As Above, So Below (2014) – Review – “Indiana Bones!?”

Hello there everyone! I have been somewhat quiet the last week or two, largely because I went on a trip to Paris. This is not purely to boast about my travels; I visited the Catacombs while there so I opted to watch this on my return because it’s based almost entirely in them. I read terrible reviews when it first came out & thought the nostalgia might at least make it bearable.

Yet another entry into the found footage genre (I seem to be watching a lot of them lately, this is genuinely not a conscious decision), As Above, So Below opens on Scarlett, a female version of indiana Jones, sneaking into a strictly off-limits abandoned Iranian mine where she believes her late father had pinpointed the location of a terribly important undiscovered artifact that might lead her one step closer to his life goal of finding the Philosopher’s Stone (spoiler: it was found in Hogwarts like 20 years ago). She does indeed find the Rose Stone but barely makes it out alive as it just so happens to be the day the government have decided to blow up the dangerous passageways once and for all. She winds up in Paris where, unable to decipher some ancient text, she must reunite with her ex whom she abandoned in a Turkish Prison, and who spends his spare time breaking into old churches and fixing the clock mechanisms. With Benji making a documentary about her expedition the three go around Parisian landmarks looking for clues & solving tricksy puzzles like a photorealistic Professor Layton game. It’s absolutely ridiculous, I actually had to pause the film at one point because I was crying with laughter as the characters intuitively solve centuries, but it moves with such pace; like a true adventure B-Movie it doesn’t feel the need to apologise for being so silly; and the cast do a great job at conveying the eccentric & likeable characters that it’s incredibly fun.

“Let’s split up and search for clues!”

All the bonkers running around Paris inevitably leads them to venture into the Catacombs, under the guidance of Papillon & his friends who have unprecedented knowledge of the passages, apparently because all the young attractive characters don’t need jobs to support their expensive hobbies. It’s impressive to note that all the underground scenes were actually filmed in the Catacombs beneath Paris, which were filled with the bones of 6 million residents a few hundred years ago due to overflowing graveyards. It goes without saying that this lends an authenticity to the film and the labyrinthine corridors’ eerie quality & gruesome residents make it perfect for a horror movie setting. Some ‘odd’ events are the worst that happen however, with the Scooby Gang’s treasure hunt taking centre stage. I was happily swept away by it, but did realise after an hour that I’d forgotten this was meant to be a horror movie. Luckily the writers seemed to realise the same thing, because the final act has some genuinely creepy and surprising moments & brings the movie to a great climax. Unusually some heartfelt themes are also evident in this final act, raising it above much of the found footage dross out there.

……. oh sorry, back to the review.

If you go into this expecting a start-to-finish scare-fest as the marketing suggests you may well be disappointed, because it’s much more a found-footage adventure movie for the first two-thirds, turning into a horror towards the end. I think it would have been much more clever to market it as such, with the horror “twist” being a surprise rather than an overdue expectation. As it stands, it’s hard to defend much of the silliness, but I personally found it incredibly enjoyable & would happily watch it again as it is great fun, with some decent scares thrown in for good measure. Surely even the most hardened horror buff can have some fun occasionally?

6/10

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Godzilla (2014) – Review

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Precisely 60 years since Toho’s Gojira burst from the ocean to terrify Japanese audiences and became King of the Monsters! for a worldwide audience, the radioactive reptile has gone through various iterations; a total of 28 Japanese movies and already one American attempt in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film that Toho themselves were so displeased with that the monster featured is not officially “Godzilla” but a standalone Kaiju called “Zilla”. Gareth Edwards was the unlikely yet inspired choice for directing Godzilla Version 2.0, headhunted purely from his horrific, yet beautiful and restrained home-made monster movie of 2010, cunningly titled Monsters. After endless publicity (which I made every effort to avoid), the day has finally come – is this a return of the King of Monsters himself, or another unwelcome, overgrown iguana?

“Did I switch the oven off?”

The film’s opening credits make it clear that this is a straight-faced take on the story, and that the nuclear origins remain intact. With plenty of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in-jokes set against the partially fictional archive footage this film manages to make even the opening credits exciting. Straight in to the main plot, everything moves at a constant pace without ever feeling rushed – there’s plenty of time given for reflection and genuinely emotional scenes, but never too much to slow down the action or dissipate the increasing sense of impending doom. The globe-trotting plot makes the threat seem much more real as the destruction focuses on more than just one city, but also allows some brief clever reflection on the numerous natural disasters of recent years, showing how the horrific devastation in one city is little more than a news headline in another. Admittedly the image of gargantuan monsters destroying cities is never going to be realistic, but the important thing in this film is the reaction. The fear, the panic, the desperation, all the way up to the military’s mixture of bullishness and helplessness make it feel genuine, if it wasn’t for the protagonists always managing to find themselves in close proximity to main events. Without “Hollywood coincidences” practically every action movie ever wouldn’t exist, but more than once or twice they are really rather convenient (for us at least – the characters themselves must’ve be bloody tired of their bad luck by the end).

It’s bugging me that his pen is the wrong way round. I had to share this with you all.

As for Godzilla himself everyone knows the adage that ‘less is more’, but with such a film it’s important to realise that not enough can be terribly frustrating. Suffice to say that, eventually, this film will satisfy those wanting to see wide shots of the rampages. There is enough restraint to make every shot of Godzilla & co. exciting, without leaving you wishing you’d seen more at the end. As every piece of marketing has heavily implied, the world has more to worry about than Godzilla alone, and without spoiling any details, the design of “it” is quite unique and genuinely rather unsettling. The Japanese movies very quickly came to be all about the final face-off between Godzilla and whatever was invading his territory, and there are no disappointments here. My friends and I clearly weren’t the only Godzilla fans in the cinema as I caught a few other people punching the air at certain moments (and remember, this is Britain where no one ever expresses excitement).

90% of the press images are people looking up & out of shot, bemused. But this one has Elizabeth Olsen in it.

All the cast are great in this, even if characters can sometimes be a bit “2.5-dimensional” – not cookie-cut, but not fully-fleshed either. It sweeps this under the carpet quite effectively though, with a wide range of different 2.5D characters that interact well through the film, with only a small handful of “action movie cliché” lines and some decent discussions hearkening back to the nuclear themes of the original movie. Genuinely brilliant effects show Godzilla as much more than a man in a rubber suit, while incredibly large he is considerably smaller than the art department took the liberty of depicting him in the above poster. In fairness, a monster that big wouldn’t make much of a film as he’d flatten the city if he decided to take a nap.

Rising from the depths; thirt- erm… three hundred stories hiigghh

This is a film that doesn’t let the pace or grimness slip for the whole two hours. It may seem overwhelming but that’s surely better than it being boring (or reducing itself to featuring baby ‘Zillas slipping on marbles). This has taken everything that was wrong with Emmerich’s version and a lot of what was good about the Japanese films and thrown it in with a great cast, and a Godzilla-sized budget to produce a film that will satisfy Hollywood action-types as well as Godzilla fanboys, a film that is as good as we could have hoped for; with strengths where expected, a small number of predictable weaknesses, but at least as many unexpected strengths; and undoubtedly a film that’s great deal better than we had feared. The King of the Monsters has returned.

8/10

Robocop (2014) – Review

Opening scenes of a film are rather important; setting the first impression for a whole audience. Many films go for a big powerful action scene, others for a thoughtful, perhaps shocking beginning introducing tone or characters or setting or a combination of these. At any rate it should give us some idea of what we’re spending our next two hours watching. So Robocop begins, with the MGM logo mysteriously silent. Suddenly someone starts making vocal helicopter noises in time to the lion’s iconic roars, moving on to other humming, gargling sounds. It is revealed to be Samuel L. Jackson producing these sounds, warming up for a live broadcast. He turns to camera, stopping the noises and starts his report. Even when a film has a generic or otherwise underwhelming opening I find myself contentedly watching if nothing else, but at this point I could so happily have stood up and walked out of the cinema. Whether it is playing it for a deadpan laugh or is simply a broad attempt at subversion as a friend suggested, it missed the mark by a mile taking me right out of the film before it began. This is far from the only time the film is guilty of this. More on that later.

“You want me to do what!?”

José Padilha’s retooling of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic is a very sleek and gleaming product, much like the titular hero but it never really digs deep into the many themes it seems to think it displays. With a well-rounded cast featuring Jackie Earle Hayley, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton and the aforementioned Samuel L. Jackson who, helicopter noises notwithstanding, steals the film as TV host Pat Novak who serves as a commentator on the fictional public’s views and a somewhat overplayed, “Verhoeven-lite” brand satire of American media, there is more than enough credibility on paper. The trouble is the film does very little to keep the attention of the viewer. The first two acts are painfully episodic; scenes often last barely two minutes with only the featured characters present, discussing an important plot point and nothing else before it cuts to a completely different setting for another plot point to be discussed. There is no flow to the events and no sign of the intelligent writing that allows points to be made without it being so blatantly in-your-face and sequential as this script forces practically every forward movement to be. Back to my point about the film missing the mark frequently, there are a number of scenes that aim to delve into the deeper themes; the Human/Robot debate regarding Alex Murphy/Robocop himself, the family life that Murphy longs to return to, and the wider implications of modern-day surveillance and automation; a number of these scenes are so forced that it’s too blatant to feel genuine, and whenever it feels like we are about to dive in and feel something about what is happening there is a line or event that is either laughably clichéd, or similarly stupid that it once again takes us right back out of the moment. In fairness there are some moments where it manages to elicit some emotional response if these scenes were taken individually, but with a hit rate far, far below half of the in-depth scenes there is no lasting impression on any of the questions this film seems to think it’s so cleverly asking.

“RUN SEQUENCE: THEMES.EXE”

On to the more fundamental points of the film; as the trailers have gleefully spoiled already, Robocop has a major design change partway through the film from a look not-dissimilar to the original we all know, into an all-black, metal human form. Walking around he produces the same whirring, clunking noises as he did in 1987 with the iconic heavy stomp of the feet in place, but this sense of weight and, well, robotic-ness is thrown out the window in scenes where it is more exciting to have Robocop running like Usain Bolt, occasionally fighting hand-to-hand and jumping 20 feet in the air. These acrobatics, coupled with the new suit-like design, tripled with the heavy-handedly “dark” emotional connotations, quadrupled with Gary Oldman watching over, advising our hero like a surrogate father draw comparisons a little too close to a certain, more recent, wildly successful movie hero.

Because he’s the hero Detroit deserves, just not the one it needs right now

Action scenes are a mixed bag. Naturally this film has it’s fair share of them, but once again they struggle to hit the mark. One particularly stand-out scene works a rather brutal, high-body-count gunfight into the 12A rating with visual techniques that also give the sequence a striking impact, definitely proving to be the high point of the film. A couple of other perfectly agreeable sequences are ruined by music choice, one played for a 2 second gag that is carried on for 2 excruciating minutes. When the film hits the third act there is real promise of everything coming together as the film takes on a more controlled, fluid direction and there is an energy behind it as though we’re starting to care what happens, but it soon stops and starts, dissipating the energy, and climactic action scenes result in cliché-ridden, CGI-heavy, and ultimately quite inconsequential events.

On the plus side, he has a very cool bike

Altogether, this is a film that on paper should be much better than memory leads me to believe. Everything is present; Robocop fights bad guys and tries to connect with his family, comments are made on the themes aforementioned, Gary Oldman offers profound advice, Jackie Earle Hayley wise-cracks, Michael Keaton hesitates on many lines, and Samuel L. Jackson is cool, shouting angrily once or twice. The cast all do a great job, but the script they’re working off offers no challenges so they’re actually obliged to phone in their roles, save for each star actor being given one or two scenes to show their stereotypical strengths, again pasted in so blatantly. Joel Kinnaman is never even afforded one of these, so his portrayal of Alex Murphy remains ‘fine’ for no fault of his own. It gives the sense that the makers had this checklist of components and, when all these items were placed into their plot, were happy to sit back and go ahead with the film like it was a series of requirements fulfilled; they’ve done their jobs. There’s no attempt to go one better, to try anything new, to surprise the audience or to convey the intended points by anything but the easiest, most two-dimensional means available.

Except for opening on Samuel L. Jackson making bloody helicopter noises.

As a massive fan of the original movie, I forced myself to clear my head of any preconceptions as to how Robocop should be portrayed or what the film should represent or anything else. And in the end it didn’t actually matter, because I don’t feel the need to compare the remake and original, to draw contrasts and similarities; taken as a completely standalone production, this is a bad film with only a handful of saving graces raising it above being dreadful, but so many opportunities to have been a hundred times better.

4/10