Friday, 23 June 2017

Review: Gifted





Gifted
Cert: 12A / 101 mins / Dir. Marc Webb / Trailer



My local cinema hosted an advance screening of Marc Webb's new movie last week. I was due to go, but plans shifted so that I delayed watching a heartwarming, uplifting tale of sacrifice, perseverance and belief in favour of seeing an old friend and getting blind drunk instead. This decision-making process should indicate that I'm not really the target audience for Gifted, and the rest of this review should be translated accordingly.

In the blue-collar coastal suburbs of Florida, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is the adoptive uncle of orphaned mathematical prodigy Mary (Mckenna Grace), struggling with moving her from homeschooling to mainstream education in a bid to build her social skills and let her enjoy her childhood. But a regular school offers no intellectual challenges, only behavioural ones, and the child's grandmother has other plans for Mary's development...

What begins as an ochre-washed, ukulele driven twee-fest to rival the best of Nicholas Sparks*1, goes through the motions of sighs, tears, revelations, pacing of the courtroom floor, the swelling of the strings-section and hugs before bedtime. The film is efficiently executed, but lacks inspiration all round. Credit where it's due, the central performances by Mckenna Grace and Chris Evans are very strong. They're excellent individually, and the pair have a chemistry in their scenes together which defines the heart of the film. And Gifted does have a heart, it just expresses that through the medium of Hallmark Channel Autopilot™.

As Octavia Spencer's over-protective neighbour, Jenny Slate's wet-blanket of a teacher and Linsday Duncan's meddling grandmother-character dutifully tick off the boxes on their Plot Device Checklist, the problem soon arises that the more secondary/ancillary characters are introduced, the more irreversibly clichéd the while thing becomes. The film sags terribly at around the half-way mark and never manages to regain its composure. Even a shoehorned sequence of 'will Frank make the drive across town before they put the cat to sleep?'*2, is so phoned-in that by the time our hero breathlessly arrives in the vet's backroom murder-chamber, Ginger Fred's basically sitting filing his claws murmuring "Oh, you're here, then?". It's a safe play in a script that was never going to take any risks in the first place.

Also, this loses a point for Frank using 'Legos' as a collective term for pieces of the popular branded construction-set. And if the kid had been as bright as the screenplay makes out, she'd have thoroughly schooled him over that one. Legos. I ask you.


I understand why Evans wanted to do Gifted, of course, and as he's one of the two great things about the movie it's another string to his bow. But as not-inconsiderable as that bow is, the string itself is thoroughly unremarkable…



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Something like Me Before You, probably.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
No, this is made for skipping past on a weekday afternoon when you're looking for something to watch.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Oh, probably.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Well it's the star of The First Avenger and director of Amazing Spider-Man 2, SO HOW ABOUT NO?


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Not one jot.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not one.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: TC-14's in this.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Full disclosure, I'm generalising there. I've never watched any Nicholas Sparks output. Seen plenty of trailers, haven't had the strength to attempt the films themselves though. I seem to recall seeing the promo-reel for The Longest Ride and thinking 'but this looks exactly the same as every other story he's written?'. Then it occurred to me that the target demographic for these movies probably has that precise reaction while I'm two rows away squealing over the latest Marvel trailer, so fair play I suppose... [ BACK ]

*2 Spoiler: of course he does. Although I'd be interested to see one of these flicks where he doesn't. Where the wheels basically fall off everything at the end of Act III, and the final scene features the mentor character talking to their young charge, saying "Yeah, that's life I'm afraid. An unending torrent of inconvenience, loss and pain where everything drifts toward entropy until you're too tired to fight and too numb to care. But hey, there's always bourbon. Whiskey for me, biscuits for you; you're only eight.", then the beaten-car drives off into a sunset while the camera tracks over to a dude wearing a 'the end is nigh' sandwich board and the gun poorly concealed in the pocket of his dirty coat...
And that's why they keep returning my screenplays. [ BACK ]

DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Review: The Mummy





The Mummy (2017)
Cert: 15 / 110 mins / Dir. Alex Kurtzman / Trailer



Hey, I don't mind admitting when I'm wrong. Repeated exposure to the trailers for Universal's 2017 reboot of The Mummy had already convinced me that Sofia Boutella would be the best thing in an otherwise desperate franchise-startup. As it turns out, the French-Algerian kickass dancer and actress is almost wasted in the film, with most of the focus being reserved for Tom Cruise's range of expression*1. But I'm getting ahead of myself…

Anyway, in case you'd been living in a cave, The Mummy is an overhaul of the cinematic-property in general, last gracing our screens under Brendan Fraser's auspices in the 1999+ series. Now set in the present day, our hero is Tom Cruise's Nick Morton, an 'entrepreneur of antiquities' who, with his partner in adventure Chris (Jake Johnson), accidentally wakes up a very angry Egyptian lady (Sofia Boutella's Ahmanet) after stealing a map from a slightly less-angry British archaeologist, Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis)*2. Thrown into the mix is Russell Crowe's London-based research scientist, Dr. Henry Jekyll, anxious to get his hands on the newly-risen queen For Research Purposes™. As you can imagine, there's hell-on.

This of course is the first installment in the new 'Dark Universe' franchise, fresh out of the stable with a suitably hubristic ident following the standard Universal Studios intro. And there are, of course, an utterly shameless number of setups and future callbacks established here, with the studio not only throwing their hat into the continuity ring, but also betting the housekeeping on their eventual outcome. Front and centre of all this is Tom Cruise, leading a film as only he can, gleaming and coiffured in pretty much every scene, with a strategic box-to-stand-on when the need arises.

And you know what? I rather enjoyed this film.
There. I said it.

Having braced myself for the worst (the aforementioned trailers, plus the fact that the movie's been out for almost two weeks here and I hadn't summoned the willpower to walk ten minutes from my house to watch it), it becomes apparent after about fifteen minutes or so that it's not at all bad. I mean sure, it's The Tom Cruise Summer Blockbuster By Numbers Adventure Hour™, but it's bloody good at being that. I've certainly seen far, far worse this year, that's for sure. It helps that the film's a 15 certificate rather than the standard 12A. Things never get gory or even particularly savage, but there's an occasional level of intensity that you can't generally carry off at the lower age-rating*3. Conversely, there's no denying that Tom Cruise brings a lightness of touch to The Mummy which the film (and indeed series, if it's to continue) needs at its outset, in this age of desaturated frowny-destruction. Not all of the gags land in the correct place, but Big Tom has a surprising poker-face when it comes to delivering quips which would make many another actor stumble.

You'd expect this flagship offering to borrow tonally a little from the 1999 film-series, and that it does at first, with a decent amount of restraint. Although the screenplay also steals beats from Indiana Jones, which again is expected/fine. Oh, and The Birds. And Hellraiser. And An American Werewolf in London, The Lost Boys, Shaun of the Dead and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As tribute-acts go, The Mummy has pretty strong game.

As referenced up top there, it's more than a little disappointing that Sofia Boutella has been cast in the antagonist-role as a furious, vengeful sociopath and is then pretty much reduced to padding around in bandages and murmuring threats like a Sexy Mumm-Ra™, while the story revolves around what Tom's currently up to. But I suppose it's The Summer, right? Not Mad Mummy's Murder-Hour™.

Considering quite how generic this opening chapter is in both concept and execution, The Mummy is a pleasing ride. This isn't Universal's big splash, they're just testing the water at the moment. But you just know they've got their moves mapped out, and if the studio can maintain this level of accessible, disposable fun, they might just make their money back. Stranger things have happened…



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Well other than all those movies it riffs on, it's very much .


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
For best effect, probably yes.
The transition to the small screen will not be kind on this movie
.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Against all odds, it pretty much does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
No.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Not one jot.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.
Ridiculous
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: This film stars Sofia Boutella of course, used to far better effect in Kingsman, alongside Mark 'Skywalker' Hamill and Sam 'Windu' Jackson.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Oh, Tom does all of his face in this movie! [ BACK ]

*2 For some reason, the Oxford-born Wallis has apparently forgotten how to do an "Oxford-English" accent, instead slipping into Americanising her character's voice every third scene or so like an overenthusiastic DJ on a regional radio station. This infuriates me with American performers, but it's frankly baffling with an English one… [ BACK ]

*3 Although honourable mentions must go out to The Woman In Black, The Scorch Trials and Miss Peregrine, for showing exactly what you can do with a 12A... [ BACK ]

DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Review: Baby Driver





Baby Driver
Cert: 15 / 113 mins / Dir. Edgar Wright / Trailer



Well okay, this will be a review of two parts: the first is for people who haven't yet seen Baby Driver, the second for those who have. There are no real spoilers in the latter section, but without the context of having seen the film it'll only make limited sense. So, here goes...


The things I liked about Baby Driver…

Baby Driver is the new heist movie from British writer and director Edgar Wright. A smart, funny standalone action flick, it holds stylistic and thematic nods to his previous work, but no narrative ones. The story follows a young, automotively-gifted getaway driver who goes by the name of Baby (Ansel Elgort), and the interaction with his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) as he tries to distance himself from an accomplished criminal career and an ever-changing crew of robbers, killers and outright psychopaths.

So as mentioned above the film is smart, the film is funny and there is plenty of action. While many are hailing this as an antidote to the Fast & Furious franchise, that's an unfair comparison as Baby Driver is a story about people, not machines. The car-chases here serve to drive the story forward, not the other way around. The film's not quite as smooth and zippy as its trailers might suggest, but that's because the promo-reels touch more on the style rather than the substance, and while the film never goes into melodrama mode, Wright carefully builds his central characters along the way, to the point where standoffs and shootouts feel genuinely perilous, rather than the through-the-motions setpieces we've become used to over the years.

The whole thing is also heavily soundtracked of course (more on that below), so if you get overwhelmed by the fast-paced scripting and editing, you can at least tap your along with your foot in the meanwhile.

The Summer-season is turning out to be a bit of a mixed bag. Baby Driver will be one of the highlights. It's great fun, see it soon…



The things which bugged me about Baby Driver…

So, why didn't I love this? Oh I liked it very much, but I'd be hard pushed to go further than that. Part of the problem could be the near-universal praise Baby Driver has had heaped upon it before the film is even on general release. I'm used to my brain wanting to automatically rail against that and find things wrong with a movie, but when it's a filmmaker I admire as much as Edgar Wright it almost becomes personal: 'I know what you're capable of because I've seen you at your best, so impress me - raise the bar'.

But the guy's bar is not only way too high to begin with, it's also beginning to recede into the distance. While I've enjoyed all his big-screen outings, I tend to rank Shaun of the Dead at the top and everything else pretty much on a (only slightly) downward-scale from there. I remember feeling slightly put-out that Wright had left Ant-Man mid-production, not least because I ended up loving that movie and wondered what there was about the final product that he'd disagreed with to the point where he'd quit altogether. So then I look at the tonal in-fighting there is throughout Baby Driver and think 'what was the utopian vision for this movie?', because I don't think the film I watched embodied that. There's a layer of genuine sentimentality across the whole screenplay which is more than welcome, but sits ill-at-ease with the snark and cynicism practiced by the characters. Neither comes across as genuinely as they should in an Edgar Wright movie, and the whole thing shudders as a result.

Speaking of which, the players. Ansel Elgort is refreshingly enjoyable in the central role*1, but still feels essentially miscast. For my money, Michael Cera would have been ideal for this, not least since he'd have had to leave his own comfort-zone as an actor. Lily James is also great to watch as always (although she gets comparatively little to do), but feels a little too clean for the role of a burned-out yet still optimistic waitress. Meanwhile, Kevin Spacey can't quite pass off the hard-edged cynicism he needs to as gang-boss and blasé murderer, Doc. But nor can he bring the warmth to the moments where he shows that he has some genuine fondness for his favourite and long-time driver.

On the plus-side (and with comparatively less screen-time), Jamie Foxx, John Hamm and Eiza González all fantastic as opportunistic career-criminals. Jon Bernthal has a minor role as Jon Bernthal™ but with a beard, which he pulls off with his accustomed ease.

But the biggest bugbear I have with Baby Driver is probably the relentless diegetic soundtrack. It's not that I disliked any of the tracks used*2, nor were songs were shoehorned in (I'm looking at you, DC), or that the idea was feeling strained (ditto, Marvel). More that it's over-used, to the point where a device which is to all intents and purposes a character in itself, loses relevance the closer the film gets to its third-act*3. And having punches, gunshots and explosions synced in time with the soundtrack works in a trailer but becomes distracting throughout an entire film. In fact many of the action sequences have the air of being tweaked in post-production to add more dynamic energy, but have instead come out feeling cluttered.

But for all my grumbling, I should add that it's not a case of 'this film should be better', just 'I should have enjoyed it more'. There were parts of the movie which had me grinning like a lunatic, but there were far more that I found disjointed, or like a work-in-progress from an earlier draft of the script*4.

All of this is me just groping for a way to justify saying that Baby Driver is very good, but not Wright's best work (future or past) by a long shot. But the pre-built hype and my predisposition to enjoy the director's work makes it feel like saying "it's good" isn't enough, somehow. Fully aware I'm in a minority here, although I take no joy from that.

Baby Driver: it's good.



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The film's probably more American Ultra and The Nice Guys than Scott Pilgrim.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Oh, absolutely - it's big and loud and full-on enough to justify the ticket, certainly.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
I think it does, but also that it could have achieved so much more.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's not.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I won't.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Lily James is in this, and she was in that Wrath of the Titans along with Liam 'Qui-Gon' Neeson and Toby 'Additional Voices in The Old Republic' Kebbell.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Regular readers might recall the time Elgort played a terminally-ill teenager who I spent a film's run-time wishing would hurry the fuck up about it all. Although don't get me wrong, I found his character in this film deeply annoying for the first twenty minutes or so. Thankfully two things then happen: 1) we get to know a bit more about him and 2) he tones it down a lot, anyway. [ BACK ]

*2 Serious note though, writer/directors: your taste in music is nowhere near as quirky, clever, cool or interesting as you think it is, I promise you. I've currently got Slayer, Lady Antebellum and Così fan tutte on my iPod, but I wouldn't dream of shoehorning them into a screenplay for geek-points. At the risk of beginning a rant, I'm getting a bit tired of sitting in the cinema and imagining the initial phone call to the producer's office: "Hey guys! I've got a great idea for a soundtrack! …er, I mean film! Yes a film, that's it! I mean both, obviously, whatever…". Going to see an action/hero movie is increasingly becoming like arriving at a party to find one guy guarding the stereo in the corner because he's brought all his own records. And he then insists on describing why he's chosen each one as he goes (this is a broad simile of course; I don't go to parties. And if I find myself at one, I try to stay as far away from All The People as possible). [ BACK ]

*3 And as a slight aside, I should mention that it's explained in the film that Baby suffers from Tinnitus due to a childhood accident and almost constantly plays music 'to drown it out'. While I'd put money on there being some level of personal experience in the writing of his character, members of the audience who also suffer from the hearing disorder will be fully aware that while music is indeed a welcome distraction, the pasttime doesn't replace the humming/ringing/screeching noise, more that the listener gets music plus Tinnitus. Which, over time, leads to more Tinnitus.
Just saying, because that's not addressed in the script... [ BACK ]

*4 And for those of you who've seen the film, is there a significance behind the lack of internet/smartphones? Baby's obsession with cassettes and analogue recording works in the context of the story, but Doc hands out flip-phones to his crew for the duration of each job, and at one point his son Samm is seen with a PSP. I'd thought at first that maybe the film was set in the mid 00s, but since we get a flashback showing a 3-4yr old Baby receiving his first (and 1st-generation) iPod, it's reasonable to assume that took place circa 2001 and the story-proper takes place around sixteen years later, ie now. So is Doc keeping his criminal network nicely undercover by having them use phones that your grandad would get laughed at for using in public? Also ref the iPod, Baby's got a range of different devices all loaded up with different playlists (a nice touch), yet I don't recall seeing him use a computer at all (they ain't going to sync themselves)? I'm hoping there's a PC (with like, thirty user profiles on it) in the background of a shot in his flat, and I just didn't notice it... [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Review: My Cousin Rachel





My Cousin Rachel
Cert: 12A / 106 mins / Dir. Roger Michell / Trailer



Now I haven't read the book of this, but I watched the film with someone who has and that's the next best thing. Burgeoning suspicions as to the original narrative's flow, complexity and undertones were pretty much confirmed by the time Mrs Blackout and I had reached the top of the steps outside the cinema.

Roger Michell's heavy-handed retooling of the Daphne du Maurier mystery/romance novel (coming after several other screen versions, of course), is less of an immersive page-to-screen adaptation and more someone skim-reading the study notes. 106 minutes is by no means a lean running-time, but the tale has so much groundwork to cover that it's tonally all over the place. Characters laugh in one scene, cry in the next and are apparently head-over-heels in love before the ice has melted in your Diet Coke.

And it's not just the running time which is the problem. The film boasts an impressive cast, but they'd be more impressive elsewhere. Sam Claflin is always a joy to watch, yet Michell's script gives his character Philip nothing to emote into, instead turning into a flip-book of obsession and mania. Likewise, Rachel Weisz (as the titular Rachel, no less) is given neither the screenplay nor direction to produce the performance we know she's capable of. Holliday Grainger is completely wasted in a role which essentially becomes a hatstand with a pout, and Iain Glen has been brought in to play The Iain Glen Character™. He does that well, to his credit. Everyone else is in nondescript nineteenth century peasants' clothing, tugging forelocks all the way to the casting office.

But my biggest beef wasn't with the identikit Sunday-Night-Telly performances, sets or scripting, but the fact that this is purported to be a period-set, claustrophobic, psychological thriller mired in moral and emotional ambiguity. What I saw tonight was the director continually shouting his interpretation at the audience, because even he knows the film's too damned butchered to make proper sense of the story.

Looks pretty enough, didn't hate it, wasn't bored by it; just came to dislike both lead characters within about twenty minutes. And when you don't like the protagonists, you don't care what happens to them. You're just sloshing around your Diet Coke and wishing you had more ice…



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
It's a bit Far From the Madding Crowd; a bit Jane Eyre.
Not as good as one, not as bad as the other
.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
No, it's a Sunday night DVD at best.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
I'd say no.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Lord, no.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Probably not, to be fair.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Tim Barlow's in this, and he was in that Hot Fuzz alongside Simon 'Unkar/Dengar' Pegg.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…




DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.