Film #280: Drive (2011)

director: Nicholas Winding Refn
language: English
length: 96 minutes
watched on: 5 April 2017

I must admit, I always thought this movie would be more like The Fast and the Furious, a series I’ve never been interested in watching (although perhaps I’m missing out). Cars don’t generally do it for me. So I was surprised to see it actually bore a lot more resemblance to Tangerine, at least in that there are a lot of shots of driving around suburban Los Angeles.

Ryan Reynolds Gosling is the main character, a getaway driver who also does stunt work for the movies as his day job. Bryan Cranston (love of my life) is his unscrupulous boss. Ryan is morose, and a man of few words – he grunts and barely says anything throughout the movie, except for a spiel about his five minute getaway rule. He falls in love with his neighbour, whose husband is in prison. After the husband is out, there’s a tense relationship between them, but they seem to make friends and do a job together.

Basically, without wishing to spoil anything, the movie gets very violent very quickly and often suddenly. There are moments that I felt it went too far – Ryan’s character obviously has unresolved issues of some kind when he’s beating up bad guys, and it’s enough to show him staving a guy’s head in without then jump-cutting to the bloodied cadaver. We see enough without seeing everything.

The romance for me was also too boring – I’m not sure they even kiss. The director said this was some kind of Platonic ideal romance, or something. The Disneyishness of it contrasts too much with the ultra-violence.

But I liked the movie’s visual style, and its simplicity in composition and plot. There are a few good action sequences too. And I liked the music – I even looked some of it up to listen later. It’s definitely on the high end of the movie spectrum and has a lot going for it, even though I also think it goes too far with the gore and violence.


Film #258: Jason Bourne (2016)

jason-bournedirector: Paul Greengrass
language: English, and a bit of Greek and other European languages in the background
length: 123 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 1/3)

The Bourne series, with the notable exception of a certain sequel from a couple of years ago, was always one of my favourites growing up. For some reason I could never get into James Bond, but I found this series exciting. Of course, James Bond became more like Jason Bourne later, but I digress. I was looking forward to this movie, as Matt Damon was in it again and it was supposed to be pretty good, but I missed it in the cinema, and decided to watch it on my recent flight back to Japan after New Year.

A lot of themes tie in to Snowden pretty well – indeed, Snowden is name-checked at least once or twice by the film. The makers are trying to keep the series up to date with current affairs, it seems. Perhaps a couple of years out-of-date, though – the other major event is the Athens protests, featured in the opening act, which I think were in 2014 or 2015. Things are moving so fast recently!

Jason Bourne in this movie is trying to work out who his father is and why he died, still trying to work through the fog of amnesia, still gradually gaining his memory back. A lot of the film follows a similar plot to the first movie – he’s also followed from afar by a girl in the CIA, and he’s still seen as a major threat, but also someone they want to reintroduce into the fold. It still ends with that Moby song on the soundtrack. It still has a grumpy old man giving out the orders – this time it was Tommy Lee Jones (who I still have trouble telling apart from Robert DeNiro, for shame!), instead of Brian Cox in the first movie.

But like Snowden, it’s lost something of the spark of the first movie. The motives of the characters aren’t so interesting, for one thing, but I also found that the music was overused to try and ramp up dramatic tension. Even in scenes that should have been a breather between action setpieces (mainly the motorbike chase in Athens and a big car chase in Vegas later), the music is still beating on at machine-gun pace. I watched some characters walking up an escalator in an airport to that kind of music, as if something terrible was about to happen right then (it wasn’t). I found this very literally tiring, and started dozing off later on in the movie. I want to hearken back to Mad Max, actually: while I found that a very intense action movie, I never found it boring, and it also knew when to give its audience a brief breather. It also didn’t rely on trite CGI like Jason Bourne (and Snowden).

It’s a fun movie to an extent, but it’s not the return to form that I’d hoped it would be. I’m tempted to go back to The Bourne Identity to remind myself how these movies should be – with more of an element of surprise or tension throughout the movie because of the setup of Bourne’s amnesia, not desperately trying to cling to what tension they have left with mere musical cues. It’s a much better movie. This is just attempting to be nostalgia and not hitting the mark.

Film #178: Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-ManDirector: Peyton Reed
Language: English
Length: 117 minutes
Watched on: 28 December (plane 4/4)

This was the fourth movie I watched on the plane back to the UK last year – and after the last two failures of judgement I decided to go for something a little light-hearted that I had seen good reviews for. I’m not a big fan of superhero movies in general – I kind of balk whenever I see things related to the Avengers and Iron Man in general, and this movie is set in the same universe. It’s not that I’m opposed to them, though, it’s just that… I guess I find the fans a bit rabid. Same reason I’ve gone right off BBC’s Sherlock – in itself it wouldn’t be so bad, but the fans have a screw loose.

Anyway, despite him often playing asshole straight boys, I have a little soft spot for Paul Rudd, if I’m honest. He plays the titular character Ant-Man, at first an ex-con just released from prison who can’t hold down a job because of his previous convictions, and later a superhero who can shrink down to tiny sizes, and for some reason can control ants with his mind. I think we’re just supposed to go with that, and my sleep-deprived mind was perfectly happy to do so, as I still found the story compelling enough.

It’s no masterpiece, but I wouldn’t expect that of it. It’s popcorn-fodder and happy in that role. More than anything, it was fun and not always what you’d expect from a superhero – he has characteristics of an anti-hero too.

(I’m kind of looking forward to Deadpool for the ultimate anti-hero movie, but it’s still not out on these fair shores. (I have two options – wait another two weeks or torrent it like any forward-thinking global citizen…) Soon, though.)

Anyway, I enjoyed this. I can’t say for sure if it was only in comparison to the travesties that came before it on my journey, but on a basic level I felt more comfortable watching it, like I didn’t have to put up with bad production values and acting, and I could just enjoy it for what it is.

Film #150: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

mad-max-fr-trailer-screenshot07Director: George Miller
Language: English and some gibberish I guess
Length: 120 minutes
Watched on: 20 June 2015

I was a little apprehensive about seeing this because I was worried about not having seen the previous films in the series. I was quite glad to discover that seeing them was unnecessary. This was the kind of movie that jumps into extended action sequences without much in the way of exposition. It works very well.

The story of the movie is that of Furiosa, brilliantly played by an unrecognizable Charlize Theron. She liberates the “wives” (that is, sex slaves) of a brutal dictator called Immortan Joe, and they start driving across an endless desert, a postapocalyptic wasteland. Several factions give chase, and the movie becomes basically a long chase sequence. The titular Mad Max gets caught up in the story by accident and joins Furiosa’s band – although it takes time for him to be accepted.

Perhaps coming in with some background knowledge would have been advantageous. Several of the friends, and friends of friends, that I went with had seen the originals, from the 70s and 80s, and had a more enlightened experience than I did – they knew, for instance, that the movie is set in a future Australia. But I’m glad it wasn’t strictly necessary.

I found the movie very intense, to the point where I had trouble following it at times. That said, I found that because there wasn’t a lot of choreographed fighting in the same way as, say, The Matrix, it was also easier to follow in a different way. Similarly, a lot has been made of the fact that the film mostly uses natural effects, with mostly only minor enhancements – it means the film crew were really just driving round Namibia blowing stuff up.

The film is also notable because it bucks a trend in not sexualizing its female protagonist, and together with the theme of female liberation means it has a significant feminist following. For an action film, this is almost unheard of – although because I don’t often watch action films, and I watch a lot of LGBT-themed movies, it took me a while to understand the significance of this.

It’s very quickly developed its following, though, and since the flamboyant side cast lends itself well to costumes, I’m not surprised to have been invited to a Mad Max-themed Hallowe’en party. I just have to somehow get a costume together. Anyone have a saw…?

Film #149: Big Hero 6 (2014)

big-hero-6-10.5_046.00_0107Directors: Don Hall & Chris Williams
Language: English
Length: 102 minutes
Watched on: 12 June 2015

I remember being confused when I first saw the name of this movie, in a kind of embarrassing way that also sounds like a bad pun: I thought I’d missed out on the first five movies in the series. Fortunately, the Japanese name of the movie is the name of the main character, Baymax, so about as often in casual conversation I refer to the movie by that name.

The movie is about a boy, Hiro, who is a kind of genius at robotics who’s already graduated high school at the age of 14. His life becomes directionless, and he’s persuaded by his brother to start at the same university. There he meets Baymax, a health care robot designed by his brother.

The movie is set in San Fransokyo, a mixture of San Francisco and Tokyo, with a distinct Japanese flavour too everything, but also recognizably San Francisco in the geography and landmarks. The setting is so convincingly realized that it’s difficult not to want to explore the city in real life.

The film is also effective because it explores notions of loss and depression, along with being pseudo-superhero and a kind of action movie, especially later on. I was generally impressed with its themes and found it consistently funny, so I would certainly recommend it.

Film #137: Skyfall (2012)

skyfall05Director: Sam Mendes
Language: English
Length: 137 minutes
Watched on: 31 Dec 2012

I was never into James Bond as a kid, to be honest. I think this is the first time I’ve basically watched a whole one, except even then, I didn’t find it interesting enough to retain any details in memory about the plot.

I also had a weird time understanding some of it because of the way the Bond series has progressed: evidently, the series was rebooted with Casino Royale, meaning that Bond is meeting a lot of characters for the first time, like Q, who I’d assumed was a regular fixture of the series already. This is compounded by the fact that all the actors have been replaced since the reboot, except, weirdly, Judy Dench’s character M. I still don’t really get it – like, is it now a different timeline? Are they prequels?

Am I thinking too much into it? I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to think about Bond films – not that I think that’s an agreeable or healthy attitude to have towards films of any sort.

It’s probably kind of sad, then, that I watched this on New Year’s Eve, but only three months later any other details, except for a creepy-gay villain who tries to seduce Bond, completely escape me. It’s probably sad, for that matter, that I keep leaving it so long to write these reviews. Anyway, I guess I’m not cut out for this series. Maybe next time.

Film #132: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

aBqD3ZDirector: Doug Liman
Language: English
Length: 113 minutes
Watched on: 22 Dec 2014

I got on a plane to go back to the UK in December. As I’m prone to doing, I immediately got to work with the entertainment system. BA doesn’t seem to be as good as the other ones, unfortunately, and although the selection was alright, it was all recent releases, without much in the way of old stuff.

In any case, this seemed like a good enough choice as a first movie, as it’s a relatively low-brow action movie and Tom Cruise vehicle. It’s probably fair to describe it as a cross between Groundhog Day and Mission Impossible, although I’ve never seen Mission Impossible and doubt that it includes aliens to such a degree.

Cruise’s character tries to desert the army because he’s a self-righteous douche who can’t take orders from a superior and gets thrown down on the battlefield with exactly zero experience ready to die at the hands of some spitting alien monster. Then he wakes up again and thus begins what is basically known by everyone as a Groundhog Day loop: whenever he dies, he begins the day again.

But the problem immediately is that we’re comparing this movie to Groundhog Day, one of the 90s’ greatest exports and a literally timeless movie classic. What with Cruise’s wooden acting (although that’s perhaps an insult to trees), Edge of Tomorrow has absolutely none of the emotional depth or grounding that Groundhog Day had. Groundhog Day‘s character development arc included a section in the middle where Bill Murray just starts getting out of bed and killing himself every day through sheer desperation. None such here, although there is, to confirm with the standard Hollywood arc, a section of milder-seeming despair about twenty minutes from the end.

What is does have, however, is both tension and plenty of action, which is what I was actually watching it for, so in that sense it did its job. Could have done without the forced romance, though.

Film #75: Die Hard (1988)

bruce-willis-john-mcclane-20th-century-foxs-die-970431329director: John McTiernan
language: English and some German
length: 131 minutes
watched on: 26 December 2012

Would you believe it’s the first time I’ve watched this film? My dad was keen to watch it around Christmas, as it’s set at Christmas. Having had no emotional attachment to it as a teenager, I came to it with skepticism. In the end? It was alright, for me.

I don’t really know, to be honest, how much of the movie was original in its time, although I’m willing to bet a fair amount of it, perhaps of the way the characters speak, as John McClane is famously foul-mouthed.

I found the setup a bit ridiculous, although to some extent at least plausible, but I was particularly unimpressed by the fact that the antagonists were Germans, you know, forty years after the war was over and everything. I was surprised by Alan Rickman’s appearance as the main villain (because I didn’t know he was in the film), and I thought he gave a great performance, but he did it all in a faux-German accent, and it started to grate on me quite quickly.

The action sequences were fun, though, as was watching Bruce Willis’s tank top magically turning from pearly white to dark brown over the course of the movie. And as was seeing Bruce Willis with hair, to be honest, this being 25 years since the film was made.

I probably wouldn’t watch it again, but I enjoyed it. I’d say it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it already (like me).

Film #72: The Bourne Legacy (2012)

the_bourne_legacy_630director: Tony Gilroy
language: English
length: 135 minutes
watched on: 23 December 2012

This was the first movie I watched on the flight back to the UK in December. It’s in the Bourne series, but seeing as it doesn’t contain Jason Bourne, the title is very much a legacy title, no pun intended. The connection remains in a few mentions of characters, and the movie seems to take place concurrently with the most recent Bourne film.

It’s a cathartic action movie, taking us on a world tour with a resourceful main character who’s a top-secret assassin for the CIA, who are desperately trying to cover their tracks by getting rid of all their assassins, basically. They seem to keep control of their agents through drugs – some kind of virus that was never fully explained in the movie but was alluded to many times. When the main character doesn’t get his dose, he starts getting withdrawal symptoms, and he has to go, attractive lab technician under his arm, to the Philippines.

I quite enjoyed watching the movie, but it lasts for too long and because it’s ostensibly part of a series, it doesn’t quite stand alone and many of the plot points aren’t properly expounded upon. One thing that stood out to me as implausible was motorcycling up a set of stairs during a car chase, although that’s nitpicking, really. The ending was also very unsatisfying, but fits the mould of the other Bourne movies. So, I’m not sure whether to recommend it. There are better things to spend your time watching.

Film #62: The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

20120806-171616.jpgdirected by: Christopher Nolan
language: English
length: 164 minutes (almost three hours)
watched on: 1 August 2012

This film has had a lot of hype surrounding it recently, although not nearly as much as the latest Spiderman and The Avengers, both of which I’ve sort of eschewed – although even if I’d wanted to see it, The Avengers isn’t actually out in Japan yet, as I found out to my mild surprise when I saw the poster in the cinema going to see this film. It seems that The Dark Knight Rises (confusingly called ダーク・ナイト・ライジング – ie, “Dark Knight Rising” – in Japan) and The Amazing Spiderman were both released “on time” in Japan – indeed, Spiderman was released here before it was in America and The Dark Knight was released only a week later. Anyway, I’ve kind of made that choice because I saw Spiderman 3 and hated it, although I’m aware that the newest film has a completely different set of actors and storyline, and because I got sick of seeing posts about The Avengers on Facebook and various other places on the internet. Plus, Christopher Nolan is a very vocal supporter of IMAX technology, and I’m not the kind of person to let slip an opportunity to go to an IMAX cinema.

However, IMAX cinemas here are surprisingly thin on the ground. It was either Toshimaen, near a theme park, or Urawa, which is not technically in Tokyo, although it was the one I went to because it was more convenient for my friend. Both are run by United Cinemas. There may be one or two more but they were even less accessible. There is simply no equivalent to the prominently-positioned London IMAX, which also proudly boasts a 20m high screen – in contrast, this was only just noticeably bigger than a normal screen (although to be fair, the adverts at the start took up a very small proportion of the screen). The image quality was pristine, though, and filled the entire screen during the important action sequences (during unimportant scenes, the image quality was lower and the screen was letterboxed).

As for the film itself, it was roughly the same as the previous two films in the series; fun action sequences, Batman, and pretty people. This time in particular they added Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, and JGL as some cop who Believes in Batman. There was also that French woman who was the evil wife in Inception… I think Nolan seems to be getting a high retention rate with his actors these days; all that was missing was DiCaprio to make this a “Who’s Who” of the Inception cast.

The storyline, unfortunately, was a bit unmemorable in places, although the main bit is easy enough to sum up: it’s about seven years after the last “Dark Knight” film, and Batman is in hiding, and there’s a madman called Bane who wears a mask, almost like Darth Vader but it doesn’t cover his face completely and looks like an insect, and he holds the city of New York Gotham to ransom with a nuclear bomb, which was somehow derived by taking the reactive core out of one of Bruce Wayne’s research projects. So Batman has to come out to save the day. Wayne ends up being captured by Bane and thrown in a prison pit somewhere in… India, or Arabia, maybe? And Catwoman, who’s basically a scoundrel and a robber, becomes involved along the way somewhere. Twists and turns abound by the end of the film, and are executed well. It did end up getting too complicated and contrived, though (although not too difficult to understand for someone who’s either not seen the previous films or forgotten them), so I just sat back and enjoyed the moment.

Anyway, the visuals, as I mentioned, were excellent, especially in IMAX, and the film itself was very enjoyable, if a little confusing in the plot department. I guess it could have been cut down a little bit, as almost 3 hours is a very long film, although I was generally satisfied with the length.

The character of Bane presented a few problems to the film, chief among which is that he can be very difficult to understand, and there were at least a few lines where I just didn’t catch what he was saying. This is because of some kind of distortion on his voice from his mask. Actually, I’ll have to mention the other problems later, because they’re kind of spoilers.

So anyway, I’d recommend this film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s pretty good, and definitely worth paying the extra to see it in IMAX. Go on, go now, because then you can read the next paragraph. It’s got spoilers in it, I’m afraid. I do put a warning at the top of the page on my blog, but just in case you don’t bother to read that, I just want to reiterate it again.

So, you’ve been warned. If I had to pick out one thing that I disliked, it is that later on in the film we start seeing all-but-direct comparisons of Batman to Jesus, with references to Gotham as a city of sinners, and, as you can perhaps guess once you’ve noticed that, a sacrifice/redemption plot point at the end. I guess I don’t buy into this idea that people are sinners and “deserve” punishment – yeah, to be fair, this is the line of the villains, but the idea that then someone else has to bear the brunt of that punishment for them is rampantly christian and to me it’s a boring point of view. It’s kind of left open whether Batman is actually dead or not, in the same way as Inception did with “is the world real or not?”

As for Bane, the other problems with his character included breaking some of the conventions of film. The number one issue was that his mask was never taken off. Even with Darth Vader we got a look in in the third movie. It’s kind of like Chekov’s Gun, the convention that dictates that if you have a gun in a scene in a film, it should go off by the end of the film; here, if someone has a mask on, they should take it off at some point. So I was waiting around for Bane’s mask to come off, and when it didn’t, I left a bit unfulfilled. Bane’s introduction also came a bit too early in the film for my liking, leaving it difficult to build up any mystery or intrigue around him, although in fairness, this can highlight the sheer bluntness and brutality of his character, that he’s able to simply muscle into the film without much fanfare in almost the first scene. And as for his death, it was too anticlimactic. I know Nolan is a “visionary” director who likes to play with the “language of cinema”, but I think some of these conventions become expectations, so they certainly left me disappointed.

Oh, and the other thing that filmmakers need to stop doing is only showing the title of the film right before the ending credits. I WANT AN OPENING TITLE CARD, DAMMIT!

But just to reiterate, good film, and I liked it.