban setting and limited finances.

The Place Beyond the Pines takes Cianfrance’s bold approach even further, using a trio of segments with overlapping characters to explore his ideas with scope, grandeur and a total disinterest in the self-imposed restrictions that sink many filmmakers in a similar budget category. His eye is on fathers, sons and how those relationships reverberate down and across through time and generations. Interesting to me was Cianfrance’s awareness that it’s familial instability rather than destiny that sinks the lives of the children dominating the third-act. Jason (Dane DeHaan) may pine for his father Luke (Ryan Gosling) – again the silent loner, but it’s the marital break-up of Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) that seems in no small part responsible for the downwards drift of his own teenage son AJ (Emory Cohen). By the time this third-act has fully unravelled, we sense the elegance and range of Cianfrance’s film; a huge step forward for a filmmaker now firmly established as one of the brightest young voices in American cinema.

4/5

‘Oblivion’ (Joseph Kosinski, 2013)

It’s a good job that the most interesting stuff in Oblivion has been shielded from audiences because I’ve found the marketing campaign thoroughly uninspiring. Universal seem to be of the false belief that aggressively pushing the name of director Joseph Kosinski’s first feature Tron: Legacy somehow constitutes an endorsement for his latest, a suggestion that ignores the mixture of disinterest and contempt with which most hold that glowstick turd.

Thankfully it would appear Kosinski has learnt that a distractingly appealing soundtrack and stunning design aren’t enough, stepping beyond the digital, dramatically inert world of Tron and into the desolate landscapes of Iceland (that reminded me more than a little of the locations used, sometimes identically, in last years Prometheus). In this regard, I’m drawn to the comparison between Kosinski and his fellow ad-man Ridley Scott. Similarly groomed from the world of commercials, Kosinski strikes me as something of a proto-Scott; a clean shooting visualist with a sharp eye, the quality of the work largely dependent on the strength of the script.

Oblivion is a strangely old-fashioned stew of ideas; a fun ride knocked down by the stench of unoriginality. I can’t foresee great rewatch value, especially when it hinges so much on twists and misdirection, yet its lack of franchise ambition is admirable and the cast perform well in underwritten roles. Though lacking the immaculate source material (and resulting disappointment) of the recent adaptation of I am Legend, that film comes to mind in the sense of an impressive opening act giving way to muddled ending, anchored by the charisma of an A-list star on decent form.

 3.5/5

‘Spring Breakers’ (Harmony Korine, 2013)

Had Spring Breakers been released at the tail end of the nineties, I think it might’ve been something of a formative film experience for me. Like Roger Avary’s breathtaking adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ Rules of Attraction or all the best and sleaziest sequences of teen mayhem from every horror film made during the 80s, Harmony Korine’s film captures something quite perfect about the ephemeral nature of youth. Korine, it seems, has quite the eye for rhythmic debauchery, heightened, stylised gratuity, swirling neon and alcohol-fuelled hedonistic dreams. At points Spring Breakers drops away from conventional narrative, dipping into fully unscripted party sequences concerned with immersion into the filthy, lurid world of summer at the beach. Korine, ever mischievous, storms through these sweaty gatherings grabbing a snippet here, a moment there.

I’ve enjoyed, but never fully warmed to Korine’s earlier work. Mister Lonely won me over simply by being ballsy (what’s not to like about Werner Herzog and skydiving nuns?) and I’m a fan of his scripts for Larry Clark, but Spring Breakers feels like the revolutionary leap of a filmmaker no longer content scratching around on the fringes of the arthouse scene. For the first time in his career Korine’s able to move beyond esotericism to produce something that, for all its social comment, might risk the possibility of broad appeal. It’s hardly David Gordon Green doing Pineapple Express, but it’s nonetheless a shift into an area more accessible to ‘Friday night’ audiences.

Key to that is James Franco. He’s revelatory; destined to find images of his character slapped on cheaply printed t-shirts in student halls across the world. As Alien, the regurgitated result of a teenage diet of rap music and DVD Scarface, he lives for guns, drugs and lip-synched Britney Spears tracks; the crass materialist that inevitably results from misspent, directionless youth. Pretty much every second Franco spends on screen is a joy, as – by proximity to greatness – is Korine’s movie.

4.5/5

Thriller Double: ‘Side Effects’ (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)/’Trance’ (Danny Boyle, 2013)

Steven Soderbergh and Danny Boyle; both eclectic, genre-hopping filmmakers, both guilty of infatuation with aesthetics, both capable of producing decent work even when barely interested.

In the latter case, the hypnosis Trance performs on audiences is to kid them into thinking some stylish editing and an ambient, tight-as-fuck score can paper over gaping narrative chasms. Soderbergh, to his credit, remains experimental and prolific enough to be forgiven the odd dalliance into the generic slums, but a Boyle treat is so rare that such frivolity can’t be viewed without the slightest tinge of disappointment. Much has been made of Boyle’s unusual production schedule wrapped around that strange summer of Olympic commitments. The impression given is one of a director washing off the pressure of such a mammoth commitment with some gleeful superficiality on the side – a sweet but insubstantial dessert if you will.

Assuming that I don’t believe for a second Soderbergh’s retired, there’s something about directors at that mid-career point where their reputations are secure, they’ve won every award available, and its time to scrap around a bit with some surface-pleasure. Both these directors are capable of greatness when engaged, but they’re firmly in play-mode here, messing around with consciously trashy B-grade material and letting indulgence take precedence. With Side Effects, all pretensions of mounting a serious assault on the pharmaceutical industry are revealed as flimsy fairly early on, Soderbergh showing intense relaxation as his film makes its happy, gentle descent into knowing junk. It’s more Body Double than Michael Clayton.

The pieces of Trance slide together effortlessly, operating best as a vehicle through which its director and cast get to cut loose and have a little fun. Both films appreciate unpredictability and a certain ambivalence to the characters as the key to a successful thriller, both do a fair job of regularly shifting perspectives. For all my assumptions I never fully pegged down the heroes or villains until the final reel. Most importantly of all, neither skimps on the violence, language and nudity.

Side Effects – 3/5

Trance – 3/5

‘Oz the Great and Powerful’ (Sam Raimi, 2013)

I immensely dislike the ‘live action characters drop into fully digital 3D fantasyland’ subgenre. Previous Disney efforts Alice in Wonderland and Tron Legacy had me screaming for rescue from the cinema, whereas Avatar – supposedly the highpoint of modern effects-fests – made so little impact that I’ve yet to revisit it since original release.

Oz the Great and Powerful, flawed and derivative though it may be, made a greater impact than any of those. Director Sam Raimi has slipped into middle age with none of the slump or diminishment of a once-great like Tim Burton or James Cameron. Whilst advancing years smoothes and blunts the edge of some former talents, Raimi’s manic humour persists through his fifties, dripping from each second of an otherwise pre-packaged product and rendering an otherwise unexciting family adventure an eminently watchable, charming and stylish two hours.

It’s an inconsistent mix; Franco and Weisz roll with the tone whereas a (miscast) Mila Kunis struggles through on her natural charisma. There’s not much in the way of story – hat-tips to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, lavish setpieces and a game cast/director making up for the inadequacies of the script. When all’s said and done though, Oz the Great and Powerful will rack up the fans and apologists by just being damn likeable. When a movie’s aiming for broad appeal, that’s a big, big win.

3.5/5

‘Stoker’ (Park Chan-wook, 2013)

Despite aggressive stylisation, Stoker skilfully sidesteps the seemingly inevitable journey towards a supernatural revelation by opting, bravely, to remain grounded in something resembling the real world.

Park Chan-wook’s English language debut, far from generic despite a superficially familiar narrative, is visually sumptuous, rammed with striking imagery and framed through with unsettlingly off-kilter camerawork to accompany the incestuous suggestions its director so enjoyed exploring in Oldboy. Wentworth Miller’s script offers a rather dry, bitter sense of humour I found incredibly appealing; the excellent cast diving into his characters with a vigour and enthusiasm that shines off the screen.

4/5

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