20 September 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island

(Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

Everyone expects to see King Kong rampaging through New York City, climbing the Empire State Building, and just generally causing the destruction one would anticipate from a giant ape roaming free in a major metropolitan area. Kong: Skull Island doesn't care about that, which is absolutely to its credit. The film is instead focused on the discovery of Kong on the mythical Skull Island, and what goes down there when a team of investigators and military personnel find themselves trying to survive until the escape plan kicks in. Wait... that makes it all sound so serious when really it is just an excuse for giant monsters to eat people!

Said monsters are superbly realised. Kong himself is suitably imposing, and although he lacks some of the emotional weight that the apes of the recent Planet of the Apes films possess, there's just about enough for this story. The skullcrushers, which are the more pressing threat, are menacing, and everything else we see on screen inspires feelings of both awe and fear. These visuals are enhanced by the beautiful, tropical locale, which offers a fantastic background. It's more enjoyable seeing this character in a 'natural' setting rather than him being thrust into somewhere man-made. The seventies era is another win for the film, as the limited technology of the time makes it believable that the island went undiscovered for so long, and provides the soldiers with more limited firepower and communications options, ensuring there is a greater level of threat. And of course it allows for a satisfying soundtrack of seventies rock.

An impressively good cast have been assembled, with Tom Hiddlestone and Brie Larson proving most enjoyable, along with some of the more junior soldiers. And of course John C. Reilly playing a pilot lost to time, whose isolated zaniness is pitched just right. Arguably Samuel L. Jackson's lieutenant colonel, a man who only knows war and needs it to feel at home, is the weak link, becoming the defacto bad guy thanks to his somewhat clichéd myopia. The strong cast certainly help Kong: Skull Island, which is ultimately a fun watch, however it is lacking something - one of those slightly intangible, difficult to put your finger on things. Thus it never transcends being just a bit of visually impressive fun. But does it need to be more? Probably not as it is good at what it does. Do we want to see more of this? Yes please.

Review: IT

(Dir: Andy Muschietti, 2017)

It's been twenty seven years since the last filmed version of IT – a curious coincidence or something planned? Regardless, it is surprising that we haven't seen an adaptation in the years since the 1990 mini-series made famous by Tim Curry's iconic portrayal of Pennywise the Clown. That is hardly regarded as the unimpeachable, definitive visual representation of Stephen King's classic novel, so it's pleasing to see another take hit cinemas and transport us back to Derry.

Anyone who has read the novel will know that one of it's greatest strengths comes from the deep vein of characterisation that runs throughout, as we spend the summer with these boys and Beverley, seeing their bonds grow and strain, feeling their joy of a summer of freedom, and truly understanding their fears as they slowly manifest before their eyes. This allows for a sense of mounting terror to build from beneath, slowly gripping you in its icy cold claws, before scuttling away to lurk unseen, ever-waiting. Attempting to balance all of this in a two hour film is a difficult task, especially when the core cast consists of seven characters, so inevitably this is where this new version of IT stumbles.

The kids are all well cast and give good performances, having the right chemistry and a decent script that leads to genuine humour. Their distrust of adults effectively comes across, whilst the scenes where they're all together en masse and not in peril are far and away the best, but there's not enough of this meaning they all feel too thinly sketched out. Bill, Beverley and Ben (Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor) inevitably get the most development, but it still feels like we're barely scratching the surface. Finite screen-time aside, the key reason this is so is the film's insistence on pushing the horror right to the front and centre. Unfortunately the film takes the rarely successful modern horror approach of throwing as much as possible at you as frequently as it can. Thus it feels like we're quickly jumping from one supposedly scary scene to the next, with just a few moments of respite and regrouping in between. For this story to work we need to understand each of the character's fears, rather than having them quickly blurted out, so this overloaded approach means they mostly lack much power.

The key asset of IT is Pennywise the Clown. The book and 1990 mini-series certainly did for coulrophobia what Jaws did for galeophobia, but this iteration of the character, portrayed by Bill Skarsgård, lacks the requisite impact and is in fact very rarely actually scary. His face is just a little too benign and he struggles to imbue his voice with enough suggestive layers of menace, but the biggest issue is that he's on-screen just too damn much. This is clearly the "the audience wants a killer clown so let's give them a killer clown!" approach. The opening scene is, on the whole, really well done, but it's fatal flaw is giving us the clown in all his glory almost immediately. Imagine instead if we the audience saw nothing more than malevolent eyes burning in the darkness, and glinting teeth revealed by a cruel purse of the lips. Then imagine for the next hour we get just slivers of him insidiously lurking, seemingly ready to pounce, alongside shards of acerbic dialogue, all allowing the fear to slowly build. That would have surely led to something far more impactful than continually throwing a smorgasbord of bland, CGI-heavy, horrific imagery at the audience with diminishing returns.

This new version of IT feels difficult to reconcile. In every aspect other than the horror side it is very good and extremely well put together, with excellent production design and cinematography, casting and acting. But the continual barrage of supposedly scary scenes quickly numb you so the few that are effective, such as the projector scene, have far less impact. Whilst Pennywise and how he's thrust in your face is the other critical weakness. As a coming-of-age film in the vein of King's own Stand By Me it works. As a horror film it finds itself rather lacking and thus disappointing. Like the criticisms recently laid at The Dark Tower, to make the best of the lengthy source material any adaptation really needs time to breathe, meaning the film route was probably not the answer. Imagine IT as a ten episode series, taking the time to envelop you, develop all of the character's properly and allow the tension to slowly percolate by not being constantly bombarding you. Or, like so many films before, perhaps it just works best if you've not read the book?

2 September 2017

Review: Under the Shadow

(Dir: Babak Anvari, 2016)

Effectively a haunted house film, Under the Shadow draws strength from its setting and the tension, almost entirely off-camera, that surrounds it. Set in Tehran in the eighties amidst the turmoil of the Iran-Iraq conflict, it's a fractious time to be an inhabitant of the city. Missiles are being targeted at it. Frequent air sirens blare, forcing residents into the protective cover of shuddering basements that resonate with the boom of destruction somewhere above. As the film progresses the palpable fear of inescapable war builds as we the viewer begin to feel trapped in this apartment block too. That this is so effectively implied through excellent sound design and rarely actually seen is testament to the quality of the craft on display.

Layer onto this a sense of unknown malevolence  something lurking in the shadows that might just be your imagination, but could conceivably be terrifyingly real. Lead actor Narges Rashidi convincingly sells her frustration and scepticism, but as she is slowly abandoned by those fearful of the threat from the skies, she's left with just her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) whose deteriorating mental state begins to wear her down. The thrills and scares that inevitably come are mostly effective thanks to the slow build, and are never over-played. This is the right approach for a film of this nature – trying to throw everything at the audience all the time rarely leads to a satisfying experience. And we continue to feel the impact of the sound design, as mixed in with the noise of war are distant calls for prayer which take on an eerie note, alongside assorted weirdness and droning. This all adds up to making Under the Shadow a very good horror film, despite the story being conventional as hell. It's a great example of using your setting wisely, how brevity keeps the viewer engaged and the power of slowly, creatively building up tension.

Review: A Ghost Story

(Dir: David Lowery, 2017)

An anecdote to start with. Upon sitting down in the cinema it was noted there were two early teen boys sitting further down the row. That seemed a little surprising at first. Did they know what they were getting themselves in for? Perhaps they were young cineastes? Or did they see the excellent poster and the 12A certificate and think, "Yes! We can spend Tuesday evening watching a horror film!"? Within all of five minutes they were restless and distracted by their phones anad each other, suggesting the latter option must've been so. Surprisingly they lasted nearly an hour before leaving. All this is to say that A Ghost Story is resolutely not a horror film, at least not in the traditional sense, and it's willful abandoning of the basics of conventional storytelling will be trying for some.

In the most literal sense this is a ghost story, as we follow C (Casey Affleck) who has returned home after his death, invisible to all and underneath a white sheet containing only deep black eyeholes. This still figure exudes a subtle creepiness, always lurking in the background watching and waiting, seemingly devoid of humanity. But the real horror is existential, as the fragility of life is felt alongside the fear of how and whether we are remembered by those who love us/we love. It's an inexorably sad film as the grief in the first half is presented as plainly as it's felt, enhancing the rawness and making it easier to transplant it to your own life. Rooney Mara is very good as C's wife M, seemingly a little adrift with life before becoming grief-stricken by the loss of C. At moments this can feel over-played thanks to the unconventional approach – your ability to handle a five minute scene of M doing nothing but eating a pie in anguish will be a gauge of how much you might appreciate the film.

Being shot in 1:33:1 format gives A Ghost Story an almost home movie quality, creating an intimacy with the characters and a strange sense that we're looking through a window at something that actually happened. There are moments in the second half that don't suit this style, but by this point it has transcended into a meditation on love in unexpected and obtuse ways. Not being conventional or doing what you expect are part of the film's charm. Director David Lowery clearly never intended for this to be a straight forward watch, hence the direction the story takes, the sparing use of dialogue and long takes of seemingly inconsequential moments that build the mood of the film. It's occasionally frustrating, and no doubt more so if you're not expecting it. What makes it work is how effectively it sets the tone of sadness in the first half before diving deep into a fascinating rabbit hole, all the while traversing a subtle line of creepiness. It's a love it / hate it type of film just don't go into it expecting the same thing those teenage boys were.

1 September 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde

(Dir: David Leitch, 2017)

Try to imagine Atomic Blonde with an actress other than Charlize Theron in the lead role (presuming of course that you've seen the film). Sure, they would likely do a very fine job, but Theron thoroughly owns the character of Lorraine Broughton. Every fine detail of the film feels shaped around her, as opposed to it being an 'insert actress here' scenario. How closely this fits with the original character of the graphic novel doesn't really matter as most of us will be completely unfamiliar with it (the importance or not of fealty to source material is a separate conversation). So much of what makes Theron so good here is down to physicality. Her statuesque figure ensures she's imposing when she needs to be, a fearsome fighter who convincingly kicks ass in some brutal fight scenes that are shot with a bone-crunching intimacy. All the while she is stylish as hell, pulling off a near monochromatic wardrobe that aids her seductiveness, with the smoky eyes and smouldering English accent pushing us over the edge. Taking a step back you could say this is a character pushed a little too far into idealised territory, but she perfectly fits the tone of the film and feels ripped straight from the pages of a graphic novel.

The film is satisfyingly stylised, lifting it above the drab setting of Berlin circa November 1989. All too many European-set spy/espionage films feel content to live in murk and darkened alleys, but there's a greater sense of vibrancy here, as the action dances around the excitement and turmoil of impending social change. Music plays a huge part in this with an excellent selection of eighties classics setting the tone, never shying away from being in your face and always seeming to fit just right. Director David Leitch does a great job at balancing all this with the political intrigue and the violence, ensuring it stays thrilling, up until the final quarter at least.

As too frequently happens, Atomic Blonde loses energy as it approaches the end and sets about explaining it's tangled web. Nothing here is too shocking, but a key revelation would've been better served by a little less explanation and a little more mystery, providing something curious for any potential sequel to explore (if we're lucky enough to get one). But that doesn't ruin the fun had throughout the rest of the film, which the rest of the cast add too. James McAvoy's deeply embedded agent is more enjoyable / less annoying than he usually is, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones do what you can always trust them to do, whilst Sofia Boutella's mysterious character adds more intrigue despite taking certain moments too close to (unnecessary) male fantasy. 

Atomic Blonde is a thoroughly enjoyable film, benefiting greatly from how it's stylised and sounds, plus the era and location in which it's set. But mostly this is down to Theron – she owns the film and crafts a character who is both thrilling and mesmerising to watch. Another chapter in her story certainly wouldn't go amiss.

31 August 2017

Review: xXx

(Dir: Rob Cohen, 2002)

The one where they tried to make a Bond film for the X Games generation... This isn't a comparison, but let's quickly look at how xXx is intrinsically linked to The Fast and the Furious, which essentially laid the groundwork. xXx appeared in cinemas a year after said film as Vin Diesel was riding high off it, thus seeing him reunited with director Rob Cohen seemed a no-brainer. Xander Cage is essentially Dom Torreto, if you swap the obsession with family for daredevil grandstanding. And here we are fifteen years later where The Fast and the Furious franchise has delivered its eighth(!) film whilst remaining hugely popular, and somehow a third xXx film appeared, resurrecting this dormant franchise by bringing Diesel back to the fold after he handed the reigns of the first sequel to Ice Cube back in 2005. Knowing all this it's interesting to revisit xXx having not seen it or even really thought about it since the cinema all those years ago.

Two things quickly become clear we know Diesel has always been an engaging screen presence, but the youthful exuberance he exudes here now feels a distant memory, as with age he more frequently embodies a reluctant world-weariness. That energy and not-give-a-fuck attitude carries us through this story. Secondly, production company Revolution certainly threw some money at the film, with a plethora of overblown action sequences and stunts that aim to impress and which mostly deliver. Now let's be honest, those are (mostly) the reason people showed up for this film, but it's still a shame the story is a let down. It starts with a lot of promise, setting Cage up to join the NSA and testing his abilities. But as soon as he arrives in Prague for his mission the story immediately turns Bond-lite in a generically bland way. Martin Csokas' Yorgi is all nonsensical anarchistic rhetoric, whilst Asia Argento's Yelena is seemingly just there to tease/reward Cage​ as she tries to play the character with a depth that maybe existed on page but never made it to the screen. On top of this the story is full of the sexist tropes aimed to get teenage boys excited but which make everyone else feel uncomfortable.

One month after the release of xXx the Bond film Die Another Day was released, representing the low nadir of that series. One of it's biggest issues was how far it pushed it's credibility Bond's stunts usually (just about) stay on the right side of being too ridiculous, but surfing an Arctic tidal wave or driving an invisible car across ice were too much. Such acts feel more suited to a Xander Cage type character and though xXx offers up much that is similar snowboarding, parachuting, etc – it lacks the chops to be a convincing Bond clone. This really highlights the squandered potential of the start of the film where it could've taken things in a different, better direction. Sure it's fun, but it's that hollow, forgettable type of fun that only just survives because of Diesel's presence.

26 August 2017

Review: A History of Violence

(Dir: David Cronenberg, 2005)

*Warning - herein lie spoilers. If you've not seen the film then stop reading now as it will reduce enjoyment!*

On the surface, A History of Violence appears to be the turning point in David Cronenberg's career where he stepped away from the all out weirdness that pervades almost every film he'd made to that point. It's an almost benign seeming story, a fact the small-town Americana setting amplifies, but is the shock of violence that invades the lives of the Stall family (Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Ashton Holmes) as simple as it seems? Despite being renowned as the king of body horror, Cronenberg has always been highly invested in the psychological aspect of his stories. You come for the freakishly weird visuals, but his films work away at burrowing under the skin because they have depth, revealing multiple layers through which to abhor the viewer.

A History of Violence's dicephalous approach is as simple as split personality. For the first half of the film this plays out as a mystery. Are we sure that Tom Stall really is this idealised small-town family man – practically the personification of the American dream – or does he have an insidious past as a savage killer for the mob? The guessing is fun, but this being a Cronenberg film you just know there's more to this than the mistaken identity that he pleads. When Joey is unleashed we see the disturbing effects of violence. His idyll is disturbed and he inevitably wants revenge, so we happily go along for the ride. But how do his family reconcile the knowledge that this side of him exists, even if it's for them that he's trying to put it to bed once and for all. It's not as simple as just forgetting his past, what if something else triggers Joey's emergence somewhere down the line? From what they've experienced of him they have every right to be fearful. None of this is overplayed in the film, thanks to some pretty taut direction and Mortensen's understated performance. He blends in as an everyman, and even when Joey is front and centre it's not so easy to separate out the two, which adds to the sense of unease. Ed Harris' heavily scarred Carl Fogarty enhances this feeling, as his myopic certainty forces you to question what you think you know and whether you want it to be so or not.

By focusing on the brain and pushing away from the expected horrors of body dysmorphia that pervades much of Cronenberg's work, leaves a story that cares more about the connections and the impact people can and do have on each other. The setting acts as a contrast to the sudden bursts of violence which the camera happily lingers over. This is a more understated film than what he has delivered before, but the darkness and weirdness are there, you just have to dig deeper, and it's where he really started to shift focus to the brain. It's just another example of why David Cronenberg is such a revered director.

13 August 2017

Review: Personal Shopper

(Dir: Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Personal Shopper is a slight film. It's one that captures you through mood more than anything else. It's the kind of film that's bound to frustrate many viewers, but if it does capture you you're in for a treat. Kristen Stewart plays the type of character she's become rather adept at in the year's since moving on from that series. Her character Maureen is riven with sadness, frustration and an intriguing depth that also reveals a quiet hopefulness. The relative sparseness of her dialogue only serve to enhance the the character and the overall mood of the film, and she feels at home in the different worlds she inhabits, however reluctantly she's there.

How the story balances it's setting on the fringes of the Paris fashion world whilst essentially being a ghost story is one of the most enticing aspects of the film. This seeming incongruity allows for frequent stepping away from anything faintly phantasmagorical, creating a different sense of unease than being constantly immersed in an environment we should be scared of. After all, the films intention is not always to scare.

The life Maureen leads could hardly be construed as normal as her days spent as a personal shopper to a world famous model seem alien yet strangely fascinating. The story takes an initially frustrating turn about halfway through, which feels unnecessarily obvious until it slowly builds up the tension before heading somewhere unexpected. This sense of mystery is another of the films many charms, which satisfyingly extends right to the end as the film concludes on just the right note. Director Olivier Assayas does a great job making all this sit together satisfyingly. On the surface there doesn't seem to be too much to Personal Shopper, but let it quietly work on you and its moodiness and many subtleties may worm their way in leaving you surprisingly enraptured.

11 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk

(Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the strongest proponents for shooting onto film rather than digitally, but also for shooting as much as he can using IMAX 65mm cameras. We've still yet to see an entire feature film shot this way as it's expensive and the equipment is cumbersome and noisy, but the footage you get looks just incredible with a more expansive framing and a stunning clarity. It should be noted that you need to see the film projected from IMAX 70mm reels to fully appreciate this. Unfortunately most modern IMAX's only project digitally onto screens that pale in comparison to the true, traditional behemoth's (the so-called Liemax's – ie where it looks like a regular cinema auditorium has been converted to put in a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen, rather than building a new structure to house a screen that's at least three to four stories high!). Since The Dark Knight Nolan has been flirting with shooting select parts of his films in this format, and the vast majority of Dunkirk (over 70%, the most yet) is shot this way, so seeking out a true IMAX screen to see the film exactly as the director intended is absolutely worth it if you can  something not that easy in the UK with just three cinemas projecting it this way.

Dunkirk is relentless. It barely pauses for a breath over its 106 minute run-time, meting out an endless barrage of destruction that makes it the ideal film for the immersive and sometimes overwhelming IMAX experience. As a viewer you could do with a couple of quiet moments interspersed throughout just to catch your breathe, but this is about recreating what it was like for these men, so why should we the viewer be extended such courtesy? To that end there's an almost continual use of music and droning background noise, and the perpetual ticking that increases with the never-ending threat of attack. It's all highly effective in creating a sense of unease, amplifying the desperation of what these men were going through whilst we enjoy the comfort and warmth of our seats.

Splitting the narrative between three threads offers some variety and keeps things interesting, even when the jumping timeline jars and pulls you a little out of the story because it doesn't flow seamlessly. The journey of three men attempting to escape the beach of Dunkirk most effectively highlights the futility of war, as no matter what they do they seem doomed. The obstacles thrown in their way begins to feel like overkill, as a heavy-handed way to emphasise the difficulty of escape. The silent scenes between Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are highly effective, which gets ruined somewhat by Harry Styles' mouthy character who feels like an unnecessary cliché. Most of the dialogue in the film comes on the boat that Mark Rylance's character captains. This is the primary emotional heart of the film. Regular citizens stepping up to make a difference, sometimes with deeper reasons for doing so, as nicely articulated by Tom Glynn-Carney late in the film. The thread of story with his friend Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy's character does come across as a superfluous distraction to the bigger picture though. And then there's the air, with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as the Spitfire pilots combating the threat from above in an always gripping manner.

Despite the decent acting throughout, the characters feel of secondary importance as Dunkirk comes across more as a technical tour de force. This is Nolan filming stunning aerial combat sequences over the sea, sinking a plethora of ships and corralling a cast of thousands. The instinct of the film is survival, the act of saving and how that all came to pass. It's an effective recreation of the hell and desperation that is war (without most of us ever having to know for sure) and the impact that has on a person. Nolan has stated that his desire was to create a film that takes the dynamics of a dramatic third act and sustains it for the entire duration of the picture, and it mostly works in the context of this story/subject, but it also means something is sacrificed in the cohesiveness of the storytelling and how it wears the viewer down. Thus it lacks that special something that comes across in most of his other films, but lest we forget he has previously set the bar very high. Nonetheless Dunkirk is a fascinating experiment and a superbly crafted film. If you can't see it projected via IMAX 70mm then see it on the biggest screen you can find.

5 August 2017

Review: Moonlight

(Dir: Barry Jenkins, 2016)

Sometimes you're left trying to understand why praise is being lavished on a film. Usually the film in question is decent, but for whatever reason you are left ambivalent to its charms, or at least don't subscribe to the view that it is doing something so seemingly special. That here is the case with Moonlight. It's been the buzz film since the festival's of Autumn 2016, culminating in the infamy of this year's Oscar's. A sensible viewer would try not to put too much stock in any of that because raising expectations too high frequently proves to be a fools errand, yet sometimes that's easier said than done.

By splitting the story into three parts that each focus on a different stage of Chiron's youth/life, it allows three different actors to shine – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Each put in very good performances and we start to get just a little more from the character as he grows, learns more about himself and as the dialogue he utters/mutters increases ever so incrementally. Likewise, how his life intersects with a small pool of people across each stage anchors the story together, with more fine performances from the rest of the cast.

There's something to be said for subtlety and nuances of emotion in a story, but in Moonlight it's simultaneously too slight and too heavy-handed. For most of the film we continuously see why Chiron's life is so shit his terrible mother, the bullying, the loneliness it's all layered on so thickly. So the unsurprising act that ends stage two and the quietly affecting realisation and revelation that ends the film, all seem like too little for what's come before, lacking the full emotional payoff you expect / need. In some regard that's fitting for a character who struggles to grasp who he is, thus making small realisations about himself, or any type of change, a big deal, but you're still left wanting more because of what's had to be endured. It doesn't help that Chiron's life position in the final third feels like cliché. There is a logic as to why that's so, but the first two parts leave you expecting more from the character, making it harder to empathise with him at this point.

Those niggles aside, Moonlight is a good film, thanks very much to the acting and especially the direction. The way the camera moves and focuses creates an almost dreamlike quality at times, whilst feeling intimate throughout. This gives it it's own personality, which is important. Yet it never seems like the great revelation that the buzz and awards suggest, as you can't help but think you've seen this done many times before, frequently better. But lest we forget, films of this nature reach and affect everyone in different ways, so check your expectations at the door and find out for yourself.

30 July 2017

Review: Charlie's Angels / Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

(Dir: McG, 2000 / 2003)

Everything about this pair of films is ridiculous. Let's make that clear from the outset. But that's an intended part of their charm – if indeed you believe they possess any charm. Although in reality it's hard to argue with the charm that Drew Barrymore's Dylan, Lucy Liu's Alex and Cameron Diaz's Natalie offer, as the titular angels. They are almost the sole reasons these are fun films to watch, as their effervescent energy makes us laugh and makes us believe they can do anything. There's no reason to think they couldn't stop any criminal with their impressive skillset and seemingly endless bag of tricks. Which means two things you're never in any doubt that they will win, so any threat feels meaningless (especially by the time you get to Full Throttle), and it forces the film into the most utterly preposterous set pieces (again something more prevalent second time round). Suspending your disbelief is an important part of watching films, and the degree to which you need to do so is very much based on how the filmmakers choose to present a story, but these films go beyond that, requiring you to accept everything that's thrown at you. They (just about) get away with it because it's all pitched as fun, but that doesn't stop it becoming frustrating after a while, as one crazy scene leads to yet another. 

Both films are very much defined by the era in which they were released. CGI was getting better, hence the pushing what these girls can do, but it frequently looks like they're standing in front of a green screen. McG's background as a director of music videos is a blessing and a curse. On the plus side there's loads of fun music choices, albeit a little too much obvious signposting of what's on screen through song titles/lyrics, but these both feel like ninety minute music videos. That may entertaining at first, but it's ultimately wearying as they schizophrenically jump all over the place. Both films are rife with cameos, which is a highlight, but the faces popping up definitely date it when watching back in 2017 (this also serves as a cautionary warning that no film ever needed Tom Green being Tom Green!!).

Objectively, neither Charlie's Angels nor Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle are good films, but it's impossible to deny that they aren't somewhat fun to watch. At the time these came out the TV series was a distant memory, but this was a reinvention for the MTV generation. Barrymore, Liu and Diaz are a very enjoyable trio, playing off each other well and bringing unique personalities to each character, and that primarily makes these films watchable – along with the many other decent casting choices (Murray, Moore, Rockwell, Glover, Wilson etc). But the ADD approach becomes tiresome, even if does keep things energetic and the stories moving. The first is the better of the two, but mostly because Full Throttle pushes itself too far into over-the-top territory (living up to it's name). But sometimes fun is just about enough.

29 July 2017

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Dir: Matt Reeves, 2017)

An example of a pleasing film watching scenario – you've seen the previous two films in the series and you liked them both as they were very good. But you've struggled to get excited about watching the third. You're not sure this series needs stretching out any further, and the trailer for this new film is doing a far from stellar job at selling you what's on offer this time. More fighting and battles, blah blah blah. Excitement levels are at zero. But you have an opportunity to go to the cinema that you're not going to pass up, and times mean it has to either be this, or that rebooted yet-again superhero desperately trying to tie into an existing interconnected universe – excitement levels for that option so far below zero. So you make the obvious decision. And then, unsurprisingly, you emerge from the cinema pretty damn excited about what you've just seen.

We've had two films to get to know the character of Caesar, watching him learn, grow and grapple with the humanity being forced upon him. So it's satisfying to see War for the Planet of the Apes make the very brave, and wise, decision to turn him into the full on lead character. In the first film he was always just a key character, a plot device if you will, as James Franco and Freida Pinto led the story, whilst the second film saw him become a major character alongside Jason Clarke and Keri Russell's leads. But here, with one small exception, it essentially boils down to apes good, humans bad. The film follows Caesar and his cohort as they try to defend themselves, with most of the screen time dedicated to Caesar. That's a testament, not only to how good the special effects are, but to how good Andy Serkis' motion-capped performance of the character is. The film never feels like it needs a human to base the story around, as Caesar is so well realised that everything you would normally expect from a human character is on offer as you feel his every emotion, be it joy or apoplectic rage. The same applies to the supporting apes – Maurice, Rocket, etc – whom we have seen before and who continue to impress. Plus new addition Bad Ape (portrayed by Steve Zahn – one of those 'of course it is!' realisations) who adds much needed moments of light relief.

The focus on these characters and their mish-mash of communication means we have a major Hollywood film with a surprisingly small amount of dialogue. Some apes speak but with limited vocabularies, some sign which we see translated as subtitles, creating a somewhat refreshing experience as it puts more focus on their actions and the visuals. That's not to say it's entirely lacking dialogue – Woody Harrelson's very human Colonel is certainly verbose. This a chew the scenery role for Harrelson as he pushes the character into over-the-top territory, but it works in the context of the film, offering a balance when most of the characters are apes, pushing you to root for them rather than humans. And what we see of his character as the story climaxes makes him more interesting than most villains in this type of film.

Limiting the dialogue puts more burden on the sound design and music, but it pushes these to work harder and the film feels more evocative because of it. Maybe watching in a Dolby Atmos equipped screen helped, but everything from the tribal drumming to the sounds of the natural environment, monkey calls to explosions and the violence of battle all work in harmony, greatly enhancing the film. Despite the trailer making out it's all battles, this is definitely not the case. The opening scene operates along these lines and is superb, but there's more going on in between this and the inevitable climax, as the story shifts between aping a few different classic film tropes. This helps to keep things moving and holds our interest, never feeling like ideas flung to the wall in the hope they stick.

If you've seen the first two films, the quality of War for the Planet of the Apes should come as no surprise. What is surprising is how effectively it works by mostly jettisoning the human element and having CGI apes as emotionally complex and sympathetic lead characters. It's because of brave decisions like this, and just an overall high quality of film-making, that War ends up being the best part of this trilogy. Subtle allusions to the original films are fun and signpost where a future story could go, but that's not something we need. Sometimes a neatly wrapped up trilogy is just enough.

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.