Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Oscars 2017

Despite all credible journalistic outlets already having made their predictions and tips for Oscar success this year, it felt pertinent to do my own blog at the eleventh hour - not least because I agreed to host HOME's Digital Content Manager, Sarah Leech, at our gaff for viewing purposes. I've watched the ceremony several times now, with my good lady generally falling asleep around the 4am mark, often streaming from some hooky webcast that goes down every forty minutes prompting a flurry of panicked clicking and pop-up blocking in order to find another pirate stream. But NOW TV came to our aid last year, reducing stress levels significantly (that said, Alex Zane and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman can get in the sea if they show up again between ad breaks).

(I've just checked - Alex Zane IS presenting. Please Sky, I'll suffer Zane and Boyd Hilton for five and a half hours so long as Jane Seymour is kept under lock and key.)

This year's ceremony will no doubt be politicised by those making acceptance speeches, and rightly so - anyone with a platform and a dissenting voice loud enough should be heard in these worrying times, irrespective of how many may actually take note. But when all's said and done, the show is about the films and the films alone - yes, even Florence Foster Jenkins, starring the failing overrated so-called actress Meryl Streep (nominated for Best Actress, obviously). Here's my take on those up for the big gongs, and a few of the not-so-big gongs too:


Arrival

I won't lie, big budget serious sci-fi thinkpieces like this push all the right buttons for me. Your Moonlight's and your Manchester by the Sea's aren't what I really want to be watching more than once, no matter how much act-ting they throw at you. Also it's bloody great to see a genre piece up for a hefty haul of nominations (eight, including Best Picture and Best Director) when they're so often sidelined in favour of films deemed far more important (I'm willfully ignoring LOTR: The Return of the King for this argument to work). Think of Contact meets Donnie Darko and... no wait, that's an awful way to describe it. But it's got a bit of time travel involved and it made me cry upon second viewing. Amy Adams should have been nominated for Best Actress.

PREDICTIONS: Sound Mixing


Fences

All men are bastards. It's a fact, and Denzel Washington's film version of August Wilson's play of the same name takes a whopping 139 minutes to tell us. That's not to say the film doesn't have something to say - it just takes far too long saying it. The fact the film also sticks rigidly to its stage-bound roots, largely taking place in the back yard of the house shared by Washington's Troy Maxson and his wife Rose (Viola Davis) means it rarely feels cinematic in any sense of the word, even though the story is strong and the performances excellent (Washington's Troy is possibly the most complicated and tragic character he's ever portrayed).

PREDICTIONS: Viola Davis will be pipped to the post by Naomie Harris for Supporting Actress


Hacksaw Ridge

Taking influence from war films of the 50s and 60s that colour events with a rose-tinted hue of selfless optimism and Christ-like heroics, Mel Gibson's return to the director's chair is a world away from The Passion of the Christ in one sense, but not entirely dissimilar in another. Much like Full Metal Jacket or Life is Beautiful, it's a film of two distinct halves; the schmaltz is layered on thick during the backstory, before heads are blown off and limbs strewn across the battlefield as Andrew Garfield's Desmond Doss proves exactly how a pacifist medic can be of use at the battle of Okinawa. Based on a true story, it cranks up the cheese but also the tension; a film out of time that lives or dies by how much you buy into Garfield's gee-whizz heroism.

PREDICTIONS: Sound Editing


Hell or High Water

How did this one sneak in to be a Best Picture nominee?! It's absolutely brilliant fun, but not at all what you'd expect to see on an Oscar longlist, never mind a shortlist. With Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham's cops chasing Chris Pine and Ben Foster's robbers, it's a Hollywood throwback that could sit comfortably alongside a dozen 70s exploitation pictures without breaking a sweat. The fact it has a whiff of 'this is why America is broken' about it is likely why it's been nominated; it'll win nothing, but no-one can say it isn't the most honest cinematic thrill ride of all the big nominees. Worth the price of admission for the pissed-off diner waitress alone.

PREDICTIONS: It could surprise us all and take Best Original Screenplay, but I doubt it


Hidden Figures

Pharrell Williams could have all but ruined this film if it wasn't so solid in all other areas. There's about half a dozen songs that crop up out of nowhere for no other reason than to sell a soundtrack so he can buy more fucking hats, when period songs would have fit the bill far, far better. It turns a crowd-pleasing slice of good old-fashioned entertainment into a jarring, pull-you-out-of-the-moment music video on several occasions, But I digress. Hidden Figures goes behind the public-facing theatrics seen in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 to show us what was really going on at NASA, and who the real heroes were. Like Hacksaw Ridge it's rose-tinted stuff, but undeniably entertaining.

PREDICTIONS: Will struggle against some tough competition


La La Land

Backlash be damned; this film is beautiful and I don't care who knows it. Yes I'm biased, having been to LA a few years back and had the exact same romantic experience at Griffith Observatory as Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (yes, even the floating). But it's a beguiling, shamelessly old school Hollywood musical of the kind they simply don't make anymore, not least because it could have tanked (Coppola's One from the Heart springs to mind, which made $600k back from a £26m budget). Director Damien Chazelle can do no wrong in my eyes, however I'm beginning to wonder if he's only able to make films about jazz (his festival-screened student feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, follows very similar themes). That said, if the world can have a dozen Marvel films released every week, it can certainly handle a film about jazz every once in a while.

PREDICTIONS: Picture, Music Score, Original Song, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design


Lion

Coming off like it's going to be a giant advert for Google Earth via Slumdog Millionaire, Lion actually swerves a fair majority of the usual syrupy clichés in favour of something more realistic. That's not to say this in the same league as Manchester by the Sea when it comes to the grim realities of life, but the true story of Saroo, a lost child from India being adopted by an Australian couple, only to attempt to track his real mother down twenty-five years later, is classic awards season stuff - and indeed contains all the ingredients you might expect from such a film. But it never strays too far into cloying or sentimental (J. A. Bayona's The Impossible springs to mind as its antithesis in this department). Sunny Pawar as the younger Saroo is a revelation - Dev Patel should send him up to collect the award if he wins Best Supporting Actor.

PREDICTIONS: Empty-handed


Manchester by the Sea

I'll freely admit this didn't grab me until it became apparent why Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler is so monumentally depressed. It's a smack around the head so hard made all the worse by the fact it's an accident, changing the course of his life and those around him. The film plays fast and loose with timelines, but its so tightly-edited that the jumps back and forth feel completely natural, never forced for the sake of clever-clever storytelling in the way that say 21 Grams or indeed Arrival deploys similar techniques. It's not an easy watch but isn't without its humour; will struggle against La La Land and Moonlight.

PREDICTIONS: Actor (Casey Affleck), Original Screenplay


Moonlight


If it wasn't for La La Land, Moonlight could well nab a few more statues - that said, it's slow-burning portrayal of three moments in a young gay man's life (child, teenager, adult) has had a slow-burning appeal in the lead-up to the Academy Awards themselves; some judges may have had a last-minute change of heart. It's mesmerising stuff, and could well have been overlooked by the Academy had it not been for last year's #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Expect to see some fallout from this stealing a few of La La Land's shoo-in nominations; it'll be like Forrest Gump beating Pulp Fiction all over again (well, sort of).

PREDICTIONS: Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Director (Barry Jenkins), Adapted Screenplay


And the Rest...

Captain Fantastic // Viggo Mortensen goes native. Gets his willy out. Votes Bernie Sanders.

Nocturnal Animals // Our Peter's Oscar-night outfit is inspired by this (see here). A bold statement.

Elle // Paul Verhoeven film in Oscar-nom shocker. In French, so no-one watches it.

Jackie // Natalie Portman wins Best Actress. The End.

Florence Foster Jenkins // Meryl Streep doesn't win Best Actress. Donald Trump tweets about it.

Kubo and the Two Strings // Will lose to Moana, despite some beautiful stop-motion animation.

Zootopia // Far better than it has any right to be. Even with Shakira as a pop star gazelle.

Star Trek Beyond // Up for Make-up and Hairstyling. Will lose to Suicide Squad.

Suicide Squad // Er... how did this happen?

Passengers // This is currently rated 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. I thought it was pretty good TBH.

Deepwater Horizon // The colours looked off on my new TV. Turns out it was the film.

Sully // Tom Hanks' moustache deserves an award of its own. Sam Elliott to present it.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story // Surprised Forest Whitaker wasn't up for Worst Supporting Actor.

Doctor Strange // Benedict Cumberbatch cracks a joke about Adele in this. I didn't laugh.

The Jungle Book // The live-action remake. Filmed on green-screen. With no animals. Quite.

The Lobster // Hang on, what year was this released...?!

Monday, 25 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Some folk who watched the first trailer for Star Trek Beyond a few months back may well have taken immediately to their favourite social media platform. Not to get excited, mind, but to scream heaven-ward regarding the use of Beastie Boys’ Sabotage soundtracking a bombastic, action-centric clip montage with Captain Kirk riding a motorcycle through the air.

In a furore that speaks volumes about society’s arse/tit priorities, this was tantamount to sacrilege; how dare the director of Fast & Furious piss all over Gene Roddenberry’s creation so as to possibly attract a wider demographic than the Comic-Con faithful! God forbid a Star Trek film should actually appear fun and appealing to persons outside of its immediate fanbase! Even Simon Pegg – the film’s co-writer – felt compelled to apologise such was the hubbub, reassuring fans that the film was indeed better than the trailer may have suggested. Honestly, if this was enough to get sci-fi fans in a lather, imagine if they remade Ghostbusters but with WOMEN. I dread to think.

Suffice to say, the use of said track wasn’t dreamt up by some cynical marketing department. Minor Spoiler Alert: it actually features in the finished film. And not in some throwaway manner; it’s a key component to a pivotal, colossal-scale action sequence. And would you believe it, I had a grin on my face a mile wide watching it.

You see Star Trek Beyond isn’t big nor necessarily clever filmmaking. But Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung have continued what J.J. Abrams started; making exciting, engaging, populist popcorn cinema out of a property that had all but become the sole reserve of bedroom-dwelling teenage boys. It may not have quite the flare of Abrams behind the lens (oh I went there with that wordplay), but what it may lack in panache it more than makes up for in heart.

Whereas 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Into Darkness focused primarily on the tense but brotherly relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), Beyond finds the crew of the Enterprise fractured entirely. After responding to a distress call to rescue a stranded ship, the Enterprise is set upon by a swarm of craft that tear it to pieces (my dad was incredibly confused by this in the cinema, recalling the ship’s destruction in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. I quickly and quietly explained that this was an alternate timeline, but then realised I knew more about Trek than I had previously acknowledged; I swiftly fell silent in an attempt to enjoy the rest of the film).

Realising the distress call was merely a set-up for the attack, the crew – now splintered into several pairings after a spectacular crash-landing – attempt to both fend for themselves and regroup to fight the enemy, headed up by the sufficiently nasty Krall (Idris Elba). Of these pairings, Spock and Bones (Karl Urban) make for some #classicbants while Scottie (Pegg) and Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) offer some light relief without the former turning into a comic caricature (it’s a tightrope in places, but Pegg never falls off). It’s testament to Pegg’s writing that he can even find time to wangle in Spaced references (Kirk requesting Scotty “skip to the end”) without it seeming shoehorned.

Whilst Beyond is by no means perfect (Elba’s villain gets suspiciously hammy towards the end, even for a Trek film), it does for Trek what Skyfall did for Bond on its respective 50th anniversary; references and in-jokes are in abundance, but never to the detriment of the film as a whole. It knows it has to service an audience that couldn’t care less about the previous exploits of Spock and Chekhov, whilst also having a weight of fan expectation slung around its shoulders that could have easily been its undoing. (It’s worth noting that tributes both within the film and during its end credits are paid to Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock who passed away during production, and Anton Yelchin who died tragically on June 19th this year aged just 27. It’s already been said that Yelchin's Chekhov won’t be recast, which makes it interesting to see how they'll take the franchise forward in this respect alone.)

As previously noted, Justin Lin is perfectly serviceable as a director – and maybe that’s no bad thing, as he brings no known Trek desires to the table. Sam Mendes proved with Spectre that if you try and twist a franchise to your own ends, i.e. creating a ‘Bond: Greatest Hits’ compilation, it can be your undoing (not that Eon Productions are too bothered in that particular respect, Spectre earning almost $900m worldwide). Lin lets the characters and story do the talking, sticking to the course Abrams has laid out (albeit with less lens flare) without trying to do anything crazily new. Then again, who did the forum trolls blame for Sabotage synched to footage of Kirk on a motorcycle…? As it turns out, I think we can safely blame the writers rather than Mr. Fast & Furious. But knowing how big my grin was when those guitars kicked in, I’d be taking all the blame I could.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

It was put to me the other day that - with regard to superhero films - "when we were younger we were starved of them". Which is true. It was a non-starter of a genre, deemed by those in charge to be far too niche (how wrong they were). But having too much of a good thing never rang as true as it does now, for this cynical critic at least. As the trailers before Batman v Superman made quite clear, you can't fucking move for them these days. If it's not X-Men: Apocalypse or Captain America: Civil War getting primed to clog up multiplexes the world over, it's the hulking great behemoth of a feature film following the trailers that's currently eating up my time and yours, against our better judgement.

You see I'm tired of all the primary-coloured Marvel bullshit, the desaturated DC denizens and their respective cinematic univii. Yet there I was, buying my ticket like the rest of the helpless herd, willingly putting myself front and centre of the cinema auditorium to be attacked (and it is an attack) by a film I'm already aware is getting mauled by the critics. But I'm forever the optimist, especially where half-decent on-screen superheroes are concerned. And Batman and Superman pretty much sit at the top of that list (unless you're the weirdo who thinks The Phantom is a misunderstood classic). And anyway, how bad can a $250 million movie actually be?

Well as Spider-Man 3 ($258m), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($255m - what is it with Spider-Man sequels?) and Avengers: Age of Ultron ($280m) have all proved, you can piss as much money into a film as you like and still fuck it up royally. Only with that much cash to hand, it's done on a grand scale - you can see where the money went. In the case of BvS, the Batcave in particular is a striking piece of set design. In fact there's no hiding it; the producers better see every dollar up on screen, no matter how much of a clusterfuck the finished product is. BvS throws so much costly post-production processing at the screen alone, it's at times akin to watching a dodgy thrice-copied VHS porno. Artificial grain permeates the image beyond all reason. At least in 300 (director Zack Snyder's sophomore feature) it was a justifiable stylistic choice; here it's just visual wankery, deployed because Snyder is trying to create something 'dark' and 'dramatic' (né 'not fun' and 'boring').

While BvS does contain a plot of sorts, I'm at pains to go into it without tearing the proverbial mask off and spoiling the whole show. But the film's rubbish, so I will. After a title sequence recap of why Bruce Wayne became Batman (seeing his parents get shot for a third time, after Burton and Nolan's versions) we're brought up to speed with the final scenes from Man of Steel, replayed from Wayne's point of view. As if you weren't aware of it the first time around, Supes and Zod's showdown definitely killed tens of thousands of people, not to mention toppling a Wayne skyscraper (though it was only their Metropolis branch so, you know, every cloud). Then they went and built a giant Superman statue in his honour, because he saved the world (whilst also killing a fair swathe of its inhabitants). Wayne's clearly furious, therefore SUPERMAN MUST DIE. He's a serious fella too, with serious stubble. He definitely isn't for turning on this one.

As if a Batman/Superman face-off wasn't enough to be excited about, we're then introduced to the rest of the main players - of which there's basically too many. Among them, Lex Luthor - a manchild arsehole of major proportions, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in what has to be one of the most dire 'psycho villain' performances in recent memory. It's one thing that his basketball-shooting kid billionaire routine makes you pine for the effortless scenery-chewing charisma of Hackman or Spacey; it's another that no-one else in the film acknowledges it. He's simply allowed to have a shit haircut (solely so he can have it shaved off later, it would seem), make demands for a crashed Krypton spaceship and General Zod's corpse, and casually get away with it. I forget what deal he struck to obtain them, and so will you. You simply won't care enough to remember.

Gal Gadot also shows up as Wonder Woman, though you won't necessarily know that until the end due to her complete lack of personality (not that the script helps in this instance - she's given balls-all to do). She's after a photo, or something - again, the reason why escapes me. And it'll escape you too. Wayne is also visited by a superhero from the future (possibly Nightwing? I don't know, he had a red eyemask on) in a borderline-exciting dream sequence that goes absolutely nowhere. The film is full of these kind of shoehorned plot lines that serve nothing other than to build towards the Justice League film, as if the only reason these films exist nowadays is simply to generate more films. Like a cloning experiment that's gotten horribly out of control. It makes for boring and bleakly depressing viewing.

In other news, whilst Superman is off getting hounded for being a weird alien who answers to no-one, Batman gets busy building a bastard-heavy suit to take him down with (Jeremy Irons' Alfred sits off for most of the film, uttering pointless asides as if he'd forgotten the cameras were rolling). Lex on the other hand ends up stood in a pool of alien water on-board the ship he took charge of. (again, I try and recall how/why he did this... no, nothing.) He forges a dead Zod with his own blood (?!) in some kind of funky Krypto-ritual, in order to create a deformed mutant creature to kill Superman with. He comically notes "It's your Doomsday" (one for the fanboys) when the thing comes to life right on cue, at which point Supes and Bats appear, having made friends after some serious cape-measuring (Batman's was bigger) in order to stand tall and kill this abomination together (I'm kidding of course - the real reason they make friends is because their mother shares the same name. Yes, really). Then Wonder Woman swoops in out of fucking nowhere and chips in with an outfit that really doesn't offer half as much protection as her male counterparts. The whole screen erupts in a cacophony of flames, debris, static and fury, a mindless orgy of (literal) nuclear-grade nonsense that leaves you cheering for precisely no-one whatsoever. It's absolute tedium on the grandest of big-budget scales.

As noted above, neither Batman or Superman actually 'win' in their much-hyped and hashtagged super-battle. That's because 'justice wins', obvs. In fact, the only real winner is the studio judging by the opening weekend box office takings. Money that will no doubt be ploughed into the ongoing experiment to produce more comic book films no matter what the cost, this particular batch being of the aforementioned 'dark' and 'dramatic' variety as a counterpoint to Marvel's primary-coloured bullshit.

I'd love to say we should be grateful for how the tide has turned, the superhero genre bubble on the verge of bursting when Iron Man was announced ("Iron who?" said the great unwashed), only for Ol' Shellhead to kickstart a socio-economic programme designed to punish an audience into submission with film after film the studios KNOW the public will pay to see, no matter where the quality bar is set (Spider-Man 3 = $890m; Age of Ultron = $1.4bn).

Though let it be said, I have no axe to grind here - my dissatisfaction is all-too recent. There's been plenty of fun times blasted out of the comic book cinema canon, not least of all the middle portion of Raimi's Spidey trilogy, which only serves to highlight what a studio-meddled mess the third film is. As an antithesis to said fun times (without actually losing the inherent sense of fun these films should have written into them by law), Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is for many the holy grail of how superhero cinema can and should be executed - treating the source material with respect, whilst at the same time raising the bar for a once-hokey genre to be compared with Mann's Heat and Coppola's Godfather saga.

Snyder on the other hand seems sadly intent on wiping all traces of fun from the screen, taking legendary characters and making them soulless ciphers, there to do naught except team up in one shot for fanboys to cream over. But surely said fanboys are now as disillusioned as I am with this whole affair. When the Avengers all slo-mowed into frame at the start of Ultron, it was the beginning of the end. As if this money shot is what we've all secretly been waiting for. Well you can stick your money shot, if this is what it adds up to. Poorly-written, scattershot cinema with no genuine heart and soul; just a churning, endless production line of uninspired, open-ended tripe that paves the way for another thousand films just like it.

Now if you don't mind, I'm off to book my tickets for X-Men: Apocalypse and Captain America: Civil War. Might as well, eh.

Monday, 17 August 2015

45 Years

Forty-five years is a long time to be married. It’s a long time for anything. If you consider the implications of living with someone for that amount of time then, by the very nature of us as human beings, there’s bound to be as many things said as there are unsaid.

Marriage is a sacred vow, but sadly we are prone to keeping secrets in order to spare the other person’s feelings, for better or for worse. It’s these secrets that can fester when hidden, uncoiling themselves into the cold light of day when you least expect them to.

Such a secret is kept by Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) from his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), a middle-class couple whose 45-year wedding anniversary is but a week away. When a letter arrives for Geoff explaining that the body of an ex-lover from nearly 50 years previous has been found frozen in the ice of the Swiss Alps (yep, you read that right), there’s an instant expectation that the film could switch into Fortitude mode – Courtenay scouring snow-swept mountains and perilous glaciers for his long-lost love. But no. Events stay much more low-key, and 45 Years plays out all the better for it.

This is a film about repression, guilt, heartache and loneliness between two people who should, to all intents and purposes, know each other inside out. But to sum it up in such a way does a disservice to what’s on offer. There are many moments of black comedy in the naturalistic dialogue between the two leads that show they really are two old pros absolutely at the top of their game; the film’s muted, unfussy camerawork and non-existent soundtrack amplifying all that’s said (and unsaid) between them.

In the hands of Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke45 Years could have been an exercise in emotional button-pushing – seeing how much pain and heartbreak the audience could take before calling it quits. But director Andrew Haigh laces the mood with all the warmth and genuine love you’d expect from a couple who have spent their entire lives together. For all the cracks that start to show, there’s a glue that (just about) keeps the Mercers in each other’s arms – even after dark secrets have been aired.

It’s not a stretch to compare 45 Years to von Trier’s avant-garde Dogme 95 movement in so much as it doesn’t once stray into genre fiction. There are no smashed plates and no blazing arguments, just two pensioners facing a difficult time in their lives, trying their best to keep the status quo. If that sounds in any way boring, trust me – it ain’t. The sound of a slide carousel may never be the same again.

First published on Northern Soul, Aug 8th 2015

Marshland

“What’s it like, True Detective in Spain?” – Sarah Leech, digital content producer 

This is a quote from a colleague of mine who, when I told her I’d watched Marshland the night before, asked me what it was like. I swear to you, that was the very tagline I’d created in my head about half an hour in. Even Wikipedia references the comparisons in an online article for HoyCinema.

Great minds and all that.

And while it’s no detriment to the Goya-winning police procedural to be compared to such a series (the first one, at least), there’s a somewhat pedestrian air to said police proceedings that casts a long, frowning shadow over its relatively brisk 106 minutes.

The story is fine, the acting is fine, the visuals are fine – special mention going to several knockout aerial shots of brief criminal encounters and sun-parched crime scenes. These alone could justify the entrance fee, but only really if the film was a feature-length version of Andrew Marr’s Britain From Above. Which it isn’t. It’s a perfectly serviceable crime thriller, with plenty of character ambiguity and serious faces to tick all the relevant boxes. It’s such a shame it doesn’t do more than it says on the tin.

Suárez (Raúl Arévalo) and Robles (Javier Gutiérrez) are two cops in Spain, circa 1980 – one young and grizzled, the other slightly older (and slightly more grizzled). Packed off almost immediately after the credits roll to investigate the murder of two teenage girls in the backwater locale of the Guadalquivir Marshes (hence the title), it soon becomes apparent that there’s more to this crime than the townsfolk are letting on. Add to that the rather abrasive methods Robles uses on his suspects – murky deals made with individuals who may have something to gain from the investigation – and an all-round sense that no-one wants to quite tell the truth no matter which side they’re on, and you have a soup-thick plot which could give Broadchurch a run for its money.

However, unlike Broadchurch, there’s very little page-turning tension to be chewed on. There’s nothing wrong with the ingredients, but the resulting meal never fully satisfies. Let me be contentious: if this film had been released as an English language American production, you can bet it wouldn’t have received half the plaudits. It’s a solid three-starrer, nothing more.

With that in mind, I do feel there’s a bigger discussion to be had around the idea that a film being ‘foreign’ (excuse the colloquialism) automatically grants it a free pass to be given more credit and kudos than its English language counterparts. Case in point being Schwarzenegger’s latest outing, Maggie. It’s not bad, the script and style suitably muted in tone, a zombie film with an emotional pulse. And yes, even the acting isn’t terrible, Schwarzenegger making a half-decent fist of ‘real’ emotions; he fairs no worse than any other Austrian former bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-State Governor. It’s ‘alright’. But were it to have been Korean/French/Guatemalan? I fear the red carpet may have been rolled out.

Food for thought? Maybe, maybe not. Watch this space – I’ll be back. (to argue my case a little better, that is.)

First published on Northern Soul, Aug 8th 2015

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Inside Out

Ah, Pixar. How we've missed you. For a period you were lost in the wilderness, scared and alone, the rest of us wondering where the creative spark and effortless simplicity had been mislaid. For every thrillingly original Up, there was a Disney-centric Brave. For every tear-jerking sequel (Toy Story 3) there was a shoulder-shrugging misfire (Monsters University). Don't even get me started on Cars 2.

Still, a dozen or so five-star films isn't bad going - if Kubrick would have lived beyond his 12-film canon, maybe he'd have knocked out a few duds too. (and before you ask, yes, I quite liked Eyes Wide Shut.) But when Disney bought Pixar out, the glut of aforementioned sequels seemed to announce the new parent company's arrival as a reason for dismay rather than cause for celebration. Already iffy franchises were capitalised on for no good reason (Planes, Planes: Fire & Rescue), the wellspring of originality apparently dried up now The Mouse House had taken charge.

Then along comes Inside Out, riding an absolute barrage of press coverage touting it as a return to form for the studio. If anything could topple the domination of minion-flavoured animation, it was this. But with clips on chat shows showcasing nothing more than routine kid-friendly hijinks, it felt like another shrug of the shoulders was going to be in order.

How pleasant it is to be proven wrong.

Inside Out feels like a spiritual sequel to Monsters Inc. - indeed it's directed and co-wrote by the same helmsman, Pete Docter, following the misadventures of diverse characters tasked with looking after a young girl. However where Monsters Inc. dealt with the psychology of children in a somewhat straightforward manner, Inside Out takes an altogether more ambitious route.

The aforementioned Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is first seen as a newborn baby, our protagonist Joy (Amy Poehler) coming into being in her head shortly after her birth. Joy is an unbridled representation of pure happiness, figuring out that the solitary button on her control desk puts her in charge of Riley's emotional state (a quick press invokes laughter). However things quickly escalate when Riley cries. Cue several other physical manifestations of Riley's emotional palette appearing out of nowhere to take charge of the expanding control desk: Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).

Whizzing through the first ten years of Riley's life, we are given a whistlestop tour of significant events that come to form her 'core' memories, represented as glowing coloured marbles. These in turn create parts of her personality, represented as floating islands (Family, Friendship, Goofball - Joy's favourite). All seems to be going well until Riley's family decide to move to San Francisco on her eleventh birthday, to a house that has frankly seen better days. Sadness feels an urge to start meddling with the core memories, turning them from happy to sad with a simple touch.

Things come to a head when Riley, introducing herself to her new classmates, breaks down in tears as she recalls all the things she's missing about her hometown. It's a heartbreaking scene, offset by the chaotic goings-on in her head (Sadness is all fingers and thumbs at the control desk). In a vain attempt to keep things on an even, frown-free keel, Joy and Sadness are accidentally ejected from the control tower along with the core memories; back in the real world, Riley suddenly falls silent and sits back down in her chair. In her head, she's left with Fear, Anger and Disgust at the controls, with their adventure just beginning - but on the outside, Riley is going through what any eleven-year old goes through; the pains of growing up, her confused emotional state no doubt familiar to anyone who's ever been a kid (so, that's all of us) or raised one.

As with the best Pixar films, it deals with serious and complex issues in a way that appeals to all ages. But Inside Out has the benefit (or indeed the burden) of being able to explain emotions and states of mind in a none-more-literal way. This is a film where the concept of abstract thought is discussed in significant detail, Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) leading Sadness and Joy into a room dedicated to its four stages: non-objective fragmentation, deconstruction, two-dimensional and non-figurative. These oblique terms are actually used by the characters to describe what's happening to them as they morph into Picasso-esque shapes, fall apart into component pieces, become flattened and finally turn into rudimentary single-colour abstractions. Visually it's fun, silly even; plenty of laughs were heard from the kids in the audience. But it's also a pretty advanced lesson in psychology. For a U-certificate film to even attempt such a move is bold. To actually pull it off is frankly taking the piss.

No mental stone is left unturned: Dream Productions is a giant studio lot dedicated to creating Riley's nightly thought patterns; older, unnecessary memories 'fade away' and as such are vacuumed up by a two-man clean-up team. Even those annoying songs that pop up in your head for no reason are, in fact, reasoned - sent up to the control tower by the clean-up team to plague your consciousness, purely for the hell of it.

But for all its clever humour and multicoloured vibrancy, Inside Out is a film that thrives on dark, upsetting themes. Riley's journey takes in losing friends, dishonesty, disillusionment and regret. Even in her mind we witness the death of a major character, played out with such selfless poignancy that only the coldest of hearts won't be moved. Docter knows the big themes can be tackled without having to resort to cloying sentimentality, yet he provides all the major players (both inside and out) with such warmth and depth that the emotional beats seem almost effortless.

It's easy to get swept up in a film that had me crying about halfway in, the waterworks being turned off and on again repeatedly until the end credits. But Inside Out is what a Pixar film should be - funny, silly, yet layered and complex. Not unlike Riley, really. Not unlike any of us.

Ah, Pixar. How we've missed you.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Terminator Genisys

Take a look at the image you see before you, taken from a scene in the new Terminator film. Take a good look. I mean really - soak it in, realise what it means. This is what the Terminator has become. It's not a joke; not an alternate universe where dreams are crushed and audiences made to suffer a decades-long drawn-out death of their once all-conquering anti-hero. No. This is 2015, for real, and Terminator Genisys exists.

I could end this review right here; the image, horrifyingly, speaks for itself. But I'm too incensed at the state of what can pass for a hundred and fifty-five million dollar movie these days. I'm not adverse to a bit of daft expensive fun; take Jurassic World, another franchise rebirth that could have gone horribly wrong - for some nit-pickers it did, but I along with a great deal of other people enjoyed it immensely. I went to see it twice in one weekend. Sue me. No, big silly blockbusters aren't dead. But Genisys feels at best like fan fiction - uninspired time travel lunacy that uses Back to the Future II's 'go back into the first film' gambit as a jumping-off point, then slowly hurtles to its death over the course of two hours. To say it's tripe is being too kind.

So utterly bonkers is the story (if you can call it a story) that it pains me to even begin to explain it. When you struggle to follow what's going on pretty much from the get-go, you know you're in a world of shit. The basic idea being Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time as usual, but ends up in an alternate past. There's good Terminators (Arnie is referred to as 'Pops'), bad Terminators (just in case you'd forgotten about the liquid metal one from T2), and a bad-ass Sarah Connor (Game of Thrones' Khaleesi, Emilia Clarke) knocking about in 1984, all much to the surprise of Reese.

Things get worse when it turns out that John Connor has become a Terminator himself, somehow infected by Skynet in 2029 then sent back to 2014 to make sure Skynet still exists, in the form of Genisys (an all-seeing eye of an operating system that everyone in the world is waiting to download). All this apparently negates the 1997 Judgement Day timeline, Reese and Sarah sending themselves forward in a makeshift time machine (I'm not kidding) to 2017 to meet up with the older Pops, in order to destroy Cyberdyne Systems by blowing up the new time machine that John Connor is helping to build.

It also turns out Skynet is actually the Matt Smith version of Doctor Who.

None of this is made up.

It is utter fucking nonsense.

Throw in a pointless turn from recent Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, recycled lines from the first two films to please rabid fanboys, and THAT mugshot scene (soundtracked by Inner Circle's Bad Boys - no really, it is) and you have what some people are calling the true sequel to the first two films, erasing the memory of the tepid third and fourth outings. Well, those people are idiots. Terminator 3 is pretty poor, and Terminator Salvation is far too po-faced for its own good, but by god they at least tried to be narratively cohesive. Genisys ties itself in so many knots it's laughable; by the end I neither cared about nor wished to know the fate of anyone involved. For characters as beautifully complex as Sarah Connor, it's a sad indictment of franchise dead-horse-flogging when you realise you no longer give a shit what happens to her. Ever.

Maybe, perhaps, in the infinite cosmos of possibilities and outcomes that life unfurls for us, there's an alternate universe where Terminator Genisys doesn't exist. Maybe, perhaps, the people in that universe go about their days never knowing two beloved genre films have been massacred by jobbing directors and money-hungry studios, keen to exploit Schwarzenegger's signature role beyond any reasonable stopping point. "Give the people what they want" James Bond once said (no really, he did - Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997. Check it if you like). Well the people don't have a fucking clue what they want half the time. Look at Indiana Jones. Look at John McClane. And now look, once again, at the Terminator. Go on, that photo at the start of this review. Look at it long and hard.

What a fucking disgrace.