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.