Friday, 28 October 2016

Film Review - Doctor Strange (12A)

Stephen Strange, might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.
If you're a Marvel comic fan, you'll know a damn sight more about Doctor Strange than I did going in to this film. Rest assured then - the Doc is brought to vivid life here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who's helped by stunning visual effects and a bit of sly storytelling magic. 
To bring non-fans up to speed, Strange is a brilliant surgeon with an ego to match, until a disastrous injury renders him unable to do so much as pick up a scalpel. His quest to rehabilitate himself takes him all the way to the Himalayas and a mystic called the 'Ancient One'. There his scientific skepticism is literally blown away, as he learns about layers of reality and how to manipulate them in spectacular fashion to all kinds of ends. Proving gifted in this unusual field, he's faced with that age-old superhero choice - will he use his powers to serve himself or the greater good?

Guess which way he goes...
There was a point during this film adaptation when I had to remind myself, 'This is a Marvel movie - it's supposed to be daft'. That's the film-makers' trick, you see - to craft everything so beautifully and hit you with so many zippy one-liners that you forget you're watching a teen comic-book story. Most of the time at any rate. 

Doctor Strange replaces the gadgets and weaponry of most other Marvel films with insane supernatural power-wielding. An early sequence recalls the literal city-bending scene from Inception and the story expands on such Inception-y visuals a lot, combining them with psychedelic trips reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It all melds into a visually eye-popping treat, while the driving story-line ensures it's more than a scrambled mess of effects.
Cumberbatch carries the story with the aplomb Sherlock fans will expect from him. He has all the magnetism the title role demands, even before he dons Strange's epic cape (see above). There's also a touching vulnerability once Strange's world falls apart, while his relationship with Rachel McAdams' fellow-surgeon is more complex than your usual movie love-interest. As for Strange's quest to Nepal, it has enough lightness of touch and humour to undercut all the 'Oriental search for self-knowledge' cliches. The identity of the 'Ancient One' is a particularly subversive twist - don't expect a long twirly beard. Oh, and menace is supplied in abundance by Mads Mikkelsen's bad-guy (but then he does play Hannibal Lecter on TV).

Doctor Strange is a richly designed visual wonder, but happily much more than that. With its neatly sketched characters and extravagant plot delivered with both conviction and wit, it's a welcome new dimension to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Quite a few new dimensions, come to think of it.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

TV Feature - The Walking Dead (18)

We can all come back from this. We're not too far gone.
Let's face up to it from the start - there's something fundamentally silly in the notion of people partially resurrecting from the dead to eat the flesh of the still-living. As horror concepts go, it's probably the daftest. Zombie-related fiction can therefore choose one of two paths - that of satire/comedy (see George A. Romero's classic Dead franchise and Shaun of the Dead) or the stone-cold, nerve-shredding dare-you-to-mock route. AMC's The Walking Dead takes the latter, to hitherto unexplored corners of post-apocalyptic darkness. Set in the ruins of the US state of Georgia, it follows the struggles of a group of survivors as they negotiate the eponymous dead (and worse), looking for refuge and hope. 

Next Monday sees the UK premiere of the show's seventh season - so to celebrate, here are my top seven reasons why The Walking Dead is so much more than a guilty pleasure. 

(All character references will be present tense, whether or not that particular individual is still standing. No spoilers here.)

1. Why survive anyway?
TV drama doesn't get much more existential than the first few seasons of The Walking Dead. With Atlanta up in smoke and the Peach State as dessicated and decaying as the undead themselves, our survivors have to face up to why they're keeping going at all - whenever they get the chance to stop running, that is. Even the ad hoc friendships they form are in danger of being terminated from one moment to the next. Faith in God and humanity are put through the wringer, and only the toughest of mind and spirit find reasons to maintain the struggle. It's thought-provoking stuff from the get-go, not just visual effects that have you clawing your sofa cushions (and claw them you will).

2. Andrew Lincoln as Sheriff Rick Grimes.
Remember him as Egg from This Life, or silently declaring his love for Keira Knightley using cue-cards in Love Actually? It's one of the more curious twists of casting that Andrew Lincoln ended up as the tough-minded sheriff with the Deep South growl and the do-right attitude - accidental leader of our survivor group in the midst of the zombie nightmare. He's formidably good in the role too, charting Rick's gradual evolution into a battle-hardened antihero. (His beard is formidable too, his progression from clean-shaven to bushily whiskered running in parallel with the emergence of his inner animal.)

3. The Apocalypse is colour- and gender-blind.
There are a few racist barbs from certain characters in the early episodes of The Walking Dead (this is Georgia after all) and some of the female characters seem a bit too dithery to cope with the end of civilisation. Several series in, however, and no one cares what skin-tone you have or what sex you are - as long as you've got their back and are handy with a rifle/knife/machete/katana sword. The show's multi-racial cast and plethora of strong women are testament to the fact. With all the dubious race and gender politics of the 2016 US Election season, here's a sobering thought - maybe only a nationwide zombie plague will bring about a true sense of equality in America or anywhere else. Just saying.

4. The Game of Thrones-esque 'They did not just kill him/her...' factor.
The script team are capricious gods. During successive episodes in a recent season I could be heard to utter 'Oh God, they've killed _________!' and 'No! Not ________! Oh come on! Seriously?', as grisly surprises were sprung on viewers. Fans are currently, painfully aware that someone beloved was dispatched at the end of the most recent season, just not who yet. Traditional zombie horror films used characters as fodder. The Walking Dead has space to make you care for its characters, before terrible things befall some of your favourites. Did I saw the writers are gods? They're sadistic bastards. And yet we come back to have our hearts ripped out all over again (if only metaphorically). It's a compelling kind of masochism.

5. Personal morality in the Apocalypse.
Here's the rub where the Apocalypse is concerned. Those who survive any length of time haven't done so by being exclusively nice, in fact the living can turn out much more scary than the 'dead'. (Look out for David Morrissey's twisted turn in the show as 'The Governor'.) So while we like to think of our heroic band as just that, heroes, they can end up doing some very bad things. The Rick Grimes's of the world become bloodied, hirsute mirror-images of their enemies, barely hanging on to their humanity. And pacifism such as that of Morgan (see above) is tested to its limit. How effectively a good person can retain the use of his/her moral compass in such circumstances is a recurring theme. See? There's dramatic complexity amid the gore. 

6. Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier.
Half a dozen characters have vied for top place in my affections - suburban Samurai Michonne, zen master Morgan and lovable redneck Daryl all contended - but Carol clinches it. Formerly an abused wife, her life's chief irony is that it took the collapse of the old world order to bring out her stronger self. She becomes the woman she should have been and rather more, although meeting the demands of these cruel times take a psychological toll. Every twist of Carol's tragic, brave and morally complex story is made riveting by Melissa McBride's performance. She's no scenery-chewer either, despite what she can do with a hunting knife. McBride's genius is largely in subtlety and restraint. To think that in the early episodes she was hanging around forlorn in the background... Look out, new world. She are things she does even more efficiently than baking cookies.

7. Carving a bloody path to survival.
Yes, The Walking Dead is a character-based survivalist drama with regular meaningful exchanges between our key players on life, love and community. But it's also up to its knees in a very squelchy horror tradition and doesn't scrimp on the blood and viscera. There's no counting the 'walkers' who have been shot, knifed, decapitated, torched or lobotomised with handy household utensils, and worse things happen when they fail to be stopped. The sense of jeopardy is unrelenting, and we aficionados wouldn't have it any other way. You need to fear the dead to appreciate the living after all. 
So, season seven looms, taking on a particularly menacing form (see below). It'll fall like a hammer blow (baseball bat?) and we'll cringe and gasp along to it, trying in vain to anticipate every lethal plot turn. Of course with the 21st century careering along on its path of global instability, maybe the whole experience is cathartic. Better to embrace this zombie apocalypse than contemplate a real one, right? So I'll be surviving vicariously with Rick and the gang on Monday night. It'll be scary, traumatising - and great entertainment value. And never once will I consider how daft the whole thing is.
Post Script

I've now watched the season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead. It took a whole day to process. There'll be a lot of talk about how the episode pushed things too far and spat in the face of its long-term audience with some of its gruelling plot developments. In fairness this was possibly the most intense and harrowing hour's worth of TV drama through which I've ever sat, entirely because I've come to love these characters. As a group they were wrecked - broken utterly, by events that had spiralled way beyond their control. It was tough to witness. My take on it, however, is that the production team had the balls to follow through on storylines they'd been setting up in one way or another over several seasons without flinching. My hope is that the brutality of the episode will lead on to fascinating character development and a whole new lease of life for the story. It had better do. That was great drama, but it came at a hell of a cost to characters and viewers alike.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Film Review - The Girl on the Train (15)

I am not the girl I used to be.
The Girl on the Train is a film adaptation of Paula Hawkins' 2015 bestseller (like you didn't know). Hawkins' novel was touted as last year's Gone Girl, sharing as it did that story's theme of marital disharmony along with the mysterious disappearance of a lead character. Both books also made use of more than one deeply unreliable narrator and proved brutal on multiple levels - physical and psychological.

Director Tate Taylor's film stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, the foremost of three flawed female protagonists. Mired in alcoholism following the break-up of her marriage, Rachel obsesses over her ex-husband's happiness with his new partner Megan (Haley Bennett). She also spins an elaborate fantasy around the couple who live doors down from her former marital home, observing them on her daily train journey and imagining that they represent the domestic bliss she craves. When the spied-on wife vanishes, Rachel's voyeuristic hobby provides her with possible insight into the disappearance. Plagued by alcohol-induced blackouts, she becomes a self-appointed witness in the investigation, however dubious her evidence. 
The strength of the original novel was the untrustworthy nature of its key narrator and its unflinching portrayal of her alcohol addiction. This the film captures well, through Blunt's bravely unflattering performance; the camera lingers long on her puffed and blotchy features, swaying and losing focus so that we end up doubting her as much as she does herself. The editing too makes for scenes as fractured as Rachel's groping mind. It is the movie's most courageous move to make the ostensible heroine of the tale both pitiable and erratic to the point of psychosis.
Sadly, however, the book's weaknesses transfer to the screen as well. The overall tone of the screenplay is a grim one, with none of the humour that undercut both book and film versions of Gone Girl. The early scenes are ponderous, particularly flashbacks to conversations between soon-to-vanish Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and her therapist, and what should be a compelling thriller often slows to an over-stylised crawl. Events pick up pace as Rachel stumbles her way in search of answers, finally escalating towards some truly shocking moments. You might, however, have guessed the truth long before it gets to that point.

Ultimately this is a workmanlike piece of storytelling, made more compelling by the finely-observed central performance. If you want to see the attractive Ms Blunt go somewhere dark and spiritually ugly, this is still a film worth seeing. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Film Review - Creed (12A)

One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time.
'A good boxing movie is never really about boxing.'

I said that.

And it's totally true.

Raging Bull, for example, is a critique of Italian-American machismo. The Fighter and Southpaw both deal in their own ways with the tug of familial responsibility. And Rocky IV subtly explores the intricacies of Cold War politics. (Okay - ignore that last one.) 

Creed is an unexpected revival of the Rocky franchise, and at its beating heart the film is about issues of personal identity and cross-generational friendship. Exploring those themes it mines the Rocky mythology deep, and strikes storytelling gold. If you've been following the Italian Stallion since he dragged himself up from the mean streets of Philly back in the '70s, this movie will act as both a nostalgia trip and a gripping original tale.
Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, illegitimate son of Rocky's late opponent-turned-friend Apollo Creed. Rescued from juvenile detention and adopted by Apollo's generous-spirited widow, he grows up haunted by thoughts (to say nothing of the fighting spirit) of a father he never knew. When he leaves his wealthy LA home to pursue his own career in boxing, there's one man who he feels is uniquely equipped to train him - the retired Rocky Balboa. 
For those who felt that the Rocky saga slipped too far into self-parody by the time Sylvester Stallone was slugging it out with Dolph Lundgren's Soviet man-machine, rest assured that Creed captures the authenticity of the early films (as did 2006's Rocky Balboa, it should be said). A debt of gratitude is owed to the screenplay here, which riffs on the characters and mythos with wit and warmth. This film is built on forty years' worth of solid foundation and knows it.

Stallone's return to his most iconic role is something to be treasured. By now he's taken Rocky from the vigour of youth to the beaten-up wisdom of later life, and the character fits him like a comfortable old coat. Relative newcomer Jordan meanwhile takes up the mantle of 'young contender with something to prove', and goes about it with a spirit that would make Apollo proud. His fight scenes (including one against a brutal Scouse nemesis in Goodison Park) are shot in unforgivingly long takes. This actor has gone the same route as De Niro, Wahlberg and Gyllenhall before him, and damn well learnt to box. The results make for riveting if wince-inducing viewing.
But as always with Rocky it's the quieter character moments that deliver the real punch. Stallone and Jordan amuse and charm as they move from a purely professional relationship towards something more akin to family, and their friendship's more melodramatic twists could get a film reviewer choked up - trust me on that. Even Adonis' relationship with singer Bianca (the beguiling Tessa Thompson) is more than a token love interest, exhibiting a sweetness reminiscent of Rocky's now legendary romance with his beloved Adrian. 
All that's missing is for the original film's theme to kick in full force as events reach their climax. It can't, however. Rocky has graduated to boxing mentor now and Creed junior must prove worthy of a run up those iconic museum steps accompanied by his own tune. By the time the end credits roll you'll be in little doubt that he's done so.