Monday, 13 March 2017

Lego Batman review

When I heard about the Lego movie (2014) I was like many people skeptical. I saw it, and loved it far beyond what I could have imagined. When I heard about the Lego Batman movie, I was again skeptical, and I enjoyed it, a bit.


I had seen a few reviews of the film before I decided to go and see it and the main criticism seemed to be "too many jokes". I didn't know how to take this at first but the film reminded me of Aardman animations' Pirates (2012), in which there are gags on seemingly every wall to spot while you are expected to take in sight jokes and dialogue not to mention the actual plot. I found that film to be comedy overkill in some ways though it was clearly intentional to encourage a second and even third viewing. The jokes I tended to laugh at were poking fun at the conventions of superhero movies in general, like the bluntly announced setup of a plane carrying thousands of explosives flying over the most crime riddled city. There is a not so subtle guarantee that something was going to go wrong, and that they are simply asking for trouble.

I sat in a screening room with a few adults, but mostly very young children who couldn't have
possibly understood many of the various references to Batman's past screen adventures. There is even a gag where they recreate in lego many of the past film posters that I liked, but it would have had no bearing on the vast majority of the audience I shared the screening with. Some of the nods to Batmans past were lost even on me as a viewer old enough but not comic book nerdy enough to get. It is therefore a massive achievement for this film that there is still a lot in this film for viewers of all ages, and they did a great job in trying to cater to everyone. The Marvel and DC universe can be feel convoluted and alienating with its depth and recent films like Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017) aim at older comic book fans, but this film has to be commended for being friendly and welcoming to all. You could watch this with little knowlege of Batman or be a superfan and still find something to enjoy.

As with the original Lego movie the animation is beautiful throughout. The only thing I could pick fault with is that the film moves at such a fast and sometimes frantic pace that sometimes you want to take in a scene but it disappears, but this is something that happened in The Lego Movie too especially when ploughing through the many dimensions that film had. Regardless of this it is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into every location and backdrop and care was taken to make this blocky environment feel like Gotham City. It evokes the early Tim Burton films and also the 90's animated series in that it is dark but still has a stylish use of colour to it like the orangey skyline and the effective use of light in the Batcave.

When I saw The Lego Movie one thing that grated on me a bit was Will Arnett's voice as Batman and so I had worried that it would bother me, but I was able to go with it over 144 minutes of this film. What I couldn't cope with was the bafflingly awful story. The plot hangs on the idea that the Joker can't cope with not being Batman's number one nemesis despite the glaring flaw that we all know he is. Batman claims that Superman is in reference to the 2016 film (and various graphic novels) and but this Screen Junkies video does a good job of explaining them. The plot of this film only gets more overcomplicated from here as the Joker finds a way to recruit the most sinister villains from other peoples intellectual properties to prove some sort of point to Batman. How does bringing in loads of villains from other franchises make The Joker Batmans main nemesis? If anything it muddies the water even more. I started to wonder if the film was fast on purpose so we didn't have the chance to put all of this together. Clearly we are not supposed to put too much thought into any of this and just go along with the ride, and if you're able to suspend your disbelief and do that then the ride is at least an enjoyable one.
after the Joker points out that Superman is a hero, Brucey states he has no main nemesis and is merely "fighting other people". This makes no sense. That is the sentence that I came to over and over as the plot progressed. Furthermore Batman defeats his entire famed rogues gallery (42 villains) within the first ten minutes of the film. Some of them only exist to the most hardcore of fans and some ludicrous ones I assumed had been made up for comic affect but it turns out are real and came from the 60's. Even now I still can't decided whether 'Polka-dot Man', 'King Tut' and 'Kite Man' were the result of a creative dry spell or all the drugs the 60's are associated with

While I found myself irritated by the ending of the film the message I took from it was at least worth the journey and had been built up to well. The character of Lego Batman is the brooding loner dark knight we are all familiar with from the Nolan trilogy turned up to eleven, maybe even twelve. He spends his days watching movies alone in a home cinema that for some reason has way more seats than he needs, and his favourite meal is a microwavable lobster thermidor for one. The caped crusader actively discourages cooperation with anyone, yet is insulted when the Justice League doesn't invite him to their party at the fortress of solitude. A party being held in the fortress of SOLITUDE was another nitpick that would have annoyed me had I thought about it in the screening room but by this point I decided I was thinking too much. Batman learns that you can't just isolate yourself because you want to avoid the pain of rejection or loss and this is a lesson I took seriously, and its a lesson that is good for children to hear, especially as bluntly as it is presented in the films conclusion.

I must confess as I have in previous blogs that when it comes to comic book films I am very much a casual fan. I am part way through the Marvel films and still way behind, but I'm trying to catch up. What I'm saying is that I'm not someone who is drawn to this genre, but I was interested based on the original Lego Movie and my familiarity with Batman, and I would say that by the end I had a reasonably good experience, just not one as good as other seem to have had. In a world currently oversaturated by superhero universes and crossovers that are frankly hard to follow and are somehow still expanding, I found Lego Batman to be at least unique and you could say innovative. It is not the first of its genre to put comedy before action but to my mind it did it better than Deadpool in that it is accessible to all.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Founder Review

From the first time I saw a trailer for the Founder I was enamoured with the subject matter, but also with the timing of its release for what was going on in the news at the time. Sadly I didn't get to watch the film on my first attempt as the projector malfunctioned after a 30 minute wait reminding me more of Burger King. I was nevertheless still keen to watch this film based on the names Michael Keaton and Nick Offerman alone and so I did. Fair warning as this film is based on true events there will be plot spoilers.

Michael Keaton plays Ray Kroc, a struggling businessmen attempting to sell a milkshake machine that he claims will revolutionise business, but is failing to gain any momentum. As the film begins we are quickly shown that Kroc has to carry this machine around and give the sales pitch to managers of diners and drive-ins who just aren't interested. The film opens with an impassioned speech directly to the camera and we hear versions of it repeated with diminishing enthusiasm. Kroc is painted from the very beginning as a sympathetic character, a man trying to do his job and not succeeding. All the tropes are there, the slightly beaten down weary look, the positive thinking records, the phone conversation with a wife who is not all that supportive. Even down to opening a bottle of wine alone in a dimly lit motel room. Keaton then pulls a hip flask out of his jacket and I shouted Bingo! People have made comparisons to Willy Loman in other reviews but Kroc's vulnerability is shown in a more direct manner minutes into the film and is shown to change as the film progresses. Michael Keaton put on a performance that is endearing initially but turns us sour on Kroc as his head gets bigger. The key thing though is that Keaton is charismatic enough to play a hard nosed and relentless salesman with charm that endures until you consider the real actions that took place in the film. It's staggering to thing that Michael Keaton was considered a non entity in Hollywood until Birdman (2014), yet is so good in his role in this film. It is fair to say that Keaton carries this film with his salesman charm.

Rays luck seems to be about to change when he receives word that a diner in California has ordered six machines, which he immediately assumes to be a mistake. Once he realises it isn't Ray makes the around 1800 mile drive (according to Google) to find the restaurant and witnesses something he has never experienced, fast food and good service eventually referred to as the "speedy system". Kroc is at this point basically desperate, and so when he sees this he goes all out to be part of it. What the film doesn't show is that this wasn't the first food establishment Kroc tried to get into as he had attempted the non-hostile takeover plan before. A lot of his character is revealed through not so subtle hints that sound off alarm bells. One such instance of this is Kroc skimming the contract presented to him going over pages in seconds. This becomes pertinent later on as Ray states that "contracts are like hearts, made to be broken" but you already knew his mindset at the time. The one thing that remains consistent about Ray Kroc from when he is penniless to when he is rich, he always goes for what he wants regardless of who has it and what the moral restrictions are. This means that despite our change in the perception of his character, he never actually changes himself which is a well written development. He is the same man, but we see him differently as events progress.

The McDonald brothers are played by John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman who both do brilliantly with what is on the page but portray the brothers very narrowly at times. This is not an issue with Offerman or Lynch but more to do with the films writing which offers an increasingly brief insight
into the two. I especially liked the scene early on where Mac (Lynch) and Dick (Offerman) are telling their story so far to Kroc. The scene is mostly presented through flashbacks that are charming and believable, and they make you like the brothers from the start. One sequence in particular really made me smile as Dick draws the outline for the not yet finished kitchen in chalk on a tennis court has has his staff spend six hours practicing efficient service while he rearranged the imaginary work station to help maximise output. This was unlike anything I have seen before and it felt eccentric but not far fetched. As the film goes on we see less and less of Dick and Mac, and at points they are only there to say no to Kroc's ideas whether good or bad. They remain true to their principles and are unwilling to budge believing that Kroc will have to live with their decisions. In the end the impression we are given is that they were naive and perhaps a little soft in protecting their business and family name but as I said before this is more due to the writing of the script than the mostly warm and sympathetic performances by Offerman and Lynch.

Another thing I liked throughout the film was the music by Carter Burwell. It seems to match Kroc at all times, it is upbeat and energetic when he is and low and dreary when he is also. It picks up for example when Ethel Kroc shows her support for him and has a sense of exploration about it. Kroc is after all expending West to make his fortune so this feels appropriate and brings you along for the ride, making you feel the way Ray feels in any given moment rather than having us passively experience Rays journey. This feeling of sunny optimism is also backed by beautifully coloured scenes, particularly outdoors. The reds and yellows of McDonalds and the sunny blue California skies notable in the early scenes for the film when Kroc is discovering the Brothers' diner are reminiscent to me of Director John Lee Hancock's last film Saving Mr. Banks. (2013), with which there are many similarities with The Founder. What came to mind especially was the scene of Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) giving P.L Travers (Emma Thompson) a tour of Disneyland, as well as many of the exterior shots of the Disney studios. In that film I took this to be a representation of Disney magic brought out by glorifying light and colour, and similarly in The Founder I interpreted its use as shining optimism of its lead character pouring trough the screen.

The score and setting of this film might not be out of place in a western at times which was perhaps helped by the 1950's decor of the film. A great deal of this had to recreated from scratch with McDonalds locations having to be built in car parks and other areas that wouldn't clash with the time
period. This again reminded me of Saving Mr. Banks and the recreations of 1960's Disneyland used in that film. Both are set in a similar time period with the events of The Founder taking place a few years earlier, so Hancock and his set designer on both films Susan Benjamin had great experience in recreating the style. The real life Ray Kroc and Walt Disney knew each other so I liked the subtle connection between the two films here. The film ends with photos and interview clips that help to lend authenticity to the film which is a trick also employed by Hancock in Saving Mr. Banks. While in many ways completely different the two are similar in that Tom Hanks' Walt Disney and Michael Keaton's Ray Kroc both exude charisma and passion for their own quests. They are both pursuing something relentlessly, and they are both strong performances that carry their films, more so in Keaton's case. I'm hoping John Lee Hancock continues this trend and focuses his next project on Col. Sanders or the Michelin Man.

While the McDonalds brand was never going to be shown in any negative light, it is also not pandered to or shoved down the viewers throat. The story is heavily focused on the changing relationship between Kroc and the McDonalds brothers mainly from Kroc's side, and the brand is prominent but is still very much a setting and a historical context above all else. One exception to this is a speech Kroc gives comparing Dicks 'golden arches' design for restaurants to the flag on a courthouse or the spire of Churches, claiming that McDonalds could become the "new American Church". It is important to note the context of this line though as the point Kroc is trying to make a deal and of course he is going to glorify his subject. For those of you scared of clowns don't worry, Ronald makes no appearance either.

In the following days after I saw The Founder I later learned that much of the film was written based on Ray Kroc's own autobiography. Knowing this made everything come together, because while being presented from a third person perspective the film is very much Krocs version of events. Unlike Krocs empire however he himself doesn't escape the film with his reputation unscathed. I noted before that the one thing that doesn't change about Ray is that he relentlessly goes after what he wants regardless of who has it. This is not limited strictly to business but refers to his second wife Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini) who is introduced as the wife of one of Rays franchisees and Ray is enamoured by immediately, like Pepe Le Pew whenever he sees the girl skunk. Her introduction signposts the beginning of a colder more ruthless Ray Kroc, and one that while the same character fundamentally is more driven and will go after what he wants regardless of who it will hurt.

I mentioned the the start of this review that I was interested in the timing of this films release, given that it seemed to coincide with trumps inauguration. I wondered what the films tone would be like in light of this. In reality the script was on the Hollywood blacklist of unmade but worthy projects for a few years, and the films original release date was this past Summer which was moved to January in hopes of Oscar nominations (it received none). The Founder in the end felt like a slightly baffling misstep for our modern times. Today where corporate greed and corruption are more public knowlege than ever, and a certain business tycoon currently holds the keys to the kingdom I had expected something totally different to what The Founder presented. Something a little more biting and judgemental, maybe even an antidote, but what we got was basically an advert for all of the above. Once the film had sunk in I felt like I had watched a shiny happy promotional film where the plot is basically big business over the little guy, which didn't seem appropriate for what is going on in the world these days. If The Founder had a bit more of a satirical edge to it then it would maybe have remedied this but while I enjoyed the presentation and performances I couldn't help but be disappointed by the films message and overall tone. I later discovered that Joel and Ethan Coen were interested in making this film but couldn't due to clashing schedules with Hail, Caesar! (2016), which while I like John Lee Hancock, I can't help but think would have made for a totally different and perhaps better film. The Founder is saccharine, but leaves a bitter taste.

**

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Fifty Shades of Grey Review

It's Valentines Day and I'm alone again so fuck it, why not review Fifty Shades of Grey. I remember when the books had a softcore porn aura around them and I remember the buzz they got despite starting life as Twilight fan fiction (maybe I'll review those next year). I also remember the hype around this film before it was released, and the 'came too soon' nature of its reception.

Anastasia Steele (lol) begins the film about to interview the gaudily introduced Christian Grey. She is greeted by his young female mostly blonde staff and enters his office by falling down with a wide eyed look presenting unnecessary foreboding. I have used the term 'subtlety of a sledgehammer' in previous reviews but this entire film has the subtlety of a bulldozer plowing through a greenhouse. In a way though this is fine as you have to know what you're getting into by now. Ms Steele is immediately portrayed as submissive and needy and the scene with her first meeting with Grey is frustratingly foreboding. I felt like a better writer could have improved this scene, but E.L James enforced her will and the dialogue especially suffers from that.

When Grey offers Steele an internship her reaction is "I don't think I'd fit in here, look at me..." This screams of desperation, the kind that introduces us to the setting but has no connection to the real world. The films dialogue in general feels like it was written by a teenager who thought his wet dream would make a good movie and now has to build a story around it. When Grey arrives at the hardware store (whey hey) where Steele works for comedic value asking for tie wraps and masking tape I laughed, a lot. Her line that he is now the "complete serial killer" put the exclamation point on it. These things based on the score underneath are supposed to build tension but are instead hilarious. Thats not a good sign when you're only ten minutes in and already finding the film overdramatic and funny rather than tense. At this point I'm going to stop recounting every case of terrible dialogue because if I didn't this review would be 47 pages long. Every line seems to indicate something that a better writer could have implied. The non-disclosure agreement for example that Steele signs without questioning baffled me, and at this point the film leaves reality and delves into sexual fantasy completely.  The film feels like it was written by a thirteen year old boy. It wasn't, but the characters lack both emotional maturity and rational thought and act purely on basic instincts. At times it feels like a sex scene is parachuted in because we haven't had one in a while. While other reviews have I can't fully blame E.L James' for this as screenwriter Kelly Marcel who worked on Saving Mr. Banks didn't exactly show any sense of restraint in that film either (cheap plug for my review of that film). Much of the drama of this film could have come from Steeles' hesitancy to sign Greys contract, but this is often times ignored in favour of a tantalising visual display leaving no need for a contract to begin with, and the idea is basically neglected by the end of the film.

One thing I can praise the film for is engrossing me in its world with great set design and presentation. Greys apartment feels authentic and appropriate as do all the other locations used. Nobody can deny the film isn't shot well either as there are some beautiful lighting and colour choices throughout. I particularly liked the business meeting scene halfway through where Grey and Steele are at opposite ends of the boardroom table almost in silhouette with a sunset-like gradient behind them. The sex scenes mostly feel "artistically shot" and not cheap and gaudy. The director Sam Taylor-Johnson and DOP Seamus McGarvey deserves a medal for this as their work is stellar despite their limitations.

While there are a fair few supporting characters who are mainly there to offer opinions while remaining oblivious to whats actually going on, the only performances worth noting are Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey. Johnson has a sense of vulnerability about her at all times that is appropriate to her character. Given how notoriously awkward sex scenes are known to be the ones in this film can't have been easy, but Johnson does them believably and appealingly. Dornan as Grey does also but has a more challenging job as he has to contend with the majority of the lousy writing and has to explain the concept of the plot in an often wooden and forced way. He isn't quite as believable as his co-star given his robotic nature but this was intended to be part of the character, and Dornan does well given his restrictions. Grey for the most part comes across as emotionally vacant in a way that no real person would but that is more an issue with the material he is given. These two were relatively unknown at the time of casting and that was perhaps the best decision, as they inhabit the characters better than well known stars would. It will be interesting to see in the upcoming years if Johnson and Dornan struggle to find roles without being typecast given that this film is their most well known.

Given the terrible dialogue throughout its almost as if you could watch this film on mute, make up your own dialogue and it would be a masterpiece. Almost every line is cringeworthy, but porn was never known for its character development, and what we are watching is basically a highly evolved version of the stereotypical porn tropes with a messed up male character and a disturbingly obedient female lead. Fifty shades of Grey could have been far worse but it is by no means a bad film. Its visuals and performance carry it, but don't except writing better than you'll find in the adult section of the TV guide.

*

Friday, 23 December 2016

Saving Mr. Banks

P.L Travers is broke. Her royalties have dried up. There has been a film rights offer on the table for 20 years, but Travers is highly protective of her work. The first 4 minutes of Saving Mr. Banks sets up the story with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Let me explain though how I came to love this film.



Emma Thompson is forceful, aggressive, yet very entertaining as P.L Travers. Throughout most of the film every line of dialogue she has is overly cynical and is delivered with a 'very English' demeanor, which is to say overt contempt. Even when others are being nice to her or trying to raise her spirits, such as her cheery and well meaning driver played excellently by Paul Giamatti. Mrs. Travers' stubbornness is never more evident than when Thompson reacts with disgust to finding her hotel room has been decorated with Disney toys and Mickey Mouse merchandise. Not even the magic of Disney can phase P.L Travers' bitterness. Many of my thoughts on the film to this point can be summed up by the moment Mrs. Travers removes the giant Mickey Mouse toy from her bed and sits it facing the wall, murmuring "you can stay there until you learn the art of subtlety". This line had me howling with laughter for the wrong reasons, because at this point I almost did the same to my TV. Attempts to put her character over the top could easily have felt overbearing in the hands of the wrong actress, but they are entertaining thanks to Emma Thompson. I'd expect no less from a footlights graduate in the same class as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Thompson's P.L Travers appears completely unflappable even after she finally meets with Walt Disney face to face. Mrs. Travers might not have been enamoured, but I was.

Walt Disney is played in this film by Tom Hanks, who brightens up the screen from the moment he walks onto it surrounded by trophies and memories. Hanks' performance made me smile every time he was on screen, and thats high praise for a character whose sole motivation is to acquire the rights to Mary Poppins. Once again motivations are made very clear very fast, as Disney wastes no time in stressing how long he had been wanting to purchase the rights, 20 years in fact. Tom Hanks made me smile every moment he was on the screen, and that, at least to someone of my generation, is what you would expect the mythical Walt Disney to do. The film does attempt in small ways to dethrone the cinema legend. One of the more notable instances of this is where he is caught smoking in his office, a habit he didn't want revealed publicly in fear that it would taint his wholesome image. Given that this is a Walt Disney Pictures film co-starring Walt Disney, this is as much dirt on the Hollywood icon we're going to get. I don't know much about the man himself beyond Disney's own media, but Hanks' Disney seems to care a great deal about his self image, and the impression he leaves on the world, and that is what makes him fascinating. The only other real slight on him is the lack of effect his charm has on Mrs. Travers, and this creates great chemistry between the two sides of the same coin.


Saving Mr. Banks does a great job at building P.L Travers as a magnificently stubborn character but then explaining deeply what made her that way. In sections throughout the film we are shown small segments of her early life. These are helpful in providing some interesting background, as well as giving us an entertaining Colin Farrell performance as Mrs. Travers' father, an increasingly complex character who wants to please his children to a fault. These flashbacks are cut into the story very well and they never feel intrusive or forceful. Given that the writers of this film seem to have no trust in the audience to work the plot out for themselves, the line "we have to teach the witch to be happy again" feels like another blow from that aforementioned subtlety sledgehammer. These scenes come to signify the struggle between Travers' headstrong defiance and her childhood memories of imagination and creativity powered by her father, especially when they are placed alongside his inevitable implosion. A line in the trailer tells you all you need to know, as does the films title itself. These asides begin to make you realise how important Mrs. Travers' creation is to her and why. We see why she aggressively protects her beloved Mary and the Banks'. It is here where we discover the core of her character, and I like how this builds throughout the film.

One the greatest things for me about Saving Mr. Banks is the musical score by Thomas Newman. At one point Newman invokes 'Hi Ho' from Snow White when introducing the Disney studios, a film that would have enraged Travers given her hatred for Disney's 'Silly Cartoons'. At this point I was struck by the irony that I was watching a film depicting a person who heavily resisted her own work being brought to the silver screen, yet is now on it herself. Newmans score conveys despair when you are looking at it, and joy when you are looking at that too. Ever since I saw American Beauty I have been able to spot a Thomas Newman score, and this made me enjoy the film even more.

If I were to describe the tone of this film in one word, it would be 'sunny', and this is evident even
from the photography. There are plenty of bright colours and vivid landscapes that make the film easy on the eyes. California is of course portrayed with nothing but sunshine, and the flashbacks are almost glowing with vibrance. The plot is filled with conflict and angst, so you really needed that bright tone to remind you that this is a Disney film.There was also a fair amount of humour drawn from Travers' conflict with Disney's writers and musical staff who each have their moment of levity. My favourite being a debate over the word "responstible" not being a word.

When we screened Saving Mr. Banks as part of our Film Club season some left the film on the edge of tears. This was soon alleviated by an extra I hadn't known existed in the credits of the real P.L Travers in the tape recorded writing sessions that are recreated in the film. Without saying too much these extras definitely serve the authenticity of the film, and I would hope that more of these tapes were made available someday, so that we might understand the creative process a bit more. This film succeeded in that is took a potentially combative and unfilmable thing, a business deal, and sprinkled some of that Disney magic on to make it both engaging and entertaining throughout.

***1/2

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Absolutely Fabulous (2016)

Reels on fire...

Absolutely Fabulous (1990-2004) hit TV screens in an era where neanderthals were still arguing that
women can't be funny, and it therefore had a lot to prove. The film arrived in an era where that stereotype on both big and small screen has beeb obliterated. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley make it clear early on that they are out to make fun of themselves, and not just others as the style of modern comedy has become. nothing is off limits, how they have aged, how the world has changed, and this is where some of the best comedy comes. Their lack of understanding of the world is at times amazing, with Patsy referring to cash as 'hand money' being my favourite gag. I got the feeling early on that Ab Fab was two decades before its time, and the film is right where it needed to be given that we now live in the media obsessed celebrity culture. However the more I watched, I realised that the comedy doesn't work anymore given that we are too close to the world the series was parodying in the 1990's. Sadly, we have become the joke.

Being a film set in the world of PR and celebrity there are cameos aplenty which range from fantastic to dire. Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones) looking glamorous for a change was brilliant, while I could have done without Richard Arnold and Christine Bleakley (who is bizarrely only shot from the side for some reason). That guy from the X Factor who plays an air steward (appropriately) can fuck off too. There is no doubt however that they deserve a place in this film given that it takes a sledgehammer to gaudy celebrity culture at some points and lusts for it at others. Jon Hamm also puts in a great but too brief comic performance, and this all serves to make series mainstays Lulu and Emma Bunton come across as jarring anachronisms. While their inclusion is faithful to the original I found it hard to believe that they exist in this world anymore. So many cameos are included that by the end of the film they become numbing. From genuinely funny moments to "oh yeah its him/her". Crucially the biggest anachronism is Kate Moss, who is an important part of the plot.

Much like Brienne's appearance I greatly appreciated the cameo by Rebel Wilson, who begged for a role in the film and ad-libbed her greatest line. As a air hostess she refers to herself as the 'designated do noting bitch', which is a glorious reference to MMA great Ronda Rousey's coined term. Only afterwards I realised that this is the most topical joke in the film and it is already dated by over a year. When asked about this ad lib Saunders exclaimed "I don't care as long as its funny", which suggests she missed the poignancy and cultural relevance of this line. In the long run this doesn't really matter because Jennifer Saunders knows whats funny and kept it in, but I still find her dismissiveness concerning. Despite this Saunders shows a solid understanding of the modern world with subtle gags you could miss is you blinked, like the hash tag #IsKateDead? featuring on BBC News while exposition is being blurted out by a newsreader. Reaction clips are highlighted by a brief Jeremy Paxman cameo who asks "is there really nothing else happening in the world?" Quickly followed by some randomer claiming that "fashion is dead." This, in a nutshell, is the tone of the film. It knows that its subject matter is superficial, and that is its saving grace.

Underneath the plot of the TV original is an undercurrent of sympathy towards Eddies daughter Saffy. This time it is centered around Saffys daughter Lola despite a frightening lack of understanding of how to use the younger character. We are told she is 13 but she is shown to know how to drive a car. Lola 'has money' but only when the plot necessitates it. Lola is sometimes interesting but mostly just there because of the time lapse from the series means she has to be, and her final appearence is a throwaway gag just to make her prescent in the final scenes. The film loses sight of the joke of the original, that Saffy was in the Mother role as Edina was the child. If we are to translate that into the film, Saffy has grown to be a pretty neglectful and distant parent and Edina has finally been able to run amok. The id has finally prevailed over the ego, and it makes for a gaudy film.

One genuine positive I can say is that the film is at least faithful to its portrayal of Eddie and Patsy, its two central characters. Ab Fab was always about ageing disgracefully, but Jennifer Saunders (age 58) and Joanna Lumley (age 70) manage to continue this into the film with the same style and attitude of the original series. Numerous references are made to the two being too old for the lifestyle they are trying to maintain, though Eddie is noted as being aged 60, which I found telling about Saunders motivations. While I'm praising performances June Whitfield (age 91 for fairness' sake), reprisises her role as Edinas clueless mother very well.


In my research for this film I realised that Absolutely Fabulous is as old as I am, and although I struggle with pop culture I have aged better. That is a sad inditement on this film. I can't help but feel that if this exact film had been made 15 years ago (and it could have been if you switched a few of the topical cameos) it would have been received a thousand times better and could have been considered the British Zoolander. Sadly it will likely be more of a British Zoolander 2, dated and irrelevant. At times I felt like I was watching a film made in 2001, which is worrying given that I recently watched Dad's Army (2016), set in 1944, which felt more of our time than Ab Fab. There were things I enjoyed though such as Robert Webb as Saffys mild mannered policeman partner, but part of me thinks that is because I haven't seen him in a film since Confetti (2006) and The Magicians (2007), and they were both train wrecks.

For honesty's sake I should note that it took me numerous seatings to get through this film which is a bad sign in itself. I tried really hard to like this film, but in the end its plot was just too awkward despite fine acting from all and a heavy dose of fan service and nostalgia. The BBC's recent sitcom modernisations of Keeping Up Appearances, Porridge and Are You Being Served among others have shown that some are going find it harder to rekindle the magic than others. Some were complete duds while other offered something different and interesting to the old formula. Absolutely Fabulous was always going to be a tough property to make into a film, and this attempt tried admirably and failed fabulously, sweetie darling.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Purge

So I thought I'd review something a bit different. A lot different really, but lets get started.

The Purge (2013) is a film based on a concept, one that while interesting is supremely dark. The idea is that on March 21st each year between midnight and 7am, people are allowed to commit any crime
as a way of getting it out of their system. Participating is often referred to as 'releasing the beast', furthering the idea that it is meant to allow people to let out feelings of hate and aggression that are otherwise illegal. The film begins with a graphic telling us that crime is at an all time low and that "violence barely exists with one exception..." We are later told that regardless of who the Purge really serves, crime is down and the economy is flourishing following a quadruple dip recession. The concept is similar to devils night in The Crow (1994), but is presented as something positive rather than something to be feared. It is made clear early on that we are not expected to question the morality of the Purge, just to accept that it exists in the films near future setting of 2022. Numerous references are made to 'the new founding Fathers', suggesting that power has changed hands but this is not expanded on, leaving us to question what that exactly means. A great deal of effort is put in to getting the gimmick over, perhaps a little too much. There is nothing wrong with world building but you don't need so much of it when the world is supposed to be a slight variation of our own.

The Purge itself isn't formally explained until the second act of the film, but you get all you really need to know the opening minutes of the film. We hear callers on a radio station, one in particular stating that his boss 'has it coming'. This is coupled with scenes of horrific violence from years past, setting the tone for the film effectively. We then go an affluent looking community where the rich are able to protect themselves, while hearing the argument that the poor are the real victims of the Purge. The phrase everybody uses, "have a safe night" quickly feels vacuous in a way that reminded me favourably of the Hunger Game's "may the odds be ever in your favour".

We join the Sandin family who appear to reside in an upper class community. James, the patriarch of the family makes a living selling security systems. This gives us an interesting perspective, as we are following a character who profits from the morally questionable Purge night, and does so openly and even proudly. James boasts to his family that his team had sold the most upgraded security systems that year, and a neighbour comments that he potentially sold systems to the whole street. Ethan Hawke plays James as a hard working man who loves his family, while the script attempts to give him a hint of smugness using devices like showing him shopping for a boat on his tablet. in this sense it is not clear whether we are supposed to like him or not. James' wife Mary seems to treat her neighbours with suspicion when she is first introduced, and has a constant look of concern on her face even before the Purge begins. Much like in her most famous role as Cercei Lannister in Game of Thrones, Lena Heady's facial expressions bring a sense that there is more behind her eyes than her dialogue suggests, which helps a great deal to add to the feeling that no one is safe.

Once the exposition section is over and the Purge begins the plot thickens when their son Charlie (Max Burkholder) allows a homeless man (Edwin Hodge, credited as 'bloody stranger') into the house to save him. Charlie doesn't anticipate that a group of masked 'freaks' doesn't take kindly to their target being protected. You may have noticed I have spent most of this review explaining the plots setup and thats because this is what the film does an awful lot of too. The Purge might be an unfamiliar idea to us initially but once it is explained once you don't really need to reiterate it as much as the film does.  There is no escaping the fact that the plot is sketchy at some points, with characters making strange and confusing choices in order to advance the story in the way it needs to go. Once you see where the plot is going you can see that they had a destination in mind all along without enough thought put into how they are going to get there. I'm mainly referring to one major moral decision the family has to make that is played more for ramping up the tension than rational thought from the characters. The one part I wasn't willing to forgive was why is there no consequence for the boy who causes all the mayhem that ensues. If he didn't take pity on the man there would have been no plot and the family would have remained under lockdown, and I couldn't ignore that like his family does.

It is worth noting that there isn't a bad performance within the Sandin family, and that Hawke and
Heady are particularly believable throughout. Ethan Hawke is impressive in his action scenes, which was a bit of a surprise to me given that I know him more as a wet blanket in Before Sunrise (1995). I was a little taken out of the film by the 'freaks' (thats how they are credited), especially the main one who is played by Rhys Wakefield and credited as 'polite leader'. This name alone makes me think not a lot of thought was put into him and his motivation beyond him looking a bit like like Draco Malfoy's American equivalent and apparently becoming psychotic on Purge night. If we are supposed to believe that these people are upstanding citizens for the rest of the year, how do they turn into Heath Ledgers Joker for just seven hours and then back again?

On the whole I enjoyed my time with The Purge, although I spent much of my time afterwards picking apart its psychology. While this is technically classed as a horror film I found it tense at times but not at all frightening, and I'm not much of a horror fan. You can smell its jump scares coming from a mile away which defeats the purpose. Its a bit of a mess, but its an enjoyable mess and it did leave me interested enough to write about it and wanting to watch its sequels.

***

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Wakefield Cathedral Film Club: The Walk

Wakefield Cathedral Film Club will present The Walk on Monday September 19th at 7pm


Here is an exchange I've had a few times over the past few weeks:
"Have you seen The Walk?"
"No, whats it about?"
"Its a true story about a French man who tightrope walked between the twin towers."
"Oh... The twin towers? Those twin towers?"

At a first glance The Walk (2015) is one of those films that is about a stunning CGI visual and not much else, but that is not all this film has to offer. The Walk tells the story of Philippe Petit's passion and how he recruited the 'accomplices' who made his dream possible. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays Petit as obsessive and to a degree manic, often flying into fits of rage at the slightest backfire or at anyone who doubts him. Throughout this he remains likeable, and I found myself willing him to succeed. Having seen Petit himself describe the 'Coup' in interviews and in the documentary Man On Wire (2008), I can believe that this is an accurate portrayal of his mindset and how he speaks. In that film Petit describes entering the South tower in a van as "being engulfed by the monster". Lets face it, to plan a walk across a 140 foot cable with no safety measures for the sake of art you have to be a bit unhinged...

Incidentally Man On Wire is a great companion piece to this film, as it includes real footage of Philippe walking, running and even laying down on wires. More importantly it includes Petit's own telling of the story in great detail. There was a frankly baffling moment in The Walk where while looking for the arrow that was shot to connect the two towers with a string attached, Petit takes his clothes off in frustration. The real Petit confirms that this happened in the documentary, but this isn't explained very well in Levitt's performance or voiceover. The Walk very accurately and at times with the finest detail resembles Petits version of the story. The only notable exception being a performance in Sydney in 1973, and the Australian accomplice he met through this which are left out of the film presumably for time.

Levitt looks like a pro every time we see him on the wire and with good reason. He was taught his tightrope walking technique by the now 67 year old Philippe Petit, who correctly predicted this training would take no more than eight days. The rope walking scenes were shot for real at a hight of 12 feet, in front of a green screen. These scenes are spectacular, particularly shots that use a crane camera spinning around and hovering over Levitt. On a couple of occasions I actually felt a sense of dread come over me as if I was looking down at New York City for real. Sitting in my living room I can only imagine what this will look like on the silver screen. Director Robert Zemeckis was quoted as saying that "the goal was to evoke the feeling of vertigo. We worked really hard to put the audience up on those towers and on the wire." They definitely achieved this goal creating stunning and realistic visuals. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts on a great performance on the wire, his french accent was at times patchy. It wasn't quite John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but at points in the film it smelled of elderberries a bit. To his credit though, his french speaking was much better. He is a known Francophile, so is accustomed to the language and already knew how to speak it before filming began.

While this is not intended to be a documentary, at times details which feel like important
are not explained by the film, almost as if it assumes we know already. This wouldn't be an issue to me if the film wasn't constantly cutting to Levitt as Petit standing on the Statue of Liberty talking directly to the viewer and explaining the story. These felt a little overdone and slightly lazy at times where things could be shown not told, but I understand they were essential to reminding the viewer that they are seeing everything from Philippe's perspective. This is really the only element of the film I didn't like but it at least had a reason to be included that makes sense.

One of the things I liked about the Walk is how well paced its 2 hour runtime is. The film divides into three sections, Petit discovering and working towards his goal, implementing the plan of getting all the equipment up to the roof and finally the 'Coup' itself as he repeatedly calls it. Language like this as well as 'accomplice' and 'Spy work' are a constant reminder that what Philippe is planning is technically illegal and this is necessary to add even more danger to the plan. The film at no time feels too long or that it is dragging which is impressive when you are building towards a big visual payoff that everyone knows is coming. The early scenes where Petit recruits his accomplices help with this as they move the story along progressively and are not lingered on for too long. Initially I felt like many of these characters are introduced and are merely window dressing for most of the film, particularly Annie who's main role in the Coup seems to be to watch from below. After watching Man On Wire I realised that the role of each of these people was to facilitate Philippe and not much more, and this no longer felt like a slight on the film. The real life Annie even says "my life was completely consumed by his and he never thought to ask me whether I had my own destiny to follow. It was quite clear I had to follow his." Only when I heard the real Annie say this did I truly understand that Philippe is the only developed character because that is true to the film, which is presented from the first person perspective of Philippe. A perspective that is obsessively focussed on his own dreams.

There is one final thing to discuss that I referenced at the start of this review. The film does a very good job of distracting you from thoughts about the other major event in the twin towers history, until one sad and impactful moment in the film. I think this affected me so much because I had been so completely invested in Philippe and his ambitious journey that September 11th 2001 had become the furthest thing from my mind. This is how I think Philippe's accomplices must have felt, fascinated and inspired by this eccentric character that wants only to do something amazing.


Wakefield Cathedral Film Club will be screening The Walk on Monday September 19th at 7pm.
Our Autumn to Winter 2016 season also includes
Hail Caesar! Saving Mr. Banks and A Christmas Carol.