Musical Review Roundup

My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

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  • Death Note (2017)

    2017 #115
    Adam Wingard | 100 mins | streaming (4K) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18

    Death Note

    Something of a global phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga, is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, was adapted into a series of live-action films (I reviewed the first two last week), adapted again as a live-action TV series, and was even turned into a musical. Although it’s taken a while, finally the inevitable is here: an American remake. After passing through several studios, it’s wound up with Netflix, under the helmsmanship of Adam Wingard. Thus, I was hoping for the new film from the director of The Guest. Instead, I got the new film from the director of Blair Witch. And much like Blair Witch, this is a ham-fisted reimagining of a once-popular franchise.

    This incarnation of the story concerns Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a Seattle high school student who one day discovers the mysterious Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill just by writing someone’s name in it. Goaded into using it by the demonic death-god Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), Light soon teams up with his crush Mia (Margaret Qualley) and they set about murdering criminals. Their actions become famous under the alias Kira, which they hope to use to establish a new world order. But hot on the case is a mysterious super detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield), who engages Kira in a battle of wits.

    As with so many things nowadays, the US version of Death Note has been dogged by accusations of whitewashing. As seems to be the case at least half the time, these accusations are largely unfounded. If this had kept the Japanese settings and character names but given them white faces, fair enough, but it hasn’t — it’s relocated to America, with American characters. It’s no different to all the other new-country remakes that have always happened (and also goes on the other way, with US movies remade in Bollywood and Asia, we just don’t hear about them very often here).

    Light vs L

    Unfortunately, Death Note: America has genuine problems to contend with. Despite that reimagining status, it’s still understandably shackled to the broad shape of the original work. Consequently, it glosses over some of the more interesting implications of the premise in its rush to make Kira famous and introduce L. Partly that’s what happens when you condense so much story into just 100 minutes, but it’s also because it’s beholden to bringing in L and starting his cat-and-mouse game with Light. When I reviewed the Japanese live-action movies, I didn’t think Light and L’s battle of wits was as clever as the films clearly thought they were, and it’s even worse here.

    There would seem to be more fertile and interesting ground for exploration in why Light and Mia are trying to establish a new world order — what exactly they think that means; what motivates them to do it; and how they intend to achieve it. On the whole, the film doesn’t seem to be making time to dig into the psyche of its characters — why they’re doing what they’re doing, how it changes them — instead just going through the motions of a thriller plot. It feels like it’s had 20 minutes of character stuff cut out that would grease the wheels of the plot. The worst offender is the climax: there’s no weight to the big finale because we’ve been given no time to care about these characters or their relationships with each other.

    Ello, L

    For all the faults of the way the other version I’ve seen executed Light and L’s chess-like interactions, at least they consistently involved Light using the Death Note and its rules to try to trick L. Here, after the eponymous book and its abilities have been established, it’s basically just used to control other people to make them forward the plot, only returning to its real purpose come the climax. This is another reason the focus on Light and L’s duelling doesn’t work here: at least the original thought they were both geniuses and behaved as thus; each of them was motivated by proving they were cleverer than the other, everything and everyone else be damned. Here, L is still some kind of savant, whereas Light seems a pretty normal teenager, motivated by… well…

    So, in the original, Light does his utmost to keep the Death Note secret from everyone to protect his identity as its user. Here, almost as soon as he’s got it he blabs about it to the girl he fancies. Why? Same reason most guys try to show off to girls: because he thinks it’ll impress her. It’s a change of motivation, but okay, why not? But he’s given very little indication that such a thing would impress her. What if she’d been appalled and gone running to the police? She doesn’t, of course, because this is a geek’s fantasy, so she a) loves it, and b) within minutes is shagging him. (Presumably. This may be an 18 for gore, but sexy times are implied by no more than a little light clothing removal. Perhaps they just sat around in their undies while murdering people with their magic book, I dunno.)

    Bloodthirsty crush

    Believe it or not, Death Note is not a total washout. Indeed, the best things about the film are easily identified. Firstly, there’s Willem Dafoe’s voice performance as Ryuk. If you need a manipulative death-god, he’s a perfect choice. Secondly, the visual realisation of said death-god, a mix of strong CG and keeping him in the shadows. It’s light years more effective than the ’00s movies. On the downside, Ryuk’s role amounts to little more than a glorified cameo: after an initial appearance to explain the rules, he just pops up briefly to remind us he’s still a bother.

    Thirdly, then, there’s the death sequences that occur on the first couple of occassions Light uses the Death Note. This film skips the “they just die of a heart attack” phase and goes straight for the “you can dictate how they die” jugular. In this version, that means a Final Destination-a-like chain of random events occur that make the deaths fairly amusing. Also, graphically violent — enough for that 18 in the eyes of the BBFC. These go AWOL again as the film has to get busy with its plot, which is a shame. Basically, someone should’ve tapped Wingard to make Final Destination 6.

    Fourthly, and finally, the score is very likeable. It’s full of the ’80s horror movie synths you’d expect from the director of The Guest, though it’s undercut somewhat by a few bizarre song choices, mostly during the climax.

    In the dark, no one can see your CGI

    Having read a few reactions to the film online, it strikes me that on one hand you’ve got fans criticising it for not being faithful enough, while on the other you’ve got critics picking on it for things that I’d argue are inherent in the source narrative (at least based on what I’ve seen before). That doesn’t excuse this adaptation entirely — they’ve changed so much that fixing logic issues could definitely have happened too — but it’s an amusing juxtaposition of reasons for displeasure: it’s a film scuppered both by being faithful and by not being faithful. Unfortunately that means that, whether you’re comparing it to a previous version or not, it fails to be a coherent experience.

    2 out of 5

    Death Note is available worldwide on Netflix now.

    Death Note: The Last Name (2006)

    aka Desu Nôto: the Last name

    2017 #112
    Shūsuke Kaneko | 135 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    Death Note: The Last Name

    Picking up immediately after the first movie, this sequel — part two of two — sees Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the owner of a supernatural notebook that allows him to kill anyone simply by writing their name, join the team of detectives searching for him. Although he had supposedly proven his innocence, Light is still the prime suspect of genius detective ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama). Light aims to discover L’s real name and write it in his Death Note. He’s aided by the emergence of a second Death Note, wielded by TV host Misa Amane (Erika Toda), who has a crush on Light and agrees to help him. They’re observed and aided by their respective shinigami (death-gods), Ryuk (Shidô Nakamura) and Rem (Shinnosuke Ikehata) — but can supernatural beings be relied on in the end?

    Fundamentally, The Last Name resumes Light and L’s cat-and-mouse game in the same style as the first movie — in case you didn’t get it, near the start of the film their figurative chess game is represented by a literal chess game. This time there are the added complications of Light being on L’s team and the second Death Note being in play, which at least adds some variety. Light continues to manipulate the book’s rules to help prove his innocence and achieve his goals, which is perhaps where the films are at their most inventive — for example, you forget about the Death Note if you lose possession of it, but regain those memories if you touch it again, so what if you could find a way to give it up, prove your innocence conclusively, and get it back later? The endless games and counter-games begin to get a bit tiresome after a while (together the duology pushes four-and-a-half hours), but they do eventually make for quite a surprising climax.

    Figurative chess, literal chess

    Produced hot on the heels of its predecessor (see my previous review for how ridiculously tight the production schedule was), it’s no wonder that The Last Name feels very much of a piece with the last movie. The major downside of this is L’s alleged genius-level intellect, which was quite ridiculous last time but is now off the charts as he frequently makes entirely unfounded leaps of logic. All of his ‘deductions’ are correct, of course, because the story wants him to be a genius, but he has no reason to be. No other character ever calls him out on it. Even when events would seem to prove him wrong, other characters, who should know better and stop him, let him keep going. He has a starting hypothesis (“Light is Kira”) and, whenever something disproves it, he pulls a reason out of thin air to keep himself being correct. He guesses right every time, but for no good reason. He should’ve been kicked off the case for being loony several times over.

    Something else that’s more noticeable in The Last Name is how this series treats its female characters terribly. (Spoilers for the first film follow.) At the end of the first movie, it’s revealed that Light murdered his girlfriend in cold blood and feels absolutely no remorse, but he’s still positioned as the hero. In this film, every woman that turns up loves either him or his Kira alter ego. When they’re not working to help him, they prance around in schoolgirl outfits, or lounge about showing off their legs, or are chained up in revealing rags. They’re all a bit dippy, too, happy to do whatever Light/Kira says just because he’s deigned to interact with them. Conversely, almost all the menfolk are positioned as geniuses. It’s not outright distasteful, but you don’t have to think too hard to find it a bit eye-roll-worthy at the very least.

    Me Light you long time

    Although The Last Name seems to conclusively end its story, that hasn’t stopped the live-action incarnation of the franchise rolling on: a couple of years later there was a spin-off movie starring L (I have it on DVD and was going to review it this week, but, frankly, I couldn’t stomach anymore of the brat right now), and in 2016 it was revived with a miniseries that led into a fourth movie (no sign of a UK release for either of those, though).

    As I said at the end of my review of part one, it seems clear these Death Note films were hampered by their hurried production — greater thought at the writing stage could iron out some of the issues I’ve outlined. Conversely, as it’s adapted from an existing work, it’s equally possible the problems are inherent to the material and more time wouldn’t’ve made any difference. Maybe the imminent US version will have reworked it to positive effect…

    3 out of 5

    The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix tomorrow.

    Death Note (2006)

    aka Desu Nôto

    2017 #110
    Shūsuke Kaneko | 121 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    Death Note

    Something of a worldwide phenomenon in the ’00s, Death Note started life as a manga and is perhaps best known for its anime adaptation, but it was also adapted into a series of live-action films, the first of which actually predates the anime.

    In case the whole thing passed you by, it’s the story of student Light Yagami (Battle Royale’s Tatsuya Fujiwara) who discovers a supernatural notebook, the titular Death Note, that was dropped by death-god Ryuk (voiced by Shidou Nakamura). Whenever a name is written in the Death Note, that person drops dead. Light begins to use it to execute criminals who’ve escaped justice, a pattern of killings that is quickly noticed by the police and the media, who dub the mysterious murderer “Kira”. While much of the public agree with his actions, the police are stumped in their investigations. Also on the case is a reclusive genius detective known only as ‘L’ (Kenichi Matsuyama), who quickly suspects Light of being Kira, initiating a game of cat and mouse between the pair.

    It’s a good setup for a story, a premise that invites moral conundrums and “what would you do?” questions. I can see why it appealed to young people, too — what youth hasn’t wished certain annoying people would just drop dead? (Some places banned the manga because its popularity was leading to kids making their own Death Note books, writing in names of classmates and teachers. Obviously they didn’t actually work, but it was a “psychological health” thing.)

    A little Light reading

    There’s not much plot in that idea, mind: the Death Note is so all-powerful that there’s little drama in Light using it, especially as he isn’t morally conflicted himself — he’s sure he’s doing the right thing, despite people around him voicing their disagreement with Kira. The story therefore comes to focus on the battle between Light and L, a pair of self-proclaimed geniuses who work to constantly outwit each other. This is where the film begins to falter, because a lot of their supposed intelligence comes from leaps of logic designed to make them look clever.

    It’ll also be a problem for any viewers who need a likeable protagonist: although Light starts out aiming to do good, he’s gradually led to be a right evil bastard; on the other side, L is an irritating brat, walking around barefoot, weirdly crouching on chairs, always stuffing his face with sugary treats, and speaking cryptically to the level-headed coppers forced to work with him. I’ve said before that I don’t think a film necessarily needs a likeable hero to work, but it does feel odd that there’s no one to root for here. Partly I don’t think the film’s sure whose side we should be on. It’s made to feel like it should be Light’s, but the film also knows he’s not got the strongest moral compass.

    One L of a detective

    This “duel of the geniuses” eventually comes to a head in a neatly-conceived climax, but one which doesn’t wrap everything up — the film ends on a very “end of part one” note. Although this film is simply called Death Note and the second was released here as Death Note 2, in Japan they were marketed as a “two-part event” and released just months apart. So I guess the cliffhanger ending is fair enough — it’s not an attempt at launching a franchise (an annoying trend when sequels aren’t produced), but is instead no different than The Matrix sequels, or Kill Bill, or so on.

    That said, the production schedule to make that happen is somewhat interesting, especially as it clearly had an influence over the film’s quality. The duology was produced at extraordinary speed. The concept of a two-film adaptation was greenlit in November 2005, Shūsuke Kaneko signed on as director in December, and they were shooting by the start of February 2006. Film 1 was shot in February and March, then came out in the middle of June, just three months later. Film 2 was still being written during Film 1’s post-production, before shooting in June and July, and was released at the start of November, just two months later. There were six assistant directors, including people who’d already graduated to helming their own films, just to handle the volume of work required to fit in the tight schedule — two major movies from script to screen in under 12 months. It’s no wonder the production looks a bit TV-ish at times, with somewhat dull cinematography and Ryuk realised through cheap and cheerful CGI. More vitally, the script or edit probably could’ve done with greater attention, to iron out some of those logic leaps and improve the pace in the middle.

    Demonic CGI

    The final work still manages to be an enjoyable thriller with a supernatural conceit — a film which definitely has its moments, especially as Light begins to work with the Death Note’s rules to creative effect — but it needed more polish, the legacy of its speedy production resulting in an array of niggles.

    3 out of 5

    The US remake of Death Note is released on Netflix this Friday.

    Suicide Squad (2016)

    2016 #178
    David Ayer | 123 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15 / PG-13

    Suicide Squad

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    1 nomination — 1 win

    Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


    The third movie in DC’s attempt at a shared cinematic universe always seemed like an odd choice — why adapt a minor title starring second- or third- (or even fourth-) string villains when you’ve yet to bring several of your better-known heroes to the screen? Then the trailers came out and the apparent darkly comical tone seemed to click with viewers. But apparently that wasn’t what the movie was like at all, so then the studio ordered reshoots and hired the trailer editing people to re-cut the whole movie.

    That did not end well.

    The final version of Suicide Squad definitely feels like a film that was messed around in post. I imagine the basic plot remains the same, however: sneaky government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a Cunning Plan to use locked-up super-villains — including the likes of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — to undertake dangerous and/or secret missions, on the basis that these prisoners are totally expendable. Why would the villains agree? They don’t have a choice: little bombs in their head will go off if they don’t comply. Almost immediately after getting approval for her initiative, a crisis breaks out in Generic Skyscraper City that requires the Squad’s expertise — how handy! Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) is concocting a plan to free his girlfriend…

    Skwad!

    That there were editing tussles over Suicide Squad’s final cut becomes evident almost immediately: the way it introduces Deadshot and Harley before cutting to Waller pitching her plan is a little clunky, surely a re-ordering to get the big-name characters on screen ASAP, which becomes obvious when they’re later introduced again alongside the other candidates. However, it really goes awry when Waller’s pitch and introduction of the Enchantress is immediately followed by another meeting where Waller makes her pitch and introduces the Enchantress. Maybe the screenplay was that clunkingly constructed to begin with, or maybe they just made a ham-fisted job of the restructuring.

    On a shot-to-shot level the editing is fine, but various events aren’t allowed the necessary room to breathe, the endless character introductions are a jumble, the narrative is fitfully revealed, and the overall pace is a disaster. It’s easy to believe that it was cut by trailer editors because the pace and style with which it handles some sequences is reminiscent of the storytelling economy applied in trailers. Problem is, what works in a 120-second advertisement doesn’t in a 120-minute narrative. There are bits that are well put together — the occasional strong scene or impressive visual idea — but there’s a nagging awareness that someone felt the need to mess things around.

    And nobody messes with Amanda Waller

    Similarly, the use of songs on the soundtrack is scattershot. Some are eye-rollingly on the nose, while others seem chucked in at random, the apparent intent to be ‘quirky’ by throwing on discordant tracks. Parts of the film are the same, like Captain Boomerang’s pink unicorn: it’s a self-consciously Funny bit that’s deployed a couple of times early on and then completely disregarded. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the lack of reference to pink unicorns after the halfway point is Suicide Squad’s biggest flaw, but it’s indicative of its sloppy handling of material.

    Examples of this disjointedness are almost endless. Like, during the climax the squad have a specific plan to deal with Enchantress’ brother, who they are aware of thanks to earlier seeing him on a ‘spy boomerang’ (don’t ask). But when the big fella comes out, their reactions are all “who the hell is this?!” and “we’re in trouble now!” It’s not a major flaw, it just doesn’t quite make sense — and when that keeps happening, I’d say the cumulative effect is a problem.

    Suicide stars

    On the bright side, Margot Robbie and Will Smith work overtime to both make their characters function and bring some entertainment value to the film, and they largely succeed. Viola Davis makes for a great love-to-hate character as the endlessly cunning Waller. I don’t even dislike Jared Leto’s loony take on the Joker. The rest of the cast… well, okay, the less said about them the better. For one thing, there’s a lot of them, and some don’t even need to be there. Slipknot and Katana barely serve any function, for instance, and the film only emphasises this by giving them clumsily offhand introductions.

    There’s a definite sense that this version of Suicide Squad was created based on either audience feedback or the perception of what the audience wants, rather than what was actually designed to be the structure of the movie. It hasn’t worked. Scenes butt against each other in ways that surely wasn’t intended, and the longer it goes on the more it feels like bits and pieces have been dropped in or taken out all over the place. It is possible to restructure a film in post, especially when you have reshoots to smooth the joins, but Suicide Squad absolutely feels like the hash job it was reported to be. Its legacy will be the lesson of what happens when you attempt a last-minute chop-and-change re-cut.

    Theatrical Cut
    2 out of 5


    So, is the extended cut better?

    2016 #195a
    David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15

    Please sir, can I have some more?

    Well, firstly, this isn’t a Batman v Superman-esque situation, where the extended cut puts the film back together how it was originally meant to be and suddenly makes it work. This is exactly what it says on the tin: extended. It’s the same movie, with 13 extra minutes.

    I did enjoy it more on second viewing, but I’m not sure that was because of the new material. There’s extra stuff with Harley and the Joker, which feels like it’s been shoehorned in — but then, so did their scenes that were there before. The bar scene was one of the highlights of the theatrical cut and is improved by adding back some material that was only in the trailer. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just the rewatch factor, under which circumstances familiarity can allow the brain to make connections or invent explanations that the film may not contain, but through their existence (even if it’s just in your head) the film makes more sense. Even that doesn’t absolve all of Suicide Squad’s numerous faults, but it’s something.

    It’s still not a good movie, really, but at least second time round I (overall) enjoyed watching it.

    Extended Cut
    3 out of 5

    And finally, lest you ever forget…

    Moana (2016)

    2017 #85
    Ron Clements & John Musker | 103 mins | TV (HD+3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Moana

    The latest entry in Disney’s animated canon (the 56th), Moana is another princess-starring musical — that genre fully back in vogue for animated movies since the success of Frozen, I guess. The twist (if you can call it that, because the film thankfully doesn’t belabour the point) is that this isn’t another European-style princess fairytale, but rather one inspired by Polynesian culture, with songs co-written by That Guy From Hamilton.

    Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) is the daughter of a chief whose tribe never venture far from their island’s waters, despite the sea calling to Moana — literally, as it turns out, because when the island’s crops begin to wither, the sea chooses Moana to undertake a quest to find the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore a MacGuffin and make everything a-okay again. Along the way, there are moral lessons about being adventurous and stuff.

    Although the cultural setting is notably different to Disney’s usual stomping ground — and, don’t get me wrong, that diversity is something to be applauded, both for putting different kinds of heroes on screen and for giving us all something fresh — Moana is executed with Disney’s customary slickness. It looks fantastic, especially in 3D, where the ocean stretches forever into the screen, and there’s a musical sequence with 2D backgrounds that, ironically, is one of the best extra-dimensional bits because of what it does with said backgrounds. The songs are a toe-tapping treat too, with Moana’s big number, How Far I’ll Go, a more likeable earworm than certain other Disney songs about going; a David Bowie-inspired villain’s song, Shiny; and, my personal favourite, a comedy number sung by the Rock called You’re Welcome (this being the one with the 2D-that-looks-fab-in-3D animation).

    Maui and Moana

    Surprisingly for a Disney princess film, there’s a superb action sequence in the middle, a rope-swinging sea battle against… miniature… pirate… coconut… things… er, I guess…? Anyway, it may actually be one of my favourite action scenes of the year, which is not what you generally find in a Disney musical. The big action scene at the end is perhaps slightly less effective as it strives hard to be an epic climax, but I think that’s nitpicking — it’s conceptually strong, with another positive underlying message. A bigger problem is the character of the sea: it chooses Moana for the quest, which arguably takes away some of her agency (the film fights to seem like it’s giving it back to her), and regularly turns up as a mini deus ex machina every time the characters need a hand.

    That said, while I can observe those issues from an objective and critically-minded point of view, they didn’t actually bother me all that much. If you just (ahem) let it go, Moana is a ceaselessly likeable, consistently entertaining musical adventure. Along with Frozen and Zootropolis, it suggests Disney have hit a real stride right now that hopefully they can continue to build on.

    4 out of 5

    Moana is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Kong: Skull Island (2017)

    2017 #39
    Jordan Vogt-Roberts | 118 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China, Australia & Canada / English | 12A / PG-13

    Kong: Skull Island

    The king of the giant apes returned to the big screen this year as part of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, which will see him tussle with Godzilla in three years’ time. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

    This new incarnation of Kong wisely dodges being a third remake of the original classic, opting for a new story of how mankind first comes across the eponymous island and its super-sized inhabitants. Set in the ’70s as the Vietnam war comes to an end, a mixed group of scientists and military men head for the uncharted island to see what lies within, and a monstrous battle for survival ensues.

    Skull Island is a monster B-movie realised with a modern blockbuster budget and a dose of class from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Its major thrills come from the dust-ups between humans and giant beasties, or giant beasties and other giant beasties, but these are executed with a verve and enthusiasm that renders them a constant delight. Vogt-Roberts unleashes his skill with a palpable sense of excitement for the material, never seeming to hold back as he fills the entire movie with cool imagery and vibrant colours. The period setting is well evoked, bringing the sensation of witnessing a certain kind of non-specific throwback to adventure and monster movies past, even as lashings of expert CGI realise this new vision. (Also: two monkey movies this year and both with an Apocalypse Now vibe? Coincidencetastic.)

    A skull, on the island

    There’s a game cast, too, with Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L. Jackson, and, in particular, John C. Reilly having a whale of a time as just some of our adventurers. Between them they help navigate a tone that could’ve been a jumble but instead feels just right, neither too pompous nor too comical. It’s never so grounded that the ridiculous stuff feels silly; never so silly that any of it stops mattering.

    Kong: Skull Island might be the most fun I’ve had at the cinema so far this year. I can’t wait to watch it again on Blu-ray, and in 3D this time — I’m hoping that’ll really show off the scale of the big ol’ monsters. At the end of the day it’s a B-movie about giant monsters hitting things, which is what has held me back from giving it full marks, but don’t be surprised if this ends up on my year-end top ten: it’s superb blockbuster entertainment.

    4 out of 5

    Kong: Skull Island is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    My review was a bit short to have more than one picture, but here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

    Badass Brie

    The Past Fortnight on TV #20

    Like some kind of Walder Frey impersonator, I’m having two feasts in a fortnight — two feasts of TV reviews, that is!

    It may’ve passed you by (don’t think I’ve seen any coverage of it anywhere at all), but Game of Thrones is back, so that’s where I’ll begin…

    Game of Thrones  Season 7 Episode 1
    Game of Thrones season 7Season premieres of Thrones are typically concerned with re-establishing where all the major characters are, and maybe moving their stories on a few baby steps to indicate where they’ll be headed this season. Dragonstone is no exception. So where Arya had arrived in Westeros to kill the Starks’ enemies, now she’s slaughtering them by the hallful; where Bran and Meera were headed for the Wall, now they’re passing through it; where Jon and Sansa were taking charge in the North to be ready for war, now they’re preparing for war; where Sam had headed to the Citadel to research important stuff, now he’s in the Citadel researching important stuff; where Cersei had taken the Iron Throne and Jamie had his doubts, now Cersei’s preparing to defend her kingdoms and Jamie has his doubts; and where Dany was sailing for Westeros with her hodgepodge military, now she’s landed in Westeros. The wonder of Thrones is that it can take such scene-setting and turn it into riveting television.

    That’s because everything about the show is so well put together. Each sequence offers one or more out of sharp-witted dialogue, sublime direction, surprising emotion, or badass mass-murder, alongside consistently stellar performances. David Bradley, Rory McCann, and Sophie Turner were the particular standouts this episode, I thought, with special mention for all that John Bradley had to endure in the name of a montage. Although some scenes only left us with more questions about the future, others were satisfying vignettes in their own right. It’s a good mix.

    Ed SheeranIn fact, the only thing letting the side down was the well-publicised cameo by Ed Sheeran. If you have no idea who Mr Sheeran is then perhaps his appearance was fine — his acting was no worse than dozens of other bit players they’ve had on the series before now. But if you do know who the singer-songwriter is, his appearance was like being served a cheese board accompanied by cheese crackers with a glass of melted cheese and extra cheese on the side. After devoting what felt like a significant chunk of time (but was probably mere seconds) to him singing a song, Arya trots over to him and goes, “I don’t know that one,” and he says, “it’s a new one,” which he may as well have followed up with, “which you can hear in full on my new album, available now everywhere music is sold.” I have no idea if he has a new album out, or if that song would be on it if he did, but that’s how it felt.

    Anyway, maybe next week Arya will murder him in his sleep. Things to look forward to…

    Twin Peaks  Season 3 Episodes 9-10
    Happy times in Twin PeaksSlowly, very slowly, the disparate strands of Twin Peaks Mk.III seem to be coalescing into a coherent, connected story… which is almost more frustrating, in its own way. By that I mean: when it was wilfully obscure, you just kind of went with it — it was Lynch being Lynch, and you had to let it wash over you and allow your feelings to do the deduction about what it was supposed to signify. Now that the plot is beginning to crystallise into something your rational brain can make sense of, it feels a mite slow in getting there. I mean, while Dougie Jones is less annoying than he used to be (helped in no small part by the brilliance of Naomi Watts), I still miss real Coop, and we’re running out of episodes to spend time with him again. Was MacLachlan just feeding us a red herring when he said he’d “almost forgotten how to play him”? Because he hasn’t played him yet! Ach, we’ll see. It remains defiantly its own thing, and at least we can trust Lynch is going somewhere with it — even if we may never be able to work out precisely where that somewhere was…

    Automata  Season 1
    AutomataBased on a webcomic from the creators of Penny Arcade and funded through Kickstarter (so far it’s only available to backers), this miniseries-cum-pilot (the five short episodes total 58 minutes) takes place in an alternate Prohibition-era America, where “Prohibition” instead refers to the ban on production of automatons — sentient robots. Ex-copper Sam Regal (Basil Harris) and his partner Carl (voiced by Doug Jones), an automaton, now make ends meet as PIs, doing the usual PI thing: photographing cheating spouses. Only this time the run-of-the-mill case leads them into a murderous web that encompasses speakeasies, robo-gigolos*, underground automaton-hating gangs, and a twist ending (natch).

    There are two particularly striking things about Automata. The first is its interesting alternate history. From this opening season (which, as I alluded to earlier, is equivalent to a single episode really) it’s tricky to get an idea of how fully imagined it is, but this is a promising start. Secondly, it has really strong production values, especially for something on such a low budget. In particular, the CGI used to create the automatons is exceptional. But it’s also very nicely shot, with the deep shadows so evocative of noir. It was made available in 4K, so it’s the first thing I’ve bothered to properly watch in that quality since I got my new TV. I must say, I’m not sure it looked any better than a good 1080p transfer. That said, I didn’t watch it side by side with its lower-res version, and my screen is on the low end size-wise of those available in 4K, so maybe it wasn’t the fairest test of the format. When I finally get round to American Gods, or when The Defenders comes out, then I’ll give it a longer trial.

    Anyway, personal technological observations aside, Automata is a well-made proof-of-concept that should satisfy anyone who thinks “Prohibition-era noir story, but with robots!” sounds like a good pitch. And if you’re still not sure, you can watch an atmospheric trailer here. Whether this’ll lead to a full-blown series, or even just further miniseries like this one, it’s too early to say, but I’ll be there to watch them. (And I’ll try to remember to mention when this one becomes available to non-backers, too.)

    * That’s not what they call them, I just thought it sounded good.

    Also watched…
  • Line of Duty Series 3 Episodes 1-3 — with the tennis over, it’s time to dive back into series the other half also cares about. This is the season of Line of Duty, apparently, so it should be a corker. More thoughts on this one next month when we’ve finished it, but that first episode… must’ve been great for those who hadn’t had the twist spoiled!
  • Wallander (UK) Series 4 Episode 1 — it’s been yonks since this final series was on, but we’re finally making time for it. The first episode upped sticks for a South African setting, and so did the production — and they clearly wanted us to know it, with tonnes of truly stunning location photography. It was almost worth watching for that alone, but I also thought the episode had a strong, weighty (if ultimately predictable) story.

    In other news…

    The 13th DoctorThe biggest TV news this fortnight was undoubtedly the BBC’s announcement of the 13th actor to take the title role in Doctor Who. (Well, the 14th. Well, the… oh, let’s not get into that.) As you surely can’t have missed, it was Jodie Whittaker, who is a woman! Gasp! Naturally, there was some outrage. After all, it makes no sense whatsoever that an alien being who can travel in time and changes his whole body every time one gets worn out could possibly, during that change, switch from being a man to a woman, even if it’s been established multiple times within the series itself that such a change is possible. It’s just not plausible, is it?

    It’s difficult to tell whether the loonies who actually believe that groundless claptrap are in the majority, or if the day instead belongs to the many who were mightily pleased by the news. Hopefully the latter. There’s certainly a lot of positive word of mouth, so hopefully the naysayers will be converted. Even most of the media were on side, though some of our pathetic excuses for ‘newspapers’ reverted to predictable type and ran articles on Whittaker’s previous roles that featured nudity. Apparently one paper accompanied it with photos of previous Doctors topless, as if that somehow justified it. On a more intelligent note, Variety ran a piece about the importance of the casting: “Coming from one of the biggest media franchises on the planet, the news that the new Doctor Who is female is huge — and almost completely delightful.” (Emphasis my own, because it pleases me.)

    Anyway, I guess the proof will be in the pudding — in this case, the “pudding” being the ratings. I hope it’s a success. I mean, I always hope Doctor Who is a success, but there is extra weight on this particular incarnation, like it or not. New showrunner Chris Chibnall doesn’t have the strongest track record on the show, but he’s done first-rate work elsewhere, so fingers crossed — at the end of the day, it’ll be the quality of the writing as much as the quality of the performance that will make or break the first female Doctor.

    Things to Catch Up On

    The Handmaid's TaleThis month, I have mostly been missing The Handmaid’s Tale. It belatedly started airing on this side of the pond at the end of May, but it slipped my mind so much that I didn’t even mention it in the May post. Ironically, it’s no longer fully available on demand so I’ll have to get hold of it (at some point) in the same way I would’ve before anyone bothered to air it here. Meanwhile, in “things I’ve actually started”, I’m three episodes behind on Preacher. This happened last year, too. I’m sure I’ll catch up on some or all of it before next month’s column.

    Next month… Cannes hit miniseries Top of the Lake: China Girl.

  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

    2016 #182
    David Yates | 133 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

    When J.K. Rowling wrote the seven-book Harry Potter series, she didn’t just make it all up as she went along — it was well planned in advance. And she didn’t just envisage a seven-book story, either — she built a whole world, including a massive history that is only fleetingly referred to in Potter itself. It’s part of that history that the five-film Fantastic Beasts series is setting out to explore. (Despite sharing a title with a short tie-in book Rowling once wrote, Fantastic Beasts isn’t somehow an adaptation of that tiny tome, despite what some pithily moronic internet commenters who think they’re funny would believe.)

    Set many decades before Potter, Fantastic Beasts introduces us to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a British wizard who’s travelled to New York while researching his book on magical creatures — or “fantastic beasts”. There, he finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the local magic council and a puritanical group who want to destroy all wizards, while some creature or force is terrorising the city.

    Although labelled by some as a prequel, that’s only technically true — it is set before the Potter stories, but it’s a new story in that universe rather than a tale that leads directly into the existing narrative. As such, it’s pretty newbie friendly. It reuses familiar iconography from Potter, but it does so in neat ways — there are things that are instantly recognisable to fans, but their function is not reliant on familiarity for the sake of newcomers or the less well-versed. It’s also opening up new parts of the Potterverse — or, as they want us to call it now, J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World — primarily, taking us to the USA for the first time.

    Fantastic Americans and where to find them

    As a new story, it develops its own particular tone and style, distinct from that of the previous movies. That partly comes from the characters we’re following: Potter is about schoolchildren, this is about adults. It’s still a 12A/PG-13, of course, but there’s a lot of wiggle-room within that category. Perhaps this is why some have found it tonally inconsistent, but I enjoyed the mix of whimsy with darkness. The overall effect was good fun, with strong action scenes and some really good — even magical — visuals. The story is bolstered by a couple of well-constructed final act twists. I found at least one to be pretty guessable, but that doesn’t detract from it being put together neatly throughout the film.

    As for the widely discussed fact that this is to be the first of five movies, that fortunately doesn’t define this opening instalment. Seeds for future films are obvious because we recognise actors and, as movie-literate viewers, know how films establish things for future use; but leaving that extra-textual knowledge aside, there’s no reason this doesn’t work as a standalone adventure. People who’ve said otherwise are talking poppycock. Even stuff that initially looks like it’s purely franchise-setup has a purpose within this individual movie.

    Fantastic Beasts has been dismissed in some quarters as no more than a cash-grab attempt to extend a franchise, but I thought it was one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of 2016.

    4 out of 5

    Space Jam (1996)

    2017 #76
    Joe Pytka | 84 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    Space Jam

    Space Jam is one of those movies that everyone of my generation seems to have seen, and many of them have fond childhood memories of it too. I remember when it came out. I pretty thoroughly dismissed it at the time, because I had no interest in basketball (partly because I’m British — I was baffled anyone else over here cared at all), and not much more interest in the Looney Tunes characters either, to be honest. Plus it just looked silly. And not in a good way. But, as I say, everyone else seems to have seen it, so I thought “why not?” and taped it off the telly one day. (Well, I didn’t tape it — no one uses tape anymore, do they? Recorded it. DVR’d it. TiVo’d it. Whatevs.) Then, one night when my critical faculties were feeling like they didn’t want to be challenged with anything too worthy of my time, I decided to bung it on — and learnt that I was right in the first place.

    For those who’ve managed to avoid awareness of this movie, it stars Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan, the basketball player, who ends up being recruited by Bugs Bunny and co to teach them how to play basketball so they can beat a group of aliens who want to kidnap them. I would say “it makes sense in the film”, but it doesn’t make much more sense.

    Not even Bill Murray can save this movie

    A plausible plot is not a prerequisite for an entertaining kids’ movie, but Space Jam provides nothing in its place. It is joyless. Not funny. Not clever. It’s just flat. The concept of character is nonexistent — no one has an arc. It wastes time on a subplot about a bunch of players who aren’t Michael Jordan. (I say “wastes time” — the whole thing’s a waste of time.) Bill Murray turns up for no apparent reason — did he need the money? Does he really love basketball? I don’t know. He brings some small joy just by being him. Elsewhere, there’s a grand total of one funny line.

    Even on a technical level, the animation and live-action interaction isn’t all that good. So much of it is obviously just Michael Jordan on a green screen, looking around himself at thin air which some animators filled in. It’s perhaps a little smoother around the edges than Roger Rabbit (which was released eight years earlier), but it lacks that film’s class and tactile sense that the live-action and animation are genuinely interacting, which is more important than computer-aided precision.

    You may have seen earlier this week that a list was released of “Must See Movies Before You Grow Up”, aiming to list the 50 films every child should see by the age of 11. Space Jam was on it. So was Home. Over half the list came from this millennium, a third from the past seven years. There’s lots of good stuff on there but, yeah, I think I’m going to ignore it. Like I suggest you should ignore Space Jam.

    1 out of 5