Category Archives: Film Reviews

Thor; Ragnarock (2017)

Once upon a time,  in the year 2000, it was perhaps possible to make a superhero film without the involvement of every A list actor in the world.  At that time, when James Cameron had been discussing his vision of Spiderman with Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger, there were little more than rumors of what would later become Marvel’s expanded universe.

And it’s a universe which grew to include motion picture actors making cameos in films for fees that would themselves finance independent movies. No, not Stan Lee’s cameo in Fantastic Four, instead we’re talking about the moment when Robert Downey Jnr walked into a bar at the end of The Incredible Hulk to announce they were creators the Avengers. That day was a collective one of sadness for cinema ushers worldwide as they realized two things; people were now going to start peeing in their cups to avoid a bathroom break that might destroy a crucial plot point and “after credit scenes” were going to make their jobs ten times harder on Friday night’s.

Thor Ragnarock has an outstanding cast, with lead performances from Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett alongside pivotal support from Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban and Mark Ruffalo. That’s to say nothing of the ‘cameo’ performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Sam Neill (playing the Actor Odin) who prove that like Star Wars, James Bond and Harry Potter before it there’s nothing an actor likes more than to appear in a favored franchise.

What can happen with such a huge cast, however, is that both the story and the screen time are so constantly diluted with famous names – even, albeit nostalgically famous – that we’re more concerned with the sound of their voice and reminding ourselves of the fond actors they used to be then the role they’re playing in this movie.  Thankfully, that’s not the case here, as Thor Ragnarock provides a mildly entertaining backdrop as to why all these characters have to save ‘the world’ (but not as we know it) from destruction.

Returning to Asgard after a perilous mission, Thor finds a masquerade on the throne, Loki having placed his father Odin in a retirement home. Shady Acres (the name of the Mental Hospital in Ace Ventura Pet Detective too btw) is being demolished, and Loki has lost him. Dr Strange appears because Loki is on the galactic equivalent of a no fly list and has entered New York without going through customs.  Donald Trump would be proud the Dr is doing his patriotic duty.

But even this twist is only a prelude for the backdrop of the backdrop that makes up the real stories crux, Thor believed dead in a planet which literally collects waste and refuge and sold to the Grand Master (Jeff Goldblum) in order to fight like a Gladiator for his freedom against the Ultimate Champion. That champion turning out to be one of Thor’s long lost friends, certainly lost in the Marvel verse, leads to an interesting chance for further character dissection on a hero who hasn’t had his own solo movie in a while.

There’s a lot going on. Thor and Loki ultimately team to save the world and are helped by a number of Asgaurdians and like minded revolutionaries while every fifteen minutes or so there’s a few jokes thrown in for good measure. The film definitely has a look and feel of comedy to it, not slapstick but there are enough laughs while watching alone to make you feel its been made for the cinema crowd of a family event where it raises some chuckles.

That’s not a bad thing, the jokes help relieve any tension in a family friendly movie and make it light, funny and fun, but what is a bad thing is that the movie subsequently fails to follow through on so much. 

Now I know that it has a limited run time and there’s only so much that can be on screen, but hints and tips are scattered throughout the script about who characters are and where they came from. Bruce Banner is a perfect example, as he struggles with the Hulk, realizing for the first time that there is a distinct split personality in which Hulk may reign supreme and have full control. Its a revealing moment and it could have gotten much darker than it’s pushed, but in the end, the movie doesn’t answer that question at all and we’re left wondering whether Hulk has mentally grown as an independent creature. That fight is definitely for another day.

The Grand Master is also another interesting character, described as the creator of the world and the first person to come here. Nothing more is discussed of his origins and it could have been ultimately a fascinating opportunity to examine how and why. There’s a little laugh about the serious subject of slavery, with his insistence the slaves be called ‘those people with forced jobs’, yet no real discussion as to why the Grand Master created a game so resembling Roman Gladiatorial Combat.

At the end of the day though, this is a Thor movie and it’s his show. It’s not as close minded as Ant Man, it’s obvious from Spiderman Homecoming that Marvel is not able to take a single chance or even have a single storyline for a main character, so they’re squeezing as much into this flick as possible. You do learn a lot about the god of thunder and he learns more about himself, but you still can’t help feeling he brought too many people along for the ride. 

Alien: Covenant (2017)

“You can serve in heaven…or reign in hell”

There’s an ecumenical undertone running through Ridley Scott’s latest installment to the Alien franchise. The idea is the Alien, or Xenomorph as we once knew, is a creature of perfect creation. It has been brought together in order to possibly answer the greatest question of all time – at least to a human being – who created the Universe.

When Walter (Michael Fassbender) is originally created by Mr Weyland (Guy Pearce), he asks this very question, and then ultimately declares he must – by his very creation – have now surpassed his creator by being immortal. Ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant focuses on a colonist ship travelling to a new planet with over 2,000 souls.

The first thing that you’re reminded of when you watch this film is just how different Ridley Scott’s Alien is to James Cameron’s Aliens, or even David Fincher’s nihilist (and often overlooked) Alien3. You simply can’t expect the same level of action adventure driven punishment you’d find in a typical Cameron script. Scott plays very much on the idea of human frailty and this ship’s crew suffer the loss of their Captain almost immediately, leading to a mourning Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and reluctantly promoted Oram (Billy Crudup). 

A distress signal is received by Tennessee (Danny McBride) and there’s a clash between whether to help or ignore as per the conflict of the original Alien. However, unlike the threats of forfeiting company bonuses in favor of contractual obligation, the clash here comes from whether the planet is worth risking as a possible colonization site or simply returning to hyper sleep and waking up in seven long years. The Captain orders his crew down and a rather large party of virtually nameless individuals descend upon the planet. The trailer for this film gave me the impression we would see the crew happy, or at least celebrating their spaceflight, yet in the film the pacing cuts mean that you get virtually no time to know who anybody actually is and instead a random photograph is the only cutback to any sort of familial bonds.

Perhaps I’m not being fair, because from dialogue we do pick up several pieces of information, such that Captain Oram is a man of faith – something he felt he was penalized for in not being named Captain before the start of the mission. We also learn that several members of the ships crew are married, thus creating some sense of loss when these characters are killed or separated, but not really enough to make me care all that much. James Cameron added that Ripley was a mother in Aliens, for example, something she doesn’t mention once in the original film – it seems Scott might be employing a tactic to help the audience engage more with a characters profound sense of loss and grief. That said, none of the characters display this very convincingly, and there are ultimately too many members of the crew to begin with to get to know individually anyway.

The main storyline arc in Covenant focuses on David, who has been living a somewhat mysterious existence on this heretofore undiscovered planet since the Prometheus crashed a decade prior. His “brother” is another synth….artificial person, named Walter, who is also played by Fassbender but admits to having several modifications David does not. David believes these are flaws, created to make Walter more like a machine, less ‘frightening’ to humans. It is heavily implied that David has created all the planets Neomorph specimens, harvesting the biology of their creation to create a more fundamentally perfect organism.

At the same time the group is coming to terms with the death of several crew, some of whom were killed when an infected Ledward caused Faris to destroy the dropship. It’s an interesting scene in which Ledward succumbs to an infection but the characters themselves seem almost encouraging it to happen in their inaction. Both Karine and Faris are guilty of overacting and emotionally distraught behavior which causes a situation to go from bad to worse. It is clear, in some respects, that the crew are Scientists and not Marines or even the crew of the Nostromo – but their inexperience and missteps doom everyone from that point on.

To that end I was also disappointed by Daniels, who emerges as the films supposed heroine, yet her acts of bravery are always accompanied with tears and quivering lips. It seems even after several encounters with the beasts the character is still shaken to her core to tackle the films villain. Oram does provide a moment of clarity, where he takes a gun and points it at David’s head, demanding to know exactly what’s going on here. Unfortunately, this act results in his downfall, by being stupid enough to follow blindly the instructions of someone he neither trusts or understands the motives of.

Alien Covenant surprised me with the complete lack of strong characters, both male and female, as well as the presence of human frailty at all times. I firmly believe Science Fiction needs to remove frailty to a large extent, or certainly have a character learn from previous experience enough to not react in a similar way to how the audience would at home. Newt, in Aliens, is an example of a frail and sympathetic character but she is resourceful and a survivor – otherwise she’d be nowhere seen in this film.
 
I hear a lot in the media about strong female characters. I’m yet to actually see an abundance of strong, well written, female characters in modern cinema. I see a lot of films dealing with issues or scenarios from a female perspective, but surely that’s not the same thing. It is important, granted, but characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor were written as strong female roles. I don’t think they were men masqueraded as women.
 

My point is that Covenant always seemed to remind me of the dangers of the element. Nobody seemed to learn anything or grow from the experience, it was a “follow me blindly no questions asked” approach until the end. And that’s to their detriment, because ironically, Alien was one of the few films that originally broke the convention in 1979 when Ridley Scott first cast Sigourney Weaver as the lead character.

The final act of the film sees a climax in which a plot point is subtly borrowed from a recent Aliens comic story line, which I will give full credit to because you really have to be paying attention to catch it, and it was also delightful to see the return of the Facehugger in its glory. The film also provides some insightful looks at the philosophy of the Xenomorph “creator” and Fassenbenders own appearance is leading me to believe the character could easily, with age, be a dead ringer for Alien’s Ian Holm in future installments.

Ultimately this film will remind you exactly why Ridley Scott created Alien, but it will also remind you how different that vision could have been if the second film was never created in the series. I wouldn’t have condemned an additional 35 minutes to its running time and would welcome this in the Blu Ray release at a later date. For now, a superb modern addition to the franchise.

Die Hard (1988)

Attending a screening of Die Hard at Newcastle’s historic Tyneside Cinema has become somewhat of an annual tradition. Monday’s visit provided me with the third attempt since 2015 to relive all the action and splendor of this rather unexpected Hollywood hit on the big screen. And despite originally being released in July 1988 the film has gained a remarkable amount of traction in the intervening years as a Christmas Classic.

Of course, Die Hard strains from the traditional narratives of most action films of its period, and with good reason. The story (if you’re completely unaware) is about New York Policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis). McClane is travelling to Los Angeles to visit his estranged wife Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia. Arriving on Christmas Eve he finds a work party interrupted by the arrival of terrorists, led by German Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and quickly decides to tackle the groups intentions and fight back alone.

The casting of the film in itself was an interesting choice, as the studio had little faith in Bruce Willis ability to command the role. Early promotion of the film featured attention towards the action in the plot rather than the star and even Willis has admitted to only truly deciding key facets of McClane’s character mid way through shooting. On the reverse, Holly’s character has a much more prominent involvement than you might expect from the traditional “damsel in distress” and Gruber’s own calm, collected exterior is essentially the narrative of the story.  Without his plan to extort money from the Nakatomi corporation the film has little to no basis. McClane’s estrangement from his wife could be settled in a few minutes as a will he or won’t he.

Credit must also be given to the films use of notable film actors from the era. Paul Gleason,  William Atherton and Robert Davi all perform small but pivotal supporting roles that – added to their performances in Ghostbusters, The Goonies and The Breakfast Club (for example) – make it seem almost like extensions of those characters. The film also strays from the traditional in other areas too, for example, a scene in which McClane and Gruber meet on the roof of the building. It’s unconventional as neither the two should meet until the climax, but was the result of a realization on set that Rickman could do a convincing American accent and so was hastily included.

Seeing the film on the big screen after 30 years also helps us realize mistakes, especially if we’ve watched it a few times before. In one scene where McClane descends a stairwell as sprinklers fight a blaze, a Christmas tree is seen to fall from behind him. Monetarily he checks, unaware as to whether there is a terrorist lurking behind, and you can just make out the silhouetted shadow of the stage hand who pushed it over. Other scenes, such as Ellis’ “negotiation” with Gruber allows us to revisit the traditional – with a deliberate pause on audio as someone pours a can of Coca Cola. How little things change.

The film displays all the qualities of a Hollywood Summer blockbuster but the decision to set it during Christmas (a decision which predated the script, based on the original concept, the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever) actually places it in a rather unusual demographic. Appealing to those who love the holiday, and those who don’t, it uses Christmas to it’s full advantage in some of the most memorable scenes – including when McClane hides a gun on his back with wrapping tape and when he uses a Santa hat and a yuletide message on a deceased terrorist. But the amount of violence and action resolves to make the message that even those offended by Christmas cheer will have something to enjoy in this one.

The only enigma in the film is that of Sgt Al Powell. The character, who provides John McClane with support and assistance throughout the film, received fourth billing in both this and the films sequel (despite only making a brief cameo in the latter) and the actor who portrayed him appeared in both this, Ghostbusters (as a correctional officer) and Crocodile Dundee – arguably three of the most iconic films of the decade – yet sadly Reginald Vel Johnson never managed the successes of Bruce Willis or Alan Rickman.

At it’s core, Die Hard is the ultimate action film – it contains no end of action and suspense while also fulfilling in dialogue, story, condition and humor. And all you need to do in exchange is survive the mummers in the audience as an attendee recites the classic quote you’re just about to hear just before you hear it. Michael Kamen’s score leads to welcome us to a use of ‘Ode to Joy’ and we’re inclined to agree. Not one to be missed.

Die Hard plays at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, on Saturday December 23rd 2017

https://www.tynesidecinema.co.uk/film-and-events/view/die-hard

Mad Max: Fury Road (Black and Chrome, 2017)

“Colour has done as much damage to cinema as television. It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema, otherwise it’s not an art. From the moment that a film is in colour, it’s not cinema any more.”
Francois Truffaut (1978)

When it was first released in May 2015 there was no denying the breath and beauty of George Miller’s latest Mad Max. Although Mel Gibson had since departed, some believing because of his off screen activities and comments, others because Miller himself stated Gibson fell out of love with the idea of a sequel when a deal to make it couldn’t be reached past 2000; there was no argument that the film looked glorious. Set in post apocalyptic Australia, Max is a fighter, his past a deep buried conflict of emotions and you’d be forgiven for thinking the character has gone mad from years of isolation and solitude. The world is a shadow of its former self, indeed even a shadow of the world presented in the 1979 original, renegades and barbarians cross the deserted wasteland in servitude to the last remaining ‘corporate powers’ hoping to find such commodities as blood and machinery.

Captured and sold as a slave, Max encounters female prisoners, held by a tyrannical ruler named only Immortan Joe. Joe controls The Citadel, the last water pumps used to bargain water for trades with ‘Gas Town’ and ‘Bullet Farm’. The wording used is deliberate, an all too subtle nod to the fossil fuels and arms race whose actives are as propellent today as they were when the original movie saw release some 38 years ago. Actor Hugh Keays Byrne returns to torment Hardy’s Max just as he did when playing ‘Toecutter’ to Gibson’s Max in the original film.

This special cinema and Blu Ray re-release some 24 months later is primarily because the picture has been entirely converted to black and chrome, something that creates a unique opportunity to have a revaluation of a modern blockbuster. Like Rod Sterling and Alfred Hitchcock before him, Miller has refused colour as a medium where it is readily available, instead using this tool as a physiological effort on the storyline. Miller has stated that if it were not for the commercial considerations upon the films original release it would most likely have been released solely this format.

While it’s impossible to say exactly what effect this monochrome effect has on modern film precisely, it is a subject I’ve explored before, albeit in reverse. In an article written for now defunct publication Contributoria in April 2015 I interviewed Barry Sandrew, an internationally recognised entrepreneur, digital imaging expert and visual effects pioneer who invented digital colourisation in 1987. At the time Sandrew told me “A director has to have a good artistic reason to use black and white, and that doing so invokes a particular meaning to the project; it is a genre in its own right so not appropriate for all concepts.”

If audiences feel the need to avoid purchasing this film a second time, or even for the first time, then this would be a mistake. The Blu Ray release gives the option of both films to be made available to the viewer and certainly nothing will be missing from your picture if you opt for this newer version. Kevin Shaw is a colourist, with more than 30 years’ experience in the industry. He believes there is some truth in the notion of a stigma towards black and white on film. “There is a feeling that black and white is ‘missing’ colour rather than being seen as an alternative medium,” says Shaw, “and I believe this inclination persists today.”

At its heart Mad Max is a brilliant road movie, an exploration into the need for mutual trust and cooperation and how that relates to survival. It has little dialogue and instead both the picture and the visual cues are what drives the film. There is no overdrawn two handers or explanations and only a handful of scenes work to the traditional expectations. The removal of this colour has (perhaps ironically) given this film new light and a lease of life with audiences that may have previously shunned it. But super or casual fans should still engage and welcome the films return to screens, a unique chance to see a crisp and polished blockbuster in a black and white format bring some colour into our lives.

A double disc Blu Ray edition of Mad Max: Fury Road is released May 15th 2017

Free Fire (2016)

Described as a British action comedy, and set virtually entirely in the claustrophobic conditions of a warehouse; you’d be forgiven for thinking Ben Wheatley’s latest creation was a possible homage to Reservoir Dogs. It was, in fact, this very comparison by a member of the public which led me to see the movie on an idle Wednesday afternoon.

The premise is simple. Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are in America to buy guns for the IRA. That basic description is about as political as things ever get, though to be historically accurate the seller is South African Vernon (Sharlto Copey) who, although describing himself as British South African, never lets a business transaction be disrupted by helping the Irish Republican Army “win the war”. Things begin to unravel when Vernon brings the wrong guns, with contact Justine (Brie Lawson) serving as the go between, nobody trusts anyone.

All hell breaks loose when Frank’s brother in law Stevo (Sam Reily) recognizes Harry (Jack Raynor) from previous and this serves as a catalyst for conflict. What proceeds is the remaining 70 minutes of a film no longer than 80 (though which seems to take an eternity to get there even at that) in which the characters blindly fire at each other across the room in an attempt to both diffuse the situation and also make it out alive, either with or without the money. Every character, despite some of them being trained terrorists, are really bad shots; they never seem to be able to successfully pick off their targets with ease.

Added to the mix the arrival of Jimmy and Howie, a pair of sharpshooters mysteriously hired to fuddle the deal from both parties, though the confusion remains (until the last frame) about exactly who hired them. Every person in the room has a reason to hire outside help, though none want to admit it, with both men serving to add a further layer of mystery to the feud. 

The soundtrack and effects used are as minimal as the change of setting, with John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’ (nostalgically witnessed being played on an 8 Track tape deck) serving as the main backdrop a pivotal scene – in fact, if you were to study the lyrics of the song in question, you might find it has well been chosen sub textually come the end of the movie. 

And that end could not come fast enough, with each character seemingly firing an endless supply of bullets in the wrong direction, quoting utterly pointless rhetoric and being restricted heavily in their movements. Maybe recent Hollywood blockbuster has spoiled us as a cinema going audience, where the expectation of car chases and sexual violence means a film like this – which offers neither – is too simplistic and beautiful to be respected.  But I don’t believe this is the case, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (original or not it may be) has achieved somewhat legendary status for a story line using a lot of the same plot devices and settings.

In Wheatley’s case he has given us a simple plot, a few mysteries to solve and undoubtedly a brilliant cast of faces – but that still doesn’t mean the film doesn’t “trigger” (see what I did there?) the desired reaction in the mind of this reviewer. Those faces fail to sparkle and shine as they’ve done in other roles, the settings lend atmosphere but you almost don’t care who lives or dies, the only thing you really want someone to do is to learn to fire a gun. Properly.

A total misfire.