Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Naomie Harris’

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.

Read Full Post »

Here’s one for pub quiz fiends: which Best Picture Oscar-winning film made the least money at the box office? The answer is, of course, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. How about this one: which Best Picture Oscar-winning film was made for the lowest budget? Now here we come to a bit of a wrinkle, as, in terms of your actual dollars, Marty (1955) was made for only $350,000, but allowing for inflation over the last sixty years, in today’s money it would set you back $3.2 million. If you take inflation into account, then the most financially prudent winner of the big prize is this year’s recipient, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight.

Yup, I know I very confidently said it was going to be La La Land, but then so did everyone else, and it just goes to show that in showbiz nobody knows nothing. The question, of course, is whether Moonlight really counts as showbiz or not? Certainly the Oscars won by this film have propelled it to a level of prominence one would not have normally associated with a film on this scale or concerning this kind of subject matter.

This is a film in three parts, concerning the life of a young black man living in an underprivileged part of Florida. As the film opens, Little (Alex Hibbert) is hiding from a gang of bullies in a derelict house (the implication is that this is a crack den). Here he is discovered by local crack kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes a shine to the lad and becomes a sort of mentor to him, unlikely though that seems. Little’s mother (Naomie Harris) is not best pleased by this, but the issue is complicated by the fact she is one of Juan’s customers herself.

Things don’t get any easier for the lad as he grows older, and by the time he is a teenager, now going by his given name of Chiron (and now played by Ashton Sanders), his mother has become a full-blown addict and he is being viciously bullied at school. He is also struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, which is outside the acceptable norms of the local street culture. Fleeting moments of happiness are accompanied by long periods of quiet despair.

And, of course, there’s a third act, in which Chiron has become an adult, adopted the street name Black and is now a fairly successful crack dealer himself (by this point he has grown up into Trevante Rhodes). Outwardly he seems to have successfully reinvented himself, but an unexpected contact with an old acquaintance opens the door to a lot of unfinished business…

Yeah, so this is a serious drama about a black gay crack dealer, so not something that would usually hurtle to the top of my list of things to see (it’s just too mainstream, I guess). To the credit of the audience who went to the same weekday lunchtime showing that I do, nobody actually walked out or started throwing things at the screen, but I really strongly doubt that most of them would have been there had the movie not had that priceless Best Picture imprimatur about it (I have a horrible suspicion that many conversations along the lines of, ‘This beat La La Land to best picture (eventually)! We loved La La Land! This must be even better! Let’s go and see it!’ preceded trips out to the film). It’s the kind of film that usually has ‘art-house darling’ written all over it.

And never let it be said that people who go to art-house cinemas don’t have taste, for Moonlight is an involving drama, clearly made with great thoughtfulness and care. The central gimmick of the lead character being played by three different performers doesn’t even feel particularly gimmicky, nor does the structure of the film (it has chapter headings, but no title card until the very end) seem too affected. It’s hardly a barrel of laughs, but then I don’t think it was ever intended to be.

What the film seems to be about is… well, I’m minded to be a little cautious here, for despite the fact this film emanates from the present-day USA, it is nevertheless from a culture (or indeed a set of cultures) which are not my own, and thus deserving of the same sort of respect I’d give a movie from Asia or one of the remoter parts of Europe. You get the idea. Anyway, it seems to me that this is not so much a film which is simply about a black gay crack dealer, but about an essential crisis when it comes to black identity in the United States.

The film’s thesis appears to be that the dominant image of manhood for most underprivileged black men is that of the successful  gangster, and that this is source of their underachievement and tendency to become involved in criminality (the characters in the film appear to take it for granted that going to prison is just one of those things that happens in the life of a young black man). This issue is compounded for non-heterosexual black men, naturally. Certainly, it’s Juan who becomes Chiron’s mentor and (almost) surrogate father, and it’s telling that when he becomes an adult Chiron has remade himself very much in Juan’s image: he doesn’t seem to have any alternative available to him. (The film is subtle enough not to deal in simplicities here – Juan is not some simple gangster stereotype, but one of the most appealing and sympathetic characters in the film.)

And, by the way, it may be that the film has a point about the image of the black male in the American media – Mahershala Ali’s performance is extremely good, but I couldn’t help thinking I’d seen it before, for his early-exit turn as a somewhat conflicted crime boss in Moonlight was preceded by his early-exit turn as a somewhat conflicted crime boss in the Luke Cage TV series. The archetypes, not to mention the stereotypes, are deeply embedded. It’s a complex issue, however, though Moonlight handles it with a thoughtfulness and imagination I’d only previously seen in back issues of Green Lantern: Mosaic from 1992.

In the end… was this film honestly intended to work solely as a piece of entertainment on any level? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, Moonlight is assured of some kind of place in history, and not just because of the low budget or Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway faffing about with the envelope, but as the first film with an all-black cast and a gay theme to win the Oscar for Best Picture (no, Brokeback Mountain didn’t win; it was Crash that year, apparently). Whether this is simply a case of virtue-signalling by the voters, or the result of people wanting to support a film with some significance at an important moment in US history (rather than Damien Chazelle’s lighter-than-air crowd-pleaser), I don’t know: much as I respect this film and find it admirable, and appreciate the skill and delicacy with which it handles some unpromising subject matter, I think I would have found myself voting for La La Land, to be honest (or Silence, had it been in contention). But that’s just me. We can probably spend all day going round and round about whether it should have won and indeed why, but the fact remains that it did, and it is by no means unworthy of the honour.

 

Read Full Post »

If there is, as some would have you believe, no such thing as bad publicity, the makers of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom must have experienced some fairly intense mixed emotions. It was during the Royal Premiere of Justin Chadwick’s film that the former South African president finally passed away, and this has surely impacted in some way on the way in which this film has been received – it may have been planned as a biography of a hugely significant international figure, but Nelson Mandela’s death instantly transformed it into a history of the closest thing to a secular saint that the modern world has seen.

mandela

Probably it’s for the best that the makers of the film weren’t obliged to labour under the weight of this sort of expectation, because this was surely an intimidating enough project to take on as it is. Mandela himself, who was apparently involved with the project for much of its gestation, was insistent that he not be presented as some idealised, perfect figure. But that is, to all intents and purposes, what Mandela has become, and any biography seeking to be too subversive, or challenge the legend too forcefully, would doubtless be in for a critical and popular scourging.

So this was always going to be a movie which took an approach of reverent good taste to its subject, and not rock the boat too much – also, it was inevitably going to be a prestige production, the subject matter alone being enough to catch the eye of the awards shortlist people (even if only briefly). There’s a certain way of going about the making of this sort of historical biopic, as demonstrated by a film like Attenborough’s Gandhi (one of the few movies which is really comparable in terms of its subject matter and scope). All in all, then, even while Mandela was still alive, this was a film with very little room for manoeuvre as it attempted to meet a challenging brief: stick to the grammar of the genre, while sticking reasonably close to the truth, without deviating too far from its subject’s public image.

Perhaps this is the reason why the film devotes only a scant few minutes to Mandela’s childhood years in a Xhosa village, and makes no mention of the fact he received the name ‘Nelson’ from a white schoolteacher – presumably exploring Mandela’s African identity too deeply would make him less identifiable to a global audience.

Instead, the film really gets underway with Mandela already as a man in his twenties, portrayed by Idris Elba. To be honest the first hour of the film sticks very closely to Accepted Procedure for this kind of film – there’s less a sense of a developing story about a living protagonist than there is of historical join-the-dots, with the film jumping between key events in Mandela’s political awakening and personal life. Here we do get a few references to the side of Mandela that is most frequently overlooked – his womanising, and his involvement in armed struggle against his country’s government – this was not a man who categorically renounced violence. However, this material is handled somewhat perfunctorily, and one does sense the discomfort of the film-makers in having to include it at all. Anyway, this section of the film is informative, and I’m sure it bears some relation to actual fact, but it never really comes to life as a proper narrative nor as a movie.

However, things change dramatically – in every sense of the word – when the story reaches the point of Mandela’s capture and trial. Mandela’s speech from the dock is justly famous, but what the film makes clear is that it was fully intended as the prelude and trigger to an act of self-sacrificial martyrdom, with Mandela and his fellow defendants expecting the death penalty. Mandela’s time in prison is the defining fact of his life, but he never expected to go there – he expected to die.

You could, I think, have made a very worthwhile and interesting Mandela bio-pic set almost entirely between 1964 and 1990, focussing entirely on his imprisonment. It is, as I say, the defining element of the Mandela legend and central to any understanding of the man. What were the effects on him? How did his family cope? How on Earth did he emerge with his dignity and resolution undiminished, and the ability to – publicly, at least – denounce revenge as an empty solace?

It’s impossible for any film to find answers to these sorts of questions. However, if Long Walk to Freedom is worth seeing – and I really think it is – then it’s for this section of the film. I half expected Mandela’s trial to conclude and a caption to come up reading ’26 Years Later’, but Mandela’s prison life is covered in some detail, and it’s only really here that we get some sense of him as a human being rather than as a significant historical icon, quite simply because the script is not constrained into merely ticking a series of boxes. The conclusion of the film is, once again, more a series of snapshots of key moments in recent history, but by this point it is as if we are dealing more with a human being than a historical figure, which helps considerably.

Idris Elba is not the most obvious Mandela lookalile, but he brings his usual power and presence to the role, and manages an uncanny impersonation of that very familiar voice. I’m more used to seeing Elba in roles where he’s taking on vampires or giant alien monsters, but he carries this very serious movie effortlessly – and I do mean carries; there isn’t the big-name cameo from, say, Kevin Spacey as F.W. de Klerk. Elba is the one who is in nearly every scene, the only other character to be treated in depth is Winnie Mandela, portrayed here by Naomie Harris – and treated quite sensitively and fairly, I thought. Winnie Mandela’s involvement in extreme activism isn’t ignored, but neither is her brutalisation by the apartheid regime during her husband’s imprisonment – in a sense, she falls victim to a cycle of violence in exactly the way that her husband, miraculously, did not.

The history of South Africa is, I suspect, one of the great stories of our time, by turns brutal and absurd, depressing and uplifting. Just as it’s probably too big a story for any film to sensibly tell, so is that of Nelson Mandela. If Long Walk to Freedom doesn’t quite do the man himself justice, always seeming just a touch too reverential to really penetrate to the heart of this extraordinary figure, then it at least makes it clear what an extraordinary and important figure he was. And by that standard it must be considered a successful, and important film. It has made me want to find out more about the real Nelson Mandela, rather than the airbrushed and simplified icon of the popular imagination, and I think that would have pleased Mandela himself, as well. By no means a perfect film, nor even a really great one – but, as I say, surely an important one.

Read Full Post »