Saturday, 11 November 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Bicycle Thief (1948)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Vittorio De Sica.

Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci.

"I know it's got training wheels on it, but I swear it's my bike."
Titles are everything. They get attention and can become a calling card or a catch-cry. But most importantly they sum up the central theme or ideas of a movie.

The title of this film is somewhat disputed. According to Wikipedia, the Italian title Ladri di biciclette "literally translates into English as Bicycle Thieves" but somewhere along the line in the US (and Australia as far as I'm aware) it became known as The Bicycle Thief - singular, not plural.

Below be spoilers! And a trailer that heaps praise upon praise for this hugely acclaimed film!

To me, the latter title is infinitely better and is a contributing factor as to why I think this film is so incredible (and why I'm going to continue calling it The Bicycle Thief). To quote San Francisco film critic Bob Graham, the singular American title is "one of those wonderful titles whose power does not sink in until the film is over". He's right. It's only as the credits roll that you realise the film's name is one of cinema's great misdirections. The audience spends the entire movie curious as to the nature and identity of the titular thief, only to finally understand that he's been in front of us the whole time, and that the film is in fact about one man's downfall from working man to petty criminal. In other words, the film isn't about the initial bicycle theft, but instead how that act creates another bicycle thief. Antonio (Maggiorani) is not the victim of the eponymous character - he is the eponymous character, and we only find this out at the end.

This is what makes The Bicycle Thief such a cunning dissection of life in post-war Italy, where chances are few and life is hard. When we first meet Antonio, he is so doubtful and pessimistic about getting a job that he doesn't even bother lining up with the daily throng of fellow unemployed men. But at the offer of meagre pay for posting advertising bills around town, he comes alive. He and his wife Maria (Carell) pawn their bedsheets in order to get their bicycle back so Antonio can take the job, and things seem to be looking up for the Ricci family.

This is the heartbreak of the film. The bike, which is subsequently stolen, comes to represent opportunity. It is the thin line between success and failure, and between a good man and a bad one. In the end, it is the factor that decides whether Antonio pulls his family up by their bootstraps or pushes him to breaking point and to commit the very crime that leads to his own downfall.

What really sells the devastation and bleakness of The Bicycle Thief's final act is the presence of Antonio's son Bruno (Staiola) throughout the narrative. It's one of the great child performances of all time (Staiola was just seven - watch the video below for the slightly creepy story of how he was cast) as Bruno's innocence and unwavering devotion to his father takes the film to higher levels of pathos. The final scene is even more of a gut-punch thanks to the shots of young Bruno's tearful face as he looks up at his father.

The film is hailed as a great example - if not the pinnacle - of Italian neo-realism, a movement that sprang up in the wake of WWII. This movement, now hailed as the Golden Age of Italian Cinema, comprised films shot on location with non-professional actors and dealt with the real life issues facing a country and a populace ravaged by war. You could even argue that these films reflected a nation struggling to find its moral compass again after its leaders initially sided with the Nazis.

The Bicycle Thief certainly ticks all those Italian neo-realist boxes. Its locations were very real places around Rome. You can still visit them today as many of them remain unchanged, more than 70 years on from filming - if you're so inclined, here is a very thorough and well compiled guide to the locations.

As for the cast, its two key leads - Maggiorani and Staiola - were non-professional actors. Lamberto Maggiorani, who gives a wonderfully well-rounded performance in the lead role, was a factory worker when cast. He tried to continue a career as an actor afterwards, but never again reached the great heights of The Bicycle Thief, occasionally working as a bricklayer to make ends meet between movies. However it's a little bit of a myth that the entire cast were non-actors - a quick perusal of the film's IMDb page finds a few key players had previous film experience. It's heartening to see some went on to solid film careers.

The much-lauded realism of The Bicycle Thief wasn't easy to achieve. Director Vittorio De Sica carefully staged and rehearsed the large crowd scenes, and used up to six cameras to film the action to ensure he captured the non-actors' reactions with a minimal amount of takes so as to keep things fresh. The impressive downpour sequence came courtesy of the Roman fire department. The market sequence featured 40 hired vendors, brought in by De Sica. De Sica may have given us the apex of neo-realism, but he realised that it took great artifice and meticulous planning to make it look like no artifice or planning was involved, and for all its documentary-style qualities, The Bicycle Thief ended up being expensive, running well over budget.

This review by A.O. Scott highlights some of the other factors of neo-realism (although he mistakenly says Staiola was Maggiorani's real-life son):

While Wikipedia claims the film was "viewed with hostility and as portraying Italians in a negative way" upon release, The Bicycle Thief has been racking up the acclaim since day one. It won seven awards at the Italian Silver Ribbon Awards in 1949 (Italy's top film prize) and it was recognised at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Oscars. The inaugural Sight & Sound critics poll in 1952 called it the best film of all time.

Despite the passage of seven decades, The Bicycle Thief still holds its power. Empire named it #4 in its 2010 list of the 100 best films of world cinema, and as of writing it sits at #99 in the IMDb top 250. But its influence on cinema is its biggest legacy. Martin Scorsese is a fan, Satyajit Ray said the film confirmed his desire to be a director, and it is said to have had an impact on Brian De Palma, Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, the Iranian New Wave, and Sergio Leone, with the latter having a small cameo as one of the many priests seeking shelter from the rainstorm.

But more importantly, the film remains powerful, moving and gripping. It pulls you in and holds you close until its heartbreaking ending, proving that in the right hands, something as simple as a bicycle can be a powerful storytelling tool.

Further reading:

Turner Classic Movies' collection of increasingly great articles on The Bicycle Thief.

Mental Floss' 11 Heart-stealing facts about The Bicycle Thief.

I watched The Bicycle Thief at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis (featuring a live score by Richard Tankard) - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

(M) ★★★½

Director: Kenneth Branagh.

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Marwan Kenzari, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin.

The moustache's powers included the ability to stop any train within a three kilometre radius.
Movember has its new patron saint - Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot.

(Seriously, you should support Movember.)

But aside from boasting one of the greatest soupstrainers of all time, Branagh has notched up a couple of other achievements with his take on Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express. Firstly, he's pulled together a truly astounding cast that is not only supremely talented but also sure to be invaluable in any game of Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. And secondly, he's done a great job of boosting the Christie estate's annual earnings.

Oh, and he's done a damned fine job of directing this adaptation of the much-loved 1934 murder-mystery novel, sparking new life into a character long relegated to BBC/ABC telemovies.

Branagh also does an excellent job portraying Belgian super-sleuth Poirot, the famed detective whose powers of deduction border on the magical. Here Poirot applies his extraordinary talents on board the titular train after one of the passengers is killed, leaving about a dozen suspects and more secrets than a teenager's diary.

Murder On The Orient Express is a true ensemble piece. Aside from Branagh, no one stands out above anyone else. Everyone gives a fine performance, from Pfeiffer as a sultry "husband hunter" to Gad as a shifty assistant, from Ridley as a no-nonsense governess to Depp as a "legitimate businessman". The cast is quality through and through.

But it is Branagh, as the star of the show, who truly shines. With his mellifluous Belgian accent, he makes Poirot not only a joy to watch, but he also makes the detective a fallible and interesting man. Meticulous but not perfect, serious but not joyless, precise but not heartless, Branagh's Poirot is a fascinating and entertaining creation.

If there are any flaws to be found here, they are rarely the fault of Branagh or screenwriter Michael Green. The majority of annoyances lie in Christie's original story, which is frustratingly old-school in its delivery. Many of Poirot's deductions are made with information the audience doesn't have, which can be OK once or twice, as one might expect in a modern crime tale, but when it happens again and again it can leave the audience feeling short-changed if they are trying to solve the crime too. Holistically Christie's clues and solution hold together well, but just don't try to play along. Instead, sit back and let Poirot do all the work.

As a director, Branagh has obviously grown comfortable with CGI, having handled FX-heavy projects Thor and Cinderella with aplomb. Here his application of computer wizardry is more subtle but no less necessary, augmenting and creating some beautiful scenery and camera moves for the Express' journey across Europe. If anything, Branagh's camera moves are a little too adventurous - while there are some bravura long takes and some intriguing birds-eye-view shots, there are occasions when you wish Branagh would just relax and keep the camera in one place for longer.

Having said that, the film looks spectacular. The use of 65mm film, mixed with some CG enhancements, makes it sumptuous on the screen. Add in some wonderful production design, and the Orient Express itself becomes as much a character as those played by Depp and co.

While there is no end-credit saying "Hercule Poirot will return in Death On The Nile", it is certainly hinted at in the final scene, and given the franchise-friendly nature of Hollywood these days, should Murder On The Orient Express be a hit, a sequel is likely. If it's as good a journey as this one, then book me a ticket.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Three Summers

(M) ★★★

Director: Ben Elton.

Cast: Rebecca Breeds, Robert Sheehan, Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton, John Waters, Nichola Balestri, Amay Jain, Kelton Pell, Deborah Mailman, Jacqueline McKenzie, Peter Rowsthorn.

"Ok, Reign In Blood in D, one, two, three, four..."
Whether you love or loathe this movie (or are somewhere in between like me), you have to give director Ben Elton credit for nailing at least one thing - folk festivals are a great microcosm for exploring middle-class Australia.

It's the application of this idea that is both the best and worst thing about Three Summers, Elton's first film as director in 17 years. There are just too many subjects that Elton wants to dive into, and too many opportunities for him to go diving. Asylum seekers, social media, the music industry, various Indigenous-related issues, alcoholism, family matters, sexual relationships, and right-wing and left-wing viewpoints all get thrust under Elton's microscope. It's a lot to tackle, a lot to take in, and a lot of it works. But a lot of it doesn't.

Three Summers spreads its story across three years and three runnings of Westifal (should that be Westival?), a fictionalised folk festival set in WA. The two key characters are talented fiddle player Keavy (Breeds) and snooty Irish theremin prodigy Roland (Sheehan), but around them bubble an eclectic mix of musos, punters and assorted festival regulars.

Elton's film is very much like a music festival. Some acts you'll want to see and they'll be great, but there are also bound to be a lot of acts you don't care about or that aren't very good.

What works is the subplot centring on Caton's grumpy Morris dancer, who is used to explore conservative right-wing ideas about Aboriginals and refugees. It's all done very broadly and simply, but it's effective, and Caton is excellent in a role that ends up being the heart of the film. The cast that bubble around his story (Nichola Balestri, Amay Jain, Kelton Pell) are also good, but more importantly their characters and stories are also interesting. Relationships between mothers and daughters, Indigenous elders and wayward teens, and refugee children and adopted parents are all examined, as are white and black interactions, and it's this part of the story that is the strongest.

The main thread involving Keavy and Roland is by turns fascinating and frustrating. Breeds and Sheehan do well, but the plotting gets progressively ludicrous and unrealistic as the film progresses. Summer #1 is great, but by summer #3 it's pushing the bounds of believability. Similarly, the relationship between Keavy and her dad (Waters) stretches credulity by the third Westifal.

Elton manages to blend his stories well (although it would have been nice for more characters to interact and more plot streams to cross) and keeps things moving at a nice pace. A potentially frustrating thread involving two couples who never bother to see any music is at least funny and breaks up the film nicely, even if it adds nothing to the greater themes.

Elton is also pretty good at blending the realistic and heartfelt with the slightly absurd, but it's when the story wanders off into patently unbelievable that the film suffers. For example, an overzealous security guard is played for absurd laughs and it's no problem when sat alongside the important issues of how white Australia interacts with black Australia. But a declaration of love between two warring characters who see each other for three days once a year comes off as ridiculous. Ditto for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that seems to take place at the festival for reasons that can't be explained beyond plot convenience.

The cast is certainly not an issue in Three Summers. Along with the aforementioned Caton, Breeds and Sheehan, Waters is a stand-out in probably the film's most interesting and well written character. Szubanski is great as the bubbly community radio presenter, although her role feels underused.

When Three Summers works, it's funny, heartfelt, intelligent and incisive. When it doesn't, it's frustrating, silly, overly simplistic and underwritten. Thankfully it works more often than it doesn't, but Three Summers' ambition is failed by its delivery.

PS. One thing that really bothers me in movies is when actors pretend to play instruments and it's quite obvious they're not really playing their instrument. Be prepared for a lot of that in Three Summers.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

(M) ★★★★

Director: Taika Waititi.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Taika Waititi.

Thor Goes To The Tip was not the sequel fans were looking for.
The benchmark for the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first phase of films was Iron Man. It laid down the rules of combat - set up your character with wit and pathos, chuck in some cameos to hint at a wider universe, and get a quality actor in for your villain. Above all make sure it's a good, solid film. Have a laugh but play it straight. Be cool.

As time went by and more movies filled the MCU, The Avengers became the new normal - bigger casts, bigger set pieces, bigger universe. Everything bigger.

Then Guardians Of The Galaxy came along and the rulebook was re-written. Directors were given more freedom to try new and quirky things (but not too new or quirky, Edgar Wright). After the recent more humourous run Ant-Man and GOTG Vol 2 and Spider-man: Homecoming we have now arrived at a place where the MCU Powers That Be have no problem with laying on the laughs and the silly aliens and all manner of quirkiness.

Which brings us to Thor: Ragnarok, the quirkiest, silliest, and funniest MCU entry to date.

Storywise, it sees Thor (Hemsworth) going up against Hela (Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, who is hellbent on taking over Asgard, having been banished from there many centuries ago by Odin (Hopkins). But after an initial skirmish with the goddess, Thor finds himself stranded on the distant planet of Sakaar, where he must compete in gladiatorial combat with an old friend in order to earn his freedom.

Much has been made of how funny this is, but you could almost argue Thor: Ragnarok is too funny. From its opening scene, the gags come thick and fast, to the point where it's almost jarring. Is this an MCU film? Is this Thor? I don't remember him being so quick with a quip.

Ragnarok really uses its sense of humour to immediately set itself apart from the previous 16 MCU entries, but once you settle into this rhythm and tone, the film is a blast.

A lot of this styling comes down to Waititi. In the same way James Gunn was able to put his signature all over Guardians Of The Galaxy, Waititi has put his idiosyncratic stamp on to Thor 3. Only much more so. It's a distinctly New Zealand approach to delivery and humour - far more Hunt For The Wilderpeople than Guardians Of The Galaxy - and it's wonderful.

Beyond a quippier Thor, the best examples of this NZ-isation of the MCU can be found in our first encounters with Karl Urban's Skurge, who proves to be a nicely rounded side character, and the CG rock monster Korg (voiced and mo-capped by Waititi). Korg is a Groot-like scene-stealer, reportedly based on Polynesian bouncers, and much like the film's humourous tone, hearing a thick Kiwi accent in the Marvel universe takes a bit of getting used to. Ditto for Mark Mothersbaugh's '80s-infused score, which is far more inventive and interesting than any score we've heard in the MCU to date.

Outside of his comedic strengths and voicework, Waititi does a great job of keeping things moving and staying focused. Only a cameo involving Dr Strange, which was set-up in the Dr Strange post-credits sequence, feels gratuitous and unnecessary. The rest of the film is on target and rockets along nicely, juggling the events on Sakaar and Asgard well. Waititi also handles the action with style. The highly anticipated showdown between Hulk and Thor is a highlight, and the climactic battles work well.

The cast is consistently excellent. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are old hands at this, while the additions of Goldblum, Blanchett, Urban and Thompson are more than welcome.

The only thing that's really missing is some heart. Thematically, the film is weak and the hero's journey is merely one of simple revenge (as Thor himself puts it). Compared to the richer themes, pathos and journeys we've seen recently in the Guardians Of The Galaxy films, Spider-man, and Dr Strange, Ragnarok is a little underdone in this regard.

But what it lacks in depth it makes up for in fun. It's funny, utterly enjoyable, and again shows Marvel's willingness to push its own envelope.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Marvel Cinematic Universe - From Best To Worst

Remember when I made that list of every Pixar movie from best to worst and said how there was going to be a lot more of those kind of lists in the future? And then remember how I did that Christopher Nolan best-to-worst list? Of course you do. How could you forget?

Well, here I am, continuing to make good on that promise/threat with list #3 AKA The Definitive Ranking Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe From Best To Least Best.

Anyone who knows me knows I love me some Marvel. From the comics through to those weird disc things they were giving away at the supermarket, I'm all about the Marvel. As a fan and a film critic (something I actively try to keep separate in my head while reviewing), I've found the majority of the MCU films to be a success on numerous levels (and most other critics agree with me on that). The movies reward the dedicated die-hards with their interwoven universe, but they largely work as standalone pieces of cinema. More importantly, they're good, solid films by almost any measure (most of the time).

With Marvel now pumping out three films a year, I'm going to keep this list updated fairly regularly because you've got to give the people what they want. Apparently. Not that anyone was specifically asking for this. And it's not like there isn't a million of these lists floating around the interwebs.

But whatever. INSERT NAME OF LATEST MARVEL MOVIE is out and it's time to celebrate. List party!

1. The Avengers

One of the most impressive aspects of the MCU has been its constant ability to prove people wrong. "You can't make a movie about a dumb god like Thor/stupid character like Ant-Man/bunch of unknowns like the Guardians Of The Galaxy", they said. In the lead up to The Avengers, doubters were questioning how the film was going to wedge its six key heroes into a convincing plot that gave each of them solid arcs and decent amounts of screen time, but it managed to do exactly that (aside from Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye getting seriously short-changed). Turns out balancing big ensemble casts is Joss Whedon's superpower, as is his knack for dialogue, character, humour, emotion, and interactions. So in between the alien onslaught and CG smackdowns, we get an impossibly tight superhero movie that ticked all the boxes, and delivered a stand-up-and-cheer piece of fun. Oh, and it was very funny.

2. Guardians Of The Galaxy 

Read my full review here.

Proof again that Marvel can do anything (so far). Having seemingly rested on their laurels with a third Iron Man movie followed by Thor and Captain America sequels, they rolled the dice on a largely unknown space-bound superhero team and handed the reins to predominantly unheralded director James Gunn, who was coming off the back of excellently received B-movies Super (really great, you should watch it) and Slither. Gunn's hilarious script and energetic direction, combined with pitch-perfect casting (Dave Bautista's Drax steals the show in a cast full of showstealers), made this an incredible success. So intoxicating and enjoyable is Guardians Of The Galaxy that if I'd seen this at the age I saw Star Wars, this would be my Star Wars. If that makes sense.

3. Iron Man 

It's hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Tony Stark other than Robert Downey Jr., so it's easy to forget what a risky proposition he was. Yes, great actor, undoubtedly, but at the time he'd never led a blockbuster and struggled to get cast because of his drug history (even Marvel was reluctant to sign him on). But without him Iron Man would not be anywhere near as awesome as it is, and by extension the MCU would not be as awesome as it is, so bravo Jon Favreau for sticking to his guns on RDJ. On top of that career-defining performance (which is saying something because the dude can act - did I mention that?), the film set the tonal template (and the bar) for every MCU film that followed - funny but solid emotionally, with a flawed hero on a typical but well-made journey toward redemption or understanding. Bridges gives good villain, the action scenes are quality (how good is Stark's escape and subsequent return to the terrorist base?), and everything falls into place, with lots of credit to Favreau who pulled together two different scripts to find the ultimate take on Iron Man.

4. Captain America: Civil War

Read my full review here.

Taking the basic idea of the Civil War comic (Captain America and Iron Man go head-to-head over moves to register and control superheroes), this end to the Cap trilogy is the anti-Avengers. With the team split into two and double the amount of characters to deal with, the directing Russo Brothers went next-level, delivering a compelling and star-studded superhero adventure that explored the nature of heroism, government, war and freedom. On one side, Tony Stark's assertion there needs to be rules - on the other side, Steve Rogers saying you can never fully trust the rulemakers. By itself the film works, but these two characters are driven by what has gone before in the MCU, helping further weave the cinematic universe's rich tapestry. Stark messed up in Age Of Ultron and realises he's not the be-all-and-end-all of justice, while Rogers rolled out of The Winter Soldier not knowing friend from foe. It's character-driven action, and that's one of the keys to Marvel's success. If you want to see what happens when you get all these ideas horribly wrong, watch Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice (or just read my review here).

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Read my full review here.

The Russos cleverly tapped into a '70s conspiracy thriller vibe, sticking Steve Rogers and his tricolour shield amid the 'All The President's Men grey' of Washington and leaving him uncertain as to who he can trust. Because if Captain America can't trust America, then something is very wrong in the US of A, and it's this core ideal that makes the film work, asking what does Cap (and by extension America) really stand for. And amid the "Hail Hydra"s and crashing helicarriers (those things always crash), it's really about friendship, which is kinda sweet. After everything Cap has seen, he still can't give up on his old mate Bucky - another aspect of this tautly directed and gripping superhero thriller that would inform Civil War.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger

Read my full review here.

As Winter Soldier digs into the vibe of Three Days Of The Condor and the like, The First Avenger is the spawn of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Director Joe Johnston served as an art director on Indy's first outing, so he knew what he was doing. It's all there in the rollicking Nazi-smashing sense of glee, the winking sense of humour, and the unrelenting action-movie fun which makes it such a joy to behold. On top of this, the casting directors are again the stars. Chris Evans, who thankfully said 'yes' to the role after saying 'no' three or four times, is perfect as both CG-diminished runt and indestructible super-soldier, while Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hugo Weaving's supremely under-rated turn as Red Skull are all spot-on.

7. Thor

Read my full review here.

Among the many Marvel movies people said would never work was Thor, both as a character and as a film. After the misfire of Iron Man 2, many wondered how Marvel would balance the godly majesty of Asgard with the world of Agent Coulson and SHIELD. In director Kenneth Branagh, they found the way to make it work. He takes a sharp script and taps into what makes the character of Thor work best - the arrogant son who must prove himself worthy to a disappointed father, all the while being undermined by a scheming half-brother. It's, dare I say, almost Shakespearean, hey Branagh? Oh wait, every single reviewer ever said that. But they were right.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Read my full review here.

This may go up or down the list on repeat viewings, but for now, as impressive as it is, it didn't blow me away like the first solo films of Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man. But it's still great, don't get me wrong. But maybe, after five other Spidey films, it's hard to wow. Having said that. in Tom Holland the MCU has found the best Peter Parker to date (sorry Tobey and Andrew) and in Michael Keaton's Vulture we find a new Spidey villain that is nicely shaded in grey and impossible to hate outright. Again, this is all about the tone, which is beautifully balanced and evident in the much-discussed teen movie vibe, the golden sense of humour, and the excellently judged mentor-mentee relationship between Stark and Parker.

9. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Read my full review here.

Marvel baddies get a bad wrap. Outside of Loki, you don't hear a lot of people talking them up. But I rate James Spader's Ultron, and he's one of the strengths in this at-times cumbersome sequel. Whedon crams a lot in here, including some things he didn't want to put in (Marvel forced him to include the nonsensical bit where Thor goes swimming for a mystic vision ... pun intended). But to his credit he gets the majority of it to work. Stark's egomania is spot on, Ultron's quest is an under-rated bit of AI "what if?", the Hulkbuster battle is great, and the arrivals of Vision, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver don't feel too shoe-horned. But what I really love are the quieter moments - the Avengers playing "who can lift Mjolnir?", Hawkeye's ranch life, and the relationships between the characters, particularly Black Widow and Hulk. A sequel that's better than it has any right to be.

10. Ant-Man

Read my full review here.

Late one night in 2013, Marvel, while drunk on its own power, proclaimed "Fuck it, let's make an Ant-Man movie". The MCU brains trust felt indestructible. Nothing could stop them. And godsdammit, they were right. They found a great angle into a ridiculous character, not only by turning it into a heist film but by making Paul Rudd's Scott Lang the second Ant-man. It was a genius move, giving us some nice master-padawan stuff between Lang and Michael Douglas' Hank Pym, while also making the MCU instantly richer, historically speaking. Oh, and it was funny, largely thanks to Rudd and Michael Pena. But deep down inside, I can't help but hate the universe (and Marvel) just a little for not giving us the Edgar Wright version of this, because we all know Wright would have given us something worthy of a top three spot on this list. Maybe even top two. Probably.

11. Doctor Strange

Read my full review here.

Fourteen movies into the MCU, Marvel can be forgiven for repeating themselves. Because Doctor Strange is essentially the magical version of Iron Man, with Benedict Cumberbatch's Steven Strange following a very Tony Stark-like transition from superjerk to superhero. But Doctor Strange can't be entirely written off as an Iron Man repeat. For one, Cumberbatch is great, but the big pluses here are in the visual audacity of the film. Sure, we've seen the whole city-bending stuff before in Inception, but the jaw-dropping final battle between Strange and Kaecilius (a solid Mads Mikkelsen) in a backwards-flowing timestream is one of the best CG-based set pieces I've ever seen. The "Dormammu, I've come to bargain" bit is pure gold as well, and even Strange's cape gets some nice moments. The film looks good, but more importantly it looks different to the rest of the MCU - no mean feat 14 films in.

12. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Read my full review here.

And read about the Easter Eggs you may have missed here.

Yeah, we're at #12 but we're still dealing with highly enjoyable and incredibly well made films here. We're definitely still at three-and-a-half-star territory in my book. In fact, it's probably only by comparison to its predecessor that Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 suffers. In its own right it's still enjoyable, just not as enjoyable. But there's so much to love. Despite the father-son dynamic of Starlord (Chris Pratt) and Ego (Kurt Russell) slowing the film down, it's a strong and interesting part of the film, with familial relationships explored further and in even more interesting detail between Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Starlord, and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). And then there's Baby Groot. It's all further evidence of James Gunn's skills as someone who understands the power of relationships and character, as well as being a masterful storyteller and a filmmaker with flair (cos there's still plenty of spectacle here).

13. Iron Man 3

Read my full review here.

The Mandarin fake-out ticked off a lot of people, but I love it. Throw in Stark's PTSD (which is a tad underdone but it'll do), some nice reworkings of the Extremis storyline, the always excellent Guy Pearce, and one beautiful moment when a henchman has a "this job ain't for me" epiphany, and you've got a very different but enjoyable Iron Man movie. Director Shane Black (who co-wrote the script with Drew Pearce) gets a slightly edgier tone going and makes it work. The ending leaves a little to be desired, but if this proves to be the final solo Stark outing, then it's a worthy conclusion.

14. The Incredible Hulk

It's a shame Edward Norton couldn't continue as Bruce Banner because his turn in The Incredible Hulk is supremely under-rated. So is the film itself - it's a neat capsule of what the not-so-jolly green giant is all about, and it tells its story well. Skipping the origin story bit thanks to a clever opening credits sequence, it moves along at a good pace and climaxes with a cool showdown between Hulk and Tim Roth's Abomination. But best of all is Norton's characterisation of Banner. His edgy portrayal sits nicely between Eric Bana's tortured turn and Mark Ruffalo chill science bro, and for mine is the best Banner to date (even though Ruffalo is also great).

15. Thor: The Dark World

Read my full review here.

After the success of his first outing, it looked like Thor could do anything. But his sequel was a serious disappointment showcasing some of the key criticisms levelled at Marvel movies - forgettable villain, lazy chase-the-MacGuffin plot, no real sense of risk, all spectacle no spark. The final act is pretty good though - Loki and Thor working together (with a neat little piece of audience deception thrown in), a crazy Dr Selvig, and the climactic cross-dimensional battle between Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and Thor are all fantastic. It's just a shame the rest of the film doesn't pack the same punch or give a sense that something is actually at stake.

16. Iron Man 2

If they taught us nothing else, Spider-man 3 and Batman & Robin showed us you shouldn't cram too much into a superhero movie - you need to ease up on the number of new characters and various backstories and subplots they bring with them (unless you're Joss Whedon making The Avengers, in which case, go hog wild). But Iron Man 2 is the Spider-man 3 of the MCU. It's an overstuffed Xmas turkey that explodes when you put it in the oven and you're left with a disappointing Xmas dinner. If they'd just thrown Whiplash into the mix, it probably would have been fine. But also adding Justin Hammer and Black Widow, while completing Rhodey's transformation into War Machine ... it all just became too much. The script repeatedly strains under the weight of its subplots and additional characters, and it becomes a noisy idea of what an Iron Man movie should be, instead of being an actual Iron Man movie. The whole Demon In A Bottle idea is seriously underdone (much like the PTSD in Iron Man 3), but then again so are many of the pieces floating around in this disappointing sequel.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The Snowman

(MA15+) ★★½

Director: Tomas Alfredson  

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jonas Karlsson, Val Kilmer, J. K. Simmons, Toby Jones, David Dencik, Ronan Vibert, Chloë Sevigny, James D'Arcy, Jamie Clayton.

"I'm pretty sure I left my cocaine around here somewhere."

It doesn't bode well when a director is explaining why his film is not up to scratch as it's being released.

Such is the case with The Snowman, which is quite obviously a missed opportunity given the talent involved. To be fair, everyone has a fair crack at making it work and this Nordic thriller comes surprisingly close to being good. But with director Alfredson already doing the rounds apologising for the film, it's fair to say you will be disappointed by this one, especially if you're a fan of  Jo Nesbø's book.

The Snowman is a Norway-set murder mystery starring Fassbender as Nesbø's regular Harry Hole, an alcoholic yet brilliant detective who is on the trail of a killer who leaves a snowman as his calling card.

The simple answer as to why The Snowman doesn't work can be found in Alfredson's interview with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation: they didn't shoot everything they needed to shoot.

"Our shoot time in Norway was way too short, we didn’t get the whole story with us and when we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing," Alfredson said.

"It’s like when you’re making a big jigsaw puzzle and a few pieces are missing so you don’t see the whole picture. When we started cutting we discovered that a lot was missing."

Even having Martin Scorsese's regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker in the editing suite can't save the fact The Snowman is trying to juggle numerous narrative balls, and some of those balls aren't entirely there. Nesbø's complex plotting isn't replicated well enough and the film suffers, particularly by the time we reach the disappointing final act.

It's a shame because there is so much talent here. Alfredson is a great director (his two previous films are Let The Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and The Snowman certainly looks great, although he is unable to conjure up the same level of snowy dread as he did in Let The Right One In. Fassbender is solid if unremarkable as Hole, while Ferguson, Sevigny, and Gainsbourg are all great here.

There's no shortage of gold as you dig into the cast and maybe the editing and short shoot haven't done some of them any favours. Kilmer is baffling in his little role, as if he's channelling late-period Brando, while the efforts of Simmons and Jones are wasted (Simmons' British accent could also use some work).

It's all a big shame. With its setting and tone, this is clearly aspiring to be the next The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but it's not even close. For long stretches the film keeps you guessing by offering scant and unconvincing details, but the more it progresses, the more you realise it doesn't have any answers at all, devolving into a bafflingly bad final act that undoes whatever goodwill it manifested in the previous 90 minutes.

The Snowman is not up to Alfredson's usually impeccable standards, it's another trough in Fassbender's up-down career, and it will leave fans of the book wondering why they bothered.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto.

"It sure is orange in here."

Is "belated sequel" a genre unto itself yet? We've had so many in recent years it feels like they could almost get their own category at the Razzie Awards.

But much like reboots and remakes and re-imaginings, belated sequels aren't necessarily automatically bad. For every Mad Max: Fury Road, there's a Tron: Legacy. For every Creed, there's a Dumb & Dumber To. For every T2 Trainspotting, there's a Zoolander 2. For every... you get the picture.

And here we are, 35 years after the original, looking at Blade Runner 2049, which is thankfully more Fury Road than Tron: Legacy. The reasons for this are many, but it comes down to a very sensible approach - this sequel understands what made the original so great and replicates (ahem) those qualities, not in a slavish way (like say The Force Awakens), but in a sympathetic and logical way (like Creed). It recaptures the tone and visual stylings, but also the deeper thematic layers of what it is to be human, the neo-noir-meets-sci-fi mash-up, the slower '80s-style pacing, and the all-too-uncommon trait these days of not treating your audience like idiots.

It's really hard to discuss the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without giving away any of its closely guarded secrets, but it's about a blade runner (a cop) called K (played by Gosling) who hunts down replicants (clones) that have strayed from their original purpose. K's run-in with one particular replicant sets him on an investigation that has the potential to start a war.

It could have been so easy for this to totally suck, but Blade Runner 2049 is damned good. It's a richer experience the more well-versed you are with the original, to the point where I wouldn't recommend seeing it if you haven't seen Ridley Scott's 1982 cult classic. A passing knowledge of the original is required, which may limit the audience on this, but let's remember that hardly anyone saw Blade Runner when it first came out anyway (in fact I sometimes get a sense it is one of the least watched of the bona fide post-1980 classics).

The trick with these belated sequels seems to be finding a balance between the old and the new, and Blade Runner 2049 nails that. Bringing back Harrison Ford as Deckard is the most obvious nod to the old (and the film could have felt like a cheap cash-in without his presence), but director Denis Villeneuve also demonstrates a deep understanding of the original's strengths. He gets the look, pacing, style, tone and themes note-perfect - from the lighting to the way the story flows, from the lingering shots and any-era production design, 2049 is cut from the same cloth of the original, which helps it feel like a natural progression.

But the new elements are even more impressive, and most of those come down to the plotting and the evolution of the Blade Runner world. The characters (in particular K), situations, and settings feel like extensions of everything Ridley Scott did. It bears noting that everyone in this film does a great job, but Gosling as K is particularly good.

Perhaps the best example of old-meets-new can be found in the score. Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch concoct something contemporary while remaining faithful to Vangelis' then-futuristic synthscapes, which perhaps says more about how pervasive old synths are in modern music that they can sound "contemporary".  Furthermore, the sound design (an under-rated aspect of filmmaking) is stunning in 2049.

It's hard to fault the film, although it will always be judged lesser by comparison with the original. It does lose its way towards the end, as if the film is unsure of how to climax, but for the most part it is gripping despite its length (two hours and forty minutes).

In many ways, Blade Runner 2049 is better than it should be, yet it seems obvious in hindsight that it would be as good as it is. It is a studied and intelligent sequel that feels natural, but best of all it feels necessary, which is a mighty feat for a belated sequel.