Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Incredible Suit's Top 10 films of 2015

I'm going to assume you understand what this post is about without a lengthy introductory paragraph, because you wouldn't be here if you weren't colossally intelligent, not to mention devastatingly sexy.

I'm no superhero party pooper but I haven't been remotely moved by the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Iron Man Three, so it was a joy to see something as daft and inventive as Ant-Man fizzing up the screen this year. Freed from the shackles of the rest of the MCU (to some extent), Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish's script - or what was left of it - offered a small-scale adventure which nevertheless delivered big LOLs and impressive set-pieces. Here's hoping Paul Rudd spices up Captain America: Civil War as promised, because Cap's real superpower is boring me to death. Review

Roy Andersson presents his third exhibition of stuffed and mounted examples of the human condition, and it's another litany of drab futility and failure lightened only by the briefest splashes of colourful joy. You could come away from Andersson's films with the impression that he's a terminal pessimist, but that would be to miss the thick, dark seam of LOLs he mines from the eternal crushing misery of existence. And anyway, what he actually is is the proud owner of a unique cinematic vision and the will to spend decades perfecting it for you, the living. Review

Peter Strickland's strange and erotically-charged tale of love, lingerie and lepidoptery is a beautiful and melancholy exercise in taking genre filmmaking and twisting it into something wildly original. Chiara D'Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen play the lovers both pretending to be something they're not; the Duke of Burgundy plays himself - but only, tragically, in a deleted scene. Review

Imagine if Nora Ephron had written Psycho, and you're part-way to understanding the uncategorisable The Voices. Ryan Reynolds is a revelation as the desperately mentally ill Jerry, a reluctant serial killer whose unmedicated candy-floss world conceals a fetid, violent reality that anyone in their right mind would turn to drugs to escape from. Marjane Satrapi displays the biggest balls in cinema this year with a potentially deeply offensive look at insanity which instead delights, shocks and saddens in equal measure. Review

Societal pressures and the ludicrosity of human relationships come under the knife in Yorgos Lanthimos' tremendously original The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell as a man who - quite understandably - does not want to become a lobster. Wickedly stylised and brutally honest, it's a film you love even though it makes you hate yourself and everyone around you. Also the best film this year starring Léa Seydoux and Ben Whishaw, amirite guys?

Science fiction done right, i.e. with a focus on ideas over budget. A cast you've never heard of pieces together a jigsaw puzzle of a script written and directed by someone else you've never heard of without anyone ever knowing what the picture on the box is. Smart, only occasionally silly and infinitely rewatchable, Coherence is an enormously satisfying throwback to the early career of Christopher Nolan, when wrong-footing his audience to dazzling effect was more important than figuring out where he could squeeze Michael Caine in. Review

The loudest noise in cinemas this year was the thunderous sigh of relief when it was revealed that the new Star Wars film wasn't shit. It's not perfect, but it is bloody great fun, capturing all that was great about the original trilogy (including swathes of its plot) and redeploying those elements for a post-modern blockbuster experience that never winked at its own cleverness. Thrills, revelations, laughs, tears and almost relentless adventure: this is the stuff that Star Wars dreams are made of. Review

Bit of a surprise, this one. There I was, expecting a three-star Sunday afternooner about a bimbling old goat who's forgotten how to solve crimes, when what I actually got was a five-star Sunday afternooner about a bimbling old goat who's forgotten how to solve crimes. Mr. Holmes' genius isn't in its sleuthery though, but in its self-reflexive unpicking of the Sherlock mythology and the labyrinthine look at storytelling. I love that there's room in the world for Holmes films like this, and hope that one day the model might be applied to a certain secret agent popular round these parts. Review

The mythical concept of 21st century masculinity is skewered and butchered like a sacrificial cow in Ruben Östlund's wickedly blunt satire on male ego. If you're a 21st century male with no idea what his place in the world is, then this won't help you one jot (although if you're actively concerned about your place in the world then nothing will, get over yourself). It will, however, blow you away with its clinical, loaded cinematography, flawless performances and merciless inspection of your own pathetic worthlessness. Enjoy! Review

Pixar shatters expectations and emotions with equal brutality in this deceptively whimsical deconstruction of the abject horror of growing up. Inside Out - almost certainly my new favourite Pixar film - brings joy and sadness to the screen on multiple levels and with pinpoint accuracy, never putting a foot wrong in its complex and sensitive peek into the terrifying mental state of the average pre-teen. That it does it in what's ostensibly a kids' film, with impeccable gags and the kind of invention that seems beyond human capability, is all the more miraculous. And I just remembered Bing Bong and now I'm a complete state again. Review

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Obviously I'd hate to be the kind of terrific bore who sees everything through the prism of James Bond, but unfortunately I already am that guy so let me say this about The Force Awakens: it is everything I wanted from Spectre. Or at least I thought it was when I came out of the screening. On reflection, Star Wars v3.1 is actually Skyfall: a crowd-pleasing, carefully-calibrated blend of the old and the new, lighting a new fire of excitement under a franchise I had genuinely become concerned about, and featuring a winning performance from Daniel Craig. Competition isn't fierce, but it's fair to say that what we're dealing with here is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.
"This will begin to make things right," The Force Awakens announces with its very first line of dialogue, in a statement of intent that boasts Death Star-sized balls. It's some indication, were it even required, of all that's at stake here, and that Disney were absolutely determined not to make an absolute Christensen of their new project. And so director JJ Abrams, with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, have delicately crafted a loving tribute to the original trilogy which all but ignores Episodes I-III: there's no reference to any prequel-specific characters, no mention of midichlorians and a ruthless targeting of middle-aged geeks that shows up George Lucas' claim that Star Wars must be aimed at children as the poor excuse for infantilising the saga that it is.

There's a danger that, in appealing to the fanbase as hard as they do, Abrams and co might have gone a little too far. A lot that happens in The Force Awakens is suspiciously familiar: a hero entrusts vital information to a droid and packs it off to be unwittingly discovered by a simple youth with untapped, supernatural potential; a motley band of rebels attack the spherical, planet-smashing base of an evil army; the de facto leader of that army force-chokes minions and chats to his boss via hologram; fathers and sons have issues that are worked through traumatically, and so on. The film could have done with a little less of this and a little more Oscar Isaac, but to be fair that's true of almost any film ever made.
What's new is what's worth celebrating, because it's good enough to forgive the script its occasional obsequious nod to the glory days, and the first thing to say is how unutterably brilliant it is that the protagonists of a multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster - which has the potential to become the biggest film of all time - are a woman and a black man. It's ludicrous that we should even be discussing this in 2015, but here we are, so let's at least appreciate the moment: Daisy Ridley and John Boyega pull off their unspeakably high-pressure roles without the script ever needing to make reference to the fact that they're not white men, and it's impossible to overstate how important that is. Not just that, but they're both bloody great at what they do: Ridley carries off the confidence laced with subtle confusion that her character demands, while Boyega proves his action hero chops and effortlessly displays the lightness of touch required to make the humour work.

Other new characters are equally successful: Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, who could easily have been Diet Vader, is a fascinating addition. The childlike petulance that bubbles away beneath the surface of his fearsome warrior makes him thrillingly dangerous, and his connection to the saga's existing inhabitants adds invaluable emotional depth; a key scene uses literal and metaphorical light and dark to devastating effect. Meanwhile the embarrassingly-named Poe Dameron is the charismatic hero the prequels so tragically lacked, and Oscar Isaac and his magnificent hair have a ruddy ball with him. Speaking of balls, new droid and blatant Christmas toy ad BB-8 is delightful, although he does seem to have ported his vocal software over from a Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth class) he evidently met on his travels.
Then, of course, there's the school of '77-'83, of whom Harrison Ford is, quite rightly, front and centre. It's an utter joy to see Han Solo back in action, and almost makes you wonder if J-Jabs shouldn't make Indy 5 his next project. Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill have less to do, but their very presence is enough to warm the cockles of even this stone cold excuse for a heart. Audience investment in these guys is so high that Abrams could, arguably, have just had them stand there for a bit and shuffle about, but he uses each of them with the appropriate reverence - and irreverence - and, thankfully, doesn't try to give C-3PO much to do beyond, well, standing there for a bit and shuffling about. Enormous props too to costume designer Michael Kaplan, who's designed a set of iconic outfits for the ages (Poe Dameron's jacket now, please) and - obviously - John Williams, whose score is the equal of everything else he's done for this cinematic universe. I got chills at two very specific moments: one boosted by an incredible new theme, and one gloriously recalling an old one.

A near-relentless chase movie with a genius MacGuffin and character beats which span every emotion you ever felt watching these films, The Force Awakens successfully completes its primary objective - not to fuck itself up - with knobs on. Its own backstory may be a little vague (the genesis of both the evil First Order and the Resistance are glossed over with troubling alacrity), but what it lacks in exposition it makes up for in just being really, really Star Warsy. Arguably its greater responsibility, though, is to ramp up the demand for two further episodes, plus the Anthology films that will briefly, and hopefully, take the franchise out of its comfort zone. Well I don't know about you but post-Episode VII, four more Star Wars films doesn't feel like nearly enough. I am frothing at the cock for more, and I'm not sure it's a froth I can easily contain. The force has indeed awakened, and it's testing my underpant elastic to its limits.

Are you remotely interested in what I thought about Episodes I-VI? Then step this way, you weirdo


Monday, 30 November 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 6:
Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith

WAR! HEURGH! What is it good for? Opening a Star Wars title crawl, that's what. As further atonement for Episode I's sins, George Lucas launches Episode III with a rocket-fuelled declaration of intent that promises the polar opposite of trade route taxation and guardians of peace, and it's the beginning of a bravura 24-minute sequence that finally signals the return of the franchise after over four hours of false starts. That long, unbroken opening shot, accompanied by John Williams' drums of war; the ships that look a little bit like X-Wings and TIE fighters; Anakin and Obi Wan as pals finally having made peace with their hair; Count Dooku's death (spoiled only by Hayden Christensen frowning like he's stuck on a complex equation) and a skipful of other fun moments in that first half-hour are almost enough to forgive everything that's happened since 1999.
It's really quite straightforward, my young padawan. If a quadratic equation with real-number coefficients has a negative discriminant, then the two solutions to the equation are complex conjugates of each other.

Of course it doesn't last: the reunion of Anakin and Padme sadly requires them to talk to each other, and the sound of their romance is still the thud and clunk of cinema's worst dialogue ever. But almost as if he's become self-aware, Lucas limits the yakking as much as he can here to focus instead on a visually delicious adventure, cramming script and screen with mad set-pieces and kaleidoscopic eye candy (all those establishing wide shots are sexier than ever). When he does slow things down it's to detail Anakin's fall to the dark side, and as with the previous prequels this is by far Revenge Of The Sith's most interesting and successful aspect.

It's hard to tell if George Lucas intended Anakin's radicalisation as a comment on modern-day international politics - "From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!" is as ham-fisted a way of putting it as you'd expect - but the grooming of a young, impressionable man by a charismatic leader to an extreme, misguided cause certainly strikes a chord watching the film now. Whatever, it's chillingly good fun to watch, not least during the 'Tragedy Of Darth Plagueis' scene. Palpatine sells Anakin a promise so tempting that he chooses to ignore the story's loose ends and disclaimers (was Palpatine Plagueis' apprentice? Did Plagueis - or Palpatine - create Anakin? WE NEED MORE PREQUELS!), and Ian McDiarmid sells it just as well. This is what Star Wars does best: half-told myths and legends, the fight for the soul, the temptation of power; it's no exaggeration to claim this as the highlight of the entire prequel trilogy.
There's so much other good stuff in Episode III that it's actually annoying Lucas couldn't have found space for any of it in I or II, but perhaps those films needed to be as bad as they were to give him the kick up his hairy bum that he needed. Order 66 is a terrific, shocking sequence (though it's hard not to sympathise with Anakin when he slaughters those fucking younglings), General Grievous is a largely extraneous but undeniably fun second-tier villain realised with wit and incredible CG wizardry, and the final duel on Mustafar between Anakin and Obi Wan satisfies years of fanboy curiosity. And the dismemberment! I'm sure more arms and legs are lost in this film than the rest of the series put together; I dread to think what that says about George Lucas, but I'd be surprised if his analyst doesn't remove all sharp objects from the toilet each time he makes an appointment.

And then it's all over, but not before one final, atrociously ill-judged "NNOOOOOO!!" to remind us just how bad this series can be when it tries. It's hard to love the prequel trilogy for exactly this kind of thing: every time it reaches for greatness, Lucas makes a forehead-slappingly bad decision that nobody dared to challenge him on, and we're back to square one. But Revenge Of The Sith is far and away the best of the three, and it might even be better than Return Of The Jedi. If everything from Episodes I and II could have been described in the opening crawl of this film rather than played out over two disappointing episodes, the world would probably be a better place. Still, if The Force Awakens is the new hope we've been waiting for, it'll be in no small part because the prequels were the lesson from history we all had to endure.

The Clone Wars
As a prequel to this prequel that follows the previous prequel, I highly recommend Genndy Tartakovsky's animated Clone Wars series over Dave Filoni's CG series and film. It's slick, gorgeously animated, dovetails neatly into the opening of Revenge Of The Sith and doesn't feature anyone saying "Artooie" or "Skyguy" every half a second.

Yawn yawn John Williams is amazing again
So bored of repeating myself, but Jesus Christ how does he do it? 'Battle Of The Heroes' is the music I play in my head whenever I'm in a meeting with my boss and I cut his arms and legs off and set him on fire.

The ending (one of them)
Remembering how good all that crosscutting was in Return Of The Jedi, Lucas throws in some lovely juxtaposition between Anakin's death / Vader's birth and Padme's death / Luke and Leia's birth. Robot doctors were shit a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away though, right? They seemed to spend more time touching up Padme's makeup than trying to keep her alive.

Wookiee bollocks
Chewbacca getting shoehorned in for no good reason is one thing, but to have a Wookiee actually give a Tarzan cry as he swings through Kashyyyk is unforgiveable. I'm willing to bet most Wookiees haven't even heard of Johnny Weissmüller. Also, why the fuck are there three Ys in Kashyyyk? Why, why, why?

The subtitles on this Chinese bootleg

Do not want.

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bridge Of Spies

"A battle is being fought by two competing views of the world," intones a character in Steven Spielberg's Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies, and the subtext hangs in the air like a dense cloud of obviousness. It'd be easy to accuse the line of being trite - yes, that battle is always being fought, we get it - if it wasn't hammered home by two recent real-world events: the terrorist attacks in Paris, and Turkey's violent removal of a Russian jet from what may or may not have been its airspace (an incident chillingly mirrored half way through Spielberg's film). The timing is, of course, tragically coincidental, but it's not hard to see that Bridge Of Spies' gloomy geopolitical outlook would indeed be depressingly relevant whenever it was released. To dismiss that dialogue as hackneyed cliché would be a heartless shrug at everything Spielberg - and, by extension, his protagonist - believes in and wants you to have a good old think about on the way home and, preferably, for some time afterwards.

While that might sound like you're in for 141 minutes of being guilt-tripped for not giving sufficient shits about international conflict, Bridge Of Spies isn't really interested in patronising you. Quite the opposite, in fact: its densely-worded script and stubborn refusal to throw in frequent action-packed, or even tension-laced, set-pieces (barring the aforementioned plane-downing) demands your full attention and intelligence from start to finish. Nip out for a wazz in the middle of this and you'll return to find borders and allegiances have shifted, at least three secrets will have been revealed (or hidden) and Tom Hanks' Tomhanksness will have multiplied tenfold.
Tom, cardy

As the insurance lawyer bafflingly assigned to the defence case of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), Hanks' James Donovan opts not to take the easy way out by losing the case and sending Abel to his death, instead saving his life AS INSURANCE (do you see?) in case any US military personnel should find themselves behind enemy lines and a bargaining chip is required. The storytelling rug-pulling that follows is incessant and exponentially ambitious: just when you think the story's about Abel, the focus shifts to Donovan and his literally fist-clenching stoicism against a tide of hate from his own countrymen (fuelled by a biliously jingoistic press; again with the modern-day parallels). Before you know it it's about tensions in a newly-divided Berlin, and by its climax it's reaching for nothing less than world peace and understanding, albeit with the soft edges of Spielberg's trademark optimism sharpened slightly to offer an inevitable edge of cynicism.

Hanks, frequently and comfortably typecast as the all-round Good American, seems on a mission to up the stakes here to Apex Of Humanity. Donovan couldn't really give a toss whether or not Abel is guilty; he sees him as a human being first, an honourable soldier second and a treacherous spy third, if at all. His fight to save Abel's life is motivated in part by clinical forward thinking but mostly by a streak of compassion wider than the Iron Curtain, and when the time comes to employ Abel as leverage for the life of a captured American soldier, Donovan takes his crusade a step further than anyone expects - or, for political reasons, really wants - him to.
This is what happens when you go for an evening stroll with Janusz Kaminski

It's a complex tale, deftly delivered by fully qualified masters of the craft (the revisions done to Matt Charman's script by the Coen brothers eschew their trademark oddballery in favour of clean storytelling lines), and although it very obviously belongs to Spielberg's late, grown-up period, he's not afraid to have fun with his omnipresent god lights, lens flare or hammering rainstorms. There's a pleasing smattering of dark humour too, not least in Rylance's amusingly laconic, Scottish-accented Russkie. What you take away from it is up to you, but a sequence involving the erecting of the Berlin Wall echoes the appearance of the World Trade Centre in Munich, and this shit isn't just thrown together. History, as told by Steven Spielberg, rarely stays in the past, and right now it sure as hell isn't confined to the screen.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 5:
Star Wars: Episode II: Attack Of The Clones

My first viewing of Attack Of The Clones was in Orlando, and the reaction of the American audience - especially to the moment when Yoda pulls his lightsabre out of his trousers and waves it around - was so absurdly excitable that it's left me with a falsely fond memory of the film. Whenever I pop it on nowadays I remember how much fun all that Stateside whooping and hollering was, and lull myself into thinking I'm going to get that for the next 142 minutes. But I don't. I don't get that for about 129 minutes, and when I do it's only for one measly minute, and also I'm invariably alone and in my pants rather than surrounded by hundreds of hyped-up yanks. Such is the cold, cruel truth of the Star Wars prequel experience: never as good as the first time, and saddled with the realisation that you're over 40 and watching a cartoon about robots and aliens in your least flattering underwear.

In its defence, Attack Of The Clones is at least better than The Phantom Menace. I mean, syphillis is better than The Phantom Menace (I imagine), but with such a low starting point any sequel would have to be full of terrible actors spouting atrocious dialogue, overly dependent on CGI and saddled with the most excruciating love story in all of cinema to be any worse, ha ha oh dear.
Theirs was a desire that burned across the galaxy

As with its predecessor, the most interesting stuff here is all the Machiavellian machinations Palpatine is up to, only now he's targeting this arrogant young punk who's juiced up to the eyeballs with midichlorians and pissed off with his father figure for having better hair. The slow turning of Anakin to the dark side is one of the few things the prequels (well, Episodes II and III) do well; it's just a shame you have to wade through hours of GCSE drama to get to it. The tension between Anakin and Obi-Wan is palpable, if in danger of being overplayed by subtlety vacuum Hayden Christensen, and Anakin's throbbing chubby for Padme is a reasonable bit of pipe-laying for his later rage. It's just unfortunate that the romance is about as sexy and heartfelt as watching two books on a shelf.

Attack Of The Clones' weird structure is interesting, if not entirely successful, and its ping-ponging back and forth between Obi-Wan's detective work and Anakin's attempts to throw one up Padme make it the least Star Wars-y Star Wars film. For well over an hour we're batted between the two storylines, and it gets a little tiresome after a while, especially as one of them is about two books on a shelf. (The connection here to the other middle episode, The Empire Strikes Back, and its hopping between Han and Leia's adventures and Luke's Dagobah training, is painfully obvious thanks to the earlier plot's vast superiority.) But Obi-Wan's investigation is fun, if rote, and the characters are eventually reunited believably, even if it is in a silly arena designed for watching executions carried out by unpredictable monstraliens.
The anal gas expulsions of the Reek could disassemble a battle droid at five paces

Along the way we get the Obi-Wan / Jango Fett rumble and dogfight, featuring the prequel trilogy's best sound effects, and the surprisingly dark massacre of the Tusken Raiders (although frankly I'd like to have seen more of that; I guess it's not appropriate for the same audience who lapped up Jar Jar Binks three years previously), both of which are distracting enough to forget about the books on the shelf for a few minutes. And the final act - with the arrival of the Jedi (especially Mace Windu, who George Lucas finally realises is his MVP), the lightsabre duels between Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda and Count Dooku and the beginning of the Clone Wars - is a high point on which to end a mostly unexceptional film.

Things are improving then, but only just: shit needs to get real dark if we're going to see the creation of the galaxy's biggest bastard, Hayden Christensen really needs to get up to speed with this acting lark and someone seriously has to restrain George Lucas if he starts typing anything like "I'm haunted by the kiss that you should never have given me" again.

Fucking Binks
Tragically, Jar Jar Binks doesn't die a horrific, brutal death in Attack Of The Clones, but he is at least not in it very much. I refuse to believe this is because Lucas listened to fans, given that he's done so much else to annoy us, but I welcome it nevertheless. I still haven't decided whether the fact that Binks effectively ensures decades of war across the galaxy, indirectly causing the loss of billions of lives, is infuriating or just downright hilarious.

Fucking C-3P0
Fast becoming this film's Jar Jar Binks, C-3P0 is once again shoehorned into a story in which he has literally fuck all to do just for the sake of a handful of unbelievably shit gags. Inexplicably dragged along from Tattooine, he nonsensically wanders out of a perfectly safe starship and into an excruciating series of atrociously unfunny moments designed to destroy any goodwill left towards one of the two characters who brought us into this universe in the first place. If anyone can adequately explain how a robot from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away would ever use a phrase like "this is such a drag", I'm all ears.

John Williams' score

At least somebody manages to not be annoying, and obviously it's John Williams, who cranks out a fairly avant-garde score this time round: electric guitars in Star Wars? Madness, but cool, sexy madness. And his love theme 'Across The Stars' is absolutely beautiful, so much so that you almost believe two books on a shelf could fall in love.

Jango Unbrained
You can't beat a good decapitation in a PG-rated kids' film, and it's great to see Samuel L Jackson exact furious vengeance on Jango Fett by lopping his bonce off in front of his young son. I like to imagine the rest of Mace Windu's life was spent in blissful ignorance of Boba Fett's consistently unsuccessful assassination attempts, like an intergalactic version of Michael Palin's Ken and the old dear from A Fish Called Wanda.

Yoda's punking
When Yoda is revealed to be some kind of samurai ninja at the end, it's an undeniably fun and exciting moment. But for me, the bit where - having flung himself around like a little green pinball trying to kill Dooku - he stops, picks up his walking stick and hobbles about like a 900-year-old whatever-he-is again is exactly the kind of comedy we needed more of in these films I'M LOOKING AT YOU BINKS

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

Thursday, 22 October 2015


James Bond is back, in case you hadn't noticed, and this time his mission is even more impossible than ever: to top Skyfall. Off the back of the most successful, cannily post-modern and downright surprising Bond film ever, Sam Mendes and his crack team of operatives needed to pull something unbelievably amazing out of the Bondbag with Spectre. So does it top Skyfall? Well, no, not quite. Does it top Casino Royale? Er, no. Wait... does it top Quantum Of Solace?

No. It does not.

In actual fact, Mendes didn't need to make a film bigger and better than its predecessor at all; just one that lived up to it, justified our faith in him and rewarded fans with another glorious slice of world-class Bondery. Spectre does none of those things. Where Skyfall was a daringly-structured rolling boulder of excitement, full of knowing winks and arch commentary on the place of the series in modern cinema, Spectre is a paper chase from A to B to C, deviating only to take in M and Q. It's all surface, like most of the pre-Daniel Craig era; given that we've had three films reinventing the character for modern audiences, the temptation to take him back to his 1970s incarnation - as if that's some kind of benchmark - is both understandable and utterly ill-advised. Parts of it work, sure, but so much of it just feels... ordinary. And if there's one thing Bond must never, ever be, it's ordinary.
Chess, for example. Ordinary. Why not 3D hologrammatic space chess?

Things start well - extremely well - with the return of the gunbarrel to its rightful place at the front of the film, Craig finally getting the walk, turn and shoot right on the third time of asking. What follows is a blinding single shot, maybe five minutes in length, following Bond through the Day Of The Dead parade in Mexico City on his way to take down a bad guy for reasons as yet unclear. It's a virtuoso sequence that takes your breath away and promises so much for the two and a bit hours to come. It's no exaggeration, though, to say that things never get this good again. After a great gag involving a sofa and some typically impressive helicopter stunt work (marred slightly by some unconvincing green screen), Sam Smith's pitiful theme song whines in and brings everything back down to earth. Rumour has it Radiohead were strong contenders to perform the song, and in fact they already had the perfect theme for the film: No Surprises.

If you've followed any of the film's build-up, even just the officially-sanctioned synopsis, trailers and so on, you'll know exactly what happens in Spectre. And what they haven't told you, you can probably guess. Bond was sent to find his Mexico target by a "message from his past", which turns out to be a nice touch but makes zero sense when you think about it. Acting against orders (for a change), he jets off to Rome, where the much-trumpeted "Bond woman" Monica Bellucci is wasted in a staggeringly Moore-esque scene that won't do anything to help the argument that Bond girls women females are treated better by writers these days. He also meets Dave Bautista's Mr Hinx, a henchman whose classically bizarre (but frankly silly) USP is introduced in shocking style, and then NEVER REFERRED TO AGAIN. Imagine if Jaws had come on at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me, smiled to show his metallic teeth, then never actually used them. That's what we're dealing with here.
That's right, he can bend flexible rubber tubing WITH HIS BARE HANDS

A semi-spectacular car chase is hobbled by the film's decision to dollop jokes throughout, which grate more often than not; Daniel Craig has a wicked sense of humour, and showed it in Casino Royale and Quantum Of Solace, but he can't do the cheesy stuff that Moore and Brosnan effortlessly pulled off. It just looks out of place. And it's carried through the film in the decision to have Bond treat everything with levity - again, we're going back to the "golden age" of 007 here, but it removes all the threat and menace we've come to appreciate from the Craig era. Sometimes the humour lands - the word "stay" is put to excellent use - but only when it's not trying too hard.

Before long we're in Austria, where previous über-villain Mr White is hunkered down in his cellar, tossing himself off to rolling news channels. This is where we expect to find out the connection between Quantum and the mysterious new organisation, but it's inadequately explained. You'll know from the trailers that Spectre, and its boss man Franz Oberhauser, are responsible for all Bond's pain, but my god does that involve some clumsy ret-conning. "It's always been me", says Oberhauser in his later, inevitable monologue, but frankly we've only got his word for it. The facts don't really add up and nobody can be bothered to show their working out.

It's nice to see Q pop up in Austria, although how he got there is a mystery: remember in Skyfall when Moneypenny said he was afraid of flying? No, neither do the writers. Still, it's fun to see Ben Whishaw - along with MI6 engine roomers Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear and Naomie Harris - get involved in a bit of the action; Fiennes, especially, teases out his M's military background in some of the film's classier dialogue. It's just a shame he has to keep arguing with Andrew Scott's government wonk about how vital the Double-0 section is, given that he spent most of Skyfall disagreeing with Judi Dench's M, who said exactly the same things he says here but with added Tennyson.
"I know a little Roger McGough, will that do?"

If it's Act III, it must be Tangier, and a decent stretch of good stuff plays out in a hotel room between Bond and Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann, which is then undone by a conversation on a train which draws inevitable and unfavourable comparisons with Casino Royale's superior Bond / Vesper train-based chinwag. Possibly the film's best action sequence follows, and it owes a huge debt to From Russia With Love, but even that is immediately dampened by an unnecessary coda.

And then, after about a hundred minutes, Christoph Waltz finally shows his face. Was it worth the wait? You guessed it. Waltz is wasted here, trying desperately to add some idiosyncracies to his two-dimensional villain but never being allowed to explore the character like we know he can. His scheme is depressingly low-key, and his personal beef with Bond means nothing and goes nowhere. He will, however, make you even more terrified of going to the dentist. Fortunately the final act picks up considerably, and contains a neat in-joke for hardcore Bond fans (hello, I understood that reference), but by then it's too late to save the film. Nothing we've seen has been especially new, exciting or unexpected, and in a post-Skyfall world that seems like a huge missed opportunity.
I know, man. I know. Let it out.

If you've made it this far, then I'm sorry for your loss, but let me just add one more personal thing: special mention must go to Spectre's chief villain, Thomas Newman, for whom a sauna in hell is reserved for his score. I found his work in Skyfall brilliantly up to date and innovative, different enough from David Arnold's preceding work but recognisably Bondian even without much of the James Bond Theme. It appears Newman felt the same way, because around half of Spectre's score consists of cues lifted directly from Skyfall. Almost every set-piece is scored by music I instantly recognised, and it repeatedly pulled me out of the film, making me more and more furious. That's unforgivable enough, but he also chooses to ignore the Bond Theme again, when it would have lifted so much of Spectre's action. God only knows what John Barry - who knocked out eleven distinct but connected Bond scores, all brilliant, and one of them in just three weeks - would make of it.

We're not dealing with Die Another Day levels of dreadful here, and there's plenty in Spectre to please casual Bond fans and unfussy cinemagoers. But I'm writing this review as someone who cares so much about these films it's embarrassing. I don't expect perfection and I can forgive a lot in Bond; I mean, I actually really like Quantum Of Solace. But Bond is at its best when it ignores what's going on around it and reaches further and pushes harder to be its own thing, to surprise and excite, and to tell audiences what they want to see rather than react to what it thinks they want to see. Spectre doesn't do that, but, you know, maybe Bond 25 will. James Bond will always return.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Book Corner: Back To The Future -
The Ultimate Visual History

As we are all no doubt painfully aware, Back To The Future is the joint-best film ever made of all time ever, and so when the sexual tyrannosaurs at Titan Books offered me a copy of their new book Back To The Future: The Ultimate Visual History to review, I bit their hand off at the shoulder. Having once, long ago, owned and read to within an inch of its papery life Michael Klastorin and Sally Hibbin's Back To The Future: The Official Book Of The Complete Movie Trilogy but flogged it on eBay in a moment of foolish desperation, I welcomed this new volume with open cheeks. It gives me unbridled joy to say that it is everything I could have hoped for and more, and when I say "and more" I mean "with added Eric Stoltz".

Put in its simplest, most pullquote-friendly terms, you cannot not be a person who doesn't not own this book. Co-written by Klastorin from his extensive and enviably deep connection with the trilogy, it's an exhaustive detailing of the genesis, production and legacy of Marty McFly's adventures dicking about in the space-time continuum. But more - so much more - than that, it is, as you might expect from a "visual history", full of lovely, lovely pictures. So when you get bored of the words, which you won't, the pictures will be there for you. Pictures like the reference photo of Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd that Drew Struzan took before turning it into a work of airbrushed genius for the BTTF Part II poster; pictures of concept art for Hill Valley across three time periods (plus a Biffhorrific version); pictures of Eric Stoltz as Marty - about FIFTEEN PAGES of them: every page reveals a new eye-arousing wonder.

What's more, many of the pictures are replica props: "a wealth of special removable items", as the book's press release describes them. Sure enough, you too can wave a 'SAVE THE CLOCK TOWER' flyer in your spouse's face, boggle at the amazing lenticular photo of the McFly family (complete with disappearing Dave and Linda) for hours on end, or frame the sepia snap of Marty and Doc either side of the Hill Valley clock in 1885 and proudly display it on your bedside table, as I may or may not have.

Of course, pictures are all well and good, but one thing many books have in the past included in order to deepen their potential is a shitload of words. And Back To The Future: The Ultimate Visual History has precisely one shitload of words. I'm not going to pretend I've read them all (some of them are quite long, plus the book only arrived the other day and it comes out on Friday, JESUS give me a break), but I can tell you that those I have read are the pictures' equal in terms of fun things to look at. Christopher Lloyd's preface, for example, asks you to imagine a world in which you were reading Jeff Goldblum's or John Lithgow's preface to the same book. This set my mind wandering for about half an hour, and upon its return I was uncertain that neither option would be a bad thing at all.

Alternate timelines aside, this book approaches its subject in a pleasingly linear fashion, describing the making of each film in order of production. So after all the idea-having and draft-writing and title-wrangling (MCA president Sid Sheinberg's hilarious memo pushing for Space Man From Pluto gets a full page to itself) is dealt with, the Stoltz era is given meaty coverage before the "real" Marty McFly arrives, complete with Fox's own battered (and discontinued) sneakers, 25 pairs of which had to be made specially by Nike because costume designer Deborah L Scott forgot Marty's "proper" shoes and preferred those the actor turned up in on day one.

Further memories, anecdotes and revelations from pretty much everyone involved in the trilogy's successive five years follow, and the briefest flick-through while standing in Waterstones will provide as convincing an ad for the book as I can give here (I just opened it at random looking for an example and accidentally spent ten minutes reading about the painstaking attempts to recreate scenes from the first film for the second). An appropriately tiddly section is given over to the Universal Studios ride and the animated series, and as you discover the final treat - a fold-out poster for Jaws 19 - you'll immediately want to stick the films on for the bazillionth time and re-indulge in their wondrousness once more. Or, like me, you can just keep playing with that lenticular photo. It really is quite clever.
Yeah, 'bye Dave

Wednesday, 7 October 2015


I've got my eye on Denis Villeneuve. Prisoners may have been overcooked nonsense but it was, at least, enjoyable and stunningly-shot overcooked nonsense, and Enemy is a lip-smackingly atmospheric oddity that proved Villeneuve's versatility (at least to me: I haven't seen his Oscar-nommed Incendies, or indeed anything else he made before that, which means you have every right to ignore my stupid uneducated opinion.) But with a Harrison Ford / Ryan Gosling-starring Blade Runner sequel in the post, Villeneuve is officially One To Watch, and Sicario - on the face of it - should be his chance to prove himself a master of the exciting and intelligent cinematic experience.

By and large, he succeeds: Sicario is immensely watchable, without a bum note among its lead performances and a couple of genuinely thrilling set-pieces. It's also, like Prisoners, shot beautifully by that film's DP and certified god amongst men Roger Deakins, and Villeneuve knows exactly where to stick his camera to achieve optimum audience involvement in any given scene. When all's said and done though, anyone who's seen Zero Dark Thirty - and many who haven't - are likely to feel like some pretty familiar ground is being trodden here.

Emily Blunt takes our hand and gives us an idealistic but steely FBI agent's look at the murky world of government-sanctioned black ops, specifically one that involves taking down a Mexican drug cartel via some morally and ethically barren methods. As always, she's brilliant, and her character successfully avoids any accusations of tokenism as the only woman in a testosterone-soaked world of drug dealers and hairy, bantz-loving SWAT teams. She tags along at the request of Josh Brolin's Dudish (as in Lebowski) special agent, and is uncomfortable with the inclusion in the team of Colombian "adviser" Alejandro, played by Benicio del Toro as a hollowed-out former human being whose troubled and mysterious past is carved into every line on his face, of which there are many. Lines, that is, not faces. Although you could argue there are more than one of those too.
Villeneuve knows exactly which buttons to press to drag you into his world, and one of those buttons is very clearly labelled "DEAKINS". The cinematography here is alternately spectacular and prosaic, often when you least expect it, and a late scene utilising thermal imaging and night vision is enormous fun even though Villeneuve hasn't fully explained exactly what's meant to be going on. His other big button is marked "JÓHANSSON", and Sicario's score composer employs pulsing beats and atonal honking to unnerving effect.

Aside from one clunkily-executed plot device involving a colourful wristband, Villeneuve does a great job of balancing intelligent political intrigue with Friday night thrills, and as such Sicario is a massively entertaining watch. However, the naive young officer surprised by the complexity and darkness of international sub-radar operations is a well-worn story, and the similarities to Kathryn Bigelow's 2013 bin Laden-buster are almost excruciatingly clear in several scenes. Sicario is arguably a more satisfying night out, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better film. Like the characters of both movies, history will eventually judge who got it right.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Green Room

Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to the intriguing Blue Ruin continues his series of Films With Misleadingly Soothing Colours In The Title in typically unsoothing style. Taking that film's blackly comic revenge-led theme to its next logical step, Green Room borders on horror with its wince-inducing violence and genuinely unpredictable death toll.

Patrick Stewart becomes Saulnier's first big name, kindly bestowing a small portion of his big bag of gravitas upon the role of Darcy, a horrible racist shitbag who runs a thrash metal bar for boots 'n' braces types in the backwards backwoods of middle America. Into this venue step naive punks The Ain't Rights, a fledgling band of teens who obviously haven't seen enough horror movies to know when not to enter a cabin in the woods full of white supremacist mentalists. Needless to say, something unpleasant happens, which causes a lot more unpleasant things to happen, and very few people live happily ever after.

Saulnier is slowly ploughing a furrow of mildly amusing thrillers full of unspeakable acts, and Green Room, like Blue Ruin, rarely lets up in its shark-like race to the end credits with as much carnage inflicted as possible. But it's let down by a handful of improbably convenient plot developments and a dearth of likeable characters, and as the film reaches its obvious conclusion it runs out of steam and tosses off a climax that needed more satisfying emotional heft. Stewart never gets the chance to be as bastardly as he should, and the imperilled protagonists are too under-developed to care about which of them might be next for the chop.

There's a great genre film in Jeremy Saulnier somewhere, and it's worth sticking with him to watch as he works it out. But until he does, Green Room is destined to be little more than a lesser version of the masterpiece to come.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 4:
Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

We reach the guaranteed nadir of BlogalongaStarWars with this upsetting exercise in fanboy childhood molestation: a film which, because I am a Star Wars fan and an idiot, I have seen maybe fifteen times now, and each viewing has been less enjoyable than the last. After watching it for this ill-judged exercise in blogwaffling, I promised myself this would be the final time. Life is too short to fill rewatching a small boy repeatedly shouting "yippee" at high volume and cinema's most teeth-grindingly irritating character being a cackhanded cunt. No more, George. No more.
Hard to believe this wouldn't quite work

It's taken me a long time to learn to actively dislike The Phantom Menace. In 1999 I was just happy to have a new Star Wars film, and I embraced it, bought merchandise and happily paid for it on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray in the following decade-and-a-bit. I actually called myself an apologist for a while, although if pressed I would have struggled to articulate exactly why every print shouldn't be sealed in a vat of acid and fired into the sun. Now, though, I find it impossible to defend. It has one great scene (for which you must first sit through over a hundred minutes of bad ones), a fantastic score and a handful of fun touches, but otherwise stands as a rusting monument to one man's misplaced self-belief and calamitously poor judgement as a writer and director.

The Phantom Menace's flaws are legion, so where to begin? At the beginning, I suppose. The opening crawl, with its coma-inducing talk of trade routes and the unwelcome news that, in the old days, Jedi knights were in the business of solving tax disputes like some kind of intergalactic ombudsman, sets the sludgy tone perfectly. Before long Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are delivering George Lucas' undeliverable dialogue as if they're playing a joke on him, never dreaming for a moment that these would be the actual takes he'd end up using.

Within minutes we literally run into Jar Jar Binks, and immediately wonder if he will do anything useful or, indeed, watchable in the next couple of hours. The answer is no. His sole impact on the plot is to take the Jedi to the Gungans, who will later do a spectacularly shit job at helping fight off the invading droid army. They don't even beat the bad guys: on the point of defeat and the verge of sweet, blessed execution, an 8-year-old who can barely see through his fringe does that for them from hundreds of miles away. So Binks' contribution is purely to bumble around as the least successful comic relief character in history, tagging along like the kid nobody likes and getting bits of himself stuck in things with disappointingly non-fatal results.
Please just fuck absolutely and utterly off

Enough about that bastard though. Lucas' script is arguably more offensive, its core padded with emptiness like a memory card packaged by Amazon in a sofa-sized cardboard box full of bubble wrap. The Jedi are attacked by an underwater monster which is eaten by a bigger monster, thereby saving them; minutes later they are attacked by an underwater monster again, which is eaten by a bigger monster again, thereby saving them again, as if Lucas forgot he literally just did that. Those two huge CGI sequences do precisely nothing to advance the plot or affect the characters, and The Phantom Menace is full of scenes like them. Later on, fifteen minutes - 12% of the film's running time - will be spent on the podrace, which may be a cracking workout for your home cinema system but otherwise exists only to tell us that Anakin is a good pilot. You may recall learning the same about Luke Skywalker in A New Hope when it mattered, i.e. during the climactic battle.

Then there's the shoehorning in of C-3P0 and R2-D2, who were such well-conceived and executed guides through the adventure of A New Hope but who don't seem entirely sure why they've been invited to appear in The Phantom Menace. R2, for one, keeps looking around nervously like that poor bugger who turned up at the BBC for a job interview and inadvertently found himself on air talking about Apple Corps vs Apple Computer. And those midichlorians, ugh, what even? It's almost as if Qui-Gon knew he was talking into a lady's razor so just said something appropriately absurd. Also, while we're talking about that scene, how did Anakin get that massive and convenient gash on his arm that allows Qui-Gon an excuse to steal his blood? IT DOESN'T MATTER LOOK AT THE PRETTY CG BACKGROUND

As if all this wasn't enough, and on top of howling honkers like "Are you an angel?" and "Always remember... your focus determines your reality" (LITERALLY WHAT THE FUCK), what we're dealing with here is a film populated entirely by supporting characters. NOBODY wants to step forward and have this film be about them, and who can blame them? Where's this film's Han Solo? Its Princess Leia? Hell, even its Luke Skywalker? Top billing goes to Neeson and McGregor, who play two of the lowest-key heroes in science fiction, taking the Jedi code of never showing emotion to its entertainment-unfriendly extreme; the villain is vague and intangible, like some kind of phantom menace, and the one character we're actually meant to be interested in is manifested as a mop-headed brat too annoying to care about and too cute to hate. Well, almost.
Wait, don't go! We're just getting to the good bit! Oh there it was.

Eventually the finale arrives, like the cool guest at a dreadful dinner party who rocks up during dessert, shags the hostess on the table and fucks off. Again displaying selective amnesia, Lucas repeats Return Of The Jedi's three-way climax with an awesome lightsabre fight (the main reason why people still admit to this film's existence), a space battle (this one a dull retread of Episodes IV and VI) and an unlikely face-off between the bad guys and the indigenous twats on the surface below, which here is just embarrassing. And then, thank Yoda, it's over. Five minutes of story spread expensively over two hours, like those soul-destroying meetings that should only ever have been an email.

Why Lucas felt his prequel trilogy needed to be entirely Anakin-based is a mystery. The whole father-son / Anakin-Luke thing is fine, but the parallels are too thin on the ground to justify six hours. The storyline concerning Palpatine's machinations and the long-game overthrowing of the Republic are far more interesting, and I'd happily have had Baby Vader's journey to the dark side told as a subplot rather than the other way round. But then where would the hilarious Jar Jar Binks fit in?

John Williams' score

John Williams' score is great.

Darth Maul
Darth Maul is great.

This shot
This shot with the battle droids being unpacked is good. I like the way they rock back and forth.

That's it

That's literally it

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss