Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Film Review - American Made (15)

Haven't you ever wanted something more, Barry?
Mention Tom Cruise and it's not normally his films people start discussing. But films are what this blog is all about, so there's only question to ask: 'Is this latest TC star vehicle any good?' Simple answer: 'It's up there with his best.'
Cruise plays Barry Seal - a real-life product of American capitalism, who in the 1970s and '80s became an airborne delivery guy for just about anyone who would hire him - no matter how dubious the cargo. Pitched as a combination of fact and fiction, American Made has a sufficient foundation in truth to make it truly astonishing. Any embellishments can be put down to the aura of legend surrounding the real-life figure. 
The film opens with Barry as a long-serving airline pilot, grown bored with his career. When approached with an opportunity to serve the US government by CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan, being excellent - again), Seal takes to the skies in a light aircraft and ends up making very different kinds of delivery to Central and South America. Nor do his career developments end there. Certain shady Columbian businessmen want to enlist Barry's flying services too, and out of lust for both life and money, he proves only too willing. Cue a series of freewheeling amoral adventures in sky and on land, with Barry risking everything to sustain a lavish new lifestyle.
The pleasures of American Made are considerable. Cruise has worked with director Doug Liman before on the thrilling Edge of Tomorrow and the rapport they've developed is apparent here throughout. The Mission: Impossible star is at his most authentic, mixing Seal's devil-may-care verve with a growing sense of desperation and weariness. Combine that with the fact that Cruise does all his own flying stunts and it makes Barry a much more dynamic and appealing character than he has any right to be. 
Speaking of dynamism, the whole film is a fine-tuned and pacy piece of storytelling, reminiscent of Martin Scorsese at his sharply-edited best. (Think of Goodfellas or Wolf of Wall Street with their autobiographical framework, use of voiceover and wildly veering plot developments.) The dialogue is funny and smart to match, while the action sequences are tense and exhilarating. Along with Gleeson we have Sarah Wright, adding convincing support as Barry's loyal but morally compromised wife Lucy. The family scenes flesh out Barry as a character, only adding to our conflicted feelings about the guy.
The movie also has a satisfying satirical edge. Seal's double-dealing with US governmental agencies and Columbian criminals reveals a lot about American foreign policy during the Reagan era and about their attitude to the so-called 'war on drugs'. The storytelling is inter-cut at points with genuine news footage, tying action to the divisive international politics of the time. Barry's tale is of one man flying in the currents of much wider events, even if he's only interested in his own personal gain.

American Made is part biopic, part tall tail, but it's all entertaining. It's have-your-cake-and-eat-it stuff, serving as a critique of the politics of supply and demand, while making Barry's wild ride, complete with insane stunt-flying, seem very exciting indeed. We really shouldn't like this man - but we kind of can't help it.
Gut Reaction: Laughter and cringing in tension. One explosion of mirth at the craziest escapade. At least one out-of-seat moment.

Ed's Verdict: An outrageous tale part truth, part legend, this serves as a wild anti-heroic adventure with some dramatic meat on its bones.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Film Review - The Hitman's Bodyguard (15)

I will bust a cap in your ass.
When I saw the (relatively spoiler-free) trailer for this film, I was mildly enthused. Yes, I thought, this might be an undemanding hundred minutes' worth of summer entertainment. A solidly made popcorn-flick with plenty of funny one-liners. Oh how wrong can a cinema-goer be? Ironically after my most recent spoiler-related blog feature, it's one of those cases where the trailer is as good as (or indeed somewhat better than) it gets.
Let me make this quick and painless so as not to waste your time. The Hitman's Bodyguard is a comedy action thriller (a potentially toxic genre-mix at the best of times), with Ryan Reynolds as bodyguard Michael Bryce. He protects people for a living. Then there's Samuel L. Jackson as Darius Kincaid - cool name, cool customer - who kills people for a living. They're long-time nemeses, but fate is going to lob them together. Kinkaid needs to testify against a former dictator (Gary Oldman) in the Hague, and Bryce unwillingly lands the job as his protector. Oh the mis-matched-duo comedy high-jinx that will ensue...
Both leads play up totally to their established movie personas here. Reynolds is detached and ironic, Jackson cheerfully foul-mouthed, with much use of his favourite polysyllabic swearword. You know the one. Their characters remain at that paper-thin level throughout. Yes the banter and violent slapstick is occasionally funny, but it's much more often tiresome. And as for the morality of the whole thing - well, that doesn't bear a whole lot of scrutiny. 
Bodyguard Bryce protects people, but they're often undesirables, which is why others want them dead. Fair point, worth making. Hitman Kinkaid dispatches people, but only bad guys, due to his code - you know, the one murderers-for-hire always have. So we like him, see? He's a dude, despite all the people he's killed. He loves his wife (Salma Hayak, so granted, he would) and he dispenses worldly wisdom and relationship advice to the people he hasn't killed. He's Samuel L Jackson, see, from all those other films, so we forgive him everything. More than that, we embrace him as a hero. 
That I could almost swallow in a better written film that wasn't tonally all over the place - because tone is a serious issue here. This is meant to be, at its core, a buddy comedy with big laughs and helter-skelter action. It contains, however, a huge amount of graphic bloody death among the quips, almost all of it throwaway with quite a few fatalities played openly for laughs. The latter is well-worn Quentin Tarantino territory, but this has none of elements that at least add a bit of substance to QT's work. Then there are the murders carried out in the past by Oldman's nasty dictator character. Those we're meant to feel bad about, likewise the pain of his victims' families, but not enough to get distracted from the - ahem - hilarious comedy mayhem.
It's a big mess and it's fundamentally shallow on every level.

Plus points - some good action, some good tunes and occasional moments where the in-car repartee cracks a smile. Also Hayak unleashes a few entertaining verbal tirades and the Netherlands locations look quite stunning. But the rest is rubbish. 
Basically if you want to see an action film this summer that has its game together, go watch Atomic Blonde. Yes it's uncompromisingly brutal, but at least it doesn't mix dark political violence with zippy dialogue and use violent death as a punchline. And it's not wretchedly boring either. Just saying.
Gut Reaction: Vague discomfort along with a few weak and quickly-diminishing laughs. Sleep beckoned at one point.

Ed's Verdict: Predictable, tiresome and a brand of bad taste that's not even leavened by any intelligence. One to forget.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Feature - Spoilerific 2 (Film Trailers)

Careful sweetie. Spoilers!
Okay - I accept that film and TV spoilers are the definition of First World Problems. I assure you at the outset that I am much more angry about political extremism, gender inequality and climate change denial. But still, spoilers... Grrrrrrrrrrrrr!
I made the point in my first article on the subject (click here) that no review can be truly spoiler-free. Even the most vague comments made by the reviewer are preempting the cinema experience on some level. I did promise, however, to go as light on plot developments in my own reviews as I possibly can. Imagine my irritation then on attending a film screening (to some extent for your benefit and edification, lovely blog-readers), when I am dumped upon by a succession of spoiler-heavy film trailers. 
Think about it. Yes the internet is a great seething swamp of spoilerific material (along with dubious political opinions, conspiracy nonsense and porn). But you can avoid it until you've viewed the entire Game of Thrones season or seen The Walking Dead through to its inevitably messy conclusion. No one is forcing you to read all that killjoy stuff. Likewise you can delete those naughty individuals from your Facebook and Twitter accounts, who drop spoilers unannounced into your feed. You can shut friends up mid-sentence by remonstrating 'No no no, don't tell me don't tell me don't tell me!' and making stern or beseeching gestures with your hands.
When you're stuck mid-cinema row, however, hemmed by with nacho and cola-laden fellow audience members, there's really nothing to be done. In such circumstances you're fundamentally screwed on a spoiler-avoidance level. It's a regular and disheartening experience, hence my now tired joke following some over-demonstrative film trail: 'Well, I don't have to go and see that one now'.

There's an art to the good trailer and some exponents of the trade seem to have mastered it. They succeed in being elusive, weaving together images from the movie out of sequence to provide its flavour while giving nothing essential away. The more mainstream the title, it seems, the less likely that this will be the case. To their credit the Star Wars people have it down; they know how to tantalise their fan-base without telling much of anything about the plot. However Marvel's recent Spiderman: Homecoming trailer pretty much laid out Peter Parker's entire character arc in the film. 
And there are worse offenders than that.

Brief case study - the 2015 film Brooklyn. Adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn tells of Eilis, a young woman in 1950s Ireland, who is forced by circumstance to travel to Brooklyn, New York, in search of employment. There she is caught between her longing for home and the allure of a new, thriving city with all its romantic potential. 
What follows is a very enjoyable and poignant story about the conflict between your origins and where you want your life to go. That's all you really need to know plot-wise. But the people who made the trailer don't think so. God no. They think you're so stupid as an audience member that you need the entire story mapped out, before you could possibly be interested enough to watch the film. 

This is what the Brooklyn trailer reveals (If you haven't seen the movie or read the book, avoid the next paragraph. I'm venting here to enlist the sympathy of those who do know the story.):
Eilis meets and falls for a nice guy in Brooklyn and is happy. Their romance is going well. Then her mother speaks to her on the phone and asks her to come home after what is clearly a devastating family tragedy. She goes back and meets another equally nice guy in her native Ireland who she also likes. She's torn between two potential lovers, but which one will she choose
Now I've seen Brooklyn and all of that takes us in linear fashion within ten minutes of the film's ending. Yes there's lots of character nuance and dialogue and other stuff to enjoy, but hell's bells, plotwise that's the whole show! The trailer has left us with nothing except the final outcome, which we could probably guess anyway from the succession of shots included. Do the marketing team really think we need to know about a story's big third-act crisis, before we could possibly be interested in the story they're selling? What species of imbecile do they actually think we are?
Spoiler avoidance is a high-stakes game for those of us invested in film. (Not imminent thermonuclear warfare kind of high, I grant you, but in its own little way it still matters!!!) Options are limited. Perhaps your local cinema allows you to pre-select specific seats, in which case you can sneak in right before the film begins and avoid the trailers altogether. If you're not provided this luxury, however, and need to install yourself before the theatre fills up, then I can only suggest you demolish the contents of a super-sized popcorn bucket and place the newly emptied container over your head. (Or simply stick your fingers in your ears, avert your gaze and hum. I've actually been known to do this and I'm not ashamed.) 
The 21st Century is rife with extemism, injustice and steadily shrinking ice caps. And to crown it all, those ruddy tell-all trailers aren't going anywhere. World we live in, eh? One of spoilerific hell. I mean - is this really what we're leaving for our children?

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Film Review - Atomic Blonde (15)

I chose this life, and someday it's going to get me killed. But not today.
Atomic Blonde is one of the better surprises of the summer - a bruising spy thriller set in late-80s Berlin, which cements Charlize Theron's reputation as a formidable action heroine. Neither its plot or its dialogue are particularly fresh, but the style, the action sequences and that central performance do a hell of a lot to compensate.
Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy enlisted to retrieve a stolen list of double-agents, which threatens to extend the Cold War. Days before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall she arrives in the city, armed with impressive combat skills and the mantra 'trust no one'. It's good advice - from the off she finds her life vigorously under threat. There's a mole in the system (there's always a mole) and to complicate matters a Stasi officer (Eddie Marsan), who has memorized the list, is trying not to get killed before defecting to the West. Our girl has her work cut out, but damn, is she up to the task.
Atomic Blonde is for starters a wonderful-looking film. Berlin circa 1989 is filtered steely-blue and lit with neon. This is a frost-bitten city with a sexy, dangerous night-life, its cold beauty caught in each shrewdly-directed frame. Lorraine fits right in. Her character is ripped bloody and ruthless from graphic novel The Coldest City and is associated very literally with ice from the earliest scenes. Her look is instantly iconic (smoking hasn't appeared this cool in a long time), but this is more than mere fetishization. What Theron brings to the role is truly astonishing...
That this woman is a face-crunching, bone-cracking force of nature never feels in doubt. In the fight sequences - some abrupt and efficient, others long and gruelling - her chilly poise gives way to something focused and feral. The camera refuses to cut away either. No multi-shot trickery here - the hand-to-hand combat is brutal, and choreographed with panache. A chase sequence through the streets of Berlin is filmed in the same unflinching style. Theron matches the production team with her commitment in every scene. 
Nor is the film any James Bond rip-off. There's Cold War intrigue along with an element of romance utterly appropriate to the central character. Toby Jones and John Goodman supply the John Le Carre-style spy elements and James McAvoy has a whale of a time as Theron's sleazy Berlin contact. Atomic Blonde also comes in second to Baby Driver for Top Summer Playlist, its action pumped up with a stream of Euro-hits from the era. 
With the tumbling of the Wall as historical background, this movie is both nostalgic and state-of-the-art. It's very violent (am I getting that across?), but in a darkly gratifying way. Theron rises above tawdry male fantasy and becomes a bona fide action hero. Aloof super-spy Lorraine Broughton deserves, like Bond, to be back.
 Gut Reaction: Increased vital signs, adrenaline rush in the latter stages accompanied by much wincing.

Ed's Verdict: Atomic Blonde's use of spy tropes manages to be both standard and confusing; it's an undeniably exhilarating experience though, and Charlize Theron (I've tried to avoid saying it) kicks ass.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Film Review - An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (PG)

Couldn't you hear what Mother Nature was screaming at you?
The 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth (yes, it was that long ago) dealt with one-time US Vice-President Al Gore's struggle to raise awareness on the issue of climate change. It was structured around the touring presentation, in which he attempted to persuade audiences on the link between human activity and global warming. The picture painted was a bleak and frightening one.
The most striking thing about this new Inconvenient Sequel is that the argument is treated from the beginning as won and lost. The first section of the film counters the naysayers who criticised the claims made in the original, by focusing on instances of extreme weather during the intervening period. The footage is needless to say alarming. Statistical evidence is also provided regarding very recent rises in global temperature. That's it. Climate denial is dismissed here with an irritation similar to that of Professor Brian Cox during recent debates on the topic. Here's the evidence, both men appear to be saying, the bulk of climate scientists are agreed on the nature of the problem, now can we get on with solving it?
The solving is what we've arrived at, according to Gore, whose decade-long efforts in recruiting a worldwide squad of young climate activists is also chronicled here. A very real solution is in place due to tumbling cost of renewable energy sources, and global will exists following the creation of the 2016 Paris Climate Accord, with one high-profile exception. (Yes, Donald Trump does feature briefly in the documentary as a kind of minor villain - the sort who gets dispatched without much fanfare midway through a Game of Thrones season. The overall tide of history, we are assured, will wash such skeptics away.)
An Inconvenient Sequel replaces the comparative dynamism of the first film with something more pragmatic, culminating in an appeal for widespread use of renewable energy sources over fossil fuels and for campaigning at a community level. It deals in some depth with the politicking required, leading up to and during the Paris climate talks, particularly the question of whether developing nations can be expected to forego the 150 years of fossil fuel usage that First World nations have already enjoyed. While such tricky issues can only be sketched out here, the film does seem to provide some credible answers.
There are moments to genuinely move, some involving individuals caught up in the freak weather incidents of recent years, others dealing with the stalling of the climate talks by the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015. Gore comes across as both passionate and compassionate throughout, as well as highly articulate, and if the whole thing comes across as slightly too much of his show, he's surely earned it through decades of commitment to this particular cause. 
Coming away from An Inconvenient Sequel there are two sequences that stayed with me. One is a conversation between Gore and a conservative Texan mayor who has embraced the challenge of renewable energy, suggesting the possibility of an issue that can transcend partisan politics. The other is the aftermath of the Paris attacks, when the organisers of the climate conference redoubled their efforts to achieve a consensus. As Gore says in his commentary, it's difficult express in words the connection between the two events, but on an instinctive and ideological level there does seem to be one. Destructive acts in the name of a spurious cause only highlight the need to take positive action in the name of a constructive long-term purpose.
Perhaps this is the biggest achievement of this follow-up documentary. Moving account of the Paris events aside, An Inconvenient Sequel takes a primarily businesslike approach to updating the climatic situation. This is about providing pertinent information rather than trying to score points for innovative film-making. What the movie does do is to create a sense of realistic hope as an alternative to the despair, and to provide global perspective in the face of petty nationalistic concerns. Yes climate change is happening and the chorus of dissent at that news is becoming weaker. But it's also true that the technologies are now available and affordable to limit the damage. This can be a good-news story. 
Gut Reaction: Quietly engrossed throughout. Spine-tingling sense of uplift at the end.

Ed's Verdict: For its message and for its insight into political process, this timely sequel is an unignorable watch. 

Friday, 11 August 2017

DVD/Blu-ray Review Salad - Four Reviews in One!

Back in December I bewailed my own film-watching deficiencies in a post entitled Films I Missed in 2016. Well I've been catching up on a daily basis aboard my exercise bike (movies viewed translate into miles pedalled). Here for your edification are the results. All titles were 2016 UK cinema releases. 

1. Sing Street (12A)
Rock and Roll is a risk.

Gist - A young student at a dire Christian Brothers' school in 1980s Dublin promises the girl he likes that she can star in his band's music video. He then has to form the band... 
Good Stuff - A funny, sweet script in a coming-of-age tale to remember. The band's songs are original '80s-style tunes in their own right. Of a great cast Jack Reynor is the stand-out, as older-brother/stoner life-coach Brendan. You'll root for Conor and relish his musical journey. It's real and it's wish-fulfillment all at the same time.  
Best Scene - The '80s parody Riddle of the Model music video.
Down Side? - The ending is a bit divisive. I rolled with it easily, because I'd enjoyed the rest so much. 

2. Hell or High Water (15)
We ain't stealin' from you. We're stealin' from the bank.

Gist - Good brother Toby (Chris Pine) asks bad brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help him rip off a series of small-town banks in their native Texas. He has his reasons. Jeff Bridges is the Texas Ranger charged with tracking them down.
Good Stuff - A lean contemporary Western-cum-road-movie with moral weight and insight into modern rural America. Bridges rocks it as the grizzled ranger and Pine is as you've never seen him before, not just because of his handlebar moustache. The country-blues soundtrack is the sort of gutsy music Hugo Duncan should be playing on his Radio Ulster show. And the ending is spot-on.
The Best Scene - Bridges' exchange with the waitress in the T-Bone Cafe. Absolutely priceless.
The Down Side? - Nope, got nothing.

3. Captain Fantastic (15)
I tell the truth to my kids. I don't lie to my kids.

Gist - Viggo Mortensen plays Ben, a Marxist-hippy-intellectual-survivalist-father-of-six bringing up his kids deep in the forests of Washington state. When a family bereavement drags them all back into civilisation, these highly literate kids-of-the-wild find themselves hopelessly out of their element...  
Good Stuff - This is a bizarre/funny/tragic original culture-clash story, that begs a host of questions about parenting choices and the nature of modern Western culture. The weighty themes are offset by the warmth, humour and truth of the family interactions. Viggo is somewhere between hero and deranged madman, while the kids are all splendid. George McKay (sensitive eldest son) and Shree Crooks (precocious youngest daughter) are stand-outs.  
Best Scene - How to make an entrance at a funeral.
Down Side? - The themes and characters are so rich with potential that this really would need a TV series to explore it all fully.

4. The Revenant (15)
As long as you can grab a breath, you fight.

Gist - DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a tracker on a fur-trading expedition in 1820s North American wilderness. When things go horrifically wrong, he finds himself in an excruciating struggle for survival, motivated chiefly by his lust for revenge.
Good Stuff - Based at least in part on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass, this is authentic throughout. It's shot in natural light and every frame is gorgeous; even when the human behaviour gets brutally ugly, the wilderness inspires awe. DiCaprio earns his Oscar by reliving much of Glass's cruel survival experience, while Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson provide strong support. It's all surprisingly moving as well. 
Best Scene - The one with the bear. You've possibly heard about it, but the experience is a whole other matter.
Down Side? - Some people have problems with the mystical element. They should look up 'revenant' in a dictionary.

There you are - because 2016 had more interesting films than I can review in-depth. There are a lot of others I need to cover. Better get back on that bike...

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Film Review - Spider-Man: Homecoming (12A)

Can't you just be a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?
Spidey's back! I know - he's never really been away, but this time around there's a youthful twist to the character. Yes, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were young, but they weren't such a believably gawky high-school kind of young. Here it's the UK's Tom Holland who wriggles into the iconic costume, combining noble intentions with teenage folly. The results are crowd-pleasing from first to last.
Holland's Spider-Man made his inaugural appearance in last year's splendid Captain America: Civil War, the events of which act as something of a prologue to this film. Enlisted by billionaire entrepreneur Tony Stark (aka Ironman) to take sides in said civil war, Peter Parker now views himself as an apprentice Avenger - a Stark 'intern' who now has to prove himself so he can become a fully fledged member of the team. This he must do while keeping his grades up along with his place on the school quiz team, and trying to impress the girl he likes (naturally well out of his league). Oh, and he must keep his super-alias a secret of course, from all but his best buddy Ned.
Stark exhorts him to keep his crime-fighting activities modest rather than punching above his limited weight. But sinister events are afoot in Peter's native New York borough of Queens, and he can't resist taking on some heavyweight bad-guys, whatever his mentor's advice.
The joy of this new incarnation is that Spider-Man is a superhero in the making - more boy than man, with a sometimes flailing lack of control over his recently acquired powers. Holland is hugely winning as the student, despite an over-enthusiasm that can create more trouble than it prevents. There's an endearing clumsiness to even his best efforts. This is a school movie too, and anyone who enjoyed the John Hughes films of the '80s will feel more than a little nostalgic here. (Think Duckie in Pretty in Pink if he could shoot webbing and climb walls.) 
Spider-Man: Homecoming contains multiple other pleasures. The rapport between Peter and his awestruck pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) produces some entertaining exchanges, while his relationship with mentor Stark - Robert Downey Jnr coasting in the role he's made his own - is possibly funnier. Michael Keaton brings conviction and menace to a much more grounded supervillain than we're used to (ironic, since he can fly). The action sequences play out on a well-utilised backdrop of iconic New York (and in one case Washington) landmarks, and the whole thing has a comic-book vitality to it. It's fast-paced and full of primary colours to match Spidey's suit.
If there's one flaw it's that the whole enterprise is just too fast and crammed with incident; sometimes it would do well to catch its breath. Also the cross-over elements from the Marvel shared universe will bewilder casual viewers, although Tony Stark's innovations to Spidey's costume provide a fun new aspect to proceedings. 

Overall it's great family-friendly summer fun - shrugging itself free of all darker elements in a fit of youthful zest. This Spider-Man does whatever a spider can, albeit with hilarious ineptitude.
Gut Reaction: Considerable laughter, mildly accelerated vital signs and one satisfying moment of 'Did not see that coming.'

Ed's Verdict: A welcome light-spirited and joke-filled addition to the Marvel Universe canon. Tom Holland is the likeable fresh face of Spider-Man.