Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Film Review - Beauty and the Beast (PG)

Try the grey stuff, it's delicious. Don't believe me? Ask the dishes.
My thoughts on Disney's live-action remake of its 1991 animated classic will be coloured by the fact that - don't judge me - I haven't seen the original. So whether or not it's overly slavish in its reinterpretation, you must find out from a bigger 'House of Mouse' fan than me.

Taken purely at face value, however, I really enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast
Need I even recount the plot of a tale as old as time? Well I was a bit shaky on it myself, so here goes. 
A young self-centered French prince is turned into a hideous (-ish) beast, when he refuses kindness at a feast to a beggar who is a sorceress in disguise (a clear case of moral entrapment, but set that aside). His courtiers too are transformed, into a variety of talking household items and furnishings. The curse must be lifted before all the petals fall from a rose preserved in a glass case, or it will be forever. And the only way that can happen is if he falls in love and is loved in return. I hear you, tricky task at the best of times. Cue Belle, a feisty, book-loving village girl, who through searching for her lost father, ends up imprisoned in the Beast's chilly castle. From such an unpromising start, romance endeavours to kindle...
So why remake Beauty at all, aside from motives purely financial? (It's drop-kicking everything else at the box office right now.) Well far from being a flaccid imitation, the new version is vibrant throughout. The locations are gorgeously brought to life, from the pastel shades of Belle's village full of dancing peasants to the Gothic grandeur of the Beast's castle. It's lavish, it's sumptuous - like the recent Skull Island everything here is just plain beautiful to look at. The direction serves to power it along too, particularly during the spirited musical numbers. 
But the performances are where this really succeeds. Emma Watson is spot-on casting as Belle, and her interpretation of the role - spirited and sincere - is much in keeping with her neo-feminist credentials. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey's late lamented Matthew) has something truly feral about him either as man or beast, and Luke Evans has the time of his life as a triumphantly villainous Gaston. The enchanted courtiers are brought to life more by top voice work than computer animation - it proves tricky recreating teapots, mantle-clocks and candlesticks digitally, but the actors behind them are at the top of their game. I recognised the Cogsworth vocals immediately, but Lumiere, Mrs Potts and co proved more elusive, the end credits providing a few surprises, which I won't spoil.
As for Disney's first and much-discussed openly gay character, he fits neatly and rather logically into the film as a whole, adding a little extra nuance to proceedings, and a lot of high camp.

The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this Beast as a cash-cow, but was overruled by the movie's verve and sparkling creativity. Hey, it was Friday night - I wanted to be entertained! Your kids will adore the remake as much as you did the original - and you'll fight hard not to be won over yourself.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Film Review - Life (15)

We're looking at the first proof of life beyond Earth.
First there are science fiction films of striking and groundbreaking originality, say 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then there are those that use their influences to springboard into something else, the way Interstellar does with the aforementioned 2001. Finally there are some that take an idea and - well - do it all over again beat for beat. Life is firmly in the final category. Thankfully for its audience it copies with style.
To be totally fair, the movie takes the plot of Alien and places it for variety's sake within a contemporary Gravity-style setting. The hapless astronauts are based on the International Space Station and can recollect the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster from their youth, so that the threat they encounter seems rather more immediate than one set over a century in our future. 

The plot is simple. Our heroes take on board a delivery of earth from the Mars Rover, which contains a molecular critter that squarely answers David Bowie's famous Mars-related question. Subjected to laboratory tests, the entity (cutely named 'Calvin') starts to grow exponentially, before exhibiting a scary survival reflex. Basically Calvin has no intention of hanging around in its petri dish. All else will be very recognisable to anyone who's seen the classic Ridley Scott horror movie. Space is lonely and the station is claustrophobic, more so once a deadly alien is evading capture and targeting the crew one by one. 
While Life wins no prizes for originality, it does have a few aspects that raise it above the level of slavish duplicate. Its central cast of six (including notables like Jake Gyllenhall and Ryan Reynolds) is tight and strong throughout, selling the gravity of the developing situation with their urgently rattled dialogue. The protagonists' lives and personalities are sketched distinctly enough for us to care about them before the plot starts to turn its screws. And when those screws turn, they do so very tightly indeed, particularly in the film's first half; more than one suspense sequence had me curling up in my seat like a wound spring. 
Yes the set-up has been done before, but its execution finds some very original methods, rooted in recognisably contemporary science, to scare the bejeepers out of the paying customers. And the alien's transformation from something apparently benign to a terrifying threat is pretty satisfying too.
The film does pose a few interesting questions about how humans might or should behave on discovering a new life form and about the fine line between scientific inquiry and folly. Really though it's an excuse for some well-crafted Alien-esque thrills, complete with cold sweat and body horror. Get popcorn in - just be careful not to choke on it when things turn nasty.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Film Review - Kong: Skull Island (12)

Is that a monkey?
(I'm about to watch Kong: Skull Island. As someone who loves both the original King Kong and Peter Jackson's 2005 remake/homage, I have reservations about the wisdom of having made this one. Do we need more Kong? Convince me...)
And that was a lot more fun than I'd expected.

Kong, like any other cinema fantasy icon, gets perpetually reinvented. Some of it is genuinely creative, some of it B-movie pap. In the 1960s the giant ape was pitted against mega-lizard Godzilla, in an epic (and very rubbery) monster mash-up. Well that's the route we're taking here, with the movie firmly based within the same storytelling universe as 2014's Godzilla.
Kong: Skull Island is a mash-up of another kind too. Yes it's got the great ape and accompanying prehistoric menagerie of deadly creatures, but by setting itself in 1973 and providing a military element, it's also a Vietnam War movie with overtones of Apocalypse Now. Plus when one character develops a personal vendetta against Kong, it's Captain Ahab versus Moby Dick. But brush aside allusions to classic cinema and literature - this is pulp entertainment through and through.
The story is what you'd expect - a scientific team (headed up by John Goodman) gain funding for an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island. They're accompanied by Samuel L Jackson's army lieutenant and lots of expendable soldiers (who fly in on helicopters that look like so many swattable hornets to an eighty-foot gorilla). Also along for the bumpy ride are Tom Hiddleston's animal tracker and Room's Bree Larson as a self-declared 'anti-war' photographer. It all goes very wrong very fast, with our band of potential victims split up and at the mercy of the location's manifold horrors. 
Let's do the minuses first. The film introduces a lot of characters and doesn't develop many of them beyond monster fodder. Kong and his destructive power are introduced early, with few human performances having proper room to breathe (in any sense). Jackson puts his usual stamp on proceedings and John C Reilly shows up halfway through to act as an entertaining Ben Gunn-style island guide. Hiddleston and Larson, our leading twosome however, never get far beyond stock hero and heroine.  
The script isn't poetry either. Any modern movie deserves sharpness in its writing, rather than a script that never gets beyond 'serviceable'. (Take a leaf out of the Marvel playbook, guys. Apply a bit of A-grade polish to your B-movie plot!)

All that said, the film really succeeds elsewhere. There's a pacy quality to it all, established in a kinetic opening sequence and maintained throughout. Skull Island is a character in itself, its many landscapes created in exquisite detail. Standard Kong features like the ape graveyard and indigenous Skull Island community are recreated with imagination and in the latter case nicely subverted from the rabid savages you might expect. 
But it's the monster-heavy action sequences that really reward your ticket price. Kong demonstrates his kingly credentials in the film's final set-pieces, while the myriad other creatures prove satisfyingly unpleasant. In an era of sometimes slapdash CGI, the human-versus-beastie-versus-even-nastier-beastie interludes are photo-realistic, stunningly complex and cheer-inducing in their execution. If it doesn't have the emotional heft of the Jackson remake, it's bravura stuff nonetheless.
So, why make this movie in the first place? Oh yes - fun. And on that front it most definitely delivers. Count me satisfied.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Film Review - Logan (15)

Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.
After seventeen years and eight films, Hugh Jackman is Logan Howlett, aka Wolverine. And if any Marvel comic fans doubted it, his ninth appearance as the character should surely convince them.
For those of you unfamiliar with the comic-book lore behind the films, let me bring you up to speed in less than one hundred words. Wolverine was formerly one of the X-Men, mutant humans with extraordinary abilities and trained under Professor Charles Xavier (hence the X) to use their powers responsibly, in spite of persecution from the rest of humanity. (It's all a metaphor for how outsiders are treated, whether on grounds of race, nationality or sexuality, see?) Logan's unique ability is rapid self-healing, but experimental surgery by an unscrupulous scientist has provided him with his most memorable feature - adamantine claws that can sprout from his fingertips to wreak hideous damage on aggressors. He's a natural loner, but encouraged by his professorial mentor to team up with the good guys. 
That's the gist. Any help? Good. Let's move on.

Logan is a very different proposition from all the other X-Men/Wolverine films. Happily for non-fans it requires little prior knowledge of the franchise to be enjoyed on its own terms; this is more latter-day western or road movie than super-hero flick and is massively different in tone.

The story is relatively simple. Logan is now the last of the X-Men, lying low and acting as carer for the ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). No other mutants remain, it seems, until Logan and the Professor are united with a strange young girl called Laura who is being hunted down by some heavily-armed and sinister bad-guys. Laura is much more than she initially appears, and in dire need of protection. Logan, more brooding and taciturn than ever before, takes on the role with the greatest of reluctance, and these three generations of mutant-kind go on the run. The results are surprising, shocking even - and for once the trailer gives virtually nothing away. Well played.
If you have an aversion to the primary colours and bam-kerpow action of other Marvel movies, then perhaps Logan is for you. It's a grainy stripped-down version of the X-Men films - sweary, bloody and brutal with a 15 certificate to match. The whole vibe of the film is an adult one. Playing out on a dusty sun-baked Texan backdrop, it reeks of desolation and mortality, with life having taken its toll on both our original heroes. Logan/Wolverine is not healing as well as he used to, each unsought-for fight leaving him sicker and with nastier scars. The Professor is in the throes of dementia, his formidable psychic powers now rendered a terrifying liability. Both actors bring raw conviction to their role, the script servicing their darker portrayal with its borderline nihilism. This is a film about wrestling with your humanity and trying to salvage hope.
The story is rescued from despair by the introduction of the surrogate-family dynamic. Laura (an impressive turn by young Dafne Keen) is no cutesy kid however. In many ways she's a junior version of Logan himself - dark and secret, with her humanity well-buried by her troubled life-experience. When these three generations set off across the Texan desert, their adventures are remarkable and sometimes unforgiving in their intensity. And little Laura is full of jaw-dropping surprises.
Go see Logan for a grown-up experience, fine performances, blood and grit. Its heroes are more human than super, its action harsh and painful. The finished product is all the more striking as a result. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Feature - And the Academy Award Goes To... Ehhhh...

Well we've all had a good chuckle by now I'm sure at the screw-up during last Sunday's 69th Academy Awards. For those of you who avoided the coverage, here's the moment when everyone realised that La La Land had not in fact won in the Best Picture category, and that the award should instead have been given to Moonlight:
It was choice, wasn't it? An image of total head-scratching bewilderment to round off the evening. Come on - yes I know accountants at Price Waterhouse Cooper have received internet death threats as a result of the gaffe (true and very silly), but aside from that, the whole disaster tickles your shadenfreude bone, right? The Oscars is a ceremony of such prestige and - let's be honest - pomposity, that it almost begs undermining. 

However that is not the reason I bring up the incident. 

The Best Picture debacle illustrates something that I've sensed for years - the fundamental meaninglessness of labeling one film as better than all others released in the same calendar year. La La Land is a great big kiss blown to old-time Hollywood musicals, seasoned with a bit of 21st century dramatic grit. Moonlight, from what I gather (haven't seen it yet, bad reviewer!!!), is an intense coming-of-age story, dealing with issues of race, sexuality and addiction. Now how can you make a call between two films so far removed from each other in style and content?  
The history of the Academy Awards is littered with perceived injustices in the top category - from Cavalcade beating King Kong in 1932, to Raging Bull being passed over in favour of Ordinary People in 1980. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say, so we can now see Kong's place in cinema history and argue Scorsese's visceral boxing movie to be his masterpiece, furrowing our brows at how in hell they were passed over for films to which time hasn't been so generous.
Sometimes the Academy's choice reflects ideology - Schindler's List and 12 Years a Slave are both fine films and worthy winners, but can you also imagine the furore if, in their respective years, these films dealing with anti-Semitism and racism hadn't won? And what about this year's winner - Moonlight is very likely a fine piece of film-making (I will see it and duly accept the slap to my wrist), but is its victory partly a corrective to last year's embarrassingly 'white' Academy Awards? If so - will it be a case of 'job done', and will next year demonstrate a swing back to less diversity? Oh the questions, the questions...

Now I'm not suggesting there's no point in the Oscars, or in awards ceremonies in general. Clearly the Academy Awards provide a boost to the American film industry (and to a lesser extent English-language cinema as a whole). It ensures that major studios make more than sequels, remakes and bland genre movies. Every studio executive wants the kudos of having green-lighted (greenlit?) a quality project that receives a nomination or two. And the competition element is a necessary peg on which to hang the whole evening. (Also it benefits the fashion industry hugely; I mean did you see those frocks???) 
Since the Oscars, along with death and taxes, will always be with us, I have two suggestions (which obviously will be noted by those working in the US film industry, such is the octopus-like reach of this blog).

One - as often as possible, reward films that push boundaries, broadening the possibilities of what can be achieved in cinema. Example - in 2014 Birdman beat Boyhood to the punch, but either choice would have been a satisfying one. They both created something that in addition to being well-crafted, was unique. So use the event to promote this kind of experimentation.
Two - don't be so narrow in the range of films nominated. Look beyond the 'Oscar bait' movies pushed by the big studios to little independents struggling for the oxygen of publicity. Here's a personal gripe on that front - the lack of attention given to The Babadook, the first film I reviewed on this blog. It's a low-budget Australian movie marketed firmly within the horror genre. But it also boasts a superb screenplay/superior direction by first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent, glorious production and sound design, ingenious editing and a magnificent central performance by Essie Davis. Did it receive a single Oscar nomination? Well did it? That would be a big clanging NO, folks. Just an example. One of many I could choose.
Okay - so while there's a kind of folly built into stamping one film 'the best of the year', I'm not going to complain about it too much. But people, use the process to boost creativity. To reward the little guy with a big vision. To shake the industry up a bit. Come on, Hollywood, stop patting yourself on the back and sort this stuff out. Then maybe the rest of us won't laugh so much when you mix up the envelopes.