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Thursday, 8 April 2021

Review: Voyagers

Earth is dying, humanity's only hope for survival is a planet 86 years away, and the plan to check it out relies entirely on sending a bunch of teens into space and drugging them up so they don't get horny. What could possibly go wrong? With this level of forward planning, we should probably be grateful the spaceship didn't explode on the launchpad - from the unstoppable energy that is pure lust.

Back here on Earth the trend for YA movies has largely passed (sorry Chaos Walking) but this set-up is classic YA through and through, being science-fiction that barely makes sense intellectually but is a near-perfect set-up emotionally when it comes to exploring just how tough it is to be a teenager... in space.

With the only habitable planet a lifetime away, the plan to reach it is to send off a crew, let them have kids who will then become the crew, and then their kids' kids (also crew) will be the ones to reach the planet. To stop the original kids from freaking out over leaving Earth behind and being confined on a spaceship, they'll be given virtual reality headsets no knowledge of what they're missing, being bred in test tubes from Earth's best and brightest then raised in shipping containers until they're sent into space.

To help them leave on their mission earlier (and because he's got nothing keeping him on Earth), their teacher Richard (Colin Farrell) goes with them to supervise, because obviously having a single solitary authority figure on a ship that'll soon be full of teenagers couldn't possibly cause problems. 

But just in case, they're all constantly dosed with "blue", a drug that keeps them sexless robots, which works just fine until somebody realises they're on board a closed system and blue is toxic to plants. Earth spent a decade putting this mission together and nobody picked up on that?

When best buds Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Foinn Whitehead) finally figure it out (why do they only notice it a decade into their mission?), they're not impressed. "Decrease pleasure?" says Zac, "I want to increase pleasure!". Coming from the chief engineer on a spaceship billions of miles from anywhere, this is A Bad Sign. Before you know it, he's tipping his Blue down the sink, getting high on life, checking out Sela (Lily-Rose Depp) and making everyone else think they probably should have put a few online courses on consent on the ship's mainframe. 

Pretty much everything you can think of that could go wrong promptly does, though some of the mishaps they encounter may be more to do with their hyperactive imaginations than what they're really facing. And speaking of hyperactive imaginations, while the trailers for this promised a whole lot of Freaky Space Orgies (c'mon, what else are the kids going to get up to? They don't even have TV), this limits itself to a bunch of lustful stares, some intense hand holding and one (1) single sex session on a piece of gym equipment. 

(then again, these are kids whose idea of a good time is sniffing sage and running down the corridors: figuring out how to bone on a weight bench is the kind of initiative mission control would be proud of)

This occasionally teeters on the verge of delivering something really nuts (largely in the form of brief bizarro montages as the kids finally access their full emotions), but it's basically Lord of the Flies in Space mixed in with Rise of A Space Trump. If nothing else, the last four years of US politics have given us all a fairly extensive course in how would-be demagogues use enemies both real and imagined to unite their base, and that's one more thing this spaceship has taken on board.

Still, despite being set entirely inside a bunch of bland corridors and visually unimpressive rooms, this manages to be somewhat engaging on a fairly basic level. That's largely thanks to committed performances from a cast that deserve better and a script that never realises its potential lunacy but still manages to set up then pay off a string of moderately interesting developments. 

Teens have sex, hot dudes go shirtless, someone goes out the airlock; mission accomplished.

- Anthony Morris


Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Review: The Father

What's surprising about The Father is that unlike every other Alzheimer's-themed movie in recent memory, this one goes for the head rather than the heart. Obviously there's loads of heart-wrenching moments as we see the lead's very sense of himself slipping away, but the main point here isn't to make you feel for an Alzheimer's sufferer, but to feel like an Alzheimer's sufferer.

As that implies, this isn't exactly a fun night out at the movies. The script (adapted by Florian Zeller from his successful play) is designed to constantly keep you on edge, wondering when and if events have taken place, struggling to match faces to characters while being shocked by scenes of abuse that may have been exaggerated if not imagined entirely.

The events of the film take place largely in a single London apartment - or do they? It seems likely that what we're seeing is jumbled highlights over a number of years, with dialogue making it clear that at least one major shift takes place over that period. The (extremely impressive) set design changes things up in ways that echo each other, constantly reminding us of somewhere else while possibly being somewhere entirely new.

Likewise with the casting, as a range of performers (Olivia Coleman, Olivia Williams, Imogen Poots, Mark Gattis, Rufus Sewell) play characters that may or may not overlap, with roles - his daughter, his carer, his son-in-law - constantly changing as the film progresses. At least in his dementia Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) consistently sees his son-in-law as a sleaze, with both Sewell and Gattis being reliably smarmy.

It's a powerhouse showcase for Hopkins, charting his character's disorientation and decline in a fashion that never quite submerges the man he once was, giving us - and his family - just enough to cling onto as he loses his moorings, behaviours left behind with nothing underpinning them. A scene of brutal nastiness hammers home that he was once a man capable of great cruelty, only now more often than not it's only the cruelty that remains.

It's on Hopkins' shoulders to give this film what emotional impact it has. With a lesser actor in the lead it would come off as a dry exercise in recreating the confusion and decline of Alzheimer's, a familiar story that the movies have pretty much plumbed dry yet keep coming back to (Supernova, a more heartfelt look at dealing with the disease, is out in a few weeks). Unsurprisingly Hopkins, who can do subtle but has never been shy of scenery-chewing when need be, makes Anthony a lion in winter, a pushy, demanding man who refuses to face the crumbling ruin he's becoming.

The Father is undoubtedly successful in every way that counts, a deeply affecting film that brings home the horror of Alzheimer's in a way few films dare - and rightly so, because it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to sit through this type of thing twice. It's an experience in helplessness, in losing yourself to confusion and pain until all that's left is despair; maybe find a cinema that lets you take in a drink.

- Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Review: Nobody

Nobody pivots on the idea of an everyday schlub secretly being the employee of the month for Murder Incorporated, which is kind of unlikely and yet not as unlikely as the idea that we're meant to think that Bob Odenkirk isn't capable of cold-blooded mass murder. By "we", I mean long term fans of his work, because if you've ever seen Mr. Show (and if you haven't run, don't walk) you know there is literally nobody (heh) working in film or television today better able to display full-throated rage with a single "what the fuck".

But Mr Show was a lifetime ago (or at least, the 90s) and nobody (lets stop this now) remembers sketch comedy, so chances are most people coming to Nobody are thinking of Odenkirk as the beat-down hustler he plays so well in Better Call Saul. The joke here isn't quite that he goes from playing one trademark Odenkirk role to another, but it's close enough for the 90 minute run time.

The other joke here is that the 55 year-old Odenkirk is able to casually murder dozens of highly trained bad guys half his age, and the multiple action scenes - all excellently staged and shot by director Illya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) - in the back half are firmly set up by an opening that verges on a parody of boring, generic, middle-aged male impotence, piling on the numbing routine while surrounded by a family that either forgets he's there or treats him with barely hidden contempt. 

The point with all this isn't quite that Odenkirk's Hutch Mansell is an emasculated loser (it becomes clear later on that he chose to wimp out, knowing the murderous flame inside him couldn't be dampened forever), but for anyone looking to read this as the story of an old dude showing the doubters he's still got it, go right ahead.

The plot itself is extremely thin, with one moderate fake-out early on - Mansell's house gets broken into but he doesn't go murder on the crooks because it turns out as a former professional murderer he's also a very good judge of who needs to die. One of the film's better gags is that Hutch likes his work but isn't indiscriminate about it: once he finds some scumbags who deserve to die (seems the local Russian mob is both unpleasant and overburdened with a secret stash of cash), he all but taunts them into attacking him so he can deal out what they deserve. 

(this motivation makes his first full blown fight scene especially impressive, a grueling pummel session clearly driven by the need to just plain hurt somebody; this isn't what this film is about, but it's a shame it isn't explored further)

Nobody eventually pushes the John Wick formula a lot closer to parody (it's written by Wick's creator, Derek Kolstad) without ever quite tipping over the line, which is impressive considering how close to parody Wick already was. If there's any flaw in this highly enjoyable film, it's that the tension tapers off a little as the inevitable warehouse showdown arrives, simply because the story's over as soon as the mob (led by Aleksey Serebryakov's nightclub singing psycho) commit to going head-to-head with Mansell.

There's some fun cameos here (including Christopher Lloyd and RZA as Mansell's father and mystery brother), but the whole thing is totally Odenkirk's show. If he isn't quite as convincing as the physical embodiment of death as Keanu Reeves, his mix of middle-aged melancholy and murderous glee remains a winning combination throughout, providing enough spark between the slayings to make this the total suburban slaughter package.

- Anthony Morris

Review: Godzilla vs Kong

Okay, so here's what you want to know: there is an actual winner here. That said, as the final installment in a generally well thought-out (if not always successfully executed) series, those involved have clearly thought - a lot - about how to end things in a way that's going to keep everyone happy. Mission accomplished: whoever wins, the other guy's fans also win.

Unfortunately, that sense of being extremely careful not to put a foot wrong extends throughout this somewhat satisfying but never spectacular series capper, resulting in a film that never cuts loose the way a film titled Godzilla vs Kong should. Remember how the tagline for Clash of the Titans was the awesome yet awesomely stupid "Titans Will Clash"? This needed a lot more of that energy.

Still, titans (this series' co-name for giant monsters) literally clash here, so it can't be all bad even if it does take an exceedingly long time - close to an hour - to get to the first major fisticuffs. Before that Kong is in a cage while Godzilla roams the seas, and while Kong is clearly unhappy it's Godzilla that starts something, turning up at a US tech company's vaguely sinister coastal base to trash the joint for Reasons Unknown.

There are humans in this film, a handful of whom are left over from previous installments (notably Millie Bobby Brown reprising her role as A Sassy Teen), so much of the film follows them around as they either a): try to figure out just what the sinister tech company is up to or b): take Kong on a journey to the center of the Earth (which is hollow, don't you know) to collect samples of some strange form of energy that is the only thing that can protect humanity from the now supposedly rampaging Godzilla, and if you haven't figured out where things are going with all this that's only because you already know: this is a film titled Godzilla vs Kong.

Director Adam Wingard has previously focused on smaller scale horror (The Guest, the Blair Witch remake, the not great US live-action Death Note film), which may explain why this really lacks the (occasional) sense of awe the earlier films had for these giant monsters. Kong has always been the more cuddly of the two and much of the film focuses on him; aside from a few early scenes that really stress his size he's nothing to be afraid of. 

In contrast, Godzilla is kept at a remove (he's the antagonist here) but there's no real sense of terror when he's on the scene - he might be positioned as the bad guy, but he doesn't do enough bad guy stuff to build tension that way. Without that sense that as far as these creatures are concerned humanity is irrelevant, the fight, no matter what twists might occur, is just a way to see who's stronger.

Still, when it comes to the actual fight mechanics this does tick all the boxes. Godzilla attacks humans, Kong gets to battle monsters, the lead titans get to fight on each other's turf so the home ground advantage is spread equally - so if you're here to see the monsters size up against each other you won't go home disappointed, even if the final clash (which takes place in an urban setting) could have had a bit more variety as far as the visuals go. 

Unfortunately well over half the movie focuses on the humans, who are either boring, comedy relief, an occasional infodump, utterly irrelevant (Lance Reddick is back for literally one line) or Jia (Kaylee Hottle), a pre-teen deaf girl who as the last human survivor of Skull Island has a primal connection with Kong. 

The presence of her character suggests someone involved knew this story would work best on a mythological level; the scene where someone shorts out an evil computer by pouring booze over it suggests they didn't get their way often enough.

- Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Review: Crisis

Treating drugs like a disaster movie is nothing new. Looked at from one angle, Crisis is basically an opioid-focused update of Stephen Soderberg's Traffic (itself adapted from a miniseries); looked at from another, it's part of an on-going tradition that gave us (to cite the most recent example) Zero Zero Zero. This is wide angle story-telling, where individual lives matter only so far as they fit into the big picture and the moral of the story is that drugs are a disaster wreaking havoc on society across the board.

To make this point, Crisis focuses on three people: Claire (Evangeline Lilly) a single mother with a junkie past who finds herself drawn back into that world after a tragic incident involving her son; Dr Brower (Gary Oldman), a university scientist who's dropped in hot water when a test involving his corporate sponsor's new wonder drug suggests it may not be that wonderful; and DEA agent Jake Kelly (Armie Hammer), who's running an undercover operation trying to catch one of Canada's biggest opioid smugglers (unlike cocaine and meth, opioids come in from the North) and only has a few days to bring in a big fish.

On the whole the three stories fit well together, though Dr Brower's drawn-out battle with the tenure board occasionally seems to be spinning its wheels to make sure it doesn't finish half an hour before everyone else. The chilly locations around Detroit and the Canadian border give proceedings a very different feel to the typical cartel tale, re-enforcing the sense of isolation each character feels. This isn't a film full of warm family bonds; even Dr Brower's wife, who supposedly is a big motivation for his wavering (there's doing what's right, and there's doing what gets you paid) rarely rates a mention.

Isolation aside, what's missing from this is any real sense of why people take opioids. Jake has an addict sister but she's only in a handful of scenes pissing him off with her motiveless love of drugs; Claire's solution to her problems is vengeance, not pills, especially as it turns out her situation isn't as simple as it seems (and may be connected to Jake's case). And Dr Brower's sudden development of a spine after years of taking corporate cash, while clearly motivated by actual concerns about the dangers of unleashing another opioid onto an already saturated market, might have seemed more convincing coming from someone half his age.

Without that, this is a disaster movie that never really explores what the disaster actually is. Why Americans are downing painkillers in massive amounts should be prime material for a thriller, but this ends up focusing on the kind of stories we've seen plenty of times before and while it's competently handled (and the performances are generally strong), it all feels a little stale. Brower's story is probably the most interesting in theory, but in practice it drags, Oldman gets shouty, and the whole thing is wrapped up in a way that refuses to make any solid moral judgement at all. 

Strangely, his story is also the only one that doesn't link up in any way with the others, despite the ending providing an obvious (and depressingly realistic) link to Claire's story. With her history of pain-related drug abuse and Dr Brower's role in the release of a (bogus) wonder drug, it feels like the film finishes one scene early; presumably "the cycle continues"-style endings are only crowd-pleasers when they refer to cops chasing drug lords.

- Anthony Morris



Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Review: Judas and the Black Messiah

A young man is tasked by the government to infiltrate an organisation deemed to be a threat to society. He's young, he's still unformed in many ways, which makes him a perfect undercover operative. It also means that the deeper he goes, the more he comes to connect and bond with those around him - those he's been ordered to betray. When the moment comes, will he side with them or the government that's pulling his strings? And will he be able to live with himself either way?

Part of the thrill of Judas and the Black Messiah is seeing this familiar story (I'm thinking Donnie Brasco, but any one of a number of "inside man" movies fit the mold - and that's just mob movies) turned on its head. In those movies, Bill O'Neill (LaKeith Stanfield) would be the hero, the tormented man who nevertheless is doing right, while Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) would be a bad guy who maybe, if he was lucky, would be allowed a shred of dignity as he was taken down.

In the real world, Hampton was a 60s civil rights organiser in Chicago doing good for his community but organising social services and providing a real alternative to the mainstream. It was just that his community - and any other minority community - was seen as an enemy of the state by the head of the FBI (thumbs up to the casting director who put Martin Sheen in that role) and had to be kept down and crushed by any means up to and including direct assassination. 

O'Neill was just a petty criminal in the wrong place at the wrong time who ended up supplying information on the Black Panthers to his occasionally ambivalent FBI handler (Jesse Plemons) while gradually realising he was in a hole he wasn't going to be able to escape from.

There's a gripping story here and an important history lesson to be told, and it's hard to fault the film for choosing the history over the drama. O'Neill's plight as an undercover agent is rarely illustrated; after passing one early test, his loyalty is never suspected (though judging by another subplot, the Panthers definitely had a problem as far as being too trusting). We first see him running a scam where he pretends to be an FBI agent, and while it seems like there's a promising thread there - was there a part of him that liked working for the Man - it's never followed up.

Hampton as played by Kaluuya is a speechifying force of nature, which is both completely appropriate and leaves him more as a symbol to admire than a man to understand. His relationship with poet and activist Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback) provides another angle, but the contradiction between his public persona proclaiming he wasn't afraid to die for the people and his private life starting a family could have been a film in itself.

This film does so well at conjuring up a time and place that at times these flaws feel less like faults in the storytelling and more just the limitations of a two hour film. The only time it really stumbles is with the ages of the protagonists: both Hampton and O'Neill were barely into their twenties, angry young men raging against the world, both having their lives taken away - literally in one case, in the other every way but - by a system that crushes the hopes of its people as a simple matter of course.

- Anthony Morris

Friday, 5 March 2021

Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Hey look. it's a movie that starts off in a dramatic situation - in this case, a warrior woman racing through a barren wasteland - then says "bet you're wondering how I got here" and goes into a lengthy flashback. At least here there's just about enough backstory to justify the cliche: 500 years ago the land was united (and had dragons!) until an evil collection of dark clouds called the Druun started draining the life from everyone and turning them into stone statues. 

The dragons eventually defeated them but at a cost. They vanished from the kingdom, leaving behind humans and a single solitary dragon stone to fend off the (now also vanished) Druun. 500 years passed, and without dragons the humans split the kingdom into five separate warring states; now one ruler, Benja (Daniel Day Kim) wants to reunite them. Unfortunately human mistrust and greed - and a bit of naivety on the part of his daughter, Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) - sees his plan fall apart, the stone broken apart, and the Druun unleashed yet again to ravage the land.

So when the story really begins, Raya is on a quest to track down the rumored last surviving dragon Sisu (Awkafina), pursued by Namaari (Gemma Chan), a rival warrior princess from another kingdom who doesn't so much want the power Raya is after for herself (though she does) as she doesn't trust Raya with it.

Trust is the big theme of this film, as time and again it's made clear that the biggest problem the five kingdoms face is a lack of trust between each other. And often, within the kingdoms too - after finding Sisu they embark on a quest to reunite all the pieces of the shattered dragon stone, only to find that often the other kingdoms have fallen into ruin because of their own internal mistrusts. Not to mention that Raya's quest is to literally save the world, which you'd think everyone could get behind if only they trusted each other.

Hang on, aren't the real bad guys here the evil life-draining death clouds? Well yeah, and while the message here is a strong one it does occasionally suffer from a bit of a disconnect with what's actually happening in the story. The moral is that if everyone trusts each other the world can be healed; the fact that what literally messed up the world in the first place was trusting too much gets kicked to the curb.

But message-laden plots are standard for Disney these days (presumably parents would get twitchy at the idea of a cartoon that was just fun to watch), and they're smart enough to bury the medicine in a sackful of sugar. The animation is both gorgeous and flawless, the characters are perfectly designed (Sisu in both dragon and human form is spot-on), the story barrels through a string of unique and memorable South Eat-Asia inspired locations like the best fantasy tourism video you could ask for and the action - of which there is plenty - is always thrilling to watch.

If there's anything that prevents this from being a top-tier Disney outing, it's that at times it's a little too busy. There's a lot going on here and it's going on all the time; while the big moments land and the smaller scenes are often poignant there's not always enough space between the two to let the story breathe. 

It's not quite too much of a good thing, but with a lengthy backstory, seven or eight main characters, numerous locations and a story that doesn't slow down, you might come out of Raya and the Last Dragon feeling just a little like you've been fighting the Druun yourself.

- Anthony Morris