NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 9 June 2014 || My Rating very good
Tom Cruise has made a bit of a career in recent times at the thoughtful big-budget science-fiction genre. Perhaps he wanted to be in Inception and is trying to make up for it? In any case, while he’s very much front and centre in Edge of Tomorrow (or “Live Die Repeat” as the trailers and the, er, hashtag prefer to call it), the real standout hero is Emily Blunt as Sgt Rita Vrataski. She holds the key to unlocking the mystery of Cruise’s Major Bill Cage and his ever-recurring present (think Groundhog Day but with less comedy and more guns and violence), and she also proves herself the emotional centre of the piece. The film may not advance the genre, but it fills its generic shoes with uncommon concision and, much like the first Bourne film by the same director, makes for reassuring pleasures. Major Cage starts as a battle-shy media relations man in the Army at a time when the world is battling a shape-shifting seemingly invincible monster and has a great (and humorous) scene-setting tête-à-tête with Brendan Gleeson’s General in charge of all the world’s forces. If the media collage opening, with its glimpses of current-day political leaders intercut with Cruise, Gleeson and others in Starship Troopers newsbite form, seems to stretch credulity, it also hints that the film takes place in an alternate universe – or should that be “multiverse”, given the repetition at its heart. Cage is soon busted down to Private, and it’s here that the interplay between Cruise and Blunt takes over, to excellent effect. From thereon in it’s all fairly straightforward, with a few subtle shifts of setting that serve to keep the audience engaged, and a redemptive finale that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
CREDITS || Director Doug Liman | Writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel Oru Yu Nido Izu Kiru by Hiroshi Sakurazaka) | Cinematographer Dion Beebe | Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor | Length 113 minutes
I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.
Under the Skin  || Director Jonathan Glazer | Writers Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (based on the novel by Michael Faber) | Cinematographer Daniel Landin | Starring Scarlett Johansson | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 19 March 2014 || My Rating very good
I relish how strange watching this film must be to mainstream cineplex cinemagoers, because it’s the kind of strange and uncompromising object you usually only get at festivals. It’s had a decent release (at least over here in the UK) on the strength of its marquee name star and the interesting work of its director Jonathan Glazer — some notable music videos and two feature films, including Sexy Beast (which coasted in on the crest of the trend for geezerish British gangster films, but managed to stand out from that fairly bland crowd by virtue of its excellent performances). And yet it’s got such an odd sensibility. For a start, Scarlett Johansson is the only really recognisable presence in the film; the rest of the cast is made up of local extras and a few small, fleeting roles. Its style, too, is laconic — not just in the paucity of dialogue, but in its reluctance to reveal much of anything. It’s not a flashy film, and it can seem quite slow at times, but it at least seems very clear about what it’s doing. Stylistically, it starts strikingly with a series of close-up images that are hard to make out, but suggest something smooth and machine-like and, as it turns out, otherworldly. Once the first humans appear, images and faces loom out of the Stygian darkness, and there’s a bleak, dreich Scottish overcast to everything: this is not a film that makes Scotland look like a tourist destination, but the film finds a certain groundedness in the elemental forces of nature. Partly that’s a balance to its protagonist’s apparently alien origins, and the harvesting of human victims (for this is at heart a horror story) is presented as oddly theatrical, Johansson luring them by undressing into a black room, where they sink into an oily murk. The drama comes as she starts to have reservations about her mission, though nothing is so overtly stated in the laconic script. As I said at the outset, it’s quite unlike very much else out there, and if for that reason alone, is worth watching, although it exerts an oneiric, uncanny hold over the viewer at times.
There’s not really been any shortage of films featuring robots pounding one another or the wholesale mechaniseddestruction of cities recently. It could almost be a genre; it certainly sells in the global marketplace. In fact, I’ve read persuasive essays online arguing that this need by Hollywood to make money from the worldwide market is precisely the reason for such a template being used, requiring the minimisation of any kind of dialogue or human interaction. Pacific Rim follows this trend, very much emphasising the metallic technology over the human element, and within the context it sets up for itself (and certainly compared to these other recent films), it’s rather entertaining — though every bit as punishingly loud and thudding as you’d expect.
I don’t really feel there’s much I can add to the discourse surrounding these films: the high concept ensures that the viewer cannot possibly be in any confusion as to what will happen. In case you’ve missed the hype, the story is that huge slimy aliens (called “gaiju”) are being sent to Earth via a wormhole under the Pacific in order to crush humanity and take over the planet for some shadowy reason. As a result, the world’s governments have co-operated to create a programme of vast mechanised robots (called “jaegers”) to battle the aliens before they destroy too many of the large seafront cities of the Pacific rim. Now, on the brink of being overwhelmed, their final desperate gambit is to close up the wormhole. So, rephrasing that high concept in the words that must have hooked in the Hollywood executives: it’s robots vs monsters.
The sea- and city-bound battles between the two antagonising forces are at the heart of the film, and the special effects are indeed very good. There’s a great sense of the vast size and clunking solidity of the jaeger robots, along with plenty of biological gloop and miasma on the part of the gaiju. In amongst this, though, we have the humans. And sure, there’s a range of cultures and languages on display, but the key roles go to gravelly-voiced half-shaven white guys and a pair of hyperactive boffinish science geeks none of whose names I can in any honesty recall (though the lead character was called Raleigh), but more than one of the actors is definitely named Charlie.
Just about the only human who makes any impression whatsoever is Idris Elba as the commanding officer Stacker Pentecost, who guides the jaeger programme to its final showdown with the gaiju. His soft-spoken British accent and intense gaze, burdened with all the responsibility of the world, is used to good effect. Meanwhile, Rinku Kikuchi plays a young woman, Mako Mori, who has been raised by Stacker and proves her skills to become a jaeger co-pilot. Mercifully, there’s no teasing sexiness or short skirts for her: all the pilots, Mako included, are no-nonsense and dedicated. However, once the suits are on and the robots are fighting, the dialogue just sputters out. They shout things, but over the din of such massive forces colliding, it’s really difficult to pick out what’s being said.
For all that, it’s not a bad experience by any means. Director Guillermo del Toro keeps things interesting with some engaging sub-plots, primarily that involving Ron Perlman as a shady underworld character who has been given semi-official clearance to trade in recovered gaiju body parts. Del Toro is also interested in exploring, through the way that jaeger pilots must meld their brains during combat, the way that the experiences of childhood shape adult identity. Other plot strands are rather more clichéd, such as the emerging romance between Raleigh and Mako (there’s no chemistry and it just feels rote) or those hyperactive scientists working to try to understand the gaiju, who provide a bit of levity as comedy sidekicks but become very wearing very quickly. However, it’s these hints at a world subsisting around the edges of the epic battles that give the film its heart.
Alongside that humanity struggling to assert itself within the film’s narrative, I cannot pretend I didn’t find the hulking yet strangely glamorous robots (they each have their own specific identity) appealing in the battles; they certainly look good on the posters. If I had to commend to your attention one recent overpowering world-imperilling tentpole blockbuster franchise, then I suppose it would have to be Pacific Rim, for what that’s worth.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Guillermo del Toro | Writers Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro | Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro | Starring Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Hunnam | Length 132 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green [2D], London, Sunday 21 July 2013
Zack Snyder is not a name to inspire great confidence in filmgoers (at least not those I’ve talked to). I’ve only actually seen one of his directorial efforts, and I may be in a minority in quite liking Sucker Punch (2011). That was a film which seemed to depict its abused characters coping with and overcoming their traumas by reconfiguring them as video game challenges; it may not have been entirely successful, but it was a very interesting concept. There’s plenty of trauma in Man of Steel, too, but mostly on the audience’s part. The film itself seems curiously shorn of any human emotion, at least by the time it reaches its absurdly overextended denouement.
A key moment for me in this respect is a kiss shared amongst the crumbling detritus of a ravaged Metropolis, a falling skyscraper barely enough it seems to get the two to break off their kiss to take a look. It would be a moment of bathos if I could rouse enough emotion to care about anyone by this point, but after half an hour of mechanised (and curiously bloodless) destruction, there’s little empathy left in me. If this and Marvel’s The Avengers last year are anything to go by, American blockbuster movies seem to revel in destroying their cities, which is a curious place to be all things considered.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film concerns itself with the origin story and is (relatively-speaking) fairly low-key and interesting. Most filmgoers are probably aware of the basics: how Kal-El is sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El, pursued by General Zod and his gang of usurpers; how he grows up in rural Kansas as Clark Kent, only slowly growing to understand and control his special powers; how he meets and falls in love with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. If there’s a sense that some of this is superfluous for most viewers, it’s nevertheless welcome if only for its calmer tone and pacing.
It’s never far from the surface that the Superman mythology is a thinly-coded Second Coming allegory, with Kal-El/Clark as a specifically American Messiah; he even has a scene of questioning doubt in a church at one point. As his father, then, Russell Crowe does a good job as a calm centre of Krypton’s benevolent patriarchal power, matched by Kevin Costner as Clark’s human father, even if a lot of his role involves staring off into the middle-distance and mouthing moral platitudes. Nevertheless, Costner’s a master at this kind of thing, and does it well.
These snippets of his rural upbringing are interwoven as flashbacks in what has largely become a peripatetic existence for Clark, as he shows up in enough different places to pique the interest of reporter Lois Lane. The way this unfolds all feels rather perfunctory, and Amy Adams, although likeable as an actor, has little to work with here. It’s not, in truth, a great film for actors of subtlety and imagination. Michael Shannon, for example, plays General Zod, and though he may have had some great roles in his time, Zod seems to require little more than shouting and glowering, a waste of Shannon’s more acute talents. Luckily, this helps the blandly attractive Henry Cavill to impress more as the titular hero. In a film where actorly insight has been pushed into the background, looking the part becomes more of an asset, and Cavill with his chiselled jaw and impressive physique certainly does do that.
I’ve already mentioned the way that by the end, the film seems to lack a sense of humanity: it’s a dour and serious film, dark and brooding without much in the way of levity or humour. This certainly sets it apart from the earlier film series with Christopher Reeve, and may point to the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight franchise similarly ‘rebooted’ the Batman story, kitting out its world in cold, hard metallic surfaces and glowering darkness. But Batman is an anti-hero at best, where Superman is supposed to embody all the best of humanity. By the end, I feel as a viewer like Laurence Fishburne’s newspaper editor, watching impassively at the filmic destruction all around. Perhaps he feels unable to move from his window (though he does, at length) because he too is wondering where it all went wrong.
This is undeniably a visually impressive film, but at some basic level it has gone awry. I am left cold by its cold surface textures, and there’s little to convince me that any of the characters have any heart. And for a film about a character embodying the best of human nature, that’s a real failing.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Zack Snyder | Writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (based on the comic book Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) | Cinematographer Amir Mokri | Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 19 June 2013
FILM REVIEW || Director/Writer Joe Cornish | Cinematographer Tom Townend | Starring John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost | Length 88 minutes | Seen at home (TV), Monday 27 May 2013 || My Rating good
Possibly there are exceptions (I’m no connoisseur), but it seems that whenever aliens visit Earth, they stand in allegorically for some popular fear of the era. 1950s films did well trading on fears of an atomic age, while 1970s films were more concerned with loss of identity. In fact, this trope is well enough understood that in Attack the Block one of the disaffected urban youth at the centre of the film gets a speech acknowledging it. For those familiar with the newspaper headlines in the Britain of the 2010s, you’d expect the threat to allegorically represent the fear of immigrants or indeed of the aforesaid urban youth (“hoodies”, to use a popular term referencing a favoured item of clothing). However, Attack the Block is too metropolitan and knowing to be so simplistic: the hoodies, it turns out, are the heroes and the fear is of the state and its oppressive apparatus (the police… sorry, “the feds”).