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Dir: James Mangold, 2013

Haunted by the death of Jean Grey, Logan has once again retreated into the wilderness of the Canadian mountains, giving up the moniker of Wolverine. There he is found by Yukio, who convinces him to travel to Tokyo as the final wish of dying Japanese billionaire Yashida, whose life Logan saved during World War Two’s bombing in Nagasaki. Upon arrival, Yashida declares he wishes to repay Logan for saving his life by making him mortal.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was not well received. Many criticisms were made of the over-abundance of mutant characters, the lacking script and the butchering of fan-favourite Gambit. But of course, it was extremely profitable and therefore a sequel was never out of the question. So, producer Lauren Shuler Donner enlists The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Darren Aronofsky, who is bent on securing an R-rating. Already things are looking up. That is, until Aronofsky drops out and rewrites are made to McQuarrie’s script.

As much as The Wolverine’s pre-production resembles a game of musical chairs, director James Mangold does enter the void with all the best intentions. It’s clear that Mangold is aiming for an Origins antidote, maintaining the focus strictly on Logan and keeping the mutant counter to a minimum (apart from including the maddeningly dull and confusing “Viper”). However despite sidestepping the little mistakes that Origins made, The Wolverine dives head-first into the bigger ones all the while trying to convince us that this is a different film.

The Wolverine depicts Logan in exile, more lost than ever, vowing never to hurt anyone again. Of course, this vow lasts all of ten minutes until some poor saps make the mistake of killing a bear and Logan comes looking for vengeance in full PETA-mode. Then we’re introduced to the cute yet staggeringly badass Yukio who brings Logan to Japan and it’s there where a whole load of nothing happens.

As bizarre as this sounds, Origins is a hard film to follow-up because there isn’t much of a story left to tell. We’ve seen Logan become the Wolverine, we’ve seen his X-peditions with that lovable mutant school and now what? Well we have Logan daydreaming in cleavage-heaven with Jean Grey, having nightmares about the events of X3: The Last Stand (and so say all of us) but as far as heightening the drama for the character, this just doesn’t fly. Mostly because these interludes with Famke Janssen force audiences to reminisce about that disastrous third film, which is akin to vividly imagining bowel movements before tucking into a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

The action scenes are refreshingly intimate compared to the Metropolis-destroying, aircraft-crashing set pieces of the summer so far, but they’re far too formulaic and feel like Mangold has a timer of no more than fifteen minutes before the claws must come out. Samurai tropes are thrown around frequently but the energy and innovation of the bushido are lacking, replaced with stringently edited violence and CGI mechanical monsters. This is very much a Hollywood film set in the Far East.

The Wolverine lacks the courage to commit to both its story and its setting, instead revelling on a half-immortal Wolverine and a beautiful Japanese backdrop that is spoiled by every Asian cliché under the sun, including chopstick gags, bathhouses and Yakuza versus Samurai. Ultimately, the audience is reminded of what could have been under a different writer and director and instead left with a mid-credits scene that overshadows the entire film.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here

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Dir: Sofia Coppola, 2013

A group of spoiled, glamour-hungry teens decide to take advantage of the naivety of the socialite celebrities of the Hollywood Hills. Using gossip websites to track the stars’ schedules and Google Maps to pinpoint their addresses, the “Bling Ring” enter through unlocked doors and repeatedly raid the wardrobes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and many others.

Sofia Coppola clearly has some form of obsession with the vacuous nature of celebrity lifestyle. Maybe it’s due to her upbringing with her father dragging the family all over the world, I’m not really sure and I don’t really care. But as evident through her style, it seems as though the language barriers and the razzle-dazzle and the long stays at the Chateau Marmont have left such an impression on Coppola that she just can’t imagine anything else. So I’m sorry to say that a filmmaker without imagination has no place making films.

The Bling Ring constitutes teen fashionistas going to celebrity homes, wowing over their swag and then wearing said swag to their favourite nightclub. Wash until glistening, rinse and repeat for roughly an hour. The problem with The Bling Ring is it is a news story, nay, a Vanity Fair article that was inadequately transformed into a Comic Sans screenplay. David Fincher’s The Social Network took the idea of online communication, showed its development and established its importance on a global scale. The Bling Ring attempts to make the same form of commentary through characters as transparent and devoid of connection as the film’s Los Angeles setting. There is no empathy for the main characters nor is there empathy for the victims.

It’s entirely possible or even probable that the blank, conventional format of The Bling Ring is an intentional directorial approach from Coppola. That the dialogue that consists primarily of “Shut up”, “Wow” and “Let’s get the f*** out of here” is as natural to the characters as it feels unnatural to us. That despite the good performance from Emma Watson, hers and the other characters are meant to tread on our nerves swiftly and brutally. Unfortunately, all of the above combined with the thirty minutes of material stretched to a malnourished ninety don’t make for an entertaining experience, proving Coppola to be the arthouse equivalent of Michael Bay.

Sofia Coppola is in a state of mind-numbing limbo, where she regurgitates vessel after vessel of replicated superficiality that is as shallow as a puddle and has the same level of captivation. The Bling Ring is no different, portraying hollow, emotionless characters in a hollow, emotionless world that provides momentary captivation due to its real-life resonance but founders in the hands of a one-trick pony director.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here.

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Dir: Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Scott Thorson, a young animal trainer for Hollywood films, is introduced to Liberace (“Call me Lee”) backstage at one of his Las Vegas concerts. Immediately taking a liking to one another, Scott moves in with Lee and they begin a romance which would come to define the last ten years of Liberace’s life and change his legacy forever.

“It’s funny that this crowd would like something this gay”, states Matt Damon’s Scott Thorson during Behind the Candelabra’s opening Liberace performance. To which Scott Bakula’s character replies, “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay”. In essence this exchange sums up the entire film as Soderbergh (with the help of Thorson’s source material) peels back the synthetic surface of what was Liberace’s fame and reveals an intimate, no-holds-barred glimpse into a remarkable relationship conflicted by, in a word, identity.

As mentioned previously, we first meet Liberace through the eyes of 17-year old Scott Thorson during a magnificent rendition of the Boogie Woogie that razzles and dazzles in the ways that Mr Showmanship excelled at. After that, we strip away the piano but not the pearls and are introduced to Lee, who Michael Douglas slips into like a rhinestone-studded glove. Though kitted in cosmetics aplenty, Douglas avoids wearing his role like a mask, as we do get with so many of those heavy-handed biopic portrayals. Douglas becomes Liberace – diva incarnate – exhibiting so much gusto that it’s almost bursting through the screen. However it’s Matt Damon who has the harder role as the impressionable and youthful viewpoint, unsure as to his orientation and suddenly strewn into a new world in which wealth is lavished upon him. Fortunately, Damon is equally superb as Douglas, though his role is slightly reminiscent of his turn as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley.

The story is hardly complex and it’s all a mite predictable but none of that matters to the enjoyment of the film. Rob Lowe is hilarious as Lee’s waxed, stretched plastic surgeon who looks more mannequin than man and Dan Akyroyd grounds the film just enough as the frustrated agent, tired of dealing with the Liberace’s short-lived affairs. It’s simply a shame that Behind the Candelabra was released as a HBO TV movie in the States and is therefore ineligible for any Academy Awards, for this might be the finest performance Michael Douglas has ever given while also being one of Soderbergh’s best pictures.

Bound by vulnerable performances from a committed cast, Behind the Candelabra is a marvellous and heart-warming presentation of the hidden life of Liberace – one that is flamboyant and comical but refrains from slipping into tasteless caricatures. Soderbergh expertly crafts a perfect blend of style and subtlety, capturing one of the most peculiar relationships the world has never seen.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Watch the trailer here.

World-War-Z

Dir: Marc Forster, 2013

When a sudden outbreak of a zombie virus sweeps across the globe, former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane is called back into action. In order to keep his family safe, Lane is tasked with locating the origin of the virus so that a vaccine may be developed.

There have been many page-to-screen adaptations that have left fans of the source material a little vexed. The Lord of the Rings enthusiasts were disappointed with Peter Jackson’s omission of minor character Tom Bombadil. Readers of graphic novel Watchmen found Zack Snyder’s depiction overly loyal to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s classic. Such is the prospect that you can’t please everyone. But when Brad Pitt bought the rights to Max Brooks’ acclaimed World War Z – a book of fictional interviews that switches characters every few pages – and attached himself to star, suffice to say there was a radical backlash from fans. So how does one adapt a zombie novel with such a unique perspective on narrative? Pitt’s answer is evidently you don’t.

Marc Forster’s socio-political horror begins with an explosive action sequence in which we go ground-level in a chaotic Philadelphia, where millions are reacting to an immediate zombie epidemic. Eventually Pitt’s family are airlifted to a military base and as quickly as the film bursts into a hysterical rampage, it slumps into state affairs and military operations. This is more surprising due to Drew Goddard’s penning of the third and final rewrite of the screenplay, the man who brought us Cloverfield which was praised for its intimate interpretation of an alien invasion.

World War Z’s shortcomings are a clear indicator of its troubled development and frequent rewrites. Forster wrangles that tension which horror films need well (though no doubt he is a puppet director for Pitt) and the set pieces are entertaining, if a little formulaic, but unfortunately the film falls victim to that recurring built-for-the-trailer genre. The opening riot scene is brilliant and the third-act plane crash is commendable but these are brief interludes in a tenuous film which frequently causes the audience to wonder when the next scene from the trailer will come along.

As a repercussion of radically straying from the source material, World War Z borrows elements of genre films from 28 Days Later to 30 Days of Night while cramming the timeframe despite multiple long trips across the globe. World War Z may well be an example of too many writers spoiling the script but not as much as an example of sheer capitalist cinema. The violence is toned down to a bare minimum, joined by the redundant inclusion of 3D and a resolution so baffling that Roland Emmerich will probably feel better about Independence Day’s computer virus shtick. Forster does his best but World War Z is merely a been-there, done-that zombie film which mildly entertains and is ultimately forgettable.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here.

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Dir: Joss Whedon, 2013

During the preamble to Claudio and Hero’s dream wedding, the soon-to-be-newlyweds and their group of friends plot to have warring singletons Benedick and Beatrice recognise their true feelings for one another.

Almost two years ago, once principal photography had wrapped on what would turn out to be the biggest superhero movie of all time, Marvel head Kevin Feige gave director Joss Whedon two weeks off for him and his wife to celebrate their 20th anniversary in Venice. Instead (at the behest of his wife), Whedon made Much Ado About Nothing. Here is proof that Joss Whedon is a filmmaker’s filmmaker – a man who loves creating art and the key ingredient to this Shakespearean success is the unmistakeable presence of that very passion in each and every frame.

To those who refer to this niche little black-and-white indie as a palette cleanser or an antithesis or an arch-nemesis (to dwell in the comic book world), I say “nay” for there is naught in Much Ado About Nothing that Joss Whedon hasn’t shown us before. Okay, we can swap spandex for formalwear, spaceships for Sedans and a half-ruined New York City for a Santa Monica townhouse. Nevertheless, Much Ado is yet another addition to the astonishing pile of work that Whedon can attribute to that undisputed work ethic and the unbridled adoration for their craft that every person he collaborates with can attest to.

Whedon assembles his other super-group of actors, filling the screen with Buffy, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse alumni, and in doing so demonstrates not the enormity of his rolodex but the extent of his family. The Shake-speak may at times be a little indistinct, what with the actors sweeping through it as though it were song, but the superbly bombastic manoeuvres of Whedon’s sublime cast keep us in tow and never cease to delight. Clearly, these are actors who are enjoying themselves tremendously and sharing that enthusiasm with their audience. As far as the leading lovers go, Alexis Denisof is arrogant though charming and Amy Acker rough yet sweet – a match made in Heaven that baffle as to why their careers have been restricted to post-credits sequences and television guest spots. Rounding out the supporting comic roles is a hilariously buffoonish Nathan Fillion playing Dogberry and Clark Gregg as Leonato, in a performance that triumphs on Gregg’s facial expressions alone.

It may not revolutionise your mindset or indeed stay with you for long but Joss and company excel in the area of low-budget production and set an example for budding filmmakers everywhere. Much Ado About Nothing is as intimate as any home movie without being beleaguered by amateurism. Whedon invites you into his home literally and spiritually, revelling in his adaptation of a text that is as dear to his heart as any of his other projects.

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here.

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Dir: Zack Snyder, 2013

On the faraway dying planet of Krypton, Jor-El and Lara dispatch their newborn son to Earth, along with the means to prolong their race, before Krypton is destroyed. Raised by foster parents who urge him to keep his identity secret, the boy adopts the name Clark Kent and through his lineage develops superpowers. Now fully-grown, Clark encounters the traitorous Kryptonian General Zod, who means to destroy Clark’s new home.

Upon completing his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan enlists Zack Snyder to do for Superman what Batman Begins did for the Caped Crusader. After a bombastic opening in which Russell Crowe and Michael Shannon snarl at each other with a backdrop of Star Wars prequels meet Apocalypse Now, Man of Steel leaps right into the life of a self-exiled Clark Kent. Most films, particularly origin stories, feature an overtly prominent character arc. For instance if your first projection of Superman is one where he’s in hiding, debating his own morality and struggling to find his place in the world, then the rational third-act standpoint for his character is fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Snyder explores this inner conflict and emphasises it in some notable scenes with Kevin Costner but it’s all too easy. The laborious progression into heroism is absent because this is not the story of Clark Kent nor even Superman. This is an account of Kal-El, the last son of Krypton.

For a film about a hero faster than a speeding bullet, Man of Steel’s narrative is painfully slow to the extent where a bullet sounds appetising. David S. Goyer’s screenplay nods its head to many films from The Matrix to Inception but I hesitate to anthropomorphise the script for fear of creating the misconception that there is any life in it. The first two-thirds of the film consist of several scenes linked together in as sanctimonious a fashion as the comic book world has ever seen. Topped off with a third act that is an overwhelming indulgence of SFX porn the likes that would transform Michael Bay into (even more of) a lecherous wretch. Man of Steel’s gruelling banality swells and swells until you’re being begged to poke holes in the film. Now some would call dwelling on the inconsistencies of such a film’s breed of fantasy-science nitpicking but when the story is a loud, muddled outburst of chainmail tentacles, magical fertility skulls and the destruction of every building ever constructed ever, you’ll permit me my pointing out of minor plot errors.

Possibly Man of Steel’s greatest shortcoming is its inability to promote empathy for its protagonist. On that note, let’s backtrack a little. Christopher Reeve donned the red cape because he had charm, confidence and a strong chin. Brandon Routh headlined Bryan Singer’s underrated Superman Returns because of his uncanny Christopher Reeve impersonation. With Henry Cavill, Snyder is clearly trying to replicate the brooding nature of Christian Bale’s Batman but shoots himself in the leg by presenting a comparison between the two. Ultimately, Batman has more to offer audiences and it can be boiled down to the simple, basic fact that he’s human. There are rare bully-related encounters where Cavill erupts and a vision of caged anger jolts an interest in the character but when overshadowed by the vacancy of Cavill’s performance and paired with the nomadic first act, Superman begins to look like Wolverine on Xanax. Prior to the finish, a female army captain comments that Superman is “kinda hot” in such a bizarrely offhand manner that it sounds as if Snyder is justifying his hiring of Cavill in the first place. Nice try Zack, but I wouldn’t advise seeking absolution from die-hard comic fans.

The other performances are either jaded or draw from shallow wells. Amy Adams’ stereotypical role of the passionate researcher in that of Lois Lane contributes nothing except that of the compulsory flailing damsel to be plucked up in mid-air by the rugged hero – I wonder what a superhero blockbuster without a love interest would be like. Shannon’s scenery-chewing, erratic portrayal of General Zod is formidable, if not for being drowned in an obnoxious demonstration of CGI gone wild. Returning to Man of Steel’s emotional core, Snyder is torn between two father figures and therefore giving neither of them any lasting impression. Crowe’s deceased Jor-El flaunts about the film, his presence there supplied via a Superman USB flash drive, and Costner’s Jonathan Kent delivers Uncle Ben speeches whose poignancy is drained by a cameraman who seems to have had one too many cups of coffee. Case in point, when your film’s dramatic summit is the clichéd sub-plot of freeing an arbitrary character from her prison of rubble in the final act, you’ve got a deeply serious problem.

Nolan and Goyer’s bleak re-envisioning of Superman falls flat due to a lack of the fundamental albeit discreet campiness that breathes life into the character. Pair that with a director who simply cannot draw from his actors and has a fetish for brash, uncontrollable action orgies, Man of Steel is a wasteful bastardisation of a comic book hero whose rugged side is yet to be shown with any tact and probably never will – unless you count Unbreakable.

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here.

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Dir: Neil Jordan, 2013

Mother/daughter vampire duo Clara and Eleanor Webb have been drifting through coastal England for over two hundred years, never finding a place they can settle. This is due to their being hunted by ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’, a purist clan of male chauvinist bloodsuckers. Clara, desperate to provide for her daughter and Eleanor, an idealistic teenager who fantasises of a better life, come to stay at the deserted Byzantium hotel where fate drastically threatens their future together.

Byzantium is Neil Jordan’s second venture into the vampire world, the first being his successful adaptation of the Anne Rice novel Interview with the Vampire. In the same mindset as before, Jordan feels inclined to emphasise immortality as an affliction but portrays the lugubrious attraction of it nonetheless. Fair warning, this is not The Lost Girls. Though a lot of action takes place around a seaside carnival, there is none of the predatory yet sexual stalking that we saw with Schumacher’s Neverland gang. Instead, Byzantium offers more than its share of skulking, moping and prostitution-aplenty. Jordan’s concentration is on how the past affects his characters now and thusly tiring the audience with that lazy, vampire teen angst thread – Byzantium’s Saoirse Ronan/Caleb Landry Jones romance resembles a Bella/Edward gender reversal which is eager to tap into that younger target audience.

The present-day narrative trudges along until there are brief interludes which portray the origins of Clara and Eleanor’s ennoblement with vampirism. With these flashbacks, Jordan really amplifies the gothic tone of the film in an attempt to contrast the even bleaker future that his characters now live in. Special mention must be given to DP Sean Bobbitt (of Shame and The Place Beyond the Pines fame), who forces each scene to swell with depth and texture. Byzantium might be altogether too cold a film but the cinematography is just right. These exuberant scenes that include perilous boat journeys, cascades of crimson blood and a shamefully-underused Sam Riley are rich with enough classic horror tropes to serve as a superb opening to any monster movie. Unfortunately these scenes are few and far between and muddled by flashbacks within flashbacks, providing a craving for a linear format.

It’s strange to see a filmmaker as grounded as Jordan in such a state of confusion, juggling an array of themes but refusing to focus on any one of them. Moira Buffini’s script is horrendously haphazard and leaves an impression of apathy that increases as the film meanders toward its anticlimactic finale. As stated, there are some nice homages to the works of Bram Stoker and Edgar Allen Poe but the bizarre modifications to the vampire folklore and their modus operandi are detrimental to any possible emotional connection to the film. In short, there are only so many ingredients one can remove from the vampire formula before your compound changes.

Irrespective of each specific work’s tone, films of the horror genre should demonstrate the filmmaker’s ability to both have fun and gift the audience with it. Byzantium does neither and the gloomy, monotonous performance of Saoirse Ronan is only tolerable for so long. A similar effort to Oliver Parker’s recent re-telling of Dorian Gray, Byzantium joins the uninspired ranks of British gothic horror in that the tone is dark, the imagery chilling but the film never gets off the ground, resulting in a wasted effort that contains a good story but ultimately withholds it from the audience.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Watch the trailer here.