Monday, 2 April 2018

Ready Player One

Have any of you seen Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle? If not, no matter. But if you have, you'll already be familiar with the concept - kids go inside a video game to fight the baddie and save the world. Ready Player One isn't entirely dissimilar; however, Jumanji 2 is the superior film.

The sentence 'Jumanji 2 is the superior film' really isn't something I expected I'd write. Ever.

That's not to say Ready Player One is bad. It just took two viewings to work out exactly how I felt about it. It flies along at a rollicking pace, it's got action, humour and that indescribable Spielberg magic that is inherent in even his lesser work. Which begs the question: is this comparable to 1941? Always? Hook? Comparisons to the latter have already been made by critics with far more credibility than myself, Hook being a film beloved of those of a certain age but critically far less favoured. Ready Player One seems destined to leave a similar legacy, though admittedly for different reasons.

The plot itself is perfunctory: the year is 2045, and the world has gone to shit (hasn't it always?). Well, maybe not 'to shit' - more 'to Birmingham', though I can see how the two could be confused. To be fair, it's actually refreshing to see a future not quite as world-endingly bleak as we're used to - sure there's a divide between the slums ('stacks') and the glass office blocks filled with wretched hives of scum and villainy, but if the worst this particular future has to offer is a white, none-more-British sky the likes of which we've not seen since Kubrick used Beckton Gasworks to stage the Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket, I'm happy with that.

So it goes that most folk escape their grim reality in the Oasis, a massive worldwide virtual universe created by James Halliday (a beautifully nuanced turn from Mark Rylance) - a shy, nervous genius who, after his death, reveals he has hidden an easter egg (tech parlance for a hidden item or feature) that if found will bestow his entire accumulated wealth and control of the Oasis on whoever finds it. Cue Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a quintessential everynerd who, along with a few friends he manages to pick up along the way, wins the first of three challenges opening up further clues that lead to the egg.

Obviously there's a villain on his tail in the shape of Ben Mendelsohn's Nolan Sorrento, CEO of IOI (Innovative Online Industries), a company desperate for control of the Oasis so they can monetize it beyond reason (his opening sales pitch that they can sell "up to 80% of a player's field of vision before inducing seizures" paints him as the Zuckerberg of the future). Wade and Sorrento cross paths, Sorrento makes a few moves to try and see him off, Wade evades them and yadda yadda lots of races and fights and explosions and Mechagodzilla and The Iron Giant and the chestburster from Alien and Clark Kent and Gundam and The Shining and Buckaroo Banzai and- wait, I didn't mention any of this yet, did I?

You see in the Oasis, anything can exist and you can be anything you want to be. Hence, Wade Watts' avatar (Parzival) drives a DeLorean / K.I.T.T. hybrid. Potential love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) rides Tetsuo's bike from Akira. He dresses as Buckaroo Banzai to impress her one evening (honestly, I think I was the only one in the cinema who knew who Buckaroo Banzai was, but that's because I'm an arsehole who assumes a multiplex crowd surely won't have seen W. D. Richter's insane 80s no-budget sci-fi with Peter Weller's dimension-jumping, rock band-fronting neurosurgeon who has a cool line in 80s upturned-suit collar threads).

It's this kind of permanent pop culture referencing that will either a) give you a nostalgic sugar rush every time something pops up you recognise; b) not bother you at all, because it serves the story, or c) annoy the fuck out of you. I think I flitted between camp A and B, but I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking Ready Player One is either the best film ever or the death knell for cinema as we know it. I'd say it was Marmite, but I think that's doing it a disservice.

The fact is, Spielberg is just good at putting this kind of stuff together, no matter how questionable certain aspects of it are. Tye Sheridan paints a bland, charmless picture in the real world, and sure if you're going to compare him to Michael J. Fox's Marty (Art3mis even refers to him as McFly at one point), it's an impossibly high watermark to reach. It's Parzival who's on the charm offensive here, not his real life counterpoint. Nolan Sorrento is a cardboard cut-out bad guy, but Mendelsohn imbues him with enough quality acting chops that you can forgive his two-dimensionalism.

There's much however that's sadly reductive of gaming and an assumed 'gaming culture' - it tries its best to be all-inclusive (the 11yr old ass-kicking Asian kid, the black lesbian with a male avatar) but everyone still comes off as the kind of Robot Wars loners and oddballs the general public expects to be into video games, shacked up in scrap yards or squatting in hellishly untidy abandoned offices. It's not something I was particularly bogged down by when watching it, but people who play video games don't all wear logos and badges referencing every bit of pop culture they can think of (a Mortal Kombat sticker here, a Wonder Woman patch there). If you start to unpick the threads holding it together, it becomes very unstable very quickly.

But maybe this is missing the point. The book (and as such, the film) is essentially a love letter to 80s ephemera, from John Cusack's ghetto blaster in Say Anything... to Chucky going apeshit on a bunch of IOI stooges. The protagonists literally wear their hearts on their sleeves. Oh, and there's section in the middle - let's call it 'the haunted house' - that is arguably worth the price of admission alone. It's a scene that is testament to the craft and care that has gone into constructing not just the Oasis, but Ready Player One as a whole.

Alan Silvestri's score masterfully weaves in cues from his Back to the Future suite - not the main theme, but moments that are instantly recognisable to those who know it. And if you don't know it, no big deal - you're not missing out, because it fits the story perfectly. The fact the film is rammed to the gills with 'things' and 'stuff' that an audience may recognise isn't what it lives or dies by; you don't have to be in on it. It's just a bonus for anyone with a keen eye - a film about an easter egg littered with easter eggs. But if you're not on the hunt for them, you'll still have a blast (watching a T-Rex and King Kong take down a Bigfoot monster truck and the 60s Batmobile in a chaotic street race is fun for all the family).

It's already been said that Spielberg has phoned it in; I would say nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, so much has gone into this film that it was always going to come off as some sort of grand folly. I don't want to compare it to the likes of Coppola's One From the Heart or some other auteur passion project; I doubt Spielberg has had a burning desire to make something like this for decades. But it speaks volumes about his directing ability that a film so ripe for criticism from so many angles can, ultimately, be a massively fun experience irrespective of its flaws. Compare it to the recently-released Pacific Rim: Uprising, for instance - another big daft film full of big daft robots, but with less than a hundredth of the charm Ready Player One has (even John Boyega's boundless charisma wanes when he's sprinkling toppings on ice cream like Salt Bae - there's a very fine line between comic and cringe).

With a tentpole release such as this, one could say you shouldn't have to watch it twice to know if you liked it or not. And with films such as Raiders, Jurassic Park and Tin Tin in Spielberg's oeuvre (the latter his most recent comparable work, considering the amount of CGI involved), his work proves you don't need time to process what you've just seen. They're solid, complete works of entertainment; perfect examples of big budget, mainstream cinema. But maybe Ready Player One is the more interesting film precisely because it's not perfect.

Would it work without the sheer onslaught of pop culture touchstones, perfectly-placed to distract and deceive? Possibly not. It's a proper romp, with enough cleverly-deployed twists and turns that all have their respective pay-offs. But so many of the pop culture touchstones are key to the narrative; it simply wouldn't work without them (neither would the book, for that matter). Could the material have been handled better by another director? Honestly, I doubt it. Even if Ready Player One is far from his best work, it's a film surely destined to garner a cult following. It taps into a desire so many of us have to hold on to memories from our childhood, even at the expense of what is happening in the real world. But hey, the real world is a pretty shitty place; maybe Ready Player One's Oasis is the sugar rush we all need right now.

Unless Jumanji 2 is on the cards. There's simply no contest.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Shape of Water

I'm vexed. Vexed because this year's crop of awards season films are all (with very little exception) leaving me with a distinct taste of average in my mouth. Like going out for a meal, the food being pleasantly passable, but knowing full well it wasn't worth the price you paid for it. I'm vexed at how almost all these films are receiving near-universal acclaim. Since when did the bar get lowered? Is it just me? I can already hear the cries of "yes" from those who feel they know better. But I'd also like to think some of you are maybe - just maybe - a little vexed too.

Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is - alongside Martin McDonaugh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - leading the 2018 awards charge with a myriad nominations between them. And if you were to believe the critics, they're pretty much masterpieces already - the former being touted as del Toro's best ever film in some quarters.

I, for one, am simply not having it.

With a wafer-thin plot focusing on Sally Hawkins' mute cleaner Eliza, the film doesn't really do much other than apply superfluous window dressing to the central romance between her and 'the creature' - a humanoid aquatic man-thing (expertly played by prosthetic make-up go-to guy Doug Jones) hauled into a scientific research centre for all the inhumane testing its early-60s period setting affords it. Michael Shannon's Strickland is the one administering said inhumanity, his justification being it isn't human - and it bit a couple of his fingers off, therefore he has carte blanche to be a full-blown one-dimensional prick for two hours. But don't worry, there's more cardboard cut-outs in this film than just Shannon riffing on sheer arseholery.

Eliza's flatmate, the usually dependable Richard Jenkins, is a clichéd older gay man who's enamoured with a much younger straight waiter at a nearby diner. In these heated times, I was under the impression certain communities and demographics were after being represented in a less-stereotypical and jaw-droppingly ham-fisted way. Maybe if you're del Toro, you're allowed to get away with hackneyed representation because, you know, you're a real auteur. I won't do him the disservice of comparing him to certain peers who are also guilty of this, but it does often seem that if you are held in high regard in the cine-literate community, you are allowed to get away with any old tosh if you know how to make it look nice.

And to del Toro's credit, The Shape of Water does indeed look nice. Utterly stunning in places. It's got a fetish for the colour green (Strickland's boiled sweets, the uniforms worn at the research centre, the algae poured into the amphibian's tanks and baths) that also spells out the main characters' journeys - do you get it? They're GREEN. As in, innocent and wide-eyed and whatnot. I've not read any reviews of the film, but I can only imagine the words 'whimsical' and 'enchanting' and 'beguiling' and 'childlike wonder' are bandied about like nobody's business. The kind of nonsense Western critics write about Studio Ghibli films, chucking five stars at them when the culturally-specific whimsy factor is dialled up to eleven.

In fact, I'm reminded of the unfortunate addendum Terry Gilliam stuck on the beginning of Tideland, after preview audiences felt a relationship between two characters (a young girl and a mentally-challenged adult man) was paedophilic in nature. Gilliam filmed an address to-camera, telling the audience to watch the film "through the eyes of a child". When you have to instruct your audience to watch a film a certain way - lest they perceive something in a manner you hadn't intended - you know you've failed quite spectacularly at what you were ever hoping to achieve. The Shape of Water doesn't suffer that same fate, thankfully. But it does ask that you are indeed 'enchanted', the film existing in a bubble where characters are basically fine with an aquatic man-thing eating the head off a pet cat (such whimsy!).

I guess I should have seen this coming. After all, del Toro has previous in the period-fantasy field with Pan's Labyrinth - a far superior film that in many ways The Shape of Water uses as a blueprint for its heightened fantasy-reality hotchpotch: instead of a razor to the face, this time we get a bullet going in one cheek and out the other; where Pan's Labyrinth was an allegorical sexual awakening, this time the main character is a grown woman who masturbates in the bath every morning (until she gets to play with aquaman's prawn cracker).

Now I know I might be coming off as flippant. I get why all these characters are drawn in the way they are. But del Toro wants to have his cake and eat it. The jarring clash of bedtime fairy tale with ostensibly adult overtones feels like Pan's Labyrinth minus the nuance. Several lines feel loaded with shock value; Strickland telling a colleague his "thumb, trigger and pussy finger still work" after having the other two fingers bitten off feels like a jolting reminder you're watching a film for grown-ups, rather than the line being essential to the story itself. It insists on these reminders every so often - like a particularly nasty episode of Boardwalk Empire crossed with Splash (no, seriously - it's outright plagiarism, cleverly disguised with beautiful cinematography and non-mainstream credentials beloved of cineastes who will leap to its defence).

You can see on one hand it's been a labour of love for del Toro, the whole venture basically a belated sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon (del Toro has gone on record with this, the film playing out his fantasy of having Gill-man succeed in his romance with co-star Julie Adams). And for those who are able to overlook the film's numerous flaws in execution, there's much to enjoy - the use of sign language as both a plot device and conveyor of exposition is commendable, and from a purely visual standpoint you can't argue it's anything less than a stellar achievement. But I'm sick of saying "well, it looked good" after practically every duff film I watch these days. MOST new films look good. With a decent enough crew and a few quid chucked at it, it stands to reason. Darkest Hour looks bloody beautiful; it doesn't mean it's anything more than adequate entertainment (unless you're a Tory, in which case it's borderline pornography).

Which brings me back to my original point - the bar being lowered. Maybe it is me. Maybe I'm just getting old, and unable to enjoy new stuff the same way I used to. Then again I loved Blade Runner 2049The Last Jedi and Downsizing. Plenty didn't. I sound like I'm just being contrary for the sake of it, like an average issue of Little White Lies. I'm really not. The Shape of Water is the Emperor's new clothes. Critics say its good, therefore it IS good. Without question. Oh look, now it's won some awards - it MUST be good! Well, it isn't. And I know I can't be alone in thinking this. If I get one person agreeing with me on Twitter, I'll be happy. Until then, I'm off to watch Splash.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

WARNING: Around the halfway mark of this review, I compare Blade Runner 2049 to James Cameron's Avatar. Favourably, no less. You have been warned.

Immersion is something many filmmakers aim for when creating a movie, irrespective of budget or genre. To be sat with a captive audience in front of a huge screen is to be transported to where a filmmaker (director, writer, production designer) wants to take you - be that somewhere fantastical (let's say, Star Wars) or wholly real (anything from the Dogme 95 movement). David Lynch plunges his audiences headfirst into twisted Hollywood nightmares; Peter Jackson - for better or worse - boldly attempted to put the viewer literally inside the frame with his 48fps versions of the Hobbit trilogy.

Ridley Scott - having proved he could make a hit with Alien in 1979 - turned to author Philip K. Dick for his stab at the immersion game, turning a polluted and overcrowded Los Angeles circa 2019 into a world that is fizzing with tactile energy; a world that transports you somewhere you never really knew you wanted to go until you got there. That world formed part of Blade Runner, a critical and commercial flop on its initial release in 1982, though it inspired a cult following and has since become a high watermark by which other big, daring sci-fi thinkpieces are judged (along with Kubrick's 2001).

It's far from an action film; the glacial pace and questionable morals of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a bounty hunter brought out of retirement to track down and kill a handful of replicants (synthetic humans) make it easy to see why it didn't exactly set the box office on fire. But while time was never on the side of the Nexus 6 replicants with their four-year lifespan, it was on the side of Blade Runner itself.

Having undergone two directorial revisions - with Scott's 2007 'Final Cut' his preferred version, omitting a studio-requested voiceover and cleaning up certain optical effects - it's a film that when viewed today looks like it could have been made yesterday. It has held up in a way few genre pieces do, a combination of prescient production design (gleaned from the sketches of visual futurist Syd Mead) and a lack of obvious fashion or cultural touchstones from any particular decade.

Whether you like the original Blade Runner or not (it has a cold air of detachment about it - arguably by design, but not to everyone's taste as Gareth Dimelow argues over at Sabotage Times), you cannot suggest it aims for nothing less than total immersion. It envelops the viewer in a thick smog of meticulous imagery - one could quite easily argue it's a triumph of style over content, but boy, what style.

You'd think Denis Villeneuve - director of Blade Runner 2049 - would have balked at the idea of making a sequel to a film so revered by its loyal fans. What he has come up with however, alongside screenwriters Hampton Fancher (scribe of the original 1982 film) and Michael Green, is nothing short of miraculous.

Let's be clear: this may not be a film for everyone. I disliked the original for years, arguing much like Gareth that it's a monumental achievement in totemic boredom (I have long since decided it's actually ace, though far from an easy film to love). But for a big, mega-budget studio film such as 2049 to have gotten made the way Villeneuve has made it; it is borderline astounding.

It flies in the face of what much of mainstream cinema has in many ways become - a limited-attention span marketing gimmick, designed to get people to part way with their hard-earned in order to invest in multiple-film franchises (yes, I'm back on that old horse again) that do nothing other than mildly entertain. I'm not entirely dismissing those films - well, at least not all of them - but they offer little in the way of genuine nourishment to chew on and ponder. You don't come out of Spider-Man: Homecoming thinking "gee-whizz, that film really had something profound to say about X, Y and Z - I'll be up all night thinking about it!" - it's undoubtedly a great piece of entertainment, but ultimately, disposable.

Blade Runner 2049 eschews the aforementioned filmic rulebook everyone seems to be playing by these days, making a sequel to a 35-year old film that feels just as timeless as the original. It retains the glacial pace and moral ambiguities, but adds something new to the table: an emotional core, something arguably lacking from Scott's film. It's by no means short, clocking in fifteen minutes shy of three hours, but if you have the patience you will be handsomely rewarded with a piece of cinematic art that ticks so many boxes it's a veritable embarrassment of riches for all concerned.

While there's ambiguity abound regarding Deckard's true identity in Blade Runner, there's none regarding Ryan Gosling's Agent K (no relation to Tommy Lee Jones), a replicant Blade Runner working for the LAPD, hunting down illegal older models in order to 'retire' them. Having taken care of a replicant farmer who teases him with the line "you've never seen a miracle" prior to his death, K discovers a box of bones buried underneath a long-dead tree on the land he was tending. Turns out the bones are those of another replicant who died almost thirty years ago, and who seemingly had a child. With the very notion of a replicant pregnancy impossible to believe - not to mention the undesirable headlines it would generate - K is ordered to find the now-adult child and retire it.

Now the plot basics could very well be deemed perfunctory - you could set them in any time within any genre and spin a similar yarn. But Villeneuve raises the stakes by creating a world that made me recall the punters who went back to see James Cameron's Avatar multiple times.

Far from Cameron's finest hour, but a box office smash nonetheless - a chunk of that generated from repeat ticket sales to people wanting to return to the world he had created: to be back in the lush, verdant jungles of Pandora; to be flying on the backs of direhorses and mountain banshees (I admit I had to google those); to feel part of a film that ticked the immersion box gratuitously. I never quite understood it at the time. Watching Blade Runner 2049, I know how they felt. It's a world I want to go back to ASAP.

My colleague Ally Davies said she's "never seen anyone make grey rain look so stunning and poetic". When you first see K making his way through the L.A. cityscape, a solitary flying car in a bewildering metropolis that dwarfs the original's opening scenes by comparison, you'll know why (you can make out the former Tyrell Corporation HQ through the polluted haze, a once-towering steel pyramid now shrunken in the shadow of the Wallace Corp which has assumed control of it's replicant-manufacturing empire).

There's a brightly-lit aesthetic to many scenes that is the complete antithesis of the first film (K's apartment is practically floodlit compared to Deckard's Egyptian-themed whiskey den), yet it feels entirely appropriate and seamless - as if the film was always there, waiting to be made, and this is how it was always going to look no matter what.

It's hard to sound anything less than gushing but it's testament to everyone involved that a film with such anticipation surrounding it gets so much right. I fear if Scott would have directed it, it would have been a completely different beast altogether (just watch Prometheus to see how a wrecking ball can be taken to a beloved universe he himself helped to create). Villeneuve is a self-confessed uber-fan of the original, but has made something that doesn't in any way feel fanboy-ish.

It has similar beats and cues in the same way The Force Awakens and Jurassic World took a known template and reworked it to suit a new audience (Carla Juri's Dr. Ana Stelline, a memory designer with a defective immune system, feels like a direct descendant of William Sanderson's J.F. Sebastian), however it's not at all as slavish or simplistic as either of them. 2049 delves into entirely new territory, laying the groundwork for a final shot that nearly brought me to tears. If the first film asks what it means to be human, 2049 asks what it means to be a replicant; it's a film about memory, how our memories shape and define us, and how we might feel if we were pushed to question all what we know to be real.

But this is by the by. Just what will a so-called regular punter make of this slow-paced, introspective arty sci-fi bullshit when they've been weaned on insta-gratification cinema that wastes no time in getting to where it's going, for fear that everyone's attention will be lost if there's not an explosion of some sort every five minutes? Having not stood outside a multiplex with a clipboard and pen I've no actual idea, but Simon Bland's latest Culture Dump blog post delves into a worrying trend that ties in with what I'm getting at - the noisy cinemagoer.

Mark Kermode has been banging on about this for years, but yet again he's not a normal member of the public - he's a film nerd, a movie geek, someone who wouldn't be seen dead at the concession stand when everyone else is stocking up on popcorn and chip'n'dips (whatever happened to them, eh? I used to serve them at UCI Trafford Centre, back in sepia-hued 1999... halcyon days). When a proportion of the general public are unable to sit in a cinema they've paid money to be at without talking or dicking about on their phone - and this is during mainstream releases, mind - how are they supposed to sit through and enjoy a three-hour art film that's being sold as an action-packed thrill ride they dare not miss?

Seeing as this review is cribbing views and opinions aplenty, let's go back to Gareth Dimelow who brought up on Twitter the fact that 2049's box office returns haven't been great in the US so far (the UK looks to be bucking that trend), along with the distasteful notion being bandied about that audiences aren't intelligent enough to know a good thing when they see it. It's a knee-jerk elitist reaction when supposed 'good' cinema is avoided or unappreciated by a wider audience. He's right that we (as fans of the first film) should be lucky it got made at all - a sequel to a commercial failure that gained appreciation slowly over 30-odd years. It's far from the speed at which endless Marvel films are churned out.

But is it what a wider audience actually wants? You could argue the sheer volume of generic action pictures that use the same template have lowered the bar for what audiences are prepared to sit through. Sony (the film's distributor) would have you believe it's one type of film with their trailers, god forbid it breaks the mould and is actually a bit more nuanced than your usual multiplex fare. Some viewers may feel they've been misled. But others may feel they've been taken on a journey they never expected, and come away wishing more films would aim for more than the cut-and-paste thrills they're becoming numb to.

As for the lack of plot/narrative/emotional hook that is often levied at the first film, 2049 delivers these on a glistening neon-trimmed platter. It takes its time with the characters inhabiting its world, allowing you to genuinely feel the conflict at the heart of K as he approaches the film's climax, meeting Deckard (a stunningly grizzled Ford, eating up the screen in a way he hasn't done since his Indiana Jones days) which sets up an electrifying showdown with the God-like Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his latest replicant creation.

Christopher Nolan has arguably laid the groundwork for this type of bold studio ambition to flourish when it comes to costly tentpole releases, but it's up to audiences to keep the momentum going. Sadly, box office takings remain king - films can live or die by the amount of bums on seats it brings in for the studio that's taken a chance on something different.

If no-one took any risks, you'd never get La La Land ("What's that kid, a musical you say? How much?! Get outta town!"). You'd never get Arrival (Villeneuve's previous effort, arguably an even better genre piece than 2049 but I don't want to go down any more rabbit holes here). Hell, you wouldn't even get Baby Driver. But those films made money. 2049 needs to show it can do well and hold the attention of the most distracted cinemagoer if Hollywood are to continue to invest in such passion projects; in 2049's case, something most of us never thought we'd see.

So yeah, I liked it. I liked it a lot. I'd go so far as to say it surpasses the first one (heresy they'll cry, but balls to them). The cast are excellent. The script is superb. The visuals are like nothing you've ever seen before. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch's score is literally out of this world (you'll know what I mean if you go see it - it's not 'music', it's something else that truly defies description).

If you didn't like the first one, give 2049 a chance. It's got a beating heart and soul that the 1982 film is curiously devoid of, no matter how much meaningful poetry Rutger Hauer might spout on that rain-soaked rooftop. Yes it's long. Yes it's a slow-burner. But it's one of the most mind-blowingly beautiful films you will ever see in a cinema, period. It should resonate with anyone who's lost a loved one, made a life-changing decision for the benefit of someone else, or found a box of 30-year old synthetic human bones under a dead tree on a protein farm in California, circa 2049.

Come on. We've all been there.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

IT (and other recent disappointments)

Myself and my partner @_ClaireyPops recently bought monthly passes to The Light in Bolton. I feel like I've extolled the virtues of this - both the venue and the value of said 'Infinity' card - on a weekly basis in work. It's a bloody lovely cinema and I wholeheartedly recommend it. However, it's also made me realise that too many films this year appear to be giving off a 'the same as X, but shitter' vibe.

You see when you've a monthly pass, you feel inclined to go and see pretty much any old tripe while still maintaining an air of respectability (I struggled to do this watching Cars 3 on my own). This means watching stuff you might not normally be arsed hauling yourself to a multiplex for, with filmmaking credentials (i.e. a decent director) or a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes ample reason to give it a try. However having just come back from IT, I'm starting to wonder how easily pleased both audiences and critics have started to become.

IT

Riding a wave of 80s nostalgia prompted almost entirely by the success of Stranger Things is the game here, even going so far as to cast one of the lead actors from the Netflix series.

The plot? Bunch of kids scared shitless by a demonic killer clown, preying on their worst fears in order to lure them down to his floaty, sewage-laden lair. The reality? A film that feels like a lot of other, better films (Stand By Me, Poltergeist, The Goonies, The Conjuring, Sinister, hell I'd even put Super 8 ahead of this) plus a load of ridiculous twitching clown-based scares that genuinely made me laugh out loud rather than soil myself.

As for having an 'emotional core'? Give me a break. Yes the young leads are pretty decent, and one backstory in particular is more than unsettling, but by the time they're slicing hands and becoming blood brothers I really had stopped giving a toss about every single one of them. It's as if slightly worse copies of superior films now pass muster as 'good' cinema. Are other films really that bad...? I guess the answer to that must be yes. It's a sorry state of affairs.

(Oh, and if you think the fat one is going to subvert genre clichés and get the girl - and the film most certainly suggests so - forget it. Hollywood daren't cross that line yet. And another thing - the closing credits denote this is but 'Chapter One'. Franchise-building at its opportunistic best, people.)

Logan Lucky

I don't read reviews before watching a film, but sometimes tidbits will pop up on my Twitter feed - five stars here, a drubbing there. Honestly, the next time Little White Lies give ANYTHING a glowing review, remind me to steer clear at all costs.

In this case, it was hipster-baiting cineaste circle-jerker Logan Lucky, in which director Steven Soderbergh courts film critics worldwide and leads them a merry dance, making them believe a mediocre retread of - yes, you guessed it - other, better films is worthy of serious praise. If this is all it takes to get critics salivating, Soderbergh could film Don Cheadle pissing in a grid and it would get them excited. Talk about setting the bar low.

It's not that it's badly made - it's fine. But if 'fine' is what passes for... oh, you get the idea by now. It's supposed to be a heist film set on a Nascar racetrack, but with 'funny' (i.e. not very funny) characters who don't know their arse from their elbow (Daniel Craig as prison inmate Joe Bang is a madcap casting decision that never pays off), plus zero tension wrung from not one single scene, it amounts to a whole load of nothing. It's two hours of your time you will forever wonder could have been better spent. Say, if you'd watched Ocean's Eleven again, which is pretty much the same film. Only better. With bonus cockney Don Cheadle.

American Made

I will give Tom Cruise a free pass with pretty much anything. Seriously, I love the guy. He's a mental Scientologist but that's by the by; when it comes to world-class action blockbusters, he (generally) knows how to pick 'em.

2017 really hasn't been Tommy's year though. First came The Mummy, a film that has 'franchise' etched so deep into its focus-grouped script that it ends up a shapeless, directionless pile of money that happens to have become a film (I use the word 'film' in its loosest sense). Then came American Made, another 'Fresh' entry in the Rotten Tomatoes canon that, while perfectly serviceable as a piece of entertainment, can't help but live in the shadow of - yes, once more with feeling - other, better films.

Think Goodfellas, without the classy yet frenzied direction of Martin Scorsese. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, without the classy yet frenzied direction of... oh. Now I see. Doug Liman, much as he might try, really isn't Martin Scorsese. And I honestly don't think he's trying to be, but American Made is permanently reminding you that Barry Seal (Tom Cruise)'s dare-you-believe-it's true story of drug trafficking for the CIA in the late-70's / early 80s has - for all intents and purposes - been done better in not one but two Scorsese pictures. If it wasn't for some quite ludicrous (in fact, frankly distracting) cinematography choices, along with The Cruiser's almost limitless on-screen charm, it's a film I would scarcely remember. Like Knight and Day. Precisely; me neither.

Atomic Blonde

"Nice coats" was the review from @_ClaireyPops. Oh, and a good soundtrack. But that was sort of about it. Save for a nifty one-take extended fight scene (clearly several takes strung together, but nicely done nonetheless), Atomic Blonde is basically The Long Kiss Goodnight, minus any sense of logic, fun or actual jokes. James McAvoy waving a Louboutin through a car window while saying "I've got your shoe" does not constitute a joke, people. Why are you laughing? Please, laugh at something actually funny. Laugh when it's appropriate, or get out. Honestly, you disgust me. This country.

There seemed to be a gigantic press build-up to this film, based purely on the fact it was a female lead (the always enjoyable Charlize Theron) being incredibly kick-ass. You know, just like the boys do. Like Wonder Woman, in fact! Yes, it's what people want these days. So sell it, you sons of bitches; sell it like fucking hot cakes. Cue a social media bombardment of promoted tweets, pop-ups and video clips - look, she does her own stunts! - in order to sell a film that has the most godawful spraypaint-style titling throughout, and a plot that swerves any kind of common sense in its last third (by the time you've counted the amount of double, triple and quadruple crosses, you'll be pining for the straightforward simplicity of Brian de Palma's Mission: Impossible).

She really does have some nice coats, though.

In summary...

Some of the films above ain't too bad. American Made is worth a watch, and if you like clever-clever genre-subverting shite that fails to be anything it purports to be - and you're arrogant enough to assume that means it's good, because it's what Soderbergh obviously intended - then Logan Lucky will be right up your street.

What vexes me is the fact that these are supposed to be the decent blockbusters; the ones critics have praised, or audiences given two thumbs up. Have we entered an age where literally anything that isn't Michael Bay will do?

I apologise for using Bay as an almost constant reference; I will always have time for The Island and Pain & Gain. But by and large his films are bloody awful, irrespective of the franchise-flavoured dollar they invariably pull in (notice how his non-franchise output - Beasts of Benghazi or whatever the hell it was called - comes and goes without a trace). The films above are supposed to be 'better', the discerning mainstream choice you make when faced with one or the other. But they're not. They're okay. They're serviceable. They're neither here nor fucking there.

I'm serious here. I want more for my monthly pass monies. Hollywood owes it to me! I admittedly have the luxury of being able to watch all the chin-stroking independent guff I could ever want, for free, at the arts centre I work at; but I will always have a predilection for the Jurassic World's and Interstellar's that Hollywood provides. Gigantic popcorn genre pieces that shock and awe, that push a nostalgia button without being slavish or explore uncharted filmmaking territory whilst also entertaining the masses.

That's not too much to ask for on a regular basis, is it? Ah well, at least the new Star Wars film is nearly here. But mark my words, if it ends up being 'just okay', I'm going to sue Disney. The Last Jedi? The last straw more like.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

"It's independent. It's not superheroes defending the power of America. It's European - it's different - and they can't accept that."

That was Luc Besson, talking to the Sydney Morning Herald about why he thinks his latest film has tanked at the US box office. As the interview goes on, you can sympathise with Besson to some degree. His frustrations lie with a market that has become saturated with identikit Marvel franchises; Valerian, to his credit, does indeed stand out as something different. It's nothing if not pure sci-fi in its most outrageous, nerdgasm-inducing form.

But different as in 'good'? Different as in 'better'? Different as in 'superior in quality, with characters you can root for and a story you care about'? Sadly, the answer is no. In an attempt to bring to the screen a graphic novel he's cherished since he was ten, he's forgotten the basics. It's not rocket science, Luc.

Usually I'd go over the plot essentials, but it's borderline immaterial here. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are two space dicks amidst loads and loads of other space dicks. For balance, some aren't so dickish and are actually quite nice, even if their CGI rendering isn't. Rihanna is in it for a bit. She plays a shape-shifting stripper who's been plying her trade since the age of four. I nearly did a bit of sick in my mouth when she says that. I know the film is European, but that's a bit much even for my hardy tastes.

Its main flaw (and there are many, trust me) seems to be its two leads. DeHaan and Delevingne are entirely devoid of screen charisma, her Laureline utterly obnoxious with her post-millennial, faux-apathetic bullshittery. She comes off as some sort of spoilt rich girl who by law is required to rebuff her counterpart's advances, but not in any satisfying, meaningful way that feels empowering. She's just an arsehole. Not that I blame her, to be fair - DeHaan's Valerian is a sleazy jock sad-act with terrible hair. Both of them have a thing about playlists signifying their compatibility. It's a joke (as in it really is an absolute joke) that bookends the film, both times falling completely flat. Rutger Hauer is also in it, something I'd forgotten by the time I came to write this review.

Clive Owen's in it too, and has a blackhead on his lip that make-up didn't cover up. It's really noticeable towards the end when he goes a bit General Zod, screaming that he's making very bad decisions for the good of everyone else, when really he's just a prick and everyone knows it (a bit like Clive Owen in general. Though maybe he's lovely, who knows). There's lots of people who are in it, actually - Herbie Hancock, for instance. No idea why. Same goes for Ethan Hawke, putting in possibly the worst performance of his entire career. Seriously, it's bloody awful. Worse than Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja. Okay, not that bad. But pretty bad all the same.

Valerian is a film of stuff happening. All the time, constantly, stuff here and stuff there. It's full of it. No let-up. It would be draining, were it in any way actually exciting (see The Fifth Element for an example of how this entire operation was done far better - almost verbatim - by Besson himself, twenty years ago). It's unabashed eye candy, neon-hued and 3D-accelerated to breaking point. Exhausting for the eyes, yet dull for the senses. $210m it supposedly cost. That's over four times as much as Arrival. Almost eight times as much as La La Land. Fifty-six times as much as Best Picture Oscar-winner Moonlight. Spending inordinate amounts of money on a film is no guarantee of quality, and both audiences and critics know it (see Transformers: The Last Knight).

What adds insult to injury is the fact the film was crowd-funded. Yes. Mugs like you and me paid for this overblown, charmless, two-hour PlayStation cutscene of a movie. If I'd have contributed financially to it in any way, I'd be writing Besson a strongly-worded letter demanding an explanation for such dire casting, appalling scripting and why the fuck Rihanna was in it, let alone how much she got paid. "It's European - it's different - and they can't accept that" Besson protests. No, it's not tanked because it's different. It's because it's shit. And the bar is set quite low these days when it comes to the Marvel films he's apparently taking on; crowd-pleasing they may be, but innovative they are not. If you're going to be inventive, try and remember the basics. It's not rocket science, Luc.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright is a bit like Pixar. You think he can do no wrong (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim), then he goes and makes the unfunny, genre-confused clusterfuck that is The World's End (I honestly couldn't care less if it's Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes - all the other critics are wrong, because it is shit). Well, a good run has to end at some stage. Just like Cars 2 was a blip on an otherwise upward trajectory (okay, throw in Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur in there for good measure - Pixar have made more than he has), it made Wright's follow-up - in this reviewer's eyes at least - have all the nail-chewing appeal of root canal treatment.

Okay, so that's a bit of an exaggeration. But when the first trailer for Baby Driver was released (I refuse to say 'dropped'), I viewed it with brow-furrowed trepidation. A supposed jukebox musical with all the stock crime-and-cars thrills of a modestly-budgeted Fast and Furious knock-off. But The World's End was just a blip, right? Well yes, as a matter of fact, it was. Baby Driver is nothing if not original (well, as original as anything can possibly get these days) and sits comfortably alongside Wright's best work - possibly even right at the top of the pile.

Having survived a car accident as a child, which killed his parents and left him with severe tinnitus, the only way the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort) can drown out the noise is by carting round a selection of iPods with various playlists he's curated. Under the watchful eye of Kevin Spacey's Doc - a charming but cut-throat rich guy with a nice line in planning elaborate robberies - Baby has become his go-to getaway driver, repaying a debt with each robbery he assists with.

There's all manner of classic tropes on offer here - the good kid trying to right a wrong, an evil boss, a rogue's gallery of hoodlums (Jamie Foxx, John Hamm, Eliza Gonzáles) - plus a love interest in Lily James's Debra who, if not quite out of the manic pixie dream girl playbook, certainly peddles enough sunshine-hued fresh-faced beauty to beguile Baby and make him dream of a life away from crime. Which obviously is going to be put to the test because, well, how else would these things go?

It sounds so unambitious and generic on paper but trust me, it isn't. The alleged 'jukebox musical' term isn't entirely accurate, the film opting to use Baby's playlisted songs as a jumping-off point for action sequences and audio-synchronised gun battles that initially reminded me of the godawful Clive Owen / Paul Giamatti vehicle, Shoot 'Em Up (again, let's not dwell on the fact that many critics liked this too. They are all incorrect, for it is rubbish). Suffice to say, Baby Driver pulls off exactly what that film was attempting to do with a tank load of style, charm and razor-sharp wit in reserve.

Putting relative newcomer Elgort front and centre was a canny move, too. Hanging a roster of A-listers off the back of a fresh face isn't a new concept, but it allows Elgort to more or less sit back and let the big boys do the heavy lifting while he concentrates on kicking ass and chewing bubble gum (okay, wearing sunglasses and listening to Queen). Christopher Nolan has gone this route too for Dunkirk, the film's literal poster boy Fionn Whitehead the kind of anonymous but model-beautiful central character you can place your Tom Hardy's and your Kenneth Branagh's around, letting them do the big acting while the audience walks in the boots of the everyman.

It feels like Wright may have made Baby Driver - whether intentionally or not - as a backhanded fuck-you to the studio system that turfed him off Ant-Man. It manages to tick all the boxes a studio would want (action, comedy, drama, a marketable cast) whilst also having an essential ingredient which too many studio pictures panic about these days (an original script with genuine heart), plus an indie spirit which meant no CGI when it came to the car chases. No matter how fast and furious Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson might be, when you know a driver is pulling those stunts for real, it adds a layer of tangible reality that CGI simply cannot emulate (see Rogue One's Peter Cushing for another example of this dilemma - almost there, but not quite).

While there's already talk of a sequel, Baby Driver feels like it should be a one-off, a standalone work to show aspiring filmmakers it is possible make unapologetically commercial cinema without having to sacrifice the earth. It ticks over at an unrelenting pace without ever feeling rushed or compromised, a cavalcade of ideas both old and new thrown into a mixer with all the best stuff sticking. It's how blockbusters should be. On which note, I'm off to book tickets for Pixar's Cars 3. I mean, it was just a blip, right...?

War for the Planet of the Apes

Downer films - at least ones costing north of $150m - are in short supply these days. With the shambolic state of the world of late, it could be argued that's no bad thing; no-one wants to be emotionally pummelled by a film only to walk out into the shit sandwich of actual reality. But sometimes, when the allegories run so close to home that a story takes on more meaning than perhaps its creators originally envisaged, a film fizzing with nihlism and fatalism becomes wholly necessary. I'm going on record (for now at least) to say that War for the Planet of the Apes is my film of the year - a downer film for the ages perhaps, but one that had me enthralled and exhilarated from the first frame to the last.

In a handy recap for anyone not quite up to speed with the current Apes series, the film opens with brief plot outlines of what's already happened to get us where we are. Caesar, an ape who's intellect was greatly enhanced due to his owner's experimentation with a cure for Alzheimer's (experimentation which led to the outbreak of so-called 'simian flu', all but wiping out the human race) leads his species in an ongoing struggle between apes and humans - a battle started by Koba, a fellow ape experimentee who's lust for war ultimately led to his death at the hands of Caesar.

While Caesar wants nothing more than for apes and humans to live separately and in peace, the surviving humans fear the apes will become the dominant species and "treat humans as their cattle" - or so says Colonel McCullough, played with typical Southern charm/menace (delete as appropriate) by Woody Harrelson. Far from being a one-dimensional villain, McCullough has sound reason and logic behind his aggressive sentiments, very much a Joker to Caesar's Batman (I'm not sure that metaphor works, but I'm standing by it).

McCullough has militarised a faction of remaining humans who are immune to the simian flu, caging up apes and creating what amounts to a concentration camp, complete with makeshift ape crucifixes (or rather 'scarecrows', for anyone familiar with the 1968 original) and a nice line in underground tunnels that would be a perfect escape route for the apes he's rounded up. Surely not...

It's this layering of emotionally-complex characters and allegorical brutality that gives War... a level of depth and nuance that is sorely lacking from too many franchise films these days. Director Matt Reeves - having already proved he could steer the franchise in a daring direction with the previous sequel - doesn't attempt to box-tick what he thinks an audience wants. It feels far more personal than any tent-pole studio film has any right to. However the real surprise lies in the structure. Far from being the war movie the title suggests, War... takes a slow-burn approach to what is essentially a riff on The Great Escape via Apocalypse Now, but with moments of unswerving horror that would struggle to pass censors if it wasn't for the fact it's CGI apes getting whipped and executed, not humans.

Not content with stripping back the action to a bare minimum and focusing on character development (I know, a good script - who'd have thought it?!), War... has great fun introducing new folk into the mix - namely the unbearably cute Bad Ape (a note-perfect Steve Zahn) who brings some subtle but much-needed comic relief to proceedings; and Nova, a mute young girl who's name - like the crucifixes - calls back to the 1968 original without feeling crowbarred (how she gets her name is one of the film's myriad touching moments).

While War... feels like a the end of a trilogy, more often than not these things never are. You could quite easily remake the original from this juncture (admittedly with the help of a two-thousand year fast-forward button) and continue rebooting apace. But Reeves has already suggested there's more stories to tell, not least with the introduction of Bad Ape, who's inclusion in the narrative hints at a wider ape evolution that we as viewers haven't yet been privy to. If further films are of this quality - downers though they may be - consider me signed up for the lot.