Sunday, 29 January 2017

La La Land

Like many others, I’m sure; this review begins with a clarification. No, more a resigned confession: I’ve never been one for movie musicals. There have been some exceptions every now and then, including but not limited to Moulin Rouge, Dream Girls and Chicago. Despite the varying quality of those examples, nothing has ever been able to shake my innate prejudice. I spent the opening logos of La La Land braced to cringe, waiting for the spasm in my gut and the embarrassed shiver to cross my cheeks.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock since the film’s first appearance at the Venice film festival, Damien Chazelle directs Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as Sebastian and Mia, two California dreamers who begin to fall in love after a chance encounter on a busy highway. Seb aspires to open his own Jazz club (in order to save what he sees as a dying genre), and Mia, a wannabe actor, is desperate to escape her life of serving coffee to the inhabitants of the Warner Bros. backlot.

Yeah, I’ve never found myself attached to the glorification of  the grand heritage La La Land is so clearly besotted with, but the two sequences paying homage to Rebel Without a Cause caught my attention. In relation to Gosling, I suppose I should put another of my long-held prejudices to rest. While his woozy eyes have understandably wowed many, to me his expression has always appeared vacant, almost detached. In Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, this worked wonders, and here, too, his hazy gaze speaks to something authentic: the far-reaching mind of a dreamer.

In contrast to the stark colours, the morality of the story - of Seb and Mia’s victories and sacrifices - is far from black and white. I’m pressed to label it ‘earnest to a fault’…Chazelle knows we’re too cynical to buy a total lovesick ode to Tinseltown right now, so peppers the sweet with spice. I could understand why the film makes certain moves towards the flip-side of fairy tales but found that the nostalgic undertone of the film as a whole reeked of insincerity.

An ear-worm of a soundtrack, astounding visuals, 'loveable' stars and a surprisingly textured narrative - it's no wonder why Hollywood is praising this film. It's everything the industry loves - itself! Personally, I think I would enjoy the film more on a second viewing but can't seem to find the time to suffer through it all again.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Passengers

Morten Tyldum’s new film offers neither acid-bleeding monsters nor iron-fisted galactic empires, but the simple passage of time. Chris Pratt stars as engineer Jim Preston, one of five-thousand passengers of the starship Avalon, your bog-standard ark-in-space vessel designed somewhere between a wind turbine and the Endurance ship from Interstellar, with constant malfunctions. One of these glitches raises Jim too early from a hypersleep to which he cannot return, leaving him with 90 years alone, and long dead before the Avalon reaches its destination. After a year spent luxuriating in the more premium areas of the ship and pondering his plight with Michael Sheen’s legless robo-barman, Jim forcibly awakens fellow passenger Aurora, played by Jennifer Lawrence, for company, knowing full well that he is denying her a future. The question soon becomes a matter of what will shatter the couple’s serene sham of a relationship first: Jim’s secret or the multitude of problems plaguing the ship?

That all sounds very complex, but, essentially, it’s two very attractive people on a very attractive spaceship living a very attractive lifestyle surrounded by very attractive production design, backed by a very attractive score. Any intriguing or challenging ideas raised by the undeniably creepy premise are soon buried beneath its super-shiny surface. It’s a shame, because Tyldum’s dealt with somewhat subversive material before and come out on top.

Now, I'm as happy as anybody to watch Pratt and Lawrence swanning around ludicrously pretty sets, going on space walks and going on dates to see Michael Sheen, but, let’s be honest, both of them could have done this in their sleep: he’s very good at looking a bit smug and cuddly, she’s very good at crying in despair. By the film's very nature as multiplex fodder, there's no need for either to do much besides 'be themselves, but in space'.

And yet, I still feel a little let down by both, Pratt in particular. I’d really love to see what he could do with something outside his recently acquired comfort zone, but once again I’ve been left wanting. The first third of the movie is Jim by himself and just when things are looking suitably grim, Passengers wimps out and Jim’s obsession with Aurora is played for an ‘aww’, not an ‘eww’. Just when you think a discussion on male entitlement or the definition of murder is rearing up, it cowers instead. 

So, if it’s no good as a moral treatise, does it work as a cheerful holiday sci-fi? Well, the special effect set pieces are nice and the climax survives with minimal eye-rolling sentimentality, but a top-notch Thomas Newman score aside, there’s nothing that original going on, with many sequences feeling like half-hearted impressions of better movies. In a serious error of judgement, Tyldum attempts to evoke both Interstellar (time as the enemy, the psychological effects of being alone in space for years on end) and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (the transit of a spaceship across the sun, only here it’s less reflective pause, more date night). It’s a collection of sci-fi bits n’ bobs slotted together into a uniformly attractive whole that trades darkness and debate for smiles and CGI.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

Rogue One follows the events leading up to A New Hope, in which a desperate Rebel Alliance attempts to steal the plans for the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star. Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso, a galactic delinquent with a familial tie to the Empire and a habit for disregarding orders. As the film progresses, she reluctantly amasses a band of heroes including disillusioned Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, Alliance Captain Cassian Andor and his sardonic droid partner, K-2SO, plus monk/warrior duo Chirrut and Baze. Ben Mendelsohn plays the increasingly infuriated Director Krennic, whose connection to the Erso family provides the starting point for the story. Forest Whitaker also appears as frazzled extremist Saw Gerrera.
It's character relationships helps Rogue One forge its own identity within the larger series and sell the apparent futility and hopelessness of an ailing resistance. While there is solid content beneath, it felt rather difficult to get to: a somewhat thrown together first half meant that initial character interplay was rushed, which makes seeing them as anything more than another set of archetypal action figures a little difficult. Of the bunch, Jones, Ahmed, Yen and Luna provide the most rounded personalities. Those with the least to prove (Ahmed and Jones, arguably) still give everything. 

There were rumours of re-shoots intended to lighten the tone or bring the spirit of the film back in line with the other episodes. The Force Awakens may be a more structurally coherent film, but this is a very different beast; a war movie more than a fantasy. The spectacle of Stormtroopers getting thrown about in huge explosions is followed by a grimace and a burst of dirt and shrapnel rather than a punchline. Humour is present of course, thanks mostly to K-2SO’s delivery, but it’s less a continuing gag and more a reprieve. The grit and the grime is tangible. Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars prequel not only in the chronological sense, but also with regards to its risk-taking, its attempt to re-invent the series, and an insistence on blurring the line between physical and digital filmmaking.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

“That is definitely bigger than the last one” states Jeff Goldblum glumly, as a ginormous alien craft sweeps over the lunar surface, wiping out a large human moon base. In one line, the purpose of Independence Day: Resurgence is revealed: less a joyful return to a fondly remembered sci-fi than it is Roland Emmerich’s attempt to score another blockbuster, after his sorely misjudged gay rights drama, Stonewall, burnt up on re-entry.

Twenty years after humanity banded together to avoid annihilation in 1996, the flying saucers are back. Only this time, David Levinson (Goldblum) and co. have advanced alien tech on their side. Ex-President Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman, is plagued with visions of the returning aliens. Whitmore’s daughter, Maika Monroe replacing Mae Whitman, has resigned flying duties, but her fiancée, Jake played by Liam Hemsworth, remains in space operating moon tugs alongside wise-cracking co-pilot Charlie, Travis Tope.

Before long, the aliens (responding to a distress call from a long-dormant craft on Earth) show up again with a ship large enough to cover the entire Atlantic, crushing our reconstructed landmarks in a sequence that reprises the ‘WOAH!’ factor of the original incredibly well. People can say what they want about modern day CGI, but when it’s picking up the entire city of Dubai and dropping it on London, it’s hard not to be swept up in the spectacle.

The problems, however, arise soon after. In the first film, mass calamity was a wake-up call to humanity that we needed to put aside our differences and fight as one, inspiring the next generation as we went. There’s little of that here: the destruction is over as quickly as it’s begun, and barely a tear is shed. When the heads of state are wiped out and a new President played by William Fichtner is ushered into presidency, his speech to mankind is a hollow shell of Bill Pullman’s original ear-scorcher, whilst a small group of kids who survived the initial attack are too busy being shepherded about on a school bus to be inspired.

There’s no other way of putting it: there are way too many characters in this film. Asides from the members of the original cast that stuck around, we’ve got Charlotte Gainsbourg (looking like she got thoroughly lost on the way to another set but was too polite to leave) as a clipboard-saddled scientist, Jessie T. Usher as Dylan Hiller (son of Will Smith’s character, who passed between films) and Deobia Oparei as a Central African warlord who delivers what turns out to be the be-all, end-all of alien invasion countermeasures. The film spends so long introducing and arranging this overflowing bucket of action figures that the middle act and finale pass by in a flash.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper 21st century franchise nostalgia trip without a sledgehammering of call-backs and references to the original, but even they feel half-hearted at best and misjudged at worst. This is not to say Independence Day: Resurgence is completely devoid of new ideas: there’s a bonkers revelation that makes the prospect of a third installment intriguing rather than off-putting, but it’s too little, too late. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

This new yarn from J.K. Rowling is akin to retreating from 2016’s horrid winter into an old blanket. It’s warm and cosy with familiarity, but the loose threads are becoming more obvious, and the cold still seeps in through little holes. Eddie Redmayne stars as magizoologist Newt Scamander with a case full of, you guessed it, fantastic beasts. The contents of the case are let loose on 1920s New York, where Scamander is befriended by wide-eyed ‘nomaj’ Jacob Kowalski, played by Dan Fogler, and hounded by plucky ex-Auror Tina Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterstone. As the trio scurry around in an attempt to return the creatures safely to the suitcase, another kind of sorcery stalks the streets. A dark force is causing calamity, and the Magical Congress of the United States sends the mysterious Percival Graves, the frightening looking Colin Farrell, to investigate. A second Salem movement is also on the rise, and, within its ranks, a reclusive teenager, played by Perks of Being a Wallflower breakout Ezra Miller, secretly rebels against his oppressive mother.

The film eases you into the flow with a good helping of earnest adventure before the underlying plot strands begin to convalesce. Much like the later Potter films, Beasts strikes a good balance between child-like immersion in the sparkling spectacle of a magical world, whilst still drawing out the darkness inherent in that universe. The production design alternates between gloomy, effervescent and gothic, and it’s very hard not to be won over by the overall aesthetic of the film.

When any franchise enters a new era, there’s always a great deal made of ‘bridging the gap’. With Newton Howard providing the musical connection, the character who guides us through is not Redmayne, but Miller, playing the sunken-faced and scary-haired Credence Barebone. Carrying more than a little Draco Malfoy in his glare and posture, he works wonders with a subplot that is occasionally misjudged in its intensity. The Potter universe is no stranger to darker themes (each film after Prisoner of Azkaban thrived increasingly on this), but the shadows here exist outside the wizarding world, in a place that feels all too real. The entire arc of Farrell’s character is revealed the instant we see his haircut, but he’s clearly having good fun. He certainly draws a far more rounded character than his nemesis, Newt; a Tumblr fanfic creation brought to life. Any investment we have in our heroes is channelled through Dan Fogler. His performance carries nuance, genuine emotion, and charm that doesn’t require a single wand wave.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Arrival

Someone a few rows below me clears their throat, and suddenly I realise that for the past 40 minutes, no-one in the cinema has made a sound. This moment came as Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker slowly advance into the belly of an alien spaceship; the culmination of Arrival’s first act. In Denis Villeneuve’s most adventurous film yet, twelve spaceships hover metres above the ground in countries across the world. Army Colonel Weber, played by Whitaker, enlists linguistics expert Louise Banks, played by Adams, and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, played by Renner, to attempt rudimentary communication with their visitors, to discover their ultimate intention.

Eements of the plot are comparable to other sci-fi favourites like Interstellar and alien invasion fare such as Independence Day and The Day the Earth Stood Still, but the experience of seeing this for the first time was utterly unique. For one thing, it’s the first time I’ve ever physically sensed a movie dividing the audience. While that innocent cough I mentioned above seemed to shake many from some kind of trance, it seemed a rallying call for an equal number of others to fidget or rummage around for another piece of popcorn. This divide was clear as the credits rolled, and personified by my colleagues in the office: I found it gripping up to a point, another loved it, and the other found it interminably dull.

Its construction is also a change from the norm: that looming spaceship isn’t necessarily there to frighten or devastate, but to enthrall, its featureless black shell an empty space in the skyline onto which we project our fears and questions. To relay these anxieties is Banks, giving us a similar bugs-eye view as Cooper from Interstellar, packed with an emotionally-charged parent-child dynamic to boot. However, whilst McConaughey’s character was constantly awash with philosophical wonder and scientific know-how, Adams' is the closest we’ve come to seeing a believably ‘normal’ person being sucked into the maelstrom of military action, political uncertainty and media hysteria that constitutes first contact.

This is not her first time making a close encounter (see Man of Steel), but without the shackles of a franchise, her character is allowed a level of depth more deserving of Adams’ talent. Here, she employs a look of great pain, awe and misplacement through her gaze alone. It takes an awful lot to make varying levels of confusion and fear interesting for two hours, but Adams makes it unbelievably gripping. Renner is playing the comic relief to a certain extent, but it’s more Hurt Locker than Hawkeye (smart without falling into snarky). Both leads actually look like they could do Banks and Donnelly’s jobs for real. Despite the slight, unavoidable shimmer of Hollywood make-up, they’re not glamorized, particularly as they spend a great deal of time enveloped in clumsy orange hazmat suits.

Visually, it’s a different tale. Bradford Young’s photography is polished to a mirror shine, doing more with blacks and whites than most cinematographers do with an entire rainbow, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score doesn’t come packed with the overwrought aggressiveness that’s so vehemently present in his other work. In fact, this score is quite the opposite: it slinks elegantly across the background before suddenly catching you out. At the apex of a simply flawless panning shot – in which Villeneuve and Young finally reveal the ominous black shell hanging over the Montana plains – Jóhannsson kicks the strings into motion, and an eerie wail sends a visible shiver through the audience.

Some dodgy CG hair aside, the visual wizardry is minimalist and beautiful, employed only when necessary and to incredible effect. Perhaps betraying that the film isn’t really about them, the aliens are nothing radical to look at. Their method of communication is remarkable, for sure, but it’s a cerebral wonder as much as a physical one, and the only special effect in attendance at the extraordinary finale is reserved purely for your brain.

As well as securing Villeneuve, Young and Adams as magisterial talents once and for all, Arrival is a critical, timely parable about communication and empathy. It’s the natural progression of sci-fi cinema, where contemporary and timeless themes collide with state-of-the-art filmmaking technology. Now if they could have only excluded the love story subplot - the film would have been perfect!

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Bad Moms

Sometimes you have nothing better to do on a Saturday night than watch a horribly put together 'female comedy'. We're better than this girls...

Bad Moms begins with a particularly good mum in Amy Mitchell, played by the always beautiful Mila Kunis. She balances a 60 hour work week of being an overachieving full-time employee whilst also being a full-time mum. Although seemingly appearing to be the 'supermum', she never really gets the job done and sees herself as always coming up just short. After a day of nothing but bad outcomes and misfortune, Amy has enough of trying to live up to the image of being a mum with everything going right for herself and her family. She decides to live for herself and be wild and free but the other local mums refuse to let such blasphemy happen. One mum in particular, Gwendolyn James, played by Christina Applegate, has her eyes on Amy acting out and is set on tearing her back down.

While the film had plenty of moments of comedy, as you would expect in a 'comedy' film, the whole thing fell flat. The story was absolutely laughable, and not in the positive way. The climactic emotional moment made me feel absolutely nothing because the film spent no time making the characters likable or even tolerable. The love interest of the movie is forced and could have been excluded entirely without any real hindrance to the film. Almost every plot point was unrealistic and forgetful. Bad Moms is the very definition of a conventional comedy in that way, with the story being virtually predictable from the get go. It's upsetting that a film like this, promoted as being a film for women by women, provides a few chuckles and nothing else. Why can't we have the developed and complex characters portrayed in the male steered traditional comedy or action films. Hell, The Accountant did a better job representing women in the 21st century - and it featured a damsel in distress being rescued by a man! A few of the characters are complete caricatures and stereotypes which are clearly derived from a cookie cutter idea of the different types of women and the plot follows the beat by beat story arc of 'redemption of the down-on-her-luck protagonist' to a very tee. Mila, pick better roles please.

To the critical mind, this film falls way short of being anything special. To the targeted demographic that the film focuses on, this film will be a sure fire box office hit to them. So unless you fall within the latter, this film wont contribute anything to your day.