Film Review: Insurgent

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I fell in love with the dystopia genre in 6th form English class, when we read Aldous Huxley’s futuristic novel, Brave New World. The marriage of science-fiction and social commentary captivated me. Not only was the story interesting, but it contained an underlying message that fascinated me. Here was a novel written way back in 1931, that had accurately predicted societal functions 80 years in the future.

It makes sense then, that I enjoyed watching Divergent last year. Based on the novel by Veronica Roth, Divergent, follows on from some of the same themes found in Brave New World. The setting is a familiar sci-fi scenario – a post-apocalyptic city containing the last of civilization. The world has been ravaged by war, so the last of the Earth’s population have created for themselves a city contained within a wall, the last refuge for humanity. In an attempt to maintain peace and preserve what they have left, the leaders have elected to split themselves into different factions based on temperament.

To steal from Wikipedia, the factions are: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual

This system would be fine for maintaining peace, were it not for divergents – those whose temperaments are split, meaning that they do not fit within any one faction. Divergents are not tolerated, being considered threats to the system. The film follows one divergent, Triss, and how she tries to fit in as a square peg in a volatile world of round holes

Insurgent picks up a few days after the conclusion of the first film. Protagonists Triss and Four, along with a handful of others, are fugitives after having thwarted an uprising of one of the factions. They have to fight for their survival, either by hiding from those hunting them, or by going on the offensive and leading a war.

The romantic chemistry between the two lead characters is odd – certainly not what I would consider obviously affectionate. I was thinking that the producers had tried to tone down the PDA to get a suitable rating for their ‘tweenage’ audience, until an awkward gratuitous sex scene came up mid-film.

This is not to say that the acting is bad. At many times Shailene Woodley (Triss) seems quite plain (the Oatmeal has an interesting commentary about Twilight that could apply here also), but during the fighting and action scenes she holds her own. Her star moments though, are when she is stricken by grief and has to confess a guilty secret to her friends. Her tears and anguish shine through, really tugging on the viewers heartstrings.

The scenery and the sets are brilliant. Ruined skyscrapers dominate the landscape in a post war-torn Chicago. Plenty of thought has been put into the stark contrast between the different homes of each faction. The characters live in dingy underground tunnel systems, fight on streets of rubble, farm lush fields and calculate in sterile cities, all connected by a large train circuit. CGI has been used to generate holograms and ‘sims’, dream worlds that characters can plug into. Watching the film in 3D did detract from the visuals at times (like when the background was blurred out of focus to make the foreground ‘pop’), but nothing ever appeared cheap or poorly done.

The plot is fairly predictable, but there are enough double crosses and surprise fight scenes to keep the viewer alert. The action sequences are scattered throughout. Be warned that some of the violence, though not explicit, could certainly upset the viewer.

It’s all too easy to draw comparisons with The Hunger Games. Both series are blockbuster movies based on novels. And in both are set in a dystopian future in which society insists on an unjust system to “maintain the peace”. Things slowly begin to unravel, and a strong female leads the underdogs to fight for a more just world.

I see these two trilogies as a positive thing. The series are largely marketed at the ‘tweenage’ demographic, but are enjoyable enough for all audiences. I think widely influencing films such as these are beneficial because they get the viewers thinking: What would I do if I lived in a world like that? Where would I fit in? Would I challenge the status quo? It is also nice to finally see some gutsy female lead roles in a movie industry currently dominated by macho superheroes.

Dystopian stories and films of allegorical nature are becoming increasingly relevant. The factions could be viewed as a feudal class system, something that has potential to happen in the future, with the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the destitute. The once outlandish and unthinkable ideas found within Brave New World and Georg Orwells’s 1984 are becoming reality. The New Zealand government is selling off citizens rights to multinational corporations and choosing to support unjust wars against the will of their people. The extent of control held by those wielding power needs to be questioned.

The story line of Insurgent wasn’t as good as it’s predecessor, but I still recommend both films, and intend to watch the final installment in the trilogy. Not only because I enjoyed watching them, but because I think that they contain important questions that have the potential to engage many people.

 

Joseph James

The best of 2014

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It’s time to look back and remember some of the highlights on the year just been. Here are some of the best concerts, albums and films I saw/heard in 2014.

The year went by so fast. I was pretty busy with university assignments so didn’t always have time to write reviews. I’m sure I’ve forgotten loads of things that deserve mentioning, but here is what I do remember.


 

Live

Although it wasn’t technically 2014, it was a year ago that my friend Sam and I flew to Sydney to see The Roots play at the Horden Pavilion. I was disappointed that Questlove hid his glorious afro underneath a beanie, but the show was still awesome. “Captain” Kirk, the guitarist, threw his sweaty towel into the crowd. I caught it and gave it to Sam. He keeps it as a treasured memento to remind him of the gig. We also went to the Broadway show of the Lion King and it was too good for words. I bought a CD of the songs of the show. The Australian cast I saw live were better than the recorded version, but I still listen to the CD more than anything else.

I was fortunate enough to tick three bands off my bucket list this year. I saw Nine Inch Nails in Christchurch co-headlining with Queens of the Stoneage. They were incredible. I even got to chat to Trent Reznor at the airport the following day. It was also great to catch up with school friends in Christchurch that I don’t get to see often.

I finally got to see Biffy Clyro live at the Powerstation. I was buzzing for days afterwards. I managed to get a guitar pick and an annotated copy of the set list as well. I also saw Jimmy Eat World at the same venue. I was considering going to Soundwave in Australia to see these two bands at the beginning of the year but couldn’t afford it, so I was rapt when they each got announced to play in NZ.

The Beards were a comedy band that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was nice catching up with my friend Jason from Melbourne, who was working as their follically gifted merch guy. Another funny gig was internet sensation and rapper Ur Boy Bangs, with local hardcore band Declaration AD opening. It was pretty hilarious, but surprisingly fun.

Other live acts that stood out this year include post-rock masters Jakob, pop starlet Ellie Goulding, and modern hardcore band La Dispute.

I’m seeing Shihad in a few days and I’m sure that will also be worthy of this list. I’ve seen them at least ten times in the past and they’ve never disappointed. I’m looking forward to seeing them play material from the new album, FVEY

The gigs that I’m looking most forward to in 2015 so far include Frank Turner, Gary Clark Jr, and Foo Fighters.


 

Albums and EPs

There have been some great new music releases this year. Here’s some that stood out for me, categorised by genre but not in any particular order.

Hip-hop

  • Run The Jewels – RTJ2

El-P and Killer Mike stole the show at the hip-hop triple bill at the beginning of the year, and then proceeded to release an even better second album less than a year after their first.

  • Sage Francis – Copper Gone

Sage Francis continues as a veteran wordsmith wizard. Copper Gone in entertaining and thought-provoking, with great music and clever lyrics. His Wellington show was great as well.

Keith Stanfield caught my attention as a talented actor, and proved himself as a capable rapper too. A dark, tormented début EP.

Post-rock

Of course this album was inevitably excellent. Composer Rhian Sheehan helped to add masterful extra touches to help the Napier trio surpass perfection.

The latest release from one of my fave post-rock bands shows a softer side with great results.

Rock

A new sound, new direction and new name for Solemn Sun helped them create an alt-rock EP that leaves me eagerly awaiting their next album.

I’ve listened to it at least once every day since it arrived in the post. Sublime electro-prog-rock  arisen from the ashes of Cog.

  • Biffy Clyro – Similarities (B-sides album)

It goes without saying that any release from my fave band will get a mention.

 

Queens of the Stoneage – … Like Clockwork and Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways were both major disappointments. Both bands are of high calibre and had lots of hype around the new albums, but the music just wasn’t good enough to make me want to listen to the albums more than once.


 

Films

I only wrote two film reviews this year, but I saw plenty of great movies that deserve a mention

Housebound was by far the stand out film of the year for me. A Kiwi comedy/horror that strikes the perfect balance. The Dark Horse was another NZ film that impressed. Forget The Hobbit, New Zealand can produce some quality films without the need to sell out to Hollywood.

The follow-up to one of my fave movies came out in July. The Raid 2 was just as violent and intense as its predecessor, but with more varied and imaginative fight scenes. The sequel was pretty long, with a more complex plot. Fingers crossed for The Raid 3 in years to come!

The trailer was bad enough to put me off wanting to watch it, but Gone Girl was gripping, albeit unsettling. This was one that surpassed expectations. It also featured a soundtrack written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor, which earns it bonus marks in my book.

2013’s The Wolverine, was abysmal, but the X-Men franchise redeemed themselves with Days Of The Future Past. I was left with plenty of unanswered questions, but it was a clever way to tie in the two timelines.

Another sci-fi that I enjoyed was Snowpiercer, a futuristic dystopian film set on a train that contains the last of earth’s population. It was incredible right until the end, when it lost momentum in the last scene.

I enjoyed Frozen, although as a trainee early childhood teacher went a bit insane because of children singing “Let It Go” non-stop. Lego Movie was fun as well, but Big Hero 6 was my favourite children’s animated film.

The major let down was Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. It was long. It was grand. But it didn’t come together in a satisfying way. I fail to understand why people rated it so highly.


I’ve been blessed to have such a good year. Since launching Will Not Fade earlier this year I’ve had people from all over the world read my reviews. One review featured at Stereofox.com. I’ve had bands ask me to review their music and I’ve gained media passes to attend events. I really enjoy doing this and I plan to continue what I’m doing.

Please let me know what you think. What did you enjoy reading? Are there bands or films you want to see me write about? Did I inspire you to listen to a new band, or watch another film? Do you have any other suggestions?

Thanks for reading. All the best for 2015!

 

Joseph James

Film Review: Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6
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Big Hero 6 commences with a scene involving underground robot fights, like in the movie Real Steel. Our protagonist Hiro is a child genius with no direction in life who spends his time hustling at these robot fight events. A push from his big brother, Tadashi inspires Hiro to pursue further study at “nerd school” to make something of himself.

But just when Hiro begins to realise his potential he suffers a personal loss and starts to question himself again.

The typical tragedy trope is employed to spur Hiro into action. Clichéd as it may be, this loads the film with some powerful emotional scenes that explores the humanity of characters, instead of just depicting them as the usual “good”, “bad” or “super”. The heroes have flaws and the villains aren’t entirely evil.

Of course there’s an assortment of colourful characters to flesh out the cast, from the speed obsessed feminist, Go Go, to the dopey college mascot, Fred, to the oblivious Aunty Cass.

The star of the film though, is Baymax, a large mechanised marshmallow designed as a futuristic nurse. Tadashi had created Baymax as a robotic health practitioner. Hiro has other ideas though, so he upgrades Baymax by teaching him karate and creating body armour for him, making Baymax the ultimate hero sidekick.

Hiro and Baymax make a loveable mismatched duo. As much as Hiro needs Baymax to aid him with his hijinks, Baymax is restricted by his programming and robotic abilities. This leads to some hilarious scenes that depicts Baymax trying to help Hiro, but missing the point of what Hiro truly wants.

I love how the film is set in San Fransokyo, a hybrid of Tokyo and San Francisco. The small Shinjuku alleyways lead onto steep San Francisco streets. There are recognisable icons from each city, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ginza Shiodome. This amalgamation of cultures will surely create cross appeal for movie-goers the world over, regardless of where they are from.

Big Hero 6 ticks all the boxes for a family friendly film. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments that will appeal to adults and children alike. There are also more serious underlying themes of grieving and loss that add to the seriousness of the film and keep it grounded.

This story is deep enough to allow for character development and a decent plot, but still remains accessible for children. It’s the age-old underdog superhero story, but with a modern spin.

It may not have the musical soundtrack to match Frozen, but Big Hero 6 safely sits in with recent high calibre 3D animated Disney films like Frozen and Wreck It Ralph.

If you want to take a child to the movies any time soon, I recommend Big Hero 6. It’s a lot of fun, and entertaining enough for everyone watching, regardless of age.

(If you go, be sure to stick around  for a marvel-ous post credit scene)

 

Joseph James

Film Review: Locke

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It’s a funny premise: a man driving in his car whilst talking on the phone. Sound like an entertaining film? Not really. But when the Film Festival comes to town that’s when you go see the movies that are a bit different from the usual offerings. One such film being Steven Knight’s Locke.

Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, the film’s namesake. Suiting, considering that Locke virtually is the entire movie. He’s the only character you see. He’s driving in one direction and he’s uncertain if he’ll be able to return.

Hardy is captivating. Cool, calm and collected, albeit slightly crazy, he drives through the night and negotiates with people on the other end of the phone line. It’s a welcome return to form after his last role, playing Bane in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night Returns. Sure, he bulked up for the role and acted his part well, but the way Bane was portrayed was plain silly. I attribute this mainly to the fact that Bane was so difficult to understand because of the mask covering his mouth. Unlike Locke, who makes sure that he is clearly heard. Because for this character, so much is riding on how well he makes himself understood during the ensuing phone calls. He drives on, stoically talking his way through his problems when all the odds are against him.

The camerawork is interesting, made up of countless shots of the car, the driver, the traffic and the motorway, much of it blurred, shaky and unfocused. The visual component almost seems unnecessary at times seeing as all none of the character interaction is face to face. It would be interesting to listen to the audio alone to see if the film can be carried by its dialogue. Locke is largely built on the subtleties – the emotion, the pauses and the dynamic pacing of events.

This is Hardy’s film. It’s by no means a blockbuster, but he owns it. Hardy demonstrates his acting abilities through juxtaposed scenes of heated arguments with his character’s boss and tender moments with his family. Try listening to Locke conversing with his youngest son towards the end of the film and not be moved.

Locke is well paced, with enough drama to keep the viewer captivated. There may be no action sequences, but there is enough on the line to keep the viewer on edge. The film is about a man struggling to retain control as he watches his life disintegrate around him while trying desperately to do what he hopes is the ‘right thing’. To elaborate on the plot would be to spoil it, which is why the film may not sound so appealing. But despite how sparse and simple it sounds, Locke contains all the right ingredients for an entertaining ride.

 

Joseph James