Sunday, 23 April 2017

Going In Style

(M) ★★

Director: Zach Braff.

Cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, John Ortiz, Matt Dillon, Peter Serafinowicz, Joey King, Christopher Lloyd.

The Dark Knight reunion was going well, but Christian Bale had aged poorly.

FEW crimes are romanticised like bank robbery. It's because we all hate banks, so it's the perfect "victimless" crime (if you ignore the horrible trauma and psychological damage done to the staff by these robberies).

This film, however, is not a victimless crime. The victims are the cast, who do their best but are weighed down by bad direction and a bloated script, which makes director Braff and screenwriter Theodore Melfi the villains.

It's not that Going In Style - a remake of an old 1979 comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg - is a terrible film, it's just that it's unfortunately boring and toothless. But it's worst crime of all is wasting a brilliant cast, who are valiant in defeat.

Caine, Freeman and Arkin star as Joe, Willie and Albert, three out-of-luck pensioners headed for Skid Row after a corporate takeover leaves them without a pension. Joe, who witnesses a bank robbery in the opening scene, decides he's had enough of getting screwed over by society and decides to hit back by robbing a bank, and ropes in Willie and Albert to help.


The leading trio are great and definitely elevate this film. Caine, Freeman and Arkin have an effortless chemistry and wring the most out of every line. But there should have been more drama and more comedy for them to draw from this dramedy, which is sadly lacking in both departments.

The idea of old people being shafted by society and forced into crime is a powerful one and the idea of three geriatrics robbing a bank is a goofy one, but Going In Style is neither powerful nor goofy enough. We never get a true sense of how dire or cruel or heartbreaking their situation is - we know Caine is destined to lose his house, but the worst we really see of it all is they can't afford to order pie to go with their coffees.

This lack of drama is perhaps best displayed during the pivotal robbery sequence and will-they-won't-they moment of the subsequent police investigation. Because a key part of the robbery where it all nearly goes awry lacks the necessary punch, the follow-up "hallelujah" moment falls flat. This is emblematic of pretty much the whole movie.

As for the comedic possibilities, Going In Style has a couple of good guffaws but nowhere near enough. A warm-up robbery of a supermarket is a highlight, as is Lloyd's bit role, but either side of that the laughs dry up. There's a scene where the lead trio watch The Bachelorette and it's supposed to be funny, but it isn't. It's almost as if the scene is a placeholder while everyone tried to think of something actually funny.

Braff, whose previous films have been indie-style dramedies, seems out of his league on this. The key scenes fall flat with depressing regularity, there is a lack of tension and gravitas, and it's only the presence of Caine, Freeman and Arkin that make this watchable. You could watch a whole TV series of those guys just sittin' 'round, talkin' shit. Everyone would watch that. Those are the best bits in this film.

It's all the bits around that, when we're supposed to buy into how shitty their situation is and how they're pulling off a very flawed "perfect crime" to hit back at society, that the film falls short. Some blame must be leveled at Melfi's script, which features an utterly unnecessary and distracting romance involving Ann-Margret's supermarket employee Annie and Arkin's Albert. This romance should make Albert less likely to participate in the robbery, not the opposite, which is what happens in the film.

But the majority of blame must fall with Braff. There is probably a decent film in here somewhere, but he can't find it. The laughs don't flow and the necessary tension and heft are missing. Watch it for the joy of seeing Caine, Freeman and Arkin share the screen, but even then your patience will be tested.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Fate Of The Furious

(M) ★★★½

Director: F. Gary Gray.

Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Kristofer Hivju.

Their mums are gonna be so mad.

It's been said before but it bares repeating - no one, not nobody, not no-how, could ever have predicted that The Fast & The Furious would spawn seven sequels.

Watch The Fast & The Furious back-to-back with The Fate Of The Furious and it is a baffling experience. To think the innocuous 2001 Point Break retread based on a magazine article would result in this OTT mega-explosive hurricane of muscle-car madness is unfathomable and implausible. But here we are, roughly $4.5 billion later, talking about Fast 8.

After rebirthing with the fourth film (which is confusingly the third chronologically, and equally confusingly titled Fast & Furious), the series found a new gear with Fast Five. Still the best film of the franchise, Fast Five jettisoned much of the car fetishism and replaced it with shoot-outs, fist fights, and insane heists. The series was all the better for it.

Now we have a Fast & Furious Formula that is more like a '90s Bond film than the cops-and-hoons starting point. Bigger explosions, crazier stunts, CG aplenty, overuse of the word "family", and physics be damned - that's the Fast & Furious way since Fast Five.

As such, The Fate Of The Furious does exactly what its three predecessors have done, albeit with one new neat conceit. Dominic Toretto (Diesel), honeymooning with his wife Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, is made an offer he can't refuse by Cipher (Theron), the cyber-terrorist to end all cyber-terrorists. Forced into her servitude, Toretto is made to work against his old team, who are understandably perplexed by his apparent change of stripes.

Enter Mr Nobody (Russell), the ambiguous government spook from Fast 7, who employs Toretto's old team to bring Cipher down and save the world, and hopefully save Toretto in the process.


Turning Toretto against his team adds some spark to a potentially dying engine, helping elevate The Fate Of The Furious, even if the mechanics of the plot are somewhat holey (for example, Toretto can orchestrate an amazing secret plan to save his hide yet can't let his old team know what's going on? Give me a break).

It's facile to say "leave your logic at the door" with these films - all movies should adhere to some kind of internal logic lest they devolve into incomprehensible insanity - but the Fast series has an uncanny knack of papering over its cracks with a rollicking good time. Thankfully the cracks are fairly minor and don't detract too much but once again, the action sequences, both human-driven and car-based, are deliciously and distractingly bonkers, including the batshit-crazy finale which involves a bunch of supercars, a mini-tank, a small army, a nuclear submarine and a frozen lake.

Beyond the action set pieces, the rogue-ish cast has been the other driving factor in the series' success, and Fast 8 is no exception. With no Brian (RIP Paul Walker) and with Dominic turned to the dark side, it's actually surprising how well the central line-up holds its own. Gibson and Bridges handle the humour, Johnson is a proven force who readily slots into Diesel's usual figurehead role, while Statham (whose character is a little-too-easily flipped) returns to give Johnson someone to butt heads with. Rodriguez adds heart, Russell's interludes add spice, leaving only Emmanuel to wander aimlessly, and Eastwood to awkwardly sit on the edge, just far enough back so as not to be labelled The New Brian.

As for Theron, she's easily the nastiest and most memorable Big Bad the series has had. Cipher as a character is nothing special, but Theron makes her something special. She's a very welcome addition.

The Fate Of The Furious is still packed with all the inane dialogue and idiotic exposition you would expect, but it knows where it's going and it knows how to get there in style. There's a scene in here where it rains cars - I'm not even kidding - and you kinda wanna stand up and applaud the sheer audacity of the franchise. Scriptwriter Chris Morgan, who's written the last six films, understands what makes the series work and a string of solid directors have managed to bring that ludicrous spectacle to life, with F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) the latest.

If you hate what the Fast movies represent, this one is not going to win you over (try #5 or #7 for that). If you love the Fast movies, this one won't disappoint.

PS. Fast 9 and Fast 10 are due out in 2019 and 2021.





Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby

(G) ★★

Director: Tom McGrath.

Cast: (voices of) Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Miles Christopher Bakshi, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Conrad Vernon, James McGrath.

Timmy gives Boss Baby the old two-eyeball stare.

Here's a little test for you.

Step one: find a baby (keep it legal - I suggest borrowing one if you don't have one of your own).

Step two: dress the baby up as a business executive. You know, suit, tie, little black business shoes. The works.

Step three: sit back and laugh at how hilarious the business baby looks.

Now comes the question - how long does a baby dressed up as a business executive remain funny? Two minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes?

If this little baby experiment keeps you in chuckles for longer than 30 minutes, you'll probably be able to sit through The Boss Baby without wondering where the laughs are or why you're watching this film. If the answer to the latter question is because you're taking your kids to see it, then I'm sorry to say you'll probably find yourself experiencing few guffaws and feeling vaguely bored for 90-or-so minutes.

While it has its plusses, The Boss Baby's humour is monotone. So many of its attempts at getting a laugh depend on the incongruity of a baby being a boss, and once you get past the initial giggle of seeing an infant looking like a corporate arse-kicker (ie. the first couple of times you see the poster) the film has little else to back it up. This means it's unfunny for long stretches, which is not good in a CG family film that is meant to be funny.

This whole besuited baby image seems to have come first, with the plot being crafted around this short-lived sight gag. As such, it's about The Boss Baby (voiced by Baldwin) who turns up at the home of seven-year-old Timmy (Bakshi) and proceeds to unravel Timmy's perfect existence as the shining light of his family.

Timmy can see something's not right about the baby - he carries around a tiny briefcase for one - but his parents are besotted blind. So it's up to Timmy to get to the bottom of The Boss Baby's secret mission.


Maybe I just wanted this to be a lot funnier than it was, possibly because I swear The Boss Baby looks like my own 14-month-old son and I reckon if I dressed him up as a little businessman I'd probably laugh for at least 20 minutes. But the film's one-note gag gets old really fast, leaving in its wake an annoying tale of an only child having to learn to share his parents' affections. While it's well-intentioned and somewhat universal, it's unfortunately not terribly interesting. Or funny.

The film finally picks up momentum when Timmy and The Boss Baby are forced to work together to achieve a shared goal (even if the plotting of that goal makes no sense - they achieve the goal at the end of the second act, then for some reason go to Las Vegas for the finale ... I'm not even making that up. I mean, their own unnecessary action of going to Las Vegas partly creates the problem in the third act and spurs a rescue mission they've created, so if they'd just completed their mission as agreed and not gone to Vegas that could have both gone their separate ways, which is exactly what they both wanted. Ugh.). All of a sudden the two characters are more effective - it turns out having them playing as a team is funnier and more enjoyable to watch than their animosity. It's at this point you finally realise, hey, these characters are okay and you finally start to care about them and like their company and repartee.

But it's too little, too late. There's a crazy chase, then a bizarre trip to Vegas and then a typically ridiculous finale and we're done, with little to take away from it other than the fact Alec Baldwin does a great job voicing the baby.

The awkward plotting, so obviously built around it's baby-in-a-suit gag, struggles to hold itself together. As a result there are a couple of massive exposition sequences - one where The Boss Baby explains his existence and mission to Timmy, and another where the villain monologues - that are stuck into the script to try to make sense of things but ultimately grind the film to a halt.

The few choice gags are too few, and beyond Baldwin's performance and a surprisingly touching ending (with a clever reveal that explains the film's incongruities), there is not a lot to recommend The Boss Baby over, say, last year's baby-related comedy Storks.

Unless you find the idea of a baby dressed as a business executive continuously hilarious for an hour and a half. In that case, knock yourself out.





Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Chris McKay.

Cast: (voices of) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes.

Is that Christian Bale or Ben Affleck? I can't keep up.

How much Batman is too much Batman?

The correct answer is "there is no such thing as too much Batman". But you could be forgiven for thinking we could be close to Peak Bat.

Including his role in The Lego Movie (and definitely counting The Lego Batman Movie), by the end of this year there will have been eight movies featuring Batman released in the past 12 years. That's with three different actors bringing three different versions of the Bat to the big screen. That's even more than Spider-man who, by the end of 2017, will have had three actors play him in seven movies over 15 years.

But as previously stated, there is no such thing as too much Batman (or Spider-man for that matter). So it seems fair that if the grown-ups can have their Batman, tearing his way through the dark and moody DC Extended Universe, then surely the kids can have their own Batman too, poking fun at his own winged existence in the hyperactive Lego Movie universe.

The Lego Batman (voiced in comedically gravelly fashion by Arnett) explores the loneliness and awesomeness of being the Bat. After yet another bout of smashing the baddies and saving Gotham, he returns to sit alone in (spoiler alert) Wayne Manor, raising questions about whether such an existence is healthy.

Fortunately The Joker (a surprisingly but pleasantly subdued Galifianakis) is on hand to force Batman to emote and stop pushing people away. Driven by an urge to have Batman admit The Joker is his #1 nemesis, The Joker hatches a plan to pit every villain Warner Bros can get their hands on to get Batman to grow as a human.


It's all very meta and self-aware, which is the film's greatest strength. In their quest to find a new way to look at Bruce Wayne's alter-ego, the writers (led by Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith) have focused on the isolation the Batsuit creates, bashing that notion up against adopted sidekick Robin (Cera), butler Alfred (Fiennes) and new police chief Barbara Gordon (Dawson), who each want to make life easier and better for the lone wolf Wayne. Oddly for a film that is so unrealistic looking, it nails a certain weird realism in regards to Batman - that he lives a lonely, rage-fuelled existence driven by unresolved issues surrounding his parents' death. The Lego Batman Movie nails this idea better than pretty much every Batfilm except for The Dark Knight and Batman Begins.

There are in-jokes aplenty for hardcore DC fans, including a run-through of some of Batman's more obscure foes (Condiment King, Polka-Dot Man and Orca all get a mention). That, and an understanding of what makes the characters work and their relationships to each other, help keep the movie from tipping into parody. An affection for the source material is evident.

With that in mind, The Lego Batman Movie makes sure to reference what has come before (even going so far as to get Billy Dee Williams to voice Two-Face). There are visual flashes of Lego renditions of all the movies going back to Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, and even a screen grab of Adam West doing the Batusi. As much as this is a kids movie, it's definitely one for the Bat-spotters, which all goes toward helping make this good for all ages. After all, few other characters have been as all-pervasive in pop culture as Batman.

The jokes come thick and fast, and the voice cast is excellent. Arnett, who has been more enjoyable as a voice actor of late, wrings every bit of humour out of his performance, while Cera is a great foil as Dick Grayson AKA Robin. The talent comes thick and fast in this huge ensemble - as well as an all-star villain line-up that includes Lord Voldemort, King Kong, Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Daleks, and the Gremlins, there is also the DC who's who of Superman, Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and dozens more Justice Leaguers, so keep your eyes on the credits to see who did what.

As with The Lego Movie, there is a clever finale that reminds you that, hey, this is all Lego (CG Lego, yes, but you get the picture). But similarly to its predecessor, the animation style is a love-it-or-hate-it venture. In its battle sequences, which are many, The Lego Batman Movie is a blizzard of movement where it can be hard to discern what is happening. Director Chris McKay throws everything at the screen and often it is too much, especially in a medium (ie. Lego) where there are no flat surfaces. 

This busyness on the screen is so full on that in the slower, quieter moments the film struggles to keep momentum. This is no in-between - it's either everything moving all the time or nothing. You get used to the animation style eventually, but you sometimes wish they would just chill out and stop going so overboard. 

These gripes aside, The Lego Batman Movie is the best combination of Batfun and Batseriousness since Tim Burton was in charge. And as good as Affleck is, this leaves Batman Vs Superman for dead, although that is damning the film with faint praise.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

Beauty & The Beast: 1991 vs 2017

1991 version

(G) ★★★★★

Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise.

Cast: (voices of) Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Bradley Michael Pierce, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, Hal Smith, Jo Anne Worley.


The age old story of one woman's love for a buffalo.

Upon its release in 1991, Beauty & The Beast marked a turning point for Disney.

Buoyed by the success of The Little Mermaid two years earlier - the House of Mouse's best film since The Jungle Book in '67 and the start of the so-called Disney Renaissance - the animation company had some wind in its sails once again. That renewed confidence is evident in Beauty & The Beast. While remaining true to what had come before, it is also a signpost pointing toward the future.

On the one hand, it's very much cut from the fairytale cloth of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, while retaining the goofiness of, well, Goofy and his style of talking-animal Disney comedy. The humourous sidekick Le Fou, the horse Phillippe, and the talking household paraphernalia all speak to the Walt era of Disney.

The classic Disney look is there too, although there is an extra level of depth and detail to the artwork. Note the slow zoom into the castle in the opening shot, with layers of foliage moving in and out of focus - this is just the first hint of what's to come. This newfound capability is courtesy of a fledgling company called Pixar, who introduced a new computer animation production system (CAPS) which Disney effectively road-tested on previous film The Rescuers Down Under. Pixar were also responsible for the CG backgrounds in the ballroom scene - a masterfully animated combination of the old and the new which showed the producers could see what was coming and weren't afraid of it.


The old and the new can also be found in Belle, a heroine who is brave, intelligent and independent, but still a romantic whose favourite book tells of a Prince Charming. Disney was moving forward but ensuring one foot remained in the past, something it continues to do with great success to this day - just look at how Frozen and Moana hark back to the "princess musicals" such as Beauty & The Beast while being thoroughly modern, especially with their heroines.

One of the unsung heroes of Beauty & The Beast is screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Of all the major film awards it was nominated for, only one was for Woolverton's script. The screenplay is so lean, tight, pacy and punchy, that even the special edition (which adds the song Human Again) is only 90 minutes long. There is barely a wasted second or piece of surplus plotting, and the whole thing crackles with energy. The entire set-up for the film, narrated by Ogden Stiers (who pulls double duties as Cogsworth), is wrapped up in a couple of minutes and its a good indication that there will be no stops on this service.

The only toilet breaks here are in the songs, but you'd be missing out. While the title track (which has the absolute shit oversung out of it by Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson in the credits) is probably the best known, the opening Belle and the humourous Be Our Guest are the standouts. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who also penned songs for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin until Ashman's death in 1991, were a match made in heaven (Beauty & The Beast is dedicated to Ashman).

It's often mentioned Beauty & The Beast was the first animation to be nominated for the best film Oscar, but what's not noted is that 1991 was a comparatively weak year. That's not to take anything away from Beauty & The Beast - it's a worthy nominee - but in a stronger year it's doubtful it would have made the top five. Silence Of The Lambs was a worthy winner, The Fisher King, Barton Fink and Thelma & Louise were notable omissions, and of the other nominees for best film only JFK is spoken of with any reverence (when was the last time you heard anyone rave about Bugsy or The Prince Of Tides?).

Still, Beauty & The Beast broke new ground while recapturing the spirit of Disney traditionalism. A more modern heroine, the incorporation of CG elements, and some Academy respect, combined with figuring out the essential qualities that made their past classics so classic helped pave the way for the House of Mouse's future, and indeed, the next few decades of animation.


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2017 version

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson.

One woman's love for a buffalo ... now in hi-res.


Which brings us to the 2017 version of the western world's most beloved tale of Stockholm Syndrome.

(I'm fairly sure this wasn't mentioned back in 1991, but I've heard the Stockholm Syndrome thing mentioned recently because this is the time we live in. I don't say this by way of criticism or dismissal, I'm just saying. What does it mean? I don't know. But the fact is that's what the fairytale features, and so that's what the film features. There's also a little bit of the Florence Nightingale Effect going the other way too. What does that mean? I don't know. I'm not judging. I'm just saying. But will kids walk away from this thinking "ooh, if I kidnap someone they'll fall in love with me"? Doubtful, unless you're teaching your kids wrong to start with. Will your kids walk away thinking "there's more to people than just looks"? Probably, because that's the real message here.)

(Also, while I'm at, there are a couple of allusions to homosexuality in this and OH MY GOD IT WILL TURN YOU KIDS GAY IF THEY WATCH IT! Ha. Of course it won't, you fuckwit. It's 2017, for fuck's sake. Grow up, you ignorant douchebag.)

Anyway, here we have the latest live action remake of Disney's back catalogue of classics. Unlike Alice In Wonderland or Pete's Dragon, this sticks very close - beat for beat to be honest - to the 1991 version. This is a good thing. Those doing the remaking are obviously aware of what worked last time around and are sticking with that.


That includes the songs as well as the story. The first and biggest criticism to be levelled at the 2017 take is that it's added more songs and more story, the lean 90 minutes blown out to 129 minutes. Some of the extra minutes are necessary. The breathless pace of the animated world doesn't translate directly to live action, and characters such as Le Fou (Gad) and Belle's father Maurice (Kline) grow into more than the goofy cliches of '91.

But the new songs - particularly How Does A Moment Last Forever and Evermore - add nothing (it would have been preferable to see some variation of Human Again in the mix than those). As for the added story elements, did we really need to know what happened to Belle's mother? Or the Beast's mother for that matter?

What the live action version nails is its real life realisations of the characters. Watson makes Belle Hermoine 2.0 but it works. Evans is perfectly cast as the increasingly devious Gaston, Kline is great as Maurice, while the voice cast of the household objects is excellent (McGregor's dodgy French accent notwithstanding).

The look of the film is good too. It has the same magical realism of the live action Cinderella, but with a darker edge to match the story. The Beast occasionally looks a bit CG (mostly when he walks), but mostly he is a convincing creation.

If there's one thing the 2017 version does better, its humanise the Beast. The '91 version leans on the goofiness too often, while in this take he feels like a real character, which seems to be thanks to the script.

In general, B&TB2017 hits the marks it needs to but can never beat the '91 version. It does some things well, but ultimately this beast is more bloated than it needs to be.



Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Manchester By The Sea

(M) ★★★★

Director: Kenneth Lonergan.

Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol.

Definitely not a film about a coastal shop selling bed linen.

When films claim big awards for their actors as opposed to the film itself, the film tends to live on in the shadow of the actor.

As great as you might think The Revenant is (personally I thought it was overblown and pretentious), it will forever be the film Leonardo DiCaprio finally (and deservedly) won the best actor Oscar for. As good as The Theory Of Everything and Lincoln are, they revolve in the memory around their shining stars Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Day Lewis. Ditto for Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side and Charlize Theron in Monster (in fact, do you hear these last two films talked about at all these days except in reference to their Oscar-winning actresses?).

Manchester By The Sea is likely to suffer the same fate. It is a solid, beautiful and poignant film, but it lives and dies on the strength of Casey Affleck's restrained Oscar-winning role. Affleck's turn alone is the thing that elevates it to greatness, despite it having so many great elements, and as such, it will be remembered for his performance.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a socially awkward recluse who is drawn back to his hometown (the titular Massachusetts seaport) following the death of his brother Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler - I had to spell that one out so it didn't seem like a mistake).

The return not only finds Lee grappling with being named as guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (Hedges), but also struggling with issues from his past that have left him an unwieldy, pent-up, shell of a man.


Lonergan's film is an exploration of grief that offers no pithy solutions or platitudes, instead portraying it as a never-ending, never-mending faultline that runs through your life from the fateful moment onwards. It's a gut-punching, heartbreaking movie, with Affleck's Lee in the epicentre. He has serious loss in his life he has never properly dealt with and it festers in him like a cancer, bursting out at inappropriate moments and in inappropriate ways. He has been running from it and his return to Manchester-by-the-Sea means it is going to hit him head on.

Affleck's performance captures these ideas perfectly. It's not showy or actorly but rather naturalistic, understated and subdued, drawing you into Lee's world completely. The film's narrative is similarly underplayed. It poses a mystery early on, and after it exposes it, the hook is in seeing how the characters, particularly Lee, deal with it now he's back in town.

Hedges is good in support, and combined with the strong script makes Patrick a real teen, determined to continue with his day-to-day life but still deeply unsettled by the loss of his father. The rest of the supporting cast is also powerful - the under-rated Kyle Chandler is excellent in his role, which is limited to flashbacks, Williams is fantastic as Lee's ex-wife, and Mol is great in her handful of scenes, one of which includes a neat cameo from Matthew Broderick.

The slow-burn pace and quiet tone of the film will annoy some, but more off-putting are some overly dramatic musical choices and the occasional weird patch of dialogue. For the most part, the script is spot-on, but every so often a line sticks out. Similarly the soundtrack choices sometimes make themselves too pronounced. As for the pacing, it must be argued it is perfect for the subject matter, and the film unravels at exactly the tempo it should.

Minor gripes aside, Lonergan has tackled his subject with sensitivity and beauty (the backdrop of a north-eastern US winter is stark but pretty), and with Affleck in the driver's seat he has found a perfect role for the under-appreciated actor.




Friday, 17 March 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale (RIP Murray Ball)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Murray Ball.

Cast: (voices of) John Clarke, Peter Rowley, Rawiri Paratene, Fiona Samuel, Peter Hayden, Dorothy McKegg, Billy T. James, Brian Sergent, Marshall Napier, Michael Haigh.

Pets should rarely be kept in the fridge.

America had Charles M Schulz and Peanuts, France had Goscinny & Uderzo and Asterix, and New Zealand had Murray Ball and Footrot Flats.

As representations of their respective nations, each is telling. Peanuts was a good cross-section of American post-war society when it began in the 1950s, ranging from the ultimate example of "nice guys finish last" in its downtrodden hero Charlie Brown through to the dumb bully Lucy, who is constantly keeping the everyman down.

Meanwhile Asterix emerged less than 15 years after WWII, as France was continuing to reclaim its identity and rebuild, having suffered the indignity of the invading Nazis. Hence it throws back to a time when a group of "indomitable Gauls" hold out against the all-conquering Romans.

And New Zealand had Wal Footrot and Dog. In the wit of Ball and his characters lay a prime example of rural Kiwi (and Aussie for that matter) humour. New Zealand farming was predominantly more modern than Ball depicted it to be circa 1980, but it spoke to a certain romanticism for the land, and in a country with a population the size of NZ's, it seemed just about everyone had relatives who lived on a farm, so almost everyone had an understanding of what Ball was banging on about. Like Australia, New Zealand rode on the sheep's back, and Footrot Flats was a proud portrayal of the strugglers who shore that back in between weekends of playing rugby (or footy or cricket) and heading into town for fish and chips.

When Ball's comic strip hit the silver screen, every man and his dog (ahem) turned out to see it in New Zealand (it was a box office hit in Australia too). Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale was the first Kiwi feature-length animated film and held the record for being the most successful local movie at the NZ box office from 1986 through to 1994's Once Were Warriors.


Some of this success is down to its all-ages appeal - families drove long distances to see this film, making rare trips to town for it. Much of its humour is of the slapstick variety, whether it be a goose's attempts to bite Wal "on the prickle" (actually his butt, despite what you might be thinking) or Dog's attempts at heroism. It's all very Looney Tunes in places, right down to the unnecessary "comedy" sound effects.

As well as being kid-friendly (although there are plenty of terrifying things about the Murphy farm, notably the crocopigs and the rat leader Vernon), it had a fair bit for the grown-ups. Wal's dream sequence about becoming an All Black features some choice moments, while his ill-fated date with Cheeky Hobson is great and includes a weird moment where Wal pries baked beans from out of Cheeky's bosom. In spite of (or because of) its weird moments, it's funny for all ages. It should also be noted that John Clarke was an inspired choice to voice Wal Footrot, who wasn't a million miles away from his iconic NZ cross-media character Fred Dagg. Clarke joked at the time that the casting call was out of himself, John Gielgud and Meryl Streep, but he got the role because he had a shorter commute.

As director, Ball was reportedly meticulous, ensuring the animators got his style just right. His perfectionist streak paid off because the film looks like his comic strips come to life, with the added bonus of Richard Zaloudek's sublime backdrops, which give the film a surrealist edge due to their impressionistic qualities.

Equally surreal is Dave Dobbyn's score. Dobbyn, who took on the gig after Tim Finn turned it down, excels as much as he stumbles. Parts of the score haven't aged well, worst of all being a couple of songs that turn the cartoon into a musical (the tracks Let's Get Canine and Vernon The Vermin). But beyond those are the absolute gold of You Oughta Be In Love and, of course, this:


This was my little brother's favourite movie growing up and rewatching it 30 years on, it's not hard to see why. As farmer's sons, it spoke to our sense of reality - there's nothing Disneyfied or sanitised here. Dog eats dags, is nearly shat on by a sheep, and almost drowns in the sheep dip, all within the first few minutes. This was real farming, but it was a cartoon.

It has aged badly in places, but Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale is a wonderful snapshot of what the comics captured and why Murray Ball was not only a national hero in NZ, but also an icon to farming communities all around Australia. For all it's slapstick silliness, it's a fantastically pacy and enjoyable piece of rural '80s nostalgia.



Thursday, 9 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island

(M) ★★★

Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly, Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, Jing Tian.


David Attenborough's Planet Earth II is packed with surprises.

Like Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, and Batman, King Kong never dies - he just gets rebooted every once in a while, ready to be wheeled out once again for a new generation.

We're going to be seeing a lot more of the 100-foot-tall ape in the future as Skull Island is the second film in Legendary Entertainment's "Monsterverse", the first being Gareth Edwards' excellent Godzilla from 2014 (Godzilla: King Of The Monsters comes out in 2019, followed by Godzilla Vs Kong in 2020).

These are CG-heavy multi-million dollar Hollywood versions of the stodgy old Toho Studios monster movies of the '50s, '60s and '70s, which cost under a quarter of a million dollars and featured men in rubber suits smashing miniature sets. These will be big-budget bonanza that will probably make Pacific Rim even more look like the pile of crap it was.

Vogt-Roberts' Kong reboot has more in common with the Toho films than the 1933 King Kong original, and the 1976 and 2005 remakes for that matter. There is no New York showdown, no climbing the Empire State Building, and only a minimal amount of the "beauty and the beast" motif that played out in those versions. This one goes to the jungle and stays in the jungle - capturing Kong is out of the question. Skull Island is all about survival.

Set in the final days of the Vietnam War (cue obligatory Creedence Clearwater Revival-heavy soundtrack), Bill Randa (Goodman) leads a team to explore the freshly discovered titular land mass under the guise of mapping and exploring it before the Russians do. Among his team are a tracker (Hiddleston), a photographer (Larson), a geologist (Hawkins), various other faceless scientists, and a helicopter squadron-worth of soldiers led by the battle-hungry Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson).

There are plenty of surprises in store for them on Skull Island, including Kong, but he will be the least of their worries.


Taking little but the great ape from Cooper and Wallace's brilliant 1933 original, Skull Island styles itself as more of a war film, like some kind of wacky Apocalypse Now with a skyscraper-height simian thrown in for good measure instead of an overweight Marlon Brando. It's packed with explosions, gunplay, beast-on-beast battles, and one particularly eerie shoot-out sequence set in a gas-shrouded animal graveyard.

But is it any good? The short answer is kinda. The longer answer is Skull Island is a slightly infuriating mix of different shades of dumb - there's plenty of dumb fun, which is great, but there are also some groan-inducing, forehead-slapping moments of dumb too, most of which are in the script department.

It works best when it embraces the insanity of it all, such as seeing Jackson stare down Kong amid a burning lagoon of napalm, or any of the moments featuring Reilly's slightly bonkers castaway Marlow, or any of a number of inventive deaths the island's inhabitants throw at the hapless humans.

Stuck in the middle of this enjoyable idiocy is Hiddleston's steel-jawed hunter and Larson's anti-war photographer, both of whom are too serious by far. They get the majority of the terrible lines - at one point Hiddleston says, completely straight-faced, "Does any man really ever come back from war?", which would be fine in a gritty war drama but not mere minutes after running away from a giant monkey or some kind of skull-headed snake thing. It's when the film shifts between Hiddleston's gravitas and Reilly and Jackson's absurd insanity that the magic is lost and it goes from dumb fun to just plain dumb.

Reilly is the pick of the quality cast, his usual oddball inclinations more than welcome. Jackson is also good because he gets what Skull Island should be - in fact, he could have gone even further over the top as the army man who goes all Captain Ahab on Kong (you get the feeling he's only a few moments of fury away from yelling at someone to "get this motherfucking ape of this motherfucking plain!"). Goodman also understands how nuts it all is, adding a nice level of wild-eyed twitchiness to his mission instigator Randa.

Aside from Hiddleston and Larson being the serious pair in the middle of a silly storm, the biggest problem with the cast is there's too many of them. While you need cannon fodder (or Kong fodder), too many characters hang around (and even survive) for no good reason. Hawkins is only there for exposition and could have been cut, while Jing Tian adds absolutely nothing except for probably appeasing the Chinese co-financiers.

What it overcompensates for with the cast, it makes up for in looks. The cinematography and effects are worthy of its mammoth US$185 million budget. A few obvious CG sets aside, there are some eye-catching sequences (the gas-shrouded graveyard sequence and the fiery showdown between Packard and Kong in particular) and the creatures of Skull Island are wonderfully realised.

Kong in particular looks the goods. Less realistic than Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson's 2005 big gorilla, this version is an upright-walking missing link brought to life by Terry Notary's motion-capture work and billions of pixels. And unlike Edwards' Godzilla, Skull Island doesn't keep its star attraction under wraps for too long, which takes some of the mystery out of proceedings but gets the audience barracking for Kong from early on.

Ultimately, this is not a patch on 2014's Godzilla (stick around post-credits for the obligatory hint at the next mega kaiju showdown), nor is it as good as Peter Jackson's King Kong. But it's kinda fun and kinda dumb, and works more often than not.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Logan

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: James Mangold.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Merchant, Eriq La Salle, Elizabeth Rodriguez.


"You've got some red on you."

Given this is supposedly Hugh Jackman's last outing as Logan AKA Wolverine, it's worth remembering how close we came to having someone else in the role.

In an alternate universe, Mission: Impossible 2 didn't run over schedule and Dougray Scott retained the role of the clawed mutant, potentially delaying (or completely erasing) Jackman's big break (in that same universe Stuart Townsend is Aragorn and Tom Cruise is Iron Man).

We'll never know what Scott would have made of the role, but it's hard to argue against the idea that we would have been robbed of one of the great marriages of comic book character and actor - surely Jackman's Wolverine is up there with Heath Ledger's Joker and Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark.

While eternally grateful for Jackman's belated casting, the films Wolverine has appeared in have been a mixed bag. We've had two good original X-Men films and one bad, two good X-Men prequels (with Wolverine only getting a cameo in one) and one average one (with a slightly longer cameo), and one terrible Wolverine spin-off movie and one predominantly okay one.

Thankfully, finally, just in time for Jackman to hang up the adamantium claws, we get a bona fide great Wolverine movie. Much has been made of Logan's MA15+ rating, and the fact it's an "adult" superhero movie somewhat in the footsteps of Deadpool. This is indeed a contributing factor to Logan's excellence - no more bloodless violence dished out by a bladed rage monster. There will be blood, promised Jackman, and he and Mangold deliver.

But splashings of claret (and the dropping of f-bombs) aside, this is an adult superhero movie because it treats its characters seriously and with respect. It has little to do with the Old Man Logan comic that fans may have been expecting but instead crafts a sensible story about a man running out of time, and with nowhere left to run, who finds he may be the only hope someone else has. This is The Dark Knight of the X-Men universe. It's sombre and serious but not in a daft or OTT way a la Batman Vs Superman.

The story is set in the year 2029, where Logan is one of only a handful of mutants left. A shadow of the invulnerable beast he once was, he spends his nights driving limos and his days caring for the ailing Professor X (Stewart) with help from fellow surviving mutant Caliban (Merchant).

Into this tedious existence comes Laura, a young girl with remarkable powers and a whole host of bad guys on her trail. Against his own better judgement, Logan and Professor X hit the road in the hopes of getting Laura to safety while avoiding getting killed.


The film is a road movie and a one-last-job actioner but at its core, Logan is about death and the fact that it catches up with everyone. And when it does catch up with you, much like in the Johnny Cash song When The Man Comes Around which plays over the credits, the question will be posed as to what your life has been worth. Logan is about Wolverine getting one last shot at something close to redemption, as much as it's about the filmmakers ensuring Jackman gets the Wolvie film he deserves. It's redemption all round.

The big talking point for fans is the violence because of how it shapes the tone of Logan, making it more in line with the darker aspects of the character. It's visceral and initially alarming to see this much-loved mutant stick his blades through someone's head, given how bloodless and tame his previous appearances have been, but it's necessary. After all, as previously mentioned, this is about death, and right from the opening confrontation we understand just how high the stakes are in Logan.

It might sound bizarre to say this for those of you who dismiss superhero movies as "just superhero movies", but this is one of Jackman's best performances. He knows the character like the back of his bespiked hand, so the joy is in seeing him take Wolverine into new directions - more vulnerable, angrier, nihilistic, and more dangerous than ever before.

Stewart is also excellent as the 90-year-old version of Professor X. He has always given his all for these films, and doesn't disappoint here. Merchant is solid in the role of Caliban, but the show-stealer is Keen as Laura. Her character is a terrified and mystified ball of rage and Keen handles the physicality and emotional sides with equal aplomb.

Good villains are hard to come by in superhero films and most of the baddies here won't leave an imprint on your memory. Grant's Xander Rice is merely a catalyst and Holbrook's Donald Pierce is mouthy and okay, but it is the film's physical threat - an unlikely but welcome twist - who is the most interesting.

The smaller size and scale of the film is a refreshing change from the things-falling-from-the-sky-style superhero movie we've been seeing a lot of lately (Suicide Squad, Dr Strange, Age Of Ultron, Avengers etc...). It suits the character, creates a welcome tone and style to the film, and adds to the intimacy and punch of it all.

It's also beautifully shot, excellently scored, but there are flaws, mostly of the plotting variety. There are a whole bunch of super-powered individuals here that rarely use their powers and some characters with surprising skill sets given their backgrounds. These particular plot holes become increasingly frustrating by the film's end.

These issues aside, Logan is the Wolverine movie fans have longed for, but more importantly it's the Wolverine movie Jackman deserved.

(For the record, I doubt this will be Jackman's last time donning the claws. The rise of Deadpool makes it seem incredibly likely that a Wolverine cameo (or, Stan Lee willing, a team-up movie) will happen. If anyone can get Jackman to strap on the claws once more, it's Ryan Reynolds. Please, someone, anyone, make this happen.)

Monday, 27 February 2017

The technical brilliance of Who Framed Roger Rabbit

WHO Framed Roger Rabbit is one of my all-time favourite films. I'm talking top 10. Easy.

At some point, but not today, I'm going to write a review that nails down all my feelings about this incredible piece of film noir which just so happens to star a talking animated rabbit.

At some other point, I might even post the script I wrote for a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel. It's called Who Stole Roger Rabbit and I talk about it in this podcast (my bit is from 16:30, but you should listen to the whole thing).

But this is the not the time nor the place for those things. Instead, I want to share this awesome video that shows some of the technical brilliance of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 

Everyone should bump the lamp once in a while.

That video was made by kaptainkristian, who has an amazing YouTube channel.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

T2 Trainspotting

(R) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Danny Boyle.

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald.

Choose life. Choose upside-down deer projections on your wall.

Sick Boy (Miller) defines nostalgia as being "a tourist in your own youth" in a particularly meta moment in this 20-years-later sequel of the cult classic.

T2 Trainspotting (why is it called that? Why not just Trainspotting 2?) relishes that definition, holding a mirror up to itself and its audience, then proceeding to do a massive line of coke off said mirror.

With any belated sequel, the initial reaction is one of tempered excitement. It's kind of like a high school reunion - won't it be great to see the old gang again and find out what they've been up to? Then you realise it will never live up to either your expectations or your glory days and you'll probably just end up disappointed and pining for your youth. Ah, high school....

T2 is all those things. You're excited at first, but it can't live up to the original and then you're kind of disappointed. Having said all that, T2 is the best it could possibly be and when shorn of that nostalgic tourism as much as is possible considering how much the film is wrapped around and dependent on its predecessor, it's actually better than it has any right to be.

As mentioned, this is 20 years on from Renton (McGregor) screwing over his so-called mates for the grand sum of 16,000 quid. Sick Boy is running a patron-less pub in between pimping and scamming, Begbie (Carlyle) is in prison, and Spud (Bremner) is still a junkie.

And then back to Edinburgh comes Renton, fresh from a heart attack, looking to figure out where it all went wrong and still wondering how exactly one chooses life.


Despite being laden with references to the original, T2 is smart enough to avoid outright attempts at replication. There's the obligatory heroin scene, but thankfully this is a one-off. The characters have largely grown up and moved on, or perhaps more correctly, they've gotten older and the world has changed around them. The main theme is no longer addiction - this time it's about ageing. Renton's heart attack makes him question his place in the world, and while the other main players are less self-aware, his return sets them on new paths, for better or worse.

It's the characters that make this worthwhile, not necessarily the story or Boyle's directorial tics or tricks. Getting the gang back together again is done in a natural way and how the characters have changed (or not) is believable. Everyone is exactly where you expect them to be. In Begbie, this time around, the story has something the first film didn't have - a villain - while the mending of Renton and Sick Boy's relationship is interesting - they're first reunion in 20 years is an hilarious highlight.

The new character Veronika, played by Bulgarian actress Anjela Nedyalkova, doesn't get a huge amount to do, but does help demonstrate how dumb everyone around her is. It would have been nice to see more of Macdonald's Diane, but it would have stretched the natural order of the sequel's world.

Everyone's heart is in the right place for this. Boyle probably got asked about this sequel more than anything else over the past decade or so, but T2 doesn't smack of a cash grab. It's reverent toward the original - in one of the best scenes, Spud, Renton and Sick Boy return to the spot where Tommy attempted to take them on a walk and get in touch with their Scottishness. Not only do they pay tribute to their fallen comrade, but Renton and Sick Boy reflect on the horrible repercussions their actions have had.

In the original, these guys were bad people doing bad things, but they were young and it was fun. This time around, they're trying to figure out what comes next, what they leave behind, and what it's all about - themes that will speak to a lot of people.

But T2 lives too heavily in the shadow of its parent, which is one of the greatest films of the '90s, to be truly great on its own. While it's a good path to retread, the footsteps are too big to follow. All in all, T2 is an adequate companion piece to a far more definitive tome.


REWIND REVIEW: Trainspotting

(R) ★★★★★

Director: Danny Boyle.

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald.


Spud (Bremner), Tommy (McKidd), Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy (Miller)
head into the great outdoors in Trainspotting.

THERE'S no doubt Trainspotting is a remarkable film. The Scots themselves voted it their greatest movie of all time, while the BBC rated it #10 in its list of the best British movies ever.

But the film is even more incredible when you check out the source material. Irvine Welsh's 1993 tome is a collection of (sometimes vaguely) interlinked short stories covering about eight main characters and as many different points of view, and features entire sections written in 'phonetic Scottish' and containing inner monologues with Sean Connery. Of all the heroes in turning it into a film, screenwriter John Hodge is the most unheralded and yet perhaps the best on ground.

His script is razor-sharp. Even allowing for Boyle's directorial flights of fancy that blend fact and fantasy in fascinating ways, the whole thing clocks in around the 90-minute mark but covers a vast amount of ground, cramming in plenty of the book's good stuff while teasing a surprisingly gripping narrative and several excellent character arcs out of its material. Addiction, in all its permutations, is dealt with so deftly and succinctly at times that several viewings are required to take it all in. It's a masterclass in efficiency, condensing Welsh's wanderings into a compact story of four friends in Edinburgh, three of whom are addicted to heroin, with the fourth addicted to rage.

The '90s was a great time for drug films. From the party drugs of The Acid House (another Irvine Welsh book) and Go, to fellow heroin stories like The Basketball Diaries, to the toking and tripping of Dazed & Confused, Half Baked and Friday, through the nihilistic booze saga of Leaving Las Vegas, to the go-hard-or-go-home glory of Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas, each served its function. They could make us laugh or cry, depending on their tack.

None of them - not even the crippling 2000 film Requiem For A Dream - are as amazing as Trainspotting when it comes to exploring addiction. Boyle's bouncy dramedy rides the highs and lows by being funnier than it should be yet more harrowing, by being sicker and filthier yet more stylish. But its secret weapon is that its addictive element is the most disturbing. It's not heroin - it's friends.


Renton's (McGregor) inability to say "no" to his mates is as detrimental as his skag problem. Just when he thinks he's out, they pull him back in, leading to the film's denouement (which the entire sequel revolves around). His friends trusting him is also their undoing. And then there's Begbie (Carlyle). Being friends with Begbie is as dangerous as smack. Spud (Bremner) is accidentally stabbed by the psychopath, Renton is threatened with being neutered, and anyone within a 20-yard radius of the moustachioed menace is mere seconds from getting glassed.

If it's not Begbie's violence putting people in jeopardy then it's Sick Boy's (Miller) scheming. But even a butterfly wing-flap in this group has horrific consequences. The ill-fated Tommy's (McKidd) downward spiral is cause by Renton and a seemingly innocuous theft. Then there's the death of the baby, which is among the most traumatic, gut-wrenching things ever committed to celluloid. It's foreshadowed in the earliest moments of the movie, but repeat viewings don't make it any easier to handle.

None of this would work without its stars. The five who appeared on the poster - McGregor, Bremner, Carlyle, Miller and screen debutante Macdonald - would all go on to stellar careers and deservedly so. Each is outstanding; in fact, arguments could be made that all five have never been better. But spare a thought for Kevin McKidd, who has the worst/best of the character arcs as poor Tommy, but didn't make it onto the poster. His career, while still successful, never reached the heights of his co-stars. If only that poster went up to #6.

Then there's Boyle. Across his prodigious career, even acknowledging his Oscar-attracting Slumdog Millionaire or 127 Hours, or his brilliant genre pieces 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Trainspotting remains his best film. It's lightning in a bottle; an energetic cultural touchstone that comes along once in a career. It hits the ground running - quite literally - to the bombastic beat of Iggy Pop's Lust For Life and McGregor's ironic "Choose Life" speech, and that is just the first of a string of iconic moments littered throughout.

The worst toilet in Scotland. The OD sequence, with its red-carpeted tomb view, soundtracked by Lou Reed's Perfect Day. Spud's nighttime accident. The baby on the ceiling. These horrifying scenes not only stick with you, but they've edged their way into pop culture, as has the colour scheme and style of the aforementioned poster, and the brilliant soundtrack (would Underworld still be a thing if not for the success of Born Slippy .NUXX?).

Sometimes no bog roll is the least of your worries.

There are other great moments that stand out on repeat viewings. Fresh from his OD, Renton's parents offer and share cigarettes - one of the subtle reminders of the prevalence of addiction. Similarly, Begbie's early lecture on the dangers of drugs while drinking and smoking heavily is typical of the film's black humour, set up right from the start. Also in that category is Spud's job interview (a great display of Bremner's skills), the air rifle scene in the park, and the details of Tommy's death, which conclude with an unexpected punchline that you'll hate yourself for laughing at.

But one of the best moments comes in the middle of the second act, at the top of Tommy's downward spiral, when he encourages his mates Spud, Renton and Sick Boy to join him for a walk in the wilds. Renton, after being told by Tommy that such a walk should make him proud to be Scottish, launches into a marvellous diatribe that sums up his thoughts on his homeland:

“It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete assholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!”

And yet the Scots still voted for this as their greatest film of all time. That's saying something.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Hidden Figures

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Theodore Melfi.

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali.

(From left) Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star in Hidden Figures.

IT’S tempting to say that now is the perfect time for a reminder of the importance of equality, whether it be between the genders, the races or sexual orientations.

But the truth is that anytime is a good time for such a thing because there always seems to be something happening in the world to remind us of how petty and pointless these divisions are.

So anytime is a good time for Hidden Figures, a remarkable biopic that demonstrates how holding back the tide of equality is detrimental to us all, and that humanity suffers when we try to put up walls between us and our fellow humans.

It is the story of three incredible African-American women – Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were trailblazers in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and computer science, and played pivotal roles in the American space program.

Katherine (Henson) is the hero of the piece, with the film focusing on her work calculating the trajectories of NASA’s many groundbreaking forays into space, but Vaughan (Spencer) and Jackson (Monáe) get their moments too, such as Vaughan becoming the first black NASA supervisor and Jackson’s journey to becoming NASA’s first black engineer.


As with most movies “based” on true events, the timeline is condensed to take in 1961 and 1962, with Vaughan and Jackson achieving their milestones well before when they are depicted in the film. There are also the usual composite characters and a bit of a sense that things are happening in a fashion that’s too dramatically perfect.

But Hidden Figures is brilliant at capturing the things that really matter, such as the daily impact of segregation, the amazing skills of these women, and the bigger picture of it all – that keeping blacks and whites separated not only dehumanised important contributors to society, but potentially held back its progress. The symbolic shorthand of the film is quite powerful. While there’s a fair bit of the “white saviour” trope, such as when Costner’s NASA boss destroys the “coloured bathroom” sign, it all feels natural and evocative and most likely historically accurate in some regard. Simple acts like a trip to the bathroom or a white man handing a black woman a cup of coffee take on massive significance thanks to a sharp script, and it’s in these moments that film successfully stirs the emotions.

Its triumvirate of stars is uniformly excellent. Henson takes Katherine from timid to triumphant in spectacular fashion (a public meltdown is a key scene, part-hilarious, part-heartbreaking), Spencer makes Vaughan motherly in a take-no-crap kinda way that is a joy to watch, while Monáe, in her biggest role to date, excels as the sassy one of the troupe (although they all get their sassy moments).

The co-stars are also good. Costner hasn’t looked this comfortable in a role for over a decade, while Dunst and Parsons do well in their personifications of acceptably racist white people of the ‘60s.

Another standout is the music. Between the golden oldies and Hans Zimmer’s score (the latter is particular effective in the finale involving John Glenn’s historic space voyage), Pharrell Williams busts out some retro-sounding originals that work surprisingly well. His ability to capture the sound of the era while keeping things fresh and modern is impressive.

But Hidden Figures' real strength is in its emotional heft. Watching these three remarkable African-American women do incredible things at a time in history that sought to deny them of their potential is rewarding and powerful. These figures deserve to be hidden no more.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

(MA15+) ★★

Director: James Foley.

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger.

Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) 
are back for more kink in Fifty Shades Darker.

CONFESSION: I was one of the few film critics that gave Fifty Shades Of Grey a good review.

For all its flaws, the first film took its apparently atrocious source material and turned it into a well shot and often intriguing allegory for domestic violence (at least that’s how I viewed it). If Fifty Shades Of Grey was in black and white and subtitled, I can’t help but feel critics would have been losing their minds over it.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the first film was Johnson’s performance. She made Anastasia Steele believable as she grew from naive girl-next-door to a strong woman figuring out what she wanted, and what she was willing to give up to get it.

Second time around, Johnson is still great, but she can’t save what is ultimately a boring sequel. There are still touches of the first film here, but there is even less plot and far less intrigue, despite the fact the potential is there.

Having walked out on sadistic playboy Christian Grey (Dornan) at the end of Fifty Shades Of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker finds Anastasia making her way in the world. She has a new job and is still single, but she can’t seem to shake Christian (partly because he’s stalking her). For better or worse, she decides to give him another shot after he promises that his days of whips and chains are behind him.


The rest of the film is the equivalent of living in a sharehouse with a couple – it’s uncomfortable and confronting at first, but eventually becomes tedious, annoying and lame. Christian and Anastasia’s attempts to rekindle their relationship are uninteresting and even the frequent sex scenes become monotonous. Big screen romances survive on their sexual tension, but because that was all used up in the first film, there’s nothing to keep you interested in this beyond the sheer voyeurism of it.

There’s no tension of any other kind either. Potentially interesting subplots pop up and are dismissed within a matter of minutes. A couple of women from Christian’s past bob about in the narrative but either don’t rock the boat enough to be of interest or literally disappear just when they get interesting. In true franchise-building fashion (yes, a third film comes out in 2018), a villain is set up for the next film but it would have been nice to have a villain in this film, or someone of some interest to create some tension – anything really to break the monotony of the should-we-shouldn’t-we talking and shagging, which is pretty much all that happens in Fifty Shades Darker.

On the plus side, the film is again well shot, Johnson is once again great and Dornan is actually better this time around. While the issues of domestic abuse, power and trust remain, thematically this is about addiction. Christian’s peccadilloes are painted as something he has to give up – urges he must control – for the relationship to work. This helps make Christian a more interesting and potentially likeable character, despite the fact he’s still creepy, controlling, and a tad frightening. Yes, he’s a cashed-up stalker with mummy issues who gets off on abusing women, but there are moments where you almost feel sorry for him (“almost” being the key word here).

There have been calls to boycott this film because it’s about abusing women. Honestly, you should boycott it because it’s boring, not because it deals with adult issues that might make grown-ups talk about them. Christian’s behaviour is supposed to be unlikeable – that’s kinda the whole point of both films and the central quandary facing Anastasia. It’s what made the first film interesting and why her character leaves him at the end of it. The second film sees him trying to make amends, be a better person, and yes, his attitude still leaves something to be desired, but again that’s the point. Why do women stay with abusive partners? Why are partners abusive in the first place? These are questions both films flirt with in their own glitzy and inane way, but again, these are adult issues that might make grown ups talk about them, and that is not a bad thing.

But all that aside, your main takeaway from Fifty Shades Darker should be that it’s boring. After being surprised by Fifty Shades Of Grey, you can now colour me disappointed with Fifty Shades Darker.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Split

(M) ★★★

Director: M Night Shyamalan.

Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) goes head-to-head with one of Kevin's many personalities, 
as portrayed by James McAvoy, while her fellow captives watch on.

IS M Night Shyamalan back in the game?

It seems his career has finally finished bottoming out. After writing and directing one of the best films of the ‘90s – The Sixth Sense – the quality of his output began slowly dropping off in its wake, through cult favourite Unbreakable, the spooky sci-fi Signs and the love-it-or-hate-it drama-thriller The Village.

After those diminishing returns, his films really dipped into the sub-par region – The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are three of the worst films of the past decade.

However his 2015 low-budget found-footage horror The Visit won some critics and fans back, and now with the release of Split, some are heralding the return of Shyamalan.

But that would be getting carried away. Split is good, but not great, and it’s certainly his best film since The Village, but that’s not saying much. And the truth is Split’s success is more due to the skills of McAvoy in the lead role than the directing or writing skills of Shyamalan.

McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) that manifests as 23 different personalities. When one of those personalities, Dennis, kidnaps three girls, it sets off a struggle between his other identities. What does Dennis have in mind for the girls, and can the they escape before a rumoured 24th personality turns up?


DID, a controversial psychological diagnosis, has been popular in film and literature for a long time – The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is an early example – and Shyamalan’s script probes and prods the idea into interesting places. But as is typical of his post-Unbreakable work, his script feels a couple of drafts away from being great. Awkward exposition, plot-holes and logical lapses are dotted between the excellence – for every cool moment or strong line is a forehead-slapping character brain fade.

What Shyamalan does get right is the tone. The Visit was criticised for struggling to balance its humour and its horror but there is no such problem here. Amid Split’s brooding terror are some genuine belly laughs, but they give the film a sense of dynamics, allowing that tension to rise again, rather than ruin the mood and break the tone completely.

As mentioned before, the real hero here is McAvoy, who slips easily between the half dozen or so personalities of Kevin that we see on the screen. In an already stellar career rapidly filling with great performances, this is one of his best. Whether it be as the hilarious nine-year-old Kanye West-loving personality of Hedwig or the more frightening identities of Dennis or Miss Patricia, McAvoy is continually impressive, making a potentially ridiculous or film-destroying character its saving grace. Split would be a far lesser film without him.

Taylor-Joy acquits herself well as one of Kevin’s captives, and Buckley is okay as Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr Fletcher but struggles under the weight of the film’s worst dialogue and most awkward scenes. The other two captives, played by Richardson and Sula, are forgettable.

Shyamalan’s trademark twists are present here, which means talking about the ending is impossible. I will say that part of the ending is troubling, and I still can’t figure out if it sends a bad message to young girls or a positive one. But one thing is certain about the ending – it’s an interesting payoff for a strange film, going some way towards making Split ultimately satisfying.

Is M Night Shyamalan back in the game? Thanks to James McAvoy, it seems like he’s on his way.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

La La Land

(M) ★★★★★

Director: Damien Chazelle.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend.


Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen in the wonderful La La Land.

IF there’s one thing that Hollywood loves, it’s Hollywood.

Should La La Land win the best film Oscar come February 26 – as it probably will and should – it will be the fourth winner in six years centred around acting and/or Hollywood.

But dismissing such a victory as an example of mere industry self-congratulation would ignore the fact this is a great film by almost any measure.

Gosling and Stone star as two dreamers in search of their respective goals in Los Angeles – the former is a down-and-out jazz pianist who longs to run his own jazz club and the latter is a struggling actress battered by a string of failed auditions.

After a number of unsuccessful meet cutes, they finally succumb to their obvious chemistry, falling in love and spurring each other toward their respective dreams. But can their romance survive the ups and downs of living in La La Land?


Pick a box and this film ticks it. As a musical, a comedy, a romance, all of the above, it thrives and takes flight. Justin Hurwitz’s songs are memorable and fun, with most of them bouncing upwards on rising chords and jazzy rhythms, but never becoming tiresome, despite the key musical themes regularly re-emerging, plus Mandy Moore's choreography (no, not that Mandy Moore) is outstanding. As a comedy, it’s occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but never in your face or straining for a gag, content to just bubble along with a good sense of humour. And as a romance, it’s charming and surprising, while somehow managing to be both realistic and fantastical.

The cinematography is gorgeous – whether it’s capturing a sunset rendezvous or a simple street scene, there are numerous moments that look and feel instantly iconic. The script is sharp, particularly the ending. The editing is great, whether it be the hidden cuts in the opening single-take number on a gridlocked off ramp, or in the to-and-fro of an escalating dinner table argument.

But all these strengths would amount to nothing if its stars failed to align. Thankfully Gosling and Stone have a galaxy worth of chemistry. Their third film together (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), La La Land sizzles courtesy of their pairing. Individually they are also great – they can sing, they can dance, and they can act, with the added bonus that Gosling plays/fakes a mean jazz piano – but together they are something remarkable. It’s hard to imagine this film in the hands of two different actors, such is the quality of their performances.

Of course the real kudos must go to Chazelle, who put this project on the backburner rather than compromise anything for it, instead going off to make the acclaimed Whiplash. His script and his direction burn with a passion for the subject matter. La La Land feels like an old-school Hollywood musical, referencing the likes of Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris, but is more than just an homage. It’s fresh and exciting, bursting on to the screen in a mix of technicolour, sassy performances and resounding symphonic chords.

If there is a criticism, it’s that the subject matter is a tad shallow – thematically, it’s about little more than the Facebook-ish motto of “follow your dreams”. However the film succeeds in giving that adage as much depth as possible by exploring what you have to give up in order to reach that goal. It’s also hard to ignore the Hollywood-talking-about-Hollywood nature of the movie, which is bound to resonate with Oscar voters, but might not speak to the non-artistic, non-aspirational types who have never wandered down Dreamer’s Lane.

But this is finding fault where there doesn’t need to be any. Not every film has to be as deep and tough as Spotlight or 12 Years A Slave. La La Land is frothy and fun and fabulous, but it’s also a great example of a film where every single piece clicks perfectly into place.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Lion

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Garth Davis.

Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa.


Five-year-old Sunny Pawar stars as Saroo, pictured here 
with Abhishek Bharate as his brother Guddu.

When the story of Saroo Brierley broke in 2012, most people (myself included) probably didn’t realise the full extent of his ordeal.

Saroo’s tale was explained as “the boy who found his family using Google Earth, 25 years on”. It was a punchy and not inaccurate descriptor for what happened to this Indian-born, Tasmanian-raised young man.

But unless you’d read his book A Long Way Home (which is the basis for Lion) or some of the more in-depth articles of the time, you most likely didn’t realise the wider ramifications of that clickbaity summary, such as “how does a five-year-old boy get so lost and then survive on the streets of Kolkata?”, and “what impact does the whole experience have on him later in life?”.

Lion digs deep into these questions, with heart-stirring results, creating one of the most emotionally fulfilling Aussie films of recent times.


Young Saroo is played by newcomer Sunny Pawar, who is a revelation. Naturalistic and unaffected, his performance is stunning. It’s not actorly in any way, like such great child performances as Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam or Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, but more like the unpretentiousness and naively beautiful turn by Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It’s one of those unmannered appearances that sucks you in so deeply you think you’re watching a documentary.

Pawar’s performance, coupled with some subtle yet intelligent directing and editing, weaves a spell over the first half of the film that is so good it can’t be matched when we speed forward in time by 20 years to meet a grown-up Saroo (Patel) living with his adoptive parents (Wenham and Kidman) in Hobart.

In comparison to the first half, the second feels slightly lacking, but really it is only by comparison. The misadventures of young Saroo are so strong that everything else suffers in contrast. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion – there will be barely a dry eye in the house – it all pays off and you realise how glued you were to it all, even when Saroo got older and the tone and setting of the film altered.

The second half is less effective but it has a more difficult job to do, and it’s to the credit of all involved that Lion maintains most of its power and drive. A romantic subplot, used to further demonstrate the past’s impact on Saroo’s state of mind, could have been a thorn in the film’s side, but the script stays smart and is delivered nicely by Patel and Lion’s token American (every Aussie film has to have one, right?) Rooney Mara.

Equally fraught with danger is Saroo’s search – characters staring at computer screens rarely makes for riveting viewing – but the filmmakers keep the laptop-gazing it to a minimum, at least until it’s desperately required.

Much of the credit must go to Patel, who is particularly outstanding in a career-best performance (which is saying something given his role in Slumdog Millionaire). His Australian accent – regarded as one of the toughest inflections there is – is flawless, but he never gets distracted by it. It’s a great piece of work and worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Mara is good too, but Kidman and Wenham who are the shining co-stars. Kidman gets the flashier moments and is her usual brilliant self, while Wenham, in a less conspicuous role, reminds everyone he’s not getting the big lead parts he has long deserved.

Lion starts strong and finishes on a teary high, with its comparatively lesser moments buoyed by the presence of Patel.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Allied

(M) ★★★

Director: Robert Zemeckis.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard look the goods as secret agents 
in Robert Zemeckis' Allied.

TWO people fall in love in Nazi-occupied Casablanca during WWII as the wheels of the underground resistance spin around them … stop me if you’ve seen this one before.

No, this isn't Michael Curtiz’s 1942 classic. Nor is iconic director Zemeckis silly enough to attempt a remake (pity the fool who tries that one). But if we’re going to talk about, well, what I was just writing about in the intro, then it’s hard not to think of Bogart and Bergman locking eyes in Rick's Café Américain.

It would be an unfair comparison if Zemeckis’ Allied wasn’t trying to recall the war films and noir thrillers of the Casablanca era (it’s an unfair comparison for any film, really – Casablanca is damned near perfect). Naturally, Allied ain’t no Casablanca. It’s a steadily improving who-can-you-trust drama, weighed down by being strangely dreary and chemistry-free for too much of its runtime.

Pitt and Cotillard play Max and Marianne – two Allied operatives masquerading as husband and wife in Casablanca as they prepare to assassinate a German dignitary. During their short time together, romance blossoms and on the completion of their mission they flee to England and marry.

But Max’s superiors in British Intelligence suspect Marianne is a double agent, secretly passing messages to the Nazis.


This key plot twist (which is part of all the promotion material for the film, so it’s not a spoiler) takes an hour to arrive and it’s only at this point things kick into gear. Prior to this the film struggles to take off thanks to Pitt and Cotillard’s inability to spark off each other. When they finally get it on in a sandstorm sex scene, it’s unconvincing at best and unintentionally amusing at worst.

Pitt is cool and aloof through the first half of the film and Cotillard is vivacious and charming, but as a pair they don’t work. They’re not aided by a distinct lack of thrills in the first half, despite them staging a daring assassination in enemy territory. The few close calls they have are dodged too quickly, creating a dearth of tension.

On the other side of the plot twist, things improve dramatically. The tension increases as there is more at stake, the married Max and Marianne have far more chemistry, Pitt and Cotillard’s performance get even better, and the first half of the film goes up a notch in hindsight. Allied finally gets a sense of purpose and its set-up starts to pay off.

It’s not all plain sailing in the second half though. The script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, The Hundred-Foot Journey) tends to the overwrought and melodramatic on occasion, yet oddly some of the big moments feel a little underdone.

The film’s big climax is well handled though and includes one beautiful rain-soaked panning shot that effectively closes the final chapter (before the obligatory epilogue). That shot is also emblematic of the film itself – there are moments of brilliance dotted throughout that help Allied overcome enough of its shortcomings to make it predominantly watchable.

Unfortunately for Zemeckis, it’s another imperfect addition to his CV. After the disappointing The Walk, the lopsided Flight, and his creepy dead-eyed motion capture trilogy (Beowulf, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol), it seems the talented director is getting further and further from his halcyon days. Nor will this pop up on Pitt or Cotillard’s ‘best of’ lists.

All in all, it’s an okay film from a raft of talented people renowned for films much better than this.