16 July 2017

Review: Blackhat

(Dir: Michael Mann, 2015)

Michael Mann is one of those directors to whom you sit up and pay attention when they release something new. It's not as if he's a genius auteur or anything, but he has a habit of making interesting films, preoccupied with the part of men's souls that drives them to either journey right to the edge in order to stop someone they perceive is doing wrong, or continue unwaveringly down the path of crime with a fatalistic determination. He shoots with a stylistic eye that emphasises the starkness of reality, but in a hyper-real manner that you would never quite experience. It's equal parts jarring and intoxicating.

Two years ago he released Blackhat, his most recent exploration of these thematic areas. This time we're rooting for convicted hacker Nick Hathaway, in the shape of Chris Hemsworth, whose ability to do special things with computers has the government needing him to stop a similarly skilled individual remotely attempting real world destruction for personal gain. Nothing we haven't seen before of course, but Mann's signature style and his pacing imbues everything with energy, as we globe-trot between the US and Far East. The strong Chinese angle and attendant geopolitics helps keep things feeling a little fresher, particularly setting a lot of the film in Hong Kong. And of course you'd expect some high quality action scenes that eschew over-blown bombast (something else Mann is renowned for), which are happily received here.


Back in the mid-nineties as the internet became widespread, Hollywood latched onto the hacker angle as a new, potentially dangerous threat. It's a part of our modern world that we quickly came to accept, so when Blackhat came out it seemed a rather passé story angle. But watching again just two years later and seeing everything that's currently going on in the world, it suddenly feels more relevant. As ever, Hemsworth is very enjoyable to watch, especially the interplay with his Chinese compatriots Leehom Wang and Wei Tang (both of whom are good), but at times he doesn't always seem to fit the character. It's wrong to presume the computer geek archetype shouldn't extend to someone so physically imposing and possessing such chiseled good looks, which may be a small part of the problem and should be seen as a failing on the viewer's part rather than the casting, but such feelings also likely stem from his particularly wide skillset, especially how good he is in a fight/firefight (regardless of how that's briefly addressed when we first meet him).

Blackhat may not be up there with Mann's best – the bar is set high of course but it remains a decent watch if you're willing to overlook the flaws, much as was the case with Public Enemies and Miami Vice. He has his signature style so you know what you're getting, and he now makes films infrequently enough that you always look forward to what he'll deliver next. Even when you know a director is seemingly past their best, sometimes that just doesn't really matter.

15 July 2017

Review: Blade II

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2002)

It's been fifteen whole years since Blade II was released, and in the intervening time we've still not seen any character quite like Blade. Lest we forget this is a Marvel character, unleashed upon the world in 1998, a full decade before Marvel made its name as a filmic juggernaut. At that time comic book films consisted of Batman, which had just taken a truly awful turn, Superman, whom we hadn't seen in some time, or the odd misadventure like Spawn. Blade was something else – a story rooted in horror, a genuine action movie star in a role he was seemingly born to play, and a fantastic concept. Everything about that film works with the sole exception of some of the effects (even at the time some of the blood effects looked too fake), but that just dates the film and shows it was budgeted more moderately. And that opening sequence... holy shit... it's not hyperbole to say you rarely see an opening that rivals that in any genre, let alone offers that type of adrenaline rush.

And so four years later we had the distinct pleasure of Blade's return – bigger budget, more action, more vampires, the story continues. Shifting the focus from the darkened streets of New York, which felt more ingrained with the character, to the older city of Prague where he really is an outsider, makes for a different feeling film that implies it's more about Blade getting on and doing the job, jettisoning some of the more stylised elements of that first film the would seem out of place. This time we get a reluctant team up as Blade needs to work with the vampires to stop an even worse menace. Of course he works best alone, but the fun here is watching Blade try to play nice, allowed only to unleash his acerbic tongue, whilst a shaven headed Ron Perlman playing the asshole he does so well, becomes his main foil. These two sparring is of course a part of the film's appeal.

The real draw is of course Blade. In just the first few minutes he is on screen in the first film, Wesley Snipes has so effectively personified this character that it's impossible to see anyone else as Blade (there was a TV series in 2006 and it lasted 12 episodes – was it possible to fill Snipes' shoes?). There's the imposing physicality, the sharp knowing humour, the pathos as he continually battles being something he hates whilst painfully controlling it, and quite simply the fact that he is an incredible fighter. That latter point gets amped up with a superb fight scene in Blade II when he first encounters Leonor Varela and Danny John-Jules' vampire characters – it might be enhanced by CGI but the raw skill and choreography is there and it's enhanced just enough so it's believable for these characters. Put simply, Blade is the main draw of these films and it's impossible to imagine any other actor playing him quite so effectively.


As ever, any character like this needs someone to make their vampire killin' toys and so we are blessed with Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Under the dictionary definition of "grizzled", the word's meaning could be very eloquently conveyed by simply showing a picture of Whistler. This is a man who hates bloodsuckers with a seething passion (with good cause) and is the perfect pairing to Blade, part father figure, part mentor, part world weary shit-kicking asshole. (Spoiler alert) Considering the quality of this character it's a shame to complain that he's even in Blade II but his presence is thanks to that awkward cop-out, 'well maybe he wasn't actually dead after all', diminishing some of the emotional impact of the first film where events worked just right in the confines of an isolated story. That was an era when if a film did well then great, maybe the studio might consider making another, rather than the current approach of having two sequels announced before the first has even made it to screens, with a story arc pre-tooled to run across them all. The door may have been left open for more at the end of the first film with a little "you never know" throwaway, but that didn't necessitate the full on resurrection of a key character. Still, we do get to see a young and verbose Norman Reedus fulfilling a similar role a good few years before he turned all silent and moody.

When making a film about vampires, one of the fundamentals is getting the creatures right and having an effective villain. The first film set the bar high with Deacon Frost. Stephen Dorff was perfect casting offering a stylish, effortlessly cool vampyric evil with even some social class politics thrown into has megalomania. Blade II surrounds our hero in a wider swathe of villainy. We get a mixture of the crone-like ancient, the traditional and Luke Goss' Nomak, who represents a new, mutated breed. This new breed are far more savage and terrifying (just look at how they feed), with Goss playing this character more on the low key side only enhancing his effectiveness. The film begins by introducing us to Nomak and it's another effective start, with a surprising sting. Good villains aside, it is a little disappointing that for two films in a row the bad guys end up tying our hero down to try and bleed him dry. Of course they want his enviable daywalker powers, but a little more creativity would not have gone amiss this second time round.

In the director's chair we have Guillermo del Toro, the ultimate geek director, making his second Hollywood movie. Mimic, released a few years earlier, had some good ideas but could have been better executed, but del Toro's potential had already shone through with Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, both of which were on the more subtle side. There is a definite personality that comes through in his films, but beyond the creature effects it is mostly lacking in Blade II, as such it could be from almost any director. Surely that's due to the nature of it being a comic book sequel, where such strong, previously defined characters need to dominate. Two year's later he'd give us the great Hellboy and his fingerprints are all over that because he was instrumental in defining how it should translate to screen. Lack of personality aside, del Toro's involvement ensures we have a decent film, even if it doesn't quite live up to the first.

Blade II is a worthy successor (unlike Blade: Trinity, but the less said about that the better), although this review seems to have ended up as a comparison between the two, but in hindsight that's inescapable because the first is just so damn good. It's the axis of high quality characters being really well portrayed, decent stories, and tonally aiming at the appropriate level. These films have bite and don't tone anything down. Had they come out in more recent years one can only imagine how unsatisfyingly toothless they would have been. Thanks to the recent huge successes of both Deadpool and Logan, the tide may be turning with studios no longer running quite so scared of comic book movies with more appropriately adult content that's actually representative of the source. Both Blade and Blade II show how things should be done correctly.

2 July 2017

Review: The Mummy

(Dir: Alex Kurtzman, 2017)

In this day and age where studios only appear to be interested in acquiring well known intellectual property to turn into the latest franchise cash cow, Universal Studios are sitting on one of the most potentially interesting. Many decades ago it was the studio renowned for the classic monster movie, and although it has dabbled with these over recent years (Dracula Untold, The Wolfman, Brendan Fraser's The Mummy series), it has decided to resurrect these with a new determination. That new determination means we will be seeing a regular stream of films under the newly created 'Dark Universe' banner featuring a number of these well-known characters, which is great news if the quality is there, but they're also angling for the interconnected universe approach that studios seem to believe everyone wants (maybe because the Marvel films are so successful – lest we forget that's mostly because they got the characters right in their first phase they've been fooled into thinking this is what we the audience actually want?). And with The Mummy, the first of these features is unwrapped for us.

The problem with the The Mummy is that it's torn between it's thematic roots as a horror film and the reality that it's played as more of a straight forward mystery/action/adventure. It's lack of firm commitment to any one of these ideals makes it all rather bland. It's not remotely scary, or even threatening, with the over-reliance on cgi creating uninspiring horrorish visuals. The few action scenes are perfunctory but it's the mystery angle that seems ripe for deeper exploration, yet the promise of which is never wholly delivered upon. It's telling that the most interesting moments in the whole film are the flashes back a few thousand years to the genesis of the titular character (Sofia Boutella) in Egypt, but this is all too brief. 


Similarly there's great potential in the secretive monster-fighting organisation Prodigium, headed up by Russell Crowe's 'is he good/bad' polymath character, but it comes off as an awkward setup (presumably) for how the connected universe will start linking together. Perhaps going full bore focusing on them, rather than distracting with Tom Cruise's character Nick Morton, would've made for a more satisfying introduction. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Morton character, with Cruise essentially playing Cruise as a roguish explorer type – something I'm on board with as I like watching him on screen – but he's not always the right fit for this film. Or perhaps that's to say he's not what the film needs, and so it bears the weight of his involvement. The action moments and him running around stopping something catastrophic are his bread and butter now, but he stands out a little too much when the film decides to focus back on its horror roots. At least the fun comments back and forth with Annabelle Wallis' character Jenny Halsey work, adding a touch of humour, particularly as her character is otherwise hardly memorable. It seems both Boutella and Crowe got to have a little more fun with their roles, and that comes across with both feeling like good casting choices.

All of this is to say that The Mummy is a distinctly average film. It offers shallow entertainment for an hour and three quarters and is almost entirely forgettable. If such a generic approach is indicative of what to expect from how The Dark Universe is reviving these monsters then we'll be looking at an utterly wasted opportunity (especially considering the next two that have been announced – Javier Bardem in The Bride of Frankenstein and Johnny Depp in The Invisible Man). But time will tell.

1 July 2017

Review: Wonder Woman

(Dir: Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Even though June has barely passed, it seems that Wonder Woman is the movie of summer 2017. It is a highly entertaining film but it's hard not to see that being the case partly because of the gender politics (I won't go into how obviously ridiculous it is that we've not had a Hollywood produced, female-led superhero movie since Elektra in 2005, let alone that women are not being given the director's chair for these films, as the film's box office success is more effectively making that argument). It might also be tempting to think that the DC universe is now offering some appeal to audiences, but as a film set around the First World War it's immediately set apart from the present day environment where the previous films have been establishing themselves, meaning something crazy must be happening – people want to (finally) see this character on-screen!

The strengths of Wonder Woman lie within those two facts – Gal Gadot as Diana, the titular character, and the setting(s). Gadot portrays her with a mixture of myopic certainty about her purpose in life and the mission at hand, whilst convincingly selling a sense of innocence and wide-eyed wonder once she leaves her sheltered existence. And she kicks ass too, totally convincing in the copious action scenes, proving more thrilling to watch than her counterparts in this universe. But anyone who has watched Batman Vs Superman should not be surprised by that.

Starting the film in an idyll soaked in Greek mythology sets the character up nicely (ironically there are shades of Disney's Moana here), before bursting that bubble with London and Belgium circa World War I. The manner in which the Greek mythology abuts to these time period feels a little awkward at times, but setting the film outside of modern day was the right decision. The film can entirely forget the DC world building (aside from the obligatory short bookends) and just concentrate on this character and her story.


Not all is perfect of course. In any other film, Chris Pine's Steve Trevor character would've been a solid lead (much in the way he plays similar characters), but here he has to play second fiddle. It's nice to have two strong characters heading up the film, but you can guarantee if he was the lead then any female character would've just been token love interest. Small spoiler alert... it also commits the cardinal sin (in this viewer's eyes) of having her fall for him. It would've been unbelievable if he hadn't fallen for her (she is Wonder Woman, an Amazonian, after all!), but having such a strong character succumb to love in this manner is the ultimate terrible cliché, diminishing the character and reminding us of the disparity between how male and female characters are usually portrayed. The only thing that saves this element of the story is the aforementioned wide-eyed marveling Gadot brings. 

Villainy is something these DC films have struggled with so far, and not doing too much better here. Danny Huston sells the menacing General Ludendorff convincingly – a good casting choice – but it's a little too easy to have a boo hiss German general as your personification of evil. Plus some unexplained gas to make him all powerful is a little too conveniently fantastical. Elena Anaya's chemist Dr Maru is potentially more interesting but definitely under-explored. And when the threat is brought back closer to Diana's roots, it never sits quite right, leaving you wondering of the better ways this could've been brought to fruition.

Wonder Woman is a highly entertaining film, with a fascinating lead character and solid action (even though some of the CGI is a little ropey at times). What helps immeasurably is setting it away from the rest of the DC universe by going back a hundred years. Making comparisons to what Marvel are doing feels lazy and should be avoided, but this comparison is inescapable – Wonder Woman really does feel like a reimagining of Captain America: The First Avenger, but set one world war earlier. Just count how many of the story beats are remarkably similar between the films! That is not a criticism as (entirely subjectively speaking) that first Captain America film is one of Marvel's best. Both films are glowing examples of why letting these characters have their own space to breathe and shine is so much more satisfying than some overblown superhero melange. Here's hoping Warner Bros/DC don't now screw up what they do with this character, or suck her up into their all pervading darkness.

31 December 2016

Favourite 10 Films of 2016

Welcome to the list of my favourite films of 2016. Another year where fewer films than usual were watched. Another year where I struggled somewhat to compile this list. I watched plenty of very good films this year, but not many truly jumped out making me think wow, which made putting this list together harder. In the years of watching 200+ films that was never a problem, and I think the type of film on my list has changed a little over these last 2 years – maybe for the worse?

Presenting it in a different manner, "The Stand-Outs" below were 5 films that I instantly knew had to be on this list. But then I struggled. I wanted this list to be back to 10 films (last year's limiting to 5 was unsatisfying), but the next tranche of films I couldn't bring myself to say they were my favourites despite really liking them. In previous years they would have made the initial long list but would've most likely then been cut, thus categorising them here as "Nearly good enough" feels apt. At the end you will find the film I'm classing my favourite of the year, split out for good reason.

As ever, all films I watched this year can be seen here in the order viewed https://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2016-films-watched/ which in numerical form looks like:

113 - total films watched (-12% YOY)
53 - films watched at cinema (+33% YOY)
59 - films released in 2016 watched
4 - films to be released in the UK in 2017 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2016 


So here's the list... each section is alphabetical, it's based on a 2016 UK release date, and as ever, favourite does not mean "best" – this is a subjective list of what I liked the most.


THE STAND-OUTS:  

Arrival


Arrival is the type of sci-fi – slow, thoughtful, low-key - that is genuinely exciting. That's not to say overblown space operas or aliens blasting everything to hell can't be fun, but that rarely matches the rich of vein of ideas and existential power that can come from deeper within the genre. Guided by the steady hand of Denis Villeneuve, the focus of Arrival is firmly on the characters rather than the fact that aliens ships have appeared. That they want to communicate with us makes this a far more interesting story, as the linguistic puzzles provide a fascinating thrust to events. As everything coalesces and the story sucker punches you, you remember why films of this nature are worthy of your time and worth getting excited about. The starkly slick visuals add a seductive layer, and Amy Adams is particularly strong in the lead – all of which add up to make this such a thoroughly good film.


Deadpool


So much of the superhero genre is now focused on existing in a darker milieu, and the very concept of fun seems unable to co-exist alongside it - just look at Suicide Squad's failed attempt this yearThus it's refreshing to see a film that takes this inherent darkness and twists it into something incredibly entertaining. Deadpool is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film thanks to a superb script and the delivery of it by Ryan Reynolds. His background in comedy and the pathos he brings pays off with the many great asides that break the fourth wall, plus the over the top violence that's simultaneously comic and excessive. Ultimately the story is entirely generic and the overt X-Men elements feel forced in, but none of this matters thanks to how much damn fun it is, and because we so rarely see films of this genre dare to be so unashamedly adult in content.


Eye In the Sky


Another year, another film about drones on my films of the year list. Last year Good Kill did a fantastic job showing the futile detachment faced by drone pilots. Eye In the Sky instead attacks the subject from all angles, telling a seemingly real time story of a drone mission in Africa. The story itself is inherently interesting, but what really grabs the viewer is how it covers all of the key players, from the drone controllers in the UK to operatives on the ground in Kenya providing live intel, all the way up to those in the echelon's of power. This leads to an extremely satisfying mixture of ethical debate by government ministers, and tense action as the window of opportunity slowly contracts. Both Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman do fine jobs as they anxiously await a decision, whilst we're left with much to ponder both during and after the film. A finely crafted drama/thriller.


Finding Dory 

   
The thing about animated sequels is that you can wait twelve years, and have no issues with the cast aging or not wanting to come back. But what about the audience? Pixar have found that rarified niche where that's not really a concern, as adults, children and those who loved the first film as a child all flock to their films. I fall into the first category, holding no real attachment to Finding Nemo beyond it being a film I saw at a preview in 2004 and enjoyed. Other Pixar films have done much more for me, so perhaps that's why I liked Finding Dory so much? Sure the whole concept of the story is repetitious but focusing more on the tragicomedic Dory pays off, as both sides of the character work. But it's the second half that seals the deal, where it settles into more screwball comedy and a winner of a setting that's ripe for both random and very funny moments, culminating in an emotional payoff that was second to none this year. Even though it's from Pixar, this was an unexpected treat of a film.


Star Trek Beyond
 
   
The worthy successor to JJ Abram's 2009 Star Trek... this second sequel does a superb job of wiping clean the sour memories of Into Darkness. Star Trek Beyond is an exceptionally entertaining film that brings back the fun of the first film, playing to it's biggest strengths – it's cast. Yet again the interplay between them just works superbly as they're all so comfortable in these characters now. This sequel appears to remember that the vast universe of intriguing alien creatures and worlds needs to be mined and exploited, whilst the action sequences are big, intense and dramatic. In fact the major one that serves as the culmination of the first act is incredible to watch. Maybe watching on an IMAX screen helped, but the shifting of directorial duties to Justin Lin clearly had an impact on the general tenor of the film, arguably for the best. Beyond was probably the film I most enjoyed watching in the cinema this year.
[Read my full review here]


THE NEARLY GOOD ENOUGH


Hell or High Water 


Hell or High Water excels by keeping its morals ambiguous, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the course of action taken by brothers Chris Pine and Ben Foster. Touted as a modern western, it feels that way amidst dust bowls and sleepy towns drowned in the stark Texan sunshine. Whilst Jeff Bridges' laconic drawl is weary and hard to decipher, an almost archetypal Western lawman but for the modern setting. It's a game of cat and mouse with very well staged action scenes and a story that makes it hard not to sympathise with the bank robbing protagonists. Perhaps the societal commentary runs a little heavily, but this stops the film feeling frivolous. This is a really well staged little thriller with the three leads all doing great work offering different shades to an interesting story.


The Neon Demon


I wanted The Neon Demon to push further. This feels lesser than Nicolas Winding Refn's two previous films, but the feeling I had sat in the cinema watching it has still not totally escaped me over the preceding five months – just seeing the poster brought that back. It's cold, damaged, eerily enticing. The music works to overwhelm, the starkness of life in a vainglorious cesspool devoid of beauty makes you want to retract, but you are drawn in, you can't pull your eyes away, the simmering black hole of emptiness is entrancing. You want it to push further but it retracts. You know this could've been a better film but somehow its phantasmagoria is narcotic – that's Refn's trick. And just like Only God Forgives, it's divisive and he probably doesn't give a fuck what you think about it.


The Nice Guys

   
It's hard not to think of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang when thinking about The Nice Guys, because really, this feels like the seventies version of that film. And that's not necessarily a bad thing as Shane Black's directorial debut is a thoroughly enjoyable, very good film.There's a lot of love for LA in both films, and they focus on a pair of protagonists not always so happy about working together. And Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are a fine pairing here, offering a nice contrast and playing off each well. This is a very funny film, mostly due to the script, but both actors, who are not necessarily known for comedy, deliver it extremely well. They're just outshined by teenager Angourie Rice. Story wise it feels like we're into well worn territory for Black, but he really is one of the best at this so you very happily go along for the ride. A very enjoyable film – nothing more, nothing less (and the second best film I saw starring Ryan Gosling behind La La Land, which is out in 2017 so not on this list!).
 

The Revenant



The Revenant is undoubtedly the best looking film released in the UK this year, not to mention the one in possession of probably the most achingly haunting soundtrack. It's impossible not to heap reverence on the work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, pretty much the best in the business as his repeated work with Terrence Malick attests (it's a shame Knight of Cups just felt a touch too distant to make this list). He wrings such beauty out of whatever he points his camera at, making these wildernesses feel even more dramatically epic as if you're witnessing something nature wants to keep only for itself. Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was right to work with him again after Birdman, and as a director knows how to make the music work so completely in such a dramatic way, that it becomes a key element rather than feeling incidental. How this can benefit a film is immeasurable. The only flaws here are dragging the story on too long, and making the bear attack just so vicious that recovery from it seems implausible with the time and means on offer. The cast are all mighty fine, even if this is not the film DiCaprio should've won an Oscar for but really it's Lubezki's show, making the most compelling case for watching film on the biggest possible screen you can find.


THE BEST FILM WATCHED IN 2016*

*Breaking my own rules – this film was watched at the London Film Festival and looks set for release in 2017, but it was the best film I saw this year and I can't in good conscious exclude it, so...

Brimstone



Brimstone is perhaps the most unremittingly dark film I watched all year. It's powerful, haunting and slowly suffocating. Some context – set in New England in the eighteenth century, a preacher arrives in a small settlement where a mute girl instantly fears his presence. Across four parts, the film slowly reveals her story and it's instantly gripping. Dakota Fanning is compelling as the girl, expressing so much with limited means in a superb performance. And she shines despite Guy Pearce's presence as the preacher. He is the brimstone of the title, supplicant to a strict religious fervor that surges through every fibre of his overbearing being. It's a showy role that he executes perfectly, balanced just right against Fanning's far more nuanced role. That's just one example of director Martin Koolhoven's superb craftsmanship. Every frame looks carefully crafted and beautifully shot, with a score that channels a mounting sense of dread. That feeling just builds and builds, portentous from the start, with the first part leaving you breathless. If there's any point that it starts to falter it's in the final section, which perhaps feels a little rote compared to what's preceded it. This is an extremely divisive film – that much was clear looking at social media post screening it's brutal, some may feel it's misogynistic and it is long, but it's deliberate pacing only enhances the stranglehold. There is much to discuss thematically (now is not the place), but no other film this year left me feeling quite so floored.