Month: July 2017

Review: Baby Driver

Not since his cinematic debut in 1995 with A Fistful of Fingers has Edgar Wright been the sole credited writer on one of his films. Baby Driver, a crime caper set to the beat of the getaway driver’s iPod, is an idea that dates back to that very same year. The 22 year delay between inception and release is a blessing, allowing him to refine his technique. The result is one of the best films this summer.

When Baby (Answel Elgort), a young getaway driver from Atlanta, was young his parents were killed in a tragic car crash. He was lucky to walk away but has suffered from severe tinnitus ever since. To drown out the ringing in his ears he listens to music on a wide range of iPods, presumably from the cars he has stolen. One of those cars belonged to mastermind criminal Doc (Kevin Spacey) and Baby has been paying him back ever since by driving on his jobs.

Wright wastes no time in getting down to it, we open to Baby and his team pulling up to a bank. The camera cuts to his iPod and he presses play on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s hit song Bellbottoms. From this moment on every movement is to the beat, even the gunshots and shouts. Rather than watch the robbery unfold we see Baby lipsync and dance away, almost ignorant to what his team is doing. Contrary to what Elgort’s recent song release might suggest, he isn’t a thief.

Once they get back to their headquarters, Doc distributes the money equally and they head their separate ways. Jon Bernthal, who plays one of the crew, was a top-billed actor whose name appears on every poster. As they leave he says “If you don’t see me again, it’s because I’m dead”. His character is not seen again during the film. It’s small details like these that keep viewers coming back, hoping to spot something new each time.

Baby finishes paying his debt back after the next heist and he wants out. No longer does Doc have leverage on him. He is free to live his life on his own terms, even meeting a waitress at a diner called Debora (Lily James) and falling in love. Naturally Doc won’t let him go that easily, having never failed a job when he has been driving. The promise of an equal cut of the earnings doesn’t sway him, but rather unsurprisingly the threat to kill his girlfriend and foster father makes him fall back into line. The next target? A post office.

Later on in the film when the relationship between Baby and Debora is established, they are always seen wearing black and white outfits. Their romance has a timeless feel because of this, especially when juxtaposed with the bright outfits of his fellow crew, especially Jamie Foxx. His outfits are mostly red, symbolic of his tendency to kill or threaten to kill just about every person he meets.

Baby Driver is overflowing with slick car chases, snappy dialogue and pop culture references all set to a meticulously edited to a fantastic soundtrack. My only quibble is fatigue. Two hours of constantly tapping your foot and nodding your head is simply exhausting, who knew.

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tom Holland stars in the third iteration of the Spider-Man character and the first within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is an increasing sense of fatigue with the over saturation of superhero films and this does not change with Homecoming. From the first scene it is made clear though that this is a smaller scale movie, one than looks up to the Avengers not down from their height. For that reason this is Marvel’s most realistic to date. The people are real and so are the stakes.

When the Avengers destroy parts of the city, it is the citizens that are left to clean up the damage. A whole industry has formed in the wake of these repeated disasters that without warning is suddenly taken away. Tony Stark’s latest venture Damage Control will now manage all salvage operations leaving Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his crew in New York jobless. Rather than back down and find employment elsewhere, he and his team steal a truckload of alien technology and use it to create hybrid weapons destined for the black market. In order to keep a steady flow of new scrap, Toomes tracks and hijacks Damage Control trucks. For 8 years his business has thrived, but after Spider-man stumbles upon some otherworldly weapons, their paths begin to cross.

From the offset it is clear that director Jon Watts is trying to innovate, to surprise the audience with something new, however using a brighter colour palette and a selection of musical cues does not change the fact that the skeleton of each film is the same. The villain is always forgettable yet well acted, here Keaton is formidable as Vulture but his motives are foggy. He wants to take revenge on the Avengers in their ivory towers but does so by selling weapons to thugs to buy himself an ivory tower for his family.

The action scenes although destructive are almost always aimless. As the ferry gets split in half part way through I should have been exhilarated, instead the whole sequence was a drag. In 2015’s Age of Ultron the entire fictional city of Sokovia is ripped from the Earth and rises into the sky, the end result in a series of ever more catastrophic events across multiple films. In cinema as in real life our empathy and interest towards conflict and disaster only extends so far before we become numb. I did not care about the ferry nor the people on it because I have seen it relentlessly in every Marvel film. What the viewer will not become numb to is good character development and clear motives, something that most superhero films, including this one, lack. Far too often brilliant actors are wasted in one-dimensional or bit roles, Tony Revolori, Donald Glover, Kenneth Choi and Hannibal Buress all fall into these categories.

Self promotion is another issue prevalent in the Marvel franchise. Every release will at some point reference its predecessors and advertise a few more. The deeper we go into the franchise the worse it gets. While this allows for more complex storylines that work across multiple films it alienates the average moviegoer. You would not be able to fully comprehend the events of Homecoming unless you had seen Civil War, and that was the build up of multiple films in itself. Suddenly you have 16 films you have to watch as a prerequisite for simply understanding the latest release. There are 3 more in post production as of writing with one more filming and multiple more in the works. As more time passes the issue will continue to get worse and diminishing returns is inevitable.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the first indication that Marvel might deviate from its formulaic structure of producing films. The original elevator pitch for this would have been ‘High School drama’ yet the creative licence given to the writers never extends to a majority. It always has to be a superhero film first and foremost. If Marvel wants to remain relevant it has to evolve, to stop making the same movie in a different skin. Homecoming is a step in the right direction but for every one step forward they seem to take 2 steps back.

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

There was always going to be a large, ape shaped shadow cast over each entry in the rebooted franchise. That famous last scene to the original has damned them to be second best regardless of their quality. Matt Reeves and his cowriter missed a trick with the ending and lost out on a ending that could have rivalled the original.

Caesar and his ape brethren are forced to live a nomadic lifestyle. They cannot settle too long or the ruthless human hunting party led by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson) will slaughter them. His son returns from an expedition to find a new permanent home far away from San Francisco with the perfect candidate location. Many close to Caesar call for the immediate moving of the colony but he refuses, a move that costs the life of his wife and son and the eventual capture of the entire colony except him and his key advisors such as Maurice.

Whilst trying to seek revenge, he is himself captured and brought before McCullough, with his punishment among other things being to listen to an exhaustive lecture. It detailed the current state of mankind and a new disease which ironically turns people into what the primates were before ALZ-112. Harrelson tries with all his might to inject his lifeless lines with vigour but although he performs admirably, by far the most complex villain of the trilogy, it never quite materialises into anything more than a plot device for exposition. Having said that the manner in which he meets his demise was impressively well executed.

The plot was let down in other areas too such as its circumstantial development. When Caesar is tracking McCullough he tails the soldiers from afar. Three times in succession he gains the exact information he needs in the dying breath of both friend and foe. This manner of writing is unoriginal and chokes the life out of the narrative, detracting from the immersion Reeves tries to envelop the viewer in. Reeves should be praised however for using heavy themes such as concentration camps, slavery and biblical imagery. This coupled with the distinct lack of dialogue for large portions of the film make this a blockbuster film unlike any other. It tackles real issues, taking risks in the process.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a noticeable improvement on both its predecessor. Even the CGI which has been phenomenal so far got better with Maurice looking as real as his human counterparts. The biggest criticism I have it one that runs through all three films but is most prevalent here. Besides the small girl there were only a couple of female actresses peppered in the background of the film, and the only racial diversity was an albino silverback gorilla named Winter. How can a film that preaches togetherness, equality and acceptance of differences have so little gender and racial diversity?

From this point I will talk about my proposed alternate ending so there will be major spoilers, continue at your own peril. As the apes are escaping the stronghold during the human battle, the faction from the north are victorious. They watch the stronghold explode from outside its gates, thousands upon thousands of men. Caesar stands on a large boulder and they all turn to face him, each dressed in snow camouflage with masks covering their faces. Instead of an avalanche coming down the mountain and killing them all, and the tepid ending that follows, I would have liked to see Caesar rise up and roar. A roar that releases his anger about his wife and son’s death, his anger at his fellow ape’s slavery and murder, and the sadness at what a refusal of peace had cost him. Every member of the army in front of him would begin to remove their masks and camouflage to reveal themselves to be apes. Beginning one by one, then en masse, they put both arms in the air to form the together strong symbol. The camera pans across, showing thousands of apes forming the symbol before cutting to credits.

Some minor changes would have to be made in terms of the narrative in order to make this a watertight ending but the capacity for shock and awe is massive. Not only that but it will give the trilogy something it currently lacks, a reason to re-watch. Over 6 hours of film, multiple large scale battles and innumerable casualties for them to simply to move away from San Francisco. It was always going to be difficult to achieve what the original did for a climax, but it is hard not to be disappointed with how Reeves chose to conclude the series.

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The first entry into the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise, shocked viewers. Going in with no expectations they were rewarded with a largely enjoyable film, far from exceptional but deserving of a sequel. Now the initial wonderment of the motion capture has faded the flaws of the successor are exposed mercilessly.

What is particularly infuriating about these flaws is that they are the exact same ones present in the previous entry to the franchise. The most blatant of which is the gender diversity, or rather lack of. Again there is only one notable female character during the film and unsurprisingly, it’s a love interest who receives no attention besides the one scene in which she has utilitarian value. There was also the addition of an utterly forgettable and overly emotional son but fortunately as the writers do not seem to be fond of character development, any hopes of an explored family dynamic were short lived. His character could have been removed entirely and the narrative wouldn’t have to be changed at all.

After successfully solving the issue of gender, the writers then decided that they should progress onto race. Or rather they forgot about it, realised just before they were due to start filming and in a last minute effort to save face brought in a black actor to stand in the background of a few scenes, most notably swaying out of focus to The Band’s hit song The Weight. Quite frankly it is appalling that this is still an topic that has to be discussed. 1 in 17 people in San Francisco are black and 1 in 3 are asian, yet are we to assume that all but one of those people died?

A decade has passed since the Apes crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and the world is a very different place. Thanks to a questionable quality real news/inserted fake news compilation we learn that the virus has spread across the globe, with only 1 in 500 possessing genetic immunity. The world population is now 14 million and the once mighty San Francisco is reduced to a colony of a couple thousand.

In an attempt to regain constant power, a small group head for a dam on the edge of the city. Unbeknownst to them it is on the border of a thriving ape colony, which quickly captures them. Against the opinion of his left hand ape Kuba, Caesar helps the humans restore power in a peace offering. A decision that Kuba does not take well, storming off to spy on the humans, looking for something to stir up anger. He finds just that, humans are stockpiling weapons and ammunition but when Kuba comes back, Caesar does not want to know. Kuba wants war, and after an apparent assassination of Caesar, a war he gets.

The subsequent battle we see is awe inspiring. The human colony is settled in an eternally-under-construction tower block and has one entrance, which they guard with all their might. Rather than climb into the tower from above and avoid any ape casualties they decide to send in the cavalry units to charge the main gate followed swiftly by the infantry for our enjoyment. Seeing 50 apes on horseback charging in formation while free firing machine guns is not something I knew I wanted to see, but as they appeared through the fog I was exhilarated.

That sums up Dawn for me, it is not a good film, barely mediocre, but it scratches a cinematic itch. The part of me that wants to see highly financed chaos and war, and is willing to sit through over two hours of insipid viewing to get there.

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a movie that delivers far more than it promises. It is the reboot of Tim Burton’s financially successful but ill received reboot, and the only previous credits for director Rupert Wyatt are a few shorts and a handful of episodes of a Soap Opera. Yet the ground breaking special effects make this wonderfully entertaining and at times breathtaking.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist at San Francisco based biotech company Gen-Sys. His work involves researching and testing drugs that could ultimately be used to cure Alzheimer’s disease. One in particular shows incredible promise, ALZ-112, who’s name is derived using the film’s runtime combined with the disease’s name. Rodman’s fervour for finding a cure is largely due to his father, who suffers devastatingly from the disease.

After the program is shut down due to the havoc wreaked by an escaped primate with quite impeccable timing, the program, his life’s work, is terminated as well as all 13 test subjects. The lead subject of these trials, nicknamed ‘bright eyes’ because of the effect the drug had, is discovered to have been pregnant. Amazingly, the baby chimp survives and Rodman reluctantly agrees to take care of it. He didn’t know it yet but he was holding the downfall of mankind, and this was how it entered the world, not with a bang but with a whimper.

The effects on display here is quite astounding, with this being one of the first pictures using on-site motion capture. At times you will forget that these primates are completely digital, played by skilled ape impersonators such as Andy Serkis. SFX technology has progressed a long way since 2007’s Beowulf or even, shudder, 2004’s The Polar Express. The cold, dead eyes of Tom Hank’s have been transformed into vessels of vehemence, often far more than any character occupying physical space.

Sadly the faults do in fact lay with the humans. Both narrative nasties, David Oyelowo and Tom Felton, produce one dimensional lacklustre performances. Felton in particular simply resumes his role as Draco Malfoy, albeit it an American clone. Rodman’s character acquires a girlfriend part way through but she’s given less screen time and attention than his overly aggressive neighbour. It’s discouraging to see that she is the only female character with any significance, although for a blockbuster film, that shouldn’t be too surprising.

There is one scene that stands out above all, which left my mouth agape and my eyes wide. As Caesar initiates his plan to escape confinement, he enters a standoff with Felton in the primate enclosure. Felton charges, swinging an electrified baton and shocking him several times, knocking him to the floor. Regaining his balance, Caesar grabs Felton’s arm as he tries once again to shock him into submission, to which Felton shouts ‘Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape’, a throwback to Apes of old. The music crescendos and Caesar rises, now becoming the dominator. He ferociously shouts the word ‘NO!’. It echoes from wall to wall and then silence. Everyone, even the hulking gorilla, is taken aback, in absolute petrification.

While the revival of the almost 50 year old  franchise will undoubtedly be joyous for some, this entry lacks the sociopolitical punch of the originals. It instead lightly prods the viewer, halfheartedly warning of the dangers of animal testing. A mostly uninspiring film, it is, ironically, saved by the rise of the apes.

Review: Hell or High Water

“I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.”

Chris Pine plays Toby Howard, a divorced father of two from West Texas. After his mother’s recent passing, Texas Midlands Bank has informed him that unless he can find $43,000 by the end of the week to pay off the mortgage and back-taxes, they will foreclose on her property, which was left in her will to his children. It is not just nostalgia tying him to this land– enough oil has been discovered to secure his children’s future. If he can only get the money.

The opening scene is extraordinary in painting a picture of the entire film to come. As an ominous violin plays, a worn car travels through a rundown town before pulling in behind a building, just in front of the camera. We track left to show a women lighting a cigarette, then get out of her similarly worn car and start walking. The camera continues tracking to follow her, revealing graffiti on the wall bearing the words ‘3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us’. As the woman crosses the road, the camera rotates 180 degrees to match and the car reappears, showing two men inside heading in the same direction. The music swells as the final destination is revealed, Texas Midlands Bank.

Once again the car disappears, this time behind the bank as the women finishes her cigarette. A piano plays deep, piercing notes as she throws the butt on the ground and walks towards the entrance. She rummages in her handbag for the keys before preparing to unlock the door. Suddenly two men wearing ski masks pounce, armed with guns they demand her to give them the money in the registers.

Over the course of one 80 second take, we learn about the financial standing of the two robbers, with their battered car, and the wider community as a whole, with its deteriorating buildings and poorly maintained infrastructure. The graffiti on the wall also informs us of the societal views towards the banks and corporation in general, the first in a long list of anti-capitalist statements this film has to make.

Beyond the narrative this scene builds up a tension that never dwindles throughout, keeping the viewer on edge before being finally released in the last scene, another long take showing a car drive into the distance. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens stamps his name onto this film fiercely. Every frame is perfectly lit, each character is perfectly positioned, it is a masterclass in filmmaking.

As a result of Nuttgen’s work and in addition to the fantastic script by Taylor Sheridan, every scene is memorable and every character feels equally important, regardless of the role they play, from a rattlesnake of a hostess in a deserted town’s steakhouse to a waitress who refuses to surrender the $200 tip Howard gave her to the Rangers without a warrant because she’ll be using it to pay half her mortgage.

All four major characters are perfectly cast in their roles and perform superbly, Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges as the cops, and Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the robbers. Foster yet again proved himself to be one of the best character actors working today as Pine’s ex-convict brother prepared to go to dangerous lengths for the sake of family. Bridges similarly deserves all the acclaim he has received in his role as a Ranger days away from retirement, wanting to go out in a blaze of glory.

Hell or High Water is comprehensive in its magnificence. A modern day outlaws and lawmen movie in which neither is the true villain. Director David Mackenzie has created something that is adamantly reflective of its time.

Review: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z is a world away from director James Gray’s previous outings, all set in New York. Loosely based on the story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, this is a meticulously crafted spectacle of a film. Sadly though the greatness it so clearly desires is just out of reach.

Percy Fawcett is a young Army Major stationed in Ireland. When Archduke Ferdinand visits, he along with several other high ranking officers goes on a stag hunt. Determined to use the event to make a name for himself, he quickly dispatches the stag but is passed over once more for promotion due to an ‘unfortunate choice in ancestors’. A year later his luck turns as the Royal Geographic Society approaches him to lead an expedition to determine the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Whilst there he hears of a lost city, far more advanced than anything in the Western world at that time, which he calls Z. This lost city causes him to return, again and again, even after facing WW1.

On a technical level the word masterpiece would not be misused here. Legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji yet again produces tantalising visuals, with every frame of the vast Bolivian jungle a sight to behold. The subdued colour palette he uses, full of yellowish green tones, is reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. In one scene, as the explorers travel down the river on a raft, one falls overboard, getting tangled in a net. The sunlight pierces the surface of the river as pirañas swarm the man, ultimately killing him, the gold slowly drowned out by the red of blood.

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An unfortunate side effect of having such impressive visuals is that anything lesser in quality within the film is immediately and mercilessly exposed. Charlie Hunnam, who plays the role of Fawcett, is an example of this. Whilst this is by far his most convincing performance, and one that should rightfully earn him praise, it often lacked the emotional complexity needed during pivotal scenes. It does however show a capability until now unseen and one I hope continues into his next film Papillon.

The role of Fawcett’s right hand man and aide-de-camp on their expeditions, Henry Costin, was played superbly by Robert Pattinson. A surprising choice initially, Pattinson maintained a high standard throughout with his reserved style. Tom Holland, who played Fawcett’s son Jack gave a similarly brilliant performance, although with far more vigour. The first proper scene featuring Holland was explosive. After Percy announces to his children that he’ll, once again, be leaving on an expedition, Jack’s internal resentment towards his father for abandoning him is revealed. Tensions escalate as years of subdued feelings are released, voices quickly escalate into shouting. As abruptly as it starts, it finishes, as Percy smacks his son to the floor. If this film is an artist’s exhibit then this scene is the piece-de-resistance.

The main issue which I faced with Gray and this film is the lack of committal to his unconventional ideas. In one moment he’s triumphant in his non-conformity, such as the unusual narrative structure, shifts in tone and sombre ending, indicating the film is marketed towards a subset of cinema goers. Yet simultaneously it’s altered needlessly, most notably having all three major characters together during the Battle of the Somme, contrary to the actual story, for no tangible benefit other than having them wrapped up neatly together.

This film is a magnificent achievement, both for Gray and Khondj, and for the rest of the cast and crew. They have creates a raw look into the truly fascinating life of the British explorer. I just can’t help but feel that with more belief this could be something even greater.