Friday, 29 March 2013

[Review] The Croods - Stone-aged.

The Croods (2013)

Directors - Kirk De Micco, Chris Sanders
Country - USA
Starring - Nicolas Cage, Ryan Reynolds, Emma Stone
Running Time - 98 minutes
Synopsis - After their cave is destroyed, a caveman family must trek through an unfamiliar fantastical world with the help of an inventive boy.

As film productions moves rapidly into the digital space, a migration sealed with Hollywood's approval in the Academy's awarding of Ang Lee's Life of Pi the 'Best Cinematography' award in this year’s Oscars, it marks the latest trek into uncharted space for many of 'traditional' filmmakers. Like sound, 16mm and CGI before it, this new digitally rendered camera opens up so many possibilities that were previously impossible and many directors tend to reach too high. Ang Lee's Life of Pi is one such example, who's tacky over-composed shots and weightless movements do very little to communicate the dangers and wonders of the subject matter, another such example would be Peter Jackson's The Hobbit which also lacked the tangibility that made The Lord of the Rings as success.

Such an issue is not present within the animated features of Pixar and the more recent Dreamworks pictures, most notably their 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon which offered up a jaw-dropping sense of aerial traversal and fight scenes that played with the concept of physical weight in a way most directors can only hope to achieve without losing its audience. Indeed The Croods too has a keen understanding of perpetual motion. In an opening set piece as the Crood pact attempt to make off with a giant egg for breakfast, the resulting chase is delightful exercise in cinematic perpetual motion and kinetic characterization.

Bearing that in mind, one can't help but see a Meta edge to Dreamwork's latest work The Croods, a story about a family of cave people forced to adapt in a new, unfamiliar environment with the help of a young but well adapted 'modern' boy.

Live by the rules of the ancestors. That is the only way to survive in the world of Eep, a teenaged cave-girl belonging to the Crood breed, the last of the cave-men. They are led by their father Grug, a man who teaches them always to be afraid as fear breeds survival. But one day Eep sneaks out and discovers Guy, a teenage wonderer, a modern man, filled with ideas on how to live in the wild, against the impending cataclysm of the forming continents.

The film is thinly plotted, hitting all the predictable notes in the correct tone as if the Croods and Guy's journey to 'tomorrow' are merely new lyrics to accompany a well-trodden piece of sheet music, complete with montage rifts and collective harmonies. Just as animations are getting bolder in their film making, they seem to becoming softer in their spirit. Just as Pixar frequently pushes themes of mortality and discontent, before chickening out, The Croods does nothing to communicate its sense of time and place in the same way Ice Age did 10 years ago, or The Land before Time in my age.

 However with the character's established roles and the film's narrative path so firmly trodden in front of it, the directors are now free to deliver some gorgeous and creative world design. Borrowing from all walks of life; the sea, the desert and the jungle the world that the Croods inhabit is one that is both familiar yet devilishly creative at times. You'll gaze at the strange hybrid of what appears to be a pig and blue whale, but will laugh in shock as it’s devoured by a flock of piranha parrots.

But there are earthly wonders here too, the magic of fire or ethereal power of the stars are captured with a childlike bewilderment here that even the likes of Terrence Malick could hope for. That is, until the Croods try to capture and eat the fire leading to the world’s largest popcorn bucket. The film strikes a nice balance between its visual wonderment and comical characterization to ensure there's never too much of one and not enough of the other.

A fact only helped by the terrific voice work from its cast. Emma Stone as Eep applies the tonality of a modern teenage girl onto the stone-age protagonist suggesting how little our family dynamic has changed really. Roamer turned unwilling boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds) on the other hand is a modern man. His concerns lie not just in survival but in his metrosexuality, one must out run the apocalypse but they must also do it with a tipped fringe and low-cut jeans. This is to the horror of father Grug, played by what can only be described as an expressive Nicholas Cage. His generation is based on strength not style and intelligence, but he must now realize his world is disappearing, but his place is not gone yet. In one scene he tries to steal a little of Guy's popularity with a few ideas of his own. His invention of sunglasses and wheel among other modern utilities things are met with raised eyebrows and slapstick humor; how necessary to our survival are these items? Are we to far gone as a race to revert to the caveman?

The supporting cast fill out the quota of comic relief, understated mother support and animal sidekick, but they do their jobs admirably ensuring that there is enough laughs for both parent and child. A personal favourite is the running gag between Grug and his ancient mother-in-law whom he constantly wishes for her timely demise only to be disappointed by her triumphant 'Still alive!' The world and the people may change, but the family dynamic is here to stay.

The Croods isn't going to lead us to the 'tomorrow.' It isn't the ideas man but neither is it the caveman. Instead, it finds a cute middle ground; opting to follow a path well-trodden in order to stop and show us some beautiful sights, have a few laughs upon the way and remind of the places cinema can take us, digitally rendered or otherwise.


Saturday, 9 March 2013

[Review] Stoker - The Family Blood

Stoker (2013) 

Director - Park Chan-wook
Country - South Korea, USA
Starring - Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman
Running Time - 98 Minutes
Synopsis - After India's father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Throughout his career, Korean director Park Chan-wook's films have each been centered on a single punctuated moment, a scene in which his protagonists come to a moment of pure, cataclysmic awakening. Often sexual, often violent, more often both - it represents an ultimate realization in the world Park Chan-wook belongs to, a point of no return at the loss of innocence and humanity itself, he gives his characters no choice but to give themselves to it. It is in the crazed eyes of Dae-su Oh when his nemesis twists the knife in one last time, or in the reinvigorated, reborn Sang-hyun, a Catholic priest turned vampire who finds himself enslaved by his desires. In his first English language film, Stoker, it is the soapy hands of Mia Wasikowska and never before has it been so rapturous, so alluring.

India is a girl who can 'see and hear what others cannot' whether that is a spider inching itself up the back of her leg, or the ominous presence of the uncle she didn't know she had, lurking on a nearby hill at her father's funeral. Soon after her mother announces that Charlie (as he is known) will be coming to stay with them triggering a series of disappearances and pushing the not-so-concealed matriarchal narcissistic envy to fever pitch.

Written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Stoker was named on the 2010 Black List, a list consisting of the top unproduced scripts circulating Hollywood before it eventually found itself in the hands of Park Chan-wook. The director, best known for a series of films dubbed The Vengeance Trilogy certainly brings a visceral theatricality the films proceedings. Regular collaborator Chung-hoon Chung adds an unparalleled vampirish tone to the pastoral coloured walls in the Stoker household. Soft lighting, canted compositions and frayed movements distinguish the film with a degree of 'modern-gothicism.' An IKEA based form of expressionism, where twisted sets and heightened shadows have been replaced by the muted furnishings of the flat-pack. Though, like the ritual family dinner it is really all a surface facade. Just as their formal suggestions of post dinner entertainment and passing remarks about ice cream swirls mask ulterior motives and paternal resentment, the block colours and grand rooms give way to the cobwebbed and decaying basement (where, naturally, the aforementioned ice cream is kept.)

Sex and violence is what Park Chan-wook belongs too, as two sides of the same coin. For India, the girl with a fear of being touched, her growing attraction to Charlie thrusts her into a psychotic, twisted form of womanhood. The film moves into a state of male paranoia, as the female sexual awakening represents something much more dangerous. This doesn't so much seep into the films design, as it is soaked in it. Stoker is made of a direct, symbolic flamboyance that calls to mind the likes of Brian De Palma. De-leaded pencils dripping in blood, an abundance of sultry close-ups and a heightened creaking sound design deliver a thunderously charged atmosphere. 

Though the main influence is none other than Alfred Hitchcock, borrowing heavily from his 1943 film ,Shadow of a Doubt. François Truffaut once said that the Master of Suspense shot murder like a love scene, and a love scene like a murder - the same can be said for Park Chan-wook. But where Hitchcock had to skate round censors, here it has an abrasiveness that has carried over from Park Chan-wook's routes. This is made most obvious in an explicit shower masturbation scene, where the once cleansing act has been reversed into a surrendering to our primal desire. Thankfully the excellent, off-kilter yet quirk-free performance from Mia Wasikowska gives India the unsettling edge needed to back up the distanced and tested mother played by Nicole Kidman. Rounding out the performances are a surprisingly tongue-tied Jackie Weaver and a twinkly-eyed, soft spoken Matthew Goode who will no doubt be soaring to the top of every casting list for the next big Vampire flick.  

For all its artistically sculpted crafting, Stoker never manages to light the spark it sets. Miller's screenplay is too hinged on implausibility and one tell-all and ultimately underwhelming flashback. We are left waiting for that final twist of the knife that never comes. Instead, we get the creak of a belt, the aim of a scope and a splatter of blood too easily cleaned from the muted tones on which they plastered.