Tomorrowland

Posted: May 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

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*** (out of five)

Tomorrowland will be remembered as the film that launched Britt Robertson into movie stardom. As  Casey Newton, the feisty, science-minded daughter of a NASA engineer, Robertson does everything she can to single-handedly power this awkward, confused, shambolic young adult fantasy along. She can do perky, she can toss a double-take, and her wide-eyed, eyebrows-up, mouth-agape look of surprise saves many a scene from total irrelevence.

It’s not that the movie is bad, per se, but it’s just so undisciplined. It feels like writers Brad Bird (who also directed) and Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus) started with a blank page and an unlimited budget, wrote feverishly for forty-eight hours, and shot the result with no re-writing, re-structuring or even re-reading. It’s like a one hundred and ninety million dollar improvisation.

Casey is a teenage suburban terrorist (she continually sabotages a NASA structure that is zoned for demolition, in an ongoing attempt to stop it being demolished) who is chosen by a very perky little English girl, Athena (Raffy Cassidy) to help build a brighter future for planet Earth. Trouble is, as cranky old inventor Frank Walker (George Clooney, making bank) tells her, it’s too late. Essentially, there is no there there – the tomorrow of our dreams has been hijacked by a geezer named Nix (Hugh Laurie), and we’re to be left with the tomorrow of our nightmares, which, the movie and Nix state very emphatically, is the one we have actively chosen through our nihilistic and lazy pessimism.

Shifting tones wildly, incorporating some very dubious choices (I’m looking at you, head robot man) and featuring a relentless, mind-numbing score (Michael Giacchino) that cranks every scene up to a dramatic eleven, Tomorrowland knows what it wants to say, but says it way too often and often in gibberish. At the end of the day, its vision of Utopia is essentially a combo of Changi Airport and Walt Disney World. Guess which studio produced it?

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** (out of five)

Even Rose Byrne, who has consistently been scoring the most comic goals in supporting roles in American studio comedies over the last few years, is left high and comedically dry by the script and direction of Spy, a generally unfunny, very expensive misfire that is often embarrassing to watch. Byrne manages to achieve a final moment of dignity in her last shot in the film with a subtle piece of physical comedy, but her co-star (and the star of the film) Melissa McCarthy has no such luck; her performance – and ninety-five percent of the movie – is laugh-free.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, the desk-bound earworm for Bond-like CIA agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law). As he roams a generic gorgeous villa amongst generic baddies, she, in Virginia, directs his movements through an earpiece. She’s madly in love with him, of course, or at least in awe-love. When something happens to him, and she’s called to follow up by being deployed in the field, her actual abilities are put to the test.

Or something like that. The plot is obviously just a hanger on which to drape jokes, if there were any. That’s not fair – there are plenty of jokes, but they’re almost all stale, in bad taste, or simply not funny (usually all three). What should be comic gold – especially Jason Statham taking the piss out of his own image – is tragically, toe-curlingly flat, all due to the script. Statham has a monologue that outlines the many ways his character, über-tough spy Rick Ford, has cheated death; it should’ve been brilliant, but it feels like the “vomit draft”, the splurge of words used to denote a paragraph of a screenplay that is meant to be polished later. Nothing seems to have been polished here at all.

McCarthy remains an enigma to me, and not a good one. If she’s the funniest thing in movies at the moment, I’m missing the joke. Her persona – that of a sad sack, jealous of the beautiful people around her and depressed at not being one – is not funny, and here it takes place of character, which really confuses the movie, for Cooper is meant to be a fierce and highly skilled fighter. There is no consistency or through-line. One moment she’s kicking ass, the next she’s screaming “I shat my pants” as a way to stealthily follow her mark.

Twice-Emmied Bobby Cannavale cranks up the ham to play a third-act villain. He and Byrne are an item, and so far they’ve got the recent version of Annie, and this, under their belts as a couple in the same film. Separately, they’re often brilliant, and in good projects. Just sayin’.

Allison Janney is wasted in a role that should have been hysterical. It’s a crime to get Janney, a brilliant comedian, and give her crap to work with. Playing a CIA boss, there was endless opportunity to riff on her hard-edged persona accumulated through The West Wing and myriad other turns. Instead, she’s been given expositional, generic text, mainly glued into a drab chair. The wastefulness of her brilliance is emblematic of this bloated movie. So many good resources were involved, and so little of value appears on screen.

With some big-budget comedies that don’t work, it is often reported that at least the actors appear to have been having a good time, but one can’t say that here. Everyone looks strained, confused or downright desperate; I imagine some of these talented performers wishing they could finesse their lines but unable to since “We’ve only got the Vi Del Corso for two more hours!” Only Miranda Hart, from Call The Midwife, comes out alive, playing Cooper’s colleague and ally Nancy. She spends about half of her performance on the phone, and I imagine she was given the opportunity to just riff. Thank goodness. She’s in a completely different movie, but at least it’s a funny one.

WILD TALES

Posted: May 21, 2015 in Uncategorized
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**** (out of five)

Oscar Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film Wild Tales lives up to its title. An old-school anthology film, the only connecting theme here is revenge, and the tone is very black comedy. Writer / director Damián Szifron’s style and tone are similar to Tarantino’s, and if you like his stuff you’ll certainly hoover up what’s on offer here.

Each of the six stories is slightly longer than the last, but they’re all clever and laugh-out-loud funny. There’s an airplane tale, a roadside diner tale, a car tale, a parking ticket tale, a corruption tale and a wedding tale. If you’re familiar with Argentinean cinema you’ll see plenty of familiar faces among the large cast; the best role belongs to Ricardo Darín (The Secret In Their Eyes, Nine Queens) who is excellent as a civic demolitions expert upset at his car getting towed.

Amongst the humour (and the bursts of violence, all tongue-in-cheek and never gory) there’s a lot of fuel being levelled at Argentina’s seemingly invincible levels of corruption. Buenos Aires is well captured, warts and all, and at various levels of society, and the pace never flags. The whole package is very slick and enormously entertaining. Highly recommended.

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*** (out of five)

As frivolous and weightless as a macaroon, A Royal Night Out is actually quite charming and sweet; it survives by being completely self-aware: of its own slightness, of its outlandish concept, and most importantly, of the desires of its intended audience.

Taking their cues from the true event of British Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being allowed out, incognito, among the people of London on the night of VE Day, 1945, screenwriters Trevor De Silva and Kevin Hood and director Julian Jarrold spin a fanciful (and surely almost entirely bogus) farce. Margaret (a cute Bel Powley) gets lost from her sister early (and only gets scattered scenes throughout the film); Elizabeth (the gorgeous Sarah Gaden) teams up with an airman, Jack (Jack Reynor) for much of the night, stirring at least something inside of her.

Any film whose biggest concern is, “Did the future Queen of England kiss a bloke that night?” is obviously not for everyone. But if the war, the royals, or period frocks are your game, this could be the right sweet confection for you.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-Banner-Charlize-Theron-Tom-Hardy ***** (out of five)

It was only about six or seven minutes into Mad Max: Fury Road that I knew that I’d be seeing it again in a matter of days. It was a couple of minutes after that when I realised that this film was going to look freaking spectacular in 3-D (I was watching it traditionally). I was already getting excited for my second viewing not ten minutes into my first. Fury Road is everything you want from a Mad Max film. It’s got the action, the cars and the characters; more importantly, in allegiance with the first three films – and especially The Road Warrior, the classic of the series – it’s got the weird vernacular, the Australian-ness, and the complete commitment to its own unique and totally insane universe. It may have cost a studio hundreds of millions of dollars, but it still feels home-grown, hand-made, and completely deviant.

George Miller, supposedly directing not from a script but from 3,500 storyboards he has created over the last decades with Brendan McCarthy (2000 AD), Mark Sexton and Peter Pound, has delivered one of the most kinetic, energetic, vibrant and thrilling action movies ever made. Like Gravity of a couple of years ago, and Avatar before that, Fury Road is a game changer, one of those films that has your jaw on the floor and your head spinning as you wonder just how in the world this thing possibly got made.

Don’t listen to the already often repeated cliché that it’s a two hour car chase. Like any good movie, Fury Road has its ebbs and flows, a three act structure, and a storyline to be excited by and characters to care about. There is emotion, there are gargantuan stakes, and a very moving emotional connection is made between Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).

The plot is simple but elegant. Alone in the wasteland, Max is kidnapped and brought to the Citadel run by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played The Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Joe’s lead driver Furiosa is about to head off and make a fuel run. In these opening moments of the film we see a fully realised world that could only have been created by George Miller (and must have been driving him mad for the many years it took him to get them from his brain onto our screens). Every simple cutaway shot, every prop, every strange growl and weird squeak reveals a richly textured and highly specific cinematic universe.

Furiosa is meant to travel to Gas Town, but she has other plans. She’s stolen something very valuable to Joe and he’s pissed. A massive chase party is established and Max is used within it in a particularly ghoulish way. The stage is set, the chase is on, and 200 unique, incredible, mind-boggling vehicles careen across the desert.

The stunt work is astonishing: mind-blowing, game-changing, unbelievable. But there is so much more to the film. The depth of connection able to be achieved between the characters in the midst of all this mayhem is beautiful – as is the look of the film (the spectacular cinematography is by John Seale, who will be getting an Oscar nomination, mark my words). It has been graded (colour corrected) phenomenally; the reds of the desert and the blues of the sky; the cast of Charlize Theron’s face; the blacks and greys of the vehicles and the bad guys – it’s a little richer and more vibrant than real life; it’s a comic book, a fantasy. It looks brilliant.

Hardy’s Max is perfect. For the first half he’s not very proactive, but in the second he gets to make choices, offer solutions and figure himself out a little bit – and it works. His relationship with Theron’s Furiosa is not just surprising but touching. They’re two lost souls uniting in a form of heroism. Don’t worry – there’s nothing mushy; it’s much more Mad Max than that. Miller doesn’t do mushy, but he respects his characters and gives them hearts and souls, damaged as they may be.

Theron is fierce as you might expect, but also vulnerable and multi-faceted. Furiosa has an agenda and it’s all about women. The last act of the film gives us a panoply of older female characters with weapons, and using them. It’s fun, it’s kinda feminist, and it’s far more moving than any of the trailers could’ve possibly led you to guess.

Miller is up there with Kubrick, Spielberg, Cameron and Jackson as one of the great conceptualists working on the largest possible scale. This film is the work of a singular balls-to-the-wall visionary. About two thirds of the way through I thought, gosh, if Miller happened to pass away at any time during this film’s production process (he was 70 during principal photography) there is no-one who could’ve finished it – at least not like this. Essentially the script is his brain. He has claimed that there are two more ready to go. Let’s get rolling, people!

For dedicated adherents to the Book of Max, this film falls firmly into the canon. Tom Hardy is playing Max – not his son, not someone else called Max – and this film definitely takes place after the first three. It’s a continuation of  that universe, absolutely. There are many shout outs / Easter eggs / references / sly winks at the first three films – in fact so many that I could watch it a third time just to check up on all of those.

You know what? I will. Of its type this film is bloody perfect, and I’ll be seeing a lot of it.

Ex Machina

Posted: May 12, 2015 in Uncategorized

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 ***1/2 (out of five)

Alicia Vikander is a young Swedish actress who is going to be a very big star. I made that prediction a couple of weeks ago, reviewing Testament of Youth, in which she played an entirely believable young Englishwoman. Now, in Ex Machina, she plays an entirely believable American-accented robot.

This is trickier than it sounds, because legendary screenwriter Alex Garland’s debut feature as a director is not concerned with robots, but rather the AI that guides them – their brains. Vikander’s Ava, the most intriguing AI since Samantha in Her (2013) and the most intriguing robot for many a moon, may or may not be “perfect AI”, and it is Garland’s, and Vikander’s, job to keep us guessing just how perfect it – or she – is.

Our audience surrogate is Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, who remains much leaner than his portly dad Brendan) who works as a coder at a tech company called Bluebook, which is obviously standing in for Google. At the top of the film, Caleb wins a competition to go hang out with the company’s reclusive founding CEO, Nathan, at his spectacular house in the wilderness (the exteriors were shot in Norway, but it is unspecified in the film where Nathan’s home is meant to be). Upon arrival, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) tells Caleb he wants him to apply the “Turing Test” to his creation, Ava. In other words, he wants Caleb to tell him if the AI is perfect.

What follows will feel very familiar for fans of the brilliant British television show Black Mirror – an exquisitely shot, small-scale piece of speculative sci-fi that is either set right now or moments away. It’s very stylish, often very creepy, and has just enough twists and turns to maintain its 108 minutes. Nathan’s house is the very best architecture porn, a spectacular modern affair built directly into the incredible Nordic landscape. Oscar Isaac occasionally over-eggs Nathan, twirling his metaphorical moustache just a bit, but he’s such a charismatic actor and the role is written intriguingly enough that he pulls it off. Domhnall Gleeson’s American accent seems to challenge him a bit but that annoyance dissipates and he does well with the least interesting role.

The most interesting role, of course, is Ava, and Vikander nails it. All we see of her natural body is her face, her hands and her feet – the rest of her is the inner workings of a robotic body, and Vikander and the visual effects team have together created something magical. It’s actually possible to say of this film that it’s worth seeing just for the robot.

Side note: between my review ofTestament of Youth and this Vikander has stepped even closer to mega-stardom. Earlier this week she was announced as the new “Face of Louis Vuitton.”

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Kristen Stewart last showed her chops head to head with Julianne Moore in Still Alice; Moore won an Oscar. I don’t think Juliette Binoche is going to win an Oscar for going head-to-head with Stewart for Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas new enigmatic, occasionally frustrating but ultimately wonderful new film, and I think the reason is that Binoche has been so wonderful, so genuine – the very embodiment of a skilfully natural actress – that we take her talent for granted these days.

Such thematic stuff is all part of the sinew of Clouds, which, when boiled down to its essence, is an examination of the private lives of international female movie stars. But on the surface – and this is the movie’s quite brilliant trick – for the most part it seems to be about the relationship an assistant has with their boss.

Stewart plays Valentine, a completely Euro-ised American young woman, the assistant to (big big big) movie star Maria Enders (Binoche, obviously). Valentine is a brilliant assistant; she knows how to drink what her boss is drinking, dress as she’s needed to dress, smoke when is appropriate, be cool when cool is right and be uncool when uncool is right – to know when to be slave, comrade, date, friend, and slave again – often in a day. She manages three phones and two lives. Her own life is not entirely given over to that of her employer – she can ask for a night to rendez-vous with the hot young photographer who has just shot a session with her boss – but it essentially is. She’s an American in Europe and seems to be loving it.

Through a relatively uncontrived set of circumstances, a mirroring effect is set up among Valentine, Maria, and a hot young American movie star named Ann (shades – deliberately, I’m positive – of All About Eve) – played by Chloë Grace Moretz. But lest you assume things are going to get salacious or melodramatic, they don’t. This film is shot on an even keel, and smells deeply of truth. I don’t know what movie stars and their assistants are like, but Assayas does, and so do Binoche and Stewart: I stayed for the credits, and they both had real assistants, and Stewart had a bodyguard to boot. Stewart’s performance as Binoche’s assistant is brilliant, and she also essentially acts as her bodyguard: I hope Stewart’s retinue petit was happy with her performance. They should be.