Chris at the Pictures

Friday, 18 August 2017

'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets' - Review

8/18/2017 10:51:00 pm
'Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets' - Review

★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Luc Besson barely avoids going full Wachowski in this overstuffed sci-fi adventure. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne star as special operatives Valerian and Laureline, a bickering will-they-won’t-they duo charged with uncovering a massive disturbance at the heart of a vast space metropolis, home to countless sentient species.

The production design of Valerian is almost worth the ticket price by itself: seemingly limitless aliens, spaceships, locations and future tech are immaculately rendered and displayed with absolutely eye-popping abandon…but boy, is it tiring. This overload has been praised by some as ‘ambitious’, but I don't see the ambition in simply throwing everything at the screen. Besson’s crowded frame occasionally resembles a lumpen mixture of John Carter (can’t help feeling like a rip-off despite existing decades prior to the properties it calls to mind) and Jupiter Ascending (a ‘visionary’ director equipped with more money than sense). Nowhere is this better demonstrated in a chase sequence which kickstarts the second act: if Valerian’s ship didn’t look like a Poundland Millennium Falcon, it’d be impossible to pick out from the surrounding visual soup.

For all the ocular wonder and visible diversity, the political attitude of progression and multiculturalism (a beam-worthy montage of humans greeting a myriad of alien representatives to the tune of Bowie’s Space Oddity opens the film) is upset by a disappointing tang of misogyny in the aftertaste. Delvingne is very poorly served by a script that requires Laureline to be rescued a lot and complain about Valerian’s inability to commit, all the while her suitor cracks jokes about her inability to drive. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that her name has been dropped (the original comic series was titled Valerian et Laureline) by a director who says women “look so fragile”, and by a film that’s more devoted to its hero than his supposed equal, never mind the audience.

DeHaan remains a bit of a charisma vacuum for me, and watching Rihanna as an alien stripper (don’t ask) running rings around him before being swiftly booted from the plot only served to exacerbate the disconnect. Once the crooning popstar and Ethan Hawke as her pimp, Jolly, have left the picture, Clive ‘Hand me another slice of ham’ Owen is the only one apparently having any fun beyond the halfway mark. We certainly aren’t.

Monday, 7 August 2017

'The Emoji Movie' - Review

8/07/2017 01:44:00 pm
'The Emoji Movie' - Review

In the closing moments of Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, our heroine, Anna, is close to death. Flayed alive in pursuit of the sight of God, she is presented to her captor, Mademoiselle. She leans in close to Anna, who whispers illegibly. Shortly afterwards, the matriarch commits suicide. Critics and fans have spent almost a decade wondering what Anna could have possibly said to drive her captor to self-destruction. With the release of The Emoji Movie, we finally know: “Do the Emoji Pop!”

Sunday, 6 August 2017

'47 Meters Down' - Review

8/06/2017 03:33:00 pm
'47 Meters Down' - Review
★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆  

Murky, cheap, and laden with an oxygen supply-to-dialogue ratio to make critics of Gravity rethink their entire being, 47 Meters Down is a throwaway piece of sharksploitation from British director Johannes Roberts (Storage 24, The Other Side of the Door). Mandy Moore and Claire holt star as two American holidaymakers dumped onto the seabed when the winch holding their diving cage in place is broken. 

Upon leaving the screening, an elderly gentleman from a few rows in front turned and exclaimed “Leaves you gasping for breath, doesn’t it?!”. My usual social ineptitude stopped me from responding with anything more than a polite chuckle, rather than the disparaging “I wish!” that later occurred.

The earlier comparison to Gravity wasn’t an entirely flippant observation: both Cuaron and Roberts focus on two people struggling in an inhospitable environment, cast adrift from help and with a limited supply of air. Stylistically, however, they couldn’t be more different, despite the latter’s attempt to copy the former. The frame is a grim soup that resembles dishwater more than seawater and the editing is all fast, choppy takes to try and cover-up the lack of a visual effects budget. It even (clumsily and awkwardly) mimics the outside-to-inside camera transition of the space helmets, but with scuba masks.

But what truly tugs the film into the abyss of awfulness is its script; an endless train of repeated dialogue that seems indistinguishable from an audio-described version produced for the blind. Moore and Holt are discernible from each other only by one’s characterization as ‘the cool one’ and the other as ‘the scared one’, their individual arcs (a word used in its loosest possible definition) as predictable as the tides. A hideously contrived and signposted twist (that had a fellow patron and I sighing and shaking our heads in perfect unison) is the final viscus in the chum bucket.

Obviously, the high watermark for any shark movie is Jaws, but the problem with 47 Meters Down isn’t that it’s not Jaws, it’s that it’s not The Shallows. Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2016 hit was a nippy, well-directed thriller with nail-biting scares, eye-watering injury detail and an actual visual identity; three components totally lacking here. The most one could salvage from the experience is certainty that, in the not-too-distant future, 47 Meters Down will end up on the SyFy channel during a Sunday afternoon, and give someone expecting the sort of dreck produced by The Asylum a pleasant surprise.

Friday, 21 July 2017

'Dunkirk' - Review

7/21/2017 11:06:00 pm
'Dunkirk' - Review
★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Christopher Nolan completes his ticking clock trilogy with this unutterably gripping World War 2 thriller. As with the dilated dream-spaces of Inception and the ruthless relativity of Interstellar, time is the enemy in Dunkirk; for the 400,000 allied soldiers trapped on the beach, the fleet of civilian ships headed to the rescue and the Spitfires low on fuel. Fionn Whitehead (a soldier), Mark Rylance (a sailor) and Tom Hardy (a Spitfire pilot) take centre stage of each setting, their fight to survive tracked across a week, a day and an hour, respectively.

There’s an age-old anecdote from those who’ve worked with George Lucas that his repeated command during the re-shooting of a scene is “faster, more intense”. Capturing that perfect rush as an object hurtles past the camera, that jolt in the throat when a detonation rocks the screen and the soaring of the soul as a duel to the death reaches climax is a jewel often mined but rarely refined in current action fare. Dunkirk, however, shines effervescent. We are dropped, thrown and shoved into each situation in the blink of an eye, and every time the brief expulsion of breath that comes with the release of tension is cut off by the next gasp. Visceral doesn’t begin to cover it.

Explosions are something of a rarity in Nolan’s back catalogue, but always a striking incident. Think of Gotham hospital in The Dark Knight, the crippling of the Endurance in Interstellar: jaw-dropping moments that project pure awe and horror because they’re such an anomaly. With hell raining down from all sides in all three separate narratives here, a slowly encroaching numbness might well be expected. Expected, yes. Delivered, no. The fifteenth divebombing by a Messerschmitt is as terrifying as the first.

One thinks of virtual reality as a medium now diminishing in size (from streamlined headsets to phone screens), but not for Nolan. An experience that places you on the ground, in the air and in the water feels instantly at home on the big screen, and unimaginable anywhere else. It’s as if – in his quest to preserve the sanctity of theatrical presentation – Nolan has deliberately ensured that Dunkirk can only work on a canvas larger than your house.

The director’s paintbrush is Hoyte Van Hoytema, whose cinematography (particularly the aerial work) is truly spellbinding. As the Dutch-Swedish maverick switches effortlessly from handheld staggering to cockpit-cam delirium, you find yourself subconsciously panting as Whitehead and Harry Styles (who proves his acting mettle, and then some) scramble across the deck of a sinking ship, or tipping your head as Hardy’s plane turns into a deft spin.

Which, if you’ll forgive me, brings matters to a personal note: towards the end of the film comes a pure, unfiltered ode to the Spitfire. More specifically, an homage to a craft that served at Dunkirk and flew from Duxford airfield, where my grandfather served as a flight rigger. To see such an icon of our family history projected onto an IMAX screen, freed from behind the ropes and bollards of a museum, is a moment I will never forget. In a film composed purely of indelible images, that’s no mean feat.

Hoytema’s visuals and Zimmer’s nail-biter of a score speak louder than any screenplay, and Nolan knows this, appropriately offering the slimmest script of his oeuvre. His cast aren’t performers, they’re people, free of grandstanding or clunky exposition. Kenneth Branagh’s blindsided Commander Bolton has the most coherent dialogue to deliver, laced with just enough stiff-upper-lip authenticity to remind us of Dunkirk as a uniquely British story.

I’m not normally one for patriotism, but that we can claim a World War 2 disaster film as the most terrifyingly thrilling spectacle in years is a source of enormous pride, especially given the scarcity of cinema designed to make you gasp, cry and pray all at the same time. Like Nolan's best work, his new masterpiece ends on a sense of oncoming awe, the expectation of greatness still to come. Who are we to doubt him now?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

'War for the Planet of the Apes' - Review

7/20/2017 05:09:00 pm
'War for the Planet of the Apes' - Review
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Matt Reeves’ concluding chapter to one of the finest series of the decade is a work of such staunch drama and allegory that a more apt title might be The Passion of the Apes. The film begins fifteen years after the first outbreak of the simian flu that all-but wiped out humanity and enhanced the intelligence of Earth’s ape population. What remains of mankind has become radicalised against their evolutionary superiors, whilst Caesar (the ever-incomparable Andy Serkis) still fights to retain peace for his kind. After an early encounter by a zealous Colonel (Woody Harrelson) the apes flee their hiding spot for pastures new. A vengeful Caesar, accompanied by the conscientious orangutan, Maurice, and a mute human girl they find along the way, heads for a final confrontation with the military.

For a title prefixed by War, there’s not a great deal of fighting in the film. The movie is bookended by an out-of-control ambush and sequences of snowbound devastation, but the central conflict is a psychological and ideological one. As the series has gained traction and trust with the audience, the spectacle has become muted, with the drama and (not always subtle) political-historical allusions taking centre stage. Even the script (which must reach less than a hundred lines in total) is hushed, with the apes communicating in sign language and Caesar having very little to say to his human foes. Any exposition is tucked into the opening titles, and it’s the haggard Harrelson that does most of the shouting. “So emotional!” an exclamation he screams at Caesar, and one that we echo upon leaving the cinema.

That this approach works for a modern audience at all speaks volumes about the previous films (Rupert Wyatt’s hearty Rise and Reeves’ own Dawn) and their ability to make an audience invest in a cast of not only animals, but entirely digital confections inhabiting a world also containing real humans. Caesar and the apes are not CG action figures placed at the forefront for mere fantastical thrills: they’re characters. As admirable as the efforts of Duncan Jones’ much under-appreciated Warcraft were in trying to forge a connection between us and the non-human Orcs, I never found myself thinking “I’d better not have to watch Durotan die with my own two eyes, I swear to god”. In War, this exact sentiment emerged constantly with regards to Maurice, Caesar and even Bad Ape, a new character played with impeccable energy and comic timing by Steve Zahn.

I know everyone's already made the comment about Serkis’ lack of awards to the point where it’s harder to find people who don’t think he deserves some kind of official recognition, but seriously, this is getting silly now. There are moments in War where Caesar’s face is so flawlessly rendered, so bristling with scars, matted hair and dried blood (and so close to the camera), one can practically feel his breath. There’s no pointy-pointy 3D (though the film is available in stereoscopic format), just years of painstaking technological development and an actor of such strength that his ferocity and anguish shine through layer-upon-layer of pixel power.

Caesar’s pain and regret are mainstays of the film (if you haven’t gathered thus far, this isn’t a bombastic romp of an action movie), and their resolution may feel a tad clich├ęd to some. It’s an easily forgivable misstep given everything else War has given us (empathetic characters, stunning visuals, jaw-dropping visual effects, considered pacing, emotional investment). Oh, and that stuff I said in my Spider-Man: Homecoming review about Michael Giacchino’s apparent fatigue of late? Forget it. His score for War contains maybe the most staggering cue he’s ever composed. 

The closing moments do tread a thin line between appropriate and predictable, but do so with grace and maturity, presenting a glorious finale that provides a bang (like Rise) and whimper (like Dawn) combo that, in the same magnificent instant, call to mind David Attenborough and David Lean. 

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

'Spider-Man: Homecoming' - Review

7/05/2017 05:33:00 pm
'Spider-Man: Homecoming' - Review
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
“Not another Spider-Man reboot!” I hear you moan, as the third iteration of the wall-crawler in a decade (now played by young British star, Tom Holland) gains his first lone outing. I totally sympathise. The apprehension that the character has been wrung dry by Sony/Marvel in such a short time is understandable, but surprisingly baseless here. If anything, the previous versions have been a blessing: audiences are now so familiar with Peter Parker’s origins that Marvel Studios, having wrapped the character in the warm embrace of their Cinematic Universe (hence the dual-interpretation of Homecoming), take the chance to cover new ground.

We catch up with Spidey fresh from his tussle with the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War, but now facing possibly a greater challenge: sophomore year of high school. Fawning over fellow whizz-kid, Liz (Laura Harrier) and feeling rejected by Tony Stark (a short appearance by Robert Downey Jr.), our teen in tights finds it hard enough balancing heroism with hormones. The arrival of Michael Keaton’s Vulture (a disgruntled hoarder of the tech left behind after various super-sized scuffles) serves only to tear Peter’s allegiances between his worried Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his schoolfriends and his promise to Stark yet further.

Homecoming drops the rather operatic tone of the Raimi movies (and whatever mode of address the Marc Webb duo was going for), adopting something more homogenous within the wider MCU (read: breezy, quippy, plenty of explosions). Those labelling it a John Hughes-style teen movie are probably still arguing that The Winter Soldier was a Cold War thriller. Nevertheless, the smaller stakes and tighter focus allow this to stand out, if briefly. There’s a smidgeon too much banging and clattering towards the end (what else is new?), but that’s redeemed by a pursuit of character development and moral lessons over empty spectacle.

We’re not talking the usual city-levelling humdrum so blindingly avoided by Civil War, but something comprehensible, comedic and (most importantly) personal. Holland’s Spider-Man is one more likely to knock over a mailbox than a multi-storey, who apologises for the slightest calamity and is genuinely doing what he does to make people’s lives better. Stark’s plea for Peter to remain a “friendly, neighbourhood Spider-Man” is one we sympathise with not because we want him to lie low, but because we’d hate for him to get hurt. My point of comparison for Holland as the web-head is neither Tobey Maguire’s dorky bumbling, nor Andrew Garfield’s misjudged angst, but Gal Gadot’s endearing sincerity as Wonder Woman.

The remaining cast are an amiably diverse bunch (considering the population density and cultural mix of contemporary New York, a sea of white is neither progressive nor factually accurate), including a great turn from Jacob Batalon as Peter’s roommate, Ned, and a short but winning role for Zendaya as snarky classmate Michelle. Keaton – batting aside the countless Birdman jokes with enormous CG wing-blades – is gamely gravelly.

Michael Giacchino’s score isn’t much to write home about, a hugely entertaining revamp of Paul Webster and Robert Harris’ Spider-Man cartoon theme being the rare exception. Once he’s done with War for the Planet of the Apes, can we collectively ask Hollywood to give him a break? I’m a huge fan of his music, but with 11 scores under his belt in less than three years, I worry they’re overworking him. His compositions are the only element of Homecoming that raise the law of diminishing returns, lacking the sheer epic quality of Elfman or the late James Horner’s emotional wallop.

Much like Deadpool for 20th Century Fox, this solo jaunt amounts to little more than a breath-freshener for the MCU. It’s a much-needed step back from overwhelming ensemble casts and endless digital vistas, delivering a story that revels in simplicity, morality and comedy. Now, if you’ll join me for a musical finale, to the tune of the original Spider-Man theme. Altogether, now…

Does whatever a soft reboot should
Tells a tale, small of scale
Lots of laughs, lots of heart
Enjoy! It's a whole bunch o' fuuuuun


Tuesday, 4 July 2017

'Baby Driver' - Review

7/04/2017 02:30:00 pm
'Baby Driver' - Review
★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

Edgar Wright’s new film was the first time I took a notepad into the cinema, and if Baby Driver is any indication of experiences to come, I don’t think I’ll do so again. As Ansel Elgort's getaway driver murmured, spun and leapt his way across the screen, the pen and pad lay untouched in my lap and a smile grew unhindered on my face.

The young actor and his Han Solo jacket lead a minimal, high-impact cast including Kevin Spacey as Baby’s, well, Kevin Spacey-ish boss, Doc, Jamie Foxx as Bats (a trigger-happy criminal with a penchant for speeches) and Lily James as waitress Debora, with whom Baby is hopelessly smitten. With a string of successful getaways under his belt, our slick and silent hero wants desperately to escape Doc’s clutches, but has to complete one last heist.

Sometimes a film doesn’t have to be perfect for it to work. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be good. But if one movement, one shot, one line of dialogue can trigger that glint of recognition, it’s worth the price of admission. The opening set piece of Baby Driver and its tap-dance editing is just that; a moment where everything else fades to mute as every part of your brain shouts “I do that!” Baby, keeping the engine warm as his accomplices complete a bank robbery, mimes and bops his way through Bellbottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. He drums his fingers on the wheel and scoots from left to right in his seat, setting a precedent for the both the character and the film’s mode of address.

That need to walk to the beat, to cross the road before the chorus starts, to match the drop with the kicking of a discarded can is an urge I’ve carried with me since loading the maximum five (five!) albums on my first MP3 player, eleven years ago. Baby’s small irritation at having to rewind The Damned’s ‘Neat Neat Neat’ so the crescendo falls perfectly in line with the climax of the chase is the same twinge I get finding that sliver of a song that’ll accompany me on the two-minute walk from bus stop to front door, and no further. The scene’s construction seems the natural evolution of Wright’s signature style and is emblematic of why so many have been so rushed off their feet by Baby Driver.

There’s just something so inherently cinematic about the way Wright stages his shots, the way his editors smash cut after cut together with the efficiency and sheer ‘oomph’ of a pit-stop team. The same has been true of all his films (even The World’s End, the lesser of the Cornetto Trilogy, had it), and – though Baby Driver is considerably less overtly comedic than those that came before – the same quick-fire approach to laughter is also present. A joke is a joke, a self-contained moment or a visual gag instead of a meandering, self-congratulatory improv routine. And boy, is that refreshing.

I’ve been hit-or-miss with Elgort in the past (his charm in The Fault in Our Stars was buried by a visible discomfort in the Divergent series), but here his subdued, toddler-faced magic is worked effortlessly. Kevin Spacey is always good value for money, though one imagines the role of ‘hugely suspect suit’ isn’t too much of a stretch for someone currently playing the President of the United States. Watching Spacey, Foxx and a fabulously undercut-adorned Jon Hamm bounce off each other is never dull.

If there’s one person I feel bad for in this entire enterprise, it’s composer Steven Price. With a running time of 113 minutes and 102 of those covered by T. Rex, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel and more, the film leaves little room for a traditional score, so the Gravity and Fury alumnus is left in the dust. Lord knows he can score an action sequence (of which there’s no shortage here), but the central, essential conceit of Baby’s chase music has me feeling sheepish for even mentioning it.

To a lesser extent, Lily James also draws a short straw as the beaming love interest. She’s a real rising star and delivers the beating heart of the film during Elgort’s many silences, it’s just a shame that she’s little more than a narrative ignition. Baby’s adoration of Debora is still a solid foundation for the plot, and one that cements my understanding of Baby Driver as an old-fashioned Hollywood dream given a smart new paint job; True Romance for the iPod generation, perhaps.  If you stop to think about it for more than five minutes it all comes tumbling down in a series of coincidences and impossibilities, but one feels that can’t be helped.

It’s not a classic by any means but it’s a feisty, fanciful caper made with undeniable affection for the characters and the craft. Imagine if all Hollywood passion projects made the jump from dream to screen with such vigour, such a lack of self-importance. Contrast this to the uppity and languorous The Hateful Eight, the long-gestating vision of Quentin Tarantino (who Wright often cites as a huge influence, and who receives a special thanks in the closing credits of Baby Driver). High on petrol fumes and the lovable kind of film geekery, Wright brings us that classical Hollywood romp we could all do with, every once in a while: uncluttered, unpretentious, unabashed fun.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Cinema 2017: The Story So Far

6/29/2017 03:47:00 pm
Cinema 2017: The Story So Far

Yes, it’s that time of the year where everyone goes “How is it nearly July already? Mad, innit?”, which also means it’s time for the inevitable articles appraising the best and worst of the year so far. To try and avoid serving up a listicle that could be copy-pasted from my Letterboxd profile (and because I’m a sucker for gimmicks), I’ve decided to review the first half of cinema 2017 in the form of a limerick:

The year started off as it should,
Serving all that Oscar-bait could.
There were small indie flicks
And some biopics
But a few of them were actually good!

La La Land took most of the prizes,
But Moonlight brought all the surprises.
It’s great specificity
And success for diversity
Gave us all grins like sunrises.

Jackie felt a bit overlooked,
Maybe it seemed undercooked?
But Portman’s a joy
And that score? Oh boy!
It’s epilogue sure had me spooked.

February never failed to appease;
LEGO Batman bringing many a wheeze.
Hidden Figures was bright,
Even T2 was alright,
As for John Wick 2: yes please!

March had a great deal of clout,
With the bleakness of Logan about.
Kong: Skull Island looked nice,
Beauty and ‘Beast may suffice,
But we all know the winner: Get Out!

Things dry up at this point,
As April and May disappoint.
Pirates was a bedwetter,
King Arthur’s no better,
So Colossal’s the queen I anoint.

And now for summer’s usual haul,
Through franchise fare we must trawl.
The Mummy was a curse,
Transformers 5 even worse,
Was Wonder Woman worth it all?

So, what’s to look forward to?
Some arthouse, maybe something brand new?
I’m sorry to bore you all,
But I’m that predictable:
It’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, woo-hoo!