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Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Review: Glass

As you’d expect from the final installment of a trilogy that began in 2000 with Unbreakable, Glass has a decidedly retro take on superheroes. More retro even than The Incredibles, which was driven by the kind of design-driven Golden Age fandom that didn't really become a thing in comics until the late 90s. Unbreakable, on the other hand, was driven by the question that comic book readers were too smart to ask until the early 80s: what if superpowers were really real?

It's a question that's been long passed by in the real world - in part because the answer is almost always a bunch of grim & gritty clenched-teeth drama that gets boring real fast, and in part because these days movies firmly believe that "check out these cool special effects" is a much more interesting hook for a film. Which makes this film’s low budget world, where having superpowers means you’re just super enough to make your actions hard to explain away, feel either frustratingly limited or enjoyably off-kilter depending on your mood. 

The opening sets up a big clash between multiple personality monster The Horde (James McEvoy) from writer-director M Night Shyamalan’s previous film Split and super tough guy David Dunn (Bruce Willis) from Unbreakable. But before we can get the big fanboy-pleasing fight we've all been waiting for since at least last year, things are rapidly short circuited as both superheroes end up in the same institution as Dunn’s evil and now heavily sedated nemesis Mr. Glass (Samuel L Jackson). 

There things slow down a lot as Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson) starts treating the trio for their “delusions”; those expecting a traditional superhero film may struggle with the plot-driven character study this turns into before things eventually get physical. Shyamalan scraped together the 20 million dollar budget himself (more control, plus more money for him if it hits big), but a few extra dollars wouldn't have hurt in this middle stretch - this is one massively understaffed mental institution, even if the lack of staff does turn out to have a (possible) explanation. 

Likewise, the absence of big superhero effects is a part of the story, not a flaw, though Shyamalan's replacement for those effects - having superheroes go to a form of therapy that seems designed to convince them they're in a completely different movie - feels a little misjudged as the middle stretch drags on. Fortunately the performances are all good: McEvoy gets the lion's share of the story, while Willis starts out strong (and gives a solidly engaged performance) but fades into the background a little once Jackson's highly entertaining Mr. Glass starts making his moves.

Back in his Sixth Sense heyday Shyamalan often talked about having cracked the code for writing Hollywood hits, and while he never (to my knowledge) spelt that code out it's not that hard to figure out once you've seen more than one or two of his self-penned scripts. It's not so much about having a twist ending as it is an ending that recontexualises what's come before... which is pretty much the definition of a twist ending, only his don't really need to be a surprise to work (ie Signs). 

So it's no shock twist to reveal that this is a film as much about the stories around superheroes as it is about having them pummel each other. The real fight here is about who gets to tell the stories that go with superpowers; that is to say, what context they're going to operate in. It's a battle between rival forces for what kind of twist ending we're going to get, either one that expands the possibilities of storytelling or one that shuts them down - though if Shyamalan really wanted to make this a metaphor for his career in Hollywood, he really should have put in a few more punch-ups.

- Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Review: Instant Family

Instant Family manages to be both a surprisingly insightful look at the pleasures and perils of adopting a bunch of kids old enough to already have their own personalities and exactly the sappy feel-good tear-jerking drama the trailers have been selling for months. How does it pull off this extremely difficult and to be honest somewhat impressive balancing act? Let's start with Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne.

They play Pete and Ellie Wagner, professional house flippers and enthusiastic home renovators, which should instantly make them the worst people in the world but because they're played by Wahlberg and Byrne they're actually kind of fun in a self-aware kind of way. Both have firmly established comic personas as "wacky parents" (Wahlberg from the Daddy's Home films, Byrne from the Bad Neighbours series), and that experience gives their performances just enough of a cartoony edge to make their uptight stressed out characters likable.

Deciding that they'd like to have kids and that adopting an older child would be a good way for them to avoid being the oldest parents at high school, they dive right into to world of adoption - cue montage of online photos of adorable kids saying things like "I need a mommy and daddy that will keep me safe" (no wonder Pete demands Ellie keep those photos away from him). Their guides in this world are a tag-team of guidance counselors played by Tig Notaro (the serious one) and Octavia Spencer (the sassy one), and they are in no mood to pull any punches.

Much like the casting of Wahlberg and Byrne, their appearance signals that this is a film that isn't afraid to get some laughs out of what seems like it should be a Very Serious Subject. And this is a film that's hyper-aware about pretty much every issue you could possibly think of around adoption. Are white parents adopting children of another race going to be seen as "white saviours"? Maybe - but it's a lot better than having "whites only" stamped on your file.

So it's the cast that's tasked with smoothing out the bumps in a film that on the one hand is really thoughtful about the problems and conflicts that come with adoption (director Sean Anders was working in part from his own experiences) and on the other has a bunch of Blind Side jokes about one parent looking to adopt a black child who's good at sports.

The Wagners eventually adopt a trio of kids, each with their own issues even before it turns out their birth mother might still be in the picture (obviously this doesn't come to light until the Wagners have totally bonded with them). The constant whiplash between cheap but often effective jokes and corny but often effective emotional moments is somehow both erratic film-making and a decent attempt to capture the roller-coaster ride of parenthood; this never quite figures out what tone it wants to take, but ends up making that conflict seem like the point of the whole exercise.

Usually this kind of thing would be filed under "crowd-pleasing", but the two extremes are so extreme - or at least, they feel that way compared to each other - that it's a little hard to figure out what this is aiming for. If you're into the sharp insights into race and privilege, then the heart-rending moments might feel exploitative; if you want a feel-good story about a family coming together and finding each other then some of the harsher jokes might rub you the wrong way.

But Byrne and Wahlberg make for great parents; Byrne especially gets a lot of milage out of the way just about everything in this film - including her character - snaps wildly from one extreme to the other. If Hollywood isn't going to give us another Bad Neighbors movie, this'll have to do.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Review: Aquaman

In his first appearance in 2017's Justice League, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman made his mark by being the bro-est superhero around. Now he has his own movie, and director James Wan actually dials down his bro-ness – which is pretty much the only thing dialled down here, because this is a film that’s going extremely hard in pretty much every direction. While not all of it works, its failures end up being part of its charm: whatever you think of its extremely loud and fairly dumb approach, it knows the only way to make it work is to commit 100%. 

There’s a real balancing act going on here: even for a superhero, underwater fish lord Aquaman is hard to take seriously, and yet treating him as a joke would be fatal. So this sets out to make him the most normal thing in the film, plonking the hard-drinking part-time superdude into a meandering story that takes in a sad lighthouse dad, seven distinct (and usually bonkers) undersea kingdoms, a royal feud, the title “Ocean Master”, a modern-day pirate bad guy, Nicole Kidman as a trident-wielding mum, killer fish, a desert quest, killer fish men, beach training sequences, dinosaurs just in the background because why not, trash tidal waves, and a racist sea monster – and that’s barely scratching the surface. 

The not-so-secret to Aquaman's success is that while the story is actually kind of flaccid - it's basically a slow race between two Aqua-kings to see who can bring off their scheme first - it's constantly throwing new things at the screen. Over the course of the film Aquaman (AKA Arthur Curry) travels via ute, a regular submarine, an Atlantean submarine, a plane, by foot across the desert, a fishing boat and sea monster - plus he swims around using both regular and super-styles. He fights at least four different kinds of bad guy / creature, has multiple training montages, goes from punching dudes in the head to disrupting an epic fantasy battle, and occasionally drops a servicable one-liner. He's a very busy man.

With all that going on, it's no surprise that this is an uneven film at the best of times. The visuals are often stunning, but the dialogue is serviceable at best (there's a big speech about the difference between a king and a hero that had someone near me groaning), while the fight scenes are always competent but rarely memorable. But what this does get right is the world-building. To date DC's superhero movies have largely taken place in the real world, but this covers everything from futuristic underwater super-cities to "lost world" islands to desert ruins to teeming sub-surface nightmares in a way that still sells them as a (somewhat) cohesive whole.

It's all a bit exhausting, and Momoa's slightly subdued performance occasionally feels like a reflection of how the audience most likely feels at this onslaught of new sensation. But again, the slightly cheesy tone works in the film's favour: it may take it all seriously, but there's enough oddball moments scattered throughout that the tone is never grimly relentless in the way that something like Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was. 

There's a moment where Aquaman wakes up on a fishing boat while noodlely nautical flute music plays on the sountrack, then he goes out on deck and sees his underwater tour guide Mera (Amber Heard) is actually playing the music on a flute she found; you can't hate a film that finds time for that.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 13 December 2018

The best and worst of 2018

First, some caveats: I have not yet seen Aquaman, Eighth Grade or The Favourite, some or all of which might possibly sneak into my top ten. I also haven’t seen Gotti, because it didn’t get a commercial cinema release in this country and if we’re going to let direct-to-DVD titles into this kind of list then the worst movies of the year are all going to be things sensible people have never heard of. So these are all titles I saw at a cinema in 2018, otherwise the film of the year would have been Brawl in Cell Block 99 and we could have given up on movies by the end of January.
Best films of 2018:

As is often the way, I easily could have listed twice as many films here. While these are in no particular order, just outside the top ten were a whole lot of films, including Roma, Cold War, Upgrade, Won’t You be My Neighbour, Sweet Country, A Simple Favour, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, First Reformed, The Breaker-Upperers, Juliet Naked and Tully. But this remains my top ten for 2018, for today at least:

*Lady Bird
*Can You Ever Forgive Me?
*Mission: Impossible: Fallout
*The Death of Stalin
*A Quiet Place
*The Boy Downstairs
*Incredibles 2
*Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
*A Prayer Before Dawn
*First Man
Worst films of 2018:

There were an awful lot of firmly average films out this year, most of which I’ve already forgotten (not Skyscraper though. Or Ladies in Black. Or all those films with Boy in the title). But all of these films felt like a waste of time at some stage or another: even when they weren’t actively bad it seemed like they’d deliberately made the choice to avoid being good.

*Truth or Dare
*Fifty Shades Freed
*That’s Not My Dog
*A Wrinkle in Time
*Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again
*The Happytime Murders
*The Predator
*The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is in trouble. Her last book was a flop, her agent is ducking her calls, she can't make any progress on her next book and she's hitting the bottle pretty hard. Worse, she's not exactly someone whose company people enjoy; when she's fired from a fact-checking gig (for drinking and swearing on the job) it's hard to see her securing steady employment around people any time soon.

When she stumbles across a letter written by Fanny Brice (the subject of her next book) she promptly tries to sell it - only to discover the lack of spicy content means it'll only bring in a small sum. Adding a gag-tastic PS bumps up the price, and soon Israel is forging celebrity letters left right and center, going so far as to collect a range of authentically old typewriters to give her forgeries some much-needed authenticity.

With this boost in her fortunes comes a boost in her personal life, as she makes a friend: Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a flamboyant and itinerant local character. He comes in handy professionally as well, as a slip up with one letter means she now needs a front to sell her wares for her. But as her forgery career blossoms, just how long can she keep getting away with all this?

Israel may be an abrasive character but this film is a delight, shot through with wry humour even as Israel flails from disaster to disaster. Her agent dodges her calls, then invites her to a party where she's surprised Israel bothered to show up; to retaliate, Israel steals a warm winter coat from the check room and wears it proudly for the rest of the film.

She's harsh to friend and foe alike but the film is careful to surround Israel with people who are worse, from her snobbish, disinterested agent to various parasitical booksellers. The one buyer for Israel's merchandise who isn't a creep becomes something of a romantic interest; Israel's guilt curdles their relationship and gives her lightweight scam some real dramatic heft.

McCarthy's recent comedies have been dubious at best and forgettable on the whole, but here she re-establishes herself as one of America's strongest comedy performers with a performance that's abrasive and compassionate without ever slipping into caricature. Grant is a perfect comic foil in his best role in years, playing a warm-hearted bungler who always means well even when he's letting you down.

It's not just fantasy movies that can take audiences to another time and place: this film's recreation of the literary world of early 90s New York is consistently spot-on - and while that may not seem like a top movie getaway destination, this is so vivid down to the smallest detail that it becomes a place you won't want to leave. This is one of the films of the year.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Review: Creed II

The first Creed felt like a minor miracle, a Rocky movie that reinvented the franchise by tapping into its core greatness even as it brought the story forward into a very different world. Creed II tries something even more difficult: it sets out to redeem Rocky IV, the silliest, most over-the-top (and yet somehow not the worst) film in the series. The result has its flaws, but when it works it takes the franchise’s biggest dead weight and lifts it high over its head.

On one level the story is little more than a series of fights and training montages as Creed (Michael B Jordan) initially wins the heavyweight title against a clapped-out champ, only to find a slick boxing promoter (Russell Hornsby) has a surprise for him: Russian punching machine Viktor Drago (Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu), son of Rocky IV's Soviet killbot Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Everyone wants to see Creed take on the son of the man who killed his father – everyone except Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) – but does Creed really know what he’s fighting for? 

Like a lot of Hollywood genres, the boxing movie is confined by rules so strict the differences between films - and therefore the difference between success and failure - are minor at best. So original this is not, and it doesn't always excel when it comes to the genre's strengths. The fight scenes are good but not great, and the story's predictable arc holds back the film's more interesting characters... who are pretty much everyone apart from Rocky. This is what, his eighth film? And the guy wasn't all that interesting to begin with. 

This eventually figures out a reason why Creed needs Rocky, but the film really doesn't and if this series is to have any real future Creed (who does get a handful of strong scenes with his fiance, played by Tessa Thompson) needs to be established firmly as his own man. That's not to say Rocky needs to be retired, but he definitely needs to be bumped down the roster - this film's biggest flaw is the excess of "and now, let's see what's happening with Rocky" scenes that add little to proceedings.

In contrast, this could have done with a lot more Drago, and not just because Lundgren is a more interesting actor than Stallone. Where Rocky's subplot is about family and fear of failure - because everyone's subplot here is about family and fear of failure; this really goes all in on that side of things and it's a better film for it - Drago is a character that actually did fail and it destroyed his life. 

Now he's using his son to try and regain what he's lost, only his son never had any of that and (despite being a man-mountain killing machine) is fighting for something much more pure. This may say Creed on the poster, but it's the Dragos who turn out to be this film’s bitter, beating (on others) heart.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

There’s a certain kind of Disney film that, given a hundred million dollars, you could probably make yourself. You know the type: after a brief handful of scenes set in a twee version of the recent past (the more English the better) to establish various rote character conflicts almost always involving family (dead parents usually come in handy here), our plucky lead finds themselves transported into a magical fantasy world that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense and can possibly be read simply as a metaphor for our lead’s personal issues. 

Once in that fantasy world - which is almost always vaguely medieval and somewhat rural rather than steampunk urban or, say, Roman - she or he (but usually she) meets a collection of characters – some CGI, some big-name actors in outlandish costumes – while wandering through a variety of lavish yet somehow generic locations. Forests are good but castles are better, and once you throw in a couple of waterfalls or a mountain or two you're pretty much sorted.  For some reason, beaches rarely get a look in.

Now settled in at the castle, because our heroine is either "the chosen one" or some other obviously important figure from the past who is immediately inserted into an (often ceremonial) position of power rather than forced to muck out the stables for the next decade, she rapidly discovers there's some kind of conflict either long-brewing or about to come to a head. But good news! Being the chosen one / daughter of the former chosen one / clearly a magical visitor from a fabled land, she's the one who can restore peace to the kingdom.

Unfortunately the path to peace is being peddled by someone who seems just a little bit too eager to use our heroine's mythical status for their own power-hungry ends, and so before too long it's betrayal time as the good guys turn bad and the bad guys turn out to be plucky rebels / the last remains of the old way of life / just plain misunderstood. Kid, don't trust adults unless they're clearly trying to sell you something.

Now set on the right path, our heroine tools up for the fight in a way that often but not always involves literally using weapons (but only if this provides a kind of ironic counterpoint / "this isn't your parents fairytale" spin on how the heroine is traditionally seen), there's some sneaking around followed by some kind of exciting but strangely un-involving battle or chase sequence that ends when the bad guy is defeated and their army (which was on the point of victory) collapses without them. Hurrah!

Everyone now learns the importance of not being evil or prejudging people or whatever blah blah blah medal ceremony, tearful departure, magic is great, now all my emotional issues are resolved and I am an emotionally healthy adult unless I have to go back for the sequel, merch is on sale in the lobby or online.

If you like that, enjoy this.

- Anthony Morris