Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Following my complaints that the last two Captain America films were a bit dull because, as we all know, Captain America himself is a bit dull, Marvel have finally seen sense and buried him in a helicarrierful of other characters in his new movie, Colon Civil War. This is good, because some of those characters are Iron Man, Black Widow and Ant-Man, who are fun, but also bad because some of those characters are Arrow Man, Condorman and Fucking Weird Robot Man-Thing Man, who are rubbish.
Memorising the placement of these characters will be very helpful during the film

Considering how much hand-wringing went into worrying about whether four superheroes plus two little helpers could successfully share the screen in 2012's Marvel Avengers Assemble, the balls on writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely - as well as directors Anthony and Joe Russo - must have to be carted around in wheelbarrows after attempting to bring a dozen or so of the fuckers together here. That they've done it with a fair degree of success is an impressive feat of writing and direction which is unlikely to attract the kind of attention Joss Whedon did four years ago, and that's a shame.

But it's not applause and blowjobs all round just yet: despite a thoughtful and meaty first act that sets up the film's core antagonism in a way that makes Batman v Superman look like it was thrown together by shit-flinging monkeys, Civil War eventually decides that working out how to choreograph supermassive superhero smackdowns is more important than keeping focus on why they're all up in each other's grills, and eventually all that running around, jumping and fighting... well, it's exhausting.
LEAVE 'IM TONE 'E'S NOT WURF IT

To ReCap: as in BvS, people have begun to notice that superheroes are a destructive, dangerous lot. The Avengers' apparent indifference to their own city-smashing habits has resulted in a motion to bring them under the supervision of the UN, and while Tony Stark is all for that, Steve Rogers is more suspicious of political agendas, preferring his own judgement to the chance of becoming a government-sponsored weapon of mass destruction. It's an intelligent, well-laid-out argument which believably sets our heroes against each other, but it's not quite enough to trigger an all-out-war of the hashtags between #TeamIronMan and #TeamCap, so an additional wrinkle is added in the shape of Daniel Brühl's mysterious mischief maker, and this is where it all gets a bit murky.

Brühl makes fleeting, infrequent appearances throughout the story, and while it's refreshing that the villain isn't a showboating blowhard for once, it is a bit tricky to get a grip on exactly what he's up to. It's a pity, because his impact on the rest of the characters is crucial, and his plan requires the same amount of thought as - if not more than - the logistics of Civil War's numerous, enormous fight scenes, which we as an audience have been led to believe is what we really want to see from this film. When the repercussions of Brühl's somewhat underexplained actions are so far-reaching, it feels like they should have been given as much time and space to breathe as all the chin-stroking moral dilemmas are.
The centrepiece of Civil War is a gargantuan multiple face-off between the forces of good and, uh, also good, and while it's kind of fun, it's also crippled by its own ambition. Having painted itself into a corner where such a rumble can't be seen to cause injury to any innocent bystanders, the film instead sets the scene in a conveniently deserted airport, and the result is an amped-up but somewhat sterile version of Anchorman's news team fight. Every hero gets their moment - Ant-Man's is the best of the scene and, arguably, the whole film - and although it's shot and cut with welcome clarity it's hard to remember who's meant to be on whose side. And if I'm being honest, I do find strong people fighting each other a bit boring now. Only one character seems to get hurt in the entire scrap, so what's the point? Why not just have a nice sit down and a chat about it?

It's a shame, because there's some great work elsewhere. The banter between the leads is as on-point as ever, the humour is perfectly pitched and a couple of new supers are introduced organically and interestingly. One in particular gets a simple, beautifully-written and played introductory scene that does in minutes what other films spend entire acts on. But then, in the same film, Martin Freeman appears maybe three times for no apparent reason, as if most of his scenes were cut to allow more time for punching, and Vision - whose very existence and purpose is still a mystery to me - pads about an apartment looking bored in a range of comfortable slacks and polo shirts. He purports to be some kind of all-powerful, perfect synthetic being with infallible A.I., so why he's moping about like a Man At C&A catwalk model is baffling.
In fairness he descends from a proud line of androids in casual wear

By and large none of this matters; Captain America: Civil War is a perfectly serviceable summer blockbuster that reminds you how good Marvel are at this superhero malarkey. Where Batman v Superman was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, Civil War at least has the common decency to give you a good time in return for your hard-earned cash. I just wish it had extended the intelligence of its setup to the rest of the plot, because while the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the power to become one of the defining legends of our time, it's in danger of becoming overwhelmed by all the pixel-on-pixel argy-bargy. And if that happens you may as well just hire Zack Snyder and be done with it.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Guy Hamilton
1922-2016

"Your time in the cutting room is much too short,
but basically that’s as good as it gets"
- Guy Hamilton, director of Goldfinger, Diamonds are Forever,
Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun

Monday, 4 April 2016

Midnight Special

It must be the season for movies about people with potentially catastrophic superpowers being seen as either a saviour or a weapon depending on your point of view; fortunately for Midnight Special, it's directed by Jeff Nichols instead of Zack Snyder, thereby rendering it several million percent more watchable than Batman v Superman. It doesn't have Hans Zimmer's Wonder Woman theme in it though, so I guess you can't have everything.

Despite those superficial similarities, Midnight Special is nothing like a superhero film. It's a fairly self-contained and muted affair about Alton, a boy with initially unspecified but frankly alarming issues, who's been held captive by a mad religious sect until his pop Roy (Michael Shannon) breaks him out. The clock's ticking though: for reasons best not divulged here, there are just four days for the cult to snatch Alton back, and the same amount of time for Roy to get him to safety, before... well. Before something.

Nichols' film is a low-key mood piece, in a similar vein to the bits of Looper set at Emily Blunt's farm. In fact if Looper had been told entirely from that scary little brat's POV, the result wouldn't be far from Midnight Special. But it's not Rian Johnson that Nichols is channeling the most here: there's another huge presence looming over proceedings, and that presence has a beard and wears a baseball cap and is married to Kate Capshaw. OK fine, it's Spielberg. I'm talking about Steven Spielberg.
Specifically, though quite possibly coincidentally, Nichols appears to be homaging The Berg's early career: the cross-country chase evokes The Sugarland Express, there's an otherworldly Close Encounters vibe going on, and E.T.'s military pursuit of that which they do not fully understand also figures strongly. It's a darker shade of Amblinism for the most part, unshowy and stripped of its trademark sentimentality, although Nichols can't resist throwing in dazzling shafts of white light and dysfunctional parents just to be sure of a full house in his game of Spielbingo.

The danger of evoking these kind of touchstones, as was also apparent in JJ Abrams' Super 8, is that if the end product doesn't turn out to be one for the ages then you probably shouldn't have made the tributes so obvious. And while Midnight Special is definitely worth your while, it never quite fulfils the promise of its best scenes, in which Alton's troubling powers are revealed. The otherworldly elements here play second fiddle to a road movie which takes in Kirsten Dunst (in a fairly thankless and inconsequential role as Alton's mother) and Adam Driver as The One Good Government Guy, and while I'm all for character-based sci-fi I prefer it when the characters aren't quite as thin as they are here.

All credit to Jeff Nichols, whose output is consistently varied (if you don't count the ubiquitous Michael Shannon) and interesting; he's a director well worth watching and almost certainly has a masterpiece in him somewhere. Midnight Special isn't it, but it'll do for now.

Friday, 1 April 2016

That's Rogertainment! Rogisode 9:
Bullseye!

It may have been over a year since Rogisode 8 of this ill-fated venture, but that's because I needed time to build up to this entry. Bullseye! is not a film that should be approached lightly or without training, for it is unforgiving and takes no prisoners. It's the Mount Everest of Rogertainment if Mount Everest were made almost entirely of poo, and many have fallen negotiating its shitty slopes. Those brave, hardy fools who have reached the summit, though, know that there is more to it than painfully inept comedy and incoherent action; not much more, I grant you, but now that I have accomplished my mission I am prepared to share my findings with you so that your hiking boots may remain faeces-free.
"Ow now Rog, we've been bladdy rambled!"
"A woman?"
"Wrong film Rog"

Bullseye! sees Greatest Living Englishman Roger Moore teaming up with his chum Michael Caine, who just four years earlier won an Oscar for his role in Woody Allen's Hannah And Her Sisters. Caine, sadly, would not win an Oscar for Bullseye!, despite at one point flawlessly conveying the innermost emotions of a man in a kilt who has stepped over a tug-o'-war rope, only for sixteen burly Scotsmen to suddenly propel that rope swiftly and decisively upwards and into the Caine scrotum. If proof of the Academy Awards' insanity were further required, you will find it in that baffling injustice.

Rog 'n' Mike play dual roles in Bullseye!: Moore simultaneously essays the parts of untrustworthy conman Gerald Bradley-Smith and nuclear physicist (lol) Sir John Bavistock, while Caine tackles both of those characters' partners, crook Sidney Lipton and scientist Daniel Hicklar. It is, of course, a staggering coincidence that two friends and colleagues should have exact doubles who are also friends and colleagues, but you should probably get used to that kind of plot improbability early on because there's quite a lot of it. In fact without it, Bullseye! wouldn't exist, and what kind of a world would that be? Just you think about that.

Gerald and Sidney, along with fellow con artist Willie (Sally Kirkland, who replaced a mysteriously unavailable Shirley Maclaine), use their convenient likeness to the science boffins to steal a pile of diamonds from them in a first act heist which is actually quite fun, despite being scripted and acted as if it were a school play produced by hormone-addled teenagers. Rog gets to dress up as a blind Austrian piano tuner for some reason, while both men execute a sophisticated plan to remove a key from a vicious dog's collar by forcing it into a canine orgy with a harem of six unsuspecting lady dogs, thereby tiring it out so they can steal the key safely. In a tender moment, this allows the two lead actors (both of whom would later become Commanders of the Order of the British Empire) to reflect on the tragedy of their own waning masculinity and sexual prowess while watching a Staffordhire Bull Terrier vigorously fucking a Poodle.
"Nothing in the world is single; All things by a law divine
in one spirit meet and mingle. Why not I with thine?"
- Shelley, 1820

From this romantic interlude on, sadly, Bullseye! becomes less refined. In the grubby hands of restaurant critic (and, according to the credits, director) Michael Winner, the dual-identity thread of the narrative is allowed to tie itself into such chaotic knots that it's frequently impossible to tell which of the Caines and Moores we're watching. The plot, such as it is, makes almost no sense; comedic scenes that have no bearing on anything are wedged in with the unfulfilled promise that a punchline may one day arrive to justify their presence; important information seems to have been left on the cutting room floor - or, more likely, never shot or even written - and in its undignified dying moments there's a cameo from John Cleese which is absolutely baffling in its execution, as if it were only shot because he happened to be in Barbados at the time of filming. Which, of course, is exactly the case.

But Rogertainment is a celebration of His Rogerness, rather than a chance to berate some of the worst films ever made; it just happens that the two are often easily dealt with simultaneously. And while Bullseye! is undoubtedly an unedifying piece of cinematic wreckage, it allows Sir Rog to have what is obviously the time of his life dicking about with his chums, and that results in an unexpectedly and improbably enjoyable experience for the Rogerwatchers among us. His attempt at a cockney accent is laughably terrible (although not as bad as Caine's American accent), he plays twice as many borderline sex pests as usual, and he is - let's not mince words here - an atrocious actor in this film. But none of that matters: for once he hasn't been miscast, because the film is as juvenile as he is, and neither make any attempts to be otherwise.
It is under 24 hours since I watched this scene, 
yet I cannot recall how or why it comes about

So while this may not be the film for which Roger Moore should be remembered in years to come (even the press release for the DVD reissue quotes the 2014 Radio Times Guide to Films' review: "this appallingly unfunny comedy is a career low for all concerned"), it does at least capture a genuine national treasure (two, arguably) making an absolute berk of himself and point blank refusing to give a shit. And for that I salute Bullseye!, but only very quietly and at the end of this unjustifiably long blog post that nobody will read.

Rogerating:
If you've only joined us in the past twelve months you may be wondering why I am wanging on with comical infrequency about Roger Moore films. You won't find the answer here, but it's as good a place to start as any.


Bullseye! is re-released on DVD by Fabulous Films on April 4th 2016. Use this information as you see fit.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Victoria

Fuck Birdman. Seriously. If you thought that was clever, with its faux-one-take structure, then wait till you cram Sebastian Schipper's 138-minute, genuinely edit-free marvel Victoria into your eyeballs. A heist movie that drags you by the hair into a doomed bank job and its catastrophic aftermath whether you like it or not, it's like being inside Reservoir Dogs and never blinking.

Shot in real time (obviously) on a brutal, early Berlin morning, Victoria begins with the violent flashing of a nightclub strobe light; it's an assault on your eyeballs for sure, but as such it's merely softening you up for what's to come. Schipper, with cinematographer and partner-in-crime Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, latch on to a girl (Laia Costa) dancing in the club and stick to her like glue for the next two hours. We watch, protectively and uncomfortably, as she strikes up conversation with a gang of obviously no-good #lads, taking a shine to their most charismatic member (Frederick Lau). There's a sense that fates are sealed from this moment, and as much as you want her to turn round and go home, you 're stuck with the inevitable, devastating consequences that follow.
It's impossible to separate Victoria's form from its content: it's not a story that just happens to be shot in one take, it's an exercise in total narrative immersion. It would be both a cliché and incorrect to say that you feel like you're actually there, but you do completely ignore the fact that, in this group of five people, there's a sixth dude constantly hanging around with a camera, shooting every sweet, tense, awful moment. The machinations Schipper uses to get around the self-imposed complexities of the plot are by turns obvious and ingenious, but crucially never attention-seeking, while the hurdles he places before Grøvlen as he sends him from street level to rooftops, in and out of cramped cars and across town are almost cruelly inventive.

Laia Costa's performance, meanwhile, is mind-bogglingly impressive. It's a piece of pure theatre; Victoria's arc is ridiculously ambitious, but Costa sells it without a whiff of fakery. There are moments when it's easy to snort a derisory "well, she wouldn't do that", but how do we know? We only just met her. Lau's character Sonne, meanwhile, undertakes a polar opposite journey, meeting Victoria in the middle as their lives change forever under the dawn of a literal and figurative new day.
If the first half feels a little undercranked, it's a necessity brought about by the unavailable option to compress time with editing while we get to know the characters. The result, arguably, is more investment in them and their situation, and this pays off in buckets in the second half - which is anything but uneventful (it's no coincidence that 99% of the stuff in the trailer comes from the film's back end). Most of it will surprise you, some of it won't - a conveniently temperamental getaway car briefly provides an incongruous heist movie trope - but if it doesn't impress you, on a number of levels, then nothing will. Except maybe Birdman.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice

"People hate what they don't understand," explains Martha Kent to her supernaturally strong but somewhat dim adopted son Clark, who's confused about the general animosity he's attracted after casually wasting thousands of human lives at the end of Man Of Steel. If only someone had taken Zack Snyder to one side before he embarked on directing that film's sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and offered him the same advice; maybe then he wouldn't have excreted such a mass of hopelessly incoherent wreckage, and we wouldn't be praying that he never sets foot near such beloved icons of pop culture again. Just a thought.

The gist of Batman v Superman, such as I could ascertain, is as follows: Batman distrusts Superman's unchecked alien powers and therefore reaches the obvious conclusion that he must kill him immediately. Superman also dislikes Batman, for reasons that escape me right now. I'm not sure it matters. They fight, they make up, then they fight someone else. This process takes two and a half hours to play out, although due to a bizarre contortion of time that final fight lasts around eight weeks.

With this basic premise in mind Zack Snyder has set about making the experience as baffling, boring and bereft of joy as is humanly possible, and at that he has succeeded enormously. Scenes which appear to have been shorn of their beginnings and ends smash up against each other with little regard for narrative cause and effect, as if William Burroughs had arranged them during his cut-up period. Characters vomit reams of dialogue through stoic grimaces and ponderous frowns without saying anything helpful or interesting, and when they're not doing that they're punching or shooting each other for days on end. Any attempts at levity - I think I counted three - are immediately smothered by the crushingly dour mood, and Snyder's insistence on grading everything in that cobalt blue tint that enjoyed a brief moment of originality in around 2008 ensures that it's nigh on impossible to distinguish one location from another.

David Goyer's script takes a potentially interesting metatextual stance in having characters berate the unbridled carnage that made the climax of his previous Superman film so dunderheadedly offensive, but the concept goes no further than that. One fantastical metaphorical possibility is that Bruce Wayne is introduced as an embodiment of Man Of Steel's critics, sent to spank Kal-El's steely buttocks before - in Goyer and Snyder's sweetest dreams - making peace with the last son of Krypton and realising he's not such a bad cove after all. If that was the intention, though, the plan is somewhat derailed when it becomes clear that the new film is easily its predecessor's equal in terms of piling nonsense upon nonsense, like an eye-wateringly expensive game of nonsense Jenga.
What I'm basically saying is that this is me.

Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck, tasked with playing two of the most fascinating figures in pop culture's entire history, are fighting a losing battle here. They've both proved themselves capable of charm, wit and depth in the past, and although such qualities would seem relevant to their roles in this film they're simply not allowed to manifest. It's painfully obvious that these aren't intended as the Batmen and Supermen of Michael Keaton, Christopher Reeve or Christian Bale, but under Zack Snyder's direction they almost make you yearn for George Clooney.

Further major and minor irritants abound throughout, not least of which is Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor, possibly the most teeth-itchingly annoying performance of modern times. Not only is Luthor painful to watch, but he gets the lion's share of plot inconsistencies to boot. He's given no backstory or motivation so we have no idea why he's doing whatever it is he's doing; he's thrilled to see Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne chatting at his party despite the fact that, by rights, he should have no idea who the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter is; his assistant finds Wayne snooping around in a private room but just leaves him to it, and he miraculously knows to use Lois Lane as bait to trap Superman in an early scene that is so under-explained it's like it fell out of a different movie.

In fact Batman v Superman raises an entire catalogue of questions it can't quite be arsed to answer: why, for example, doesn't Bruce Wayne design a bat-cowl that covers a decidedly identifying mole on his cheek? Why does Amy Adams need to play an entire scene in the bath, naked? Why is there a gigantic statue of Superman in Metropolis when everyone hates him? What in the name of all that is holy is going on in that astonishingly misjudged dream sequence? Why do we need to see Bruce Wayne's parents murdered (complete with pearls clattering on the pavement in slo-mo) for what must be about the ninth time? And what the fuck was anyone thinking when they picked that reason for Bats and Supes to kiss and make up?
Don't even get me started on this fucking thing

I could sit here all day bringing up other pointless and ill-conceived characters, gaping plot holes and forehead-slappingly stupid plot devices (here's one: a Kryptonite spear, intended to weaken Superman, actually renders everyone who touches it unfathomably moronic), but it's as exhausting to detail them as it is to watch them unfold before you. Only Hans Zimmer's new theme for a certain Amazonian warrior princess raises a smile, although the rest of his score is employed in such a way that it feels like he's personally battering you around the head with a pair of woks while a 200-piece choir shouts at you.

How Warner Bros and DC have arrived at this point is no doubt confusing to them, but it seems reasonably clear that much of the blame rests at Zack Snyder's feet. Batman v Superman isn't so much directed as ejaculated, and the resulting mess is going to require an extremely hot wash to shift. Snyder seems to have no concept of light and shade, of memorable moments or of genuinely epic storytelling, which he confuses with excessive CGI and loud noises. Perhaps his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach is best exemplified in the long-awaited but tediously leaden fight between the leads, during which Batman wrenches from the wall an actual kitchen sink, which he uses in an attempt to render Superman senseless. He needn't have bothered; Snyder has already done the job for him.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Zootropolopia

Depending on your current geographical circumstances, Disney's latest animated film about cuddly talking animals might be called Zootropolis, Zootopia, Zoomania, Zoogie Nights, Zood Where's My Car or Zoolander 2. But it matters not, for whatever you call it (although Zoolander 2 would be a bit confusing), this is Uncle Walt's best offering since the majestic Wreck-it Ralph, which is only really saying that it is better than Frozen and Big Hero 6. Why those films are so popular is quite beyond me; anyone would think they weren't aimed directly at miserable 40-somethings with hearts of lead.

Zootropolis (let's call it), of course, isn't aimed directly at me either, but I was caught in the peripheral spray of its eye-popping inventiveness, its wholeheartedly right-on social commentary and its fucking hilarious sloths, so I am therefore fully qualified to comment on its quality. "Anyone can be anything", runs the film's mantra, and while I am aware that science currently restricts me from being, say, an ocelot, I can at least pretend to be a film reviewer for a few minutes, so here goes.
Set in a world where human beings never existed to clog up the planet with pollution, caravans or TV shows presented by Nick Knowles, Zootropolis depicts a universe in which all animals get along and crack on with their lives regardless of class, race or position in the food chain. Into this furry utopia steps idealistic bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), who finds herself reluctantly teaming up with shyster fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) for a mismatched-buddy yarn that won't tax the plot-untangling department of your noggin but throws in an entire farmyard of smart gags and daft set pieces to make up for it. The scene in which Hopps "incites a scurry" in a district populated entirely by tiny rodents, for example, is the most fun I've had watching animals in a movie since The Revenant. Apart from the sloths, of course, who I think I may have already mentioned really are fucking hilarious.

Hopps and Wilde's investigation into the mysterious disappearance of several mammals is an enjoyable bit of whodunnitery, replete with red herrings (not literally; bit of a missed opportunity there), improbable clues and other police procedural standards, but that's not what Zootropolis is really about. The metaphors start to bash you around the head a little hard as the film goes on, but you hope it's so that the small people in the audience, whose intelligence is only marginally below that of the average film blogger, will soak up the messages: don't judge people on ill-founded stereotypes; rise above the expectations of those who judge you, and question those in power and their motives. It's pretty righteous stuff, but it's a humungously worthwhile and relevant thing for a kids' film to be saying, and it's done so intelligently that the life lessons slip almost unnoticed between the comedy stoned yak and the comedy gangster shrew.
And the fucking hilarious sloths

It will be of little surprise or interest to learn that the animation and background gags are spot on, that the world is beautifully and imaginatively realised, or that some of the voices are a bit too distractingly recognisable (sorry, Big Dris), so I won't mention any of that. It's Zootropolis' moral core for which grown ups will remember it the most; I don't know if its target audience will feel the same way because, despite my youthful good looks, I am not a child and I didn't have one to hand when I saw the film. But let's hope it all sinks in, because I for one believe that children are our future, and if we teach them well and let them lead the way while simultaneously showing them all the beauty they possess inside, then one day we can all live in harmony and total agreement that, seriously, the sloths are fucking hilarious.