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Posts Tagged ‘2016’

Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, inasmuch this is a film you can honestly enjoy in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level this film is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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It’s a reasonable working assumption that Disney and its stellar conflict franchise are going to own the Christmas cinema release schedule for the foreseeable future – at least until audience fatigue sets in, anyway. Until then, it will be a brave studio that puts out anything in the way of popular mainstream genre entertainment, especially in the SF or fantasy genres – although, on the other hand, there will be a lot of fruitful territory for counter-programmers to operate in.

Nevertheless, here is Morten Tyldum’s Passengers, courtesy of Columbia Pictures, Village Roadshow, the amusingly-named Original Film Company and a bunch of other entities, a mainstream SF genre movie which has the cojones to go pretty much directly head to head with Disney’s latest offering. The script has apparently been knocking about for nearly ten years, so this may just be a case of oh-I’m-sick-of-waiting-let’s-just-release-the-damn-thing, but I doubt it.

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I rather suspect the producers are relying on the cachet and star power of what is, on paper at least, something of a dream coupling of two of today’s most charismatic performers, Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. One of my friends is fond of proclaiming that Lawrence and Pratt are, essentially, the same person, in terms of their appeal, but I tend to disagree: if this were so, there would be more pictures of Chris Pratt wearing a snake on my laptop’s hard drive. Besides, Lawrence has received more Oscar nominations at such a young age than anyone else in history, while Pratt is, um, the amiable leading man guy from a bunch of comic book movies, remakes, and sequels. (It’s telling that Lawrence is receiving a considerably bigger paycheque for this movie than her co-star.)

Despite all that, it’s Pratt who has by far the bigger presence in the first act of the movie. He plays Jim, a passenger on an interstellar flight to a remote colony world. As the trip takes 120 years even at 50% of the speed of light, the passengers and crew are spending most of the voyage in suspended animation – yet a series of unprecedented events results in system failures that leave mechanic Jim (Pratt) and journalist Aurora (Lawrence) wide awake with almost 90 years of flight time still to go and no-one else for company except an well-mannered android bartender (Michael Sheen).

Well, as you might expect, there is soon a degree of chemical engineering in progress between our two stars, but not quite enough to take their minds off the looming prospect of living out the rest of their lives in total isolation on the giant ship. Plus, the ship’s systems are growing increasingly glitchy, which may also cause them some problems in a rather nearer future…

If you’ve just seen the trailers and so forth for Passengers, you may have come away with the impression that this is a fairly disposable piece of mainstream Hollywood entertainment, a vehicle for the two stars with some cute relationship stuff, a little light physical jeopardy round about the climactic regions, and as many shots of Jennifer Lawrence in something clingy and/or skimpy as they can reasonably get away with. And much of this is indeed the case.

However, those trailers (along with all the other promotional material I’ve come across) have been quite carefully fashioned to obscure one fairly major plot element. Fair play to them for trying to give the audience a proper surprise, for once, if this is indeed the thinking here – but I rather doubt that’s the case. It’s quite tricky to write about this without blowing the gaff on the stuff the trailer’s keeping quiet about, but basically it gives the film a whole new angle, and one which is not unproblematic. Without going into too much detail, it makes the film rather uncomfortable and creepy to watch.

One consequence of this is that Chris Pratt gets rather better material than Jennifer Lawrence. As I mentioned, I’ve always found Pratt to be a very amiable screen presence, but I would have said the jury was definitely still out on his ability as an actor of significant range. Well, he’s okay here, he doesn’t embarrass himself, but on the other hand it’s not a revelatory performance either. Lawrence is as immaculate as you might expect, but I doubt her award-nominations tally will be going up this year.

In both cases this is largely the result of the script just not being quite there. The main driver of the first two acts is the issue of loneliness and isolation and how people react to it, but you can’t base an action-packed finale on something like that, so there’s a rather inelegant shifting of the gears, with the appearance of a new character played by Laurence Fishburne, and a sudden onset of peril and excitement. Now, the film does work quite hard to ensure this doesn’t appear completely out of nowhere, and indeed it’s also trying its best to smooth over some of the issues with the awkward material mentioned earlier. But in the end just a bit too much is discounted just a little too easily.

(It’s a minor issue, but the film’s world-building seems a little suspect to me, too: quite apart from the horrible corporate future depicted here – this is almost the colonisation of the galaxy as envisioned by Donald Trump – the ship looks more like a cruise liner than a colony vessel. We are told there have been ‘thousands’ of trips in the past. Assuming 120 years is standard for each voyage, who is crewing these vessels? Who would want to work on a ship where every round trip propels you the best part of 250 years into the future? It’s like The Forever War with nicer decor.)

The film is visually lavish and Morten Tyldum does his best with it, but I don’t think it’s up to the standards of either The Imitation Game (his last film) or Headhunters (the one before that). Pratt and Lawrence keep things watchable, naturally, but I came away with a strong sense of a film shying away from properly engaging with all the issues it was raising. It’s not just that the film brings up some awkward questions – it’s that it seems fully aware of these questions and is actively trying to pretend they don’t exist. I wouldn’t call this a bad film, quite – but I couldn’t call it a good one, either.

 

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You would have to have a heart made of solid bakelite, I suspect, not to be profoundly and repeatedly moved by Roger Ross Williams’ documentary Life, Animated. I must confess to having been a bit wary going in to this one, despite being aware of the glowing buzz surrounding it, as I do like to maintain a proper air of reserve and detachment (except when watching Jason Statham movies, obviously), and also because I suspected the subject matter might strike a bit too close to home for absolute comfort. But turn up I did and within the first few minutes found myself at severe risk of having an emotional episode.

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This is the story of Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, who as the film starts is on the verge of graduating, moving into his own place, and starting to look for a job. What makes this slightly unusual is the fact that at the age of three, Owen began to suffer a marked deterioration in his motor skills and speech, and was diagnosed with regressive autism. The doctors informed his parents (his father is a Pulitzer-winning journalist, which may have something to do with why this film got made) that some children with this condition never speak again.

And yet Owen has grown up to be an engaging, lively, outgoing young man, aware of the special challenges he faces, realistic, but also hopeful. How has this happened? The answer seems to lie with his love of Disney animations: he has a deep and abiding love for all things of the Mouse, and has apparently memorised the complete scripts of every single full-length cartoon. They are his means of rendering the world intelligible and forming a significant connection with it.

The film has the advantage of incorporating numerous clips from the various movies in question, which you might expect to have presented some interesting issues of licensing – apparent what happened was that they showed the movie to Disney’s terrifying legal team, who all promptly started weeping while watching the film, at which point the negotiations became considerably simpler. That said, it is not quite the exercise in grisly advertisement and promotion for the Disney machine that you might be expecting and/or dreading – the clips are there to service Owen’s story, not promote the brand.

And it is the story of how one lives with an autistic-spectrum disorder. I find myself a little hesitant at this point, mainly because I’m worried about crossing the line and starting to talk more about myself than the movie, but in the spirit of the courage shown by the Suskind family in this film, I will chance it. Possibly the most significant change in my own life in the past year has been my realisation that I am further along the autistic spectrum myself than I previously thought might be the case. I mean, as soon as I heard of Asperger’s syndrome and read a list of typical features of the condition, I was struck by a definite sense of personal recognition. I am strongly attracted to routine, habit, and continuity; I often have significant difficulty in processing change. When something interests me, it consumes my attention entirely and I find it difficult to devote any real time to anything else. Many social situations are challenging and uncomfortable for me – maintaining relationships can also be difficult. I find myself strangely drawn to Saga from The Bridge (although, to be honest, I suspect the same is equally true of many men with standard brain function). When it comes to Owen’s way of using reference points from Disney movies to connect with the people around him, the parallel that instantly leapt to my mind was an episode of Star Trek concerning an alien culture which functions in a roughly analogous fashion, and if I tell you that the episode in question is called Darmok, aired as part of (I think) the fifth season, guest stars Paul Winfield, that Russell T Davies has never seen it because he likes the purity of the concept too much, and that I can tell you all of this without recourse to the internet despite not really considering myself that big a fan of The Next Generation, you may perhaps begin to get a glimmering of just how oddly my own circuits are wired up.

In short, it’s a constant fact of life, and I must confess that I do feel rather more comfortable in my own skin now I’ve actually figured out what’s going on with me. I wonder whether it’s the sense of recognition I got from watching Owen deal with his own issues that made me respond so strongly to the film; I doubt it, though, for this is surely a captivating story no matter what your own background.

This is partly down to Owen and partly down to his family, who are often wrenchingly honest when it comes to talking about their own feelings. Do not make the assumption that this is a heavy or depressing film – it is always down to earth and often very funny – there’s a wonderful sequence where Owen’s elder brother Walt muses on the difficulty of teaching him about some of the elements of, erm, adult relationships, given that these same elements do not generally feature in Disney cartoons.

Looking back it seems rather like I’ve devoted more words to talking about myself than the actual film, which was the last thing that I wanted to do: this is supposed to be a review, not a plea for attention, and it doesn’t do justice to a film which is in many ways one of the most exceptional of the year – it has a warmth and emotional charge to it which very few dramatic films I’ve seen can match. You feel a real connection to the people in the film, and yet it never feels intrusive or exploitative, which can often be a problem with this kind of documentary. The documentary footage is accompanied both by the Disney clips already mentioned and by some new animation, which is actually quite lovely in its own right and suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Documentaries about autistic-spectrum disorders do not tend to be major box office hits, especially at a time when the latest stellar conflict brand extension exercise is due to swamp cinemas everywhere (ironically, itself another Disney subsidiary). I can’t really be completely objective about Life, Animated, but it did seem to me to be a great documentary telling a very accessible and uplifting story. Recommended.

 

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Things have got to the point where, if you’re not paying close attention, you could almost start to get Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood mixed up with each other: both hugely respected actor-directors, both of about the same vintage, both rather less frequently seen before the camera these days… and, it should really be said, both of them perhaps not quite delivering the goods with quite the same consistency as was the case back in the 70s and 80s (your mileage may obviously differ, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that Eastwood is currently on the biggest hot streak of his career in terms of simple commercial success). It’s still quite rare that either of them serves up something genuinely bad, but as often as not these days their films are most likely to make you go ‘Mm,’ and change the subject onto something a little more prepossessing. I offer as the latest exhibit Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, which rather puts me in mind of an episode of the long-running medi-soap Casualty.

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Or, more precisely, something I once heard said about Casualty by a writer who briefly worked on the show. Doing his research, by both watching old episodes and hanging around in A&E departments, he came to the conclusion that Casualty (the show) was filled with people who had accidents which conveniently allowed them to articulate whatever personal and emotional issues they happened to be going through, while Casualty (the department) was simply filled with people who had had inconvenient (at best) accidents. So he started writing episodes which he felt were truer to life – ones where the central crisis, rather than serving to unveil a secret conflict or enable personal growth, just happened to unsuspecting, undeserving people. And he lasted about two episodes before they sacked him. Fiction ideally demands outrageous drama.

Reality generally has different requirements to fiction, of course, which is one of the main things you notice about Sully. This presents itself as a docudrama about the 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident in which a passenger jet made a water landing on the Hudson River after both its engines were disabled in an encounter with a flock of birds. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play the pilots of the troubled plane; Eckhart has the bigger moustache but Hanks gets the bigger role, as Chesley Sullenberger (our research indicates this really is his name), a hugely experienced aviation professional who finds himself wholly unprepared for the media and administrative circus which consumes his life immediately after the crash – or, as he is very careful to describe it, ‘water landing’.

I’ve already inflicted one overelaborate metaphor on you, but never mind: here’s another one. Imagine watching two men build a dry stone wall. Between them these guys have been building things for seventy or eighty years. You are in the presence of two of the greats. Every move they make is nothing less than measured and precise and immaculate. What they are doing is effectively beyond criticism. However, they are still building a dry stone wall, which is not the most exciting structure in the annals of architecture, and nothing they do can really distract you from that for too long.

In other words, while Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – careful, reserved, precise, particular, dry as an old biscuit, an unlikely candidate to even have a nickname – may be exactly the kind of man you want flying the plane next time you travel by air, he’s not exactly sparkling material when it comes to a true-life movie drama. All right, so he has a few traumatic flashbacks and nightmares, and it’s suggested he’s a bit economical with the actualite when it comes to using his first job to promote his second (aviation safety consultant), but that’s still pretty slim pickings when it comes to putting together a movie even as brief as this one (a practically bite-sized 96 minutes).

It may also have been an issue that all the really exciting stuff in this film technically happens at the start of the story, which would explain a slightly curious structural choice where the actual movie begins post-crash – sorry, post-water landing, and then goes on to showcase the incident and its aftermath in the middle of the movie. And then show the plane going down once again just before the closing credits, presumably because it’s such an exciting bit the audience aren’t going to complain about watching it a second time.

And I suppose they’re right, because the post-goose-meets-jet stuff is far and away the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The rest of it is just grey and lacking in a clear focus: it could be about how the media sensationalises everything, even things which were pretty sensational to begin with, or about the loss of trust and simple human decency in a machine-dominated world, or the importance of remembering to take our basic humanity into account. It certainly feels like a film with A Big Message, it’s just not certain what that message is. Like any other American film about a plane-related incident these days, it also feels just a bit po-faced and reverential. I’m not surprised that the transport safety people have been complaining about this movie, given they are presented as a sort of Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn’t expect that either), but this entirely contrived plot thread is all the film can come up with when it comes to generating actual conflict and drama. However, it’s telling that their pursuit of Sully, which forms the closest thing the film has to a conventional climax, is essentially resolved by watching people play Flight Simulator, which isn’t that exciting when you play it yourself, let alone watch as a spectator.

Tom Hanks is one of the great actors, and he’s on full power here – and Clint Eastwood is one of the great directors, and likewise he does nothing wrong (and, fair’s fair, this film has given him the biggest domestic opening of his career). Nobody really drops the ball here, not Eckhart, not Laura Linney as Sully’s wife… well, I suppose you might want to have a word with the screenwriter, perhaps. It’s just that, as Sully himself observes, the incident only lasted 208 seconds, and the rest of the events just aren’t that dramatic enough to sustain a full-length movie narrative. All the things that make this exactly the sort of air-travel incident you’d choose to be involved in are the same ones that keep it from being a genuinely gripping drama.

 

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Like many other people, I have been keeping half an eye on the BBC’s latest wildlife extravaganza, Beneath the Planet of the Earth, and the privations of the people who spend six months up trees waiting for sloths to get jiggy never fail to impress me. And, also like many other people, I suspect, I do occasionally find myself wondering: do they ever get the urge to, you know, assist real life a bit? Tell the lions where the baby giraffes are? Or, conversely, give the poor dying-of-thirst-in-the-desert hippo a crafty trough of lemonade between takes? Documentarians are only human, after all.

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This was brought rather forcibly home to me by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami’s Sonita, undoubtedly this year’s leading documentary about the Afghan hip-hop scene. Centre stage throughout is Sonita Alizadeh, who as things get underway is an Afghan refugee living in Tehran, dreaming of her future as a musical superstar. This consists of her sellotaping pictures of her own face onto magazine photos of Rihanna and rapping to her schoolmates at the refugee centre she attends. (She appears to be rapping about scratchcards, but it’s still one of the top ten best Afghan-language hip-hop numbers I’ve ever heard.)

Sonita and her mate Ahmad are doggedly attempting to launch some sort of musical career in Tehran despite the lukewarm response of the industry professionals they meet and the numerous problems facing a young female refugee wanting to record American-style music in Iran. Things do not look rosy. However, they get even worse when news arrives from the rest of the family back in Afghanistan: her elder brother wants to get married, for which he will need $9000 to pay the bride-price on his intended. To raise the money, Sonita’s mum has decided to realise one of the family’s assets: by marrying Sonita off to a stranger, and receiving a hefty financial sum in return.

This is, if you will, the film’s hippo in the desert moment, summed up by a moment in which Sonita looks forlornly at the camera and asks Ghaemmaghami if she can’t stump up some cash of her own, effectively buying Sonita’s freedom from the demands of her family. There is a long pause and the director gently tries to explain that it is not her role to involve herself in Sonita’s life that way.

Many discussions ensue between the refugee centre boss and Sonita’s alarming mother, followed by an extraordinary sequence in which Ghaemmaghami, the centre boss, the cameraman, and the boom operator heatedly discuss exactly what their responsibilities are towards Sonita and whether they should pony up for what is effectively blackmail by her mother: two grand will buy Sonita another six months of life in Tehran.

In the end a caption reveals that the film-makers decided to pay the $2000. From this point on the film is effectively dead in the water as a conventional documentary, but remains weirdly compelling viewing anyway: Sonita persuades the crew to film a pop video of her performing a number about bride-selling, which they then put on YouTube. As a result, she gets offered a scholarship to a school in Utah, but this involves a frankly hair-raising gamble: Sonita has to return to Afghanistan, from where she may not be able to leave again, and secure the necessary travel documents without her family finding out. It’s very clear throughout that the director is basically egging Sonita on, utterly disregarding the concerns of her family, and possibly even Sonita’s safety. The code of ethics of (utterly non-)professional film critics prevents me from revealing how it all turns out (look on Wikipedia if you really must know), but many members of the audience at the screening I attended – primarily the young, American ones – were literally weeping as the film ended. Hmmm.

I mean, it’s not as if Sonita Alizadeh isn’t a winning screen presence: she’s as engagingly stroppy and self-obsessed as any western teenage girl, and, as far as I can tell, which is obviously not very far at all, she does have some genuine talent as a writer and performer – but the problem is that the film’s openness about how involved the crew were in shaping its events really makes you doubt and question the whole thing.

Even before the bit with the cash, I was slightly unsure this wasn’t some bizarre Chris Morris-esque spoof of right-on documentaries, played absolutely deadpan: there’s a scene in which a pair of stony-faced social workers get Sonita to use her classmates to recreate scenes of her family’s escape from the Taliban. Other bits just feel staged: at one point Sonita has to pop off down the benefits office to ask for an advance on that month’s money, and the scene is filmed from within the office itself, indicating the people there are complicit in having the documentary crew around. The same is true of a discussion of Sonita’s fate between her mum and the refugee centre boss – if this is a genuine conversation of such import, what the hell is a camera crew doing there? Even the subtitles to Sonita’s lyrics rhyme suspiciously well, given she’s supposedly singing in a foreign language.

In short, the impartiality of this documentary felt deeply suspect from very early on, and the questionable element is by no means limited to the director’s involvement in shaping the subject’s future. The axe that the film is grinding is a noble axe, a justified axe, an axe that I am broadly very sympathetic to myself. But that doesn’t negate the fact that it’s a film with an axe to grind, and the clear intention of presenting Sonita as a sort of hip-hop version of Malala Yousafzai (or possibly Ms Dynamite, albeit with a background containing genuine explosives).

This probably isn’t the place to rake over my own first-hand experiences with the partly quaint but mostly just brutal match-making practices of central Asia – suffice to say that the traditions which the film (and Sonita) rail against so effectively are certainly not fictitious and still have the capacity to ruin the lives of young women. But how we deal with this subject is a complex and difficult topic which is not especially well-served by a film which is so obviously partisan on the issues involved (one completely unconnected scene, early on, has a young woman with a black eye being assured that ‘your brother says it won’t happen again’ – we are left to draw our own conclusions as to what’s been going on). Are we so utterly self-assured when it comes to the righteousness of our own principles that we are prepared to casually disregard and obliterate the traditions of Afghan culture? Isn’t the film basically presenting a very particular form of Americanism as the one true way forward? There is some troubling stuff here.

That said, what were they supposed to do? Let Sonita be dragged off to – essentially – domestic slavery as a drudge for a total stranger? I suspect I probably would have done the same in the film-makers’ position. I can’t argue with their choices, but they do colour the film and get in the way of it having the effect they no doubt intended. As a result, while Sonita is mesmerising to watch, it isn’t always for the best of reasons, and – in a very rare occurence – I am somewhat at a loss to say what actual merit it has as a film. It’s agitprop more than genuine documentary, and embedded agitprop at that. But at least it’s honest about its intentions, and constantly watchable as a result. Interesting soundtrack, too, obviously.

 

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I hate to break it to you, but we are currently approximately 16% of the way through the 21st century. All resources must be exploited. All revenue streams must be maximised. The chances of anything still popular and therefore financially viable being allowed to remain a fond memory are, to be perfectly honest, zero. So it should come as no surprise that it has been decreed that the vastly lucrative entity that was the Harry Potter film series has lain fallow long enough, and that a series of prequel movies has duly started to appear. (It took about fifteen years for the original Star Wars trilogy to get prequelated; ten years for The Lord of the Rings; with Harry Potter the delay is down to five. At this rate the prequels will soon start coming out in double bills with the films they are based on.) First out of the blocks to hoover your money is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, directed by David ‘Safe Pair of Hands’ Yates.

fantastic_beasts

(What, too much? You may have a point, especially considering I was rather positive about Yates’ Tarzan movie, which only came out a few months ago: he must have knocked this one out in a couple of weekends. Well, anyway: you must forgive me, it’s my age. Come on, it’s not as if JK Rowling actually needs the money or anything.)

All righty then: the story opens with the arrival in New York, New York of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). He is a traveller who appears to be British, has floppy hair, is terribly eccentric yet clearly meant to be hugely endearing, wears a bow tie, and has a battered old box which is bigger on the inside than the outside (hey, I’m just saying). Newt is, of course, a wizard, for we are in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TM), although we are also in 1926 on this occasion.

Inside Newt’s magic box are his collection of magic animals, a.k.a. weird little chunks of CGI, which he frequently fishes out and bonds with; so often, in fact, that you begin to fear for Redmayne’s sanity after all that acting to empty air and golf-balls on sticks. His visit to the States runs into trouble when he accidentally mixes up his case with that of aspiring baker and non-magician Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) and several of the little buggers inevitably escape. This draws the attention of magical cop Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and her kooky sister (Alison Sudol).

The magical authorities of the States are not best pleased as it seems that some kind of supernatural menace is already on the loose in the Empire City, preying on normal people and wizards alike, with top wizard-cop Colin Farrell on the case. Can Newt and his friends recapture all his lumps of CGI and solve the mystery of what’s really going on?

The ardour of the Harry Potter fanbase is still such that a film like Fantastic Beasts is effectively critic-proof; and sure enough this one has made over $270 million in about a week of release. Anyway, it would be remiss of me to say that it is an actual waste of time, money, and talent, for clearly a lot of thought, imagination and skill has gone into creating the world and story of the film.

Even so, one can’t help but notice that this first made-directly-for-the-screen tale has ditched the British setting for something more familiar to that big audience in the USA (i.e, a setting in the USA). It hasn’t become totally Americanised, but something very odd still seems to have happened: this is a film with a main character who resembles an American person’s idea of what the British are like, set in a place which is a British person’s idea of what America is like. Then again, it’s JK Rowling, so you don’t turn up expecting reality, and the two things do kind of balance each other out.

That said, I’m rather less impressed with Rowling the screenwriter than I was with Rowling the novelist: the story is reasonably well-structured, and properly cinematic in scope, but the plotting is considerably less impressive, the tendency towards sentimentality seems rather stronger, and as usual the thing is in dire need of a good no-nonsense editor.

Possibly the most serious problem, which may become more obvious as this series goes on – apparently four (four?!?) more prequels are in the works – is that very sense of self-indulgence, of the film being its own raison d’etre. I still think much of the success of the Harry Potter books was down to their comforting familiarity to parents rather than children: there’s a touch of Agatha Christie to that fiendishly clever plotting, and also of Enid Blyton in the Three Have A Wizard Time vibe which is so often in evidence. Underneath all the intricate world-building they are on some level pastiches of different kinds of story.

Fantastic Beasts, on the other hand, is just a fantasy with a couple of right-on subtexts of brick-through-your-window subtlety, coupled to a lot more world-building. Some of this is interestingly unexpected: the magical community in the USA, despite having a female president (told you it was a fantasy), is by no means depicted entirely flatteringly – they are autocratic and alarmingly fond of the death penalty. But much of the rest of it may not be that interesting to you if you’re not already a pretty heavy-duty Harry Potter fan, and many of the references to characters and so on from the previous films and books may likewise go over your head if you’re not one of the faithful. Due to my abnormally retentive mind, I think I got most of the references, but even so I thought much of the climax was rather underwhelming – there didn’t seem to me to be a lot at stake, at least nothing I’d been made to care about. Some concluding revelations in particular are most likely to simply baffle people who maybe saw all the earlier films once each when they came out, and can’t remember all the labyrinthine backstory of every major character.

Still, it looks suitably lavish and there are some nice performances: Redmayne is a bit too mannered for my tastes, but Fogler gives a charming performance, Farrell gives proceedings some heft, and they appear to have finally run out of new ways to smother Ron Perlman in latex rubber: he appears here via mo-capping, as a goblin who seems to be in desperate need of a chiropractor. None of it is actively bad, although Sudol’s performance possibly comes close in terms of sheer capacity to annoy, and I have no doubt the expectant masses will lap it up like butterbeer.

Fantastic Beasts is, though, primarily a film which has been made to service an existing fanbase, and just how much you enjoy it will probably depend on how much of a true believer you are. I was never really one of the faithful, certainly as far the movies go, and so I found this film to be a reasonable diversion, perhaps rather overlong and a bit schmaltzy, but generally inoffensive overall. It will be interesting to see how well this film does over the whole length of its release, and whether subsequent instalments will direct themselves quite so exclusively at the core audience. And if it sounds to you that I’m treating this film more as an exercise in branding and marketing than an actual piece of storytelling – well, I commend you on your perspicacity. But it is 2016, after all.

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