Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Infiltrator

Directed by Brad Furman with a screenplay written by his Mother, Ellen Brown Furman, Bryan Cranston's latest appearance on the big screen is a classic American crime film. The Infiltrator is based on an autobiography written by Robert Mazur, a U.S. customs agent, who in the 1980s helped bust Pablo Escobar by going undercover as a corrupt businessman. I will make no attempts to hide the fact that my knowledge of Escobar and the drug world is limited but I have started watching Narcos so I figure it's only a matter of time until I know everything, right? The film took just under 1 year and a half from the first day of filming to its premiere in Florida. When you see the film, if you ever do, it's astonishing how much the production crew were able to achieve considering how elaborate some shots and sequences were.

The film looks like another Wolf of Wall Street on the surface but is clearly very different. Rather than focusing on the drugs and on Escobar like in Narcos, The Infiltrator follows an undercover operation that was designed to discover the route of the drug money flowing through southern Florida. This film was based on a true story and has occasional video footage and image stills of the real events intercut with the film. And in true Hollywood style, the credits are rolled after a quick round up of the fates that met those involved along with side by side images of the actor and the real person they were playing. As a result of the operation, CEO's and upper management in several banks that were knowingly laundering drug money were convicted. In fact, throughout the film it's easier to sympathise with the drug lords than it is with the international bankers. In part, this was due to the focus placed on Roberto Alcaino's family in the second half of the film. I had to remind myself that these men were responsible for deaths in several countries and endangered their families lives on their own accord. The plot definitely puts an emphasis on the individuals and their families and how they are affected but deliberately limits the drug use on screen almost to help viewers forget the real issue.

Cranston is joined by Diane Kruger for the second half of the film as she plays his fiancé. The two have a lovely, plutonic relationship on screen. Even when the two embrace after witnessing the death of a business partner, there is never an assumption that the two are anything other than colleagues and friends. I respected the decision to portray the characters in this way and to avoid an unnecessary adultery subplot. Besides Kruger and Cranston the cast of The Infiltrator aren't the most recognisable in Hollywood. However the ensemble cast, especially when all together in the climactic wedding scene, were wonderful and truly compelling in their roles. Special mention goes to Benjamin Bratt who definitely deserves more roles, more recognition and more beard! Damn, his beard looked good. I do hear he's involved in the upcoming Doctor Strange so fingers crossed his facial hair is here to stay!

If you are interested in the Medellin cartel or the individuals involved in Escobar's downfall, I recommend this film. Equally, if you're a fan of well paced and tense crime dramas then The Infiltrator should be next up on your to watch list.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Sausage Party

I feel like I've been saying forever that we need more adult animation in movies - and I don't mean the very popular 'adult' videos that can be found online.

Sausage Party, written by Seth Rogen and his merry band of blockbuster screenplay writing machines, is a delicious feast of hilarious stupidity packed into a store bought bun. And by that, puns aside, I mean that the film was funny, surprisingly clever and exactly what I was expecting. The animation was smart and the facial expressions were well executed. I always appreciate any departure from the digital standard set by Disney and Pixar. It was incredibly easy to lose yourself in the film and sympathise with food items. So here's the basic rundown of the plot: perishable goods in every supermarket are under the illusion that being purchased and taken home with humans is the 'great beyond' and a place that food aspires to go. But as Frank the sausage, Brenda the bun and a few of their friends are eventually picked up in the market, the discover the unfortunate truth and their inevitable fate in the human stomach from the mouth of a PTSD suffering mustard. From this point on, scenes of Frank's journey to discover the truth are cut together with scenes of other groceries being prepared in the kitchen. Shit gets weird but it's great.

The cast was as you would expect in a Seth Rogen backed film. Filled to the brim with the A-list, B-list and the I-Forgot-You-Exist of Hollywood. However, without a doubt, the best (voice) performance was supplied by Rogen. The abundance of dirty jokes perfectly executed in his infamous grasp made for a truly entertaining character. It's painfully clear throughout how invested Rogen is in the film. Every joke, scene and plot point screams his name and it has resulted in a really funny film. However, I would argue that this film should have been an 18 not a 15 like it is here in the UK. Some of the content was definitely not for the ears of impressionable school kids. Especially the celebratory orgy after they overpower the 'gods' in the supermarket. Spoilers ahead.

The final scene of this film, after the afore mentioned orgy, is unlike anything we've seen on screen since Enchanted in 2007. The gang are told by Firewater, an ancient drink who seems to know everything, that they are in fact cartoons and even shows Frank an image of Seth Rogen in the fire. Together they then travel through a portal to cut the 'puppet' strings they believe they are controlled by. This was, frankly (pun intended), an amazing way of ending a film like Sausage Party. Let's just add some more surrealism in to the mix and hope for the best! Sometimes the most successful way of building a fictional universe is by testing the limits and trying something that is even stranger than its predecessor. 

With Rogen already discussing the possibility for a sequel, I don't think this will be the last we see of Frank, Brenda and the gang. With an Enchanted type film hinted at before the closing credits, I'm excited to see what the team come up with. Rogen has really come into his own in the last 5 years, proving that although his style of acting and choice of films are all from the same weed smelling cloth, he can still draw an audience and make them laugh. It's also worth noting that this was a film I saw myself at 11am on a Tuesday and I still enjoyed it. 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Concussion

Concussion, the true story about one doctor’s discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopothy) among athletes in the NFL, is a film to be admired, if not loved. With performances from Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his wife Prema, the gripping narrative explores one man's fight to be understood and respected. Whilst at times the depiction of the public and corporate backlash Dr. Omalu endured is unsettling the film makes necessary steps towards shining a light on the power the NFL has over the nation and media. Director Peter Landesman’s interpretation of the NFL could be perceived as a harsh generalization of an organisation focused on making money above all else, but ultimately his film is directed towards the NFL with with aim of making further changes in their regime. And sometimes, a jarring portrayal is more effective than an attempt to keep both sides happy.

From staged news conferences and phony medical advice to enlisting the F.B.I. to investigate his superior and friend Dr. Cyril Wecht, played by Albert Brooks, the National Football League sought to undermine Dr. Omalu and his colleagues, discredit the existence of CTE, and downplay the deadly nature of concussions. It would sound like a conspiracy theory if it weren’t all true. Brooks lends his signature sense of humor to the role of Wecht, a man who backs up Bennet’s crusade every step of the way, even when wary of the inevitable consequences. Despite a hit or miss southern accent, Alec Baldwin is especially effective as Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team doctor for the Steelers and an unlikely friend in helping Omalu combat these mounting obstacles. Smith gives his best performance in years as Omalu, a forensic pathologist at the Pittsburgh coroner’s office whose work is almost undone from the beginning when Steelers legend Mike Webster, played by David Morse, arrives in the lab. He is considered Patient Zero, the first known death due to CTE, and Omalu’s co-worker nearly derails the whole autopsy on the misguided basis of respecting his hero’s body. 


The pace of the film was at times confusing. Landesman moves things along a little too fast, utilizing overly kinetic cinematography and tired visual tricks to add immediacy to a story that’s already ripped from the headlines. Fake zooms, hokey freeze-frames, and CGI renditions of real-time concussions only distract and potentially undercut the message he is trying to convey. It’s not dissimilar from the sensationalist editing techniques found in Discovery channel crime documentaries. They might be eye-grabbing to some, but they render everything less authentic in the process. It’s important that Concussion preaches to more than the choir, and while occasionally amateur direction gets in the way of that, Will Smith’s commanding presence and a true story that’s hard to deny ensure this film succeeds in doing so.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Suicide Squad

I read every bad review about this film before walking into the cinema and I was still disappointed.

My expectations could not have been lower and yet, Suicide Squad still failed to make a mark. Written and directed by David Ayer, the latest DC instalment lacked purpose, depth and excitement. In fact, I would go as far as saying that every bullet missed the target on this one. I found myself bored throughout many of the action scenes, silent during moments of 'humour' and unimpressed with forced relationships.


Ayer was, in many ways, restricted by studio execs and brand managers who insisted upon a certain product - even if it was a lesser one! One particular problem with the creation of this film seemed to be the deadlines. Ayer was given a release date and had to write, shoot and edit before that time. Sounds like any other film, yes, but Ayer wanted time to develop the film and was not given the chance to. In fact, two different versions of the film were screened for test audiences and Ayer's more developed version was not favoured by the studio. One of the other shackles attached to Ayer and Suicide Squad was the demand for a PG13/15 rating. With a film centred on bad guys with an attitude, it was frustrating that the rating was so low. Perhaps an R/18 rating would have been better suited to allow Ayer to explore his characters in more seedy depth. Many of the aspects of what make these characters great are only brushed upon because too much violence, language or sexually explicit scenes would hike the age rating. Although Deadpool was problematic for several reasons, it was an enjoyable ADULT film that still dominated the market despite excluding the young up and coming comic fans.

Whilst Deadshot and Harley Quinn had potential in the film there simply wasn't enough to carry the rest of the cast. Cara Delevingne, for example, should never have been cast as Dr Moon/Enchantress. She should never have made the move into acting in the first place. Hiding the fact she cannot do accents behind an ancient language and subtitles was one thing, but Ayer could not hide her basic inability to act. The audience are supposed to be in awe of this character in both of her physical states but whenever she was on screen it was cringe worthy watching her sway her hips or flail into the arms of her soldier boyfriend. Speaking of the soldier, Captain Flag, Joel Kinnaman was a pleasant replacement for early drop out Tom Hardy. He was an underdeveloped character but did his best in the screen time allotted to him. Being an underdeveloped character in Suicide Squad is like being a hipster in a trendy cafe. They are fucking everywhere. The audience is force fed snapshot origin stories at the very beginning of the film and are occasionally given additional flashbacks as the story progresses. But other than that, the characters are dropped into the DC universe, as the fans currently know it, and left to fend for themselves. Even the Joker, a character we all know and love, was new and improved but without any context. At the end of Suicide Squad, the only characters I would be happy having origin stories would be Deadshot and Harley Quinn but that is more to do with the performances than the writing.

Ultimately a film with great potential to slingshot DC back into my good books, after the fall of Batman - thanks Affleck, was a disappointment from the ground up. I thoroughly blame the restrictions on Ayer and the time scale in which the film needed to be made. Perhaps after the afore mentioned success of bad-guy-good-guy Deadpool, it felt as if Suicide Squad was rushed in order to jump on the band wagon. If we'd had individual origin stories for the main troupe beforehand then perhaps the time in this film could have been better utilised. I cannot help but wonder how much better the film would have been had the first 20 minutes of rambling character description been replaced with more content. I'm sure the film will still top box offices around the world but whether it, with the amount of negativity from critics and fans, will make back it's initial investment is still up in the air. 

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Jason Bourne

Jason is back and so is Damon! 

The saga continues as Jason Bourne returns to our cinemas bigger than ever. Directed by Paul Greengrass (best name ever) who has directed three of the five Bourne films, the 2016 instalment is set 10 years after the events of Bourne Ultimatum. The jump in time was perhaps an attempt to pretend that Bourne Legacy with Jeremy Renner never happened - which I think many fans of the franchise would agree is the perfect way of reviving the film. The film follows Jason as he pieces together who he was/is and how he became an Operation Treadstone assassin. Once discovering the CIA killed his father, Bourne seeks revenge and begins to hunt down the CIA director, Robert Dewey. Meanwhile, as an additional subplot, the CIA are attempting to monitor the public through a new form of social media. 
The return of Matt Damon as Bourne, and in his first film since the critically acclaimed The Martian, is certainly one way to ensure a blockbuster hit this Summer. Although Matt looks a lot older than he did when he first appeared as Bourne, who can forget fresh faced Damon?, he carried himself well and certainly proved that stunts are not off the table for him yet! He was joined by several cast members from previous films including Tommy Lee Jones and Julia Stiles along with a slew of new faces. One of the breakout stars of 2015, Alicia Vikander, does exceptionally well as Heather Lee - head of the CIA Cyber Ops Division. Although at times it's hard to believe the character would make the decisions she does, Vikander portrays her well. Staying stern and emotionless throughout as she attempts to ascertain Bourne without killing him.  

**SPOILERS** The action sequences, of which there were many, were amazing. Fast paced and full of destruction - that's the kind of scenes I want to see in a Bourne film! Particularly the final car chase scene which sees Bourne tracking down the CIA's Asset with the purpose of killing him in revenge for killing his father. The Asset, driving a swat vehicle, rams through traffic in a straight line which sees cars being crushed and blown out of the way. It was an incredible moment to watch. I think that a huge part of this film's success will be how straight forward it is. Yes, we jump back and forth several times throughout in terms of who the 'bad guy' is but when you consider the film as a whole - it was a true action blockbuster. Unlike many modern action films, Bourne didn't attempt to genre blend. There were no cheesy jokes or forced moments of comic relief. It was hard, gripping and intense. Our hero was not a true hero. He's a trained killer, and part time street fighter, who will use his skill base to get what he wants. There is no heart of gold in Bourne. He's focused on revenge and will continue to fight back against the corporation that made him. I was so happy to finally see an action film that didn't try to force likeability or empathy. The writers got straight to the point from the outset and it made for a fast paced but fantastically structured film. 

For fans of the previous films - you will not be disappointed. I would recommend that those new to Bourne watch the first three films (don't bother with Bourne Legacy) before watching the new one. Although flashbacks (new, not in previous films) are slotted in throughout Jason Bourne to help new audiences grasp the plot, having prior knowledge of the films and of Jason's past will help enhance the experience and enjoyment of this film. It's not often I find myself wishing for the next instalment before the end credits role, but there is something about this character and these films that always leave me wanting more. 

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Finding Dory

There are plenty more fish in the sea yet Disney seems hell-bent on reviving Dory.

The UK premiere for Finding Dory and the return of that adorable forgetful fish was last month at Edinburgh's International Film Festival. Despite working the festival, I never found time to sneak into the screening. So here I am, a month later, diving into the deep blue to join Marlin, Nemo and Dory yet again.

Different premise. Same old tropes. Dory is aching to find her long lost family and ventures out to be reunited with them. Suddenly, she's captured and taken to an aquarium in California. This time it is Marlin and Nemo's turn to rescue their blue friend and as you'd expect - hilarity ensues. Yes, the film was very obvious and the true moments of comedy genius were teased in the trailer but it'd be a shame to overlook this film because of its simplicity. The animation in Finding Dory is crisp and clean yet flows as though we are actually in the water. The new troupe of characters are developed and, whilst not always crucial to the plot's progression, enjoyable to watch.
The film had a lot of publicity in the lead up to its release not just because of it's A-List cast. Many speculated that a couple appearing in the trailer with a child were a same sex couple and that this was the first appearance of such a relationship within a disney animated film. Frankly, the scene came and went in the film without me noticing despite having known to look out for it. Unfortunately, this didn't seem like first appearance of a same sex couple. It just came across as two women being in close proximity. Hopefully Disney are moving in this direction and we'll see an appropriately presented LGBT character in the near future - but please, no stereotypes!

Like any other Pixar animation, this film will have you tearing up from the get go. Even the pre-film short, Piper, had me happy crying! There is something so heartbreaking about a young fish losing her parents and being unable to ask for help due to her forgetful nature. As you can imagine, the message of this film is subtly hidden in Dory's search for her family. I picked up that Stanton (Andrew Stanton, co-writer and director) had desired for audiences to recognise part of themselves in the young fish and that what he wants us to take away is the power of resilience and positive thinking. And although both of these points were explored in the first film, they resonate a lot deeper in Finding Dory.

Overall, the film was delightful and uplifting despite some dark moments. Whether you watch this at home alone or with a group of people at a screening, the humour will have you chuckling and the sad scenes will have you holding back some sympathetic tears. I feel like Finding Dory will be the benchmark moving forward for Disney in terms of sequels and is a great example of story progression done the right way. Having said that, I'm kind of done. I don't want to be brought to the brink of tears again by a school of damn fish!

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Zoolander 2

Another old(er) film! This month I've felt like catching up on blockbusters I may have missed in 2015/early 2016. As they say, it may be an oldy but it's a goody! 

15 years after the smash hit Zoolander graced our cinema screens with it's satirical portrayal of models and the fashion world, the title character is back. Zoolander 2 follows a worn out Derek Zoolander after the death of Matilda, the collapse of his centre for illiterate children and the loss of custody of his son, Derek Jr. Interpol are investigating the confusing assassinations of several of the worlds biggest celebrities, who in their final captured moments point to Zoolander as a clue. Hansel and Zoolander are reunited by mutual pal Billy Zane - not the first celebrity cameo and not the last either - and are recruited by Valentina, an Interpol agent, to help investigate the suspicious murders. From this point on, the film becomes increasingly more ridiculous. A theme amongst the films I have reviewed this month!

With Zoolander, I feel that the attention is focused on the celebrity cameos above all else. And, to be honest, it appears this film was made, not to make another stellar Zoolander film but, in a bid to let celebrities act a little silly for a change. It is bizarre seeing respected actors like Benedict Cumberbatch as characters like All. But, I suppose that is part of the allure. The entire film felt like an odd fancy dress party, hosted by Ben Stiller, where the dress code was 'insane'. The weirdest part of it all was seeing Susan Boyle. Why was she even on a list of suggested names for this film? Because it's weird. Nothing about the film flowed like the original and the excessive and unnecessary cameos overshadowed every other aspect of the film. The cameos are, however, the perfect camouflage for a film that genuinely lacks substance. Perhaps studio executives, producers and directors alike, should reconsider flooding their film with famous faces when attempting to revive a franchise. 

Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Will Ferrell were reunited and it really did feel so good while it lasted. The three clearly work well together and do make for some seriously funny moments. I simply wish the film was better written to include more of the original films charm. The whole plot was a twisted, Zoolander take on The DaVinci Code. With secret groups of fashion icons conspiring to kill the descendant of lesser known Steve from the Adam and Eve tale as several 'rock stars', I am using this term loosely as Justin Bieber is involved, aim to protect the chosen one (Zoolanders son - woops spoilers).

Yet again, a film I'm happy to have skipped in the theatres to view at home for free. It's truly a sad moment when you realise films like this are funded over special and profound indie projects.