Thursday, 31 March 2016

Eddie the Eagle Review – Slow to take off

A mousy Taron Egerton plays Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, the fabled underdog ski jumper, in this fluffy feel-good sports movie from producer Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Service).

Image courtesy of the Film Distributors Association.

If only Vaughn could have passed on some of his bite to Dexter Fletcher in the director’s chair. Fletcher’s film is cloyingly bubbly from the word go, as we take a whistle-stop tour through Eddie’s childhood as he tries (and fails) his hand at a gamut of Olympic disciplines. He finds most success on the slopes, but even then he’s turned away. So, Eddie decides to take things into his own hands and transfers over to ski jumping, hoping to qualify for the Olympics thanks to the complete lack of British competition.

The combination of frantic pacing and the soaring motivational 80s score results in some rather syrupy early scenes and the inspirational narrative beats go through the motions accordingly. Things do look up, though, as Eddie sets his sights on qualification for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. With this, the film turns its back on its quirkiest diversions, instead falling into more conventional sports movie fare and the well-tried formula delivers an effective third act.

Eddie the Eagle will play well to the right audiences, but I was only passingly charmed.

★★★

Eddie the Eagle is out now in UK cinemas.

A big thank you to the FDA for hosting the screening!

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Zootropolis Review – Thoughtful Neo-Noir from Disney Animation

I’m always surprised when a film seems to hit at just the right moment. That’s made even more impressive when animated films, with their multi-year production schedules, manage to anticipate the social environment three, four, five years down the line. But, Zootropolis (a.k.a. Zootopia, in other English-speaking markets), with its message of acceptance and multiculturalism, comes along at just the right time.

Ginnifer Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, who sets her sights on becoming the first bunny cop in this animal-only world’s big city, Zootropolis. Much to the surprise of her family and friends, Judy is handed her badge… and unceremoniously dumped with parking duty. However, a chance encounter with the fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) gives her a lead in the city’s biggest on-going mystery: that of the strange disappearance of fourteen mammals.

Image courtesy of Close-Up Film.

As Judy and Nick journey deeper into the city’s dark underbelly, the film takes an increasing number of cues from the film noir genre: think Chinatown, or Inherent Vice, to some extent. And, while the film doesn’t quite match those two films for their tricksy narratives, Zootropolis does get hindered somewhat by an overly elaborate crime narrative. It’s enjoyable, but seems like it would be rather hard work for younger audience members.

In keeping with the noir tales that inspired it, there aren’t all that many set pieces and the lack of action seems a risky proposition for a family film (not that it’s had any effect on the box office). There also aren’t really that many jokes. Yes, the DMV sloth scene is genius, but many will have seen that in the trailers, and beyond that, there’s a smattering of smiles, but few belly laughs.

Instead, the real shining light is the film’s vital social allegory. Just 10% of Zootropolis’ population are (non-meat eating) predators, yet a few cases of savagery leave the 90% fearing the minority. Ring any bells? Talk of biology and ancestry, of stereotypes and prejudice, of the repercussions of a society dominated by fear, is all handled with ease. Byron Howard and Rich Moore, the film’s two directors (alongside Jared Bush, in a co-directing role), take these huge, and desperately relevant, issues and present them in a way that is universally accessible and just so darn right.

On a surface level, the animation is suitably stunning. Not necessarily for the gorgeous landscapes of something like Kung Fu Panda, but more for the richness of the world-building: something Walt Disney Animation Studios are becoming increasingly adept at, what with this and last year’s Big Hero 6. That being said, I would have liked a bit more musical dynamism from the usually exceptional Michael Giacchino.

Narrative density aside, Zootropolis is a treat for the eyes and provides great fuel for the mind, both young and old.

★★★★

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny Review

"I can’t see this doing much for more casual viewers"

My ★★ review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is now live over at New On Netflix UK:

https://uk.newonnetflix.info/reviews/film/crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon-sword-of-destiny/

OUT NOW ON DVD! Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review – A Biblical Mess

I’ll keep this short (950 words short…) because I just can’t see myself bringing much new to an already overflowing table of negative responses to DC comics latest lumber-fest.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a weird movie. In fact, its clusterf**k of CGI-drenched scenes, desperate world building and grumbly performances barely constitutes a movie at all.

Now, I’ll turn to the broader comic book know-how of Chronicle and American Ultra scribe (and well-known Superman nut), Max Landis, for starters. In his video response to fans calling for his two cents on the film, Briefly Regarding Justice – SPOILERS (below), Landis hits the nail on the head: ‘it’s not a DC comics movie’. I’ve only read a handful of comic books featuring these two superhero heavyweights (and even less featuring Wonder Woman), but I didn’t recognise these two contorted creations. They’ve got the badges on their chests, but a dishwater dull and totally unforgettable Superman? A murderous Batman?

Briefly Regarding Justice – SPOILERS

Now there’s nothing wrong with taking a total left turn with big screen adaptations, per se, but these revised ‘heroes’ are zero fun. Ben Affleck’s fine in the role he’s given, but it’s not a role I ever cared for. It was fun to see the Arkham games-inspired combat, but Zack Snyder’s (director) hyperactive camera means its ultimately kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.

Henry Cavill is less fine, and any off-screen persona is bled dry to forge this glum ‘false god’. Gal Gadot comes out of this the best and, as others have discussed, Synder and co. still leave this character a mostly blank slate for the upcoming Patty Jenkins-helmed solo film. Gadot pulls the same kind of Batman’s-met-his-match party stunts as Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman did in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s when she throws her glowing gauntlets into the mix that she really adds something to the Trinity.

She livens up an otherwise drab final smash-smash-smash-em-up with a heroic, crowd-pleasing entrance and I’m looking forward to seeing where the character goes from here. The rest of the star performers are decent enough, and just about manage to survive the material.

That material is where the whole thing really comes unstuck. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script is an absolute mess. The narrative beats keep coming, but there’s no rhythm to them, no arc, no progression, no pacing. Just stuff… two and a half hours of it. Things happens, people get angry, the angry people do things, other people get angry and do some more things.

The plot is both overly simplified and utterly baffling. I was left floundering at muddled motives and unwieldy transitions. The editing doesn’t help. Snyder’s promised an extended version with the home entertainment release, which adds half an hour and boosts the certificate up to an R-rating (/BBFC 15, we can presume), and this theatrical cut feels barren, even at 151 minutes. The only problem is, how many people are going to be able to handle three hours of this stuff?

Image courtesy of Yahoo Movies.

Or should I say, how many people’s eardrums could survive? Now, Man of Steel was a famously loud movie, but this turns things up to 11. Which brings me to Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score. I love Zimmer’s work on Man of Steel. It’s one of this decade’s great blockbuster soundtracks and his grand religiosity did so much of that film’s philosophical and emotional heavy lifting.

I’m disappointed to say the same can’t be said for their work here. Gone, for the most part, are Man of Steel’s stirring pianos and, in their place, come Inception-like brawrmmm-ing percussion and Wonder Woman’s psychotic strings. Both of these guys can still pull off majesty at this volume level (think Junkie XL’s Mad Max: Fury Road score), but it’s the low-key cues that hit the hardest here (Track 01, ‘Beautiful Lie’, is a great start).

That track accompanies Snyder’s stunning Thomas and Martha Wayne murder scene. Taking visual cues from Frank Miller’s massively influential The Dark Knight Returns run, Synder and his ace cinematographer, Larry Fong, somehow breathe new life into Batman’s done to death (no pun intended) inciting incident. It’s a beautifully shot sequence that’s lensed and lit to perfection, but their visual splendour sours as they run out of things to do with it. Moments sing, but there’s too much muddy green screen and computer-buffed punch-ups to take the breath away on more than a couple of occasions.

This is a scary time for the DCU and Warner Bros. I really don’t know where this leaves them. I was mixed on Man of Steel, but it did have moments of real wonder and the visual barmy-ness was a unique selling point. Repeat viewings have sent that first outing up in my estimations… if only it weren’t for that final act smashy boredom.

But, in comparison, Batman v Superman hit crazy soft, both with me and with much of the theatre I was in, it seems. The Batman, or whatever Batfleck’s solo movie ends up being called, may prove a draw for some, but I couldn’t care less at this point. I’m still holding out hope for Wonder Woman, but a single victory just isn’t enough for Warners at this point. They didn’t need Dawn of Justice to be a critical darling, but they did need a reasonable level of audience response to at least ensure they’ve got a solid enough foundation on which to build. The problem is this high-rise is already halfway done and I don’t know how much higher they can keep building this thing before it crumbles.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s cacophony of mind-numbing face thumping left me longing for the relative delicacy of Man of Steel. Not fun… not fun at all.

★★

Friday, 4 March 2016

Truth Review – Spot-lite

I usually find myself agreeing with the sentiment that one should judge a film by what it is, rather than by what it isn’t. But, Truth isn’t Spotlight.

Like Tom McCarthy’s impressive awards darling, James Vanderbilt’s Truth is another journalism movie about exposing an American ‘scandal’. But, whereas, Spotlight told a story that transcended it’s Boston setting, both narratively and emotionally, Truth never really extends beyond its firmly stateside issue.

Image courtesy of the Film Distributors Association.

Cate Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, the whizz news reporter at CBS’ Sixty Minutes most famous for the part she played in breaking the Abu Ghraib scandal. While searching for an upcoming story, she stumbles across a set of documents that seem to suggest George W. Bush’s avoidance of Vietnam was more methodical than anyone had ever thought. Mapes and her team (a second tier ensemble when compared to Spotlight, but accomplished nonetheless; Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid etc.) run the story in collaboration with esteemed news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford). Things soon take a turn, however, as waves of online bloggers begin to question the authenticity of the documents in question.

The film suffers from the fact that I, a pacifist-inclined, young Brit, couldn’t care less whether a US president skipped conscription or not. Yes, military favouritism isn’t ideal and it sucks that those guys got to stay behind when so many of their peers had to go over and risk their lives for their country, but I can’t say I was all that outraged. Vanderbilt, who writes here as well, does make an effort to expand the scope of the piece in order to address wider issues of journalism and the importance of a free press, but the fact that I wasn’t that stirred by the initial investigation does take its toll.

Image courtesy of the Film Distributors Association.

On a more positive note, like SpotlightTruth should be applauded for a somewhat grounded representation of journalistic practices. It doesn’t demonstrate quite the same hard graft of McCarthy’s Best Picture winner (trawling through documents takes seconds rather than minutes), but its portrayal of reporters as plucky, determined busybodies is a welcome one.

That being said, Vanderbilt doesn’t blend his characters into the drama all that successfully. Mapes and Rather’s complex working relationship starts to take centre stage as the film progresses, leading to a series of shots that flood Rather in a bizarre hagiographic glow, both literally and metaphorically. Then, on the other hand, you have Elizabeth Moss who is ‘blended’ far too well, in a waste of her supreme talent.

In the end, Truth wears its politics on its sleeve. This is very much presented as a liberal hurrah for the free press and the influence of some very important journalists. It may come across as too celebratory at times and it lacks the devastating relevance of Spotlight, but it does have its own nostalgic charms.

★★★

A big thank you to the FDA for hosting the screening!