Friday, 26 May 2017
Straits N’ Sparrow
Pirates of the Caribbean:
Salazar’s Revenge/Dead Men Tell No Tales
2017 USA Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg
UK cinema release print.
Okay then. So here we are again with another continuation of a tired and bloated series of Hollywoodland franchise pictures which we all really needed in our lives. This one’s called Dead Men Tell No Tales in the US but, over here in the UK and a lot of other European countries, from what I can tell, it’s called Salazar’s Revenge. I don’t know why the name change but it’s been speculated that the phrase ‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’ is harder to secure exclusive copyright on in certain countries so... there you go.
The first ten minutes of the very first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, The Curse Of The Black Pearl, when I saw it first in the cinema, was pretty dull. I remember sitting there and contemplating how much longer I would have to endure the running time. Then Johnny Depp, an actor I already liked in a lot of stuff but who had never really made it into the main stream (until that film secured him that honour) had his big entrance and I was smiling and laughing throughout the rest of that first movie. It was a fantastic trip. However, the three sequels Dead Man’s Chest, At Worlds End and On Stranger Tides (reviewed by me here) were all pretty much terrible and it was a shame to see a film series deliver none of the things that made the first so memorable and much loved in the first place (which is exactly the same way I feel about the Transformers franchise, by the way). However, I thought I'd take a peak at this new one, whichever title you want to call it, because there’s always a chance that a different director might give the film a much needed kick and get it back to something like its early days. Alas, that’s not the case with Salazar’s Revenge/Dead Men Tell No Tales.
That being said, I think the film is certainly better than the last three sequels and there are some nice moments in it.
The first half to three quarters of an hour are actually pretty watchable, for the most part. Following on from a bit of back story which takes place sometime between the third movie and this fifth one, we jump nine years to the current timeline and witness the exploits of Will Turner’s (Orlando Bloom) son Henry, played by Brenton Thwaites (who was so good in the much underrated Gods Of Egypt - reviewed here) and Kaya Scodelario, who plays a character related to another regular in the series and, I won’t spoil it here by saying who but you’ll probably figure it all out in the first half an hour of the film anyway, to be honest. These two share a joint quest, for different reasons, to find the ‘Trident of Neptune’. They are ‘joined’ by Jack Sparrow who will need to get his hands on the trident if he’s to fend of the ‘revenge’ of the spanish pirate hunter Salazar (played by Javier Bardem) who, with his crew, were tricked into a fate worse than death by Jack in his youth and who are all ghost creatures not able to set foot on land. We also have Geoffrey Rush reprising his role as Barbosa and a few other regulars like the always watchable Kevin McNally along for the ride.
The film starts off well, as I said, with various characters being pursued for different reasons and there’s a nice sequence following the ‘all too obvious’ first appearance of Johnny Depp’s iconic Jack Sparrow character which involves a moving building being chased through the streets and involving lots of nice stunts and ‘almost funny’ moments. There’s a similarly nice sequence, after a brief cameo by Paul McCartney who you also hear performing a quick rendition of The Beatles version of Maggie May, which brings all three lead characters together and features a very nice but overplayed visual gag with a revolving guillotine.
After that it’s business as usual and, unfortunately, there’s the inevitable, threadbare supernatural shenanigans involving some nice zombie sharks and lots of elements too quick to follow, possibly because the visual logic of what’s happening in some sequences doesn’t always match the actual internal logic of the plot line (something which I think plagued all the films in this franchise on some level)... and lots of shouting and fighting. The film rapidly deteriorates, in my opinion, about halfway through and I can never quite figure out why the characters who are the allies in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films are never realising that fact until it’s almost too late and are quite happy to hold each other captive or sacrifice one another until the end scenario.
There are a few nice comic moments like the ‘horologist’ scene... which I’d already seen as an internet preview sometime last year and... um... I’m sure there must have been some other moments which made me crack a smile at some point. Not very memorable ones, obviously, or I would be able to relate them here. For the most part though... and this is common with all of the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels... the humour falls flat most of the time. I feel if they could write some better one liners and jokes in these things and maybe strip out some of the many and varied supernatural elements and streamline these things so they didn’t need so many special effects... they might be a lot better, more watchable films. And once again, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow is hardly ever pro-active and mostly tends to just have stuff happen to him before being rescued by a bizarre twist of fate every time... which gets kind of wearing after a while. This character could be so better written... especially when you have an acting genius like Depp in the role. Such a shame.
I was primarily in the cinema to listen to the music, however. I, like many, loved Klaus Badelt’s original score, with the pirate theme which seemed to be cribbed somewhat from one of Hans Zimmer’s themes in the Gladiator score. Zimmer produced the first score and composed the next three, only referencing that pirate theme barely in the third and fourth films... but he at least kept the orchestration and ‘feel’ of those sequels in the same melodic soundscape as the first film. That’s an important element that many big budget studio franchises seem to foolishly undervalue and dispense with, it seems to me, throwing away the musical identity of their franchise and diluting it in the most terrible way. Franchises like the Alien films, the current Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Resident Evil series are all guilty of this and it really is noticeable and jarring, from film to film, when they don’t follow through on the musical content. For this one, we have composer Geoff Zanelli and I’m thankful to say that he seems more than happy to maintain exactly the same sound from the previous films and he’s also not afraid to quote Badelt and Zimmer’s themes in large dollops for the good of the score and the franchise. So the one thing this film really gets right, I’m glad to say, is the music. Well done to Zanelli for sorting that out so well and I look forward to hearing the results away from the movie on CD at some point in the very near future.
And there you go... I’m done with this franchise now, I suspect. A major, recurring character of the series dies although, I’m not going to tell you which one and the death of this character is much more moving than you might expect if I named the person involved. That being said, while this is billed as the ‘final’ film in the series, I might remind everyone that this is exactly how they marketed the third one too... so stay after the end credits of this one if you want to see where a possible sequel might go. Although, given the two actors involved in this last, 'after credits stinger', I suspect we definitely won’t be seeing these two return to the series anymore. Pirates Of The Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge/Dead Men Tell No Tales is probably going to be well liked for anybody who loved the three sequels to the original movie, for sure. People who are tired of these big Hollywood, summer tent pole movies, however, might be best served staying away and trying something else out instead. This film is not terrible but... it’s certainly not great, either.
Tuesday, 23 May 2017
A Mage A Day Helps
You Work, Rest and Play
King Arthur - Legend Of The Sword
USA 2017 Directed by Guy Ritchie
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Any similarities between this movie and the legend of King Arthur are purely coincidental.
Remember that famous moment in Arthurian legend where giant, armoured elephants taller than a couple of skyscrapers attack Camelot with giant, spiky clubs they hold in their trunks? Yeah, me neither. Yet... here they are.
I’m not a fan of gangster cinema but the few films by Guy Ritchie I’ve actually seen - the two Sherlock Holmes films and The Man From UNCLE reboot (reviewed here)- were pretty cool movies, as far as I’m concerned. However, when I saw a trailer for King Arthur - Legend of the Sword a month or so ago it looked absolutely horrendous and I made a decision, there and then, to trust my instincts and stay away from the movie. However, I then found out that Daniel Pemberton was re-teaming with Ritchie after his fantastic score for The Man From UNCLE and, furthermore, while King Arthur - Legend of the Sword was taking a critical drubbing, Pemberton’s score was being singled out as the best thing about the movie and was doing very well in the Amazon music charts (and not just the soundtrack part of it). Since I also knew there was already a CD release of this score... well, I had to go and see this after all. And, I must say, as far as Pemberton’s score goes, at least... I wasn’t disappointed.
To be fair to Ritchie and his excellent cast and crew... the trailer for the film makes it look much less appetizing than it actually is. King Arthur - Legend of the Sword is actually a huge slice of fun and its greatest tragedy, in my eyes, is that it looks like it had a truly great movie waiting in the wings in some alternate cut. However, it’s not without its huge problems and I think the final edit probably hinders the movie way more than it should.
The great thing about this film, the primary strength, is its cast. They’re all very good. Charlie Hunnam is very likable as Arthur, Jude Law makes an excellent villain in King Vortigern, Eric Bana is excellent as Uther Pendragon (for the few minutes he’s in it), British treasure Neil Maskell is wonderful as the likeable guy who ends up as motivation fodder at a critical point in the story and the Merlin substitute, played here as a female mage by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, who I last saw in the unbelievably cool I Origins (reviewed here) has absolutely the most amazing screen presence in this film. Even Mr. Posh Spice gets a halfway decent moment in the proceedings.
The dialogue isn’t bad either and the opening ten minutes, pre-credits, and the credits themselves are very strong sequences. Pre-credits is the big ‘elephant’ scene I mentioned above, as Uther saves everybody from the evil attacking Camelot before heading to meet his own fate in the betrayal of a close friend and the titles themselves play out over Arthur growing up in a brothel and becoming ‘street savvy’ in Londinium. Unfortunately, this is all the strongest stuff in the movie and, as much as I admired Ritchie’s technique and the way in which he uses the syntax of splicing film to create a finished result, I really think it goes into overdrive too quickly and too long here.
Oh, and the music... as I said before, Daniel Pemberton’s score is absolutely top notch and I expect to see it listed in my top five scores at the end of the year. Truly astonishing work and this guy is definitely one to watch. I’ll probably never watch this movie again in my life but the CD soundtrack is going to be on my turntable for months, when it arrives, I’m pretty sure of that.
So, okay... lets talk about the two things I think let the film down a little.
This doesn’t stick to Arthurian legend at all. There’s no Merlin or Morgan Le Fey... although I’m sure that in the subsequent films that Ritchie was planning on releasing before this flopped big time at the box office, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey’s unnamed mage character would have taken on one of those two mantles. There’s no Guinevere, no Lancelot and other bits of legend are played with fairly hard so they almost become unrecognisable. Also, this is set in a time, according to the script, when magicians were plentiful and roamed side-by-side with normal people... so we have, to an extent, fantastical elements not uncommon in something you might expect in the heroic fantasy genre. That being said, I’ve no idea why giant snakes were so prominent unless Ritchie loved the John Milius version of Conan The Barbarian as much as I did because some of the magical sequences seem to be a little at odds with common sense or follow through here.
Another main difference is that King Arthur, once he’s learned how to wield Excalibur without fainting and lapsing into unconsciousness, can do magic stuff himself... drawing on power from his sword in a similar manner to the way Michael Moorcock’s famous character Elric Of Melnibone gains power from his black, soul sucking sword Stormbringer. So, you know... big changes to Arthurian legend there. Alfred Tennyson might be twirling poetically in his grave at this point.
The other thing is Ritchie’s cinematic language here. Remember those scenes in Soderbergh’s The Limey where he cuts between two different scenes of the same two people to make up one conversation? Well Ritchie does it all the time and while I have observed this trait in him before and while he always, here included, does it very well... using short edits of alternate situations and also just generally cross-cutting between scenes to tell the story... here he seems to be doing it without any thought as to how the abundance of such an approach affects the whole piece. Like he and the editor were on some kind of really wonderful drug while cutting this movie and... it works great as a means to an end but I wish he’d have tempered it back because, honestly, it really gets tiring after just five minutes, let alone a whole movie's worth of fast cutting. Seriously, was there any shot in this film held for more than a few seconds? This really is MTV generation editing taken to a point way farther than it maybe should have been allowed to get.
You need some pauses...
If you look at some of the most iconic action movies of all time coming from the likes of Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone or even Steven Spielberg, one of the things you’ll notice straight away after you’ve seen just a few is that they are all about the pausing and build up between action sequences. You make the action moments stand out by pitching them against something which anticipates and teases those sequences. In this film, however, even the long dialogue scenes, of which there are many, are cut together like hard hitting action scenes so, when the three or four action sequences do come along, quite apart from being hard to follow, they are diluted and lose literally all impact because they have nothing to be seen in contrast to. Now it’s obvious from this that Ritchie has the coverage on the various scenes because he keeps cutting back to them.... so I wish he’d have just ramped down from the ferocious editing in some of those sequences a little more and let them play out without chopping about so much because, overall, the film gradually wears you down to a point where the final battles feel like a complete anticlimax and you really do feel like the movie just needs to end soon, to be honest.
And it’s such a shame because Ritchie is so obviously a great director and I wish he would have just reeled himself in a bit because I’m sure, with the footage he already has, this could have been a truly groovy and successful movie. However, it isn’t... the people have spoken with their wallets and, alas, it’s time to move on from this somewhat unique take on King Arthur and his Merry Men. No wait, that’s not right. Although it does seem like the film is trying to be more Robin Hood with magic party tricks and less King Arthur at some points.
So... you know what. If you’ve got nothing better to do one evening, I’d still say go and have a look at King Arthur - Legend Of The Sword because, frankly, you can learn from and be somewhat entertained by a spectacular failure as you can from a film which totally gets everything right. It’s not a great film but it’s not without its moments and, over and above all the mess that this movie is, it’s still got some kick ass, killer music by Pemberton which is really worth the price of admission. The movie is a bit of a write off, to be sure but... there are things work salvaging from the wreckage if you feel you’ve got the time.
Monday, 22 May 2017
Beware The Ids That March
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
UK cinema release print.
Okay... so what the heck happened to the publicity machine for Colossal? I literally was only aware that this movie even existed when one of my favourite composers, Bear McCreary, talked about doing the score for this on Twitter. After a while it’s finally arrived on UK shores and, mainly due to the poster design, I actually thought this movie was some kind of animated film. However, I looked at the trailer online, a few nights before I went to see it and was absolutely enthralled by what looked like a comedy starring Ann Hathaway who has somehow become inextricably linked to a giant monster which is stomping Seoul.
Which is pretty much what it is...
Or should I say... what it starts out as, at least. One of the things the trailer is doing, however, is masking that the film suddenly ‘does a Gremlins’ and takes an unexpected left turn about two thirds of the way through the movie... once the rules of the monster/human link have been established in some fairly funny and, surprisingly, sometimes moving moments in the film. This is such a good movie on pretty much every level, to be honest (although I know it has its detractors too).
Anne Hathaway is absolutely excellent in this and also has one of the Executive Producer credits here. I’ve not actually seen her in many movies but I think she’s actually got a certain screen presence which goes far above and beyond her abilities as an actress. She can screw her face up into various expressions which are almost larger than life, stage acting style short-hand to convey emotion but... it really doesn’t look out of place on film, somehow, the way she does it and she manages to do so much with it, so naturally, that she brings a lot to the table. My eyes were pretty much on her, more so than any kaiju eiga inspired scenes in the film. She is joined by people like the always watchable Dan Stevens, as her ex-boyfriend who kicks her out at the start of the movie and Jason Sudeikis, who actually does a really interesting and subtle performance, especially in terms of bringing a certain amount of stealth character establishment in the first two thirds of the film. I honestly did not see the character arc for him coming in terms of his specific personality so... yeah, longtime readers of this site will know that I love the few rare films that can surprise me and this one surprised me no end as it sauntered to it’s... very satisfying ending.
So, yeah, all the acting is great.
What’s also great in this, asides from Mr. McCreary’s incredible and appropriate score for the film (yeah, you can bet that CD is already on order... can’t wait to hear it as a stand alone listen) is some of the incredibly interesting shot designs. This director actually does some interesting stuff with the character which was a pure joy to watch.
For instance, lets talk about the way a director might focus on a character.
Back in the days before a director could ‘zoom in’ effectively on someone, you had directors like Sergei Eisenstein. He would show a shot of, say, a crowd and then focus on individuals in that crowd for an emotional interaction with the audience. However, what he would do, possibly due to technical limitations of the equipment at the time he was making movies like Battleship Potemkin, Oktober or Strike, would be to cut to a close up of the actor or actress in question. However... and this works at almost a subconscious level the first time you see one of his movies, he shoots the actor against a different background without any distractions to the foreground... like a somehow more staged or hyper-real version of the original shot. You have a look sometime and you might see that not everything in those shots match. In Eisenstein’s case, he didn’t use actors but people who naturally looked like the kinds of stereotypes he wanted to convey to use in this manner and this kind of practice in Soviet Cinema of the time was known as typeage.
Well, director Nacho Vigalondo doesn’t do anything quite like that here but he does use the camera in some nice and unexpected ways to pull the focus onto the actors involved in the movie when a character, usually Ann Hathaway, needs to come into some kind of snap focus so the audience can catch everything and sympathise, or empathise, with her plight.
For instance, after a pre-credits sequence establishing the first appearance of the colossal monster 25 years prior to the main body of the film, we return to present day with Hathaway’s character Gloria being kicked out of her flat by her boyfriend because of her constant and repetitive bad behaviour... specifically because of her drinking problem. After he leaves her in his flat to go to work, a load of people start filling the room, who Gloria has waiting in the wings to resume the partying once her boyfriend has left for his office for the day. As people file in behind her we see sitting about two thirds of the way to the right of the screen, sitting at a table with shock on her face as she looks towards the camera. Behind her we have two large windows filling most of the screen with the single, upright vertical between the windows splitting the screen in half. The director slyly and casually moves the camera around to the right so Gloria moves to the left in relation to the window until it’s she, herself, who becomes the vertical split in the centre of the screen... thus highlighting her character in perfect symmetry as we concentrate on her features more. And it’s brilliant. I loved it and felt like clapping in the cinema.
Another thing he does, later, to bring the symbiotic link between her and the main monster of the film home on a visual level, is to have her standing in front of a giant television with her back to us as she watches news footage of the monster’s ‘rampage’ from the night before. Previously we had seen her put one hand up to test her hypothesis that there is an actual link between her and the creature, followed by swinging both arms up to the side as part of a series of gestures to reveal the truth of her plight. As she watches the playback of the monster, we see the back of the top half of Gloria’s body, with her hands by her side, in the centre of the shot, masking the creature on the TV screen. As the creature throws its arms up and to the side, we are given a visual metaphor of the link as the creature’s televised arms become the visual surrogate for Gloria herself, completing her body in a way that is one of the truly unique ways that film can make comparisons as part of a narrative flow. It’s a less subtle but really great moment in the film and, again, I wanted to throw my own arms up to congratulate the director here. This stuff was incredible.
As the film reaches the last third of the running time, the comedy is dropped and, in addition to the drinking issues already highlighted, it takes another serious social issue and tackles it head on in a way that, if this wasn’t a science fiction story, it wouldn’t be able to do in the unique way it does it here. I’m not going to spoil this thing for you but I will say that if you saw the trailer and are expecting an out and out comedy... think again. This film gets kind of ugly later in a way that you probably wont see coming and some of the character performances in this part get almost too hard to watch.
Another great strength of this film is, just like the majority of modern, post 1969 zombie movies, the writer doesn’t really bother to explain just why there’s a giant monster that is inexplicably linked to Gloria. Sure it gives a kind of half hearted ‘origin’ scene which it works it’s way up to in flashback but this in no way explains just what the heck is going on and it’s seen in fierce juxtaposition with a revelatory confirmation of the nature of one of the other characters in the film so much so that, by this point, it really doesn’t matter anymore. The movie is no longer about the ‘how’ but about the ‘why’ and how Gloria is going to be able to fix things in her life (and also save gazillions of people).
And that’s all I’m going to say here about this movie because it’s frankly awesome. Yes, I’m sure the social issues it targets are crudely handled in terms of the 'final solution' of a certain problem in the film and I’m sure it’s all done in an over-the-top manner but, you know, sometimes these issues are something you need to show in a simplistic, ‘beat you over the head with it’ form to provoke thought in an audience once the movie is finished. I don’t know enough about the specific issues it takes on to be able to say whether it hits the right points or not but at least it got me contemplating them for a minute or two. Which is no bad thing, I guess.
If you haven’t already guessed it, Colossal is a solid recommend from me. If you are thinking of seeing it, don’t go expecting a horror movie or even a comedy movie, although there are some good laughs to be had in the earlier parts of the movie. Catch this one at the cinema before it’s too late because it is quite original, in some ways, even if it’s deliberately using genre tropes to reach its end game. A lot of fun and it also makes you pause and think. Cinema at its very best.
Sunday, 21 May 2017
Doctor Who - Extremis
Airdate: 20th May 2017
Warning: This one’s going to have to have spoilers in it right from the outset, I’m afraid. Apologies.
Well this doesn’t seem to have been a very well liked episode if my Twitter timeline is anything to go by. People are afraid the series will get cancelled if episodes like this are what they have to look forward to. I can understand that the casual watchers well might drift away with less than excellent episodes like this but, honestly, I think they already lost the most people they could lose two series' ago so I don’t think the odd poorly received episode like this is going to make that much difference. As I remarked recently to someone on an entirely different subject... you need to see the bad ones to appreciate the good ones. So there’s that.
As for myself... I didn’t see this episode as a disaster at all. Far from it. Although I do admit to being disappointed in the actual content and end games of the story.
Let me cover the good stuff first.
The story deals with an email to The Doctor from, it turns out by the end of the story, The Doctor. But not as we know him. The Doctor is still blind and he, Bill and Nardole are summoned by The Pope to enter the secret library in the Vatican and read from the forbidden text Veritas. Anyone who reads it will die by their own hand... and have been, frequently.
That’s the plot and there are some lovely bits in it. The atmosphere of the dark, musty, labyrinth of library corridors is good stuff and there’s also a load of humour in it. Meanwhile, we also have the startling ‘revelation’ that the Doctor has The Master, I mean Missy, in the Vault. Which is a real let down and it’s implied that’s where she is because The Doctor rescues her from execution but is duty bound to guard her body for a thousand years in said vault. The fact that she is still alive is neither her nor there to The Doctor. And then we have some scenes in The Pentagon and CERN which are... what they are... but the really nice stuff was in the library and, also, a scene where Bill currently lives at the start of the episode...
Bill has a hot date and the lady in question is back with Bill in the lounge area for a cup of tea and something more hotter later when the sound of the TARDIS can be heard coming from Bill’s bedroom, which she explains away as pipes. Then The Pope rushes into the lounge and starts talking excitedly in Italian and... the reaction from Bill and her date is priceless. This is a nice comedy moment and it’s probably the highlight of the episode... for me at any rate. Such a shame it’s not really Bill then...
Which of course leads me into the bad stuff.
Don’t worry, it was all a dream. Or rather, don’t worry, the whole episode was a computer simulation of our regular characters because a weird alien race build a shadow, virtual reality programme to run, unaware it’s not the real thing. to figure out how to defeat The Doctor and invade the planet. Which is a really old idea and, though it manifests itself in some, really not bad moments... like the way in which computers (at least old computers) can only generate pseudo-random strings of numbers... it really is “a load of old pants”. Which, I’m told, means something a bit less than good to the young audience out there. Or has that phrase been superseded already?
Another big problem of going down that route, of course, is that a) it made no sense and b) we absolutely didn’t need to have dodgy aliens stealing cardinals in the library because, really, what for? Also, there’s no way, surely, The Doctor can send an email from his sonic sunglasses to the real version of himself when it’s all just a simulation being run for the benefit of the aliens. And furthermore... how come computer glasses can allow a blind character to see where walls and people are but can’t actually display text in a book? That really makes no sense at all and these things - the email, the glasses, the fact that The Doctor can’t regenerate his eyes but he can grow new limbs at will - just seemed to me like lazy writing. I mean, when the technology and physics of the Whoniverse are being rewritten because they get in the way of story ideas... then it’s time to rewrite the situations which call for such preposterous decisions, not just say the technology or people can’t do that particular thing so the story can function sensibly. This was bad writing, I feel.
And then there’s the whole thing with it being Missy in the vault.
Really? What an anti-climax. I know a lot of people are disappointed in the so called ‘revelation’ of something they’ve made so obvious that there had to be more to it than that. Myself included.
However, a little part of me is saying, hold up. You don’t usually reveal what’s happening with something from the reverse end of the situation. We assume Missy is in there and, to be fair The Doctor is talking to Missy openly through the Vault doors. However, we haven’t actually seen the reveal from this end, have we? Is it really just Missy in there or is there going to be something far more spectacular and Moffat is just throwing us that bone, halfway through the series, to throw us off the trail. Or is it the case, as I mentioned in my first review of this series, that the whole vault thing is just a giant red herring to distract us from the real revelation coming later in the series. Let’s hope so, eh? Otherwise this is not exactly one of the the most clever seasons of Doctor Who written, that’s for sure.
There you go then. That’s all I’ve got on Extremis. It’s not the mess that everyone seems to think it is, I reckon but, as I think I’ve demonstrated, it’s not an episode that’s without its disappointments. Next week’s episode looks like it will be dealing with the real life fall out from this one so I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to it but... hopefully I’ll be pleasantly surprised and the series will begin to perk back up again. Who knows? Apparently.
Thursday, 18 May 2017
Vive La Dance
An American In Paris (stage musical)
Original London Cast Dominion Theatre
25th April 2017
I don’t believe I’ve written a review of a stage musical before (unless you count the odd film score concert but... I don’t). So I wasn’t all that sure I was going to write this one up, to be entirely honest with you. There’s a big problem with this musical based on my and, presumably, other people’s expectations of it and, though I did have a nice and enjoyable time on the evening when I went and saw this with a special friend, I thought it best to maybe at least try and write something, no matter how little, to serve as a warning to people to leave their hopes at the theatre doors if they are assuming this to be a decent adaptation of the 1951 Gene Kelly, MGM musical An American In Paris.
So we arrived at the Dominion fairly early, both in anticipation of a night of cool song and dance. I remember seeing the original Star Wars at that venue when it was a top notch cinema at the tail end of 1977 and the foyer didn’t look all that different to what I remembered, to be honest. Less packed out with people, though. I was a little worried about how my favourite character, infused in the movie by the larger than life personality of Oscar Levant, would play in this show because, frankly, you can’t replace Oscar. So I grabbed a programme and then went over to the kiosk to see what merchandise they had on sale with which I could commemorate the evening. Alas, no pin badges were forthcoming but I did spot a CD so I had a quick look at the track listing before I made my purchase. A transaction I’m sad to say I didn’t complete because as I started looking for my favourite song I found that, alongside many others, it was not present on the album. Instead, most of the songs had been replaced by other titles, which didn’t make any sense to me... other than that I presumed they were, at the very least, composed by George Gershwin.
So I didn’t buy the CD and entered the theatre in worrying anxiousness of how the performance would be. Due to my obsession with getting tickets for as near to ‘the right price’ as I could (where ‘the right price’ equals a fiver so... no joy getting anything like that here) we were quite far from the stage but, sometimes, it’s nice to take in the whole set in one go so I wasn’t too worried about that. Alas, the opera glasses all had little signs on them saying they only took the old £1 coins on them... I’d managed to divest myself of the old money so, again, found I was out of luck.
And then the show started and... yeah, it’s a nice enough show in some ways. Colourful and inventive with some top notch dance performances which I would have been happy to see under different circumstances. Those circumstances being if they would have called it something else like... I dunno... A Yankee in Montmartre or A Night At The Gershwin Club or some such. Alas, the show was proudly calling itself An American In Paris and that is where most of my troubles with it lay.
I love the original movie An American In Paris. Those MGM musicals are all pretty cool and that’s one of my four all time favourites made within a few short years of each other for that specific studio. I know the characters, I know the songs and I know the story and.... I love all of those elements. Alas, the only resemblance the characters had to the original here were their occupations (sort of), their names and... um... their ability to sing and dance. Set right after the Second World War it manages to channel the bleak depression and fallout of these turbulent times and insert them into the main text in a way the original couldn’t (and only touches upon very briefly, if memory serves). So we have a version of the Oscar Levant character, played very well by David Seadon-Young but written quite differently, who walks about with a limp from his war wounds and who is still slyly cynical but for overtly different reasons, carrying a darkness around with him on stage. More than that, instead of the film being about two men... Gene Kelly and Georges Guétary falling for the same girl, as played by Leslie Caron.... here we have Robert Fairchild and Haydn Oakley falling for Leanne Cope. This is fine of course and all the staff give credible and stellar performances but... for some reason the story has now expanded the situation to be a love rectangle rather than triangle, with Seadon-Young also trying to win the affections of the leading lady.
Not only that, but we now have undertones (which I didn’t notice myself so thanks to my friend for the heads up) of the possibility that the Henri Baurel character might even be a repressed homosexual thrown into the mix... so one has to wonder, since the girl is engaged to be married to him, why he even wants to go through with it all. So yeah.. the characters and story are all very different to the original but, to make things much worse and add insult to injury...
My worst suspicions were soon confirmed. The songs and music were stripped out almost wholesale and replaced with ‘other’ Gershwin standards. WTF? Why? Even the few they’d kept in like the classic I Got Rhythm and Stairway To Paradise (my least favourite piece in the original) were seriously tinkered with. Instead of Gene Kelly hanging out with a bunch of local kids on the street corner and going through the iconical version of I Got Rhythm we all know, we had a bunch of adults in a pub doing it and... I can’t even remember if the Gene Kelly character being played here by Robert Fairchild, is even in this actual sequence in the stage show. Probably yes but, if so, he wasn't the lead on the song. And as for Stairway To Paradise... the original, polished, professional show solo version as presented in the film was replaced with a comical two hander showing how unprofessional the Henri Baurel character is in regard to his show business side. Kinda preposterous the way that the writers had almost gone out of their way to completely replace everything almost, it seems, for the sake of changing it and leaving their own scars upon it. So, yeah, I was not a happy bunny. Especially with my two favourites By Strauss and Tra La La La absent from the show.
The stage effects and transitions were all very good and imaginative as far as I was concerned. Although, having said that, my friend found them to be distracting and too much... like a bad Hollywood blockbuster that was so busy concentrating on its special effects that it forgot to find and express the heart of it's story and instead delivers a charmless mess, I guess.
So here I am right back to square one with this because, all in all, I had a fun night out at the theatre (I was in the very best of company)... but if you’re looking forward to seeing a version of An American In Paris on the stage then I would really lower your expectations of what you are about to see. Go for the energetically and skillfully performed dancing, the wonderful acting (including a turn by Jane Asher, no less) and extraordinary music... just don’t go in expecting similar dancing, acting or music. Or, like me, you’ll be sorely disappointed in the end result.
Tuesday, 16 May 2017
Entertaining Miss Sloane
Directed by John Madden
UK cinema release print.
I didn’t know about Miss Sloane until a couple of weeks ago when I started noticing the posters and saw the trailer. This is possibly because the film is already 5 months behind the US release and, it turns out, was openly boycotted by the US gun lobby on it’s release... effectively killing its box office takings. If I’d have known that pro-gun people were that afraid of this powerful and entertaining movie then I would probably have rushed quicker to the cinema to see it. As it is... the pull of this one for me is that I’d seen Jessica Chastain, who plays the title character Elisabeth Sloane, in a few genre favourites such as Mama (reviewed here) and Crimson Peak (reviewed here) and I like her a lot. I also think she’s a real powerhouse of an actress and nowhere is that more ably demonstrated than in this riveting performance as a woman who has earned a big reputation as the ‘go to’ person to hire to lobby for you on particular issues in US parliament. Forgive me, by the way, if I get some of this political talk wrong as... I really don’t understand politics and the fact that I am willing to even half talk about them here maybe shows you that this is a film I really liked.
Now, the film starts of from a framing story which renders everything leading up to that framing device... which we catch up to before flashing back again every twenty minutes or so... as Chastain’s lead character is under fire in a trumped up Senate hearing investigating the illegitimacy of her ‘methods’ to successfully lobby against a specific issue. The film then starts proper as Miss Sloane’s agency is asked by gun lobbyists to ‘sell’ the idea of making firearms easily available as a positive thing to the women of America. However, this is something that really goes against the grain and she is given an opportunity, which she immediately takes, of quitting her firm and taking herself and as many of her team who want to go with her to a rival company to lobby for the exact opposite.
Now I’m not going to pretend that the issue of owning guns or not is a simple one. The bottom line is nobody should have them but the reality is... someone always will. It’s complex and I am far too naive and idealistic to get into that... especially in a film review. I mention it here to clarify that Chastain’s character is lobbying to make guns harder for the common thug on the street to have access to... by providing more rigorous checks before firearms are allowed to be bought. Which makes good sense to me as a short term workaround, to be sure.
So anyway, her and about half of her team are now working on behalf of something called the Brady Campaign for a firm headed by Rodolfo Schmidt, played here by Mark Strong, in direct rivalry to the people in Sloane’s old company. And there’s one of the reasons right there why this film is so electric. Not to take anything away from the other cast members in this movie, all of who do a blistering job and include stalwart John Lithgow as the senator leading the framing hearing but... Chastain is always brilliant and, frankly, Mark Strong just impresses me more and more every time I see him in anything. Together with some absolutely amazing costars, they contribute to an already powerful script full of ear catching dialogue, which is so beautifully pulled together by the director, John Madden.
The pacing on the film is almost '1930s screwball' furious and the performances, as I’ve said, all superb as the iceberg cool Miss Sloane is shown as the almost emotionless machine of a lobbyist using all kinds of espionage tricks to establish the outcome that she wants. This is all set up with Chastain’s opening, framing dialogue to the majority of movie, which also plays in the trailers from what I remember. And its just an absolutely brilliant and enchantingly well made ride but there is one slight weakness to the movie which, in this particular case, makes the film even stronger...
To explain that; what I mean is that although the film seems to be quite twisty and turny... it’s really not. The writers spend the first half of the story setting up their ‘infallible’ title character before they start to show things going wrong for her and building on her vulnerability... except, if you’re like me, then you’ll known that the vulnerability is not necessarily a crack in the personae at all. Alas, the film is extremely obvious and, I have to say, within the first five minutes I had pretty much figured out what the denouement of the movie was going to be and, as it turns out, I was dead right. Now normally that would (and all too often does, unfortunately) annoy the heck out of me and, for the first third of the movie... I was kind of stewing over the obviousness of certain ploys the writers were using to try and distract me from the end game but, as I watched and the dialogue, acting and cinematography continued to win me over, I realised that if there was any other ending to this movie than the one they were building towards, I would have been incredibly disappointed in the film. So although I usually find the obvious ending to be a let down, here it was a welcome conclusion... my initial perceived weakness of the script became its strength, for me.
So it has all of that going on for it and, frankly, it’s just a gorgeous film visually too. The director uses the nice vertical set ups of walls and glass in the interior scenes to compartmentalise certain elements of the frame (as do a lot of great directors) and he does it in an interesting way. For instance, there’s a gorgeous shot which I wished he’d have lingered on longer, just after Mark Strong has sent Sloane’s team home for the evening to have a rest. It’s near the end of the movie and shows Sloane standing in the corridor full length on the left of the screen and, through and past the glass corridor coming down the middle/right side, Mark Strong siting down with his back to the camera and by the size and division of those two people in the frame, making a visual metaphor about how Strong’s character has begun to lose faith in Miss Sloane’s ability to win and using the mise en scene to visually (and presumably subconsciously, for some people) show the distance between them. It’s a wonderful shot in a film full of many such cool moments.
Max Richter’s, sadly unreleased on CD, score to this is kind of a minimalist masterpiece laying, stylistically, somewhere between Philip Glass and Hal Hartley’s musical compositions and it works really well here. It doesn’t overstate the obvious and it matches the icy veneer of the title character beautifully when it needs to. It highlights the things it needs to and stays out of the way when scenes call for it and it’s yet another score which highlights the need for this composers work to be released on a proper physical medium like compact disc.
And I don’t have much more to say on this one but I will say that, if you’re a fan of cinema and the way it can sometimes tackle important issues like corruption at the heart of a country, then you’d be really silly to miss this one while it’s doing the rounds. It’s not the kind of film I would usually repeat watch but I suspect I’ll be picking up the Blu Ray of this one at some point. Obvious or not, it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and it certainly doesn’t deserve the stupid numbers it got at the US box office. It also firmly seals the reputations, as far as I’m concerned, of Jessica Chastain and Mark Strong as being two of the finest modern actors working in cinema at the moment. Go see this one.
Monday, 15 May 2017
Xenomorphing Cower Strangers
USA/Australia/New Zealand/UK 2017
Directed by Ridley Scott
UK cinema release print.
Warning: There’s a clearly marked SPOILER ZONE in this article. So I’ll warn you when you get there.
Gosh... this is kind of a difficult film to process. I really liked the ALIEN films up to and including the fifth in the series, the first ALIEN VS PREDATOR movie (despite the glaring continuity error in that last one and not including their cameo appearances in any solo Predator movies). However, the last two in the franchise, ALIEN VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM and the so called A L I E N prequel Prometheus (reviewed by me here) really didn’t sit well with me. AVP: REQUIEM pretty much reduced the beautiful Alien Xenomorphs to the level of a teenage slasher movie and might better have been called 'Aliens Meet Jason' or some such dreadful thing (although, it has to be said the movie did have one thing going for it... an outstanding score by Brian Tyler)... and Prometheus, which I and pretty much everyone I know had high hopes for, suffered from some really bad artistic choices.
In Prometheus the three biggest sins were the reduction of the beautiful space jockey designed by H. R. Giger for the very first film... transformed into tall men wearing bone suits (known as Engineers), the absence of the actual Xenomorphs themselves and, finally, the absolute lack of actually leaving us in a place where the first movie could actually pick up from in the first place. The film was beautifully executed and absolutely gripping during the first half and then it just got really disappointing very quickly, not long after the crew went on board the alien ship.
This new film in the franchise, once again directed by Ridley Scott, is pretty much more of the same combination of awesome movie making coupled with some disappointingly poor artistic choices as far as I’m concerned. I’d rate it a definite improvement on Prometheus but this is very much a sequel to Prometheus than it is a prequel to A L I E N, it has to be said.
The film starts off, after a scene with Michael Fassbender reprising his role of David, which is set some time before the events of Prometheus, before fast forwarding past the previous film by a good ten years. My first danger signs that made it feel like Ridley was trying way too hard and, more importantly, too clumsily, to win franchise fans back came with an opening credits sequence that tried to mimic the first film badly in terms of the typefaces appearing in sections but with the twin mistakes of having them appear way too fast and also going to a second line of the same for the film’s subtitle at the bottom of the screen. This already felt a bit rubbish but then having the composer Jed Kurzel, who does an appropriate job for a lot of the time, using a new variant of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous, unused opening titles for the original A L I E N to play out over them was just a little bit too much.
Indeed, as much as I enjoyed Kurzel’s score to this and am looking forward to acquiring the CD of it at some point soon, the first third to a half of the movie seems to be intent on parodying various moments of Goldsmith’s original score for A L I E N. Now, this maybe wouldn’t have seemed so out of place if the Alien franchise had a very definite musical identity grounding it. Alas, as far as I am aware, every single movie in the Alien series (including the Predator versions and Prometheus) have had a different composer and, while some of the orchestral textures shared a commonality in some of the movies, there is no underlying style which has given them a consistent, coherent musical identity (the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe films are guilty of exactly the same crimes against musical filmanity, by the way). So, much as I appreciated hearing all of this pseudo-Goldsmith pumped through the cinema speakers... it just seemed a little misplaced here.
Although the film makers have tried to at least retrofit the space ship Covenant to the Nostromo of the first movie, they somehow neglected to remember that they never had a load of hologram style technology in A L I E N, which was obviously set some time after the events in this film (although a big shout out to the set dressers for the return of one of my favourite things to the series, the drinking duck). We also have the continuation of the synthetic David character, portrayed so brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, who is, in himself, something of an anomaly. In James Cameron’s ALIENS, we had the idea that a synthetic crew member as part of the family, so to speak, was a normal thing to take with you on board a spaceship. However, people should maybe remember that the second film was set quite a long time in the future from the original A L I E N movie so, you know, things had moved onto where it became normal to have a synthetic on board. Before that, though? In A L I E N, Ian Holm portrayed Ash, a synthetic who was not known as an android to the rest of the crew. He was a secret plant by the Weyland Yutani company. So... and Prometheus had this problem too... how come that before the events of A L I E N, having a synthetic human on board seems to be par for the course already? It kinda makes no sense.
Okay... this is where the spoilers start, people.
Also, while I’m on the subject, it also makes no sense that he would posess superhuman speed and strength. Certainly Ash and Bishop in the first two movies displayed none of that and yet, here, they are hurling people around like action figures. So... yeah, the continuity is screwed. And the continuity is also screwed when it turns out that the Alien Xenomorphs we are familiar with through the original Giger designs are, in fact, engineered by David. Because this is still set many years in our future folks so, if this is the case, how in heck did they come to the planet Earth many years in our past, as established in the first ALIEN VS PREDATOR movie? None of it is really making much sense. Honestly people, we laugh at how screwed up the continuity is from film to film on those old 1940s sequels to Universal’s The Mummy but modern franchises like the X-Men films, the Resident Evil films and this ALIEN franchise are just as bad, if not worse. Future generations of film fans will look at these movies and laugh at how quaintly people of our time must have forgotten what was going on between films.
Okay, so I was hoping for a reappearance of Noomi Rapace as the sole human survivor of the last movie... Dr. Elisabeth Shaw... but she really doesn’t get anything more than an illegible visual recording and a sound recording in here. Which is a shame because, opening credits aside, the first half of the film is quite strong, leading all the way up to an attack by alien life forms of some sort, not long after the spaceship Covenant touches down on the Engineers planet. What’s left of the crew are ‘rescued’ by a hooded figure and I was really hoping the rescuer would be Shaw but, alas, it was Fassbender as David. Now Fassbender also does double duty here as a later model of the same character called Walter but, it has to be said, the story is really crude and obvious from this point on. Once we are shown that a synthetic human can grow hair (seriously?), we have two almost identical looking characters, one who is a good and loyal android and an evil/mad version of the same. So I have to say I defy anyone who doesn’t know what’s going to happen towards the end of the movie here. And when David starts cutting his hair it’s pretty much spelled out long before we ever get to that point in the film. It’s a crude plot device which wouldn’t seem out of place in the early days of TV but to still be using this whole ‘evil twin’ surprise thing here (and this franchise is not the only modern franchise using this tired, over played, intelligence insulting template) really shows how sloppy and uninventive modern movie writers have become.
End of spoiler zone.
Another bad thing about this movie is the xenomorphs themselves. For most of the film the key alien monster is a whitish pink thing not unlike the terrible ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ looking Alien at the finale of Alien Resurrection... it’s not quite as crude as that but... yeah, really not impressed, in all honesty. The smaller, ‘just hatched’ versions of these are much more effective here in terms of suspense than the grown versions. The xenomorphs do feature in this eventually... just not very much and, it has to be said, they looked really clunky in some scenes. In fact, they looked almost more like a man in a suit (which I’m told they’re not, here) than the original version in A L I E N and, it has to be said, are far less effective. The face huggers are way better used here but... well... remember when the acidic blood of these creatures could eat through several hulls of a spaceship? Well here it can’t even eat its way fully through the front of a human face so... seriously some major continuity errors here, I feel.
Well that’s all the bad stuff.
The good stuff is... it looks and sounds awesome. Ridley Scott makes beautiful looking films... of that there is no question. The cinematography is amazing and although a fellow movie goer was complaining that it was too darkly lit (especially compared to the same scenes in the trailer), I think this works in its favour to cover up some clunky CGI in some parts and allow the audience to bring their imagination to the party... which is always more effective. I think Scott really knows what he’s doing visually and it certainly shows here.
We also have a cast who are quite brilliant. Michael Fassbender always brings a lot to the party and seems to be extraordinary in anything he puts his mind to. His costars are all great in this too and with a special mention for Katherine Waterston who is the ‘strong but emotionally vulnerable female’ Ripley surrogate of this movie. She does some good work here, especially when it comes to one of the film’s key themes... how characters deal with the emotional loss of a loved one when they are suddenly taken from them with no warning. There’s a fair bit of that in this movie for several of the characters and I suspect I know just why that theme is touched upon quite so often here but, due to my own, admittedly slightly twisted, moral compass, I don’t want to point it out here because it’s an issue which may be sensitive to at least one of the artists involved with the making of this film.
There are a lot of things I could be saying about Alien Covenant, many of them bad and some, probably, fairly good but I don’t want to labour the points and I think I’ve touched on the key things I wanted to cover in this review. The more I think about this film, the more disappointed I am in it... although it was a heck of a lot more focused than Prometheus, that’s for sure. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to non-Alien fans, I would certainly shout it out to all of those who do love the majority of the previous movies. It’s going to make some money, I hope, because I really want to see Ridley finish it up with a link back ot the original A L I E N movie (which it gets nowhere near doing here) but, in all honesty, I think the xenomorphs are a little played out now, to tell the truth. Not a terrible film... not a great one. A kind of a quaint, almost 1950s style sci-fi/horror yarn with a few little shout outs, in some moments, to Scott’s greatest masterpiece, the original studio cut of Blade Runner. Glad I saw this one but it’s not a repeat watcher for me.
Sunday, 14 May 2017
Doctor Who - Oxygen
Airdate: 13th May 2017
Warning: Slight spoilers.
I remember very well a Judge Dredd story I read in ‘the galaxy’s greatest comic’ 2000AD when I was a young ‘un. It was fairly early on in the comic’s long history, say around 1978 or possibly 1979. Judge Dredd was relocated off of Earth for a while for a series of stories I really liked where he was the new Judge of Lunar City One on the Moon. This particular story dealt with a bank robbery and in it, the three robbers managed to get away with their loot scot free... however, there was a great little punchline scene at the end of the story which, I would guess, was already a much used idea by the time the writers of 2000AD got around to recycling it. Days or weeks later, I forget which, the criminals were all found dead with their money. It seems, in their haste, one of them had forgotten to pay the Oxygen bill for the supply to their apartment and so their flat was ‘cut off’ by the Oxygen Board until paid. The robbers had quickly suffocated with their ill gotten gains.
It was a nice story and one which stayed with me over the years as something in which a science fiction comic parodied the times we live in and showed how evil corporate greed is when caring nothing about the people who get in the way of not paying up money. After all, we are already paying for stuff like water (something which our planet seems to have in abundance) so how long before we, like the characters in this story, are paying some kind of air tax. You may laugh at that but, honestly, some of the taxes they’ve made up in the UK in the last few decades have been even sillier and less justifiable than an air tax so, you know, when a government needs money... they will make up anything to get it out of the hard working person on the street.
Now this episode of Doctor Who, entitled Oxygen, deals with exactly the same issue. I don’t usually, to be honest, like the spaceship confined episodes of modern Doctor Who... when it’s just a few characters wandering around plastic interiors for the whole episode wearing cumbersome space suits. I usually find it quite dull. This weeks episode of ‘more of the same’ was quite inventive, though. We had spacesuits that walked around by themselves after killing their inhabitants and so unwittingly creating an army of, quite literally, walking dead... zombies in space suits for all intents and purposes. We also had the trio of The Doctor, Bill and Nardole coming to the aid of the four remaining survivors of a space station and, frankly, the episode was not without its sacrifices, both in terms of human lives and something very important for a few future episodes, which I’ll get to in a minute. And all of it was relating back to the same idea of oxygen being sold for corporate greed that made that old Judge Dredd story so memorable.
The episode was pretty well paced and, of course, well acted. The faceless corporate menace with its army of undead was not without its interesting moments and the running around corridors really didn’t get too old, too quickly, truth be told. Which was a relief.
Now Bill came out of this the worst, I think, in being someone who didn’t actually have a lot to do in the episode. However, what she did do was sparkle quite brightly when she had to die... twice. The first time she had to suck on vacuum and passed out, pretty much to death, before The Doctor sacrificed his space helmet to let her live... ending up much worse for wear in the long run, as I’ll discuss in a minute. The second time, The Doctor played a hunch, it seemed to me, and had to watch (well listen at any rate) as she was seemingly killed by her suit and turned into a walking dead girl before it was revealed that the suit didn’t have enough juice in it, seeing as it was in bad repair, to finish the job it started. So although she was painfully underused in the episode... she did have some pretty shiny moments in this one... although I’m now not sure if she is really as innocent and naive as she seems to be. At least under the surface.
There were two little shocks for fans of Doctor Who in this episode. One was the death of his sonic screwdriver (so he couldn’t use it to get everyone out of danger in a twinkling of an eye, no doubt)... that’s okay, the TARDIS can always make another one. Alas, I am really expecting that The Doctor’s sonic sunglasses may be making a return (a much unwelcome one, as far as I’m concerned) appearance now because we come to the other little sacrifice about this episode... The Doctor’s eyesight. After saving Bill and going for so long unprotected in the vacuum of space, The Doctor is blind and although I believed him when he said it could be fixed when he got back to the TARDIS... after all he’s a bloody Timelord and can regenerate, we’ve seen him regrow another arm a decade ago for goodness’ sake... apparently he is now still blind. So that’s going to be interesting and, I’m sure, used as a plot device in some upcoming adventure. I’m sure blindness will be just what is required to save everyone’s lives before too long... I reckon.
Not too much about the secrets of 'the vault' this week but whatever... or more likely whoever... is in there, the dialogue is set up so you think it must be something or someone really not very nice. All roads lead to Missy or quite possibly the John Simm incarnation of The Master but... I hope not because I feel that would be a bit of a cop out, if I’m being honest about things. I guess time will tell and it looks like Missy will be making a return visit next week so... we shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, Oxygen was another cracking episode of the current series and, asides from the Knock Knock episode of last week (reviewed here) this is turning out to be one of the better seasons of recent years. Fingers crossed that it continues as such.
Thursday, 11 May 2017
Cell, Book and Fanned Hell
Unlocked (aka Codice Unlocked)
UK 2017 Directed by Michael Apted
UK cinema release print.
Well this movie came out of the blue. I wasn’t aware of this one until I literally saw a trailer for it a few weeks ago at the cinema. So... one of my favourite modern actresses, Noomi Rapace (the original Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, reviewed here), in a modern action thriller full of espionage and conspiracies was something I wasn’t going to let pass me by. Imagine my delight, then, to find that the director of this modern day spy yarn is none other than Michael Apted, who had done three really great similarly styled pictures I’d seen years back... the absolutely cracking adaptation of Gorky Park, the charming World War II thriller Enigma and the last great James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough (reviewed here). I wasn’t expecting to be too disappointed in this one and, sure enough, I wasn’t.
Even carrying a truly boring and generic title which I managed to forget even while I was ordering a ticket, Unlocked is exactly the kind of twisty, turny thriller I was hoping for. Now, I would be lying if I said there weren’t a few little disappointing things about it but the main take away here is that it’s a very slick, polished action piece which pitches the lead actress, Rapace, as CIA interrogator Alice Racine, into a deadly game of survival among the Muslim community at the heart of London and a suspected, deadly biological attack that will cause mass devastation as a germ more lethal than Ebola is fanned and dispersed into the air in a hotel full of Americans... who will then carry the disease back to their home soil.
And, since nothing in these kinds of films is ever easy, it’s not long before Alice finds that she is tip toeing through a dance of death as various interested parties, working both within and without her own organisation, hunt her down for the knowledge she has obtained thus far before her job went pear shaped as she tries to figure out who she can trust to help her try to find out what’s really going on before the virus is unleashed... or, you know... ‘unlocked’, I suppose.
And the cast are all absolutely excellent and that’s exactly what you would expect from this lot. We have Rapace who is, of course, absolutely always watchable in pretty much anything she’s in... even if the film is bad she always brings so much to it. She’s more than ably supported by the likes of Michael Douglas, Toni Collette and John Malkovich as well as what was, as far as I'm concerned, a surprisingly brilliant turn from Orlando Bloom who is... well he’s not playing the kind of role I would usually associate with him from such films as the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, I’ll tell you that much. Everyone is knocking the ball out of the park here and they are more than matched by a very smooth and competently put together movie which doesn’t make the mistake of editing things to buggery so you can’t fathom out what’s going on in the action sequences. Apted’s direction ensures all the fast paced action sequences are adequately covered and everything fits together smoothly... so like I said, Apted and his capable crew are certainly delivering what you’d expect from them here.
If I was disappointed by anything on this one it’s the fact that, although the story is quite twisty and turny, it’s also very predictable. The first little twist, 20 or so minutes into the movie, is something I might not have figured out if the studio hadn’t decided to reveal it in the trailer campaign but all the other twists which come after it are, honestly, quite basic and no amount of ‘staged’ red herrings could throw me off the scent. Which is a shame, I have to say but... yeah, in terms of plotting there are absolutely no surprises in here so... there’s that.
However, that being said, it’s still an absolute pleasure to see this kind of thing working like the well oiled machine it is even if, you know, the product may seem a little too smooth for some of the grittier subject matter in the plot. Apted keeps up a sense of menace with certain characters throughout and I’m pleased to say that, although the story holds no surprises, there were a few moments involving the deaths of civilians of various ages which I really wasn’t expecting to be happening in this movie. One of the stronger messages of this piece is that... innocent people get killed in the pursuit of justice and this is something which, despite the shiny veneer of the mise en scene, I’m happy Apted chose not to gloss over. So... a kind of well presented, polished up rawness, then, perhaps.
I’d have to say that Unlocked is not a movie I could probably repeat watch. One viewing is enough for me on this one but, I have to say, it was a very entertaining first viewing and I would certainly recommend this to anyone looking for a top notch thriller to put into their cinema schedule.... because that’s exactly what this is. A great little movie with some intrigue, loss, sacrifice, betrayal and, ultimately, a kick ass heroine taking on the system that put her where she is at the start of the film and bringing the audience along with her. If you like your action movies with a strong moral centre which doesn’t take the obvious route of blaming a specific religion for all the atrocities which are going on today... then this movie is for you.
Tuesday, 9 May 2017
Mann Of Action
UK 2016 Directed by Sean Foley
UK cinema release print.
When I first saw the trailer for Mindhorn some 6 to 8 weeks ago I looked at it and thought, yeah, looks like a film with a really strong comedy premise but the trailer really isn’t all that funny. Then, however, I remembered back to 1988, when I was almost dragged kicking and screaming to a film I didn’t want to go and see, Terry Gilliam’s remake The Adventures Of Baron Munchaussen, because the trailers had been so awful and offensive. That was the year I realised how misleading some trailers can be because Gilliam’s film, despite a much troubled shooting history, was an absolute instant classic. So I thought, yeah, Mindhorn... how bad can it be? After all, I’d sat through the truly terrible Johnny Depp movie Mordecai and lived to tell the tale (which I tell right here) and I was pretty sure that it couldn’t possibly be any worse than that.
In this prediction, at least, I was more or less right. It’s still not as bad as Mordecai.
Mindhorn is written by, and stars, Julian Barratt (who was so good in the absolutely brilliant Aaaaaaaah! which I reviewed here), playing fictional ‘career on the rocks’ actor Richard Thorncroft, who was best known for his cheesy, Isle of Mann based TV show in the 1980s called Mindhorn. In that show he portrayed the eyepatch wearing title character who had an advanced eyeball that could see into the truth of a person’s soul. However, cut to more or less modern times and a psychotic killer also based on the Isle of Mann, known only as The Kestrel and who thinks Mindhorn was a real person, will only negotiate if Mindhorn is brought in and so the police call in Thorncroft, who goes there with a mind to getting himself some much needed publicity for some kind of comeback or deal further along the road. However, all is not what it seems and there are bigger things afoot than the majority of the supporting characters are aware.
That’s pretty much all I’m giving away of the plot but the film takes Thorncroft through a minefield of ex-colleagues and co-workers from the show as he tries to figure out what really lurks behind the unusual request of The Kestrel and uncover something far more sinister lurking in the shadows. And it’s not without it’s entertainment value, to be sure.
The cast who, in addition to Julian Barratt, include the lovely Essie Davis, Jessica Barden (who was so good in Season Three of Penny Dreadful, reviewed here soon), Russell Tovey and even Steve Coogan are all pretty good. In fact, they’re more than good, they’re brilliant, especially when it comes to finding the little quirks and traits to their characters which tell a lot about them in a very short time. With a special heads up to Simon Farnaby as Thorncroft’s former stuntman who has since, in the fictional 'real life', stood in for him in every other way. Farnaby being the one who kind of steals the show with a couple of laughs here and there but, well that’s the problem with this movie right there...
Mindhorn is engaging, filled with some marvellous characters and is extremely clever. The plot sucks you in and I, for one, found myself really wanting to get involved in it more. I’m sure it must have looked really good on paper and I bet the script reads much better than it’s presented here because... and this is a crunch thing for me... it may be a cleverly concocted comedy but it’s just, really, not very funny. And there’s not much worse than a comedy which works on every possible level apart from the one creative element it needs to succeed as a comedy. In this way, Mindhorn reminded me more of last years spectacular but, ultimately, unfunny Ghostbusters reboot (which I reviewed here ). It’s exactly the same problem because Ghostbusters, too, had some great actresses in it with a lot of good chemistry who you really wanted to like... if only they had remembered to write some actual jokes in it.
And, like the aforementioned Ghostbusters reboot, this is pretty much the only thing which doesn’t work about the movie... but it’s such a crucial element that it causes the whole thing to fail. And it’s such a shame because its a very well observed movie which takes aspects of the human condition and kind of holds them up to the audience and says... look how ridiculous we are as a species. And I just loved things like the various Mindhorn merchandise and packaging such as the toxic truth powder and the different action figures. The music by Keefus Ciancia and David Holmes is appropriate to the images and captures the spirit of both Thorncroft as he is now and the kind of music being written for the fictional TV shows that were being spoofed. There’s a brilliant shout out to the varied and notorious drunken interviews given to Oliver Reed on various chat shows of the 1970s and 80s which was quite cool and there are even some memorable cameos from Kenneth Branagh and Simon Callow where they are playing themselves. But, yeah, you know... it’s just not funny.
And that’s about all I can really say about Mindhorn, at the moment. I rolled the dice on whether I should go and see this one and, unfortunately, the numbers didn’t come up lucky for me. If you are looking for a laugh out loud comedy then I think you might be looking in the wrong place when it comes to this one. That being said, if you are interested in some ingenious acting and are studying the way in which you can pull a character together in broad strokes and make things come alive for an audience then, you know, you might want to take a look at this one before it goes. Not my cuppa tea though, to be sure, so I wouldn’t be recommending it to anyone I know... alas.
Monday, 8 May 2017
Dryad A Bone
Doctor Who - Knock Knock
Airdate: 6th May 2017
One of the problems in reviewing one of your favourite TV shows on an episode by episode basis instead of a Series Overview kind of deal is that, sooner or late, you’re going to have the odd dud episode with nothing much to say about it. Not that this episode is a complete misfire, far from it. It’s totally appropriate for the series as a whole and fits right into things... ticking many Doctor Who check boxes along the way. That being said, this latest episode, Knock Knock, is not a particularly memorable one and, although it takes the old ‘trapped in a haunted house’ premise as a basic starting point, I feel it doesn’t tap into the rich vein of spookiness that usually ensues when you pitch a Doctor Who cast against things which, seemingly, go bump in the night.
In other words... this one really wasn’t scary.
However, I don’t really know why it was that the episode felt like a bit of a damp squib for me. The writing is pretty sound and there are lots of positive things going on in the episode, which is mostly a standalone thing. And, unusually for me with this particular show, I’m going to praise the special effects here and say that the whole thing, which involved a lot of dryads (as The Doctor called the slightly oversized alien woodlice that are the stand in for an actual villain, in some ways, this week) and also a creature made out of wood, were extremely well put together. I say ‘unusually for me’ not because the visual effects in modern day Doctor Who are usually bad (they are but I’m really not too worried about that... they’re just an impression to serve the story) but more because they looked impressively realistic compared to a lot of what you see on television these days. Mind you, I also say this with a little unease because, really, the story should be sitting up and making me concentrate on it as a whole rather than giving me time to appreciate the effects work, surely?
As usual, the cast were all very good. In addition to Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas as The Doctor, Bill and Nardole, we had a great group of young people playing University Students and also the classic actor David Suchet in the role of the mysterious caretaker of a house which basically absorbs people into the walls. There’s some nice writing between the young people themselves and the way in which they interact with The Doctor although, it has to be said of the writing that, I really don’t need a stupidly eccentric scene put in every other week to remind us all that Bill is gay. We get it already.
Maybe it was just my expectations of an episode about a big old house which seals everybody in for the night before it has mystery shenanigans that spoiled my emotional investment in this one. I was waiting to be scared and, alas, in that respect at least, it was nowhere anywhere near the ball park of various frightening episodes of the show. All in all I was disappointed with the main body of the story but there were a few interesting things referring to the main story arc for the season that were much more compelling...
You remember my theory that Bill might be tied into the original first incarnation of The Doctor’s granddaughter from 1963, Susan Foreman? Possibly even being a previous incarnation of Susan herself. Well due to a mix up with Bill’s new flat mates and her relationship to The Doctor, she did call him grandfather a fair few times in this episode... so I still think show runner Steven Moffat is putting this stuff in to trigger something in our minds for the last episode (or possibly the Christmas special).
Also, it now seems pretty obvious that there’s a person of some sort in the vault. I’m not ruling out The Doctor or The Master still but I think there’s even a chance it could be Bill herself... or something of her in there, at least. Again, we’re only a third of the way through this series now so I’m going to carry on reserving judgement on this issue until we get a little closer to the season finale. If, indeed, it is a finale and they’re not saving it for the Christmas special like they did once before.
And... once again, I’m sorry this one is such a short review but I really have nothing too constructive to say about it, to be honest. I wasn’t bowled over by it or even moved by it, really... but there was nothing glaringly wrong with it either, apart from maybe certain bits of the story continuity which didn’t quite make sense and the lack of certain key elements to the set up not always behaving in the same way twice. This is, so far, the worst episode of this current series but, I would hope, things can only go back up from here.
Thursday, 4 May 2017
UK 2016 Directed by William Oldroyd
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Some spoilers here.
I tend to avoid Shakespeare unless it takes a very different form to the original text but, as it turns out, Lady Macbeth is absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish themed play that the bard in question famously wrote. If you want to see a great cinematic adaptation of that then look no further than Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood (aka Cob Web Castle). Instead, this movie is an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s tale, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk and, as such, I still have no idea how well or not it does in the adaptation stakes as I haven’t read that one either. That being said, I am told that the ending of the movie is completely different from the source material, at the very least, so maybe not a good movie for fans of Leskov.
I won’t tell what factors lured me into seeing this but I’m only half glad I went and saw this one in all honesty. Glad because, in terms of cinematography and editing it’s a particularly good movie and not all that glad because, all in all, it’s the specific kind of period piece I usually try to avoid because, as it proved here too, the story and realisation of that story tends to be fairly bland, overall.
The film stars Florence Pugh as a young lady who has been ‘bought’ into a marriage and is forced to live an almost solitary and deadly boring life within the confines of a house run by her new husband and his father. Her days are spent with nothing to do and with her not being allowed out of the house. The director sets up, fairly early, a signature shot of her sitting alone on a sofa, staring straight ahead and trying to stop herself from nodding off as she looks into camera and it’s a shot that he comes back to a few times in the film, almost as a silent comment on the progress of the narrative... which I found kinda clever, actually. The final time this shot is used is one which most people in the audience will certainly ‘feel’ and it’s the very last, perhaps somewhat haunting, shot of the movie.
Anyway, when her husband and father-in-law leave the house for a number of days/weeks to attend to an explosion at a mine they run, she then encounters a servant, played by Cosmo Jarvis, who she starts a passionate love affair with. Well... I say passionate but despite the warning at the start of the film by the BBFC that the film contained strong language, strong violence and strong sex... I could only find some fairly strong language at one point. The sex and violence is really nothing strong in this movie at all and it seems fairly misleading of the BBFC to label up this film as such. This could have been put out as a 12A, in my humble opinion.
Anyway, the inevitable happens and the father-in-law returns home when Florence, driven by her sexual obsession with her new ‘lover’, murders him, leaving her maid permanently mute and she then continues her murder spree when her husband comes home. Eventually murdering, again a few times, to get what she wants before things go just a little pear shaped for her for a short while before her survivor instinct cuts in.
The film is very low key and the story seems the same as many other similar dramas made and remade by people like the BBC over the years (who had a stake in this one)... I’m sure you know the kind I mean. However, the silver lining in Lady Macbeth is the strong cast and crew pulling together to make everything so interesting on a technical level. Pugh and the rest of the actors are, as would be expected, excellent in their roles. This is coupled with some beautiful cinematography and editing at various points in the film.
I couldn’t quite pick up all the director’s intentions but most of the shots set in the husband’s house, which is the majority of the movie, tend to be slowly, precisely moving shots or static set ups. The use of prominent vertical and rectangular patches of tone or colour (such as the sofa) are used to highlight the actors and their place in the overall composition and this works very well. Sometimes they are going back within a frame and through a centrally placed door, for example, and sometimes in the extreme left or right of a frame. In the exterior scenes, however, there seems to be a lot more hand held camera movement and one wonders if this was an artistic decision to show the chaotic nature of life beyond the house or merely a budgetary decision so large areas of tracks for the camera didn’t have to be laid.
Another nice thing the director does is to show the comings and goings from the house in shots of a carriage going either left or right of a static shot. However, the carriages in question are barely seen other than an impression because he takes the shot behind a very dense tangle of trees in the foreground so that the carriage is barely glimpsed other than to give the audience an impression of its direction... which I found both refreshing and effective as a shorthand for the establishing notion of ‘visitors’ to and from the world which Florence Pugh’s character has been thrown into isolation within.
The sound design is also pretty good and perhaps that is what made the BBFC rate the movie in such a way as they have. Dan Jones score is sparsely sported but appropriate and quite effective, especially when used as a warning of approaching danger and certainly when it finally joins the last shot of the movie to highlight for the audience that the film has run its course.
And that’s really all I have to say about this one, I’m afraid. Lady Macbeth isn’t the kind of movie I would usually go and see and although I never found myself bored because the compositions are enough to keep the mind alive, I must say it’s not quite the kind of moviemaking I enjoy although, it has to be said, I would certainly recommend this to anyone who is into those typical classics I mentioned earlier which are remade constantly by various TV and film companies. Not a film for me, I think, but certainly one which deserves to do well and which shows off the technical accomplishments of the director, editor and actors admirably.