Friday, 18 January 2019

Glass: Shyamalan blows it

It's January 2019, and we're staring down the barrel of probably one of the biggest years for superhero movies since 2018. With Marvel about to shatter box office records worldwide, the X-Men due to reboot again for a new generation and DC set to, uh... do whatever it is they do, it would seem the time is ripe for a bold, original voice to bring some fresh commentary to the genre. Step forward M Night Shyamalan, who kind of had a stab at this with 2000's Unbreakable, then retroactively incorporated 2017's Split into the same cinematic universe in a tossed-off mid-credits scene that would have been a great MCU-referencing gag if only he hadn't then decided to turn into a full-length feature.

So does Shyamalan bust open the superhero mythology? Can we ever see caped crusaders in the same way again? Does Glass have anything useful to add to the global conversation whatsoever? Respectively: no, yes, and kind of, eventually.
"Who painted this room, Stevie Wonder?"

An extended prologue reintroduces us to Bruce Willis' indestructible - you might even say unbreakable - David Dunn and James McAvoy's alarmingly ripped multiple schizophrenic Kevin Crumb, whose many personalities are collectively known as The Horde. The former is on the hunt for the latter, and with the help of Dunn's son (played, wonderfully, by the same actor who played him as a kid nineteen years ago) these two super-powered (or ARE they?, etc) weirdos briefly face off before being captured and chucked into a loony bin by Sarah Paulson's psychiatrist Ellie Staple, who appears to have been taking make up tips from a psychotic ventriloquist's dummy.

And so we're off into a whirlwind of adventure, as these two freaks of nature are pitted against each other in a tense battle of strength and wits that will - oh no wait sorry hang on, silly me, I was thinking of something fun. What I meant to say is that Dunn and Crumb spend the best part of an hour locked in their cells having long, boring chats with Dr Staple about whether or not their powers are genuinely "super" or just exaggerated everyday skills. Dunn's original nemesis, Mr Glass, is conveniently locked up in the same hospital, but in a typically Shyamalanesque twist the director has hired the effervescent Samuel L Jackson and then told him to sit motionless and silent for an eternity.
"You mean I don't even get to say 'muthafucka', muthafucka?"

All of this seems deliberately anti-superhero-movie, and fair enough, but goodness me is it patience-testing. It's unclear what any character wants from any of this or why we should care, it goes nowhere for a really long time and it revolves entirely around the "are they superpowered?" question, which frankly just boils down to semantics. Batman and Iron Man aren't superpowered but you don't see Robin or Pepper Potts sitting down and yakking about it for days on end.

At one point Shyamalan seems to realise that as he's spent millions of dollars and several years getting these three actors in the same film, maybe he should get them in the same scene, so sets another tedious blah-fest in a large, inexplicably pink room where they sit next to each other but don't interact at all. It's all so dull that you start to pick holes in the film, like how Dr Staple was able to whisk two dangerous individuals off to a psychiatric hospital just like that, or why that hospital only employs one nurse at a time and a handful of guards who are the dictionary definition of useless, or why - with all this talk of superheroes being fictional - nobody ever says how much they're looking forward to Avengers: Endgame. In fairness, some of this is arguably explained in the film's climax. Explained, perhaps, but not excused: if you're going to have a big reveal, it helps if the audience have been invested in the mystery all along (cf The Sixth Sense), rather than alienated to the point of contemplating how long it is till Captain Marvel comes out.
"Seven weeks? SEVEN WEEKS?!"

The plot does thicken a little, there is, perhaps, a vaguely new and interesting take on the old "can vigilantism be justified?" chestnut and Shyamalan offers a neat idea surrounding that question in the dying moments of his film, but it's not enough. After hinting towards the kind of big-budget climax we've been itching for, he delivers a tussle in a car park; James McAvoy's jaw-dropping performance in Split is repeated here to considerably lesser effect, and Samuel L Jackson's genuine superpowers as an actor are completely wasted. But most crippling of all is that Dunn and Crumb's stories barely connect, and when they do it feels like Shyamalan's desperately trying to justify the idea of bringing them together and never truly succeeding.

Kudos to Shyamalan for pushing the real-worldliness of his superhero trilogy, but it's unlikely to find its place as a key text in the annals of the genre. Unbreakable took a hundred minutes to get going and then promptly ended, Split boasted a magnificent central performance and little else, and Glass is a weak and ultimately misguided attempt to tie the two together. It's still better than anything DC have curled out in the last five years, but you'll have a better, cheaper time if you just stay at home and stick the Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer on again.

Friday, 11 January 2019

The Steadfast And The Furious:
Ranking the 12 Angry Men
in order of angriness

As the global celebrations to mark 61 years, ten months and some days since the release of Sidney Lumet's unspeakably sweaty kind-of courtroom drama 12 Angry Men continue, I thought I'd do my bit for freedom and justice by investigating just how angry those twelve men really are in relation to each other. Frankly I'm surprised nobody's done it before; you might think that's because it would be an utterly pointless waste of everybody's time and effort. But like Henry Fonda's inspirational Juror 8, I shall attempt to convince you that you are in fact a massive wrong idiot. So sit down, take the oath and prepare... for JURY FURY!


#12: Juror 8 (Henry Fonda)
Mild-mannered architect Juror 8 is the only one in the room with an ounce of dignity and common sense, turning a jury full of boiling blowhards round to his way of thinking by being the coolest cucumber at the table. The kind of liberal snowflake that would make Donald Trump spit fire, he's the hero the world needs in 2018, if only he wasn't dead and also fictional.
Angriness: Total Zen

#11: Juror 12 (Robert Webber)
More interested in repeatedly removing and replacing his glasses than in the fate of an accused teenager on death row, slick ad exec Juror 12 is too dumb to be angry about anything. He is, however, by far the most egregiously indecisive man on the jury, changing his verdict no fewer than three times. Come on dude, this isn't 12 Vacillating Men, is it?
Angriness: Don Draper cool

#10: Juror 2 (John Fiedler)
Timid milquetoast Juror 2 is the one most likely to become a serial killer in the future, but here he keeps his rage in check by just generally shutting up and offering throat lozenges around the table. Only when driven to the furthest extremes of his patience does he truly let rip by refusing a cough sweet to Juror 10. Terrifying.
Angriness: Barely irked

#9: Juror 4 (EG Marshall)
One of the last jurors to succumb to Henry Fonda's charms, Juror 4 simmers gently in his suit while all around him exaggeratedly loosen their ties to reinforce the point than man alive is it hot in here. He looks like he might pop at any point (maybe he's just constipated), but only when Fonda pushes him to remember a movie he watched a few days ago in order to prove a point does Juror 4 produce a single bead of sweat on his bone-dry pate.
Angriness: Mildly perturbed

#8: Juror 1 (Martin Balsam)
The foreman's job on a jury is to maintain order, so you'd hope that he wouldn't fly off the handle in the face of even the most heinous annoyance, like someone standing on the left of a tube escalator like they DON'T HAVE A FUCKING CARE IN THE WORLD. Juror 1 is a calming influence on the rest of the jury, but he does get his knickers in a minor twist when someone suggests he's doing a shit job. The argument is over before it's begun though. Textbook foremanship.
Angriness: Whatever mate, not bothered, just stay out of my grill

#7: Juror 9 (Joseph Sweeney)
At last the hackles start to rise. Juror 9 is 208 years old and a reasonable man, but Juror 10's blind prejudice is enough to push even this sleepy old coot to raise his voice and get a bit shaky. Fortunately Juror 8 calms him down before he goes into cardiac arrest, but you wouldn't have wanted to go up against this guy in the war. (the Napoleonic wars lol) (because he's old you see)
Angriness: Fetch me my pills, Mildred

#6: Juror 6 (Edward Binns)
Juror 6, aka John Q Everyman, is a blue collar guy who just wants to do the right thing and get back to bricklaying or tiling or whatever it is he does, nobody can remember because he's the least significant character. But he does threaten to pop his cork once or twice, or at least I imagine he does. Like I say, I can't really remember anything about him. Seems like the type though. Would probably have voted Leave "to teach the establishment a lesson".
Angriness: Some, I guess

#5: Juror 5 (Jack Klugman)
Ah, young Quincy, M.E. Born in the slums and handy with a switchblade, Juror 5 is a lean, mean, killing machine, only he's learned that politeness gets him further with The Man. But if you start dissing the streets he grew up in, like Juror 10 does, you're gonna get a flick knife between the ribs, buddy, and then you're gonna need a real Medical Examiner to find your small intestines for you. So zip it!
Angriness: Keeping it in, but only just

#4: Juror 11 (George Voskovec)
A vaguely-European-born, naturalised American in a room half full of dimwitted racists, Juror 11 takes quite enough shit from Jurors 3 and 10 about outsiders all being the same. He's at his best when hilariously correcting his neighbour's grammar, but later on you just know he's permanently on the verge of busting out some obscure Eastern European swears.
Angriness: Kecáš kraviny!

#3: Juror 7 (Jack Warden)
Oh, dis guy. Fuggedabahdit! He's got tickets to the game tonight and ain't nuthin comin' between him and a session of glorified rounders, least of all some punk kid who 86'd his old man. Juror 7 spins on a dime from being your best pal to your worst nightmare, but he's most angry about his receding hairline, hence that hat that he keeps on in a freakin' sauna.
Angriness: Why I oughta -

#2: Juror 10 (Ed Begley)
Barking mad from the word go, Juror 10 is incensed that he even has to contemplate the possibility that this little bastard might not be guilty. They're all the same, y'hear! Ya can't teach 'em anything, y'see! After an hour and a bit of frequently exploding with intolerant bullshit, he eventually pipes down when he finally realises that he's a big jerk and nobody likes him. You dream that dickheads like this would have this kind of epiphany.
Angriness: Racist volcano

#1: Juror 3 (Lee J Cobb)
Finally, the most enraged, irate sack of shitty wind in the room is Juror 3, a man so roiling with incandescent fury that the animators of Inside Out based the character of Anger on him. He's pissed off with everyone and everything, particularly kids, because his own son hates him for some unfathomable reason. Finally Juror 8's irritating unflappability shows Juror 3 that the person he's angriest at is himself, and quite rightly too because he is a ginormous cunt.
Angriness: Apo-fucking-plectic

Friday, 4 January 2019

We don't talk enough about Will Young's Coriolanus documentary

Because I am extremely intelligent, intellectual and (*checks thesaurus*) erudite and stuff, I recently watched Ralph Fiennes' 2011 film Coriolanus, which is based on a play by William Shakespeare that, according to every single review, is one of his lesser known works. But I had heard of it, because I am highbrow, bookish and perspicacious. In fairness I had only heard of it because Ralph Fiennes made a film of it, but that - as I think you'll find Emilia remarked to Desdemona in Othello - is neither here nor there.

What is both here and there is that after watching Coriolanus on DVD (which is an archaic form of physical media, used for storing audio and visual data on, that we used to have in the olden days), I ventured to the Special Features section. This is something DVDs - and their high definition successors, "Blu-rays" - included to enhance your enjoyment and understanding of a film. In one of many tragedies of the 21st century, streaming has more or less done away with the joy of the Special Features, thus denying the average viewer the chance to witness what I - a proud user of physical media - stumbled across next.

For there, listed casually among the numerous extras (two is a number) as if it was a perfectly normal thing to have on a DVD of a Shakespeare film, was something calling itself Behind The Scenes Of Coriolanus With Will Young. Here's proof, for anyone who quite understandably thinks I'm making this up:
Yes, that's right:
Well now. This was unexpected. I had just sat through two hours of some pret-ty cerebral stuff, let me tell you, and I was not prepared for a deep dive into its creation by the winner of series one of Pop Idol. But, as Shakespeare said in his bestseller The Bible, judge not lest ye be judged. I decided to give Will the benefit of the doubt and see what he had to bring to the party.
Frost / Nixon. Paxman / Howard. Young / Fiennes.

The half-hour documentary begins with sombre music over establishing shots of Belgrade, where Coriolanus was partly shot, followed by images of soldiers sneaking through streets and shooting at an unseen enemy. Don't panic though, we haven't been plunged into the Yugoslav Wars of 1991-99; these are merely actors, acting in a film. A film called Coriolanus. Having set the tone as one of gloom and dread and with the very real prospect of Slobodan Milošević doing something unspeakable just round the corner, with no warning at all the film suddenly cuts to chirpy pop-moppet Will Young standing in the street and looking confused, like he fears he may have accidentally wandered into an actual war.

A few more behind-the-scenes shots follow, before Will properly introduces the documentary, and himself, informing us that "it's my first time being involved in the production of a film". Now I have nothing against Will - in fact a few years ago I was gifted a coaster bearing his cherubic face as a birthday present, and to this day I still place piping hot mugs of tea on the Young countenance - but I had to admit to total bafflement regarding his suitability for the role of presenter of a Making Of documentary about a film based on a lesser-known Shakespeare play, directed by and starring one of our leading thespians. I mean, was nobody with a little more appropriate gravitas available? Was Derek Jacobi on holiday? Was Nigel Havers too expensive? Had Pam St Clement taken the phone off the hook?

What Will hadn't mentioned, and never does in the twenty-five minutes his documentary lasts, is that he was an executive producer on Coriolanus. That's all he needed to say to ease my troubled mind, but presumably out of modesty he withheld that vital scrap of information which would have made everything clearer. I had to find it out myself later, and while that was a pity, I did unearth the fact that he decided to invest in the film because he basically had buckets of cash lying around and no idea what to do with it. How he arrived at the decision to spunk it on a Shakespeare adaptation and not, say, Anything Is Possible: The Will Young Movie, I have no idea. If you're reading this Will, do get in touch and let me know.

The documentary proceeds in the way most of these things do, with each Head Of Department explaining what they do to an incredulous Will Young. His delight at being on a film set is infectious, and his puppy-dog innocence is charming and endearing, which is lovely but only increases the sense that someone like Patrick Stewart should be asking the questions instead. But then Will literally asks the film's military advisor if the actors shooting at each other ARE USING BLANKS, and you realise that that ferocious line of questioning would simply never have occurred to Sir Pat. Nor would that venerable officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire have dared to tell Coriolanus' make-up artist that "you have the best voice EVER, I think you should do the voiceover for the movie in the cinemas!" It is unclear what Will means by this but by God he is excited about it.
Later in the documentary, Fiennes' co-star Gerard Butler - whose association with a Shakespeare adaptation is almost as unlikely as Will Young's - tries to steal the Leave Right Now singer's thunder by recounting an unbelievably shit practical joke that he got someone else to play on a fellow actor, but we're not fooled. This isn't your party Butler, this is Will Young's party. Perhaps inspired by the bearded Scottish man's tomfoolery, Will later tries to get each interviewee to say something nasty about Ralph Fiennes, but to no avail. Eventually Production Designer Ricky Eyres ("aka Rick", Will says, doing finger-quotes around 'Rick' as if it's the maddest variant of 'Ricky' he's ever come across) capitulates, unconvincingly describing Fiennes as "murder", and Will's pleasure at pulling off this mischief is palpable.

Another trivia nugget that goes unmentioned is that Will had a cameo in the film which was cut for reasons which may or may not be quite obvious. Referring to himself in the third person in another interview I had to find myself, Will says: "There were all these acting greats, and then Will Young pops up to say a few lines. It just didn't work." Is he being too hard on himself? Difficult to say, but bear Will Young's assessment of Will Young in mind as you watch the clip below, which is my absolute favourite moment in the documentary: an utterly astonishing vignette, which is neither introduced nor explained. It is simply allowed to exist in the middle of a documentary about Ralph Fiennes' brutal, brooding adaptation of William Shakespeare's politically-charged play Coriolanus.

I urge you to watch that as many times as possible to truly appreciate it to its fullest.

There's plenty more to enjoy in Behind The Scenes Of Coriolanus With Will Young, but I've given enough away for free as it is. As far as I can tell you can't stream it, so you're just going to have to invest in an actual hard copy of the film if you want to bask in its oddness. It might be a complete and total mismatch of presenter and subject matter, but I have nothing but respect for Will Young for financing a perfectly good movie, making a short film about it and - perhaps above all - resisting the urge to lean into camera and, with a cheeky grin, chuckle about the film's title containing the word "anus".

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Welcome To Marwen: The figure picture

Like many children of the '80s, my life was nudged in a specific direction by Bob Zemeckis and his little film about the boy whose mum tried to fuck him in the past. Zemeckis channelled 1.21 gigawatts of power into my interest in cinema, and I repaid him by watching everything else he made, up to and including Beowulf. But his forays into motion capture left me as cold as CG Tom Hanks' dead doll's eyes, and forgive me father, for I have forsaken Bob this past decade; not one of his post-2007 films have passed mine eyes.

But then along came Welcome To Marwen, with its intriguing blend of motion capture and live action, and its bizarre claim to be based on a true story despite having a trailer full of scenes that appeared to be from a spectacularly violent, war-movie version of Toy Story, and like Doc Brown I figured: what the hell.
Steve Carell engages Serious Steve Mode for his role as Mark Hogancamp, a lonely and apparently eccentric man who takes photos of dolls posed in WWII costumes and situations, and who has a thing for women's shoes. Hogancamp's true story was told - reasonably well, by all accounts (I haven't seen it) - in Marwencol, a 2010 documentary that provided the inspiration for Zemeckis' film. The reasons for Hogancamp's model behaviour are undeniably fascinating and tragic, but the first problem with Welcome To Marwen is that it takes two hours to explain them when they could have been dealt with in a ten-minute prologue. This has two immediate effects: firstly, to summarise the premise here would count as a spoiler for the whole film; secondly, Zemeckis needs to pad out the running time somehow. And if there's one thing Hogancamp's story doesn't have that Bob Zemeckis can add, it's a metric fucktonne of motion capture action sequences.

And so about half of Welcome To Marwen consists of those war-movie Toy Story scenes, in which 'Hogie', a heroic GI action figure in 1940s Belgium (who looks suspiciously like Steve Carell) is repeatedly captured by Nazi action figures, then rescued by a collection of sexy female action figures who kill the Nazis in increasingly violent fashion. Hogancamp merely photographed these imagined stories; Zemeckis splashes them on the screen in stunningly-realised fantasy sequences that are undeniably fun to watch, but which add little to the film's emotional core that the photographs don't. In fact these sequences unbalance the story, creating a weird tonal mixture of effects-driven action comedy and weighty drama that is going to be a nightmare to sell to audiences. Here's a film that wants to cover transvestism, Neo-Nazism, hate crime, violence as a solution, substance abuse, PTSD and other assorted mental health issues, but at the same time foregrounds cutting-edge CG action and visual gags. It's certainly not boring, but it is a little uncomfortable.
Carell is fine as Hogancamp (although clearly has an absolute ball as his 1/6th scale alter-ego), and Leslie Mann is wonderful as his near-mythically non-judgemental neighbour Nicol, but every other character is a cliché of some kind or other - Gwendoline Christie's Russian carer, for example, is teeth-itchingly ill-advised. Zemeckis' script, co-written with Caroline Thompson, is clunky and obvious at times: a barman drops a lead weight of exposition on a character who is only there to receive that exposition on our behalf, for example, and unnecessary narrative devices are crowbarred in to ramp up dramatic tension. Good Characters 100% accept Mark for who he is while Bad Characters 100% reject him for being a weirdo, as if the script is terrified of offending anyone with nuance. And Zemeckis can't resist a distractingly meta, extended Back To The Future-referencing gag which made me wonder if he'd lobbed it in after watching Ready Player One.

There's a truly original and inspiring film in here somewhere, but you can't help thinking it's the one that somebody else made eight years ago. Hogancamp deserves to be acknowledged for his art and the events that led him to create it, but he probably didn't deserve to have those events diminished by embellishing them with button-pushing melodrama and a side order of mega-budget kids' holiday filler. Welcome To Marwen isn't a total failure while you're watching it, and if more people look up Mark Hogancamp as a result then all well and good. But I'm fairly sure Bob Zemeckis can do better than this, and I hope it's not another ten years before I can be arsed to find out.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Ten films from 2018 that weren't the best but at least they made me forget
about Brexit for a bit

It's end-of-year list time guys, a tradition for which I usually spend 365 days planning (366 in some cases) with feverish anticipation. However, having spent this year continuously adjusting and amending my ranking of all the films I saw in 2018 (which you can find here), I've come to the conclusion that it's very very boring. I stand by my opinion that all the ones at the top end deserve their place in a list of Films I Thought Were Really Very Good, but I've given hardly any of them a second thought since I saw them.

So this year - the latest in a series of years designed to break the human spirit and batter us all into wearily accepting a succession of apocalypses not of our choosing - here's something a bit less worthy. The following are not the films I thought were 2018's best (OK, some of them are), but rather the ones that made me smile, laugh, cry, cry-laugh, go "ooh", "aah", "holy shit" and "wheee!" the most, and which generally reminded me of cinema's power to cheer me the fuck up.

So here, in order of release, are my Ten Films From 2018 That I Will Almost Certainly Watch Several More Times, Probably On A Saturday Night, In My Pants And With A Little Bit Too Much Gin Inside Me!

COCO Tragically all but forgotten in most Best Of 2018 lists due to its release in the year's infancy, Pixar's first original story since 2015 is a kaleidoscope of eye candy, emotional manipulation and narrative rug-pulling. An odyssey through the great beyond stuffed with gags, great songs, intrigue, amusing skeletons and a wonky dog, it deserves an afterlife as long and fun as the one it depicts. And it all takes place within the pre-title sequence of Spectre! Amazing.

BLACK PANTHER I missed the first five minutes of this at the cinema because I had to go outside and complain that the fucking lights were still up, so that put me in a bad mood and I didn't enjoy myself. Pretty sure it was OK though and it's one of those "MCU" things that are all the rage these days so I'll definitely watch it again when Cineworld Enfield eventually send me the Blu-ray as compensation for yet another sub-par cinematic experience.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR Long, dumb and full of fun: as much as these things are starting to look more and more like Pixar films, and as much as they're increasingly uninterested in what it means to be superhuman (or, indeed, human), I can't help but have a good time with them. It's just a blast to spend time with all these characters, and almost everyone gets a satisfyingly balanced amount of screentime here without it feeling like an exercise in scriptwriting box-ticking. Not sure how worthwhile it is to complain that this one just isn't very clever; I guess all the payoff will be in Endgame.

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY Smashing into my official Best Of 2018 list at (*checks notes*) number 33, Solo is so hamstrung by the needlessness of its own existence that it fights an uphill battle from the beginning and never feels like it makes much ground in that fight. Alden Ehrenreich has about 3.8% of the personality required to match Harrison Ford, Emilia Clarke is, as always, terrible, Paul Bettany is a limp villain and Bradford Young's cinematography is like watching the film being projected onto the bottom of a puddle. BUT its title contains the words "Star Wars", so fuck you. Yes I am aware that I am part of the problem.

INCREDIBLES 2 In truth the fourteen-year wait has dulled the sheen of this franchise a little (especially as the sequel isn't a giant leap on from the original) but Incredibles 2: 2 Fast 2 Cred makes up for it by boasting the most retina-pleasing Pixar visuals yet, electrifying set-pieces, another swaggering Michael Giacchino score, some canny commentary on parenting and - most crucially - Elastigirl, Pixar's sexiest sprite. I mean what a woman. Those curves... the lycra... the... uh, sorry, excuse me a sec

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN I can take or leave Cher (sorry Twitter), but for everything else in Mamma Mia 2: 2 Mamma 2 Mia I just throw my hands in the air and surrender to the cheese. Nothing else this year gave my emotions as thorough a workout as this merciless bastard of a film: I did 94% of all my laughing and crying for 2018 in its 113 minutes. All I ask for now is a Godfather cut of both films so I can watch them in chronological order.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - FALLOUT So good of Christopher McQuarrie to personally apologise to me for Rogue Nation by taking action directing to the kind of levels that literally scare off Bond directors. Helped in no small part by Lorne Balfe's occasionally Zimmeresque score, McQuarrie hewed eerily close to Christopher Nolan with this relentless thrillgasm, his shot choices and editing taking this franchise way beyond anything it had ever previously promised. This is an ankle-smashing leap forward in blockbuster filmmaking that evokes Buster Keaton at his most inventive, and that is about the highest compliment I can pay it.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY There's a really good film at war with a really bad one in here, but the really good one wins because it brings out the ruddy artillery right at the end. Despite valiant attempts to sink itself with a general sense of superficiality, some truly hackneyed bits of writing and a plodding insistence on hitting all the expected beats of the rock biopic, all that cringing guff is washed away by the tidal wave of awesomeness that is those final 20 minutes. A three star film but a five star experience that I fully expect to watch many, many more times than Phantom fucking Thread.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (specifically, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS) The Coens' album of mini-westerns is fine, obviously, but the title track would have been my film of the year if only those pencil-pushers at City Hall would just let me include specific seventeen-and-a-half-minute segments of films rather than the whole shebang. Thank God for Netflix, then, who let me watch as much or as little of whatever I want whenever I want like I'm some kind of entitled millennial. (Don't "at" me, kids)

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE I literally just finished banging on about how astonishing, amazing, spectacular etc this is, don't make me repeat myself.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse:
Thwip it up and start again

If there's one thing I bloody love, it's a good hard kick up the bum. Not literally you understand, and also not aimed in the direction of my own bum, but rather the kind that someone gives to a flagging movie franchise every now and again. I've wanged on about it a thousand million times but see Dynamite Comics' James Bond stories for a classic example of cracking the mould while remaining respectful to the source, or The LEGO Batman Movie for a triumphant and hilarious cape caper that never forgot what made its hero unique.

Superheroes, of course, are massively ripe for this kind of bum-kicking, and while Spider-Man got a decent enough reboot last year when the MCU finally got its hands on him, there was still a sense of the same beats being followed that have been the Spidey road map for five preceding films. So thank the lord (or, more accurately, Phil Lord) for Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, a film as unconventional as its embarrassing-to-say-out-loud title.
"Two for Spider-Man Into The Spider-Verse
In Theaters Christmas In 3D And Real D 3D please"

Jerking us sideways into the universe of the Spidey comics, Into The Spider-Verse is set in an alternate dimension not entirely dissimilar to - but significantly different from - the one that the Spidey we know and love occupies, thereby immediately sidestepping tedious "BUT IS IT CANON?" questions. They've got their own webslinger, but they've also got Miles Morales, an ordinary schoolkid facing similar bother to that which Peter Parker experienced before his encounter with a nuclear arachnid. When Miles gets bitten by a similar bug, becoming New York's second Spider-Man, he finds himself up against exaggerated villains and aided by - for reasons way too bonkers to explain here - a handful of Spider-guys from other dimensions, including two Spider-women, one Spider-pig and one Spider-Nicolas-Cage.

As you have no doubt deduced, all of this turns out to be absolutely batshit crazy. It's the kind of plot and execution that live-action super-films are usually terrified to go near, and when you walk out of the Spider-Verse, anything Sony or Marvel ever did with the character on screen before suddenly seems about as cutting edge as the Nicholas Hammond-starring late '70s TV series in comparison. There are so many unfeasibly ginormous monsters, truly mental set-pieces and white-hot meta references to previous incarnations of the character that every cinemagoer should be issued with a coffee-table book of every frame of the film to get the most out of it.

But all that would be pointless if it weren't carried off with the love, humour and storytelling skills on display here. With Phil Lord writing and Chris Miller also tinkering in a producing capacity, the frothing excess of ideas that characterised The LEGO Movie spill out of the frame and into your incredulous, gaping facehole. Despite detailing about half a dozen origin stories (usually the curse of the modern superhero flick), Into The Spider-Verse is almost comically efficient, setting up its own cinematic universe of characters in the time it takes most franchises to stretch out one character's backstory. The assorted Spider-people are like the Avengers, if the Avengers were all slightly different versions of the same character, and each gets their own USP and moment in the sun without losing sight of the core plot.
"Is anyone else's NikNak sense tingling?"

That plot, of course, is Miles' journey from paint-spraying delinquent to web-shooting legend, and Lord peppers that story with a perfect balance of knowing nods to the Spidey mythology (uncles play as crucial a role here as ever, and familiar scenes from the past are given hilarious twists) while entirely surprising tangents come so thick and fast they give you thwiplash. And while Miles Morales isn't Lord's creation, the decision to use a half Puerto Rican, half African-American kid as the lead in a superhero movie (a youth- and diversity-celebrating choice reflected in the hip-hop soundtrack that left me scratching my old, white head) is only to be applauded.

The one thing I haven't mentioned yet is the thing that gives Into The Spider-Verse its licence to flip out and take all these liberties: it's animated. But this is nothing like any animation I've seen before; what's being fired into your eyeballs at a thousand miles an hour here can only be described as Spectacular Spider-Manimation. It's a mash up of comic-book dots and lines and bleeding-edge CGI that takes some getting used to (for at least half an hour I was convinced the cinema had forgotten to dish out the 3D goggles), but it's innovative, retina-popping and staggeringly beautiful at times. In all honesty it's also occasionally too much, especially in busy action scenes that overloaded my optic nerves a few times and, for me, could have been dialled just a notch below supermassively megafrantic. But I'm an old man who doesn't get hip hop, so what do I know.
Hold me

Bravo, then, to this mad, anarchic bastard of a film and the hurricane force blast of fresh air it aims at its overstuffed genre. What looked like it might have once been a straight-to-Netflix, kid-oriented time-passer for restless toddlers is in fact as game-changing a cinematic experience as any cape film we've seen since Superman: The Movie. It also makes a strong case for all superhero films from now on to be made like this, and with Nicolas Cage playing a monochrome, 1930s detective version of Spider-Man in each of them. If you ask me that's exactly the kick up the bum they all need.

Monday, 22 October 2018

LFF 2018: The Favourite &
Stan & Ollie

The Favourite
dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland / UK / USA, 2018
Yorgos Lanthimos is back back back, and he's brought the triple threat of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone with him for this sumptuous and irreverent telling of the true rivalry between Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (Weisz) and Abigail Hill (Stone) for the affections of Queen Anne (Colman). The often-troublingly idiosyncratic director clearly enjoys throwing together a relatively straightforward comedy for a change (albeit in full Restoration costume), but anyone hoping for the pitch black absurdism of Lanthimos at his Lanthimost might leave disappointed.

There is much to love here: Colman's dotty, temperamental and ailing monarch, Weisz's ruthless confidante and lover, and Stone's Machiavellian usurper are all more than we deserve, and all three leads make the most of the offbeat humour in Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's script (Emma Stone in particular has a great line in falling over that endears her even more than ever). Working from someone else's screenplay for the first time since his debut, Lanthimos turns out an uncharacteristically warm film full of human beings with relatable emotions - love, fear, jealousy, ambition - which is slightly at odds with his Kubrickian shooting style (fish-eye lenses and long, deliberate tracking shots are still the order of the day). And there are some proper belters waiting to leap off the page: I don't know if this is the first use of the word "cuntstruck", but it's certainly the best so far.

If the chilling lack of humanity Lanthimos usually favours has turned you off him in the past, then this may be the film that finally lets you just enjoy yourself without that gnawing sensation of futility and discomfort that The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer had in spades. Personally though, I miss not feeling like I've spent a hundred minutes trapped in a room with a psychopath. If anyone else had made The Favourite I feel like I'd be celebrating it a little more; as it is, I'm just hoping that Lanthimos' impressive work rate means we'll be seeing something original and faintly bonkers from him again very soon.

Stan & Ollie
dir. Jon S Baird, UK, 2018
The TV series Feud, about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford's epically antagonistic relationship, set a high standard for dramatisations of the truth behind Hollywood's thin veneer of glamour. It showed what you can do with a terrific double act, a pair of talented actors and a small amount of dramatic licence, although it did absolutely no harm that there was plenty of juicy drama to work with in the first place. Stan & Ollie, another biopic about an iconic couple from cinema's heady heyday, also has a terrific double act, a pair of talented actors and a small amount of dramatic licence, but crucially it has a total absence of juicy drama to work with. Laurel & Hardy neither hated each other's guts nor unquestionably loved each other, they were just two colleagues who had the odd disagreement here and there. This film, then, is an excellent portrait of two colleagues who had the odd disagreement here and there; it's just that... well, that's just not very interesting, is it?

To be fair, Stan & Ollie is a much sweeter, gentler proposition than Feud, and was never going to be an exercise in muck-raking as much as a fond look at a world-famous cultural phenomenon that fizzled out in its later years, as pretty much all world-famous cultural phenomena do. Steve Coogan is great as Stan, nailing that elastic brow and weird America-via-Lancashire accent (although you can see him trying a little hard with the stooping gait), but he's eclipsed - literally and figuratively - by John C Reilly's Ollie, transformed under layers of prosthetics into a wholly convincing Hardy. A last-ditch attempt to rekindle the old magic nearly two decades after their popularity peak sees them touring the music halls of the UK: Coogan's involvement invites you to think of it as The Trip To Britain, but there's far less entertainment value in these two hours than in a single episode of his razor-sharp verbal jousts with Rob Brydon.

The lack of any real drama isn't helped by the bland supporting cast: a handful of cutout characters given nothing much of interest to do (except for Nina Arianda as Mrs Laurel, who effortlessly steals every scene from under her co-stars' noses). But in their place are a selection of delightful moments, usually involving one or both of the duo performing a mini routine for an audience of one, as if they just couldn't help themselves. Director Jon S Baird makes more of Jeff Pope's script than it probably deserves, lending real pathos to the general mood of melancholia and reluctant acceptance of mortality, and allowing his leads the time and space to truly assume the physicality of their parts. Inoffensive and undemanding, this is pleasant but forgettable stuff.