Sunday, 8 November 2015

Spectre (2015) | Film Review

Spectre, dir. Sam Mendes, scr. John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth, st. Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Wishaw, Naomie Harris, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes

It's not unfair to say that Daniel Craig's four outings as the eponymous Double-O agent have been nothing if a little uneven. Martin Campbell's 2006 Casino Royale (for my money, still the best in the franchise) introduced a grittier, blonder Bond - a welcome relief after Pierce Brosnan's joyless sojourn, while in 2008, Marc Forster gave us a ropey sequel in the unwieldly-titled Quantum Of Solace, complete with the super-misjudged, migraine-of-a-theme-song Another Way To Die. Theatre director Sam Mendes took on Skyfall in 2010 with a superb little narrative that dove into Bond's backstory, but this year's Spectre, the film he instinctively balked at making, brings Craig's stint once more crashing to the ground with all the fiery ferocity of an obliterated Ken Adams set.

It's not that Spectre is boring per-se, although at two-and-a-half hours it certainly tests the franchise's formula for succinct storytelling, but it's just that there's an awful lot of waiting around for something to happen that isn't illogical, misogynistic, kinetically hollow, or just plain unexciting. An early opening tracking shot set amidst the throng of a busy Mexican street celebrating the Día de Muertos establishes cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who lensed Christopher Nolan's Interstellar last year) and his skill with a tightly choreographed camera, but this gives way to a tedious and strangely unimmersive back-of-a-helicopter punch-up that feels like an unnecessary and unsubtle nod to the past. If this is to be Craig's last, it's a funny kind of send-off. Unfortunately, Spectre is hell-bent on these kinds of call-backs; there's a villain, a shadowy criminal organisation (based in a suitably unsuitable and remote location), evil staff that hunch over computer terminals doing... stuff, a fluffy white cat, expository dialogue for the benefit of no one but the audience... it goes on. In one scene, Bond forces himself on the grieving widow of an assassin whose funeral they both attended literally hours before. Like with Skyfall's Séverine, whom Bond identifies as a former victim of child sexual-trafficking before sleeping with her, it's near-unpalatable. Granted, Bond's capacity to exploit those around him in order to facilitate his endgame has always been something that's made the character unsettlingly compelling, but without the context and benefit of an intelligently-authored scene, it just feels grubby. 

As the plot lurches from locale to incoherent plot-point (Christoph Waltz's Oberhauser introduces himself as the author of all Bond's previous pain, but not how, or to what end) there's a rather painful realisation as to what Spectre actually is - a celebratory traipse down memory lane that does nothing to advance Bond's character and motivation that films like Casino Royale and Skyfall took such great pains to establish. Even his relationship with Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, ostensibly billed and forged as some great romance, has but a fraction of the chemistry of the kind between Bond and Vesper Lynd, and yet we are asked to place some kind of swooning faith in the couple come the film's end despite being granted nothing in the way of a plausible character arc between them.

At its best, Spectre is a stylish and handsome-looking film, at its worst, an ungainly, and embarrassingly reductive entry into the canon. What inherently makes Bond Bond is undoubtedly a fascinating question, and I refuse to believe that the character can't change with the times whilst retaining the essence of who he is. Hollywood is littered with fascinating anti-heroes after all. But on the evidence here, Bond deserves to take some much-earned extended leave and soul-searching, before inevitably returning in his new incarnation that evolves rather than devolves.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Sicario (15) | Film Review

Sicario, dir. Denis Villeneuve, wr. Taylor Sheridan, st. Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber

Sicario, we are told in the film's opening moments, and indeed at the start of every review of Denis Villeneuve's latest feature, means hitman, but who exactly is calling the shots? On the surface, the film concerns itself with the murky appropriation of authority and justice, and the agencies that sanction such operations from behind closed doors. But as is the case in Villeneuve's other ventures, that's only part of the story. For as in 2010's Incendies, 2013's Prisoners, and 2013's Enemy, Sicaro finds itself caught up in a singular character's struggle to unravel greater personal mysteries. This may be open for debate, as those who have seen the film may be inclined to believe the focus shifts away from Emily Blunt's protagonist in the last act, but this is most definitely a film driven and facilitated by her character, SWAT team agent Kate Macer, through whose eyes this tale of clandestine collusion takes place.

After a raid on a safe-house owned by drug-cartels on the border between Mexico and the U.S. reveals a rather gruesome discovery, and by extension, the monstrous levels of violent crime the FBI has to contend with, Macer is recruited by government officials into accompanying them, in a strictly advisory capacity of course, to the cartel heartland in the hope of apprehending the reigning drug lord. Like all good characters that are so well conceived, it's hard to imagine anyone in the role of Kate other than Blunt, an actor that can oscillate between lithe and capably tough and conflicted and exposed on a dime. Surrounded by an almost entirely male cast, Sicario notably and gloriously fails with bugle and fanfare the so-called Bechdel test, but in doing so, explicitly illustrates the link between the criminals and the law-enforcers, two sets of equally testosteroned factions. And if the narrative of a resourceful yet isolated woman plunged into the heart of darkness with a group of men who scorn her sex and strength of character seems familiar, that's because Sicario works fantastically well as an inspired re-tread of James Cameron's Aliens - from the ominous and atonal opening brass clusters of Jóhann Jóhannsson's menacing, tacycardic score, to the fetishistic military outfitting of the grunts that accompany her, to the mysterious "company men" in tow who may harbour questionable agendas. At one point, one of the team even advises his cohort to "Stay frosty."

But it's Villeneuve's ability as a consummate filmmaker that leaves the greatest impression. There are few contemporary directors who match his skill as a storyteller, character developer, and art director, and in acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, he has found an artistic soulmate, a technician who shares his vision that movies - even drug-cartel thrillers - can have incredibly complex and beautiful painterly aesthetics, and Mexico's expansive skies and sands provide the canvas. But there might be a more meta reason why Sicario feels like such a raw and explosive statement. The film had been in limbo whilst the pre-Villeneuve producers were coercing screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to change his protagonist from a woman to a man. One financier is quoted by Blunt as having said to Sheridan, "If you make her a dude, we'll up your budget." Villeneuve then joined the project and a set of new producers - Black Label and Thunder Road - embraced the film as it was. With this in mind, it becomes clear why Sicario is as pertinent a film about the war on drugs as it is the war on a decades-old sexist Hollywood, an industry more and more frequently being called out on its antiquated practices. Its failure of the Bechtel test then, crude as such a test inherently is, comes to speak less about the flaw in the fiction, and more about the prevalence of prejudice against women, be they fighting for their voice to be heard as part of an all-male covert DOD operation, or actors seeking validation in an business purpose-built to mute them.

Sicario then succeeds in every possible way. As an immersive and intelligent thriller, it rivals this other year's best - Mad Max: Fury Road - as a film that can delight in an unexpected multitude of disciplines. On this basis, Blade Runner 2 - another Villeneuve and Deakins production - might contain all the artistry it needs for it to stand alone, apart from its iconic legacy. And wow, wouldn't that be a thing.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl | Film Review

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, wr. Jesse Andrews, st. Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Ronald Cyler II, Jon Bernthal, Nick Offerman, Connie Britton

Whatever the problems with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl - and there are many and plentiful - it is almost single-handedly saved from the keen edge of a bottomless trench by the charms and graces of the 21-year-old Olivia Cooke who plays the girl of the title. Cooke is relatively new on the scene, but she has made her presence felt in A&E's Psycho prequel series Bates Motel, as well as in a handful of low-key movies. But it's her Rachel Kushner in this film, director Gomez-Rejon's sophomore feature, that tempers the quirk and mitigates the tiresome narcissism on offer.

The "Me" of the film is Greg Gaines (Mann), whose voice it is that narrates his redemptive story. Greg bemoans the fact that he doesn't feel that he fits in anywhere, a dab hand as he is at ingratiating himself with the various clashing cliques at his Pittsburgh high school in order to fend off isolation. He's "colleagues" (for calling him a "friend" stresses him out apparently) with Earl (Cyler), with whom he makes whimsical Andersonian lo-fi film pastiches on his MacBook. On strict instructions from his mother (Britton), Greg is coerced into making friends with recently leukaemia-stricken Rachel, a girl in whom Cooke manages to perfectly convey the weary sense of worn-down injustice. What starts out as a bout of contrived charity soon blossoms, or at least is supposed to, into a genuine friendship, and soon Greg is sharing his movies - and Earl - with the dying girl.

The problem with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is in that first pronoun. Greg's mother might be a touch overbearing (although anyone with parents will recognise that actually, she really isn't), and his dad, played with reduced trademark facial hair by Nick Offerman, may be a little too Polyphonic Spree for his liking, but he's hardly afflicted. Yet the film isn't so much about the girl - by far the most interesting character in this narrative - as it is concerned with Greg's plight of adolescent ennui and self-loathing. He doesn't deserve the affections and attention of a bright and beautiful girl, he deserves a royal kick in the pants. Yet the film trundles on with the tortured teenager plot-line, culminating in a scene of the most extraordinary arrogance in which Greg screens his latest movie (supposedly for Rachel but you wouldn't know it) on her hospital bed just as she's knocking on death's door. 

While none of this is an issue with the performers per se, there's something unedifying about ill girls providing an emotional crutch for cocky boys. And while nothing here quite tops the surreal and suspiciously tasteless scene in The Fault In Our Stars that has a tourist-load of strangers applauding Hazel and Augustus' kiss at the Anne Frank House, the spectre of ego never seems far away. The film makes no concession to concealing the ultimate fate of its heroine, but you can't help but feel in spite of her illness, she still gets a pretty raw deal, and that's what turns this potentially compelling film about love and reliance and intimate camaraderie into an exercise in schoolboy vanity.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Trainwreck | Film Review

Trainwreck, dir. Judd Apatow, wr. Amy Schumer, st. Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, LeBron James, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller

Judd Apatow may have made a name for himself producing such bromance ribaldry of the likes of Knocked Up and Superbad, but arguably his biggest hit came from curating the overflowing talent from the various female comics he assembled for 2011's Bridesmaids. The movie was a huge success, principally for just being as funny as heck, but also for subverting a genre usually reserved for the guys - a bunch of friends doing their thing unburdened by the weight of the patriarchy. It's no surprise then that he returns to this kind of platform-gifting - this time, to Amy Schumer. Trainwreck is ostensibly a feature-length amalgamation of Schumer's Comedy Central sketch-based TV show Inside Amy Schumer (of which several of her co-stars return here) and her 2012 stand-up special Mostly Sex Stuff. Fans of her work will be contented with more of what they love, but Trainwreck exposes her to a much wider audience.

The script - Schumer's own - finds her playing a version of her meticulously crafted persona, Amy Townsend, a girl who routinely gets drunk or stoned (or both) and falls into bed with the nearest available guy. Her one rule is that she never lets the guys stay over. It's her way of facilitating her detachment, but, as we see from a flashback that prefaces the film, it also stems from her father explaining to her and her sister about the collapse of his marriage to their mother. "Imagine only playing with one doll for the rest of your life!" he tells them. Amy's sister Kim (Larson) has managed to escape such indoctrination, finding happiness with nice, normal Tom (Mike Birbiglia) and his son, but the pair are torn over their father's assisted living bills. Perpetuating Amy's mindset is the fact she works at S'nuff magazine (imagine Nuts, Loaded and Zoo all joining forces to form one unholy publication) were she trots out "journalism" that caters to the public appetite for misogyny. At one staff meeting, editor Dianna, played with immense ferocity under near-unrecognisable tan and accent by Swinton, suggests someone interview Aaron Conners (Hader - another Comedy Central alumnus), sports doctor to the stars. Amy hates sports which Dianna of course finds irresistible and insists Amy do the piece. 

Naturally, you can see where this is heading. Aaron, with Hader dialling it down a few notches, is a winningly straightforward guy, constantly needled as he is by one of his star clients LeBron James, who with shades of Annie Wilkes, is obsessively concerned with his friend's welfare. As rom-coms go, Trainwreck satisfies, but its greatest failing is that it never truly demonstrates the courage of its convictions. After having set up Amy's insecurities and selfishness against her sister having found contentment and peace despite their shared upbringing, the slip of a third act rushes through a stock ending (with a big dance number no less) that dilutes all that's gone before. From a Studio perspective of course, Trainwreck isn't too subversive in its structure to unsettle its audience, but it might have been a greater film if it had. To its credit, Schumer's Amy is as easy to root for as Wiig's Annie in Bridesmaids and shares many of the latter actor's comedic smarts. But it's only Larson who lends the film any serious dramatic weight, such is her ability to command a scene, and there's a nagging feeling that her character feels excluded over the promotion of the film's star. Schumer's film then is quite watchable, not the disaster its title bestows upon its protagonist, but be prepared for the scenery to be more engaging than the destination.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The Gift (2015) | Film Review

The Gift, wr/dir. Joel Edgerton, st. Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton

Like most home invaders, Edgerton's "Gordo the Weirdo" needs only exploit the fissures and instabilities that already lie dormant in his victims. And indeed there's much in his directorial debut's antagonist that evokes De Niro's Max Cady from Scorsese's 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear - if not in stature and sheer capacity for brutality, then certainly in an astute knowledge of how and where to apply the requisite pressure. The Gift also arrives on UK shores in an eerily timely manner as a recent newspaper article paints British children as among the unhappiest in the world due to bullying. This film is notable in that rather than depict real-time playground harassment, wherein culpability is tempered by watching inexperienced adolescents doing foolishly adolescent things, we see how the tendrils of bygone actions long forgotten - or not - reach well into adulthood, where grownups feel a genuine right to slate-wiping. History, as we learn, is not so easily re-written.

And so we open with what appears to be a picture-perfect representation of a couple brimming with ambition and purpose. Relocating from Chicago to an LA suburb, Simon (Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Hall) find a beautiful home for themselves, their dog, and possibly the hope of another child after their first was miscarried. Already movie lore tells us from the off that this is a fragility is at its most delicate stage. Out sourcing furnishings one day, they bump into Gordon Mosley, an old school-friend of Simon's. Gordon is shy, inelegant at social graces, possibly on the spectrum, while Simon is functionally courteous in the way we all might uncomfortably recognise in ourselves. But as Gordon insinuates himself into the couple's life over the proceeding days, it's hard to tell if Simon's displeasure at Gordo's continued presence is justified, or if maybe he's anxious at a past that may yet be revealed. 

Edgerton's Gordo is one of those rare and compelling characters of modern cinema, simultaneously victim and aggressor, and performed with tremendous, unfussy creepiness by the writer/director. We get drip-fed breadcrumbs of a past narrative for Gordon, but Edgerton is canny in what information he chooses to give out. Bateman similarly portrays a brilliantly and maddeningly incomplete character in Simon. Motivation in either case is rarely as clear-cut as it seems. The only one who's truly lost in this knot of slippery untruths is Simon's wife Robyn, fighting the urge to suspect her husband may not be the rock she's built her life around, and uncertain at the veracity of Gordo's intentions. The knowledge and acceptance of past misdemeanours can be a gift, Gordo tells the couple, but what's fascinating here is the difference between going down that path of self-discovery yourself, and having such a trial thrust upon you. It's also not entirely dissimilar from the bible-bashing Cady telling Sam Bowden that he's "going to learn about loss". Both Cady and Gordo see themselves as avenging angels, of sorts, meting out punishment to those unworthy of their present-day status and all the benefits such a position affords them. 

But besides divine retribution, The Gift is also about trust - nominally, the trust we place in those who we allow to share our lives with. The recent hack at the affair-promoting Ashley Madison servers is a punctual reminder that we live in times of great duplicity, and that mistrust can grow, cancer-like, threatening to destabilise the things we've spent our lives building. Aside from the occasional and rather redundant jump-scare, Edgerton has fashioned a truly contemporary horror film - one that needs no mythical or supernatural force to work its way under our skin, but merely the existence of a careless action that refuses to remain buried. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation | Film Review

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, dir/wr. Christopher McQuarrie, st. Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Rebecca Ferguson.

Another year, another impossible mission. Only, you know, it isn't. Impossible. Apparently. It does seem, on the basis of this - the franchise's fifth outing - that when you run out of ideas, just EL James that shit and start over. Thus Rogue Nation has abrasions with authority, megalomaniacal villains, duplicitous twists and turns of character, and of course, set-pieces that seek to up the ante of their predecessors. It's not stale per se - Cruise (ever the case of love the art, not the artist) - is far too magnetic a personality for that ever to transpire, but like Harrison Ford said to George Lucas on the set of Jedi, sometimes killing of a character is the only way to breathe fresh life into a dying beast, and in so doing, give it some much-needed narrative clout. Otherwise, what's at stake? Nothing that ever feels terrifyingly real.

Rogue Nation finds the IMF (not to be confused with the IMF) up in front of a senate tribunal that seeks to dissolve the outfit once and for all due to its recklessness and disdain for authority. Meanwhile, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) seeks the help of colleagues Benji (Pegg) and Luther (Rhames) to prove the existence of and bring down The Syndicate, a lazily-monikered criminal consortium led by the enigmatic Solomon Lane (Harris), an architect of chaos whose evil is immediately identified by how quietly he talks and dispassionately he kills.

No doubt the fifty-three year-old Cruise is on fine form as the be-ripped and fearless Hunt, whether doing that quivery serious-face thing he does when something important's happening, or, like, just running, or biking, or actually hanging on to the outside of planes. And while the much-advertised bomber-clinging opening is a grand testament to the palpitating immediacy of live-action stuntage over CGI, it doesn't really end up having much to do with anything, and this is where we have got to in the franchise; a series of sequences where Cruise continues to hone his USP for Doing Stuff.

To be fair, much of this lies at the feet of director McQuarrie who went from writing the screenplay for The Usual Suspects to The Tourist via Valkyrie in fifteen years. At least Brian De Palma's original MI movie way back in 1996 felt like it had some authorship. Similarly, the subsequent directors - John Woo, JJ Abrams, and Brad Bird - all managed to lend their distinct vision to the franchise. That is, however, I believe how franchises sustain themselves - by evolving and transmuting into something else. Why not have a black Bond? Why not have a female Doctor? Nothing is irreversible. But in truth, Rogue Nation feels like the first MI film that treads water, and while Cruise and Pegg's chemistry is winningly engaging, Rhames' addition seems like an afterthought, and although newcomer Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust (I wonder whose side she's on?) acquits herself with a seductive, whispery grace, there's little magic between her and Cruise. 

But whatever the content, the numbers say that there's still a healthy appetite for those who love to watch Hunt run, and while it's unlikely the tone of the franchise will change tack, it will be interesting to see whether audiences will be as keen to see the IMF team alive and kicking for another 19 years.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Fastidious And Furious: The Strange And Unwavering Lexicon Of A Franchise | Feature

Soon after Paul Walker's untimely death in 2013 I decided that I could no longer put off watching the Fast And Furious films. As a critic, there are just some films you file under "Will Watch Eventually", and to be honest, I never got tachycardia over the thought of drag races and drifting. But it's ok, I thought, this would give me a chance to watch all the films in succession - concluding with the then recently released sixth instalment. It would, in my mind, give me an experience akin to travelling across the US East-to-West coast, witnessing how the States have developed over time, revealing its own personal narrative. As it turned out, it wasn't until earlier this month when I finally sat down to watch them, and by this time, another episode - Furious 7, Walker's final film - had been added to the line-up. And on completing the marathon (7 films in 7 days), it occurred to me that the Fast And Furious franchise operates under a set of strictly delineated attributes, which bizarrely, while often being diametrically opposed, still tumble, roll, and spin into a coherent, watchable whole. It's not high art, and I'd be lying if I thought that the films appealed to anything other than a pretty slight demographic, but the films - particularly the later additions - pretty much succeed despite, or because of their conflicting ambitions.

On the one hand, we have F&F's unrelenting commitment to bonnets and booty. There's so much chrome, flesh, and hip-hop woven liberally throughout the seven films it's a bit like Xzibit doing Pimp My Ride on Pornhub. You're never sure where to look. But so charismatic are the films' two leads - Vin Diesel and Paul Walker - that you never quite buy their comfort in that kind of world. You get their appetite for the kinetic thrill and gang camaraderie, but it's all a like little sitting outside McDonalds when you were 15. But then on the other hand, for all F&F's superficial, slightly chauvinistic MTV lustre, there are the culturally diverse set of fairly robust female characters that put most films of its ilk to shame; the Spanish Elsa Pataky, the Israeli Gal Gadot, the Cuban Eva Mendes, the Italian Gina Carano, and the Latin American Michelle Rodriguez. And even though globe-spanning locales are now a staple of the kinds of films that feature these kind of impossible missions, the franchise has never been too obsessed in bedding down in US cities. And while I'm at it, given the average Hollywood demographic's disdain for subtitles, isn't it something of a marvel that Fast Five's Big Bad - drug lord Hernan Reyes - as well as two Puerto Rican members of the heist team - Leo and Santos - are subtitled?

But there's no denying what the franchise eventually became; nominally, just another super-hero movie. I'm not quite sure where along in the narrative our team added super-spy abilities to their engineering and driving skills (ok, so Brian O'Conner's always been FBI, and I guess, at a push, Toretto's no stranger to brawling), but suddenly we're once more in territory where the protagonists can experience the most bone-crunching damage and emerge unscathed. Yet for all its artifice and the characters' comic-book resilience to fear and pain, Toretto in particular keeps banging on about the importance and virtue of family and kinship. In Hollywood's messed up misogyny we've become used to seeing female characters espouse the necessity for the loyalty of home, but to see it coming from the oft-sleeveless Vin Diesel is jarring, and not a little bit affecting. All of which emotional familial foundation-laying pays off at Furious 7's ending, where the gang opt to leave Walker's O'Conner to live out his days with Toretto's sister Mia and their kid - an elegant solution to life's cruel inelegance. But Toretto and O'Conner still have one last mountainous road-race to complete, before the pair peel off in different directions. Sure, the weight of real-life tragedy gives the scene its poetry, but it's also entirely consistent with the Fast and Furious mantra. It's an epic, sweeping gesture, cinematic and elaborate, but beyond all that, deep down, harbouring real soul.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Inside Out (2015) | Film Review

Inside Out, dir. Pete Docter, wr. Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, st. Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind

So, wait, I'm confused: Are kids getting smarter or dumber? Are they getting fatter or leaner? Are touchscreens helping them sort, sift and locate information or turning them into mindless drones? While it's never been a good idea to look at the kind of stuff that's marketed to children in order to understand them, it is telling to look at Pixar's back catalogue and look at not only the range of themes their films have covered, but more importantly, the immense success they have reaped. Their 2007 film Ratatouille was about the delicate construction and artistic catharsis of food construction and enjoyment for God's sake. Most films for adults don't aspire to that level of complication. Yet time and time again Pixar have proved that talking up to kids seems to be the answer. Their film Up in 2009, for example, began with a ten-minute wordless montage that ran from childhood romance to widowhood with grace and inordinate poignancy. It is then of course no surprise that their latest offering, on paper conceptually wooly, emerges as a triumphant testament to their ongoing mission to engage and educate.

Inside Out largely takes place inside the head of Riley, an eleven-year-old Minnesotan and avid ice-hockey player whose life is defined by her passion for her sport and honest and loving relationship with her parents. When her father gets a new job in San Francisco, the family uproot and relocate - much to the disconcertion of the five manifestations of emotion that run things in Riley's mind - Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger. Together, the team work around the clock to enable Riley's emotional wellbeing, cataloging and creating new memories (that Pixar simply depicts as coloured bowling-ball sized marbles), keeping her core-memories aired and exhibited, removing unnecessary data, and generally keeping her buoyant and, well, happy. At the end of each day, the memories created are sorted and shipped off to power one of Riley's five "personality islands" - areas that define  who she is. If it all sounds a bit BBC Horizon and not child-friendly subject matter at all, oh how wrong you would be. In fact, I would suggest that Inside Out is actually bona fide adult drama by stealth, a complex psychological narrative in the guise of a film for kids. Every aspect of the brain and its machinations are explored, and often, the various components translate so well into animated renderings, you're left wondering how no-one has ever done this before. The subconscious becomes a Burton-esque fantasy-land full of surreal imagery, long-term memory features endless high-stacked shelves of random memory-marbles (which amusingly are seen to be patrolled by curators who assess and vacuum away the useless ones), and Riley's "memory-dump" is a genuinely terrifying and desolately sad abyss in which defunct memories are abandoned and left to expire to dust in their own time.  In a way, it's certainly one of Pixar's more solemn offerings, but there are long sequences of joyous levity too. (You can imagine what happens once we get to The Train of Thought). The five emotions who spar and vie for control in Riley's conscious mind ("Headquarters" - get it?) squabble and bicker, but as usual with Pixar, nothing is ever too mean-spirited, and there's a genuine camaraderie between them, which actually, scientifically speaking, makes a lot of sense. But it's when Joy and Sadness are catapulted from Headquarters and into long-term memory where things really pick up, and Inside Out becomes the Hero's Journey staple that makes it so compelling.

All of which bodes well for the future of features for children. The technical animation is naturally flawlessly designed and presented, but Inside Out isn't just fodder engineered to occupy and distract; it's magically, intuitively absorbing and instructive, with nary an anthropomorphic animal in sight. Pixar have made an enterprising and elegantly coherent kids' movie about the strange and wondrous intricacies and vagaries of human consciousness. Just stop and think about that for a moment.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Amy (2015) | Film Review

Amy, dir. Asif Kapadia, st. Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil

The biggest shock in Asif Kapadia's initially Winehouse family-blessed documentary is the guilt at the feeling of one's own complicity in the whole tragic affair. Before her untimely death in 2011 at the tender age of 27, I, along with 1.85m others, purchased Amy's sophomore album Back To Black. So ubiquitous was the cover art - on bus shelters, magazine adverts, and fly-posts - the image of a rather forlorn girl on a stool became as meaningless to me as a fast-food logo, a shorthand placeholder icon for the music I loved within the disc. After coming out of the Amy, I questioned what other art I consumed rather than took the time to get to know. Now I know that's not my fault per se, it is after all, how we are marketed to. But it does bring into focus the disturbing proposition that if it was in some small part the unrelenting and intrusive fame that undid Amy Winehouse, surely we have a part to play.

Like Senna in 2010, Kapadia utilises stock footage - some familiar, some unseen and private - and underpins it with audio cut together from a myriad of sources, both then and now. We have Amy's friends, colleagues, and family talking retrospectively about her, and in many cases, the archive footage's own soundtrack is used, sometimes with superimposed lyrics that are used to punctuate the narrative. It's a bold decision, and certainly from an artistic perspective, the way the words unfurl in different locations around the frame can often look inelegant, but investigating the backstory of some of Amy's most popular songs and then watching the culmination of events through her poetry is immensely personal. 

As for the allegations made against the filmmakers by Mitch, Amy's father and later, manager, who can say. Filmmakers, particularly documentarians, are in the tricksy position of needing to be trusted to be free of agenda in their subject material. Yet isn't that the essential role of a filmmaker? Not to skew or distort or fictionalise, but to tell the story. And at least here, there's more embedded drama than could ever have been written. Certainly, Kapadia doesn't illustrate Mitch as the egotist or glory-hunter as some have accused him of being, but hindsight not withstanding, there were undoubtedly some glaring, calamitous decisions being made on Amy's behalf. However, Kapadia's film doesn't seek to sermonise, but it does attempt to illustrate how causality works. Like diverting an asteroid millions of miles away from its path towards us, little nudges and impressions may produce a cumulative effect whereby disaster is averted. The problem comes in recognising an extinction-level event is on the horizon in time to act. Amy might just be the most heartbreaking time-travel movie ever. With pin-sharp clarity and distressing immediacy, Kapadia doesn't provide us with an opportunity to save her, but it might give us the tools with which to save many like her.  

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015) | Film Review

Terminator Genisys, dir. Alan Taylor, wr. Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier, st. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney

After being passed up by Looper director Rian Johnson and Enemy director Denis Villeneuve (what great films they would have been), the oft-talked about Terminator re-sequel-boot ends up in the lap of Thor: The Dark World helmer Taylor, whose prime directive is to banish Rise and Salvation from our memories, and instead machine a sequel finally worthy of James Cameron's vision. To this end, Genisys begrudgingly succeeds - at least aesthetically - but any true sense of revolution in the franchise is ultimately passed over in a desperate attempt to adhere too close to the tone of the originals. Predictably then, and wearily so, Terminator Genisys rests as a particularly unnecessary upgrade.

The film begins in the moments before Cameron's 1984 film, in which John Connor (Jason Clarke) and his band of not-so-merry resistance fighters storm Skynet in order to utilise their time displacement facility and thus stop the rage against the machines before it happens. Arriving too late, they discover the 1984 T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has already gone through, before Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to pursue. Upon arriving in the past however, Reese discovers Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) isn't the permed waitress we were expecting, but rather a be-leathered ass-kicker, tutored in the ways of Terminator-terminating by a T-800 (also Schwarzenegger) since 1973. Confused? Actually it's very simple: time travel movies create temporal paradoxes that endlessly perplex, Möbius strip-like. This is where artistic creativity as being complicatedly additive instead of economically reductive comes unstuck; weaving timeline through timeline does little to add depth to the already narratively-rich concept. All it does is create an unsightly mess. Watching Terminator Genisys I was reminded of Kirby Ferguson's superlative Everything Is A Remix series of video essays in which he postulates that original ideas are borne from copying, transforming, and combining pre-existing ones. Nominally, this is why George Miller's Mad Max sequel succeeds and many, many other reboots fail. Genisys copies and combines, but fails to transform, and as we've seen before fairly recently, more advanced cyborgs, like bigger dinosaurs, just don't cut it. There's a whisper that Miller's Fury Road Blu-ray will include a black and white version with isolated score that plays better than the theatrical version. What a testament to absolute cinema that is.

There are, however, touches - the lightest whisper of an idea - that still quicken the pulse; an early fight between an original T-800 and Reese breathlessly serves to remind us what a formidable and terrifyingly unstoppable force the Terminator can be, but even this at its heart is still filmmaking that stands on its predecessor's shoulders in the most uninspiring way. And if by the time we get to the T-3000, our reaction is a shrug and a dull blink, you know something important has failed to upload. But for what it's worth, Genisys goes through the motions with beat-perfect regularity, even if its mortally afflicted by a woefully under-powered screenplay and a cast that's forever swimming against the tide. The most lively participant in this four hander though turns out to be Clarke, E, with Courtney exhibiting fewer points of articulation than his inevitable action figure, Schwarzenegger seemingly unsure as to which of the four versions of his T-800 he's supposed to be aiming at, and Clarke, J - so commanding in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - acting as if his memory's been wiped and all his cells have been replaced at a molecular level by nano-technology which is coincidentally exactly what happens to him in the film (a fact the trailer, with mind-boggling stupidity, reveals). To her credit, Emilia Clarke makes for a pretty decent Sarah Connor, neither harnessing Linda Hamilton's po-faced warrior-emotionally-twinned-with-Hull, nor Lena Heady's sinewy mother-figure, but instead forging her own (slightly bratty) version of the character with the same drive and direction she lends to her character of Daenerys for HBO - a kind of Game Of Chrome. Lorne Balfe's score interpolates the dustbin-down-a-lift-shaft percussion of Brad Fiedel's original themes, and Legacy Effects, the successors to Stan Winston Studio are back on-board providing the VFX, all cementing the film's authenticating credentials.

Which leaves us where? Well obviously Genisys doesn't touch Cameron's films. Their lean and muscular stylings are rarely seen in today's multiplexes. But for all its derision, I actually rather liked Terminator Salvation. Even with its scrappy second half, it tries to expand on the established mythology, and its key MacGuffin - a Terminator powered by a real human heart - is a thousand times more tactile an idea than nanotech's abstract and almost supernatural qualities. But there's no getting away from Hollywood's obsession with reiteration. Like the incomprehensible success of E. L. James, the fault lies squarely at our feet, and while the maths works, money is still king above all else. With every utterance, "I'll be back!" is sounding less like a catchphrase and more like an ominous threat.