Wednesday, 8 June 2016

NEW RELEASES: Alice Through The Looking Glass & The Nice Guys

Alice Through The Looking Glass

(Director: James Bobin.  Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter)

Tim Burton's 2010 adaption of Alice In Wonderland was a surprise hit.  It made over $1 billion at the box office becoming the fifth highest grossing film of all time.  This puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on James Bobin, the director of it's belated sequel 'Alice Through The Looking Glass' to match people's high expectations of his films potential.  He doesn't have to worry about me though.  I have no expectations.  I fucking hated Alice In Wonderland.

Nothing to do with Lewis Carroll of course.  I hated the incoherent plotting of Burton's film.  I hated it's garish overuse of CGI.  I hated it's bizarre tonal shifts between overly twee and suddenly bleak rewordings of the story.  Most of all I hated Johnny Depp's overly mannered, irritating, unlikeable version of the Mad Hatter which I'd taken as the absolute proof that Depp had finally given up on any sort of believable acting to focus on clowning around in various ridiculous costumes.  (As one of my henchmen so beautifully put it, he's less of an actor now than an elaborate hatstand.) Shortly after watching it for the first time I joked that the previously talented Mr Burton, Mr Depp, Ms Bonham-Carter and Mr Elfman should be legally required to stay away each other on film sets in order to foster their talents in a less self-satisfied, chummy environment (of course, in 2016, Burton and Bonham-Carter's relationship has sadly ended off set instead and it's quite plausible for Depp to be court ordered to keep certain distance from someone so that comment really isn't very funny any more)

Alice Through The Looking Glass begins with a scene of (the titular) Alice commanding a ship as it sails through Chinese seas, battered by a storm and pursued by pirates (this film apparently has decided to continue that bizarre subplot from the first, suggesting that Alice might now be an international drug-trader partially responsible for the First Opium War).  Alice, of course, escapes but only through some ludicrously implausible sailing manoeuvres.  I understand that this scene is intended to show Alice's strength of will and how great a sacrifice it would be for her to risk losing her ship but it kinda ruins the films tone from the very beginning.  I always feel that a good fantasy film, unless entirely set within a fantasy world, has to first establish the drudging mundanity of normal life to act as a contrast to the magic.  If Alice is already living in a rip-roaring cartoonish 'Pirates of the Carribean'-esque world then Wonderland itself will surely pale in comparison.

Of course, the adventures in the real world don't last long as Alice's current employer (and former suitor) Hamish has dastardly plans to force Alice to settle down into a boring life on land as revenge for rejecting him. (Keeping up the cartoonish tone, Hamish is such a ridiculous caricature of pompous assholery that I'd be surprised if every second line in his scenes doesn't actually state [Hamish snorts in derision.])

Wait a minute... does anyone else think he looks
a bit like David Cameron?
So Alice escapes to Wonderland (or 'Underland' as this film prefers to call it) after being guided there by Absolem the butterfly, played by the late, great Alan (Fucking) Rickman.  Rickman's involvement was one of the most appealing factors in convincing me to watch this film and it's always a pleasure to hear his sonorous tones again on film.  However his role in this film is barely more than one brief scene to drop some necessary exposition so those hoping to see him sneer at someone with glorious contempt would be better served by last months 'Eye In The Sky' which is both a better Rickman performance and better film in general)

In fact this film returns the excellent support cast of the first film (including Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Barbara Windsor and Paul Whitehouse) to only have them appear all at once to do nothing more than pine over the absent Hatter.  (I doubt so many talented voices have ever been assembled to do so little)

The Hatter, it seems, has gone the bad sort of mad.  A hollow husk of his former self he is filled with despair and fits between catatonia and sudden worrying mood swings.

Posted without comment
It seems the only thing that can save him is for Alice to travel back in time and try to save his family from the fate which haunts him.  (Bizarrely the Hatter's father in all these scenes is played by Rhys Ifans, a man four years younger than his onscreen son, Depp)

And this is where our films new villain comes in.  Time, played by Sacha Baron Cohen is waiting in the wings, speaking of senseless things.  His trick is you and me, readers! 

Thankfully, he neither flexes like a whore, nor falls wanking to the floor.
Sascha Baron Cohen is arguably the films MVP giving a ridiculously OTT performance as the lord of time itself.  He is by turn buffonish, threatening and ultimately sympathetic.  He has an oddly fascinating accent which veers wildly from the pretentious French one he used in Hugo to his usual rough English brogue but (most entertainingly) for the most part it sounds like he's doing a solid impression of the hilariously nihilistic film director Werner Herzog.  Seriously, I am always happy to see some trace of Werner Herzog in my family-friendly fantasy movies.

Civilisation is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of 
chaos and darkness.  Bibbity Bobbity Boo!.
In fact the villains are the strongest part of this film overall.  Helena Bonham Carter returns as the cruel, childish Red Queen and once again it is joy to watch her sadistic guffaw every time one of film's annoying protagonists gets hurt. (Even if her performances still feels heavily indebted to Miranda Richardson's brilliant turn on Blackadder II)

The first film's other villain gets a slight nod as well as a skeleton wearing the costume of the Knave of Hearts is seen in one scene suggesting that Crispin Glover maybe once again fell out with film makers between a popular film and it's sequel.  (Although this time they thankfully didn't just hang him upside down in room of fax machines.)

The time travel plot does give the film a new sense of freshness and interest but sadly most of the films runtime is used on either scenes featuring the Hatter's infuriating shtick or a sub-plot intent on humanising the Red Queen.  The latter feels a particular waste since this can only take away from the enjoyment found watching her glorious terribleness and also because it means we spend more time with Anne Hathaway waving her right arm around in circles for no goddamn reason.

The film also suffers from some of the same tonal shifts as it's predecessor (we jump quite suddenly from scenes of the Red Queen humorously struggling to fit a crown over her enlarged head to scenes of her burning a whole village alive in vengeance).  I had hoped that James Bobin would bring some of the charm that he did to Flight of the Conchords or the recent Muppet movies (or at least give us a song by Bret McKenzie) but his style seems lost in the mix.

The central message of this film seems to be that the past cannot be altered but can be learned from.  This seems a fitting description of the film itself.  James Bobin has certainly made a film which is more focussed and coherent than the previous Alice In Wonderland, but ultimately, it cannot escape from the mistakes made in that film to really become something I could recommend as worth giving up a couple of hours of your time.

The Nice Guys

(Director: Shane Black.  Starring: Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger)

I have to say that, when first asked, the idea of going to see a film called 'The Nice Guys' did not appeal to me.  From my time spent having conversations online I have soon learned that most men who refer to themselves as 'Nice Guys' often tend to be emotionally unstable,  reactionary manchilden who throw tantrums if they aren't instantly rewarded every time they manage to act like functional adults and, worst of all, tend to think that it's acceptable to wear a brightly coloured trilbies along with their cargo shorts and stained Kid Rock t-shirts thus damning the world of pretentious hat-wearing by association.
Real men know a good hat should always be accompanied by a
matching suit and a large glass of single malt scotch.
Thankfully the title appears to be more ironic as the two leads are both self confessed assholes struggling to find some sort of integrity as they are forced into doing something good for once.  Also the film features the worlds favourite feminist sex puppy Ryan Gosling, so that should avoid any confusion.  It also features Russell Crowe, hey, Ryan Gosling!

The Nice Guys has mainly been promoting itself as a buddy movie between these two stars.  However the truly interesting partnership on show here is that of producer Joel Silver and writer/director Shane Black who jointly brought us Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, The Last Boy Scout and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  In fact coming off of the mixed reactions to Iron Man 3 it's good to see Shane Black returning to what feels more like home turf.  In fact, The Nice Guys almost feels like a Shane Black greatest hits package since it features all of his favourite tropes from the mismatched leads working a case together, a kidnapping plot which reveals a larger conspiracy, a precocious child character,  the film industry itself being used as a setting, snappy, sarcastic voiceovers and even a brief scene set during Christmastime.

The film may have been advertised as a two hander from the two gentlemen on the poster but the central relationship of the film is the awkward three-way friendship which forms between Jackson Healy (Crowe), Holland March (Gosling) and March's young daughter played with wit and charm by newcomer actress Angourie Rice.

Even if she has a name which sounds like an
ingredient from a hipster, vegan quinoa pot.
The film is set in 1977 Los Angeles (I knew I was going to enjoy this as soon as the films title appeared in neon font to a soundtrack of slap bass and wah-wah guitars).  Ryan Gosling plays a corrupt, bumbling Private Investigator who is investigating the apparent sighting of a recently deceased pornstar.  One of his leads in the investigation doesn't want found however so hires Russell Crowe's brutish enforcer to convince him to stay away.  Of course someone else is searching for the girl for more nefarious reasons and soon our two leads are forced to join up in order to try and save her and work out what the hell they've been dragged into.

With it's neo-noir genre trappings and dark sense of humour, this film almost works as a sort of sister film to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and it will certainly appeal to fans of that film.  There are nods to L.A. Confidential too from the sleazy Hollywood setting and grim conspiracies (not to mention the fact that both films feature Crowe as well as Kim Basinger).  There's more than a little Boogie Nights too to the film's debauched 70s detail.

The film is a riot throughout.  It's exciting, witty and genuinely laugh out loud funny at times. Ryan Gosling reveals himself to be a gifted physical comedian and Russell Crowe gets his best role in years as the heavy with a hidden kindness.  They are also complimented by a solid support cast featuring the previously mentioned Kim Basinger in blunt and icy mode, an unnerving Matt Bomer and the always enjoyable Keith David (who recently leant his wry gravitas to the otherwise disappointing final season of Community.)

6 Seasons & a Movie?  I'd prefer 3 Seasons and consistent quality.
I don't want to say anything more about this film to avoid spoiling any of the jokes or clever plotting but I will wholeheartedly recommend it.  Go see The Nice Guys.  It's the most entertaining film out right now and, despite the old saying, it deserves to finish first.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

NEW RELEASES: Money Monster & Warcraft: The Beginning

Money Monster

(Director: Jodie Foster.  Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell)

Money Monster, the new movie by Jodie Foster is built around the titular fictional television show which purports to be a financial programme offering insights into the stock market but seems to mainly consist of George Clooney dancing around in silly costumes with a pair of showgirls and playing clips from old movies.  I'd suggest that this is a ridiculous satire but having watched what gets passed off a 'news' in the USA this show seems oddly plausible.  One such airing of this show is interrupted when a young delivery man (played by Jack O'Connell) storms onto the set armed with a gun and an explosive vest and demanding for the show to continue until he gets answers to why his recent investment failed.  Meanwhile the shows director (Julia Roberts) remains stranded in the studio gallery trying to maintain some control of the insane circus she is now being forced to direct.

Foster has some previous experience with stories involving a woman trying to
maintain control of a situation where a dangerous man is separated from her by glass.
Money Monster's greatest selling point is it's A-List cast.  George Clooney, in an echo of his Oscar nominated turn in Up In The Air plays a self-righteous corporate blowhard who is forced to question his whole outlook on life over the course of the film.  His ability to play smarmy arrogance is put to great use in the early sections of the film but his turn towards empathy and integrity by the end feels a little bit forced and unlikely.  Jack O'Connell (an actor who was so good in 2013's Starred Up that it helped me forgot that the awful 300: Rise of an Empire existed) brings a natural intensity to the role of the put-upon everyman on a desperate bid for retribution.  However the best performance in the film goes to Julia Roberts who, much like in her recent roles in August: Osage County and the Secret In Their Eyes remake, plays a strong woman powering through a troubled situation with quiet grit and determination (also like both those films, the performance feels like it deserves to be in a stronger movie overall.)

I'm not sure how her performance in Mother's Day ranks as I'd
rather set myself on fire than pay to see it.
Jodie Foster does a solid job of keeping the film moving at a steady pace.  There is enough tension and mystery to keep you entertained throughout and there is a surprising number of genuinely funny moments dotted throughout the runtime (an ill-advised attempt to get someone to talk O'Connell down is an unexpectedly harsh highlight.)  Where the film lacks bite however is in it's attempts at satire which, whether the target is the financial system or the media, has been done better before (Julia Robert's attempts to keep the televised hostage drama looking professional have a slight air of Sidney Lumet's 'Network' about them for one.)  The plot pivots around the idea that a major financial business could just lose $800m overnight and get away with blaming it on nothing more than a computer glitch without any further investigation by regulatory bodies or the media.  Even considering the ridiculous wheeler-dealing that major banks get away with, this seem rather ludicrous and makes it impossible to see the film as relevant to any real-life scenario.  Also a rather silly third act relies on Clooney's previously unscrupulous lead suddenly becoming protective of the man who has been threatening his life for the previous hour and puts finding him the answers he wants above his own safety.

Still despite this, Foster manages to keep the plot speeding forward throughout the film's well paced 90mins (not enough films these days keep the runtime down to such a sharp succinct level) and the there's enough tension and dark humour to keep things fun.

So ultimately the question is whether giving Money Monster your time would be a good investment?  Well that depends on your circumstances.  If you are already planning to go to the cinema and are looking for a film which will keep you entertained for 90mins then Money Monster is a solid low-risk choice.  However if you seek an intelligent and angry satire of the recent economic situation then you'd be better served by either the Oscar Nominated 'The Big Short' or the less known but subtly biting 'Margin Call.'  And if you seek a film that will give you a perfect mix of thrills, laughs, tragedy and dark satire of the way a violent confrontation can quickly turn into a media spectacle, well then the smart money would instead go on Sidney Lumet's 1975 classic 'Dog Day Afternoon.'

Warcraft: The Beginning

(Director: Duncan Jones.  Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper)

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien was first published in 1954 and sent shockwaves around the whole genre of fantasy writing inspiring thousands of books, comics, films and games to start filling their universes with Elves, Dwarves and Orcs.  In 1983, inspired by Tolkein's works, Games Workshop created the world of Warhammer for their tabletop games which pitted armies of these beings against each other.  In the 90s, the computer game company Blizzard attempted to buy the rights to Warhammer as a basis for a Real Time Strategy game.  This plan fell through but instead inspired the creative minds at Blizzard to come up with their own universe which reworked those influences into their own unique brand.  The first Warcraft game was released in 1994.  World of Warcraft, released in 2004, adapted the story of the strategy game into a large open-world MMORG becoming a global phenomenon which inspired a series of novels expanding the mythology of the game.  Now we have the new film which is directly based upon storylines taken from those novels.

This means that director Duncan Jones has been challenged to the unenviable task of adapting a film from a spin-off of an adaption of a knock-off of a tribute while still trying to inject it with enough original spirit to stand on it's own.  Not an easy task.

Warcraft begins in Draenor, the homeworld of the orcs, which is beginning to die off.  In order to survive the orcs band together under the leadership of a sinister shaman called Gul'dan to build a portal with which the orcs can use to escape to the more hospitable world of Azeroth.  Unfortunately the magic used to power the portal requires death to work so a small army of orcs make the first journey in order to find live victims to bring back to charge the portal so that the rest of the orc 'Horde' can join them in their new world.  Meanwhile the humans who rule over Azeroth prepare themselves to fight back this invasion.

As a citizen of Glasgow, I'm used to being overrun by a terrifying green Horde
To describe the plot further would be a bad idea as it involves multiple characters over many locations being drawn into this central conflict and it would take the entire length of this review to cover it all so I will jump straight to my feelings about the film.  Now there are two ways that this film can be approached.  Either it can be treated as nothing more than a multi-million dollar piece of fanservice for the 12 million people who have subscribed to play World of Warcraft online or it can be treated as a standalone film in it's own right unbeholden to any larger mythology.  As someone who has never played a single second of any of the Warcraft series, I will have to approach this review from the latter viewpoint.  Unfortunately this is where it begins to fall apart.

The sheer scale of the film's mythology (or 'lore' as I've been advised to call it) is both it's greatest strength and the burden which ultimately ruins it.  Apparently one of Duncan  Jones' major contributions to the script was the idea that the orcs would be treated as equal leads to the humans rather than simply as rote villains.  He was successful in this effort but maybe too successful as the lead orc characters end up being so much more interesting and engaging than the fairly generic and underwritten human protagonists that you spend all the human scenes wanting to get back to them.  

This guy looks like he'd be more at home getting stoned in an alley behind
 a video rental store in a 90s comedy than casting spells to save the world
There are so many characters and plot points to cover during the film's 123m runtime that none of them feel like they have been given the time required to properly serve them.  So we end up with a film which simultaneously feels both too long and too short.  When major characters are killed we feel nothing as we have not been given any reason to connect with them enough to feel the loss and the film moves onto the next set piece before we've had a chance to really see the effect these deaths have on the other characters.  Similarly, one big twist (involving a character being revealed to be possessed by evil) is both obviously predictable and very confusing as we are given no explanation how or when this happened or how much of their behaviour in the film was their real self and how much was the actions of the demonic spirit within them.  The film is also inconsistent tonally and can't seem to decide whether to embrace the campy fun ridiculous elements of the setting fully or whether to aim for the more self-serious and tragic vibe found in, say, the Lord of the Rings movies or Game of Thrones.  Instead we end up in an awkward middle ground which is too silly to take seriously but too dry give us the barnstorming cartoon adventure that it has the potential to be.  (It doesn't help that Ramin Djawdi's score is often very similar to his own 'Baratheon theme' from the far darker world of Game of Thrones)  It also doesn't help that many of the lead roles seem oddly miscast.  Glenn Close even appears for a cameo which is both even shorter and stranger (although less enjoyable) than her surprise appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy (a film which knew how to turn a ludicrous plot filled with bizarre characters into something very entertaining).  Oddly, both Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga from the TV adaption of Preacher appear in roles which do not require their natural charisma and which only succeed in reminding you how much more fun this film could be if it also featured a drunken Irish vampire.

In the end, the film succeeds in creating a fascinating world that is enjoyable to spend time in but lacking in a human connection to give it any emotional power.  Considering that Duncan Jones managed to make you laugh, cry and sweat in his debut movie 'Moon' (a film featuring only Sam Rockwell stuck in a room with a talking emoji played by Kevin Spacey) it's a shame to see him struggle to make the epic scale of the Warcraft universe as compelling.  Ultimately, watching Warcraft the movie is as personally engaging as watching someone else playing a game of World of Warcraft.  It can make for an intriguing watch but you can't help but feel that your time would be better spent just playing it yourself.