Tuesday 26 May 2015

Movie Review - Poltergeist

Oh, do they now?
Let's look at some modern horror clichés and see where Poltergeist fits in:
  • Cash-strapped nuclear family moving into new home - CHECK
  • New home stationed in an area with scary backstory - CHECK
  • People being dragged along corridors by unseen forces - CHECK
  • Large team of paranormal experts monitoring haunted building - CHECK
  • Exorcism (or similar shit) being performed in a noisy climax - CHECK
I'm not being entirely serious here. These conventions don't automatically result in a bad outcome; many recent horror films have used them great effect, but it's a tough challenge to pull off. Go too far and things get silly, don't go far enough and there's zero fear factor. Poltergeist, a hideous remake of the much loved 1982 classic, manages to go in both directions; it's attempts at genuine terror fail miserably, but it's also utterly obsessed with goofiness and poor shots at witty humour. It gets to a point where even the characters stop taking incredibly worrying events seriously; I kept having to rub my eyes and wiggle my head about to see if I was actually watching the film and not the outtake reel.

The plot literally just revolves around the Bowen family moving into a new house after the father Eric (Sam Rockwell) loses his job, and thus the tension and scariness (terms used very loosely) begins there. It's a lazy, formulaic script that makes absolutely no effort to balance the tone and mood of each scene or develop the plot in any meaningful way. The actors aren't really a saving grace either; performances across the board are generally very weak, particularly from Saxon Sharbino, and although Sam Rockwell has his charms, he ultimately becomes naught but the source of many misplaced jokes.

As the film nears it's conclusion, all sorts of loud chaos begins - none of it remotely scary. I always believe that you should never try and produce epic Hollywood blockbuster results in a horror flick; the climax is overstuffed with so much CGI and loud set pieces that it becomes less a chilling horror and more a generic action film with some weird ghosts thrown in. Numerous sub plots arise, an onslaught of annoying and equally pointless characters turn up, and the film descends into pure nonsense. Alas, my friends: we have yet another reason why the industry needs to rethink the approach on the genre now.

Saturday 23 May 2015

Movie Review - Tomorrowland: A World Beyond

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond is hard to summarise, as it's narrative has been seldom explored by the marketing campaign, leaving it an exciting mystery to all those waiting to witness it. The central premise that initially clouds all the rich details revolves around Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a tech whiz repeatedly sabotaging the destruction of a NASA launch pad to oppose mankind's decline into pessimism and loss. Upon finding a mysterious pin with unknown markings, she is brought to the doorstep of Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor of a mysterious background, who encounters an alternate world with Casey which directly influences their own.

I have a lot to say on this one, both positive and negative, so let's get the good stuff out of the way. On a visual scale, Tomorrowland is basically flawless - the design of the eponymous city and it's subtle nods to the Disneyland namesake is absolutely stunning, and the concept behind it's existence is both ambitious and original. Nothing is truly silly nor overly dark - the film maintains tension during scenes that demand it, but this is nicely blended with an overall loveable tone. The acting is universally brilliant, not just from Britt Robertson and George Clooney, but also from talented youngsters Thomas Robinson and Raffey Cassidy.

So, if Tomorrowland has a potentially engaging narrative, gorgeous visuals, and a superb cast, what could be it's achilles heel? This seems to be a general consensus amongst most critics, and for me it was equally evident - conceptually, the story is genius, but practically, it's an absolute mess. The script, thoughtful as it is, blasts along full steam ahead with little to no definitive explanation provided at crucial moments. More often than not, I sat there amused yet confused, and whilst the beautiful visuals and delightful humour provide some enjoyment, the story lacks any sort of focus or balance.

I can just imagine director Brad Bird pitching his story to me, talking at light speed and cutting me off whenever I try to interject and request some extra details. That is exactly how it feels; Tomorrowland simply has no respect for the solidity of it's own narrative or the needs of the audience. It's also a real shame that, when you're already puzzled, the potential for a richer storyline is further wasted when it slowly adopts generic action conventions, mainly the usual set pieces of being chased by armed baddies and exploring all sorts of contrived conspiracies. It's definitely not the film I expected from such an exceptional premise, which is squandered on an underwritten script that shrugs off the need to explain any of it's key events.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Movie Review - Mad Max: Fury Road

Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a survivor within a baron future Earth, is captured by the War Boys army who use him to provide blood for their ill solider Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Elsewhere, another survivor named Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) drives an important fuel rig off course alongside the Five Wives, women selected by the War Boys to give birth to future soldiers. This alerts the War Boys leader King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who subsequently leads his armies on a deadly pursuit, dragging Max into the chaos in the process.

Despite being the first Mad Max film since 1985, Fury Road wastes no time explain it's narrative in an obvious fashion, with brief exchanges in dialogue helping to develop things as it goes on. This is good and bad in several respects - it can sometimes be hard to keep up with what's going on (it was hard enough for me to summarise it in the previous paragraph), but it also allows the pacing to continue swiftly with no hiccups or pauses to provide naught but obvious exposition. While it's hard to tell if this is a sequel, reboot, or even a prequel, the fact that it doesn't crucially rely on narrative elements from previous Mad Max films makes it more accessible to new viewers.

The majority of Fury Road can best be described as one gargantuan action scene; however, this is by no means a bad thing, and it's nicely balanced with a confident ability to tell it's story. The action scenes are some of the best you'll ever see in a recent action film, with all manner of crazy chase scenes, epic stunts, dazzling effects, and some wonderfully choreographed battle scenes. It's briskly paced and extremely thrilling, resulting in a film that never fails to keep your attention, particularly when viewed in the gorgeous IMAX format.

There's some stunning production design when it comes to all forms of the aesthetics; the makeup, locations, set design, and computer generated effects. The bizarre nature of this polluted world is wonderfully evoked in the makeup for the characters; emphasising deformities of the villains and even the protagonists in some cases. It's this beautiful focus on mise en scene and choreography that make the set pieces all the more exciting, and thanks to a significant amount of narrative backbone and rich performances, Fury Road is a rare action movie that can prove to be so much more than a brainless popcorn flick.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Movie Review - Unfriended

When a humiliating video involving a young woman named Laura Barns goes viral on the internet, the subsequent mockery and harassment forces her to commit suicide. Now, a year on, her friends engage in a casual meet up on Skype, but are joined by an unknown visitor; with no name, no icon, and no voice. Their efforts to remove the stranger from their chat prove unsuccessful, and what they initially believe to be a hacker evolves into something far more sinister - which will eventually challenge their morals and bring forward more shocking revelations around Laura's tragic death.

That is the central premise of Unfriended, a supernatural horror flick that uses the found footage premise to tell it's story. Of course, the found footage horror genre is becoming one of the biggest clichés in cinema history, and something many audiences have grown fed up with. Unfriended, surprisingly, does manage to transcend the gimmick with a unique twist - the entire film is set solely on a laptop screen, with computer cameras portraying the characters and their surroundings via Skype chats. You may think that sounds tacky and incredibly boring, but once the story gets going it proves to be a surprisingly effective technique. It's through this that the filmmakers convey an interesting outlook on the consequences of cyber bullying on a personal level, and demonstrate the secrets and aggressive confidence that users adopt when hidden from direct confrontation.

Unfriended blends traditional horror jumps with some extremely disturbing (yet brilliantly staged) gore, coupled with a generally consistent tense atmosphere. Something as simple as receiving messages from an unknown user and the confusion this yields is developed into something extremely creepy when more revelations take place. It's a shame that the script struggles in the middle due to a lack of focus and protracted shouting matches between the characters, but in general Unfriended offers some great scares and a fairly engaging plot, backed by an energetic cast. It's been a while since a horror flick freaked me out the way this one did, so I came away very satisfied.

Thursday 7 May 2015

BlackBerry Classic - My Thoughts

BlackBerry is probably the most controversial phone provider on the market - despite their dominance way back when, their shares and fanbase have significantly tanked in the past few years due to competition from the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, and HTC devices. Sales have declined, popularity has dwindled; nowadays, some people will deem it weird for anyone to still use these devices. To counter this, the company's latest ambition is to recapture their audience with a newly structured operation system, BlackBerry 10, which blends conventions of the modern smartphone world with traditional perks that BlackBerry have excelled at.

The two new devices that aim to achieve this goal are the BlackBerry Passport and BlackBerry Classic, which both debuted at the end of last year. These phones combine swift touch screen interfaces with the unique keypads that make BlackBerry stand out from the crowd. I myself received the Classic as part of a new phone contract, and after spending some time with it, I wanted to express some unbiased thoughts.

BB10 revamps the entire layout of the home menu.
The BlackBerry Classic, as previously mentioned, runs on the new BB 10 operating system, which was built from the ground up as a fresh successor to the company's previous efforts. This new system matches the standard layout for modern smartphones - icons presented in a small grid, available to open via simple taps on the 3.5 inch touch screen. Swipe gestures allow you to scroll through the menus to find different apps; but you can also perform such actions with the touch sensitive trackpad. The trademark keypad makes a return and makes typing messages a pleasant experience; the gentle click of each letter provides some great feedback that just makes typing a lot nicer and more precise. My stupid fat fingers have always been an issue on touch screen keypads, and so this physical alternative is much more ideal. The keys are also much softer than before, so you won't be bombarded with an onslaught of loud clicks every time you write a text message.

Compared to previous BlackBerry devices, the Classic is a huge leap forward in terms of speed and functionality. It took the company far too long to achieve this, but ignoring the delay, it's hard to deny that BB 10 is one of the best smartphone operating systems currently available. It's fast, beautifully fluid, and contains a notably exceptional web browser. Previous BB devices offered some of the worst internet browsing experiences in mobile phone history, but with BB 10, the developers have really made an effort to provide a speedy and swift internet experience with little to no load times or compatibility issues. Crucially, unlike in most of the previous BlackBerry phones, Youtube videos now look fantastic and load up quickly. Perhaps it would've been nice to rotate them with the screen when viewing, but nevermind.

The Classic has all the standard apps built in from the get go, including Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Maps, Weather, and so on. The maps software is a lot better than the horrendous versions in previous BB devices, but it still needs some improvements; notably when it comes to displaying information for public transport routes. The app store BlackBerry World has a lot more on offer these days, even if it still struggles to compete with the more renowned competitors such as Apple's App Store and Google Play. Android apps can be purchased through Amazon and used on the Classic, however, so that is a nice bonus; even if some of them don't always work perfectly.

Messaging services on BlackBerry phones is something I feel has never been rivalled by other contenders, and the Classic is another example of this. Texting is easy and swift, and BBM is back with a much nicer layout and the same speed it was always known for. Those who look for reliable and user friendly communication services will find much to love in BlackBerry phones, particularly when you look at their cheaper prices on operator contracts. The new BlackBerry Hub allows you to navigate between all your texts, app notifications, and e-mails in one condensed menu, without even having to open the app they are based within, which makes navigation all the more simple.

The Classic features an outward and inward facing camera, so you'll be able to take all sorts of stupid duck face selfies if you so desire. The cameras provide 8 megapixel quality, and thus the resulting images are quite lovely. The camera can be annoying when it takes a while to focus, but you'll still be able to take some fantastic photos when you get to grips with it. Users who don't grossly obsess over pixel counts and merely admire the quality of the final image should be pleased with what the Classic can provide.

In terms of it's physical design, the Classic has a gorgeous curved build, with metallic silver edges and the typical strength and robustness that BB phones are known for. The display shows images in 720x720 pixels, and the combination of the keypad and touch screen makes for a variety of flawless controls. Some people may find it a bit heavy, but I had no trouble adjusting to it. It's also got a strong battery life, lasting at least 20 hours on a single charge in my experience.

The Classic is great without a doubt, but like all devices, it's not perfect. It can be a nuisance to transfer data from a previous BlackBerry phone that did not use BB 10 to your new Classic device, because the bundled BlackBerry Link software is so broken that, at times, it is virtually unusable; turning simple tasks such as copying over files into annoying ordeals plagued by long load times and nonsensical error messages. It works reasonably okay when moving contacts, calendar details, and that sort of stuff, but when you plan to transfer images/voice notes/music, I'd recommend Dropbox instead. The phone also takes around 70 seconds to boot up, which isn't a massive problem, but still far from impressive.

I've always been frustrated with the hate BlackBerry devices have received by some people, though perhaps I do understand where they're coming from when you look at the outdated hardware on their older offerings. The Classic is a solid effort to catch up with the modern smartphone world - it's not as powerful as most of its competitors, but it's certainly a worthy addition to the smartphone market.