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Posts Tagged ‘2018’

I find myself once again on the threshold of a moment which feels self-indulgent and somewhat pointless, for I am about to devote time and energy to writing about a film which, on average, nobody in the world is likely going to see. What can I say; I like the physical act of going to the cinema, and at the moment the vast majority of films I have either paid to see or would have to be paid to see. So, after a thorough search of the Oxford listings, and having briefly contemplated going to see a revival of The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, I ended up trundling along to the one and only local screening of Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (NB: title may be ironic).

This is a reasonable example of what I always think of as a Sou’western; which is to say that it does a very good job of having much of the atmosphere and imagery of a Western, but is actually set in Australia. Warwick Thornton is, apparently, a respected Australian film-maker, whose special area of concern is the treatment of the indigenous people of the continent. If this leads you to conclude that there are not a lot of laughs in Sweet Country, you are, as they say, bang on the money.

The film is set in the 1920s, in an outback so vividly presented you can almost taste the dust and smell the sweat. Sam Neill plays Fred Smith, a tolerant and pious landowner, who is asked a favour by his neighbour Harry March (Ewen Leslie). March is a troubled man, very likely suffering from PTSD following his experiences in France with (one presumes) the Anzacs – not that there was much understanding of such things at the time. Living alone is not helping him to cope, and he requests the assistance of Smith’s indigenous farmhand Sam (Hamilton Morris) for a day or so.

Well, let’s just say that March’s casual racism does not get in the way of some bad stuff going down between him and Sam’s wife, although Sam is not aware of this. But she is left in terror of March, which has serious consequences a few days later. Drunk and in pursuit of a young boy he suspects of stealing, an almost-unhinged March resorts to shooting up the cabin that Sam and his wife are in. Fearing for both their lives, Sam grabs a gun and shoots back, killing March.

It’s clearly justified self-defence, but Sam is wise enough to understand that he is very unlikely to get justice from the courts of the whitefella, and he and his wife take flight into the outback. Sure enough, an armed party is soon in pursuit of the duo, led by the local sergeant (Bryan Brown), with Smith along to try and ensure that some semblance of due process is observed…

As I say, you could quite easily rewrite this script so the story was relocated to somewhere in the wide open spaces of America in the late 19th century, instead of the Australian outback fifty years later. (I am aware that saying this will doubtless incense Warwick Thornton. Sorry.) There is the occasional moment which starkly reminds you of the location of the story, however – at one point the posse encounters a group of unwesternised indigenous Australians, who are not pleased to see them, and in a startling moment the film makes graphically clear that boomerangs are not toys or joke weapons. Later on there is a slightly surreal alfresco trial sequence, with most of the participants sitting in deckchairs. In the end, though, it is not really the subject matter of the story that keeps this from being a full-on western (or sou’western), but the way it is handled. It is a western in the same way that You Were Never Really Here is an action thriller: which is to say that it’s not, but it uses the raw material of this kind of story to create a much more considered, thoughtful and frequently non-naturalistic narrative.

The fact that this kind of film is getting any kind of major international release must be at least partly due to the presence in it of Bryan Brown and Sam Neill. Brown is one of those actors you’d probably recognise from somewhere, even if you didn’t remember his name, while it’s not that many years since Sam Neill was heading up genuine first-rank Hollywood blockbusters. These days his star has waned a bit, of course: quite apart from his cameo in The Commuter, we must speak of the last film to which both he and Brown contributed, the unspeakable you-know-what (Brown had a tiny voice part as Mr Rabbit). Both their performances here are sufficiently exemplary for me to be minded to forgive them their role in the lapine calamity, though: this is a solid enough movie, but those moments where it really sparks into life are mostly due to its two big names.

That said, this is a movie which seems to be content to keep its characters at arms’ length, presenting them dispassionately. We are not encouraged to identify with the well-meaning but ineffectual Smith, or the police sergeant. Sam in particular, whom you would most expect to be a sympathetic character, remains essentially inscrutable and enigmatic for most of the movie. The narrative remains engaging, and there is never any doubt as to where the director’s sympathies lie, but the nature of the story means that this is hardly light viewing, nor is it really intended as entertainment.

For the most part the film sticks to the truism that the kind of racist oppression suffered by the indigenous people of Australia debases and degrades the white boss-class as much as their victims (not that this in any way lets them off the hook). But there’s also interesting subtext about a kind of generational dysfunction. The film is filled with adults unwilling or unable to acknowledge their biological children, or at least have a proper parental relationship with them; the result is a kind of pervasive familial angst, born of the casual belief in the inequality of European colonists and indigenous people. It’s very difficult to find signs of optimism anywhere in Sweet Country: ‘What hope has this country got?’ cries a despairing Fred Smith in the closing moments of the film.

On one level Sweet Country is about the relationship between violence and justice, the stuff of many a conventional movie, but the uncompromising starkness of this movie, and its occasional more impressionistic touches – there are brief, soundless flash-backs and flash-forwards scattered throughout it – mean it is much more a piece of political art than something you would ever watch for pleasure. The skill with which it has been made, not to mention the incredible beauty of the Australian landscape, means it is a rewarding film on many levels, but conventionally enjoyable? I would strongly doubt it.

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You would have to be a real curmudgeon, I submit, to object to the rise of genial Dwayne Johnson to his current position as the most world-bestriding movie star in the business. As it happens, Johnson started his movie career at round about the same time I started sticking my first bits of film-related writing on the internet. There have been a few missteps and quiet patches since the likes of The Scorpion King and The Rundown, of course, but since he joined the Fast and Furious circus in 2011 he really doesn’t seem to have looked back. (I, on the other hand, have steadily progressed from writing humorous film reviews on a fairly obscure website, to writing humorous film reviews on an entirely different and even more obscure website.)

They’re not doing a Fast and Furious film this year, thus freeing up genial Dwayne to make another film instead, and his choice has turned out to be Brad Peyton’s Rampage. While I was buying my ticket for this movie, I noticed one of the ticketeers struggling to deal with a young mother who’d brought her kids to the cinema.

‘I brought them to Peter Rabbit but this one says he’s already seen it,’ she complained, indicating a small child. (Another young life needlessly blighted.) ‘What’s Rampage about?’

Panic glittered in the ticketeer’s eyes. I felt it incumbent upon me to step in. ‘Dwayne Johnson plays a zookeeper,’ I said helpfully. ‘But there’s an accident and the animals get sprayed with magic chemicals that turn them into giant monsters. So he has to fight them all.’

The rictus mask of horror which settled upon the face of the young mum is not something I can easily describe, but I think it’s safe to say that Rampage did not receive her custom. This is a shame, for Rampage is pretty much the perfect Dwayne Johnson vehicle – big, slightly absurd, but essentially good-natured and very likeable.

I must confess to having simplified the plot a bit when I was pitching the movie to the lady in the cinema. It says something about Rampage that genial Dwayne plays a crack special forces soldier turned brilliant primatologist, and yet this is very far from the most preposterous thing that the film requires you to believe. Well, anyway, the film is predicated on the fact that ‘genetic editing’ technology exists allowing unprincipled scientists to basically mash up different kinds of animal.

Some experiments along these lines have been taking place on a space station, which as a result is experiencing an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (this sequence kind of resembles a gonzo remake of Gravity). Needless to say things go badly and cannisters of the (very vaguely defined) monster-animal-creating jollop fall to Earth in various locations across America.

The principal one of these, from our point of view, is the zoo to which Dr Davis Okoye (genial Dwayne) is attached. Davis likes animals more than people, on the whole, and his special friend is George, an albino gorilla. So he is as cross as two sticks when exposure to the falling space debris results in his pal growing two feet in height in a matter of hours and becoming uncharacteristically violent and aggressive.

Other people have more serious problems. The evil corporate types responsible for the whole mess, the Wydens (played with cartoon gusto by Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy), need to get a sample of the jollop in order to shore up their stock price, so they pack a team of mercenaries off to Montana to find another one of the cannisters. But they all end up getting eaten by a wolf the size of a bus.

So, as you would expect from people who think that creating giant mutated near-indestructible monster animals makes good business sense, they hit upon an equally sensible plan B: sending a radio signal from the roof of their skyscraper in Chicago which will attract the monster animals to the city, thus allowing the armed forces to kill them all (and letting the Wydens get their sample).

In the meantime, Davis and a female scientist who is mainly there to be decorative and exposit (Naomie Harris, who is not, perhaps, over-stretched by this role) have been nabbed by the government, along with George the gorilla. Agent in charge Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan in scenery-devouring form) would quite like the whole mess clearing up, but with George and the wolf proving uncontainable, and a third even larger beastie swimming up the Chicago river, it’s clear that a lot of things are going to have to explode before it’s all sorted out…

Even by the standards of Hollywood blockbusters, there’s something fundamentally weird and off-kilter about the premise of Rampage – for example, why a wolf, a gorilla, and a crocodile, exactly? The answer may partly lie in the fact that this is yet another movie based on a computer game – in this case, however, one from the 1980s with minimal plot and depth. The barest essentials of this – monsters vaguely resembling an ape, a wolf and a crocodile tearing down buildings – are at the heart of the movie. (It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that this production was at one point sued by Uwe Boll, director of many terrible video game-based movies – not, as you might expect, for threatening to bring the genre into repute, but because he himself directed a series of movies called Rampage and felt he held the rights to the title.)

If I say they do a pretty good job with some unpromising material (it took four people to write this thing), this is not because I am claiming that Rampage is a film of great moment which will long be remembered as a significant contribution to world cinema. It is not. It is a film about Dwayne Johnson having a fight with a giant albino gorilla, a giant mutated crocodile, and a giant wolf-porcupine-flying-squirrel hybrid. But as such, the movie knows exactly when the audience will probably cut it some slack (yeah, so the monster animals can home in on radio signals…) and when it really has to deliver – namely, in the scenes of the monsters running amok in Chicago and fighting the armed forces.

I don’t know, maybe we’re living through a new golden age of the American monster movie and we didn’t even notice it start – in the last year or so, there’s been Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and now this, all of which have captured the energy and fun of classic monster movies much more than things from even four or five years ago. The original Rampage game clearly owed a debt to King Kong and Godzilla, of course, so there’s a sense in which the circle is closed here – it also seemed to me that the croc in this movie bears something of a resemblence to a classic Toho monster. The shade of Ishiro Honda would surely approve of the various sequences of urban devastation which make up the bulk of the third act of the movie.

However, I think we are in danger of overlooking the contribution made by the actors to this film. It’s true that the villains are just there as plot devices, and they are essentially ciphers, and it’s equally true that no matter how hard New Line Cinema push for an Oscar nomination for genial Dwayne, he ain’t gonna get one for this movie – but he and Harris and Morgan do an essential job in putting a human face on all the CGI, and giving the film a bit of warmth and humour and even soul (Johnson’s range obviously has its limits, but within those limits he’s a very effective performer). Even when the film is at its most over-the-top, there will be a little moment of knowing humour, just to reassure you that the film is entirely aware of how preposterous it is, and I can’t describe how relaxing this feels.

It’s fair to say that the only award Rampage is likely to win is Popcorniest Popcorn Movie of the Year (emphasis on the corny) – unless they introduce an Oscar for best flying CGI wolf, anyway. I am also very sure that this is the kind of film that many people would run a mile rather than go anywhere near. But as a bonkers monster movie, it is simply a huge amount of fun. It is probably the most ridiculous thing that will appear in cinemas this year – but ridiculous doesn’t necessarily mean bad.

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One of those tried-and-tested rules of cinemagoing that they keep going on about (whoever ‘they’ are) is that if you’re going to the cinema on a date, it’s best to make it a trip to a horror movie – mainly because the effect of watching a really scary movie is that it will move you on to the ‘clinging sweatily to each other’ stage much sooner than would otherwise be the case. All very well, I suppose, for those whose horizons extend so far, but – well, here’s what happened to me.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see Unsane with a friend of mine, whom I will be referring to as Olinka in order to save her blushes. She is a very good friend who I don’t feel I see nearly enough and so I suggested we do it again and see Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, which we caught the trailer for. Olinka was keen, provided she could bring her friend Yekaterina, who was in the UK for her very first visit. So down we settled in the theatre, with your correspondent the meat in a sandwich mostly comprised of young Russian womanhood.

As usual, the trailers were carefully selected, for the most part: we had the trailer for Truth or Dare, a grisly-looking imminent horror movie, and then the trailer for Hereditary, another scary movie which is on the way. And then a couple more in the same severed vein. ‘Why all movies here so horrible?’ Yekaterina whispered in the dark, sounding rather aghast.

‘This is a horror movie, so they are showing us adverts for other horror movies,’ I explained.

‘Horror movie?’ Yekaterina was turning even paler.

‘Relax, it’s not a horror movie, it’s a thriller,’ said Olinka, with her usual unflappable confidence.

‘Ol, you saw the trailer for this, of course it’s a horror movie,’ I said, rather incredulously. (I had forgotten this was a woman who watched Legend and thought it was meant to be a comedy film.)

Anyway, the film started and we soon found out just who had been paying attention best. Due to the kind of movie this is, there is a degree of narrative sleight-of-hand going on, but let’s try and keep this straightforward and spoiler-free: Nyman co-writes, co-directs, and stars as Professor Philip Goodman, a parapsychologist and professional debunker of supernatural phenomena – something he was inspired to do by a man who disappeared years ago.

But now his predecessor resurfaces, bearing details of three extraordinary cases which, Goodman is assured, will convince him of the existence of otherworldly forces, if he can summon the courage to investigate them properly.

A troubled security guard (Paul Whitehouse), alone in a derelict mental hospital in the middle of the night, begins to realise there may be something there in the dark with him. A nervous and fragile teenager (Alex Lawther), driving home through the woods one night, has a disturbing encounter which brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘roadkill’. And finally, a wealthy man (Martin Freeman), whose wife is in hospital with complications connected to her pregnancy, finds his home invaded by a malevolent force of some kind. But beyond all this, is there something even worse at work? Something with a personal connection to Goodman himself…?

Well, it may be very pleasant to go to the cinema with someone you’re in a relationship with and have them yelping and lunging at you in the dark, but when you are there with two young Russian women, neither of whom you are close to in that way, and one of whom you only met an hour earlier, and the pair of them are grabbing at you and clinging on and occasionally shrieking – well, you know, I found this somewhat challenging and was not entirely sure how to respond appropriately, not least because I was doing the odd spot of cringing and meeping myself. Which if nothing else should tell you that Ghost Stories really does work as a scary movie.

Andy Nyman is one of those people who seems to have been around for ages, doing lots of different things without ever really becoming well known: he was in Kick-Ass 2, for instance, and also Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set; he has also been a key collaborator of Derren Brown’s for many years. Jeremy Dyson, on the other hand, is famous as the lesser-spotted member of the League of Gentlemen, the one who occasionally looks like Michael Sheen.

If this, together with some of the casting, gives you the impression that Ghost Stories comes from League of Gentlemen/Black Mirror/Derren Brown-ish kind of territory, you’d be absolutely right. The League of Gentlemen practically drips with affection for and knowledge of a certain type of British horror movie of years gone by, but here the goal is pastiche much more than parody, and it is pastiche very effectively executed.

I’ve seen quite a few articles recently discussing the phenomenon of what they’re calling ‘post-horror’, a label they’re cheerfully sticking on films as diverse as Personal Shopper and It Comes By Night (also A Quiet Place, out at the moment, which I have a therapist’s note excusing me from seeing). The two schools of thought on post-horror are that either this is a movement using the raw material of genre horror to tell stories which aren’t constricted by the usual conventions and cliches, or just an empty new buzz-phrase concocted by journalists looking for a new angle. As usual, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle – it occurs to me you could describe films like Under the Skin, Annihilation, and Upstream Color as post-SF with equal accuracy – but the thing about Ghost Stories is that it doesn’t muck about trying to second-guess or deconstruct itself. This is a proper horror movie.

That said, there is virtually no gore in this movie, and it does draw heavily on a very British tradition of portmanteau horror films that started with Dead of Night and includes the famous Amicus horror anthologies, amongst others. (It is perhaps ironic that the only obvious in-joke in the movie is a reference to Tigon, not Amicus.) But the influences on the movie extend further – there are surely traces of things like The Stone Tape and Ghostwatch, and even those genuinely terrifying public safety films from the 1970s. The film’s world is one of dismal housing estate pubs, seafront caravan parks, waste ground, all places with their own bleak and very British eeriness.

It may be that the Diversity Police turn up on Ghost Stories’ front steps, for this is primarily a film about white men, but on the other hand it is also a film with superb performances from all of the principal cast – Nyman is clearly a very skilled performer, but each of the other three manages to eclipse him completely in their segment of the film. It isn’t even as if any of these is blazingly original – Whitehouse’s segment just has him wandering about a dark building with a torch, for instance. And yet it builds and builds until you are frozen to your seat, unable to look away.

In the end, of course, there is a revelation of sorts – this doesn’t come as a complete surprise, not least because of the heavy prosthetic make-up one character is clearly wearing – and the leap into nightmarish surrealism this involves is also extremely adroitly handled. A dozen little seemingly-trivial details from earlier in the movie snap into focus, and you realise… well, no spoilers here.

It initially seems like Ghost Stories may be trying to say something about existential dread and guilt, but in the end I get the impression the film is mainly constructed the way it is to enable the bravura twists and reveals in its final few minutes. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, for this is a horror movie which succeeds completely in its first duty, which is to seriously put the wind up the audience. Maybe there is something old-fashioned and formal about it, but it’s still a terrifically alarming, entertaining experience. I very rarely use the words ‘instant classic’, but in this case I am minded to.

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‘Are you a really big Wes Anderson fan?’ asked the ticketeer at the sweetshop, perkily. All at once I was gripped with shame, the same kind of senseless panic which grips me when everyone else starts talking about how great Blade Runner is and I have to admit I don’t rate it that much, or I have to confess I’ve never actually seen a Dario Argento film. Earlier that very day, I was pondering that very question. I was sure I must have seen a Wes Anderson film at some point, so I checked out his filmography on Wikipedia. Nope. We have managed to avoid each other entirely, with the exception of about ten minutes of Fantastic Mr Fox which came on TV while Film 4 was playing in the background. I know this sort of thing is unacceptable in polite society, but it is the truth: I had never seen a Wes Anderson movie in my life.

I mumbled words to this effect, casting my eyes floorward, trying to hide my burning cheeks, but rather to my surprise the ticketeer declared she was determined to give me an experience I would never forget. I was a bit worried about missing the movie for a moment, but it turned out this was what she was referring to, as she sorted me out with a free upgrade to one of the comfy seats in the imminent screening of Anderson’s new movie Isle of Dogs. So I suppose the message we can take away from this is not that ignorance is necessarily bliss, but that sometimes it can pay off in unexpected ways. It is a funny old world, after all.

 

An ignorant person would assume that any movie entitled Isle of Dogs must perforce be set on, or at least connected with, an alluvial peninsula in the east end of London. But apparently this is not the quirky way that legendary auteur Wes Anderson rolls: his movie is set in a somewhat dystopian near-future Japan, in and around the sprawling city of Megasaki (another fake Japanese city to go on the list with San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 – does Neo-Tokyo from Akira also count, I wonder?). The evil mayor of Megasaki has a problem with man’s best friend, for (it is implied) long-standing ancestral reasons, and has hit upon a machiavellian plot to have all dogs deported from the city to Trash Island, a polluted wasteland just across the bay.

The plan goes like clockwork and soon enough packs of starving and disease-ridden dogs are roaming Trash Island, struggling to stay alive. One such pack consists of Rex, King, Duke, Boss, and Chief (voiced by Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bryan Cranston respectively) but the dogs find themselves with a new problem when a twelve-year-old boy crash-lands his stolen plane on the island. It turns out he is the mayor’s ward and nephew Atari, and he has come in search of his dog/bodyguard, who has been exiled to Trash Island along with all the others.

Chief is apparently unmoved by the boy’s story, once the dogs figure it out (being dogs, they don’t speak Japanese and can’t actually understand what Atari is saying), but the others reason that the job of a dog is to take care of twelve-year-old boys and decide to help him with his quest.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, the principled members of the Science Party are doing their best to have the machinations of the mayor overturned, while an American exchange student (Greta Gerwig) is also trying to save the canine population. Could it be that the dogs’ lives are about to take a turn for the better?

There is, obviously, something deeply sentimental about Isle of Dogs, mainly in the way it depicts the dogs themselves. This is clear even to someone like me – I am hardly a dog person (not a cat person, either, come to that). And yet this element of the film is deeply buried under so many layers of mannered artifice and ironic detachment that it is far from obvious. Despite the sentimentality of the film’s message, and its frequently fantastical story, I can’t really imagine anyone mistaking this film for a more mainstream animation. There is all that artifice and irony, for one thing; the subject matter of the story, and occasional elements of its tone, for another – I wouldn’t call this a particularly violent movie, by any means, but it is still oddly graphic in places. If there is a thin line between wit and outright pretentiousness, then I suspect this film skates close to it at times – lending her vocal talents to a brief cameo is Yoko Ono, playing a character named – wait for it – Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono. (Not all the humour is quite so rarefied; there are some moments in this film which even made me laugh.)

Even at the moments when the film seems to be in danger of becoming just a bit too smug, it remains quite captivating to watch, simply because of the enormous skill and attention to detail with which it has been made. The puppets and scenery don’t have the warmth of Aardman-style clay figurines, but they are still very engaging and characterful, and the nature of the production – the dogs constantly seem to be twitching and bristling as a result of the animators’ fingers moving their fur – means they have a real sense of life and energy about them. And this film you get to see things like stop-motion taiko-drumming, and stop-motion sumo-wrestling, which doesn’t turn up on the big screen.

This is all to do with the film’s Japanese setting, naturally. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the film to be set in Japan, particularly, and it is a very emblematic kind of representation of the country; one assumes it is simply because Anderson is a fan of Japanese culture and movies (and why not). This becomes explicit at a couple of points, with one character looking rather like the iconic Japanese movie legend Toshiro Mifune, and the soundtrack featuring excerpts from Fumio Hayasaka’s magnificent score from Seven Samurai (in which Mifune of course starred). There are other Kurosawa references in the movie, too.

On the other hand, and I’m tempted to say ‘wouldn’t you just know it’, all this means that the film has come in for stick from some quarters for its supposed ‘cultural appropriation’ and unflattering depiction of many of its Japanese characters. Well, I suppose there may be grounds for criticism on the latter point, but for me the film’s sincere and encompassing affection for Japan and its culture was almost palpable, and adds enormously to the charm and atmosphere of the film. And it’s not as if this is the only movie borrowing from Japanese culture at the moment: if it weren’t for Godzilla, Ultraman, and the tokusatsu genre in general, there’d be no Pacific Rim, and Ready Player One would likely be unrecognisable with all the references to Japanese elements extracted. There’s also a criticism that the character voiced by Greta Gerwig is in some way an expression of the ‘white saviour’ trope – although as I have seen the label of ‘white saviour’ movie slapped on everything from The Matrix to La La Land, I’m honestly moved to wonder if this isn’t a concept which has been stripped of meaning through overuse (angry mobs with burning torches, please form a queue at the usual place).

I can’t honestly say that I’ll be rushing to catch up with the rest of Wes Anderson’s back catalogue, but Isle of Dogs certainly hasn’t put me off checking out more of his work. If nothing else, the obvious skill, intelligence, and talent which has gone into this film is impressive, and the results are always engaging and frequently very amusing. It’s good to see a film which is so obviously the product of a singular creative vision (because this movie certainly doesn’t scream crossover mainstream hit) getting such a wide release and attracting a significant audience. Dog lovers and Japanophiles will almost certainly have a good time with this movie, probably other people too.

(* To be clear – get on the c2c train in Barking, stay aboard for two stops until it reaches Limehouse, then switch to the Docklands Light Railway. The seventh stop from here is Crossharbour, from where it is a two minute walk to the Isle of Dogs. Simples.)

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“In no passage of the holy canonical books there can be found either divine precept or permission to take away our own life, whether for the sake of entering on the enjoyment of immortality, or of shunning, or ridding ourselves of anything whatever. Nay, the law, rightly interpreted, even prohibits suicide, where it says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This is proved especially by the omission of the words “thy neighbor,” which are inserted when false witness is forbidden.” – Saint Augustine

Yes, I know, nothing says ‘welcome to this semi-humorous (mostly) film review blog’ like a quote about self-slaughter from a mediaeval theologian. But bear with me, for Easter is just around the corner, and if we’re going to do religion, then what better time? We are, if nothing else, about to cast an eye over a film which is probably more concerned with Easter eggs than any other in history, and so surely there’s some kind of connection there, right?

Oh well, please yourselves. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One has managed to swing the coveted Easter weekend release for this year, although this may be less to do with the thematic connection than the fact there isn’t a Fast and Furious movie out this year. Certainly, were it not for Spielberg’s involvement, and the fact the film’s had $175 million spent on it, you might not expect it to get such an honour, for it is after all a computer game movie, not a genre with the most distinguished pedigree.

Think of the quarter-century-plus history of the computer game movie and your mind ineluctably crowds with memories of Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Brothers, Dwayne Johnson in Doom, Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series, and much of the filmography of Uwe Boll. It can be somewhat traumatic, obviously. (Just the other day I observed that while watching the new Tomb Raider movie is more fun than is the case with either of the Angelina Jolie ones, the same can be said for sawing off your own feet.)

Ready Player One isn’t quite in the same category, being a film about playing computer games rather than an adaptation of one. There is a lot else going on here too, though, including some dystopian SF and something rather new which I haven’t really seen in a movie before (we will come to this in time).

The film tells the story of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living in a sort of poverty-stricken demi-monde of 2045 following various ecological and financial disasters (well, as poverty-stricken as is compatible with everyone having top-end gaming and computer gear in their shacks, anyway). The real world is so thoroughly grim that everyone has retreated into a virtual-reality fantasy called the Oasis, where they can live out their dreams and be and do whatever they want.

The creator of this cyber-utopia, Halliday (Mark Rylance), has passed away, but left three keys hidden inside the game world. Whoever finds them first will gain ownership and total control over the Oasis, in addition to a stack of cash. Needless to say everyone is looking for the keys, including slimy corporate operator Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who plans to flood it with advertising and reconfigure paradise for maximum profit. After a chance discovery puts Wade on the path to winning the prize, forces both inside the simulation and in the real world start to take a serious and possibly lethal interest in him. He and his gamer buddies team up with Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), another key-hunter who sees control of the Oasis as a means of bringing about social justice, and set about solving the rest of the clues…

Well, Steven Spielberg may be 72 this year, but he has lost none of his ability to wrangle a giant popcorn blockbuster, and with Ready Player One the great man is on magisterial form: the story is told with assurance, impeccably paced, and with stormingly good set-pieces at exactly the moments when they’re needed. I found it to be an almost irresistibly entertaining film, judged simply as an adventure and a piece of pure spectacle.

That said, of course, there is a lot of other stuff going on here. The actual story is not especially innovative, being a quest for plot coupons with various twists and reversals along the way, and most of the incidental fun of the movie comes from the fact that elements from a vast number of movies, TV shows and films exist in parallel in the Oasis. There’s a car chase near the top of the film in which one character is driving the DeLorean from Back to the Future, someone else is riding the iconic bike from Akira, and a third person is behind the wheel of the 1960s Batmobile, all of which are being pursued by King Kong. In a battle scene, people variously whip out colonial marine pulse-rifles, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, or the glaive from Krull. At one point there is a brief appearance by a big name member of Toho’s monster stable. It goes on and on and on (though there are certain predictable exceptions – nothing from Marvel, obviously, and the most recognisable thing from the stellar conflict franchise in the movie is Ben Mendelsohn).

And while I found all this to be rather delightfully amusing, I imagine that if you don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure fantasy and SF pop culture it may just be baffling, or even distracting. At one point the characters visit a lovingly recreated simulation of a well-known Stanley Kubrick movie, which is fine provided you’ve seen that movie already. (One does inevitably wonder why the youth of 2045 are quite so clued-up on – even obsessed with – pop culture from sixty to seventy years earlier, and why there’s relatively little from the 2010s. But I digress.)

Now, I am aware that some people have already taken Ready Player One to task over this, claiming the movie embodies the worst kind of geeky fanboy attitudes – basically, if you don’t have a vast knowledge of popular culture, you are only worthy to be scorned and pitied. The fact that this may actually be pushback against the attitude, still quite prevalent in society in general, that geeky fanboys are the ones who deserve scorn and pity doesn’t appear to have occurred to some people.

From here they tend to roll on to what is perceived as another problem with the film – namely, that it has a white male heterosexual hero, which is apparently practically anachronistic in a post-Wonder Woman, post-Black Panther world. I think this just sounds like people being determined not to like the film: it has very contemporary ideas about the fluidity of race and gender (who you are in real life doesn’t have to have anything in common with your virtual avatar), and it’s made clear that Wade only succeeds with the help of his very diverse group of friends.

What no-one seems to have really picked up on is what seems to me to be a genuine case of the film trying to have its cake and eat it. The central conflict is basically posed as one between free-spirited, iconoclastic, rebellious youth on the one hand, and massive, ruthless, profit-obsessed corporations on the other, with the kids obviously in the right. Well, fair enough, but the movie is being distributed by Warner Brothers, which made $31 billion last year, and is not noted for being a humanitarian charitable foundation: if they genuinely believed that high-end entertainment should be free to all, we wouldn’t have had to pay over twenty quid for our tickets (after taking concessions and my freebie card into account). And yet we did.

Well, this isn’t the first film to be hypocritical about big business, but it is emblematic of the way that Ready Player One comes on all street and revolutionary and ends up simply being rather timidly conventional in its attitudes. There is nothing genuinely surprising or unusual about its message or attitudes – in the end the characters decide that everyone should spend less time in the Oasis, because the only really real thing is reality (profound stuff, here – I’m surprised that Opus’ 1985 classic ‘Life is Life’ didn’t end up on the soundtrack, the period is certainly right).

What’s going on here is something fairly typical of films about VR and the like: the ultimate message that this can only ever be a poor substitute for the so-called ‘real world’. A really subversive and possibly much more interesting ending would be one akin to that of Brazil, with everyone retreating into their own personal solipsistic fantasies, leaving the real world deserted but for humming consoles and comatose gamers. But modern culture is ultimately as concerned with the preservation of social order as religion was centuries ago, and just as Saint Augustine was at pains to point out that suicide won’t get you into heaven (otherwise there is the risk of true believers topping themselves just to cut short their time in an imperfect world), so these days films and books about VR seem obliged to stress that they can only ever be a distraction, simply because someone’s got to do the work to keep the real world running.

In Ready Player One, this sudden emphasis on the priority of the real world comes as a crunching gear-change given we’ve just sat through over two hours of the Oasis being depicted as a miraculous utopia where dreams can literally come true, but it’s no less than what you would expect in a big mainstream movie like this one. It meets its social obligations with due diligence – but fortunately, Spielberg is also around to make sure it more than passes muster as a piece of entertainment, even if it isn’t as challenging as any of the episodes of Black Mirror it occasionally resembles. A big, shallow pool of a movie; lots of fun to splash around in, assuming you’re familiar with the water, anyway.

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Someone has rescheduled the apocalypse! Although, of course, in this as everything else, getting the timing right is crucial. Take sequels, for instance: just what is the optimum time to release a follow-up to a movie? Conventional wisdom seems to be that a gap of two to three years is best. Much less than that, and you start to risk possible audience fatigue – it seems to me that the imminently forthcoming singleton stellar conflict movie is the subject of rather less febrile anticipation than one might expect, which may be because it’s been less than six months since the last one (although the mixed response to last year’s offering may also be an issue). Leave it too long, on the other hand, and you run the risk of audiences (or even the film-makers) forgetting the original movie entirely, which seems to me to be a very real issue that the four – yes, you read that right – planned Avatar sequels will have to deal with (we’re still well over two years away from the first of these coming out).

It’s nearly five years since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a film which was reasonably well-reviewed – partly, I suspect, because del Toro is the kind of well-liked director whom critics occasionally indulge – but which didn’t exactly make a humungous pile of dough at the time. Nevertheless, possibly because the first film was particularly successful in the important Asian market (hardly surprising, given the whole thing was a love-letter to certain aspects of Japanese pop culture), a sequel has finally clanked into view: Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

The film is set ten years after the original, and focuses mainly on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of the characters from first time round. As things get underway, Jake is a bit of a rascal, making a living as a wheeler-dealer in giant robot parts in the lawless areas left devastated by giant monster attacks (the giant robots are als known as jaegers, as I’m sure you recall). However, he and his young friend Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are eventually nabbed by the cops and his foster sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offers him a stark choice: come back to the giant robot defence programme to help train new pilots, or go to prison. Back to the giant robot defence programme it is, then.

There is inevitably some sparring between Jake and his co-pilot Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and tension between Amara and the other trainees, but then it looks like the current generation of machines will all be decommissioned soon anyway – a Chinese megacorporation is set to unveil a new series of remote-controlled jaegers, although there are still some doubts about this new idea. Soon everyone has bigger worries, however, as a defence council meeting is disrupted by a devastating attack from an unidentified rogue jaeger. But who is behind this new threat, and what is their ultimate objective?

Now, it has to be said that Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie which an uncharitable person might suggest comes with a couple of strikes against it before we even get to the story. Quite apart from the fact it’s taken its time arriving, there is that title, which is perhaps more redolent of a gastric complaint than an all-action sci-fi adventure (‘Darling, I hate to say this but I seem to be having a bit of an uprising in my pacific rim’ – ‘Oh dear, I knew there was something funny about that quinoa that came with our avocado toast’), and also the fact that this is one of those sequels where nearly all the key personnel from the first movie have moved on: Charlie Hunnam couldn’t participate, due to his being busy with that bonkers King Arthur movie, Rinko Kikuchi’s appearance is very brief, Idris Elba does not show up at all (although, to be fair, he was vaporised at the end of the first film), and del Toro limits himself to producing and being a ‘visual consultant’, presumably because he was busy with his fishy romance while this film was in production. Pretty much the only folk carrying on as before are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the comedy boffins.

In the place of the departed people, we get DeKnight, whose first movie this is, and Boyega and Eastwood, two actors really best known for playing sidekicks in other, more successful franchises. There are also a bunch of young actors playing jaeger-pilot cadets, whose presence really makes it clear that this film is aimed much more at a YA audience than the first one. So you could be excused for expecting the worst.

However, and I am rather surprised to find myself typing these words, Pacific Rim: Uprising is actually a huge heap of fun, and manages to be one of those rare movies which actually gets better as it goes on. Initially there is a lot of stuff with people talking about drones, and John Boyega cracking wise (I would venture to suggest that I do not think John Boyega is as cool or funny as John Boyega thinks he is, but then I’m not producing the movie), and some slightly sub-Ender’s Game stuff with the young cadets, but then the giant robots start bashing lumps out of each other in downtown Sydney and you suddenly remember what this movie is about.

You don’t come to Pacific Rim: Uprising for finely-observed characterisation, intense method acting, innovative plotting, or even a story which even makes total sense. You come to this movie for lengthy sequences of enormous robots, monsters, and robot-monster cyborgs repeatedly dinging each other about the head with huge chunks of the nearest skyscraper, and the new movie delivers this in spades. The various battle sequences are at least as good as the ones in the first film, and – rather gloriously – DeKnight breaks with prevailing western film-making dogma and stages most of them in daylight. As a result the whole film looks and feels much more like a traditional Japanese tokusatsu movie, which is surely the point. (The makers of the next couple of American Godzilla movies could learn a lot from this film.)

Set against this, the possible deficiencies in the acting and story department seem to matter a lot less than would otherwise be the case. Most of the acting in this movie consists of running on a treadmill in a plastic Buck Rogers suit while shouting things like ‘Activate plasma wrecking ball!’, anyway. Honourable exceptions go to Day and Gorman, who chew upon the scenery with gusto, and Eastwood, who has enough of his old man’s presence to make an impression in an underwritten part.

On the other hand, there were good things in the first film which just aren’t present here: the sense of a wider world, which has adapted in all kinds of odd ways to the reality of kaiju attacks, is largely missing, and that essential vein of weirdness running through everything del Toro creates is mostly gone as well – although there’s one scene concerned with a character’s personal life that makes The Shape of Water look like a relatively conventional romance, the only moment that really feels like one del Toro had a hand in.

Nevertheless, as pure popcorn blockbusters go, this does what it says on the tin, without feeling crassly formulaic or insulting the intelligence of the audience too much. It manages a decent plot twist at one point, and also manages to do that thing where there’s a major Chinese character (thus allowing them to sell the movie over there) without it seeming especially obvious. Does the plot completely hang together? Well, no, but I’m inclined to cut the film some slack, mainly because it is such pure, inoffensive fun. Many American films have dabbled with ideas and themes from Japanese fantasy films before, with varying degrees of success: Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most successful attempt yet at recreating the energy, colour and simple joy of tokusatsu movies and TV in a western movie, and I hope it meets with the success it deserves.

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It would appear that the Steven Soderbergh collective, having resumed their film-making activities, are back to their usual remarkable level of productivity: it’s not much more than six months since the last Soderbergh movie, Logan Lucky, and yet here comes their new one, Unsane.

The thing that distinguishes Soderbergh, other than a certain breezy stylishness, is his sheer versatility as a film-maker: all-star disaster movie, revenge thriller, martial-arts action film, caper comedy, Soderbergh has had a crack at them all and for the most part been highly successful. The thing about Unsane is that it seems to be playing off this difficulty in pinning Soderbergh down, for at first it’s not at all clear exactly what kind of movie this is going to be.

Claire Foy, probably best known for her role in The Crown (and the size of the pay packet involved), plays Sawyer Valentini, an ambitious young financial analyst with a slightly traumatic personal history. (The film does address the fact that she has a fairly unlikely name.) She has issues, to put it mildly, and they are impacting on her life – so, in an attempt to sort herself out a bit, she visits a private psychiatric facility in an attempt to get herself some counselling.

Although the facility is in Pennsylvania, it might as well be called the Hotel California, for while checking out of the place is (on paper at least) quite straightforward, actually leaving it is another matter entirely. To her understandable astonishment, Sawyer finds herself incarcerated in a rubber hospital, her sanity questioned, and declared to be a risk to herself and others. Naturally, this is not what you need when your mental state is already somewhat fragile, and Sawyer finds herself having hallucinations of a man who used to stalk her (Joshua Leonard, still probably best known for The Blair Witch Project). But are they really hallucinations…?

The opening section of Unsane is diligently ambiguous about exactly what is going on, and just what kind of film this is going to be. It could be that it’s going to be a fairly serious and thoughtful drama about what it means to be mentally well, or mentally ill – ‘I get a bit blue sometimes! Who doesn’t?’ cries Sawyer, as the orderlies are bundling her down a corridor. How do you make that call? Who sets the standard?

Or, it could be a fairly bleak comedy-drama about the state of the American mental health system, with the startling and plausibly-presented revelation that some private mental facilities are basically insurance scams, actively seeking a pretext to lock up essentially healthy people so they can claim the cost of their care from their medical insurance providers. It is suggested that this is what may have happened to Sawyer.

Or, it could be that Sawyer’s unfolding nightmare is essentially the stuff of a psychological horror movie. Has her stalker really managed to track her down and infiltrate the hospital? Who can she trust? Can she possibly get anyone to believe her story?

Well, as regular readers (dearie me!) will be aware, we have usually had the film’s poster by this point, but in the case of Unsane it will be appearing shortly. This is because I am going to break with standard blog procedure and talk about the movie in a way which may give away important facts about it. In short, after the poster image I am going to Spoil This Movie. Caveat lector.

(For anyone wanting the Not-Spoiled verdict on Unsane: usual skilful work by Soderbergh, great performance by Foy, but this is one of those movies which gets steadily less impressive as it goes on.)

All right. Last chance to leave… There are many good things about Unsane, chief amongst them Foy’s performance: she’s not afraid to appear damaged or somewhat unsympathetic, and there are moments where you wonder if the shrinks might actually have a point and she does deserve special treatment. There is also Soderbergh’s casual mastery of storytelling. This wasn’t at all apparent while we were watching it, but apparently Unsane was entirely filmed on Soderbergh’s smartphone (needless to say he did all the cinematography and editing himself, too), which if you ask me is just showing off. Minor pleasures include an all-killer no-filler cameo from Matt Damon and some good supporting performances from the likes of Amy Irving as Sawyer’s mum and Juno Temple as another inmate.

But, and oh dear, this is a film which starts off looking like a smart and thoughtful drama-maybe-thriller, and concludes with some proper old fashioned fem-jeop, as the leading lady flees through a darkened forest chased by a psychopath with a hammer (in true slasher movie style, she is running, he is walking, and yet she never seems to get any further away from him). In short, we end up in gonzo B-movie territory with a swiftly unravelling plot and a succession of improbable developments.

As the credits rolled, my companion and I were sitting there actually trying to figure out what had actually happened. ‘So… if the dead body in the trunk of the car was actually Character X,’ I said, feeling like a dullard, ‘then who was that in the shallow grave in the park?’ (I am always careful to avoid using actual character names when out and about.) A passing total stranger paused to explain the plot to us. ‘That was Character Q,’ he said kindly (clearly a man after my own heart). Well, I suppose the film may have made this clear, but I suspect you would have to be really on the ball to have picked it up.

In any case, this general sense of narrative confusion isn’t even the film’s biggest problem. This is as follows: we are required to accept, as the premise of the film, that a young woman will accidentally have herself committed to the very same mental institution which her insane stalker has already infiltrated as an orderly under a false identity. There is, so far as I could tell, no attempt to justify this monumentally improbable turn of events. My companion suggested how this could have happened, but to say I am not convinced is a massive understatement.

Still, you really do have to accept this, as it is the premise for the whole second half of the movie: it’s a bit like Jaws: The Revenge in that respect. Provided you go with it, the concluding parts of the film have a certain manic energy to them, and the performances remain impressive, but I was constantly aware of how much slack I was having to cut the film just to take it seriously.

Seriously, you either go with the premise, in which case this is a reasonably fun piece of high-class psycho-horror, or you don’t, whereupon it simply becomes an absurdly implausible piece of tosh unworthy of the talent involved. I suppose in the end I kind of enjoyed Unsane, because it is well-acted and the ambiguity of the opening section at least is impressively achieved. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is really a wildly silly film which, to my mind at least, makes hugely unreasonable demands on the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

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