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Posts Tagged ‘Hailee Steinfeld’

I’m not really one for New Year resolutions – I usually end up with the same ones, along the lines of ‘get more sleep’ and ‘do more productive stuff’ – but it does seem an appropriate time to break a long-held resolution, something which is probably more of a surprise to me than anyone else. I occasionally make a big fuss about how open-minded I am, and how I’ll go and see nearly anything at the cinema, but astute readers will probably have noticed that there are a few high-profile franchises which I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole, magic free ticket card or not. When it comes to the live-action Transformers movie franchise, which has been befouling multiplexes worldwide for over a decade now, this is simply because I had such an utterly appalling experience watching the first one that I vowed not to bother with any of the others, something I have stuck to with unusual (for me) firmness.

And yet now I find myself about to write about Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, a prequel/spin-off type offshoot of the Transformers series. How come? What happened? Well, to cut a short story even shorter, the trailer looked genuinely fun and charming, and – this second fact may explain the first – Michael Bay has vacated the director’s chair. Collecting critics’ pithy lines about Bay and the Transformers films has been a bit of a hobby of mine for some years now – I particularly enjoyed Vern’s observation that watching the first movie is a bit like climbing into a tumble dryer which is then pushed down a hill, not to mention Peter Bradshaw’s insight that one of the sequels (I forget which) is essentially ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’. Nevertheless, these films seemed to be critic-proof for years, and the fact that Bay has been forced from his dreadful throne of power is probably just due to the fact that the 2017 movie was sort of a flop, as gargantuan bombastic effects movies go, only making about six times the GDP of a small country at the box office. So, following Transformers: The Last Knight, we now have the first Knight Transformers (do you see what I did there?), and I have to say… well, where was this guy in 2007?

The movie gets underway on the machine planet Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are taking a right pasting from the evil Decepticons. (The whys and wherefores of this conflict are not gone into; this isn’t that sort of film, although that probably goes without saying.) Stentorian Autobot leader Optimus Prime packs a bold young Autobot scout (he who will become known as Bumblebee) off to Earth in the year 1987 in order that the planet can be used as a refuge by the rest of their faction. However, Bumblebee is tracked and ends up taking the Transformer war to Earth with him, earning the hostility of a secret US government agency in the process. Having fended off his initial pursuers, a mute and amnesiac Bumblebee lapses into whatever the equivalent of a coma is for a giant robot that can turn into a car.

At this point we switch focus to the story of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been picking good scripts lately), a teenage girl living in California and having to cope with annoying family members, a terrible job, unresolved issues from the premature death of her beloved father, and so on. A glimmer of hope appears when she discovers a rusty old yellow VW beetle in a local scrapyard, and is allowed to take it home and try to get it running again. Yup, you are ahead of me: Charlie takes the discovery that her new ride is actually a sentient multi-form extra-terrestrial warrior remarkably well, and she and Bumblebee soon form a close bond. Which is probably for the best, as it transpires that a couple of Decepticons have detected Bumblebee’s presence on Earth and have arrived to hunt him down, with the help of the authorities…

I feel that at this point I should just clarify that my issue with the Bay Transformers films has nothing to do with the inherent absurdity of the concept. I have nothing against absurdity as a story element; many of the Marvel movies are pretty absurd, but they’re still probably my favourite current blockbuster franchise (it almost scarcely needs mentioning that the Transformers once ostensibly shared a universe with the Marvel characters, even teaming up with Spider-Man, without it feeling at all forced or tonally inconsistent). We have to bear in mind that the whole canon of Transformers fiction is basically a marketing device to shift toy robots that turn into cars or planes (or vice versa) and so it is almost inevitably going to be a bit silly. No, my issue with the Bay films is with their empty, pointless bombast, their sheer over-excitability, their shallow objectification of both human and machine, and their interminable running-times.

Knight has managed to avoid all of these things and come up with a film that is genuinely charming and likeable, and seems unlikely to inflict long-term cerebral damage on even the most enthusiastic viewer. Much of this is to the credit of Hailee Steinfeld, who essentially carries most of the movie once the prologue is out of the way – nobody else gives a substantial performance, but then nobody else really needs to, for Steinfeld gives the film warmth and heart. (John Cena plasy the chief government agent, but honestly doesn’t make much of an impression.) The whole story strand about how accidental involvement in an extra-terrestrial war helps Charlie process her personal issues is a bit clunky, and the film has some of the most spurious foreshadowing I can recall in a serious movie, but somehow this just adds to the fun.

So does the 80s setting, although I get the sense this isn’t really genuine nostalgia aimed at or made by people who actually remember the mid 80s, but more a sort of tick-list of pop culture icons from the period – ALF, Mr T, and so on. It virtually constitutes an acknowledgement that the Transformers themselves were another 80s fad as far as many people are concerned. As I say, while this element of the movie is fun, it’s also quite superficial and not thought-through – for me, the most impossible-to-believe thing in the movie was not the existence of shape-shifting alien cars but the suggestion that the same person would own a Motorhead T-shirt but also have both The Smiths and Rick Astley in their tape collection. (Maybe the tribes run differently in California.)

I have to say that part of the reason I was so unimpressed by the first Bay Transformers was because I didn’t recognise either the tone or the characters from the Transformers stories I remembered from back in the middle of the 1980s – it was all very dark, very violent, very grungy. One of the genuine pleasures of this film was being able to recognise many characters in their original form (I believe these are known as G1 Transformers) – sitting in a cinema going ‘It’s Optimus Prime! It’s Ironhide! It’s Cliffjumper! It’s Starscream! It’s Soundwave! It’s Shockwave!’ isn’t the most high-brow kind of entertainment, but entertaining it still is. The rest of the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, either – at one point one of the characters openly observes that it’s just possible aliens calling themselves Decepticons may not be entirely trustworthy – and I don’t think there’s much here to inflame the sensibilities of most reasonable-minded parents looking for something to show their children (Bumblebee is fairly unusual for a big studio franchise movie these days, in that it only has a PG certificate in the UK).

All this said, this is still a fairly goofy and obvious movie about a girl who makes friends with an alien robot car, albeit one with a lot of charm and a very enjoyable atmosphere. It’s not going to change the lives of anyone in the audience, probably, and it may indeed be that I’m predisposed to praise this one slightly more than it warrants, simply because it’s so unlike the Bay movies. But nevertheless: an extremely likeable movie; hopefully from now on all Transformers films will be like this.

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…anyway, while the distaff members of the family and our patriarch were off enjoying Mary Poppins Returns, in the screen next door Young Nephew, his dad, and your regular correspondent were settling down in front of perhaps the most-directed film of the year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, from Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsay and Rodney Rothman.

This has been an exceptional year at the movies even by Marvel’s standards, and it feels entirely appropriate that it should end with a movie showcasing the company’s most iconic and popular character – all the more so, given that the year has also seen the passing of both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the creators not just of Spider-Man but also of much of the wider Marvel world, the sheer extent of which is perhaps the raison d’etre of the new film.

It opens conventionally enough, with a brisk recap of the career of Spider-Man, aka Peter Parker (Chris Pine), super-heroic protector of New York City. But then things switch to the perspective of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who is basically just an ordinary kid struggling with fairly typical problems: mainly that he doesn’t get on with his dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who is insisting that he starts a new school, curtails his hobby of making graffiti, and spends less time with his beloved but slightly shady uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali). Miles is out with his uncle one night doing something mildly illegal when he is bitten by a rather peculiar spider, and finds his life becoming even more complicated and stressful.

While coming to terms with his new-found wall-adhering powers, Miles finds himself caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and the forces of the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), who has constructed an ominously big and complicated gadget with the power to blow holes in the fabric of the universe. Spider-Man charges Miles with helping him to destroy the Kingpin’s machine before – and this is probably quite a shocking moment if you haven’t read the publicity for the movie – he is killed in action battling the supervillain and his henchmen.

The city mourns, naturally – and so does Miles, of course, not least because he’s accidentally broken the gadget Spider-Man gave him to save the day. And then things take another left-field turn, with the appearance of another Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) at the grave of the one Miles originally encountered. It turns out that this new Peter Parker is a slightly gone-to-seed middle-aged Spider-Man from a parallel universe, who has been dragged here by the Kingpin’s machine.

The older Spider-Man basically just wants to leave, before being out of his home universe causes his cells to disintegrate, and initially turns a deaf ear to Miles’ plea that he train him or help in the destruction of the machine before even more damage is done to the fabric of the cosmos. But soon enough that old heroic spirit is rekindled and the duo set out to thwart the villain and save the day. But it seems that the damage to the multiverse is more extensive than anyone has realised, with a bevy of other Spider-People also in the mix…

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly open-minded sort of person, not carrying around too much in the way of prejudice or bias – but I have to say that while it would take hospitalisation or worse to make me miss a live-action Marvel adaptation, I suspect there are a large number of parallel universes where I didn’t see Into the Spider-Verse on the big screen, simply because it’s an animated film. I suppose I can take some comfort from the fact that I’m not alone in this, because this movie is doing appreciably less business than the live-action Aquaman movie, despite being at least as good.

Then again, I say this as a fairly dedicated follower of all things comic-booky, which really puts me into the target audience bracket for this film. I’m pretty sure this is not the greatest Spider-Man movie ever made – that title is still surely held by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and it will take something very special indeed to dislodge it – but in one very specific way at least, it certainly challenges for the title of greatest comic-book movie.

Up until fairly recently, most comic-book films were rather conservative beasts, largely determined not to appear silly or childish and keep the mainstream audience on board. The stories inevitably lost some of their colour, energy, and inventiveness in translation because of this, and it’s only in the more recent of the Marvel Studios films that the film-makers have become confident enough to let some of the sheer exuberant goofiness and innovation of the comics creep back in. Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a Marvel Studios film, but in the same way it isn’t afraid to trust the audience’s ability to get its head around some new ideas – most obviously, that the whole movie is set in an alternative continuity (or parallel universe, whichever you prefer). This allows the introduction of not just the Miles Morales Spider-Man (a comics presence, initially in Marvel’s Ultimate imprint, since 2011), but also a striking new version of Dr Octopus (voiced by Kathryn Hahn).

At the centre of the film is an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spidey, which is handled with immaculate deftness and storytelling skill. But going on around it, and really making the film sing, is a very different kind of story, basically just celebrating the boundless imaginative palette of comic-book storytelling in general, and super-hero stories in particular. Miles Morales and the initial pair of Peter Parkers are eventually joined by a parallel-universe Spider-Woman who turns out to be Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), and also a manga-influenced version of the character who’s a teenage Japanese girl from the future, not to mention the anthropomorphic pig Spider-Ham (secret identity Peter Porker). Perhaps most joyously entertaining of all is the appearance of a hard-boiled black-and-white version of Spider-Man from a pulp-inspired universe, who is voiced by Nicolas Cage in his own inimitable style.

The film’s defining visual conceit is to animate each of these extra-dimensional visitors in a different style, even when they’re all in the same scene – Spider-Ham always looks like a Looney Toons character, the Japanese character is presented in an anime style, and the Cage Spider-Man comes from a noir universe where the only colours are black and white (there’s a lovely running gag about him trying to make sense of a Rubik’s cube). The result is a dazzling visual treat, before we even reach the bravura climax where the different dimensions collide with and collapse into one another.

The script manages to do full justice to the potential of the concept, and – unsurprisingly, because this is a project in which Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have had a hand – is also immensely clever and funny. I was still a bit unsure about whether my decision to come and see this film had been the right one as it actually started in front of me, but one of the very first things that happens is a gleeful gag at the expense of Raimi’s somewhat less-than-wholly-beloved Spider-Man 3, which completely disarmed and delighted me.

Into the Spider-Verse is filled with good things and inspired bits of invention; the moment at which Lee and Ditko are given due credit is especially moving, of course. Despite its relatively modest box-office take so far, apparently the film has done well enough for a slate of spin-offs and sequels to already be in development. We have been here before, of course, with Sony’s arguably over-ambitious plans to diversify its Spider-Man series following The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the end that just led to Spider-Man being leased back to Marvel Studios on a sort of time-share basis, and also the distinctly so-so Venom movie (which doesn’t explicitly mention its links to the parent franchise). Hopefully this time things will be different, for Into the Spider-Verse shows that there is potential for a really interesting series of films just focused on Spider-Man himself.  This is the best non-MCU Marvel movie in ages.

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A few months ago I had a curious and somewhat exasperating experience on one of the world’s premier social networking websites (you know – the one which had the thing about the thing). Someone who I used to know quite well made a rather grave announcement along the lines of ‘For anyone planning to see Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card has announced he will donate some of his profits to anti-gay marriage lobby groups‘ (or words to that effect), the unspoken assumption being that no humane person could now possibly consider going anywhere near the film.

Well, I happily go and see movies by all the big studios (as you may have noticed) which means that some of my cash ends up in the profits of people like Rupert Murdoch, who no doubt have views to which I would take exception. Bearing this in mind I suggested to my friend he was being a bit naive and over-reacting by singling out Card for this sort of boycott (Ender’s Game alone has seven other producers). I didn’t really mind the days of wrangling which followed, just the fact that after having repeatedly criticised Orson Scott Card for refusing to respect the rights of others, my friend concluded by casually mentioning he was going to illegally download the movie anyway. Sigh. Is this what counts as the moral high ground nowadays?

I don’t agree with Card’s socially conservative personal beliefs, but I don’t think that having such beliefs automatically makes one a homophobe, and I don’t think that this necessarily makes anything he’s associated with a valid target for picketing and criticism. Nevertheless, this seems to have been the case with the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, certainly earlier in the year, and this may be why the film’s release feels to me to have a faint sense of lack of commitment. This is a big old lavish SF blockbuster, which could surely hold its head up amongst the typical crop of summer films, or the slightly-more-critically-respectable bunch showing up around Christmas every year. And yet it has been snuck out at the beginning of November, and at a time when it is likely going to get hammered by the latest Thor.

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I find this a bit of a shame. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, this is the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a child prodigy attending military academy at some point in the future. To begin with we are in Backstory Voiceover Mode, as we learn how the world was devastated by an assault by insectoid aliens (in the book these are known as Buggers, but for fairly obvious reasons the movie has opted to change this to Formics). The aliens were driven off, but the threat of another invasion continues to loom. As a result, the government of Earth is training its young people to lead battle fleets should hostilities resume.

Senior military figure Graff (Harrison Ford) identifies Ender as a tactical genius, and potentially the one great leader Earth’s navy has been waiting for. So he gets shipped off to an orbital training facility, which is basically a very stern version of Hogwarts but with ray guns, where he is forced to participate in all manner of zero-G battle simulations and other training scenarios. But does Ender have it in him to do all that the high command require…?

Okay, so on one level it is a bit like Harry Potter in space – there are competing houses, various fraught relationships between the pupils, strict teachers, and so on – but I found it rather more reminiscent of something else. The incipient threat from alien arthropods, the authoritarian global culture, the militarisation of the young – very soon I was thinking ‘this is like the movie version of Starship Troopers, but played straight’ (so rather more like Heinlein’s original novel, then).

Having said that, where the novel of Starship Troopers is an unapologetic manifesto for a certain kind of muscular libertarianism, the movie of Ender’s Game always seems aware of the implied morality of its characters and story – indeed, it’s central to the film. This is, I think, a film with an undeniable awareness of its own morality, and that morality is by and large a laudable one. And it’s sophisticated, for a lavish SF movie – this is a movie about child soldiers, and the morality of conflict, but it doesn’t deal in terms of moral absolutes. It’s quite ironic, then, that this film has been subject to a boycott on ethical grounds when rather more dubious, brainless ones have sailed onto the screen unopposed.

Technically it’s proficiently done too. The visual effects have that immaculate, heftless quality we’ve come to expect from big productions, but it’s well performed by a strong cast – Butterfield is very good indeed, and Ford is pretty good value too. Hailee Steinfeld doesn’t quite get the material she perhaps deserves, though. Popping up in the closing stages is Ben Kingsley as a tattooed veteran warrior. Kingsley has a bit of a reputation for being, perhaps, self-regarding and pretentious, but regardless of this the fact remains that he is simply a very, very fine actor and all that is on display here as usual.

Throughout the film one gets a sense of a big book being hacked down for the screen, but what emerges is a film with a coherent storyline that is pretty involving throughout. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, and I must confess I don’t plan to, but simply judged as a film I think this works rather well.

One of the annoying things that happens to you as a hack critic now and then is coming up with a snappy line in advance of seeing a film and then having to discard it because it doesn’t fit the facts. In this case I was all set to go with ‘You shouldn’t avoid Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs. You should avoid it because it’s a lousy film’, but obviously that’s not going to work now. Okay: whether or not you boycott Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs is between you and your conscience. But if you do, you’ll be missing out on a quietly superior SF movie.

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As regular visitors may have begun to inkle, I have been rambling on about films on t’internet now for nearly ten years. Ten years! And of course, in this time I have cast my eye upon a wide range of films, good, bad, and ugly, right across the mainstream and beyond. If nothing else, as a result, I feel qualified to say that never has a genre fallen out of favour so completely and surprisingly as the western.

Other staples of the previous decade that seemed to have gone terminally out of fashion, such as the musical and the historical epic, have enjoyed something of a revival in the last decade, but the western’s thunder and essence appears to have gone for good, its mythic status and moral certainties absorbed by other types of film. This is not to say that people have actually stopped making westerns, or pseudo-westerns, entirely: they haven’t. (I could name a string of movies from the last twenty years that comfortably fit the description, but that would be showing off.) But when someone makes what looks like a classic western and possesses genuine quality, it’s always treated as some kind of throwback to a bygone era.

Latest to get this attention (and the critical acclaim which often follows) is Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit, based on Charles Portis’s novel and the 1969 adaptation which starred John Wayne. (The Coen version is the only one I am familiar with, alas.) Set in the late 1870s, this is the story of Matty Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is murdered by an intinerant ne’er-do-well (Josh Brolin). With the authorities apparently indifferent, she retains the somewhat-eccentric US Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her bring her father’s killer to justice. Also on his trail is the self-regarding Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) and together the trio set off into the lawless Indian Nation in pursuit of their quarry.

The first thing I have to say about True Grit is that it does seem like an oddity, a film which exists in a niche of its own rather than as part of any great tradition. The setting and the plot contain many staples of the genre – wide open spaces, sudden bursts of violence, themes of justice, revenge, and the loss of innocence – but at no time does it seem to be trying to say anything about what it means to be American today. It’s absolutely a period piece, set in and concerned with a particular time in the past. This is driven home by the rather florid dialogue given to everyone involved – fine old words like nincompoop and braggadocio get wheeled out for their first high-profile appearances in years.

Having said that, this is still a very good film – although not, I would say, in quite the same league as some of the others it’s in competition with for the season’s major gongs. It looks superb, and the contrast between the civilised regions where the film opens and closes, and the wilderness where the meat of it is set, is firmly drawn. The script is similarly solid, and manages to incorporate some subtle pieces of Coen weirdness without dragging the entire film off-course.

But on the whole I think I will remember it best for the performances of the three leads (Brolin has very little screen-time). As one would expect, Jeff Bridges is immaculate, and doesn’t appear to be channelling Wayne too much. Reports of his performance being unintelligible have been somewhat exaggerated, too. Damon is very decent as well, in a slightly less showy (and certainly secondary) role. But the main plaudits must go to Hailee Steinfeld, who gives an astonishingly self-possessed and mature performance, basically as the main character of the movie.

Film historians of the future will, I predict, be baffled as to why Steinfeld’s only been nominated as Best Supporting Actress by AMPAS, when she effectively carries the film. A somewhat craven decision based on which category she’s most likely to win, I suspect. Well, the main gong no doubt has Natalie Portman’s name on it, I suppose, but it’s still doing Steinfeld an enormous disservice to suggest this isn’t her movie: it is. Hollywood will be beating a path to her door now, and – like all great discoveries of recent years – you can expect her to pop up in a brain-deficient action movie requiring her to use ten percent of her talent very soon.

I’m not entirely sure that fans of old-style westerns will find True Grit completely satisfying as an example of the genre – it’s a little too measured and restrained for that, lacking the sheer emotional charge that the best westerns can generate – whether that emotion is exhilaration, foreboding, or one of many others. But on its own terms, and as a piece of historical drama, it’s virtually flawless.

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