Gravity (2013)

Gravity (2013)

Recently, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what I’d want my super power to be. You see, I want something that I could keep on the down-low; something that I could hide from the public. Let’s face it, I wouldn’t want to be hunted down by vigilantes or the government. This rules out being elemental / made of fire. Conversely, I’d also want a power that would allow me to have fun AND protect myself when those same government forced find out about me / my arch villain rises up to confront me. So… what was the power I’ve decided on? Gravity manipulation. This would allow me to fly (cool), flip cars easily, and also crush those cars into a pulp by generating a gravity field. As well as generate some cool gravitational force fields… See, my powers would be pretty cool, right? It’s quite funny then that the next film I headed out to review was Gravity… Pure coincidence!

Gravity (2013)

Gravity is a brave film. Why is it so brave? No, it doesn’t detail my ascent to superhero status; it features only two actors. Well, sure, there are other voices, but no real “acting” comes from them. Instead, we are treated to 90 minutes of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in space. It’s not spoiling anything to say that Gravity deals with the aftermath of a devastating destruction of a US shuttle whilst carrying out routine maintenance on the Hubble telescope. This leaves Stone and Kowalski fighting for their lives in space as they determine the best way to get back down to Earth.

What unfolds is a hybrid blend of Alien, Buried and something akin to films like Open Water, which plagued cinemas some years back – you know, those ones where we essentially follow people in mortal peril in some “realistic” situation, such as falling off a boat and being unable to climb back on. Essentially, we’re looking at a tension filled space opera with a focus on solely two characters. And it works. It works REALLY well. Gravity is easily one of the tensest films I’ve seen in some time. As we only saw Captain Phillips a couple of weeks ago, that’s saying something. It’s beautiful to look at, has spectacular set pieces and the musical score is mesmerising. But that’s not to say the film is without its faults.

Gravity (2013)

The biggest fault is the feeling that the events that unfold are such “flukes”. Without spoiling anything, the film ricochets from one set piece to another and you’re left feeling “how is that possible?” / “how fortuitous is that?!”. Sure, most films call for the “suspension of disbelief”, because after all – this is a film. But Gravity pushes it to the n-th degree. It pushes the suspension so far that you have to disbelieve it again. You’re basically forced to. This continues right up until the credits roll at the end – it’s not a one off.

That being said, you can’t fault the quality of the film; it’s sheer entertainment. The suspense I mentioned? It’s there in buckets. For as empty and vacuous as space is, it’s a place of extremely high tension and drama. Especially when you’re low on oxygen and propulsion fuel. This suspense is kept up by two fantastic performances from Clooney and Bullock, especially the latter. Bullock is, for all intents and purposes, the “lead” actor here. She really does capture the emotions of terror and fear, even if she is extremely… fortunate at times. In fact, for a rookie astronaut she’s remarkably calm and balanced too. I guess NASA train you well!

Gravity (2013)

What really brought the film to life was the direction, visuals and the music. Hell, even the 3D worked for the first time in forever. It actually ADDED to a film. I know, a shocking revelation. Alfonso Cuarón does a great job capturing the enormity of space and does much to throw in occasional symbolisms for those that seek them. Sure, the majority of the film is green screen, but it’s realised so beautifully. As many Phagelings will know, we’re big audiophiles at Film Phage, so the music certainly needs merit. We all know that sound doesn’t travel in space (no-one can hear you scream etc.), but the soundscapes generated? Very impactful. If you’re a fan of large sounding post-rock and twee instrumentals ala the more atmospheric Sigur Ros tracks, or anything by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, then you should get a kick out of the musical accompaniments. Not many will fully appreciate this, but I reckon you kids will. Like me.

Gravity is a beautifully realised film, even if it does stretch the disbelief that I was willing to suspend to breaking point. It’s a very brave move to base a film solely around two actors and some voices, but it works incredibly well. Would this have worked with lesser equipped actors than Clooney and Bullock? That’s debatable. But regardless, Gravity delivered 2013’s finest foray into space and didn’t fail to keep me feeling tense and uppity long after I left the screening.

I still think they should make a film about my rise to superhero status as Gravaphage. But what type of superpowered person would I be? Would I dedicate myself to the good fight? Would I keep my identity a secret? Or would I just “do an Iron Man” and show the world what I can do? CRUSHING those in my path (with my gravity, of course)… Hell, these are all considerations for another day. You’ve also got to consider what would be my Kryptonite… Hmm… Answers on a postcard please!

Phage Factor:

4 Star

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Dark Skies (2013)

Dark Skies (2013)

The truth is out there… Are you hearing that theme song in your head yet? Yes, The X-Files did wonders for getting the concept of aliens “out there” into the public domain. It triggered an unhealthy fascination in what’s up in the skies for a lot of people. The same people (mainly guys) also developed an unhealthy obsession with Gillian Anderson. Me? I’m just fascinated with how David Duchovny looks almost exactly the same now as he did back in 1992. Whatever alien gloop he’s using on his skin, I want some! Sure, aliens have taken many forms in the movies too – from the horrific “tongue-y” xenomorphs in the Alien franchise to the little guy who’s got a really long glowing finger and is obsessed with going home – but none are more famous than the “Greys”. You know the ones: really tall, long limbs, huge black eyes… oh, and they’re grey. Think Roger from American Dad! or any alien seen in South Park. Got it? Good. So how does Dark Skies, the latest alien horror movie, deal with the deities from the sky?

The Signs of Dark Skies are evident for all to see...

The Signs of Dark Skies are evident for all to see…

Well… have you seen Signs? You know, when M. Night Shyamalan was still delivering top notch movies that you really wanted to go out and see? If you’re with me, then lift that plot up and supplant it into Dark Skies and you’ve essentially got the premise. I know what you’re thinking if you’re a regular reader: “Hey, Phage, where’s the plot summary? I don’t like change – just do things like you normally do!”… but I’m honestly not kidding when I say that Signs and Dark Skies are almost exactly the same film. Replace the farm from Signs with a suburban neighbourhood, whip out Joaquin Phoenix and Mel Gibson and replace with Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton and you’re pretty much on the money.

OK, I’ll give you a summary lest I lose you forever into the void that is the internet: Dark Skies follows the lives of Daniel and Lacy Barrett and their two young boys. Sure, they’re going through financial troubles, but that’s the least of their worries when their youngest, Sam (Kadan Rockett) starts to act peculiarly and attributes his odd behaviour to the “Sandman”. But that’s only the beginning… as soon the whole family is engulfed in what can only be described as an “extraterrestrial” experience…

Dark Skies (2013)

I’m a bit surprised actually, as I’ve made the film sound wholly more exciting than it was. The crux of the problem with Dark Skies isn’t that it’s got a bit too much in common with Signs, but the fact that the pacing is entirely off. Especially for a “horror” movie. I know that I often lament the use of loud noises, camera jerks and cheap startling tactics, but they do at least add some (false) frights into a horror movie. Dark Skies lacks all of these for at least the first 3/4 of the movie. This would ordinarily cause me to commend the film. However, their absence actually exposes the critical weakness of the film: nothing’s happening. It’s not suspenseful – nothing’s happening.

We’re all accustomed to horror films ramping up the tension over their run time. This is especially true with the Paranormal Activity franchise; it’s their calling card. You know the scares are going to get bigger and more intense the longer the run time goes on. Hell, I can still see the ending of REC in my mind’s eye (now that was a horror film!)… that was a build-up punctuated with a ton of scares along the way. It seems that Dark Skies saved all of its material for the final quarter of the film. This wouldn’t be bad, if the final quarter wasn’t quite so poor too. You already know how it’s going to end.

Dark Skies (2013)

The trouble is that the film tries to shoehorn in too many ideas from other films. You have the obvious Signs similarities, then the use of surveillance footage (Paranormal Activity), night vision cameras (Paranormal Activity 2) and emotionally disturbed children (Poltergeist). What you’re left with is a product that isn’t equal to the sum of its parts.

All that being said, I admire the film-makers for being bold in attempting something a little different from the normal LOUD NOISES approach to horror movies; making it unfortunate that the plot is a bit too bare and basic. When I saw that it came “from the producer of Insidious, Sinister and Paranormal Activity“, I thought I knew what I was going to get (clue: NOISES), but I was mistaken. Turns out I wasn’t mistaken about the ending though…

Ultimately, I just failed to be scared or even feel absorbed by the plot of Dark Skies. Even the most “startling” of modern horror movies at least have me hooked into the plot to see how it’ll all play out, but this was stripped away by my overwhelming sense of déja-vu. Dark Skies isn’t for those with short-attention spans, but nor is it for those that want a pay-off in their films. If the skies are dark and forboding outside your house, don’t try venturing out to the cinema for Dark Skies. You’d have more fun re-watching The X-Files.

So back to the real question here… just how does David Duchovny do it? How does he still look as youthful as he did in the early 1990’s? Maybe it was the fact that he played a character obsessed with aliens? Perhaps he actually did encounter aliens and they gave him some magical youth formula… that’d make a lot of sense. Or maybe it’s just the well-documented fact that he was a sex addict for much of his life and he’s actually a vampire absorbing their youth as he goes. Now that’s a film idea! The truth IS out there.

Phage Factor:

1.5 Stars

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013)

Who doesn’t love looking over the side effects of a medication? Well, if you’re American, you get told the side effects during your television adverts. This is still something I find hilariously shocking each and every time I’m over in your beautiful country. Who’d ever take a medication that “may cause loss of memory, sickness, diarrhoea,  impotence or death”. Seriously? You’d still take that?! Over here in the UK we find all that out via a little slip of paper that’s in the drug’s box. If you’re a hypochondriac you then give yourself all of the ill effects! Well, except the “death” risk. Not many people can fake death. Except David Blaine. So what about Side Effects, the latest film from Steven Soderbergh? Is its sole side effect euphoria, or is it one of those that’s going to incurably blind you… and give you diarrhoea?

Contagion and Side Effects... effectively sister films!

Contagion and Side Effects… effectively sister films!

Now, those that know The Phage personally (beyond my alias) will know how intimately I know the film Contagion. I use it as a reference point a lot in my professional life. And to those that don’t know me in that capacity? Well, I’m The Phage… and you know what that means if you’ve read our “Introduction” section on the left over there. A Phage has a natural affinity for any film about viruses, plagues and biology. So when a new film comes over the horizon in much the same mould as Contagion, The Phage pays attention. Especially when the posters look near identical and it’s from Steven Soderbergh again.

Briefly, Side Effects follows the story of Emily (Rooney Mara), whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison. But Emily’s life isn’t all cheer and happiness… she’s quite depressed, manically so, in fact. After a failed suicide attempt, Dr. Jonathon Blake (Jude Law) – a psychiatrist – enters into her life to try and help her out and return her happiness. His innocent attempts to help her leads him to prescribing her a new drug called Ablixa, on the advice of her previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But that leads to all manner of crazy occurrences… but is everything that happens down to the drug, or something entirely more sinister?

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects is an out-and-out thriller. And a damn good one at that. If you read my review of Broken City, you’ll note that the biggest flaw we saw was how “analogue” the plot was; you could see where the film was heading within the first 20 minutes. You certainly can’t say the same of Side Effects. What you have here is an extremely effective thriller with an exquisitely outrageous twist in its tail. You won’t see it coming – I can guarantee that. Maybe though that’s also the flaw in the film because it seems so outlandish! Not in the same way that Indiana Jones: Kingdom of The Crystal Skull was ruined by aliens, but it’s still a little “out of nowhere”.

One of the things I quite enjoyed about Contagion was that massive ensemble cast that was put together. Whilst Side Effects doesn’t quite replicate the large cast, it still features some superb displays of acting. Firstly, we’ve got to talk about the return of Jude Law, who was actually in Contagion. Thankfully, he’s abandoned his quasi-Australian accent here in favour of his natural British accent. Law puts in a great turn here as the plagued psychiatrist Dr. Blake. Similarly, you’ve got to again recognise Rooney Mara for another brilliant role portrayal. She really drew my attention in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and this really showcases her talents yet again. Please, give her more roles. And can I just mention how beautiful she looks here? Oh, I already did? Good. However, I must say I was less convinced by Catherine Zeta-Jones; mainly because of those glasses she wears throughout. They just don’t suit her. I also can’t imagine her as a psychiatrist if I’m honest. Her performance just came across quite stale and added little to the film.

Side Effects (2013)

But her minor misgivings can be overlooked owing to the fantastic overarching plot here. As I said earlier, I dabble in this general field outside of my film life, so I found the content enthralling; just as I did with Contagion. But I’d say that Side Effects is done far better than its spiritual predecessor, as its a lot more coherently put together with far fewer interweaving narratives. Not every film needs a Crash style overcross and I’m glad that Side Effects recognises that. Overall, it’s more straight forward than Soderbergh‘s last effort, but that makes for a far more honed and effective machine that deserves to be viewed.

Side Effects is 2013’s first example of a solid thriller that’ll keep you enraptured from beginning to end. It boasts a cast that (largely) lives up to your expectations and a plot that keeps you guessing where it’ll turn to next. It’s only real drawback is that the end feels somewhat “cheap” and from out of nowhere. The film tries to show you that it’s been hinting at this all along, but ultimately, it wasn’t hinting at this at all. Regardless, Side Effects demands to be seen if you’re a fan of the genre.

So it looks like the only side effects of Side Effects are a slight chance of confusion that will pass with time. Nothing too serious! It’s not like those god awful US infomertials (I love that crazy word… something else we don’t have in the UK… like Vanilla Coke, which I miss). There’s nothing to be particularly scared of with this medication. Just swallow it down and enjoy the ride!

Phage Factor:

4 Star

Stoker (2013)

Stoker (2013)

There are dark films… and there are dark films. For some, a straight-up horror movie with a somewhat glib ending constitutes a truly “dark” film, whilst some will consider the ending of The Empire Strikes Back as dark. Me? Well, you’ve got to do something pretty darn subversive for me to label a film as “dark”. Take the darling of controversy, The Human Centipede, as an example. For some, the material was considered so offensive that the film was labelled as filth. But me? I just thought it was a lazily constructed, terribly acted film. Nothing more, nothing less. But every so often, a film crawls along that makes me think “wow… this is a dark slice of cinema”. Stoker is that film.

Dark

Dark

Stoker primarily focuses on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) following the death of her father. All she’s left with is her emotionally-detached and disturbed mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and the staff that work at their home. This all changes when her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up at the funeral and stays for an extended period of time. She’s not alone any more, but the token of family solidarity isn’t what it initially seems to be either. Who is Charlie? Why hasn’t she heard of him before? And just why is he so weird?

To go into any more depth would destroy the film entirely. Chan-wook Park‘s Stoker is teed up as a psychological thriller that’s meant to harken back to Hitchcock films of yesteryear. The film oozes style in the way that it’s shot and it truly does harken back to that period… if only I really enjoyed that period of cinema. I’m much more of a modern cinema junkie than I am into the “classics” that people rave about. For some that’s blasphemy, but I couldn’t give a damn. I’m The Phage!

Stoker (2013)

The aping of the “classics” style makes the initial 45 minutes excruciatingly hard to sit through, as the momentum is somewhat absent. There’s no immediate set up, nor a big hook to latch on to. The film is entirely character driven and no mystery really appears until about 30 minutes in. It’s only then that the film truly gets going. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a fan of that initial period. I didn’t really know what was going on and so I started to piece together my own plot in my head. My own plot was exciting and to be honest, wasn’t far off the mark come the conclusion of the film. OK, so I didn’t predict just how bonkers it would get towards the end, but I at least knew something was awry.

While we’re on the topic of “bonkers”, let’s return back to the “dark” theme I talked about. Now, annoyingly, I can’t really tell you why I found the film so dark or crazy towards its conclusion lest I spoil the plot for you. Let’s just say that some of the scenes are quite peculiar to watch. To some they’ll actually be quite uncomfortable. Those initial 45 minutes made me question just why this film had received an 18 rating from the British Film Council… but it became apparent later on. Let’s just say that India gets a lot of “pleasure” from some of the more perverse events that unwind. And they really are perverse.

Stoker (2013)

So what of the acting? After all, the film doesn’t help itself by rolling out the plot as slow as is humanly possible. Well, it’s… it’s… it’s OK. Mia Wasikowsa is great as India, but she’s somewhat limited by the fact that India is an incredibly sour-faced girl whose emotions range from “I’m really sad” to “I’m petulant and sad”. Well, except for that “pleasure” scene! Similarly, Nicole Kidman plays the emotionally-disturbed mother to a tee too. But there’s just no range in the role. I understand that it’s not actually possible to show off all your range in a film like this, so it’s probably more a short-coming of the film, or my lack-of-appreciation for this style, that is to blame.

Thankfully, the final build-up has lots of pay-offs and really redeems the film for me, but it still ends on a somewhat odd note that doesn’t really stack up. You’ll find yourself asking “why did he/she do X, Y and Z?”. Whether this was the idea that Park had in mind when he cooked this up, I don’t know, but ultimately I didn’t care enough about the film to make me think this for long.

Stoker is an interesting piece of cinema in 2013. Its nods to the past will either thoroughly ignite your interest in it, or it’ll entirely put you off. If the trailers left you somewhat cold and perplexed, the film itself will do little to correct these opinions. However, if you love Hitchcock-era suspense classics, then you can pretty much disregard what I said in the past few paragraphs and thump another star onto the below score. I didn’t think the film was bad, far from it, but it just didn’t have enough pace or momentum to really engage me over its (relatively short) run time.

Whilst I actually found last week’s reviewed film, This Is 40, to be dark, it was for a completely different reason. This Is 40 painted a very realistic view of what life is like once you’ve “achieved” what you wanted to. But Stoker? Well, Stoker‘s an entirely different kettle of fish. A kettle of fish swimming in crude oil that’s being sucked into a black hole that ends in the negative zone ruled over by King Negative and his dark dominions. Yes, it’s that dark. And also slightly disturbing. If you’re curious, then head out and catch this film while you can. I can’t guarantee you’ll like what you see, but you’ll definitely have an opinion on the closing half of the film.

Phage Factor:

2.5 Stars