Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Baby Driver

As far as elevator pitches go, 'a car chase movie where the action is synced to its soundtrack' is a pretty great one, especially when it's coming from none other than Edgar Wright himself. As the man behind the brilliant Scott Pilgrim vs. The World it's clear that Wright is maybe the most inventive and original writer/director working today, and with a pitch that great I was sure that as with his previous films, his latest would be another film I'd love dearly - so why is it that Baby Driver left me slightly cold?

It's something I've been pondering since seeing the film, and ultimately I think it comes down to a question of individual taste rather than objective quality. Baby Driver is just as tightly-crafted as any of Wright's previous movies, utilising his almost trademark fast-paced editing style in combination with a non-stop soundtrack and some neat choreography to create something that feels totally unique, stylistically - unfortunately, it's all in service of characters and a story that I simply couldn't force myself care about, and all the style in the world can't make up for that.


The biggest problem with the film's fairly straight forward narrative is that it relies on us caring about Baby and his relationship with Deborah without ever doing the work to make that happen. In truth, I was surprised by just how bland Baby is as a protagonist - Wright's films have always been full of vibrant, interesting characters with distinctive personalities, but Baby is little more than a generic, capable nice guy whose defining personality trait is that he likes music. Even with actor Ansel Elgort being as charming as possible, Baby's lack of depth and definable personality makes it difficult to really invest in the character, and as such the action sequences, while incredibly well-made on a technical level, lack the engagement and stakes that they could and should have had.

This is Wright's first film as the sole credited writer, and I have to wonder if that has anything to do with Baby Driver's problems. His direction here is as brilliant as ever, but the script simply is neither as tight nor as funny as his previous movies, indicating to me that he could well be a writer that needs a partner to bounce ideas off of to get the best results. That's not to say that Baby Driver isn't funny at times - there are multiple laugh-out loud moments, including a great scene where Baby cases a Post Office with an unlikely ally - but the magnitude and frequency of gags is a long way away from other Wright classics like Hot Fuzz, and that's only to the films detriment.

In fairness to Baby Driver, I'm sure I'd like it more upon re-watching it free from the dizzying expectations I had initially - but for now, it's a film that I can only appreciate for it's craft and it's soundtrack rather than genuinely like.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Battle of the Sexes







With Academy Award winner Emma Stone at the forefront as tennis champion Billie Jean King, Battle of the Sexes is great fun to watch, pitting her against Academy Award nominee Steve Carell as the eccentric, former tennis pro — and infamous male chauvinist — Bobby Riggs, as they face each other on and off the court in what was the most-watched sporting event of its time.

Set in 1973, the film finds King in a career slump. Having just left their current organization over an equal pay dispute, she and the rest of her female tennis-playing comrades decide to head to the inaugural WTA Women’s Tour for a dollar each, thus fueling the argument of whether women tennis players should earn the same amount as their male counterparts when many deemed them to be neither as good nor as entertaining as the men.

With all of this happening — and with Riggs being particularly outspoken about what he felt was lacking on the women’s side of the sport — King’s game takes a downward spiral. Losing the title of women’s world number one to her competitor, Margaret 'The Arm' Court, Jessica McNamee, the 29-year-old King is left to pick up the pieces of her game, while at the same time dismissing Riggs’ attempts to lure her into a match that would decide once and for all which gender ruled supreme on the tennis court.

Aside from having to contend with Riggs and her own professional problems, King also had some personal battles that came to light while on the WTA Tour. Although married to her husband, Larry, Austin Stowell, she was hiding a secret — one deemed deeply problematic if she planned on continuing her career in tennis. On top of this, the movie also depicts Riggs' struggles with gambling and the marital problems between him and his wife, making for a tense match of back-and-forth action on and off the court for both main characters.

Coming off of her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land, Emma Stone perfectly portrays Billie Jean King. As King's public and personal life collide, Stone’s performance is both gripping and believable. Meanwhile, Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs is a joy to behold, as he nails Riggs’ exuberance, excitement and showboating ways with ease. Suffice to say, it's hard not to focus on him when he’s on screen, especially when co-stars Sarah Silverman and Alan Cumming are equally scene-stealing, possessing perfect comedic timing and delivering the most moving moments of the film.

Directed by the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks, the movie is shot very much like a tennis match. It has its ups and downs, and set points and match points, but it ultimately arrives at a happy conclusion for all parties involved. That said, the final on-court showdown between King and Riggs felt anticlimactic.

Ultimately, Battle of the Sexes isn't just entertaining, but also serves to share many lessons concerning equality that still prove very pertinent today.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

The world might not have been waiting with bated breath for a new Poirot film, but I'd be lying if I said that the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express didn't pique my interest. Bright neon writing, a lengthy tracking shot from a first-person perspective before the reveal of the greatest moustache you've ever seen - Murder on the Orient Express looked radically different from what I expected, which when combined with a really impressive ensemble cast made it something I was actually excited to see.

And for good reason, it turns out. While hardly a must-see movie or the genre revitalisation I had hoped for, Murder on the Orient Express is a mostly well-made and very watchable detective yarn, the kind that you don't often see anymore. You know the story - there's been a murder on the Orient Express, and it's up to Hercule Poirot to solve the mystery. 

Before that though, we get a nice introductory scene in Jerusalem that sees Poirot solving a more minor crime, giving us plenty of time to get accustomed to both his methods and his personality. I'm no Poirot connoisseur (in fact, my knowledge of the character starts and ends at him being smart and mustachioed), but I like Branagh in the role - there is a warmth and theatricality to him that stop his eccentricities or somewhat impersonal manner from painting him as alien or distant, without robbing him of any of his intelligence. Equally impressive are the supporting cast, at least when they're given the chance to be. It was always going to be difficult to balance the needs of the story with a cast this large in a film that's less than two hours long, and while Murder on the Orient Express doesn't always pull that balancing act off, most of these performances are strong enough to leave an impression regardless. Interestingly, it's the newer actors that end up getting the most screen-time rather than the veterans - Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad are arguably the most prominent of the supporting characters, and they're both able to hold their own against the more established cast surrounding them.

The core story may be an interesting one, but writer Michael Green can hardly be given credit for it, and ultimately Branagh's execution of that story is rarely more or less than just serviceable - which isn't to say that it's bad merely that it doesn't do anything to elevate the material beyond what it already offers. Ultimately, even with its star-studded cast, relatively high budget and modern film-making techniques, you've seen this film a dozen times before, whether that be through a previous adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express or even just in the way it so closely resembles almost any other detective story.

Perfectly watchable and considering that it's a film consisting of little more than conversations, it kept me entertained and engaged for most of its running time.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Bringing What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi on board was the best decision Marvel made in relation to the third installment of the Thor films. With Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi has taken all that didn't work about the previous films and thrown it straight in the garbage, clearing the table for him to completely reinvent the franchise.

We rejoin the titular God of Thunder two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which time he has been travelling around the universe in an attempt to learn as much about the Infinity Stones as possible. After finding out that it is Loki, not Odin, who sits on the throne of Asgard, Thor confronts his brother and travels with him to Earth in order to find Odin and return him to the throne - but ends up accidentally stranded on the junk planet Sakaar in the process, leaving Asgard vulnerable to attack from Hela, the Goddess of Death.

By pushing the plot to the background for much of its running time, Waititi is able to focus on the bits of the film he's actually interested in, such as the characters and their interactions with one another. It also means that the drama of Thor: Ragnarok is only ever serviceable at best. There's a balancing act going on here that I don't think Waititi executes perfectly, meaning that your enjoyment of Thor: Ragnarok is ultimately going to depend far more on if you Waititi's character direction than on the plot itself. 

Fortunately, I love Waititi. While the film undoubtedly lacks the emotional resonance of his previous films (most likely a by-product of this being the first of his movies that he hasn't also written), his unique voice still manages to shine through thanks to the amount of creative freedom he's clearly been given around the studio-mandated story beats. It's a hilarious movie thanks to the irreverent, naturalistic, quasi-improvisational sense of humour that made Waititi popular and that imbues the film with the kind of energy and originality that some other Marvel films have sorely lacked. As someone who was laughing throughout, I found Thor: Ragnarok to be among the better Marvel Studios films released in recent years.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Revenant

Set in 1823, The Revenant is based loosely on the true story of Hugh Glass, a man who was left for dead by his fellow hunters after an attack from a Native American tribe. We follow him as he attempts to make his way through the wilderness and back to civilization, where the man who betrayed him remains unaware that not only is Hugh Glass still alive, but also determined to get his revenge.

Beyond the undeniably gorgeous cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki and the impressive "one take" action sequences that are littered throughout, The Revenant deserves none of the critical acclaim it has seen. An undeniably interesting concept, the story of Hugh Glass is wasted in a film that desperately reaches for depth that isn't there thanks to the ego of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. This ego shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone who has seen his previous film Birdman but it was easy to forgive in a movie that was legitimately entertaining, both on a technical level and as an interesting character piece (no matter how misguided its commentary on Hollywood may have been). It is harder to forgive here - winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Birdman seems to have inflated that ego even more, and it has manifested itself in a film that never allows you to forget that you are watching an Alejandro González Iñárritu Picture in all its glory. He's more interested in appearing great than he is in actually making a great film, something which when combined with a great cast and one of the best cinematographers in the world results in The Revenant being deceptively mediocre.

No matter how much DiCaprio went through during filming, his role in The Revenant is nothing more than "good enough", and it's a shame that an actor widely regarded as one of the best working today was critically acclaimed for a role which doesn't actually show why people think that. All the other name actors in the film are significantly better in their roles, something which just further highlights how strange the decision to nominate DiCaprio is. Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson are obviously captivating as John Fitzgerald and Captain Andrew Henry respectively, but I'd also like to make special mention of Will Poulter. Seeing him give a genuinely interesting performance was actually one of the few things in The Revenant that I enjoyed without some kind of reservation, and I hope that we see more of this side of Poulter in the future.

Is The Revenant exactly what Iñárritu wanted it to be? Almost certainly, and at times it shines - but those times are few and far between, and as a whole The Revenant simply fails to be worth it.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Joy

It's time for another throwback month! Two reviews of films that came out at least one year ago. (Yes, I have not had time to go to the cinema this month)

Joy is not a good film. In fact, for the vast majority of its running time Joy is a consistently bad film, a somewhat decent story ruined by a director who clearly has no idea how to tell it. Narrated by the titular character's Grandmother (a decision made after the film had been shot, and it really shows), Joy is very loosely based on the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who invented the Miracle Mop, and follows her as she comes up with the basic idea for the mop before creating a prototype and trying to sell it.

When I say that director David O. Russell has no idea how to tell this story, I mean it. From the films opening moments it is clear that he is out of his depth, a montage of sorts showing parts of Joy's life completely failing to make any kind of an impact thanks to the rushed way in which it is presented, sudden music cues and tonal shifts making it impossible to figure out what the film wants you to feel, never mind actually feel it. Even after that, the whole first act and much of the second is just a series of "and then..." scenes, events simply happening one after another rather than leading into each other, creating a film that fails to actually tell a coherent story for much of its running time. I'm not sure if it is fair to say that David O. Russell is a bad director (the consistent critical acclaim he has seen up until now is a fairly strong argument that he isn't), but his blatant inability to make a good film out of Joy should certainly be raising some eyebrows, especially given the elementary mistakes on display.

In many ways, Joy feels like the first draft of a script that was accidentally made into a feature-length movie. Littered with problems that should have been ironed out before filming started. Rather than trying to make the main character likeable, Joy instead aims to make everyone else so easy to hate that you end up rooting for Joy by default. Not helped by a lead actress that annoys every fibre of my being. I've said before that I've never been overly impressed with Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, the main reason being my inability to see her as anyone other than Jennifer Lawrence.

Too egotistical to play as a straight biopic but too bland and mindless to be anything else, Joy is ultimately little more than a gigantic misfire, a messy, badly directed film that wastes the few good scenes it contains.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

It is without question that the first film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, can be called one of the biggest surprises of the last few years. So, it’s also no surprise that the sequel was met with immense expectations. By bringing back the visionary director, the fun cast, and exhilarating action, Kingsman: The Golden Circle looked to be a worthy continuation of the world the original set up, but did it succeed? Spoiler alert... No, it did not.

Following an attack from a powerful drug cartel that devastates the Kingsman organisation, Kingsman: The Golden Circle follows Eggsy and Merlin as they travel to America in order to team-up with their American counterparts, the Statesman. It turns out that the Statesman have been looking after a somehow still alive Harry Hart since he was shot in the previous film, but the retrograde amnesia he's suffering from means he remembers nothing from his life as a Kingsman. Around the same time, the leader of the aforementioned drug cartel, the Americana-obsessed Poppy Adams, announces to the world that she's been poisoning her product, and won't release the antidote to her hundreds of millions of users around the world until the President of the USA ends the War on Drugs once and for all.


There's a lot going on, and that's just one of the many problems that Kingsman: The Golden Circle suffers from. Matthew Vaughn has admitted in interviews that if he'd known Kingsman was going to become a franchise then he wouldn't have killed off Harry Hart in the first film, but undoing that decision ends up costing a lot more than it's actually worth. We spend a lot of time jumping through hoops in order to explain and attempt to add some dramatic weight to Harry's return, but when all is said and done his character has no purpose in the film beyond merely establishing that he's still alive and available for future movies. 

As far as the American counterparts are concerned, their roles feel rather wasted. Those that received so much attention during Kingsman: The Golden Circle's marketing campaigns are ultimately little more than extended cameos. Channing Tatum may have been a focal point in trailers and posters, but he, much like Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges, has no purpose in the film - Elton John has more screen time than most of the Statesman crew combined, as well as being far more vital to the story. And maybe that would have been forgivable if the plot was more interesting. Unlike Kingsman: The Secret Service, which slowly doles out information about Richmond Valentine's plan to the audience as the Kingsman investigate (which in effect positions much of that film as a mystery), we're told the full extent and intent of Poppy Adams' plan early on in the film, and spend the rest of the time waiting for Eggsy and Merlin to catch up as they get distracted by the Statesman and the return of Harry. It's a pretty fundamental mishandling of an otherwise perfectly acceptable, albeit uninspired, plot that robs it of any urgency or intrigue it might have had, meaning that by the time the finale actually rolls around it all feels totally perfunctory. 

These plot problems are only made all the more damaging by the simple fact that the film-making of Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn't a patch on that of Kingsman: The Secret Service. Vaughn's approach made everything feel artificial and weightless, both physically and dramatically. There are a few action scenes here that could and should have been spectacular, but in attempting to top the now infamous church scene from the first film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle can't help but come across as trying far too hard. This is particularly noticeable during the film's opening and closing action sequences - they're at times virtually incomprehensible thanks to the swooping and diving from the camera, rapidly cutting from extreme close-up to extreme close-up in a way that ends up feeling far more reminiscent of a sequence of live-action comic book panels than it does a well shot and edited action scene.


But by far the biggest problem with Kingsman: The Golden Circle is that it lacks the kind of spirit, heart and creative drive that the first film had in droves. It's easy to forget that "fun spy flick" was only one part of what made Kingsman: The Secret Service so enjoyable - Eggsy's journey through the British class system and his subsequent rejection of the upper class was the real story of the film, working in tandem with Vaughn's own commentary on the ruling elite to create a surprisingly smart and subversive piece of satire.
Ultimately, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a film that simply lacks any real reason to exist from a creative or artistic perspective, and is instead content to be nothing more than a substandard spy movie. Kingsman: The Secret Service deserves a far better sequel than this.