Transformers: Age of Extinction (Michael Bay, 2014)

So then. Transformers 4. The fourth in the rebooted franchise. The one everyone has been dreading. Can it really be as disappointing as we hope it isn’t?

Well, the answer lies in your expectations. The storyline is interchangeable with any of the others. The autobots and deceptacons are having a battle about something and the humans are involved too, because it’s set in a conveniently placed city in USA. They’re back here in hiding because… there was a reason. I think the humans wanted to kill them. Some of them did. But they wanted to protect the other ones. But… OOH EXPLOSION!

The main difference is that Shea LeBouf was busy perfecting his English accent for Nymphomaniac so has been replaced by Mark Wahlerg. This changes the dynamic, I guess, as he is protecting his daughter rather than his girlfriend. Her Irish boyfriend was introduced about 30 minutes in, but he felt like an afterthought. To be fair, Kelsey Grammer and Stanley Tucci are both in fine form as the bad guys.

At the end of the film, I felt surprisingly satisfied. The film didn’t tax me, the storyline was pretty forgettable, but I like the series and they have made some massive improvements, my favourite of which was to do with the CGI elements.

Of course, a Transformers film is not a Transformers film without good CGI and that is where the last two fell down. This time around, we can actually see the fights and the transformations. We can follow the action. The transformers are identifiable and unique. We are rooting for one over another. They don’t lose a heap of screws, metal and oil every time they take a step. The camera is much less shaky. It was, well, quite good to be honest.

Another good thing was that the human characters, in general, were likeable. You rooted for the good guys and hated the bad guys. They were clearly defined as they should be in a summer action film. Mainly the bad guys wore all-black, which helped someone with a low IQ like myself.

The film also managed to strike a good balance between taking itself seriously and being tongue-in-cheek. You can’t be too serious when you’re talking to an alien robot, and I felt they got this spot on.

I used to like the toys and cartoon as a child, but I wasn’t a die-hard fan. Indeed, from memory there weren’t that many die-hard fans, but people vaguely remembered having an Optimus Prime action figure and laid claim to being Transformarians (I made that up) when the reboot was originally announced. For this one, there was a lot of pre-release chat about the dinobots. I honestly don’t believe anyone remembers them vividly. They’re hardly in the film, appearing maybe 90 minutes into the action. They didn’t change much but might help fund film five.

So, take your pick. It’s a big, dumb, action film. The men are meat heads, the women are attractive. There are car chases, explosions, robots fighting. The storyline is flimsy. It’s great.

Now let me get back to drinking my Bud Light whilst I purchase a Chevrolet will you?

20140730-214142-78102568.jpg

The Wind Rises / 風立ちぬ (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)

“I am talking about doing something with animation that can’t be done with manga magazines, children’s literature, or even live-action films.”

It’s that last line that really bothers me. That was Hayao Miyazaki talking, in 1978, about what animation means to him. It wasn’t a hard quote to locate. I only started reading his autobiography (of sorts), Starting Point, five minutes ago. It was right there in the third paragraph of the first page.

I don’t think there’s any denying that, when looking back at the career of one of the greatest and most imaginative directors of all time (and I’m not limiting that to animation either), he has created a body of work that surpassed that which would have been capable in any other medium. If you look at Nausicaä, Princess Mononoke, even his work on Sherlock Hound The Detective, it’s difficult to see how any other medium mentioned above could have portrayed his story any better than in 2D animation.

So when I was sat there at the cinema watching The Wind Rises, even before I read that opening quote, I couldn’t help but wish for the magic to ooze back into play. I was with a fellow anime fan and another friend who was unaware of any of his output, and we all agreed that the film could have been better served as a live-action film. There wasn’t really any call for the animation. Yes, it looked visually stunning as usual, but it didn’t add anything to the story.

It’s sad that Miyazaki has chosen to finish his body of work with this film. Don’t get me wrong, it is definitely not a terrible film and it won’t tarnish his reputation. The story is solid, the characters well-realised, the backdrops deep in detail. It’s just a bit of an anticlimax after a series of such amazing films.

One for the completists and die-hard fans, but if you’re new to Miyazaki, you’d be better to start with Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away.

The Wind Rises is out in cinemas in the UK now. Reviewed was the Japanese version with English subtitles.

Kuroneko (藪の中の黒猫, Yabu no Naka no Kuroneko, 1968, Kaneto Shindo).

I’ve made no attempt previously to hide my love for the Masters of Cinema series, which have been responsible for some of the most glorious transfers of classic cinema I’ve ever seen in home media. You’re not just getting a bit of quick entertainment, but an object to cherish and, in many ways, a work of art in itself.

No corner is cut. Ever. The picture and audio quality is immaculate, facilitating a near-cinema experience should your set up allow. There is almost always a chunky booklet to accompany the disc, and the bonus features on the disc always try to go beyond just a couple of short interviews and a trailer. Even the menu looks rich and well-thought-out.

Kuroneko is no different.

It’s a supernatural horror film, much in the same vain as previous Shindo film Onibaba. It tells the story of the spirits of a mother and her daughter-in-law who had been the victims of a horrific attack at the hands of a group of samurai. They seek revenge having apparently made a pact with the devil, though the ramifications of this only become apparent later on in the film.

The rich chiaroscuro achieved by Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda are beautifully displayed here. Much of the film is spent in the depths of a forest as dark as the story being told. The atmosphere and tension is palpable; it really is edge of your seat stuff at times. There are several disturbing and violent scenes in there, but the harsh reality is not left to the viewer’s imagination.

Kuroneko was a film I sought out after seeing Onibaba, which was also released through the Masters of Cinema label. Similar in style and themes, both pack a lot of punches and are worth checking out. Shindo really was a master of cinema and here in the UK we’re lucky to have such a caring label willing to give the attention his films deserve, even if it is just a handful.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014)

12 Years A Slave is a unique film in many ways. Most of the cast are complete unknowns. The budget was very low ($20m USD). There isn’t a massive push to advertise it anywhere, with very few trailers being seen at the cinema and on TV (I do the former quite regularly and I think I’ve seen one). Despite this, it has seemingly grown popular through word of mouth. This is something that’s very difficult to achieve when most of its momentum has come before the release date.

The pattern is similar to that of Shawshank Redemption, though at the time that film really didn’t start well at the box office. It became a sleeper hit and enjoyed success many months after the initial release, thanks to continued praise from critics and several awards nominations and wins.

Indeed, Shawshank’s Dufresne isn’t wholly unlike Northup, the main character in 12 Years. Both are imprisoned against their will for entirely the wrong reasons and are determined to see that justice is realised somehow. It is the kind of story that keeps you captivated and as time goes on you become more and more engrossed in the fact that these people should get the happy ending they deserve.

Steve McQueen is a very clever director. With his background in the visual arts (he won the Turner Prize in 1999), he adds an artistic flair to every shot he takes. Much like his debut Hunger, almost every shot could be framed and put on the wall to enjoy in its own right. The cinematography is just that good. Equally, he doesn’t shy away from allowing the camera to linger on our characters as they encounter struggles. One shot in particular sticks in your mind, when Soloman is partially hung in his first plantation and having to stand on the tips of his toes to draw the smallest of breaths. A less confident director would have cut away several times to show other subplots developing, sporadically cutting back to show he is still in pain. McQueen’s choice to stay with him is an example of how bold he is prepared to be and it is one of the most striking parts of the film.

I got confused by some of the sound editing. Several times there was an active choice to allow clashes between the score and the natural sounds of the scene, and most of the time it didn’t really work. The choice was obviously made to let the clash signify discomfort, and was occasionally exacerbated by bleeding audio into the following shots or scene, and in one particular scene, where Eliza was uncontrollably crying, it was overly confusing and distracted me from what I was supposed to be watching.

That aside, it is rightly being considered to sweep the board at this year’s Oscars. I don’t think it will, because there are too many very strong contenders with no outright frontrunner. If it gets none, there will of course be uproar. However, the same could also be said of Gravity, Dallas Buyers’ Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wallstreet. The list goes on. It is a tough year to pick a winner in each and every category. The deliberation forced on the Academy panel is a sign of what a fantastic year it has been to be a fan of cinema.

12 Years a Slave in out in UK cinemas now.

American Hustle (David O’Russell, 2014)

Director David O’Russell has had a sudden upsurge in fortune. With his last film – Silver Linings Playbook – he finally realised the promise hinted at with his earlier attempts at cinematic quirky humour. It was both critically lauded and a commercial triumph. It was a must-see film. If you hadn’t seen it you wanted to, and once you’d seen it once you probably wanted to see it again. O’Russell’s stock had never been higher.

It was important, then, that he chose his next film wisely. I’d say American Hustle was exactly that – a wise choice. It’s a film set in 1970s New Jersey, and this allowed a lot of fun to be had with costuming and recreating an authentic world in which the characters can play. To bring the characters to life, he enlisted three key actors from last year’s triumph: Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. Added to this he also brought Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale. That is a formidable lead cast if ever you saw one.

The music is spot on. Mixing a superb score from Danny Elfman with some choice cuts from the era (think Elton John, America, Chicago), it all blends together to further enhance the authentic experience.

Yet, after 138 minutes of buying in to the story, I left the cinema feeling a little short changed. There’s enough humour to keep us smiling, some great playoffs between Adams and Lawrence who are at each other’s throats throughout, and the mild twists and turns in the plot are entertaining if not thrilling. I admired the solid performances from the all-star cast, none of whom underperformed but at the same time didn’t shine. The film had the feeling of playing it safe, and I thought there could have been more to it. The final payoff was predictable and in turn disappointing.

The main problem for me was that none of the characters were likeable. Adams and Bale are both untrustworthy con artists, Cooper is an FBI career man who wants a quick rise to the top, Lawrence is a degenerate waster who’s slow on the uptake, De Niro is a mafia overlord. Renner’s Mayor Polito is the only one I felt sympathy for, getting mixed up with the wrong people for the right reasons, but he’s not really a central character. I didn’t have anyone I felt the urge to back and for me that’s a flaw in the scriptwriting. I understand that the aim of the film may have been to portray the fact that nobody in this circle is likeable, but it just wasn’t carried off successfully. With so much time to develop the characters and such an amazing array of talent on offer, it could have been so much more.

American Hustle is out now in UK cinemas.

Casse-tête Chinois [Chinese Puzzle] (Cedric Klapisch, 2014)

I have to confess that I saw Casse-tête Chinois (Chinese Puzzle) at the 2013 London Film Festival and knew nothing about it. It was picked on a whim when I had a gap to fill in my schedule and I wasn’t able to put any research into it beforehand. During the post-film Q&A with director Klapisch, I learned that it is in fact the third installment of what is known as the Spanish Apartment trilogy, following L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Les Poupées russes (2005).

It stars Romain Duris as Xavier, a novelist whose ex-wife and children have moved to New York. The story concentrates on the complicated web of relationships that surround him as he tries to find an apartment, a job and some kind of life. Included in this web are his ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly, now with her new husband), his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and her children, his best friend Isabelle (Cecile de France) and her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) who are trying to have children of their own (with Xavier’s help), and many more bit players, all full of character. It’s a great ensemble cast and it’s clear they had a fantastic time filming together.

20140117-171746.jpg

The film is a joy to watch, with laugh-out-loud moments littered throughout. It’s unusual and quirky. It did not matter one bit that I didn’t know any of the background; the characters are well defined and it works very well as a standalone film. The hilarious business meeting where Martine has to speak Chinese, the sham marriage Spanish Xavier goes through with a Chinese girl to become American, and the crescendo where they all come together in one edge-of-the-seat hilarious finale – the balance is spot on. There are some more serious moments too, not least Isabelle’s affair with her au pair, but these tend to (eventually) be dealt with in a light-hearted manner.

It’s probably not going to make massive waves outside France, which is a shame because there are some lovely romantic comedies being made in that country at the moment and they deserve a little more attention. It may well also be the last installment in the series, with the director alluding to the fact it was difficult to convince some of them – especially Tautou – to come back for the third chapter.

I’d recommend it if you fancy a humorous and whimsical journey through someone else’s very complicated problems and need an emotional lift. It certainly won’t disappoint you.

Casse-tête chinois is released later in 2014 in the UK.

Watch the trailer here.

20140117-171738.jpg