Eye in the Sky (2015)

2017 #8
Gavin Hood | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & South Africa / English & Somali | 15 / R

Eye in the Sky

Drone warfare is a fairly hot and contentious issue of our times, though as it seems to have “just kinda happened” I’m not sure how much significant public debate there’s been around it. It’s certainly provided fodder for moviemakers, however, with multiple productions seeking to be “the one about drones”. I’ve heard the best of these is Good Kill (though IMDb ratings disagree), but that’ll have to wait for another day (I’ve been sitting on this review since frickin’ January because I’ve still not got round to Good Kill!) Even if Eye in the Sky is the inferior film, it’s no slouch.

After a multinational mission is launched to capture wanted terrorists in Kenya, surveillance observes them prepping suicide bombers. The mission objective is changed to “kill”, but commanders watching from afar via drone are forced to reconsider their options due to a civilian presence near the target. It’s a tense thriller driven by a compelling moral dilemma — in fact, the dilemma is an old one: would you sacrifice one innocent life to potentially save dozens more? It’s just that it’s now framed in the super-modern context of using drones to dispatch death from the other side of the world.

Someone's got to make the call

Getting ahead of myself a little now, but events build to a very tense climax. That’s how you want your thrillers to end, isn’t it? It also pays off the sometimes slow, borderline stagey “people talking in rooms” film that precedes it. Maybe that’s unfair — yes, it’s people talking in rooms, but there’s dynamism in what they’re debating and, er, the number of different rooms it takes place in… It also has a very plausible line in the passing of the decision-making buck, up the chain through the military, then through politicians. I guess for this to work the operation depicted had to be British-led because, as the film reveals, the American military machine would’ve had no such compunction about possibly killing a little girl.

Much of the film lets you make up your own mind about its ethical conundrums, which is a strong point; but then, after all the actual debating is done and decisions have been made, it uses its final scene to show an outcome it could’ve left open-ended. This makes it seem to come down quite heavily in one direction. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with having a position and advocating it in art, but for a film which seems designed to tackle a contentious issue and put it up for genuine debate, it ends up feeling a tad one-sided. That said, there’s a long and well-liked screed on Letterboxd about how “it’s a film with an agenda that pretends to have none”, that agenda being to “have you rooting for the bombing of a little girl” — which is funny because I felt that, if anything, it came down a little too heavily the other way.

Emote control

One thing that distracted me to an inordinate degree was the agents on the ground using cameras disguised as birds and bugs — not just models with cameras in them, but imitation creatures that have the ability to fly around, reposition, etc. Even if such tech is possible nowadays, would Kenyan forces have access to it? And even if it’d been provided to them by their US/UK allies, would the equipment produce results of such good quality, or be capable of sending the images across such distances? Surely real-life drones are the size and shape they are (i.e. pretty big) for a reason? I guess the applicable point about this is: if you’re trying to make a serious modern-day moral thriller, don’t throw James Bond tech in there.

Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky manages to put a very-present moral issue up for debate, framing it as a kind of case study so that it also serves as a tense thriller. Thought-provoking and nail-biting.

4 out of 5

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

2017 #125
Matthew Vaughn | 141 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Critics, eh? There’s a lot you could say about them, both individually and en masse, but right now I’m concerned with the fact they’ve given Kingsman: The Golden Circle a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%.* More than that, many have gone further: I’ve read one-star reviews from several major outlets. Audiences disagree. On IMDb it’s got a very respectable 7.4 (just a few points down from the much better-received Wonder Woman, for comparison) and it topped the box office this past weekend, beating the latest LEGO movie in the US and almost doubling the first film’s opening weekend in the UK. Well, I’m definitely an audience member rather than a critic. In fact, I’m still weighing up the possibility that The Golden Circle might be even better than its predecessor.

I’ll return to both the critics and the two films’ relative merits later. For now, the obligatory plot summary: a year on from the events of the first movie, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a fully-fledged Kingsman agent and is dating Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). An encounter with former wannabe-Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) sets Eggsy on the trail of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drugs kingpin with a ’50s Americana fetish and a plan for global domination. Eggsy and tech whizz Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to the US of A to team up with their sister organisation, Statesman, in a bid to stop Poppy’s nefarious scheme.

Magic us out of this one, Merlin

That’s the coy version of things — more coy than the trailers, certainly, which brazenly gave away major developments and revelations. (You’ll note my summary’s shortage of big-name stars, for example, who have been plastered all over the advertising.) Director Matthew Vaughn even asked the studio not to reveal one thing in the marketing — namely, that Colin Firth was back — but they went ahead and did it anyway. I know they had a movie to sell, but I’m not convinced they needed to ignore him on that. Actually, that connects to my first complaint about how critics have treated the film: those one-star major reviewers seemed to hate the film so much that they were happy to spoil bits left, right, and centre. No such disregard for the audience here (though there will be minor spoilers, if you’ve not seen it yet). Nonetheless, if you were one of those people who seemed to find the first film’s anal sex joke to be the most heinously offensive sin committed by cinema since The Birth of a Nation, maybe read a couple of those reviews for a benchmark if you’re undecided about seeing this sequel — it may also offend your delicate sensibilities for reasons I can only vaguely comprehend.

To me, The Golden Circle represents a commitment to being purely entertaining. It’s consistently funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The action sequences are crazily hyperkinetic to the nth degree. It mixes in all the classic spy movie shenanigans, like far-fetched plots and cool gadgets and exotic locales; but it also works to subvert, expose, or develop some of those things. Beyond that, however, it has surprisingly good character work for what could’ve been a mindless comedy shoot-em-up. I mean, Merlin’s arc… well, i said no spoilers. But the film also makes time to be concerned about Eggsy’s relationship and how his work might affect it. It’s almost a good subversion of the gentlemen-spy sleep-around stereotype, though the Glastonbury sequence rushes through that rather than meaningfully deconstructing it (more about that already-infamous scene later).

The Lepidopterist

Then there’s Harry’s return — not just a pleasant surprise, but an emotional minefield for our other heroes, who were still coming to terms with his demise. Now, some critics reckon that Harry’s revival lowers the stakes for the rest of the movie. Well, only if you choose to disregard the details of his return. OK, yes, there’s now a safety net in some scenarios; but a gel that slows the effect of a headshot isn’t much use if, say, you get blown to pieces. Also, the idea that Harry was “very much dead” is actually an assumption that’s not wholly supported by the first film. I mean, obviously it was implied that Harry is very much dead — that was the point at the time — but watch it again: you don’t actually see much detail of what happens, other than that Valentine shoots him somewhere in the head and he collapses to the ground. The scene ends almost immediately. Vaughn and co use this to their advantage, having the Statesman turn up with seconds of the shot being fired. Yeah, it’s still implausible, but then I don’t think people’s heads explode in choreographed light shows either, and that was a big part of The Secret Service.

Comparisons to that previous movie abound in other reviews, I guess because it went down well while this one, which is ostensibly more of the same, hasn’t. Also, to be fair, because the film itself is constantly making such references too. Consequently, some critics are focused on the idea that what The Golden Circle lacks is the freshness of the original. Well, personally, I enjoyed the first one more when I re-watched it a couple of days ago than when I first saw it back in 2015, so the “I’ve not seen that before” factor is not its defining quality for me. Nonetheless, this is the kind of sequel that’s somewhat derivative of its own predecessor, with many riffs on stuff you’ll remember from before. The most regularly repurposed is the famous church fight, though I’d argue that it’s taken the style of that sequence and then applied it to several more in this film, rather than merely producing an outright copy of what came before — something I would (and did) accuse, say, X-Men: Apocalypse’s Quicksilver sequence of doing (even though it tried to find fresh angles on the same basic concept).

Skipping rope in the snow

One particular way that half the action sequences feel like they’re deliberately riffing off / ripping off that church fight is that they’re set to pop songs, and often unexpected ones. It may be repeating a trick, but this use of music is consistently entertaining — I mean, hasn’t Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting always wanted a fight set to it? And the country-fied cover of Word Up for the finale is bang on. That’s not to mention the score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. I always liked the main theme from the first film, which is carried over here, along with effective action cues (for those times it goes without a pop song) and a neat integration of melodies from John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. That song is used to very particular effect at one point, and, listening to the soundtrack while writing this review, the bit of Mark Strong singing it that’s included did actually leave me with a little something in my eye — again, not what you expect from a film like Kingsman. Though I must clarify, that is due to the memory of the film, not the quality of Mr Strong’s singing, which is certainly… Scottish-accented. Something I didn’t notice particularly when watching the movie (and why would you on a first viewing?) is that those melodies are there right at the start, played on bagpipes and segueing into the opening theme. Cheeky foreshadowing beggars.

While there may be some dimension of merit to some of the criticisms I’ve referenced so far, others merit mention only to be ridiculed. I mean, one critic slagged off the fact that most (but not all) of Poppy’s scenes take place in one location, which must be the most ludicrous factor contributing to a film getting one star that I’ve ever read. Relatedly, that the big-name new cast members are given less focus than the returning characters seems to be a recurring sticking point. Well, what do you expect? In fact, what do you want? It’s like thinking the solution to Quantum of Solace’s woes was to spend less time with James Bond and more with Agent Fields. Plus, surely the fact that some prominently-billed new names turn out to be glorified cameos is more to do with the marketing overhyping them — as you do when you’ve got genuine movie stars in your movie — than the film itself fundamentally underserving them. Sure, I’d like more of Channing Tatum’s character too, but hey-ho; and it’s not like his limited screen time isn’t put to memorable effect, several times over. The same can be said for Julianne Moore and, arguably best of all, Elton John. They may reuse the same Elton gag a couple of times too often, but on the whole he has a surprisingly effective part to play. On the other hand, after “more Halle Berry” was something that eventually undermined the X-Men films, I’m fine with her role being kept to a minimum. Still, for everyone who wished for more of Tatum and co, there are already rumours of an extended cut coming to DVD and/or Blu-ray. Oh, but those critics moaned about it already being too long. There’s no pleasing some people…

More Tatum, less Berry

There is perhaps a case to be made that the film has bitten off more plot than it can comfortably chew. I’ve already said that some sequences feel a little too hasty, and there might be one big set piece too many — I assumed the film was about to head into its final act, before remembering we hadn’t had all the snowbound set pieces from the trailers yet. Personally, I didn’t mind this additional length — at no point did the film bore me. I’ll be more than happy if that extended cut does materialise. Perhaps the paciness despite the length is what led many critics to call it out for having too complex a plot, an accusation I find somewhat implausible. I can only assume they weren’t expecting to think at all and so almost literally turned their brains off, because this isn’t some intricate thriller, it’s a big action spy movie that moves pretty linearly from plot point to plot point. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And if you want to go the other way and overthink the film, some people do get very het up about what the political messages and affiliations of these two movies may or may not be. Now, I’m not going to argue they don’t have a political dimension — that would be a patently ludicrous position to take, given how much they both allude to real-world issues like climate change and the drug trade — but, allowing for that, I don’t think the films care what their political allegiance is. That’s how some people can manage to read a movie in which the working-class hero blows up the world’s conspiring elites in order to stop the common folk from massacring each other as nothing but a right-wing fantasy, and how other people can manage to read a movie in which an unaccountable intelligence organisation gentrifies a lower-class kid to make him worth something, before blowing up an environmentalist and President Obama, as proletariat wish-fulfilment. Both of those describe The Secret Service, but there are elements in the sequel that have the same effect — this time, it’s your stance towards the war on drugs and how we deal with addicts that is being prodded.

View to a kill

All of that said, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards (as you do, especially if you’re going to, say, write a review for a blog or something), the more some issues do begin to become apparent. While I don’t inherently object to the Glastonbury sequence (I’d wager it in part exists as another way for Vaughn to thumb his nose at critics of certain parts of the first movie, and he got ’em too), I do think there were cleverer ways to handle it. Vaughn has said that sequence is meant to be about having to do something you don’t want to do for the sake of your job, but that doesn’t wholly explain the teenage smuttiness of how it plays out. I mean, wouldn’t it be funnier if Eggsy felt he had to stick to his principles and find a way to clumsily shove his finger up Clara’s nose? Then phone Tilde back: “It’s okay babe, I only put it up her nose.” “You did what?!”

So yeah, it’s not a perfect movie. But, at least while it was on, I was having way too much fun to care. If you’re the kind of person who found something (or lots of things) about the first movie offensive to your moral fibre, chances are slim that you’ll like this sequel. Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who misses ’90s lads-mag culture, you’ll bloody love it, mate. For those of us somewhere on the (very broad) spectrum between those two points, other reviews make it clear that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it was very much to mine. The niggles I’ve mentioned have led me to give it a lower score than the first film, but I reserve the right to change my mind as soon as I get a chance to rewatch it — I can envision myself ultimately revisiting The Golden Circle more regularly than The Secret Service.

4 out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas most places now, and in the other places soon.

* At time of writing. It was 49% on Saturday and 51% on Sunday, so it might be different again by the time you read this. ^

Muppet Review Roundup

In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which seems Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets sees casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • 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

  • Free Fire (2016)

    2017 #105
    Ben Wheatley | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Free Fire

    The latest film from director Ben Wheatley (he of Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and the rest) is by far his most accessible movie yet. Set in Boston in the ’70s, it sees two IRA fellas (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) arranging through a pair of black market brokers (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay), with each side bringing along a couple of chaps to carry boxes (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti). But things go sideways when a couple of those minor participants have a falling out, leading to a protracted shoot-out. “Protracted” as in “two-thirds of the movie”.

    If an hour-long gunfight doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe Free Fire isn’t the movie for you. Conversely, this isn’t a Jason Statham flick: instead of an hour of highly-choreographed gunplay, most of the participants get injured early on and end up seeking cover around the rubble-strewn floor of an abandoned factory, occasionally taking potshots at each other. Most action movies are defined by their characters sprinting about — in this one, they crawl. The screenplay was partly inspired by FBI ballistics reports from real gunfights, so there’s actually some veracity to how things go down.

    Guys with guns

    So, on the one hand, it has a definite grit and reality. Bullet wounds actually hurt, leaving characters dragging themselves around in the dirt. Although there are occasional bullet-flying free-for-alls, just as often every shot counts. Similarly, their guns run out of bullets — frequently. Sometimes, permanently. On the other hand, however, it’s a bit like something Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie might once have made, although thankfully without slavishly duplicating either of their overfamiliar styles. Without being an out-and-out comedy, it’s often pretty funny, thanks to the ludicrous situation and outrageous characters — all while remaining just this side of plausible, that is.

    Unfortunately, the thin premise means it lags a bit in the middle. It feels in need of a clearer overall purpose and one or two more ideas. A better sense of space would help, too. We know who’s shooting at who, but for a long time we don’t really know where they all are in relation to each other. That’s not a deliberate choice to evoke the confusion of a gunfight or something — the characters all seem to know where they need to point their weapons. It’s a lack of filmmaking clarity, exposed in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette when it’s revealed how meticulously and thoroughly the whole thing was mapped out — it’s a real shame that doesn’t translate on screen.

    More guys with guns

    These are flaws that hold Free Fire back from perfection, mind. It’s still a fitfully funny, sporadically tense, gleefully violent hour-long shoot-out. And events occur in real-time, too, which I always have a soft spot for. When all is eventually said and done, I doubt critics and scholars are going to hold it up as a key film of Wheatley’s career, but I’d wager it’s the one most people will get the most enjoyment from.

    4 out of 5

    Free Fire is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

    She isn’t pictured in the review, so here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

    Badass Brie

    Dunkirk (2017)

    2017 #102
    Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

    Dunkirk

    Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

    And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

    Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

    We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

    I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fishermen and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

    So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

    Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

    But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

    To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

    Background details

    I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

    Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

    We shall wait for them on the beaches

    In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

    So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

    5 out of 5

    Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

    The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

    2017 #28
    Colm McCarthy | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Girl with All the Gifts

    When George A. Romero invented the zombie subgenre in the ’60s, he was more concerned with allegory than blood ‘n’ guts. The latter has come to dominate, as it has with so much of the broader horror genre, but from time to time there’s still room for thoughtful contributions more befitting Romero’s legacy. This low-budget British film, adapted from a young adult novel, is one such effort.

    As the film opens we’re introduced to Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who sits in a concrete bedroom treasuring her photo of a kitten. Then soldiers enter and, at gunpoint, strap her to a chair, before wheeling her to a classroom with similarly restrained children. It’s just the beginning of a fantastic first act, full of atmosphere and intrigue as this world is rolled out before us. The less you know the better, though the chances of going in so cold that it’s a total mystery are sadly slim. If you’re intrigued enough already to check out the movie on my recommendation alone, stop reading now! Go watch it! If not…

    So, as it turns out, we’re in the near future and a fungal disease has turned most of humanity into zombie-like creatures known as ‘hungries’. They spend most of their time in a dormant trance, but the smell of uninfected blood sends them wild and chompy. Melanie and her classmates are children who are infected but ‘normal’ — unless provoked, when they too turn into ravenous fiends — and they may hold the key to a cure. They live on an army base, but, when it’s overrun by hungries, Melanie and a ragtag group of survivors — including Paddy Considine’s sergeant, teacher Gemma Arterton, and scientist Glenn Close, who’s obsessed with finding a cure at any cost — hit the road in search of safe haven.

    On the road

    In the A.V. Club’s review, Katie Rife asserts that “once this initial premise is revealed and The Girl With All The Gifts leaves the base… this intriguing twist on zombie lore becomes subsumed by postapocalyptic road-trip cliché.” Well, yes and no. There are certainly some familiar beats, but I felt like those just gave a narrative shape to contain otherwise interesting ideas. I haven’t seen enough zombie movies to vouch for The Girl With All The Gifts being 100% original, but I’d certainly not come across some of its ideas before. That goes for both the way it handles the zombie action (though, of course, there are only so many ways you can depict the monstrous undead) and the social commentary, which, as much as anything, tackles the way children and adults interrelate.

    The eponymous girl is fantastic — Melanie is an interesting character, and an interesting type of character too. She’s fantastically played by Sennia Nanua, who may be a talent to watch out for in future (I say ‘may’ because, per IMDb, she’s not got anything else coming up). The more familiar supporting cast are as superb as you’d expect. Glenn Close brings plausibility to what could’ve just been an Evil Scientist role, while Gemma Arterton provides the film’s heart as a motherly teacher. Paddy Considine’s role is best appreciated once all is said and done — he seems to be just the gruff soldier type, but snippets of his backstory are revealed right up until the end, revealing new layers to his character.

    Special school

    Director Colm McCarthy, a veteran of copious amounts of British TV (Spooks, Doctor Who, Sherlock, Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders, and much, much more), keeps the focus on the characters while also giving their world a fantastic sense of scale. The film was made for a pittance (for comparison, it cost about half as much as a single episode of Game of Thrones) but looks incredible. There may be some blurry edges on green screen shots and things like that, but I’ve seen less convincing effects work in movies that cost 50 times as much. Some of the footage was captured by flying over the remains of a town left to rot after Chernobyl, which lends a veracity to the post-apocalyptic vistas (and presumably saved a tonne on CGI). In terms of places you can actually take actors, it was partly filmed in Birmingham, which seems to be becoming a go-to location for dystopian / post-apocalyptic cityscapes (Spielberg’s forthcoming Ready Player One also shot there last year).

    The zombie genre is an overcrowded one nowadays, even if you exclude the innumerable direct-to-DVD knock-offs, but there’s still space for well-made movies that can put the familiar tropes to greater use. The Girl with All the Gifts is an impressively mounted and performed production, and is worth watching if just for that horror-thriller kick. However, it also has something to say. I imagine Romero would be pleased.

    5 out of 5

    The Girl with All the Gifts is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Baby Driver (2017)

    2017 #89
    Edgar Wright | 113 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / R

    Baby Driver

    It felt like half (at least) of the film-loving internet had somehow had a chance to see Baby Driver before its release on Wednesday, but I’m going to throw my two cents into the ring anyhow. Not that it makes a great deal of difference because, like most other folks, I bloody loved it.

    Written and directed by Edgar Wright, director of the Cornetto trilogy and not of Ant-Man, the story focuses on getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), a fundamentally good kid who has ended up suckered into a life of crime, working for robbery kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a rotating array of criminal compadres. An accident as a kid left Baby with “a hum in the drum” — tinnitus, if you want to get medical about it — meaning he listens to music all the time to drown it out, and also choreographs his daring drives (not to mention his walks down the street, etc) to the music he hears. One day he bumps into Debbie (Lily James) and falls in love, which happily coincides with his “one last job” for Doc. But once you’re in it’s hard to get out, and Baby again finds himself doing one more “one last job”, with a particularly volatile crew…

    Baby Driver is a movie about three things: driving, music, and love. As Guillermo del Toro put it, it’s a kind of fable, or fairytale, with Baby as the prince and Debbie as the princess. In this respect it’s a change of pace for Wright, ditching the almost-spoof comedy of his previous successful movies for something more emotionally earnest. Not in a bad way, but in a kind of pure way, like a fairytale. This fairytale world isn’t all castles and dragons, of course — instead it’s full of violent criminals and fast cars; but it’s also a world where you can synchronise your getaway driving to the music on your iPod, so it’s hardly mired in gritty realism.

    No little green bags here

    There’s a definite edge of Wright’s buddy Quentin Tarantino to this world: a cast of crooks delivering snappy, quotable dialogue to a near-constant soundtrack of deep cuts selected from the director’s music collection (plus a few familiar tunes for good measure) — the style of QT comes to mind more than once while watching. Fortunately Baby Driver’s style is more than homage or copycatting. Although it’s not a straight-up comedy, Wright does bring his own comedic touch (there are several big laughs), and the purity of emotion — that fairytaleness again — isn’t from Tarantino’s wheelhouse either. Plus, visually it presents a brighter and more colourful space than Tarantino normally inhabits. Most of the action takes place in the golden daylight of Atlanta and is filled with popping primary colours. There’s much great work by DP Bill Pope.

    Though the soundtrack may have a Tarantino feel in its construction, that’s less prevalent in its usage. Characters communicate through song — not by singing them (most of the time — Baby first notices Debbie because she’s singing “B-A-B-Y”), but by connecting through them (that singing is followed by a discussion of songs featuring her name — both of them). The songs Baby chooses for boogieing around his small apartment, or for dancing down the street on a coffee run (in a title sequence that is marvellously choreographed, with dozens of small details timed perfectly to the track), help illuminate his true character — sweet and romantic — which is hidden by the sullen silence he adopts whenever around criminals.

    B-A-B-Y Baby

    Some have criticised the film for a lack of character, reckoning Baby’s silence distances him from the viewer so we never build a connection and don’t root for him. Frankly, I’m not sure what film they were watching. No spoilers, but Baby first opens up with something endearing and ingratiating in scene one. Right at the start. It could barely be any closer to the studio logos (and it kinda wouldn’t work if it were). I’m not arguing he’s the most charismatic lead ever to grace the silver screen, but Elgort makes fine fist of selling Baby as both a quiet, focused driver and a sweet, likeable, cheer-on-able hero.

    And if you want character in general, the rest of the cast has it in spades, with an array of supporting roles that are as colourful as the cinematography. Recognisable faces like Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and John Bernthal get to cut loose as crooks who each have their own kooks, while lesser-known names like CJ Jones (as Baby’s foster father) and Eiza González (as the Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde) make a mark too. Lily James may be placed in a dream-figure damsel role, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hold her own at times too. She’s not Wonder Woman, but she’s not a Manic Pixie Whatever That Phrase Was either.

    Mozart in a go-kart

    So, the one major thing I’ve only touched on fleetingly thus far is the main thing the film has attracted attention for: the driving. Done for real by stunt drivers with not a lick of CGI, that knowledge means it packs a viscerally real punch. But it’s not just snobbery: this is genuinely breathtaking action, slickly planned, masterfully performed, magnificently shot and edited. It’s this year’s Fury Road — a kinetic action spectacle made with skill rather than hand-waiving fast-cuts. Even more impressively, it’s been choreographed to music, but not in a draw-attention-to-itself dance-routine-y way. Perhaps saying it’s been synced to the music would be more accurate. Either way, it only heightens the effect. This extends beyond the car chases, too, including one marvellously musical shootout, the gunfire serving as percussion. The sound design throughout is exemplary. This is a movie that deserves to be remembered come awards season. Perhaps, again like Fury Road, some love will extend beyond the technical categories, too. Wright seems deserving of Best Director recognition, just like George Miller was.

    But such back-patting is for much later in the year. For now, just revel in the gleeful moviemaking verve of a flick that already seems destined to be remembered as one of the greatest car chase movies ever produced.

    5 out of 5

    Baby Drivers is in cinemas many places right now, but not everywhere. It’ll be worth the wait, guys.

    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

    Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

    2016 #191
    Susanna White | 108 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English, Russian & French | 15 / R

    Our Kind of Traitor

    Based on a John le Carré novel, Our Kind of Traitor sees a couple of holidaying Brits, Perry and Gail MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris), befriending a Russian chap called Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), who it turns out has links to the Mafia and wants our hapless heroes to deliver an information-filled USB stick to British intelligence. As MI6 (primarily represented by Damian Lewis) seek to act on the information, the MacKendricks get drawn into the espionage game thanks to their relationship with Dima.

    Some of Traitor’s detractors have a problem with it right from the off, finding the premise to be inherently ridiculous. I disagree. In fact, I think it’s quite a good plan on Dima’s part: to use an unsuspected casual acquaintance to smuggle important documents to the authorities. The way the MacKendricks continue to be involved does wind up stretching credibility, but that’s narrative structure for you — it’d be a real trick to construct a satisfying relay of perspective characters.

    If anyone could pull that off it’s probably Le Carré, but this is not his most complicated plot — there are even less twists or double-crosses than you’re probably expecting — but as a tense thriller it satisfies often enough. However, Le Carré as author, plus screenwriter Hossein Amini and director Susanna White, seem to be more interested in the story’s real-world resonances. They’re using a thriller plot to bring up the kind of probably-genuine corruption we get in government today. On the one hand it feels a little obvious, especially to those of certain political leanings, but on the other it’s worth highlighting. An impassioned speech by Damian Lewis to some of his superiors sums it up, probably rather too neatly for some discerning critics.

    British intelligence

    Lewis is always good value, both in scenes like that and in his tentative partnership with McGregor. Although the MacKendricks are our point-of-view characters, the innocent normal people we should relate to, McGregor’s Perry is ultimately a little flat and Harris is underused. The real star is Skarsgård as the gregarious and foul-mouthed Russian banker, who is by turns unsettlingly dangerous and engagingly likeable. Or perhaps it’s the beautiful cinematography by DP Anthony Dod Mantle — the varied international locations are particularly effective at adding scale to a story that’s really about the personal interactions of four or five people.

    Our Kind of Traitor is not the very best Le Carré adaptation, especially given the increasing number we’re being treated to these days, but it’s still a reasonably engrossing thriller with something to say about contemporary geopolitics.

    4 out of 5