iBoy (2017)

2017 #11
Adam Randall | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

iBoy

When it comes to TV, Netflix are dominating the cultural landscape with much-discussed original series like Stranger Things, Making a Murderer, Orange is the New Black, the Gilmore Girls revival, their cadre of Marvel shows… I could go on. But when it comes to their original movies — the eponymous “flix” — well, it’s a bit different. Their Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon sequel went down like a lead balloon; Beasts of No Nation was well reviewed but couldn’t translate that into the awards buzz that was clearly hoped for; and their Adam Sandler movies… well, those are apparently very popular with viewers, at least.

Their latest effort, iBoy, is based on a young adult novel about a teenager who fights against bad people — so that’s pretty zeitgeisty at least. It’s not set in a dystopian future, though, but why bother when our own days are so bleak? So iBoy sets its stall in present-day London, where Tom (Bill “the sweet one from Son of Rambow” Milner, looking completely different) is just a normal teen — going to school by day, blocking out the sounds of violence around his tower block by night. When the girl he fancies (Maisie Williams) invites him round to study one evening, he turns up at her flat to find her being, to not put too fine a point on it, gang raped. He runs, trying to phone the police, but the gang give chase and shoot him in the head. When he wakes up, parts of his phone have been inoperably embedded in his brain, which he soon comes to realise has given him the ability to interact with technology using his mind.

Look, it's London!

So, yeah — scientifically, it’s a thoroughly dubious premise. But is it any worse than having abilities bestowed by a radioactive spider-bite or spilled toxic goo? In respect to Tom’s newfound powers and how he chooses to use them — as a vigilante seeking revenge on the gang that have been terrorising his estate — iBoy is more in line with superhero narratives than other young adult adaptations. Where it comes unstuck is the tone. How many superhero films are going to feature gang rape? Well, somewhat appropriately, I guess the Netflix ones might. But the disjunct between iBoy’s daft premise and the grim world of inner city gangs (there are more acts of shocking violence) is a difficult one to negotiate.

To its credit, iBoy doesn’t use the assault as a starting incident and then discard its aftereffects — the presence of Maisie Williams, who’s been quite outspoken about the treatment of female characters in media, should give an indication that it’s not so thoughtless. But nor does a 90-minute movie that’s fundamentally about a superpowered vigilante have much time to dig into it properly. Nonetheless, Williams essays the role with some subtlety, aided by a screenplay that keeps things appropriately unverbalised. Perhaps the most effective part is when, home alone, she has to venture outside for some milk.

Nasty gangs

Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t pay the same amount of attention to the hows-and-whys of its hero and his abilities. Apparently hacking someone else’s phone involves watching a progress bar; he can learn how to fight while watching a couple of YouTube videos during the ten seconds he’s walking towards an assailant; and so on. A little more effort would’ve sold the premise more and could’ve removed these niggles (at least have him download a phone-hacking app or something; maybe the YouTube videos could be downloaded into his brain, but his unpracticed muscles struggle to perform the moves). Problem is, the notion of phone fragments getting stuck in your brain and giving you superpowers is pretty silly, so even if you provide better internal consistency, it’s still a struggle to parse that implausibility being mashed up against the ultra-real-world stylings of the rest of the story. Films like Super and Kick-Ass do the “real-life superhero” thing by making their hero a bit inept. Maybe iBoy isn’t shooting for “real-life superhero”, but then why are the threats he faces so serious?

Talking of the threats, Rory Kinnear turns up near the end as the Big Bad, and lifts the film considerably. I suppose there’s not a whole lot of originality in a politely-spoken but actually horrendous villain, but Kinnear sells the part effortlessly. You kind of want to see that character (or at least that performance) turn up in something bigger and better. Elsewhere, Miranda Richardson brings some much-needed lightness as Tom’s grandma, who serves as an Aunt May figure. If nothing else, you can rely on British productions to have quality acting, eh?

British baddies are best

For all this criticism, on the whole I didn’t dislike iBoy while it played out, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As Netflix’s first genuine original movie from the UK, it’s a shame it can’t demonstrate to the rest of the Netflix-viewing world what British film could be capable of if encouraged, but maybe that would be too big a weight to put on its little shoulders anyhow.

3 out of 5

iBoy is available on Netflix everywhere (I presume).

Ender’s Game (2013)

2015 #146
Gavin Hood | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Adapted from the classic young adult sci-fi novel by Orson Scott “bigoted idiot” Card, Ender’s Game is the story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who displays uncommon aptitude in a military programme to train children to fight against an alien race that attacked Earth decades earlier. Sent to a training centre in space, Ender must battle his fellow candidates to prove their worth to their hardened commander, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), ready for the real battle to come.

Ender’s Game endured a pretty mixed reception a couple of years ago (not helped by the media exposure given to Card’s less-than-savoury personal views), and it’s quite a mixed film: for every positive, a negative follows close behind. It’s not helped by its first act, where the film seems to struggle with its own setup. After that, however, it’s a fairly well structured story, in which you can actually believe Ender is learning to be a better leader. Normally when a movie features “an excellent military strategist” we’re told that and never shown it, but here we see how Ender’s skills as a strategist develop and are exhibited.

The rest of writer-director Gavin Hood’s screenplay is, again, a mixed bag. The dialogue is frequently clunky, particularly struggling with exposition — there are utterly dead scenes where characters just explain the plot to each other — but, while it is at no point strong, it’s often serviceable. There are strong themes, however, several of which have relevance to our modern world. Unfortunately, none feel fully developed or explored. It tips its hat to things like drone warfare, child soldiers, and understanding our enemy, but that’s all it does: acknowledge those parallels exist, then refuse to explore them. Conversely, the music is too heavy-handed, taking on the burden of providing emotion that’s lacking from the screenplay.

Most of the cast are very good. Asa Butterfield well conveys a moderately complex character, though I can believe others’ comments that Ender is more fully developed in the book. Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin offer able support; Harrison Ford proves he’s still awesome; Ben Kingsley battles what turns out to be a New Zealand accent (I’d assumed it was South African) in a cameo-sized turn; Viola Davis is ludicrously underused — she does basically nothing, then walks into Ford’s office and essentially declares, “I am no longer needed by the plot, I quit.”

At least there are solid action/sci-fi thrills on offer. The inter-student practice fights in the Danger Room (or whatever it was called) are really good — suitably exciting and fun, with impressive effects work. There are many good visuals in the film, but then strong CGI is par for the course these days. That’s why the space station stuff is best: the alien race and their planet are well-realised but also feel like nothing new; and the space station’s corridors, offices, and bunk room sets are well done, though as derived from familiar real-life and/or near-future styles as much as many other SF movies; but the station’s giant glass-walled zero-G training arena is stunning.

Sadly, after all that training fun, once the cadets jet off to the other side of the galaxy for a rushed third act, interest evaporates speedily. It even has to work hard to sell its own twist as a twist! (Spoilers follow in this paragraph.) In a simulation for a war, Ender does what he’d do to win that war. Then he’s told it wasn’t a simulation, it was the actual war… and he’s all cross. I mean, okay, the fella kinda has a point when he gets angry afterwards: they’ve lied to him, and maybe he would’ve behaved differently if he’d known. But the point of the training was to teach them what they needed to do to win, and it taught them that, and he did it. Maybe this twist works in the book, but in the film it felt somehow unearned.

Ender’s Game is not all it could be, but as a straightforward young-adult sci-fi action-adventure, I really rather enjoyed the majority of it.

4 out of 5

Twilight (2008)

2015 #145
Catherine Hardwicke | 122 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

I’m not a big one for Halloween, but I’ve acknowledged the horrific holiday on a couple of occasions now. For 2015, I decided to review one of the most notorious supernatural films of recent times. A movie so horrific, it sent critics cowering behind their sofas. A film so evil, it’s perverted the minds of children — and some adults — the world over. A movie so renowned, it strikes fear into the hearts of even hardened movie lovers.

I speak, of course, of Twilight.

(That was more surprising when it was in a generically-titled post as an introduction to a whole week of reviews for the entire saga, but then it turned out I had better things to watch in October than four more Twilight films, so you’re only getting this one for now.)

For thems that don’t know, Twilight is the story of Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), a teenager who moves to live with her father in the small town of Forks, Washington (apparently it’s actually a city, but the film would have you think it’s almost a village). Attending the local high school, she’s intrigued by the introverted Cullen siblings, in particular Edward (Robert Pattinson). To cut a long ramble short, it turns out they’re vampires, but friendly vegetarian vampires. Bella instantly falls in love with Edward in all of three seconds, because he’s kinda dangerous but pretty and sparkles in sunlight (we shall come back to this), though his lust for her brings out his blood-drinking side. Just to make things complicated, there are some other vampires visiting the area who have fewer qualms about drinking human blood…

Twilight is adapted from a young adult novel by Stephenie “one too many Es in her name” Meyer that no one had heard of (bar its legion of bloodthirsty fans) before someone thought it would make a good movie. It would probably have been better if things had stayed that way. There are many reasons for that, but let’s take them in the order they must’ve occurred. First: the story, which is also the worst part. Edward is an odd, creepy stalker — turning up in Bella’s bedroom and staring at her while she sleeps, that kind of thing — who she then finds out is a century-old man (bit of an age gap) and, literally, a predator… but she instantly unconditionally loves him. What the merry fuck? She’s given no reason to even like the guy, and plenty of reasons to run away scared of him, but no, she falls in love. What message is this sending to young girls? That the guy who follows you around everywhere just staring at you and then confesses he’s having trouble controlling his impulse to murder you (yes, he says that) is the perfect soulmate? Not to mention that he’s 100-and-something years old and dating a 17-year-old. He shouldn’t be pre-teen girls’ idol, he should be Hugh Hefner’s!

All of the characters are this poorly drawn. Their motivations, actions, and reactions often make little sense. The number of times one of them does something because Plot are incalculable. That’s without even mentioning Bella’s almost total inability to do anything for herself, except use Google to find some tiny second-hand bookshop in a rarely-visited town to buy a book about something she wants to research, rather than, say, use Google to read up a bit first. Then she gets the book, looks at one illustration and its caption, and it’s back on Google to find out more. Nice work, Bella.

All of this is Meyer’s fault, faithfully translated to the screen by adapter Melissa Rosenberg. This is a woman with quality TV form: she was a lead writer on Dexter back in its first four seasons, when it was really, really good; now she’s showrunner on the forthcoming Marvel/Netflix series Jessica Jones, which has promising trailers and a well-reviewed first episode, in particular its treatment of female characters. Yet she also wrote this. Even if you allow for her being hamstrung by the novel in story terms, the dialogue is appalling, in every respect. Characters bluntly state their own and each other’s emotions at each other. We’re always being told stuff instead of shown it. Scenes heavy with exposition are shot with frenetic camerawork and underscored with driving music as if that somehow makes it filmic and exciting.

Ah, the acting and direction! Nearly every performance is poor. Pattinson and Stewart spend the entire film appearing uncomfortable and puzzled — by themselves, with each other, with everyone else. Her only other emotion is “moody loner”; he at least manages a smile, maybe twice. Some of it is unbelievably cheesy, like an ’80s genre B-movie by a music video director. That kind of thing can work, a) when it’s from the period, or b) when it’s done knowingly. Twilight is neither. The Pacific Northwest location is inherently atmospheric, which is handy because Catherine Hardwicke’s direction does nothing to conjure up any such feeling itself.

And then we have vampires who sparkle. Sparkly vampires. Sparkly. Vampires. Just… why?! The whole traditional mythology of vampires is played fast and loose with, which is fine, that’s what many vampire flicks do; and there are even some borderline-neat subversions… but golly, that sparkliness is silly.

Some of these points are definitely just niggles, but the film is so laden with them that it all becomes ripe to cause either laughter or frustration. Better the former than the latter, which is why the Honest Trailer is so entertaining. See for yourself:

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually hate Twilight as much as I thought I might. Occasionally there are shots or moments that work, maybe even the odd whole scene. Bella’s dad is pretty good, both their relationship and Billy Burke’s performance. I quite liked some of the aggressively-blue cinematography, but then I do like the colour blue. There’s almost a nice element of melancholic “leaving a fun ordinary life behind for this fantastic but dangerous new one”, but I think that might be limited to literally one shot-reverse-shot of Bella seeing her friends leaving a café.

So it’s not a good film, but it’s not a “worst film ever made”-level disaster either. I mean, it’s not so bad that I can’t even bear the thought of watching the sequels. Actually, they kind of intrigue me, because (spoiler warning!) it hasn’t even got to the Jacob/werewolves stuff yet, and that whole Team Edward / Team Jacob aspect seemed to be such a big thing. And I want to see what Michael Sheen has to do with anything. And I kinda wanna see if Breaking Dawn is as batshit crazy as the plot description I once read made it sound. And maybe there’ll be more of Anna Kendrick’s cleavage, because wow, who knew that was there? (Look, it’s a movie about a creepy stalker romance between a 100-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl — a little light ogling of someone around my own age pales in comparison.)

So that’s Twilight for you: poorly plotted, poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed, teaching poor life lessons to its target age group, and yet still somehow so compelling that I’m prepared to sit through another eight-ish hours of the stuff. Never has the phrase “your mileage may vary” been so apt.*

2 out of 5

* Unless someone used it in reference to the Fast & Furious films.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.