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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Mendelsohn’

One of the exciting prospects of the recent trip was the chance to take the blog’s very infrequent feature New Cinema Review intercontinental – my previous trip to the States was quite rigorously scheduled with not much opportunity to check out the picturehouses of Arizona or Utah. This time around it was much more a case of ‘do what you feel like’, and I certainly felt like seeing if all the stories I had heard about the American cinemagoing experience were true.

I suppose the modern multiplex is essentially an American invention, inasmuch as the commercial cinema industry is essentially the same thing, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when the multiplex we turned up to (it was the Regal just off 8th Avenue, should anyone be interested) looked quite like one in the UK. However, we were much impressed by the American way of running the adverts continuously in advance of the film, which was the first thing we noticed – this allows you to get to the good stuff (i.e. the trailers) that much sooner.

On attempting to sit down, I was a little surprised to find we were in extremely plush leather seats with little desks in front of them. As, despite buying our tickets four days in advance, we had got practically the last two seats in the cinema, I had expected to be in cheap and nasty seating, but this was the kind of furniture I had only previously seen in VIP-class premium UK cinemas. These were very nice seats indeed, and I had settled into mine and was thoroughly enjoying it when a helpful Manhattanite a couple of spaces down indicated a button set into the seat arm, which I duly pressed.

There was much humming and whirring and the seat unfolded in a rather surprising manner. I found myself enveloped by the thing and arranged in a posture that suggested I was either about to experience orbital insertion or be the subject of significant dental surgery. Needless to say it was still very comfortable. If all the seats were like this, no wonder everybody there was unexpectedly laid back: I had expected people to be yelling at the screen and generally causing a commotion, but other than a few scattered rounds of applause everyone was fairly genteel.

I was particularly surprised by this, as we were there for the opening night of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, the 21st entry in the world-dominating meta-franchise from (of course) Marvel Studios. Regardless of how the movie turned out, given films in this series make billions of dollars almost on a routine basis, I was expecting a bit more feverish excitement, especially as we were in Marvel’s home town. Hey ho.

The film opens in a slightly disconcerting manner, as we meet feisty alien warrior Vers (Brie Larson), who’s a sort of special forces soldier for the Kree Empire (the Kree being a bunch of aliens previously featured in the 2014 film Guardians of the Galaxy). The Kree are at war with another group of aliens, these ones being shape-shifters called Skrulls, and very soon Vers and her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) are sent off on a mission. But things do not go to plan and soon Vers finds herself falling out of orbit into the atmosphere of an obscure backwater planet known to the natives as Earth…

It seems that the Skrulls have infiltrated Earth and are looking for something that could help them win the war. With reinforcements a long way off, Vers finds herself obliged to forge an alliance with government agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), who turns up to investigate reports of a woman falling through the roof of a branch of Blockbuster (it’s 1995). But Vers is also troubled by fragments of memory suggesting she herself has a history on Earth, and a connection to the place…

So, you may be wondering, what has all this got to do with Captain Marvel, whoever they are? A fair question. I should say that this is another one of those movies like Wonder Woman, which shies away from actually calling the lead character by their superhero code-name. The other potentially problematic point is that there have been a large number of comic-book characters with ‘Marvel’ in their name (there have been quite a few just called Captain Marvel), with some labyrinthine character biographies and peculiar creative choices developing as a result. (I expect we shall return to this when the movie about the original Captain Marvel comes out in about a month.)

On the whole the new movie does a pretty decent version of distilling all the lore down into something relatively straightforward and accessible while still keeping the major points of connection with the stuff from the comics. That said, as I mentioned, the film is a little bit discombobulating in its opening movement, though this may indeed be a deliberate choice to play with audience expectations.

Once she-who-will-presumably-one-day-be-Captain Marvel arrives on Earth and teams up with Nick Fury, the film immediately relaxes and becomes a very enjoyable knockabout sci-fi adventure, notably light in tone. Marvel’s films have been hitting this pitch for a while now, but even so it is something of a surprise, partly because this film is setting up Avengers: Endgame (the last Avengers film had a genuine sense of gravity about it), partly because there has been a degree of fuss about this being the first female-fronted Marvel Studios film.

Perhaps quite sensibly, the film doesn’t seem inclined to make a big deal out of this, with Larson opting to give a winningly tongue-in-cheek performance – this is really what the material demands, with Jackson and especially Ben Mendelsohn doing the same kind of thing. If the film has a feminist agenda it seems largely confined to the soundtrack, which includes a preponderance of female-fronted ‘credible’ rock groups (no Spice Girls or Aqua, alas) from the mid-to-late 1990s. (This is really as far as the 90s setting goes when it comes to its influence on the movie, though there are a couple of decent jokes about the technology of the period.)

The downside to all this is that the film does perhaps come across as a bit lightweight and insubstantial – fun while you’re watching it, but not really in the top tier of the Marvel Studios canon. This is honestly a little surprising, considering it not only sets up Endgame but also serves as a prequel to the rest of the series and even ties together the more cosmic and the Earth-bound strands of the meta-franchise (characters from the Avengers films and the Guardians of the Galaxy strand both feature). That said, it does the usual thing of rewarding long-term followers of the series by including a few call-backs, clues, and mysteries to engage and tantalise them.

In the end, Captain Marvel is simply fun in the by-now traditional Marvel Studios manner – the production values are great, the action is well-mounted, the jokes connect, and the movie works hard to deliver on its big moments. (In addition to the traditional, and now quite poignant cameo, there is an entirely befitting tribute to Stan Lee, too.)  I would put it as mid-table in terms of this particular franchise, but that’s not a terrible place to be, and there is a lot of potential here to add to the present-day films. And the good thing (perhaps) is that even if this particular Marvel comics movie isn’t quite your thing, they’re already showing the trailers for the next three. If they are all made to the same standard as Captain Marvel, I don’t anticipate fans of the series having a great deal to complain about. 

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One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It’s not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they’re seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.

Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we’ve had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).

The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue alone. ‘I could tell you what year all this happened,’ says the blokey voice-over, ‘but I’ve forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won’t.’ Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence or attention span, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.

I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously inappropriate history.

Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his ‘Draft Notice’ in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the ‘draft letter’ scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff’s full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.

It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.

Anyway, Robin’s moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie ‘Sex Dungeon’ Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin’s ship sailed into ‘Nottingham Harbour’, as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)

Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is ‘the beating heart of the Crusades’), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff’s confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!

I don’t especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn’t give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it’s hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I honestly would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.

Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word ‘Sherwood’ and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.

I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.

If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling ‘I’ll boil you alive in your own piss!!!’, then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.

You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.

I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that’s about it, really.

The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, ‘street’, and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.

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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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