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.

Monday, 9 October 2017


(M) ★★★★★

Director: Akira Kurosawa.

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyō, Masayuki Mori, Noriko Honma, Daisuke Katō. 

"The shop that sells glowing swords is that way."

Sometimes films so fully capture an idea that the title becomes shorthand for the idea itself. Take for instance Groundhog Day, which as a phrase has come to mean reliving the same day over and over again. Or what about Sliding Doors? Everyone knows what "sliding doors" means as a philosophical idea (I still prefer the late great Terry Pratchett's term "the trousers of time"), even without having seen the film.

And then there's Rashomon, the hugely influential 1950 Japanese film which gave us the "Rashomon Effect", which refers to one story being told from different, often conflicting, perspectives.

Rashomon is an amazing film partly because of the psychological phenomenon and storytelling device it now lends its name too. But as much as it sparked a now an oft-emulated narrative technique, Rashomon itself is also an intriguing musing on the nature of perspective, truth, honour, memory, understanding, justice and even humanity itself. And this is what truly elevates Rashomon to those "best movies of all time" lists - it uses innovative and engaging cinematic and storytelling techniques to gaze deeply into the heart of what makes us tick as individuals and as a species. This is surely a sign of a masterpiece, especially if it's entertaining to boot.

But let's first look at its narrative trick. Rashomon's plot is set in the 11th (or possibly 12th) century and recounted by two men who are riding out a storm with a third man in a partially destroyed gatehouse. It could be the set-up to an old joke - "A priest, a woodcutter and a commoner are sheltering from the rain....", but instead it's an opportunity for the priest and the woodcutter to detail a trial they have just witnessed which has left them horrified.

Over the next hour or so they relate four versions of the same story - of the rape of a samurai's wife and the samurai's subsequent death. First we hear from the prime suspect (a scenery-chewing performance from the legendary Toshiro Mifune), then the wife (Machiko Kyo), then the dead samurai (Masayuki Mori) as channeled through a medium (Noriko Honma), and finally the woodcutter (Takashi Shimura).

Needless to say, each version of the story is different - sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. And thus we have what is now known as the Rashomon Effect.

(On a side note, two of the best examples of the Rashomon Effect in modern pop culture can be found in two separate X-Files episodes - Jose Chung's From Outer Space and Bad Blood.)

The impact of this narrative choice adds a powerful layer to the story. No "right" version is revealed. As Robert Altman says in the video below, the "proper conclusion" is that "it's all true and none of it's true". It's up to the audience to decide what they want to believe because there is no correct answer - it's whatever you want it to be.

Further evidence of this can be found in the trial scenes. The judge is never shown and the majority of the three testimonies we hear is delivered almost straight to camera - the actors' eye-line in addressing the judge is just above the lens, putting the audience at the judge's feet, effectively making the audience something akin to the old-school courtroom stenographer. In doing so, director Akira Kurosawa is asking us to be there to bear witness, not to decide and pass judgment. But by bearing witness, and being human, it is impossible for us not to decide and pass our own judgment. Kurosawa and the scriptwriter knew this, and it's one of the key points they were making - that we decide our own truths.

For this minor miracle of narrative styling-turned-important thematic device - a rare example of style creating substance - we have a number of people to thank. Firstly, there's Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who's short story In A Grove provides the basis of Rashomon. Then there's screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who adapted the short story and took it to Kurosawa.

That initial meeting between Hashimoto and Kurosawa is possibly one of the shortest script discussions in the history of cinema. As Hashimoto described in his autobiography, that first meeting lasted no more than two minutes and consisted of Kurosawa saying the script was too short and Hashimoto suggesting to add the setting from another Akutagawa story called Rashomon. Kurosawa agreed, and that was it. Meeting over.

Despite this shoehorning of two stories into one (Kurosawa further tweaked Hashimoto's final draft), the juxtaposition of the two settings works well. By the film's end, the storytelling in the abandoned gatehouse becomes almost as important as what may or may not have transpired in the woods. Many of the judgments on humanity and what we're left to ruminate on come from what happens in the gatehouse. As such, the film gives us a pretty dark view of humanity that is saved only by a surprising coda.

Of course the other person we have to thank for all this is Kurosawa himself. Outside of its innovative storytelling technique (some people claim Citizen Kane did it first, but it uses different points of view to tell one story, while Rashomon offers different perspectives on the one story), Rashomon is also a beautifully made film. It makes the most of just eight actors and three settings, utilising its locations perfectly in relation to its cinematography and storytelling.

For example, the trial is filmed predominantly with an unmoving camera in stark sunshine, like its under an unrelenting gaze. The incidents of the rape and murder in the forest are a combination of roaming cameras (which must have been difficult in the pre-Steadicam days in a location not ideal for dolly tracks) and multi-camera set-ups, edited between long captivating takes and short Mexican stand-off-style cuts that pre-date Sergio Leone. The crew also utilised mirrors to ensure plenty of natural sunlight in the dappled forest setting, but for the most part the characters in the forest move through the light and shade of the world - another seemingly thematic element amplified by stylistic choices.

And then there's the dark black rain of the gatehouse, and the three men seemingly cut-off from the world. It's as if the men are separated from what has happened, in order to process it in isolation, which only manages to enhance their subjectivity. In all these settings, Kurosawa uses light, shade, camera movement (or lack thereof) and editing to help tell his story in fascinating and intelligent ways.

But like many highly regarded films, Rashomon didn't make much of a splash initially. According to this awesome and wonderfully detailed Kurosawa site, it was "met with somewhat average reviews as many Japanese critics were puzzled by its content". It was "a moderate commercial success" - a fact possibly mitigated somewhat by its low budget - and won a couple of minor film festival awards before it "nevertheless disappeared from public eye fairly soon after its release".

Then it turned up at the Venice Film Festival (at the urging of Giuliana Stramigioli, a representative of the Italian film company Italiafilm) and everything changed, not only for Rashomon, but for Kurosawa and the entire Japanese film industry. According to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which screened Rashomon this year as part of a Kurosawa retrospective curated by great Australian critic David Stratton, "the West was almost entirely ignorant of Japanese cinema before Rashomon screened at Venice in 1951 and won the Golden Lion".

(This video is outstanding, even if it does have a (legitimate) dig at The Avengers and Joss Whedon:)

In this regard, Rashomon is one of the most important Japanese films from a Western perspective. Though some of its quirks - in particular its acting style - were out-of-kilter with Western ideals at the time, its other elements were startling and influential. Stratton highlighted "its adventurous photography (and) its innovative employment of light and shade" and of course its central "subjective nature of truth" as reasons as to why Rashomon was an "extraordinary breakthrough".

It's interesting to note that the next Japanese director to follow Kurosawa to major Western acclaim was Yasujirō Ozu, who couldn't be more different than Kurosawa. Where Kurosawa's breakthrough features a roaming camera, a fantastical-at-times storyline, and brash narrative and editing techniques, Ozu's introduction to the West - the equally excellent Tokyo Story - is almost the complete opposite. In it, Ozu kept his camera static, often used the same type of shot (the tatami- mat angle), kept his pacing and editing languid, and focused on a more mundane type of event and storytelling.

These two directors, to this day, are probably the best known Japanese directors in Western cinematic culture, and yet they are so markedly different. It's a great indication of the diversity of Japanese cinema. It would be like if Japanese film aesthetes judged all Western film on the output of David Lean and Quentin Tarantino. But Rashomon and Tokyo Story make for interesting comparisons to highlight each other's cinematic strengths, as this absolutely brilliant video explains:

There is much to love about Rashomon. It's fight choreography is somewhat under-rated, especially in the way it changes to reflect the different perspectives of the storytelling. There's also the impressively orchestrated scene involving the medium recounting the dead samurai's tale, which uses some post-production vocal recording and a wind machine to great effect, adding an otherworldly aspect to this strange but necessary moment in the film.

But largely this is a film that demonstrates that how you tell your story is just as important as what that story entails. It's a fairly common yet essential part of filmmaking, yet this remains one of the best examples of that principle even though almost 70 years have elapsed since its release.

Thanks for making it this far. Here's some further reading if you're interested:

The Film Sufi's review
The Criterion Collection notes
The aforementioned excellent and detailed Kurosawa site

I watched Rashomon 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):

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Battle Of The Sexes

(PG) ★★★★½

Director: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris.

Cast: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Jessica McNamee.

"Winner gets Ryan Gosling."
THE famed Battle Of The Sexes tennis match in 1973 stands as a pivotal moment in women's sport, and this film about that momentous game certainly demonstrates that.

But the title refers to more than just the showdown between women's tennis champ Billie Jean King (Stone) and retired player/self-styled "male chauvinist" Bobby Riggs, and it's this extra layer that helps make this sports drama so much more engrossing than just a sports drama.

The story is told largely through King's eyes, starting with her and tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Silverman) forming the breakaway Virginia Slims women's tennis tour in protest against Jack Kramer (Pullman), a typically misogynist tournament organiser who refuses to up the prize money for women to a more equitable rate.

During the Virginia Slims tour, King falls in love with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Riseborough), loses a big game and the #1 ranking to Margaret Court (McNamee), and is approached by Riggs to play in a battle of the sexes tennis match - an offer King turns down.

Riggs instead throws down the gauntlet to Court, who accepts the deal and is comprehensively defeated by her male opponent in a match dubbed the Mother's Day Massacre. After that, King decides she has to step up and beat Riggs to prove a point on behalf of womankind.

Dayton and Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) give the film documentary-ish look, which works perfectly, especially for the big finale and its incorporation of real footage from the broadcast. There's a subtle Polaroid look to the whole thing too, matched by the exquisite production design, costumes, and soundtrack.

What's most surprising about the film is there is so little tennis through-out. Much of what we see of the Mother's Day Massacre is through a television and is more about the reactions of the other female tennis stars, while otherwise the sport is used sparingly. It's a smart move as it means we're not tired of watching tennis by the grand finale - in fact, we're desperate for it, making the eponymous showdown the equivalent of a dam bursting.

But, as mentioned, the battle is about more than just tennis. It's about King dealing with her flowering homosexuality and the conundrum it creates for herself, her husband Larry (Stowell), and her lover. It also relates to Riggs and the issues he has with his wife, who has had enough of his gambling. And it's also about the broader gender war and the line in the sand King was trying to draw with a tennis match.

It would have been easy to make Riggs the villain in all this but the film has loftier goals. Riggs is portrayed by Carell and Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's script as a goofy prankster who doesn't really believe what he's saying, but rather who is just in it for the fame, the thrill and the quick buck. Instead the film targets Pullman's Jack Kramer as the big bad, and Margaret Court as a lesser evil, with the former representing a women-are-inferior stance while the latter sneers at the "sin" of King's lesbianism (some thing's never change, eh Margaret?). Both characters are representative of the old ways of thinking and make for excellent hissable villains.

Stone is flawless and brilliant in the lead, making King stoic, determined, powerful, fragile, flawed, but above all real. Carrell is great too, his charisma adding a lovable goofiness to Riggs. Cumming is also great in a tiny role as King's fairy godfather of sorts, famed tennis dress designer Ted Tinling.

Battle Of The Sexes is an important re-stating of an important moment in sport, and its subject matter is as pertinent now as it was then, perhaps even more so. In fact, it's depressing to walk out of the cinema and back into the real world and realise how much more progress is needed in LGBTQ rights and gender equality.

If there's a flaw to the film, it's an occasional hint of melodrama and a biopic-typical tendency towards things fitting together too perfectly, but that's being picky. Battle Of The Sexes is interesting, important, enjoyable and serves up an ace of a story.

Damn. I almost got all the way throug this review without a single tennis pun.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Victoria & Abdul

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Stephen Frears.

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar.

The reboot of As Time Goes By had taken a different tack.
The pairing of director Stephen Frears and Judi Dench in a film about British royalty seemed inevitable (with the benefit of hindsight).

Frears was Oscar-nominated for the excellent The Queen (and worked with Dench on Philomena), while Dench has played Queen Victoria (in Mrs Brown) and Queen Elizabeth I (in Shakespeare In Love), attracting award attention both times.

Their powers combine in Victoria & Abdul, a sorta-sequel to Mrs Brown, with Dench back as Queen Victoria, this time sharing a "special friendship" with a humble Indian Muslim man named Abdul Karim.

Abdul (Fazal) was only meant to help present a coin to the Queen, but ended up becoming a servant, confidant, and teacher to Victoria - something that caused considerable friction among the royal household.

It's this friction that creates the central spark of Victoria & Abdul. After starting with a whimsical and lightly comedic tone, aided by the presence of Akhtar as Abdul's fellow fish-out-of-water, the film gets progressively darker and more serious. As a result it gets more interesting too. The first half runs too close to caricature and stereotype sometimes, and while the latter half can get a touch melodramatic the film steadily improves and engrosses as it progresses.

Dench owns this from the minute she appears on screen. She gives Queen Victoria a studied depth, reminding us that the Queen was a real person and not just a figurehead. In one fascinating (if slightly contrived) rant, she lays out the many flaws of Victoria (before pointing out that she is not insane) and its a key example of the film's attempts to paint the Queen as a complex human being, who mourns, laughs, snores, and wonders what the point of it all is.

Humanising the Queen is a key theme of Victoria & Abdul, but so is tolerance. As much as Dench rules supreme here, it's as much a film about Abdul Karim as it is Queen Victoria. It's impossible to do something artistic and creative involving Muslims without it becoming political these days, but the film quietly drives its points home about prejudice and acceptance, making this century-old tale pertinent and timely.

Surrounding the magnificent Dench is a strong cast, led by Fazal, who does a fine job. Akhtar gets some great quips and it would have been nice to see more of his character, while the royal household is filled with solid assistance from Izzard as the soon-to-be King Edward VII and the late Tim Pigott-Smith as house head Sir Henry Ponsonby.

Beautifully shot, Victoria & Abdul is an interesting look at a strange piece of royal miscellanea, and well worth watching for another regal turn from Dench.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Matthew Vaughn.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Edward Holcroft, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson.

Jason Bourne wouldn't be caught dead in orange.
Bursting onto our screens in a blast of blood and bad language back in 2015, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a stylish if frivolous divergence.

It was also a welcome counter-operation in the serious world of spy movies - amid the Bonds and Bournes, the exploits of Eggsy (Egerton) and Harry (Firth) were a burst of firework fun in the face of an increasingly gritty genre.

Not much has changed for the second outing of Eggsy and co. "Having a good time" is still the central motif, even if its at the expense of the film's ability to find any depth.

After proving his worth, saving the world, and getting the girl in the first film, Eggsy is riding high as the hard-doer-turned-super-spy - that is until an old rival returns to wreak havoc. But that's the least of his worries. A drug dealer named Poppy Adams (Moore) is on the scene, and Eggsy and Merlin (Strong) must turn to their American counterparts - the Statesman - to save the world (again) from her diabolical scheme.

The things that worked best in The Secret Service are the elements that shine in The Golden Circle - the hyper-stylised and crazily edited fight sequences, the ridiculous gadgets and set pieces, and the blood-and-bollocks attitude of it all. Having Firth back helps, Moore is a deliciously bonkers if under-used baddie, and Elton John (playing Elton John) gets some truly great moments.

It's a shame that the plotting falls down in the final stretch - unless I missed something, I have no idea how the good guys uncovered the bad guys' secret lair. There is also a half-hearted attempt to make a comment on the war on drugs, but the film can't decide what it wants to say, and then chickens out of saying anything anyway, and the whole thing plays a little loose with cause and effect and the secrecy of its secret services. Its regularly OTT tone also means the film struggles to sell its emotional crescendos, leaving a certain emptiness amid the fun.

There are plenty of interesting and enjoyable moments though. The opening car chase, the final raid on Poppy's hidden (and overly CG) hide-out, and a very Bondian diversion to a mountain-top lab are good fun and showcase Vaughn's stylistic flair. The subplots involving Eggsy's relationship with Princess Tilde have potential until they get lost amid the espionage and gunplay, while a detour to the Glastonbury Festival yields intriguing results (and a line of dialogue that is this film's equivalent of the bizarre "bum note" the previous movie ended on).

The cast all acquit themselves well (even if some of them - Tatum, Bridges, and Moore in particular - are under-used) and the whole thing is fun, and that's the main point of all this. While The Golden Circle lacks the wow factor of the original (Firth-in-a-church and the head-popping fireworks linger long in the memory), it still has a similar capacity to entertain, even if it's not as structurally solid as its predecessor.

If you're willing to overlook some of its dim-witted and nonsensical moments, this is a solid-enough return that doesn't totally disappoint and leaves enough goodwill (and room for improvement) for a third outing.

*Thanks to my amazing wife for helping type this review up while I recover from a lame journalism-related injury.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

It (2017)

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director:  Andy Muschietti.

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott.

Just out of shot: me shitting myself.
IF you're looking for a review that tells you how this It compares to the old It, you're in the wrong place. Similarly, if you want to know this It is a good adaptation of the It book, I can't help you,

But having not read the book or seen the 1990 miniseries means I'm free to review this shorn of any preconceptions or the weight of expectation and nostalgia. So if you want simply to know if It is a good film (and a scary one), then this is the review for you.

The short version is yes, It is a good film, and yes, It is scary - repeatedly and insidiously. For the long version, read on.

This adaptation of Stephen King's 1986 novel is set in 1988-'89, where a group of seven bullied and ostracised kids find themselves the target of a fear-feeding clown (Skarsgård) who appears responsible for the abnormally high rate of kids going missing in their hometown.

Among those missing kids is Georgie (Scott), whose brother Bill (Lieberher) is the leader of this group of self-proclaimed "losers". Bill is prepared to lead his friends into battle, or at least into the town's sewers, to try and find his brother and bring this clown's reign of terror to an end.

This is an excellent horror film because, yes, it's scary, but it's also a solid film outside of its frights. At its core it's closer to Stand By Me than anything else in the King canon - it's as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a scare-fest. It offers a kids-eye view of its setting and of fear itself, taking a simplistic look at what scares us and how the world works. There are no conversations between adults in It, and despite there being an epidemic of missing people, the film's POV is kept within the group of focus of our Goonie-like heroes, who largely view grown-ups as creatures not to be trusted (some are almost as scary as Pennywise). These are kids on the verge of adulthood and as a result the film doesn't need to bother with the world of adults too much.

While I've heard some grown-ups lament that the film isn't scary, I would suggest that it will have younger audiences (who can legally see the MA15+ rated movie of course) quietly shitting in their pants. It seems aimed at being a rite-of-passage horror movie, much like its predecessor was for so many people around my age, with a mettle-testing level of gore and adult themes. Personally I found it frequently scary, and while it's heavy on the jump scares and intense musical crescendos, that is certainly not the full extent of It's bag of tricks.

On top of all this, the film is beautifully shot. It's summertime setting and the fictional town of Derry are given the warm glow of nostalgic holidays of misspent youth, which is frighteningly at odds with some of its scares, most of which take place in the comparatively darker parts of Derry. That it can still offer some horror in broad daylight is a nice feat too.

As much as It is about coming of age, the power of fear, the importance of friendship, the loss of innocence, and the challenges of youth, it's also about a fucking clown named Pennywise who is the stuff bed-wetting nightmares are made of. In the hands of Bill Skarsgård and some brilliant costume and make-up design, he becomes the ruffle-wearing lovechild of Heath Ledger's Joker and Ridley Scott's Alien. He is a wonderfully scary creation.

If you weren't scared by It, maybe you're too mature or too battle-hardened by horror films or the travails of adulthood. But if you can tap into your youth (or are still young), then It is the horror movie for you.

*Apologies for the delay in posting this review and any mistakes in it, as it was painstakingly typed with one hand due to a wrist injury.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Queen Of Ireland

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Conor Horgan.

Cast: Rory O'Neill.

"And then he said, 'grab them by the pussy'. And he's been married three times!"

As Australia dives into a very expensive non-binding postal vote that allows straight people to pass judgement on the worthiness of gay relationships, there is no better time to watch this fabulous and heartfelt documentary about Ireland's own path to legalising same-sex marriage.

It's tempting to use this review as a platform to extol why I think Australians should vote "yes", but the reality is this review is not going to change people's minds about marriage equality. And sadly, despite how heartwarming and beautiful it is, this documentary is unlikely to change people's minds either.

Because the fact of the matter is most people have already decided, one way or another, where they stand on the issue of letting two grown adults in a loving relationship who happen to be the same sex enter into a binding legal agreement that is exactly the same as other grown adult couples are allowed to do.

And as great as The Queen Of Ireland is, it's not going to suddenly persuade a bunch of homophobes and bible-bashers into understanding why allowing same-sex couples to marry is a good and necessary thing.

I wish it did though. The story of Rory O'Neill AKA drag queen Panti Bliss is a surprising and fascinating one that passionately illustrates what marriage equality means to the people it actually affects (ie. no one except for the homosexual people who want to get married).

O'Neill and his frocked-up alter-ego became a bewigged figurehead in the debate leading up to the historic public vote in which a majority of Irish folk agreed marriage equality was something that needed to happen. In a way, O'Neill comes to symbolise every gay person who's ever been attacked or insulted for their sexuality, or who has had to change who they are to fit in or avoid being targeted by homophobes. A truly powerful moment comes when he makes a speech about this subject that goes viral. This speech, as well as a national TV interview he gave, inadvertently made O'Neill/Bliss a lightning rod in the marriage equality debate.

It all works because as much as O'Neill may strike some people as an "irregular" guy, he really is just a regular guy. His enthusiasm, passion, fragility, humour and humanity shine through, and it all peaks when we get to see his hometown, including his parents, turn out to watch one of his drag shows. It's a joyous highlight that demonstrates the theme of acceptance at the heart of both the film and the marriage equality debate.

The way the film touches on how gay people have endured in the face of incredible adversity, how gay culture has risen from being literally underground in some cases, and how the slow road to tolerance and understanding makes The Queen Of Ireland an important document. More of this kind of stuff would have been welcome, as well as more details about the historic vote on marriage equality. The only real downside to the doco is the inescapable sense that it was a film about O'Neill/Bliss first that stumbled on to the marriage equality vote stuff as an almost accidental second.

But what it gives us is an inspiring and enjoyable look at the life of a man whose fabulous lifestyle inadvertently made him a key figure in an historic moment in Ireland.

I watched The Queen Of Ireland 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):

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

*Apologies for the delay in posting this review and any mistakes in it as it was painstakingly typed with one hand due to a wrist injury.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Girls Trip

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Malcolm D. Lee.

Cast: Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, Jada Pinkett Smith, Larenz Tate, Mike Colter, Kate Walsh.

Dutch ovens can be hilarious.
IF you missed the girls-gone-bad comedy of Rough Night earlier this year, don't worry. Go and see Girls Trip instead.

This film about women cutting loose, working out their issues, and getting "white-girl drunk" is a far superior comedy because it does many of the things Rough Night tried to do, but actually pulls them off.

The key to the success of Girls Trip (shouldn't there be a possessive apostrophe there somewhere?) when compared to Rough Night is it manages to feel more real in spite of its own contrivances. The characters feel more real, the relationships are more real, and the situation is more real. Instead of relying on a high-concept idea like "bachelorette party accidentally kills stripper" and then exploring the group's interactions through that plot point, Girls Trip simply explores the relationships as the characters bounce through the ups and downs of an overdue getaway in New Orleans. The tone is more even, the plot is minimal but it never stretches or struggles, and nothing feels tacked on as a result in Girls Trip. Oh, and it's funny.

Organiser of the trip is Ryan (Hall), a multimedia star and minor celebrity who is touted as the "second coming of Oprah". While trying to keep her marriage (and therefore her brand) on the right track, Ryan decides she needs to let her hair down a little and reconnect with her longtime crew.

So joining her in New Orleans while she sells books and gives talks is her fellow "Flossy Posse" sistren - celeb blogger Sasha (Latifah), repressed mother-of-two Lisa (Pinkett Smith), and the still-hasn't-grown-up party girl Dina (Haddish).

There's nothing spectacular plotwise about Girls Trip - it's simply about four women having fun and sorting out some stuff. But it does it well.

For starters, the four women seem believable as friends, and the performances are all pretty solid. Latifah is the most comfortable and best actor of the bunch, but Haddish is the scene stealer. They get a decent-enough script too, and make the most of it - there's obviously a bit of improvising going on, especially from Haddish. When she's letting rip, talking about what's she going to do to Lisa's philandering husband or what she really thinks about someone, the film is on fire and the laugh's keep coming.

From that strong core of performances and characters, Girls Trip weaves a nice web of relationships, building things up and tearing them down, with Lisa's marital issues at the core, although Sasha's money problems are a nice subplot that intersects well with Lisa's plot. It passes a nice comment on the nature of celebrity gossip too. But mainly this is about women having fun and each others' backs. There's a more serious through line about discovering yourself but this is where the film tends toward the mawkish and the melodramatic. While it's a nice theme and a necessary one, it does make Girls Trip take a side-journey into soap opera territory from time to time.

The other big weakness here is a reliance on well-worn party tropes, such as the accidental drug-taking, a dance-off, and a sexual encounter that goes wrong. Admittedly the film handles these well and milks a couple of laughs, but this is where the film starts to feel generic. Overall, Girls Trip is nothing terribly new, but it's good at what it does.

When it works best is when the girls are either way up or way down and the dialogue, quips, swears, put-downs, and gags are flying thick and fast. This Girls Trip looks like it would have been fun to be on, and we get to go along for the ride.

Monday, 28 August 2017

American Made

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Doug Liman.

Cast: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones.

Cocaine's a hell of a drug.
THE post-Mission: Impossible career of Tom Cruise can be split into two categories.

On one side are the Action Man films, starring Tom "I Do All My Own Stunts" Cruise. On the other side are the Acting Man films, starring Tom "Nominated For Three Oscars" Cruise.

It's rare these two categories meet (Collateral is a standout example), but American Made is something of a crossover between Stuntman Cruise and Thespian Cruise. It doesn't feature Tom Cruise running or punching people in the face, but it does see him take the actual wheel of several actual planes, as has been pointed out in many interviews promoting American Made's release, which is admittedly pretty ballsy. And to go with these derring-do feats, is another solid turn from the often under-rated actor - not necessarily one that stretches his skills, but it's still a decent performance.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, a real-life pilot who found himself working for both the American government and the Medellin drug cartel during those crazy days of the '70s and '80s. It was a time when cocaine was king and the US was still fighting the Cold War, which had somehow spread to Central America.

With Seal making so much money he didn't know what to do with it (courtesy of both the CIA and Pablo Escobar), it was a hell of a time to be alive. And Seal's life was a hell of a one to live.

It's the setting and the scenario that are key here. Seal's story is almost unbelievable (even without the usual liberties taken by filmmakers) and it makes for an entertaining ride. Even if you feel like you've seen a heap of films, TV shows and National Geographic docos about the Medellin Cartel, the Iran-Contra Affair, Central American politics, and the cocaine trade in the US, this takes a fresh look at it by funnelling it through the eyes of Seal.

It's also funny, with regular laugh-out-loud moments, largely thanks to the absurdity of the situations Seal finds himself in, whether it be running out of places to stash his huge amounts of cash or the day-to-day realities of running guns into Central America and cocaine into North America.

Key to this is Cruise, who does his best to ensure Seal is likeable, even when he's doing things that aren't. His Southern accent wavers at times but the Cruiser keeps the affable Seal bumbling along in the face of incredible danger. And did I mention that he flies his own planes? Gary Spinelli's script works well too, helping to ensure we like Seal while keeping the action ticking along and the years progressing nicely.

The main let-downs come from director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity). Liman's now-signature camera moves - the quick pull-zooms and shaky handheld shots - are distractingly annoying, especially in the film's first half where they serve no purpose. Liman also has a nice framing device to work with - Seal recounts his exploits into a home video camera later in life - but he fails to use it effectively, randomly sliding in some narration with little consistency. These two things are the biggest deal-breakers in American Made as they regularly pull you out of the film to remind you that you're watching a film.

Frustrating directorial tics aside, this is a funny and enjoyable peek into the strange place where a couple of major world events intersected and one man found himself in the middle of it all.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Logan Lucky

(M) ★★★★

Director: Steven Soderbergh.

Cast:  Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Riley Keough, Daniel Craig, Brian Gleeson, Jack Quaid, Seth MacFarlane, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank, Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan.

"The name's Bang. Joe Bang."
NO one ever really retires these days.

Every retirement is followed by the inevitable comeback, whether it be a one-off thing or a fully-fledged return that retroactively morphs the "retirement" into an "hiatus".

Take, for example, Steven Soderbergh, who retired from making movies in 2013 following Behind The Candelabra, his Liberace biopic for HBO. Since then he's done some TV (including the well-received The Knick) and some painting, but given his eclectic and rapid cinematic output over the years, it always seemed unlikely that he was done with film.

And here we are, in 2017, watching his comeback film, because no one ever really retires.

But it's a good thing Soderbergh is back, because Logan Lucky is quite a return. The obvious descriptor is that it's the redneck Ocean's Eleven - a hillbilly heist film that is similarly playful but set far further down the intellectual and socio-economic scale. Soderbergh himself called it the "anti-glam" version of his Clooney crim trilogy, noting the central robbery was based on "rubber-band technology". This home-spun idiocy is all part of the charm.

The hicks behind this heist are hard-luck divorcee Jimmy Logan (Tatum), his one-armed brother Clyde (Driver), their beautician sister Mellie (Keogh), incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Craig) and his dimwitted brothers Sam (Gleeson) and Fish (Quaid). Their target is the Charlotte Speedway - the home of NASCAR - on the biggest race day of the year.

Soderbergh has always followed the "one for the studio, one for me" film-making ideology, and this falls into the former category, while still being unlike anything else he's ever done before. The fun-lovin' tone is perhaps closest to his Ocean's films or maybe Out Of Sight, but really its beats and quirks give it more of a Coen-esque quality.

As a result it lives or dies on its cast, and Soderbergh's ensemble is mostly spot-on. Craig is particularly good, outshining the quality duo of Tatum's everyman Jimmy and Driver's dour Clyde, who also have to compete with scene-stealers Quaid and Gleeson. McFarlane, sporting an English accent as distracting as his moustache, is probably the only mistake the casting agent made. Equally unsatisfying is Keogh's character Mellie. It's not Keogh's fault - she seems to be given plenty to do but sadly little development to go with her actions.

Much like Tatum and Craig in this film, the script (reportedly written by UK writer Rebecca Blunt who is rumoured to not exist) is a little flabby. By the time Logan Lucky slides into its fourth act FBI investigation (a nice cameo from Swank), it starts to wear out its welcome, but there's a satisfying ending with a little bit of a sting in the tail to make it all worthwhile.

Predominantly this is a joy to watch. The heist has a wonderfully homemade quality to it that makes the film a lot of fun, especially when mixed with the humour delivered by a wonderfully deadpan cast. A sequence involving a makeshift explosive is hilarious, as is a prison stand-off centring on Game Of Thrones.

Its always hard to rate Soderbergh's back catalogue because it's a bit like comparing apples and oranges and tractors, but this is certainly in the top bracket of his output alongside the likes of Out Of Sight, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven, The Informant!, Magic Mike, and Sex, Lies & Videotapes. Welcome back, Mr Soderbergh.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets

(M) ★★

Director: Luc Besson.

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu.

"Are you sure we didn't mix up our uniforms?"
"Pretty sure."
WIKIPEDIA tells us that early in Luc Besson's career, he was part of movement critics dubbed cinéma du look, which was a classy way of saying Besson and his fellow French directors à la mode favoured "style over substance, spectacle over narrative".

More than three decades on, Besson's latest film Valerian & The City Of A Thousand Planets tells us nothing has changed. It must be this eye for the visual that has kept Besson's name as a selling point, because it sure as hell isn't his scriptwriting if Valerian is anything to go by.

More than 20 years on from his international career-defining one-two punch of Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson has managed to make the biggest film of his career - a love letter to the French graphic novel that inspired The Fifth Element and Star Wars, to name but two sci-fi descendants of Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières' comic book series. But much like many of his films since The Fifth Element, the script is a mess. Valerian is visually stunning, no doubt, but its screenplay leaves a lot to be desired.

The story focuses on government agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), who have been tasked to retrieve an item from an intergalactic marketplace. That item has a major role to play in something sinister that's taking place on Alpha, which was originally the international space station but in the 28th century has become a universal hub for aliens from every corner of the cosmos.

Spoilers prevent further explanation of the plot, but so does the plot itself. The story is such a tangled confusion of poorly thought-out strands that it defies explanation. When the various machinations and half-baked ideas are somewhat explained in the final act, it elicits an "Oh" from the audience - not in surprise and awe, but more an "Oh - is that what they were trying to do?".

Which brings us back to the "style over substance" thing from Wikipedia, which is so scarily accurate in this case that I wouldn't be surprised if someone recently created the "cinéma du look" page purely in response to having seen Valerian.

The film looks incredible. Every one of its €200 million has been spent on piling the pixels sky high to create worlds and aliens that would give George Lucas funny feelings in his pants department. There is no shortage of creativity on display and its visual spectacle has to be applauded, even if a lot of it feels like it's there for no reason other than showing off.

But its all way too much pretty tinsel piled onto a dead Christmas tree. Contributing to the failure of the story is the depiction of its main characters. Valerian and Laureline vacillate between annoying and stupid and the script throws them headlong into an awkward relationship that is really hard to get on board with straight up. Easing us into their uncomfortable workplace situation might have made it easier to stomach and made it feel a little less "I should report you to HR".

Laureline occasionally gets to be a butt-kicking heroine, but all too often feels like a bunch of reductive stereotypes, while Valerian is primarily a jerk. DeHaan and Delevingne do their best individually but lack chemistry together. After that, everything else is doomed to fail. No one in the cast comes out of this smelling of roses, except probably John Goodman in a brief voice role.

All Valerian has going for it is its stunning visuals, an occasional good idea amid the mess, and a destiny as a cult favourite, which is what usually happens with similarly over-stuffed sci-fi films. The reality is that this is the next Jupiter Ascending, as opposed to being the next The Fifth Element.

Friday, 11 August 2017


(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Tom Tykwer & The Wachowskis.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, James D'Arcy.

This picture encapsulates why I don't go to pubs anymore.
Are you ready for my most self-indulgent blog to date?

Here goes.

One of the trickiest aspects of film reviewing is trying to get it right after just one viewing of a film. My theory has always been 'once to feel it, twice to watch it', but as a reviewer you're very rarely afforded the luxury of seeing a film twice before penning a critique. And so reviewers become accustomed to simultaneously feeling (ie. sitting back and letting it wash over you) and watching (ie. studying) a film on the first go.

It means we're sometimes wrong. I would say that 19 times out of 20 I'm on the money, but sometimes I'm off. In my summary of Christopher Nolan's career, I highlighted my overly generous star ratings for The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, although the reviews themselves were fairly close to my current thoughts. I once did a podcast on this topic titled I Was Wrong (but it appears to have since disappeared from the internet) highlighting in particular my overzealous reviews of the Matrix sequels. I also canned Step Brothers probably harder than I should have.

All this brings me to Cloud Atlas, which I watched again recently (thanks to F Project Cinema in Warrnambool).

Here's my original two-star review from 2013. If you can't be bothered reading it, it's okay because this present review of Cloud Atlas is actually masquerading as a review of my own Cloud Atlas review of 2013. It's a bit meta and masturbatory but this is basically the long way round of highlighting this particular thing I said in 2013:

"Going back to soak (Cloud Atlas) in again and again could make this film a rich experience that rewards over time - it's likely this is destined for cult status."

Before going to watch Cloud Atlas again recently, this notion kept ringing in my ears. The film is dense with ideas and interwoven themes - no surprise given it tells six parallel stories across six different eras spanning roughly five centuries - and I was curious to see whether I was right about the whole "destined for cult status" thing.

I think I was (yay, we got to the point I was trying to make all along). In 2013, I was overly enamoured with David Mitchell's incredible book, hence giving the film two stars, which was a little harsh in hindsight. But despite the same flaws still weighing the film down, Cloud Atlas is definitely a film worthy of cult status. There is a lot to take in - it's the cinematic equivalent of a Where's Wally book. There's so much going on you can't see it all in one sitting, and it practically begs you to come back and dig deeper into it.

The problem is it's still a haphazardly structured three-hour monster with wavering entertainment value. It struggles to balance its six stories, occasionally cutting back to one narrative for mere seconds, seemingly simply to remind you that storyline still exists in the film. It also misses golden opportunities in its editing - as much as it tries to line-up similar events in different eras, it fails to do so as often as it does. So we watch Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) involved in a bold escape from an old folks home, then later we watch some other characters pull off a bold escape. The tone of each is different but it gives the film an unwelcome sense of repetition.

But yes, cult film, totally. Three stars this time around. I doubt it will go higher than this because it's far too flawed to be a true masterpiece. Also its yellowface/brownface/whiteface effects have aged badly. A slightly Asian Hugo Weaving is one of the more unsettling things seen in cinema in the past five years. But who knows? Maybe it will be a four-star film next time I watch, whenever that may be.

But if nothing else, Cloud Atlas is a noble defeat. It attempts to wrestle an unfilmable book into a watchable beast and works surprisingly well in places. Some of its core themes and notions about the interconnectedness of everyone and everything get a little lost amid the mass and mess of the storytelling, but there are some bravura moments in the editing room chaos. Everyone gets their time in the sun, with Hanks, Grant, Berry, Broadbent, Whishaw, and Sturgess shining on occasion (in between some dreadfully hammy performances). Best all-rounder, surprisingly, is Grant who is excellent in every one of his guises.

All of this is a long winded way of saying "I was sort of mostly right but also a little bit wrong".

I watched Cloud Atlas 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):

The Queen Of Ireland - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24