Archive for November, 2015

Without struggle, there is no progress.

Year Released : 1995Higher_Learning_(movie)
Director : John Singleton
Cast : Omar Epps, Michael Raraport, Kristy Swanson, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Carpenter and Regina King

A few weeks ago I was watching a WatchMojo top 10 list for the worst movie racists in films and whilst there was the usual suspects, such as Calvin Candy (Django Unchained), there was one in there that I had never heard of, Remy in Higher Learning. He was played by Michael Raraport and having previously waxed lyrical about him in my review for “Little Boy”.

Away from Raraport, this also appeared to be a very different type of film than any other than I have reviewed previously for this site and that excited me. I had purposefully avoided films about issues relating to race and gender issues, so this is effectively uncharted territory for me on this site.

That being said, one of my favourite films, American History X, is based purely on issues related to race, so if it’s anything like that then I’m sure I’ll enjoy this.

Plot

The latest group of students have started at Columbus University, some of whom have financial difficulties and are initially chucked off of their courses for non-payments of bills, including Malik (Epps) and Kristen (Swanson). Kristen’s start of the year gets worse when she is raped, whereas Malik becomes influenced by black-power preacher, Fudge (Ice Cube).

When Kristen’s rapist phones to talk to her, he racially insults her room-mate (King), who subsequently reports him to Fudge and his group and they take out vengeance upon him. Within the crowd watching the group take revenge is Remy (Raraport) a social outcast that has also had his own troubles with Fudge’s group because of his desire to learn. Remy soon gets approached by neo-nazis and they quickly take advantage of how impressionable he is.

Kristen slowly recovers from her rape by helping Tayrn (Connelly) with her “equality” group, and she soon finds herself attracted to her new political activist friend, and after it being pointed out to her that you can’t have a group that preaches equality if only women are invited, she soon realises that everyone has to work together, but Remy’s involvement with the neo-nazis, coupled with numerous run-ins with Malik, could spell trouble for everyone else in the school.

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As good as American History X?

Films that are looking at issues such as racism and sexism are very interesting because they tend to only focus on one side of the arguments, such as “American History X” (which don’t get me wrong, is completely amazing), but Higher Learning actually focuses on both and focuses on the hypocrisy on both sides of the arguments.

For example, Ice Cube’s character takes exception to any of his friends getting racist abuse from anyone of another ethnic background, but he is happy to throw out racist comments himself, and it’s the same with the group that wants to promote gender equality and claim that segregating people because of their gender is wrong, but won’t allow men to attend their meeting. Both are fine examples of the characters only seeing it from their side of the argument, whilst not realising the hypocrisy of the situation.

Even Laurence Fishburne’s character, a political professor, questions Epp’s character about why he should afford him a break and given him a better grade after, citing that simply because they are both from the same ethnic background that he shouldn’t expect favours from him.

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I would go as far as saying that Fishburne’s character is arguably the only truly pure character in the film, with the rest having moments of making racist or sexist comments, but the problem is that he has no real impact on the plot of the story in the slightest, which is very disappointing as he puts in the most accomplished performance after Michael Raraport.

The casting of Raraport as a social outcast was perfect as, in the nicest possible way, Raraport has always had that look of someone who wouldn’t have been that popular in school. I love him as an actor, he is tremendously warm and enjoyable to watch, so this role was very much a dark turn for him. He has never played a character anything close to as antagonistic as Remy, but he also brings a certain performance to the movie that makes you feel sympathy for his character.

Remy is probably his most complicated role and it is one that I think he would have made a speciality of if he had continued in drama, and whilst not on the same level as Derek Vinyard in America History X, it’s still an interesting look at how someone can be easily manipulated.

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Higher Learning’s soundtrack is unusual, and almost feels like it’s trying to force you into realising when the important moments are happening, which is something that was epidemic in films during the early 1990s, but that’s something I grew to ignore for the most part during my youth.

Instead my only real problem with Higher Learning is that there are a lot of parts where it just drags. At more than two hours long, Higher Learning often struggles to be worth more than a 90 minute film and this isn’t helped by them introducing so many minor characters and not even really giving them names. They’re important enough in the lives of these people to be there in numerous scenes, but not important enough to give a name to?

Other than though there isn’t really a lot to talk about.

HIGHER LEARNING, back to front: Laurence Fishburne, Omar Epps, 1995. ©Columbia Pictures

Summary

Higher Learning is a very interesting film in many ways, but it is far, far, far too long and that is the reason I’m not going to give it the approved stamp. It is at least 30 minutes too long and whilst the overall structure is interesting, and the characters are quite engaging to watch on some levels, it just drags on for long sections of the film. I thought to myself that it had been going for a long time, I looked and it was only an hour in.

No-one puts in a bad performance, and it’s interesting to see how accomplished some of the actors were before they became stars in Hollywood, and the performances from Raraport and Fishburne are a delight.

If you’d got to kill two hours and fancy a film that will make you thin then go for this, but expect to get a bit bored.

Now you need a greencard to be abducted?

Year Released : 2015Untitled
Director : Aaron Han and Mario Miscione
Cast : Allegra Masters, Carter Jenkins,  Kaiwi Lyman, Michael McLafferty, Zachary Rukavina, Matt Corboy, Julie Benz, Jordi Vilasuso, Lawrence Kao and Rene Heger

If there’s one thing that Hollywood is missing these days it is original ideas. Very few films come out that are truly original. At the time of writing I have seen 40 films at the cinema in 2015, comfortably a personal best for me, and yet how many of those have been original, as in not reminding me slightly of anything else? None is the answer.

I have struggled in recent weeks to find a film that I want to review, but as soon as I saw the synopsis for Circle, as well as the trailer, I knew it would be the one as it looked like a remarkably original film. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen films in which people can vote for who will get killed, but nothing quite like this.

Plot

50 strangers wake up in a room having no memory of how they got there. They are in the circular formation with an object in the middle. The people can’t move off of their assigned circle and those that do try to move are killed instantly. After a few minutes the object starts shooting electricity at people randomly, but one of the group realises that they are infact voting for each other with their movements.

The group starts to slowly realise that it’s kill or be killed and various people emerge as potential leaders or moral guides, but are then killed off when people gang up on them for trying to vote based on age, race, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs, morals, etc. The group continues to vote before they begin to realise that ultimately the choice will come down to save a 10 year old girl (Molly Jackson) and a pregnant woman (Masters).

As time goes on and more of the surviving members are killed, the group starts to focus less on a individual issues, but instead on the one major issue of knowing that unless they kill one of either of the aforementioned, they will all die in vain as ultimately one of the two will have to die anyway. This starts mass arguments and voting swings as people on both sides of the argument seemingly get the upper hand.

Who will end up as the sole survivor?

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As original as I’d hoped?

I will start by saying this, with these types of film it is so easy to get wrong. If you don’t get your characters just right, or make the audience care about your characters, then you are never going to create a good film and ultimately it will just be 90 or so minutes of the viewer’s life that you’ve wasted. You need to make the situations genuine, suspenseful, engaging and arguably the most important, entertaining. It also helps if it is original.

Unfortunately not a lot of films manage any of that, but all of that being said, Circle is one of the best thrillers that I have ever seen.

Circle is exceptionally original and whilst it has a similar sort of look to Cube, it’s entirely it’s own film and I loved it. For 90 minutes I was just wanting more…and more….and more, and the end result left me so happy that I couldn’t wait to come on and review this for you all.

The characters are perfect. You’ve got a group filled with 50 very unique individuals, and whilst a lot of them have similar morals and beliefs, they all have differing opinions on a lot of subjects and none of the characters share a particular set of traits. This is important as the film goes on as alliances are formed, only for the same characters to then set about trying to kill each other later on in the film, and vice versa. The issues of morality are addressed perfectly in this film and I’ve never seen a film deal with so many themes in my life.

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What starts off as a seemingly generic thriller film, turns into something of a Darwinian experience as it’s the survival of the fittest, even though no-one really has control over their own fate, as evidenced later on in the film. Themes and arguments about race, age, homophobia, the class system, religion and so many other similar issues are address during the course of the film and whilst some of the deaths become predictable as a cop responds to a black man’s complaints about racial discrimination with a vile tirade about how America should only be for Americans, therefore being chosen to die next, it just shows how easily your opinion can sway.

I personally loved that at no point during the film does a single character feel genuinely safe. There are probably six or seven different characters who try and take control at one point or another, but you’re never sure how long they’re going to last and this makes it interesting. In the trailers it makes you believe that the guy at the beginning will be the lead male, and the woman is the lead female, whereas in reality both die within minutes.

There is one character who tries to encourage everyone to kill off the eldest members of the group to buy those who “aren’t close to death” (his words) more time to try and live. At first his plan works before the others turn against him for being immoral, and it just shows that things can change so quickly. Whilst I sort of knew the pregnant woman and the girl (who is pretty much the only poor character as she offers pretty much nothing to the entire film and only has two lines, spending the rest of it sobbing) would survive near enough to the final few, I couldn’t have predicted some of the others that make it to the final ten.

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That was the brilliance about this. You’re never entirely sure. Characters can seem important before being killed off suddenly, whereas several characters almost blend into the background until there are so few left that you’re like “who the hell is that?”. But for me the biggest factor in terms of the characters and how they were written is that there isn’t a clear, definable main character at all in the entire run time. This means that you become passionate about each character and you find yourself becoming emotionally invested in them.

Away from the characters, plot and theme, Circle is pretty basic visually, with just a single set used for all but the final two or so minutes of the 86 minute run time, but you don’t need anything more than the basic set for the story, and it’s simplicity in that sense is appropriate.

There isn’t a soundtrack of any variety and the simple reason for this is that one isn’t needed, the dialogue keeps the film going without any need for any music to try and make time pass, afterall, why would you need it in a film that seems to run in real time?

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Summary

One of the easier approved stamps that I have ever given and the main reason is because the film, despite having since a relatively simple premise, covers so many aspects of life that you can’t help but become engrossed in the psychology of everything. approved

The film offers a brilliant and insightful look into how people think and constantly surprises you. Characters that you think are going to be a major part of the story are then killed off seconds later, and this means that the lack of a central character actually works in this sense.

I would definitely recommend Circle. It’s one of the best low-budget thrillers that I have ever seen.

Year Released : 2015Untitled
Director : Matt Osterman
Cast : Brandon Routh, Dane Cook, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman and Tom Cavanagh

Following a two week break after a 31 reviews in as many days for October, I am now back and raring to go…..well I say raring, what I actually mean is that I didn’t intend this to be a two week break and now feel obligated to review a film.

So based on that I have gone with a film that I found during my month long reviews, a science-fiction thriller called “400 Days”. Looking at the cast I am relatively excited as Brandon Routh was one of the best parts about the excellent “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”, Ben Feldman is a highly enjoyable actor in smaller movies, and I’ve personally never had a problem with Dane Cook, seemingly one of the few who will openly admit that on the internet.

400 Days also reminds me a lot of Sam Rockwell’s “Moon” from the trailer, and if it’s anything as good as that then I will surely enjoy it. Then again, even if it’s bad it won’t be as bad as half of the crap I watched during October.

Plot

With plans to make missions to Mars a regular thing and interstellar travel affordable to the average folk, four wannabe astronauts agree to a social experiment to see the affects of 400 days of isolation, completion of which would put them on the next mission. It has been Cole Dvorak’s (Cook) dream since he was a child, whereas Bug Kieslowski (Feldman) is just as excited, however, Theo Cooper (Routh) and Emily McTier (Lotz) aren’t thrilled about spending the next 400 days together after a recent break up.

The experiment starts and all goes fine for the first few hundred days, but then various members of the group start suffering hallucinations, when suddenly they all report seeing a man that has seemingly broken into the complex. The man running the experiment no longer responds to communication requests and the group argue about what to do. Theo believes that they should leave the experiment to investigate what is happening, even though there are less than two weeks to go, Dvorak strongly objects as he knows that doing so will end any hopes that any of them had of ever going into space, but he eventually yields.

After struggling to get out, the group eventually emerges into a pitch black environment with seemingly no buildings or plant life, and a strange dust covering the ground. After walking around for several hours they eventually find a small town with a few people there, including Zell (Cavanagh), a man who won’t give a straight answer to any questions, and the group starts debating whether something genuinely happened whilst they were underground, or whether it is simply part of the experiment.

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Anything like Moon?

In some ways it is very similar to “Moon”, it’s got relatively similar plot points in terms of a character going crazy, but the problem with 400 Days isn’t that it’s like another film in some aspects, it’s that it’s trying to be too many things at once and by doing so ends up being so convoluted that I’m not even entirely sure what genre to put it in.

Throughout a runtime of 90 minutes, 400 Days regularly changes the type of film it’s trying to be, starting off as a sci-fi movie, then turning into a thriller, then a horror and finally a post-apocalytic style movie, but the problem is that none of them are done particularly well and once the group leaves the pod for the first time, something is lost and the film becomes far, far, far less interesting.

So based on this I’m going to do something that I have never done before, and that’s a section that I like to call (and is shamelessly stolen from a popular Youtube channel)…..

How it should have ended!

Please note that I will go back to the main review after this section, and all of the below is simply how I would have written the ending to make the film not only better (in my opinion), but also stick to the theme of paranoia that the film wanted you to believe from the trailer.

So to do this I really should start with how the film actually ends. (spoiler alert). At around the half way point all of the characters escape the hatch after a man breaks in, they don’t recognise the area that they emerge from and walk for hours before finding a small town. In the town are a small group of very strange people, led by Zell (Cavanagh). The group notes that the town wasn’t there before they went in the pod and it appears that some cataclysmic event has taken place, but no-one will give them a straight answer. the film ends with Dvorak and Bug disappearing in the small town that the group discovers, with Theo and Emily the only confirmed survivors and the clock for the 400 days finally ends and an automated message played over the tannoy to congratulate them, and they look up to the previously sealed hatch and hear it opening. The film ends there.

For me personally I wouldn’t have had them leave the structure at all. I’d have had them growing increasingly restless as they approach the 400 day mark. The group survives several paranoia-driven attacks on each other before finally making it to the end and they’re all sat there as the countdown reaches 0…..and then nothing. Hours and then days pass as nothing happens, they try to force open the hatch but it won’t open.

Dvorak, who was already in a questionable mental state at this point, starts growing crazier and crazier before, a month after they were supposed to be released, he finally snaps and attempts to kill the other three members of the crew. He succeeds in killing Theo and Emily, coming down to just him and Bug. Bug runs and hides and the remainder of the film is spent like a cat-and-mouse hunt as Dvorak searches for him. Ben eventually gets the better of Dvorak and just seconds after he delivers the fatal blow, the hatch door opens. The recruiter descends into the hatch and reveals that the extra time in there was a symbol that even the best laid plans can sometimes go wrong, and they wished to see how the group would react, and whilst everyone else being dead wasn’t ideal, it shows that Bug had what was needed to survive in extreme situations. The film ends with him going into space on a real mission.

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Back to the review….

So yeah, that’s how I would have had the film go, but the problem, as I mentioned much earlier in the review, is that the film regularly changes pace and genre, almost to the point where it no longer has any genre. It’s not particularly scary so can’t be a horror film, it’s no longer particularly science fiction, it’s not a thriller as nothing’s really happening that justifies calling it that, and the only genre I can even slightly put it into by the end would be mystery….but the problem with that is there isn’t even that much mystery. I’m only putting it in the “science fiction” category for this site as it is the closest match that I can get to from the entire film.

The characters are enjoyable watch, especially Cook’s Dvorak, easily the most developed character in the film. Dvorak’s ambition and drive to be a real astronaut clouds his judgement over what should be done. Cook’s performance is a far cry from anything that he has done in the past, so those that are expecting him to be the comic relief in a tense film, think otherwise.

Routh does a decent job, as does Feldman, but Lotz doesn’t really do anything for me on any level. She is just bland, never truly looks concerned and you don’t really care about her as a character, and that’s never a good thing. I didn’t become emotionally invested with her and Routh’s characters getting over a breakup as the two don’t really share a chemistry and only level.

There isn’t really that much of a soundtrack, it’s seemingly more just a collection of noises just randomly put together, and that’s probably one of the reasons that there seems to never really be an true tension, and that doesn’t help with the struggles of find it’s genre.

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Summary

For the first 45 or so minutes I felt really engaged with 400 Days, but then it all starts taking a downward turn and becomes overly complicated, almost to the point where you’re no longer interested in what’s going on.

This is also another case of a trailer not giving you the full idea of what a film is truly like, something that is becoming an increasing trend in movies these days.

Whilst not an awful film, 400 Days never really falls into being anything more than average.