Category Archives: Adventure

LFF: Ava

The coming-of-age drama is a tried-and-tested genre that is, more often than not, hampered by a stale formula. Overcoming this obstacle with gleeful abandon is Ava, where a scene in which the film’s titular character endures an awkward first date with a boy – who would ordinarily fit the prototype for this genre’s love interest – makes its intent clear: this is not the film for that. Instead, we have a coming-of-age drama spruced up with a stolen dog, robberies that take place on a nudist beach, and the lingering threat of our main protagonist’s encroaching blindness.

It’s Ava’s last summer with sight: as the sun-soaked holidays wind down, she’s left to confront the inevitability of never being able to see again at the age of 13. Her mother intends for her daughter to have ‘the best summer of her life’, but her plans only serve to derail Ava’s own. As far as reactions to news as bad as this go, Ava’s is more than understandable. She steals and befriends a dog, and, pragmatically, transforms it into a guide dog in order to learn how to live in permanent darkness.

Her actions thereafter are telling: motivated by her flagging eyesight, she aims to experience a life beyond her years with sight, even for only a few days. Noée Abita’s performance as Ava is richly textured, her puppy dog eyes belying a false sense of newfound maturity. While the blindness narrative fades away from the forefront, it’s an everpresent threat that acts as a catalyst for her actions.

Of course, her mother is none too pleased with Ava, and their tumultuous relationship is one of the film’s many pleasures. It’s an exciting dynamic filmed in an excitingly dynamic way, the camera framing the two against one another as if Ava’s subsequent flee from home is a foregone conclusion. This also leaves potential for the relationship to augment and develop as Ava herself does. As it turns out, this potential is left untapped; it’s the film, and not the film’s protagonist, that succumbs to blindness first, losing sight of its fascinating maternal dynamic and choosing to prop up an untidy young-lovers escapist narrative instead.

No matter; if not as exuberant or insightful as Ava’s first two acts, there’s enough wild creativity mustered up by director Léa Mysius to make the pursuit entirely watchable. In fact, the film is so confident in its ability to subvert narrative convention that its most misjudged moments just about pay off: an erratically filmed beach robbery, where the young lovers cover themselves in clay to pry their animalistic instincts from within, is set to an incohesive happy-go tune and is bafflingly split-screened, while the film steeps in surrealism before forgetting that that ever happened. Restless as Ava may be, this is a charming study of the typical young-woman-finding-herself narrative, bursting at the seams with an erratic energy that breathes new life into a tired genre.

-Gus Edgar

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Fantastic Beasts’ title card may bear the same familiar font and sweeping melody of its big brother, but the film is a far cry from Harry Potter. For one, it takes place in 1920s New York; a more grimy, unromanticized version than we’re used to. This New York is saturated in a general unease with the wizarding community, rather than the embracing of magic seen in the Harry Potter franchise, and thus each wizard and witch is forced into hiding, unable to reveal themselves under the judgement of the No-Maj (America’s less-than-subtle equivalent of a Muggle). So when Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist wonderfully realised by Eddie Redmayne, inadvertently lets loose an array of creatures, or, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, to run amok in the city, you can imagine the chaos it would cause.

And sure, it does cause chaos, but to what effect? Fantastic Beasts takes a while to get going – penned by JK Rowling herself, it’s a film composed of two major plotlines: the escape and subsequent capture of Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts, and the concept of an Obscurus and its relation to the leading members of the Second Salem (an organisation keen on stamping out magic and exposing magicians). Sadly, the plotline the film adopts as its title is both the least interesting and the least relevant of the two.

The film plunges straight into action without first establishing character motivations or defining a significant threat that the protagonists face. A mole-like creature called a Niffler with an affinity for treasure, easily the film’s most memorable critter, escapes from Scamander’s case to provoke an entertaining sequence in which Scamander scurries around a bank looking for it. Here, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an endearingly bumbling No-Maj who’s needed as the audience’s perspective. After a brief(case) mix-up, he accidentally involves himself in the wizarding world, much to the disdain of Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a demoted Auror (investigator of crimes related to the Dark Arts). We’re not sure why Scamander’s in New York, nor the consequences of letting the Niffler loose, and so these opening few scenes lack significance if not entertainment, stripping the film of any momentum. When the main protagonists of Scamander, Tina and Kowalski involve themselves with one another, such as during a dinner scene at Tina’s residence, it comes across as unimportant – there’s simply no driving force behind it all.

We are introduced to The Second Salem, a magic-hating organisation, but it’s not made clearer until the film’s second act how exactly they’re important to the story. Bluntly put, the pacing is dreadful. It takes too long to learn how this plotline interacts with the main protagonists, and when it does, it just casts the realisation that there wasn’t much point to the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ storyline in the first place. That’s not to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had watching Eddie Redmayne attempt to woo a weird rhino-esque creature with an unorthodox mating display in order to capture it, but the scenes lack substance, and are, surprisingly, unmemorable. There’s no moments of wonder created akin to Harry’s first ride on the Hippogriff – most of the magic has seemingly died with the Potter saga.

Kowalski certainly seems taken aback, however, by his discovery of magic. His journey in Scamander’s briefcase is a highlight of the film, signalling how the divide between No-Maj and wizard needn’t be. Fantastic Beasts deals with these politics skillfully – it’s a simple oppressed-minority structure that applies to our world as much as it does the wizarding world, but is integrated well into the story and gives various scenes superb heft. Some of these scenes involve Percival Graves, played with manipulative assertion by Colin Farrell. He’s a senior Auror who works in league with Ezra Miller’s Credence, a member of the Second Salem, and his performance is brash and menacing. This contrasts well with Scamander’s inherent introversion, where Redmayne gives a certain charm to the character that would come across as cloying in the hands of a less capable actor. His performance isn’t the caricaturish loner either – he’s as introverted with humans as he is extroverted to his various creatures, supporting his affixion with the beasts. The roles in Fantastic Beasts are testament to JK Rowling’s knack for churning out interesting, believable characters – the one misstep is Tina Goldstein, her one-note, soapy characterisation wasted on Katherine Waterston’s talent.

Yet her writing, in this instance, doesn’t extend to a sophisticated or restrained plot. The film juggles too much – when it works, it’s awe-inspiring. But there’s an inordinate amount of loose plotlines, all culminating in an exhaustive final battle sequence. As the latest entry in the Wizarding World, it’s a disappointment rather than a failure. There are, however, moments of intrigue and awe to be had among its plodding narrative – Fantastic Beasts is a film jam-packed with superfluous storylines, but also a film jam-packed with mature themes and exciting new characters.

Spectre

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In the opening scene of Spectre, the Daniel Craig era of James Bond soars to new heights (quite literally) with a terrific Dia de Muertos sequence. Sadly, the following 130 minutes of screentime can’t maintain the high standards set – and as the film progresses, the expectancy of another Bond classic dwindles indefinitely.

Bond’s 24th (non-linear) outing takes place in the wake of Skyfall, where Judi Dench’s recently deceased ‘M’ kickstarts Spectre’s messy plot into action.  He must kill the criminal Marco Sciarra, and attend his funeral in Rome. From there, the murky depths of a shadowy organisation called ‘Spectre’ are revealed, and at the centre of this establishment is the enigmatic figure of Waltz’s Franz Oberhauser.

This infiltration of Spectre is clumsily written, where action sequences are nonsensical and character developments are ignored – but at least it’s engrossing. The film’s subplot, however – a heavy-handed pro-Snowden exploration of Andrew Scott’s villainous ‘C’ and his endorsement of world-surveillance – needlessly swamps Bond’s mission; the problem with it is that it’s just not all that interesting, and written less as part of the plot and more as a vehicle for director Sam Mendes’ views. With a subplot as weak as Spectre’s, the main story better be good – sadly, ‘engrossing’ doesn’t cut it.

It’s a strange concoction of Craig’s gritty new-era Bond and Moore’s cheesy Austin Powers-esque Bond, and rather than combining the two seamlessly, the script only produces a weird, tonally-jarring mood that serves to diminish Casino Royale’s attempts at a modern Bond with modern ideas. There’s a wonderfully-elaborate villain’s lair, a train fight involving Bautista’s beast of a henchman, Mr. Hinx, that hearkens back to Jaws (the figure, not the film), and the return of gadgets is a welcome sight. Unfortunately, each of these ideas are misused, a microcosm of Spectre’s extravagantly-clumsy plot: the villain’s lair is destroyed too easily, and inevitably, too soon, Mr. Hinx is poorly fleshed out and his actions contradict the motivations written for him, and the gadgets aren’t used in a clever way, but rather as a ‘MacGyver’ in order to end action sequences as they drag on. The action sequences themselves – aside from Spectre’s brilliant opener – are honestly as naff as they come. A car chase is lifeless and lacking in suspense, a mountainous plane ride is shot amateurishly and ends too soon, the aforementioned train fight is anticlimatic and opposes Waltz’s intentions, and a speedboat-helicopter chase has a disappointing resolution.

Much has been touted of Spectre’s empowering presentation of females, where Monica Bellucci has been advertised as the ‘oldest Bond-girl‘. Yet her appearance is more of a cameo, a 5-minutes irrelevance that gives way to Lea Seydoux’s barely-fleshed-out Madeleine Swann, a woman who rejects Bond’s advances and swiftly swoons for him; a rushed romance that epitomises the contrivances of Mendes’ hap-hazardous plot. Lea Seydoux is wasted potential, her character written so lazily and confusedly that she can’t muster the chemistry with Craig’s forever-average Bond for the relationship to bear any believability. The villain is equally wooden, his motives generic and disappointing. This is a step down from Skyfall’s Bardem, and is only salvaged by Waltz’s reliably menacing schtick.

 

For all the expectancy surrounding Craig’s potential final outing, its script does not deliver. From an untidy plot to stilted characterisation and development, this would be a sour note for Craig to end on. Some critics have stated that Spectre is in need of a rewrite – I couldn’t agree more.

– Gus Edgar

 

Big Hero 6

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There’s been talk of a Disney renaissance; hot off the heels of Frozen’s commercial – and critical – success, the studio released Big Hero 6, a charming flick that was met with a similarly superb response. So much so, it went on to beat the likes of The Lego Movie and The Tale of Princess Kaguya to the Best Animated Feature Oscar. The accolade was clearly indicative of the golden period Disney now finds itself in – away from the depths of the 2000s; the award was sweet, a success story, a signifier of great things to come. The award was undeserved.

Big Hero 6 is undoubtedly a pleasant, likeable film. Baymax, the sidekick of main protagonist Hiro (Ryan Potter), is irresistibly adorable and wonderfully voiced by Scott Adsit. Together these two heroes attempt to stop a mysterious masked villain in control of a creation owned by Hiro himself – microbots -, a figure of formerly ambiguous motives. To conquer this villain, they team up with a group of scientists/thinly-veiled caricatures, each given an upgrade via Hiro’s genius that tailors to each character’s specific skill set. To give any more plot points away would risk delving into spoiler territory – it’s a shame then that you’ll see each plot development coming a mile away. Disney has certainly benefited from their control over the majority of Marvel, and Big Hero 6 is a way to flaunt that control; adapted from the Marvel comics of the same name, the series offers a huge array of creative sequences to choose from. And Big Hero 6 certainly excels in its world-building – the film takes place in the city of San Fransokyo, an imaginative hybrid city that looks beautiful and is much a character of the film as any of the other characters. If the movie shines in one department, then its most obviously the world created, and its sumptuous visuals.

The creativity of the city isn’t translated into plot however, where somehow the writers manage to turn an animation – a cinematic form that has endless possibilities – into a formulaic, albeit enjoyable romp that’s inseparable from a large proportion of live-action movies: A protagonist is introduced, a traumatic event occurs that spurs on the emergence of a hero from within the protagonist, a villain arises and the protagonist, with the help of some lazily-written sidekicks, battle this villain in a huge showdown of mass destruction. It’s disappointing, and frustrating, to see a plot mishandled and shaped into a generic Marvel formula when there’s potential for so much more. It’s not just live-action Marvel films that Big Hero 6 seems to be copying- the animations wears references of The Iron Giant on its sleeve, the similarities bravely shuffling on the edge of ripping-off as opposed to endearingly referencing.

The dialogue itself is a mixed bag – some jokes hit, others are miscalculations, a large portion of the characters are poorly written and used more as plot devices than for realism, and there are many, many expositional problems at the start of the film (“Our parents died in a fire when I was 3, remember?”). Where the script succeeds is in its truthful, adult moral message, and how the film conveys that message. It’s touching, heartfelt, and admirably separates itself from feel-good animations that may end up serving as lies given to younger viewers. This is fast becoming a trend in 2015 – Inside Out deals with a similarly mature, acceptance-themed message too, and is made all the better for it. The ending of Big Hero 6 hits hard (although it’s then hindered by a following scene), despite the likelihood that you may see it coming, and proves to be a high of a film that’s otherwise a little flat.

Big Hero 6 is one of the most beautiful films animated, yet its visuals and resoundingly satisfying message can’t quite make up for poor plot-characterisation, poor plot writing and simply a poor plot. How this won the Oscar over The Lego Movie is anyone’s guess.

– Gus Edgar

The Maze Runner

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YA (Young Adult) flicks are going through a rather turgid time currently; Divergent‘s mediocre reviews and the similar reaction to The Giver is earning the profitable genre a bad reputation. And, presently, that’s what the genre represents: an easy way to churn out bog-standard productions and earn dosh following the startling success of 2012’s The Hunger Games. The Maze Runner is just another run-of-the-mill adaptation from a mildly popular YA novel in order to generate plenty of cash, right? Er, no actually. I’d go as far as to say that The Maze Runner is the best YA film in recent years, shadowing the might of even The Hunger Games.

The quality of The Maze Runner lies within the fact that it chooses not to conform to the stereotypes of the YA genre. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch a YA flick without worrying about distracting love triangles, numerous extravagant settings and an easygoing tone that doesn’t quite fit with the material and messages it attempts to send. No, The Maze Runner sets itself apart from its competition – and it would no doubt be receiving much better review if it were not for the negative connotations that its genre has garnered over time.

The plot is deceivingly simple at first – a teenager (Dylan O’Brien) find himself dazedly placed in a maze where other teenagers like him reside, in the same situation. They are trapped in a box – known as The Glade, where an impressive and colossal maze surrounds them, preventing their escape unless they find a seemingly non-existent exit. Here, disputes occur and tension rises, toppling over as the only girl is introduced into the fray (Kaya Scodelairo). As the walls to the maze then refuse to close, the terrible inhabitants of the maze known as Grievers come out to play…

Basically, think a modern version of Lord of the Flies.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the tone and mood it creates; there is an overbearing sense of urgency, which comes across fantastically to the audience. While many YA flicks don’t encapsulate the looming, dread-foreshadowing tone that may be more suited to their source material (instead resorting to cheap jokes or melodramatic romance), The Maze Runner captures this perfectly. Scenes such as the sprint to escape the closing walls of the maze, and the introduction to the hideous Grievers, are incredibly tense and increasingly stressful (and enjoyable) to watch. The Maze Runner takes itself very seriously, and while that approach has been misused in recent history (Man of Steel comes to mind immediately), it’s masterfully used here to squeeze the largest amount of intensity out of the film as it can muster. Yet while the film is gripping, it’s also contemplative and intriguing, where many loose strands that the plot begins with urges the audience to remain focused.

Another impressive aspect of The Maze Runner is the acting of the main characters. Dylan O’Brien plays both the confused and the increasingly-confident hero extremely well, where his understated performance contains exactly the right amount of both bravado and pretense at knowing how to deal with the situation he’s in. Will Poulter, hot off last year’s BAFTA Rising Star Award, plays fellow trapped teenager Gally with a bullish confidence, his antagonistic intentions contradicted by his good intentions. While he may serve as the antithesis to O’Brien’s protagonist, his performance is both sympathetic and easy to relate to. Thomas Brodie-Sangster (He’s 24! 24!) plays second-in-command Newt with subtle kindness, acted out well enough but mainly used for expositional purposes. Similarly impressive is relative newcome Ki Long-Hee, who plays the main action figure of the film, Minho. His performance carries an air of competence and physicality, a facade that protects his feelings of helplessness towards the situation he finds himself in.

Less impressive is the supporting cast, where the line deliverance is robotic and devoid of any empathy. It’s a compliment to the main cast’s acting (or inversely, an insult to the supporting cast’s) that their performance is so prominent in how lifeless they are. And while the plot is simple, it unravels rather quickly into many loose strands, where only a small amount are tied up (of course, there is 2015’s sequel to look forward to). Finally, despite the stunning CGI, where the maze in particular looks epic both aesthetically and in scale, there are a few short moments where the effects are clear and obvious, though that shouldn’t detract from the film too much.

One of the film’s main criticisms stems from its ending, and how anti-climatic and nonsensical it seems. Of course, the fact that the film is merely the first of a trilogy is neglected, where critics are too hasty in their distaste of the amount of questions the film leaves open by the end of its running time. In terms of its underwhelming nature, it’s representative of its refusal to abide to the YA stereotypes, instead choosing to end on a sombre, intriguing note that will give the audience goosebumps. The Maze Runner is a refreshingly intense, gripping and unique movie experience that will have the audience salivating for more.

– Gus Edgar