Category Archives: Movies

Hannibal Rising

Hannibal Rising posterBack in the mid to late 1980s Thomas Harris, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Demme created an icon of horror/thriller cinema, Dr Hannibal Lecter, in the film version of Harris’ book Silence of the Lambs. While the part had been played arguably with more truth by Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s Manhunter and would swiftly become something of a pantomime villain/anti-hero in Hannibal and Red Dragon, Hopkins first take on the character remains mesmerising.

Why then, nearly 20 years later, Harris decided it would be a good idea to explore the background of Lecter is probably not much of a mystery as it was clear there was ‘gold in that there cannibal’, however as a character there was never a need.

Starting in Lithuania in the final days of the Second World War and then shifting to early 1950s France, Hannibal Rising fills us in on the troubled youth that created the ‘monstrous’ Lecter (we know he’s monstrous because they take the time to explain and state this in some detail).

Orphaned with his sister following a Soviet/Nazi micro-battle in a Lithuanian forest, the pair (children of a wealthy, castle owning, family) are taken hostage by mercenaries in the depths of the winter of 1944/45 and it’s not long before the mercenaries resort to cannibalism, eating the aforementioned young girl, before Hannibal is rescued and eventually (and surprisingly easily given post-war travel restrictions) ends up in France in his late teens, meeting his wealthy and exotic Japanese aunt, discovering an intense need for politeness, a love of sharp objects and enrolling in medical school.

Hannibal Rising - Gaspard Ulliel

Ulliel as Lecter

From there this becomes a pretty standard revenge story, Lecter has a special set of skills and he will find those who ate his sister and he will kill them.

I apologise if this feels like spoilers but, as is often a problem with prequels, there is little tension and mystery here as we come in knowing two things; one, that Hannibal is a murderer on a grand scale and two, that he survives at least as far as his 60s or 70s as seen in Lambs and Hannibal.

The fact of this being an effective thriller then is rendered impotent from the start.

So what of it as a horror, as it is also billed? Well, despite a few expectedly brutal but often somewhat over cooked (pun intended) murders, it’s not really very horrific. Any element of psychological horror that was Lecter’s initial raison d’être is absent and the violence really isn’t as graphic as one might expect. The camera, for the most part, cuts away from the actual truly horrific moments, though if shown they would have been simply revelling in blood and guts for the sake of it so it was a bit of a lose-lose.

Hannibal Rising - Gaspard Ulliel and Dominic West

Ulliel and West as Inspector Popil

Despite featuring a couple of actors who we know are or seem capable, none of the characters have the ring of truth and there really is no one to root for here. Hannibal, played by Gaspard Ulliel, is stuck between villain and anti-hero and lumbered with the same pantomimic ticks of Hopkins later performances making it very hard to accept him as the ‘good guy’.

Dominic West’s detective meanwhile, apparently investigating war crimes both general and specific, has nothing like enough depth to really even feel like a presence let alone a threat to Hannibal in the form of Will Graham or Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling.

Then there’s the question of an antagonist. Who can stand up as worse than, or make us rally behind, a sociopathic, cannibalistic, mass murderer? Well the answer isn’t Rhys Ifans’ Lithuanian mercenary come French human trafficker with a range of dubious accents – unfortunately that’s all we get.

Hannibal Rising - Rhys Ifans and Gaspard Ulliel

Ifans as Vladis Grutas and Ulliel

As the film reaches its unbalanced and uninspired climax, with a few additional psychological quirks to try to complete the pointless picture of the creation of ‘Hannibal The Cannibal’ (as he doesn’t like to be called), Hannibal Rising almost entirely fails to be anything worth watching.

As Netflix offers the options of this or the Mads Mikkelsen staring TV series Hannibal I’d go with that choice as, despite being cancelled after only three seasons due to low ratings, it is far superior and the nearest thing to being anything as good as Silence of the Lambs or Manhunter you’re likely to find.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Logan

Logan Movie PosterIt seems like much of the recent success of comic book and superhero movies can be traced back to Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films which laid the groundwork, not only for their own ongoing and expanded franchise, but the Avengers series, and most other films in that genre as well.

In 2016 this initial foundation was expanded (with mixed results) by Deadpool, adding an ‘R-rated’ flavour to the now Sony/Marvel X-Men universe, and now James Mangold’s Logan has grabbed that more adult notion by the throat and, well, driven three claws through its head.

Despite being the X-Men film series’ most compelling character the previous pair of standalone films based on Wolverine (X-Men Origins and The Wolverine) had, to a greater or lesser extent, not quite the hit mark; either for the character’s long time fans or more casual moviegoers. Here then it was refreshing that from the start this Wolverine, again played by Hugh Jackman, felt far more true to the essence of the character established but never really seen previously.

Hugh Jackman in Logan

Jackman as Logan/Howlett/Wolverine

Opening on a shot of an ageing Logan (aka Wolverine, aka James Howlett) waking up in the back seat of a limousine and then swiftly and brutally dealing with a gang of thugs trying to steal his hubcaps, it’s clear that Jackman, Mangold and co are using all of their R rating (15 in the UK) allowance of profanity and violence.

The story centres on the now somewhat less superpowered Logan and his efforts to care for a frail and elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and a young mutant named Laura (aka X-23, played by Dafne Keen). While the film has its fair share of action, mostly in a close up more personal style than the now common city-destruction of other comic book movies, the majority of the film focuses on these three leads.

Jackman puts in not only his best performance as the character to date, but one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from him, as he carries the weight of the film with a surprisingly nuanced delivery, capturing the essence of faded glory and un-graceful ageing excellently, while also delivering hugely in the action set pieces while keeping the now developed character intact.

Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman in Logan

Stewart as Xavier and Jackman

Stewart reveals new sides of Xavier, and seems to have a lot of infectious fun doing it, as he balances a streak of humour that clearly comes naturally to him with the emotional heft necessary for his position in the film and with the same weighty presence he’s always had in the role.

Keen meanwhile is a revelation as the intense Laura. Largely silent, her movements and facial expressions capture and transmit everything you need to know about this feral child and grow as the films goes on to a massively satisfying climax beyond I think anything seen elsewhere in the comic book movie canon. To be honest the same can be said of both Jackman and Stewart’s parts too and even Steven Merchant as Caliban puts in a good showing.

As well as tremendous acting, helped by a story and script rooted in more down to earth feelings, Logan comes with more of a sense of consequences than other superhero films.

Dafne Keen as Laura/X-23

Keen as Laura/X-23

Here you really feel like what is taking place matters and that there are real stakes for those involved, unlike the Avengers movies where we ultimately know the outcome from the start for a number of reasons.

So every action set piece, and there are a fair few, comes with a sense of genuinely not knowing what could happen – both Wolverine and Laura are vulnerable enough to not come across as instant winners in every fight and this is exploited in variously clever ways as the film goes on.

Rather than climaxing on a moment of light relief like comic book movies are wont to do, Logan cuts to black at an emotional peak leaving the audience satisfied and with the sense that this was a complete story but (crucially I guess for the studios) with avenues open for more to come, but in far less obvious ways than most other franchise films manage these days.

Hugh Jackman in Logan

Logan takes comic book action to the next level

In the end Logan may well not only have eclipsed X2 or Days of Future Past as the best of the X-Men series but taken its place at the top of the mainstream comic book movie pile by daring to be different in ways that almost remove it from that canon, if it weren’t for the super powered mutants leading the story.

And the Johnny Cash track that kicks off the credits is the cherry on top of an already exceedingly good cake.

And here’s that Johnny Cash song, just because…

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man posterAs I write this I seem to have begun a little David Lynch season for myself so there will no doubt be a few direct comparisons here to Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, as I take a look at his second, a film that on paper couldn’t be much more different, the real life story of Joseph (here John) Merrick, aka The Elephant Man.

From the opening it felt a bit like we might be heading back into Eraserhead territory as we are greeted, following the titles, by a nightmarish monochrome montage with Merrick’s mother, an elephant and a noisy discordant soundtrack.

After this though it settles down, for the most part, into a more conventional period drama type piece charting Merrick’s (John Hurt) life from being seen in a ‘freak show’ by Dr Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) to being taken into the London Hospital and what happens from there.

Of course the rightly most discussed aspect of The Elephant Man is John Hurt’s performance as Merrick. Almost completely subsumed in prosthetics that are, for the most part, entirely convincing, Hurt’s portrayal is masterful, eliciting real emotion through his eyes, movements and slurred voice in truly effecting manner.

In many ways it is this performance that anchors the connection to Lynch’s other early features as Hurt’s Merrick is, like Henry in Eraserhead, something of a wide-eyed innocent being bombarded by the world around him.

The Elephant Man - Hopkins and Hurt

John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins

Added to this his growth as a young man has slight links with Kyle MacLachlan’s performance as Paul Muad’Dib Atreides in Lynch’s adaptation of Dune.

The film is something of a double-header as Hurt is accompanied throughout the story by Hopkins as Treves and, while far more conventional a piece of acting, it is equally impressive as Hopkins is when he wants to be.

Stylistically Lynch makes some interesting choices throughout the film, as you might expect. The monochrome photography, ably executed by Freddie Francis, works excellently to add to the Victorian period feel and is clean and crisp in a way that shows real detail while allowing shadows to lurk where necessary and create an unsettling atmosphere, particularly in the first and third acts.

Added to this the tone of the film switches expertly throughout from moments of melodrama to serious cinema to almost Hammer Horror to nightmarish reminiscent of the industrial apocalypse of Eraserhead. Lynch manages these changes of aspect so they don’t clash but cause a great effect on the viewer in a way rarely seen in mainstream cinema.

The Elephant Man - David Lynch

David Lynch on set of The Elephant Man

Building to an entirely satisfying climax The Elephant Man concludes on a more sedate dream-like montage which I couldn’t help but notice bears a strong resemblance to the opening images of Lynch’s next film Dune, which set my mind spinning with ideas.

On top of all this it fires ideas in the mind of the viewer around the meaning of human dignity and human rights that, while they aren’t fully explored, are clearly intentional and, like much of Lynch’s work, give the film a life long after it has ended, certainly a hallmark of a great film in any situation.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2010: The Year We Make Contact

2010 The Year We Make ContactWhile it has been divisive since its release and has been described as everything from plodding and wilfully obscure to visionary there’s no deny that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was and remains a unique work in the sci-fi film canon. At its conclusion however while it certainly asked more questions than it answered I wasn’t left wondering what happens next.

Arthur C. Clarke, the original film’s writer and originator, though had other ideas and several sequels have since emerged in print, one of which, 2010 Odyssey Two, was made into a sequel to the original movie in 1984 as 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

From the start it’s clear that Peter Hyams’ film is much more down to earth and straight forward than its predecessor as we arrive on earth in the titular year and meet Dr Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the originator of the Discovery mission from the first film.

From there he joins a mission to investigate the loss of the Discovery led by a joint group of Russian and American scientists and astronauts – unfortunately at the same time the two countries stand on verge of war, the Cold War seemingly not having been resolved as occurred in the real world.

Unfortunately while 2001 is, for the most part, timeless, 2010 feels immediately dated, not just by its ongoing Cold War setting but by the production design that couldn’t look more 80s if it tried.

Roy Scheider

Roy Scheider

Usually I find this easy to look over but something here made that hard, possibly it was the rather obvious story that, while described as a thriller, never really thrilled on any level and any political intrigue that could have existed never properly manifested.

Meanwhile the mystery of the monolith felt like a side-show until the third act at which point its effect became a bit too obvious – particularly when compared to the enigmatic climax of 2001.

Despite a strong cast featuring Helen Mirren, John Lithgow and more alongside Scheider it was hard to really get more than an archetypical view of their characters and it was only the returning voice of HAL 9000 and Keir Dullea’s lost astronaut David Bowman that had any real presence.

As they only show up in the third act properly (though are hinted at throughout) this made the first part harder work than it should have been.

Leonov encounters Discovery

Leonov encounters Discovery

Though the climax came with some nice Jupiter based visuals I couldn’t escape the feeling it was all a bit too obvious, and while it left avenues for more sequels and its message of unity is an important and worthy one, compared to both its predecessor and other sci-fi of the time 2010 falls somewhat flat.

So, while it’s not a total disaster and was mildly diverting it was nothing more, which I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Eraserhead

Eraserhead posterWhere does one start with David Lynch’s debut feature film, Eraserhead?

So much has been written and said about it since 1976 this may well be redundant and as I write I’m still in something of a state of shock following such a mesmerisingly intense experience.

The story follows a young man named Henry (Lynch regular Jack, here credited as John, Nance) who we (and he) discover has fathered a child with a girl named Mary (Charlotte Stewart another member of Lynch’s ensemble of players). After a quick marriage Mary moves into Henry’s rather basic apartment with their baby, and so on.

All that sounds rather normal when described like that but, surrounding a plot that could easily come from a fairly standard drama, or even soap opera, Lynch constructs a world like no other, part post-apocalyptic hell, part internalised nightmare-scape, part 1950’s Americana.

The nearest touchstone I could think of during the first part of Eraserhead was Richard Lester’s surreal vision of post-nuclear war London, The Bed Sitting Room.

eraserhead elevator - Jack Nance

Nance as Henry takes the elevator

From there though Lynch’s work adds layer upon layer of questions with absolutely no answers making the audience find what they will in the building torment of Henry.

From the start it’s hard to not conclude that everything here is designed to unsettle. The clash of standard dramatic conventions with nightmare visions is the broad stroke of this, but it comes in many forms with a non-stop barrage of noise, all seemingly diegetic but often unexplained, with volume levels often entirely mismatching what we are seeing on-screen. 

Equally the set design, limited though it is to a few rooms and exteriors, all shot in black and white, is unapologetically stark but with a decrepit industrial richness that defies its low-budget origins.

eraserhead dinner

Mr X and Henry at dinner

Moments like the early family dinner scene are at once wholesome in the way of 1950s middle America and horrifically corrupt with its man-made mini-chickens – here in particular the idea of maintaining normality in the face of extreme horror, as seen in The Bed Sitting Room, springs to mind.

And then there is the baby… I don’t think there are words to describe or translate this creation without seeing it in action but suffice to say it is at once astonishing and agonisingly atrocious, not because it’s poorly constructed, but because it is quite so convincingly real and never fully explained.

Nance’s performance as Henry is a largely understated tour de force that helps the rest of the film with creating its own sense of totally unnatural naturalism and he is as mesmerising as the visuals with his innocent, wide-eyed expression leading us through what may be his own nightmare.

Eraserhead exterior

Henry takes a walk

The second half of the film just turns this all up even further and there are moments that suggest things to come in Lynch’s later work on Dune, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway before it all comes to a sudden, enigmatic, haunting climax.

Words like unique and visionary are bandied about all too regularly but with Eraserhead David Lynch created something that is certainly both of things.

As much a work of art as it is a horror film and as much a soap opera as it is an exploration of a broken society, it sets the scene for much of Lynch’s work to come as it asks many questions and emphatically refuses to give any answers – and believe me I don’t have any either!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Everybody Wants Some!!

Everybody Wants Some!! posterBack in 1993 Richard Linklater took a trip back to the world of his youth with Dazed and Confused, throwing the audience headlong into the world of a Texan high school in the mid-1970s and all the typical comings and goings that went along with it, delivered by an ensemble cast of relative unknowns.

Now, 23 years later, he’s taken us back to first days of college life in Texas in September 1980 with Everybody Wants Some!! a film that is, in almost every sense, a sequel to his earlier work.

The film opens on freshman Jake pulling up at his ‘new’ residence with The Knack’s My Sharona blasting from his stereo and, as he meets his new housemates/teammates, we are again thrown into this nostalgia drenched world of pure Americana.

Jake and his new friends are all baseball players, the stars of the college campus, and the plot, what there is of it, charts the freshman’s journey through the three days leading up to the new term. It’s a whirlwind of clichés from parties, discos and bars to one night stands, stoner philosophy and chance romantic encounters hinting at something deeper we’ve come to expect form American college comedy.

Everybody Wants Some - Jake (centre) with the team on a night out

Jake (centre) with the team on a night out

What sets it apart though is that, despite the cliché and stereotypes, Linklater and his young cast imbue the whole thing with a sense of reality and heart.

This isn’t American Pie, where it’s all slapstick and humour for the sake of it, but something more, with a sense that behind the ‘let the good times roll’ mentality, there is substance.

As the film goes on we see hints of the raw competitive nature present in this crowd of ‘jocks’ while the stoner philosophy gives way to something of an exploration of male youth identity.

Like its predecessor though what makes the film so enjoyable is that it never dwells on these subjects, it simply hints and suggests putting the idea in the viewers head before getting caught up in the next party, making it a perfect thumbnail sketch of youthfully exuberant college life.

Freshman hazing

Hazing the freshmen

Though I will admit there were a few moments earlier on where I thought it might go a bit too ‘laddish’ to use a more British expression – thankfully it never quite did.

The main cast, led by Blake Jenner as Jake, are all excellent and there is a real sense that we are watching a team, with the new freshmen being ‘guided’ by experienced sophomores into this exciting new world of not-quite-adulthood and damn any real consequences.

This seems to be something Linklater is particularly good at bringing out of his actors as while there is a nominal lead, the whole group are essential to the film and the team feeling comes across as part of both the actors and characters.

Everybody Wants SomeHighlights amongst them other than Jenner’s everyman are Glen Powell as Finn, a character in some ways akin to Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, and the almost surreal Jay Niles played by Juston Street who is a sight to behold.

You’ll notice the lack of female characters here and it is very true to say the film comes entirely from an alpha-male perspective but that is the story it is telling and the world it is set in so, for the most part, this didn’t bother me as much as I initially thought it might.

Certainly in some senses Everybody Wants Some!! is pretty superficial and it never quite hits the highs of Dazed and Confused for capturing something of a truly universal spirit.

Everybody Wants Some - Jake and Finn

Jake and Finn

Throughout though it is in turns genuine, funny and thought-provoking in a way few films manage to balance and all set to a great example of a mixtape soundtrack that spans everything from Cheap Trick and The Sugarhill Gang to Devo and Stiff Little Fingers before ending on a note that genuinely had me asking what happens for this team next or is this where the real world starts to catch up?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Resurrection of Jake the Snake

The Resurrection of Jake The Snake coverIn the late 1980s, while Hulk Hogan stood atop the world of professional wrestling, many other men less famous but (arguably) more hard-working formed the remainder of the ‘sports entertainment’ pyramid of the World Wrestling Federation.

One man who always stood out, captivating audiences with a sinister, quiet menace in the face of all the bluster and bombast, was Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts.

If you’ve seen Darren Aaronofsky’s film The Wrestler you’ll have an idea of part of the story of what happened to Roberts, the man born as Aurelian Smith, once his time in limelight faded as he was one of the inspirations for Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson.

Some of this decline was also documented, in allegedly sensationalised and unfairly represented form, in late 90s documentary Beyond The Mat.

The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, a crowdfunded project, acts as something of a sequel to that documentary as it picks things up in 2011/12 as Roberts made headlines on celebrity gossip site TMZ following a particularly tragic performance at an indie wrestling show that was videoed and shared online.

Jake The Snake Roberts and Diamond Dallas Page

Roberts and Page

From there, former wrestler and now life coach-cum-fitness guru, Diamond Dallas Page, who was mentored by Roberts early in his career, makes contact with The Snake and we follow their progress to the titular ‘resurrection’.

The film itself is fairly basically constructed with semi-talking head interviews with the protagonists and associates along with ‘fly on the wall’ footage ranging from yoga sessions to doctors visits to rather ‘reality tv’ level public confrontations which at times feel a little too invasive.

What this is does very well though is paint a picture of a man who, after a lifetime of abuse of varying descriptions, is finally beginning to overcome his own issues and learn about himself in a way he never had, while also shedding light onto the less glamourous side of the world of pro-wrestling that is rarely seen if all you watch is WWE sanctioned programming.

Diamond Dallas Page, Scott Hall, Jake Roberts and Steve Yu

Page, Scott Hall, Roberts and director Steve Yu

While the many moments of burly men crying and hugging could easily be ridiculous, much like the profession they all come from, there is a real heart and honesty present alongside an inspirational streak both in Page’s zeal and Robert’s struggles, both internal and external and his, eventual, overcoming them.

This gives us a great insight into the nature of addiction and overcoming it which is backed up by interviews with other wrestlers who’ve had similar problems such as ‘Goldust’ Dustin Runnels and the addition, half way through the film, of ‘Razor Ramon’ Scott Hall going through a similar situation to Roberts.

This all makes for a fascinating story, that, while it feels a little like an infomercial for Page’s DDP Yoga health system at times, is far more than the sum of its parts shedding light on the somewhat absurd world of professional wrestling and also issues around addiction that are frequently glossed over or not made in such an abrupt and impactful fashion.

Jake The Snake Roberts

The Snake in his late 1980s heyday

It also acts as a truly redemptive story for Roberts and Hall and triumphant tale for Page as, by April 2017, all three will be members of the WWE Hall of Fame which is, amongst other things, a sign of respectability for many former performers (despite what a few others have gone on to do since).

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Straight Outta Compton (Director’s Cut)

Straight Outta Compton posterAnyone who’s read through many of the articles and reviews here will probably have noticed that despite my fairly broad embracing of musical styles, hip hop is something that I have, over the years, struggled to appreciate (though I have to credit both Asylum Seekas and DJ Oneofakind for their help with what I do like), so, coming to Straight Outta Compton, a film chatting the history of ‘gangster rap’ originators N.W.A., I did wonder how well I would connect with it.

It wasn’t long into F. Gary Gray’s director’s cut edition of the film though that, whatever the style of music being created in the story, two things connected me with it deeply.

First is that this is a story about youthful rebellion, much like rock ‘n’ roll and punk in decades prior, though arguably these youths had a lot more to rebel against.

Secondly is that this yet another of that most cliché of cliché’s for Hollywood, The American Dream – so much so that there were a couple of points that had me comparing Straight Outta Compton to La La Land which also uses this as a framework for its musical action.

Starting off by introducing to our protagonists, the young men who would soon become N.W.A., and particularly Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the original Cube’s son), Gray drops us right into the heart of the action.

Eazy-E (Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Giamatti)

Eazy-E (Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Giamatti)

We meet ‘E’ in the midst of a drug deal as it goes wrong and the LAPD intervene with something resembling a tank – if that doesn’t set up just how extreme the situation of inner city Los Angeles was in the early 1980s then nothing will.

Dre’s situation is somewhat more sedate though still troubled as he is kicked of his mother’s house, dreaming of making music while missing out on steady work, and Cube’s introduction comes with a gang hold up on a school bus.

From there the plot is fairly well trodden, the group hit an artistic and commercial high before becoming embroiled with the kind of music industry stuff that seems to catch up with all successful musicians eventually.

As it goes on the troubles get more extreme and it all comes to a bittersweet conclusion, but with a sense of hope. I’m sure if you care that much you’ll already know the story but as I didn’t I won’t spoil it anymore than that.

N.W.A. have a run in with the police

The scene supposedly inspiring for ‘Fuck tha Police’

What really makes this all work and be so captivating for its near three hours is that, while it’s clear some elements are fictionalised, the whole thing has a ring of truth to it whether in a literal or artistic sense and the performances are all excellent and entirely convincing.

Part of this may be down to that fact that I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors (besides Paul Giamatti who seems born to play sleazy managerial types) so as the cast all physically resemble the people they are playing to a degree they are able to inhabit them without baggage.

That goes for the smaller roles too as we meet the likes of Snoop Dogg and, briefly, 2-Pac as the film goes on really helping to place this in the wider context of the musical scene of hip hop at the time.

Jackson Jr as Ice Cube

Jackson Jr as Ice Cube

The other thing that really works in the film’s favour is how it uses the music it is talking about.

From scenes in studios (ranging from bedrooms to high-end industry facilities) to a recreation of a national tour, the music is used as part of the narrative, not just a byproduct of it, giving the film the feeling of being something of a musical, albeit in an unconventional sense.

This is highlighted by a concert in Detroit where a riot is instigated as the local constabulary try to shut down the show as N.W.A. unleash the vicious, and massively appropriate, Fuck tha Police.

As the film winds down things get more emotional and again the performances come to the fore with a more grown up feel.

Hawkins as Dr. Dre

Hawkins as Dr. Dre

It all climaxes not only with the sense that we’ve watched the story of a musical group, but we’ve experienced along with them the journey of five young men from adolescence to adulthood through some hugely tumultuous times and experiences.

Added to that is the notion (quite rightly) that this all had a genuine effect not just on these five men but on culture, politics and life not just in Compton, but the USA and around the world making Straight Outta Compton at once personal and political while having a lot to say about the troubled ongoing, real world, narrative of The American Dream.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond posterBack when JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with the ingenious time twisting Star Trek back in 2009, adding a modern, action-adventure edge to the formula laid out by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s and developed through to the 1990s, it seemed the series had found a new life.

However following Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that while enjoyable was riddled with plot inconsistencies and riffed a little too much of the series stone cold classic The Wrath Of Kahn, it seemed it had all lost steam as Abrams headed off to breath new life into Star Wars with The Force Awakens.

With Justin Lin at the helm Star Trek Beyond hit cinemas in 2016 with somewhat less fanfare, dwarfed by ‘the other Star franchise’, and so catching it now at home my expectations were somewhat lower…

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Kirk (Pine), Jaylah (Boutella) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)

Interestingly for those of us who’ve followed the series for a long time, Beyond starts out three years into the Enterprise’s first five-year mission as Kirk and his crew are exploring the boundaries of the Federation.

Here they encounter a new alien aggressor with, as one would expect, a suitably weaponised maguffin to kick off the kind of action adventure we’ve come to expect.

As expected it is Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) who provide the main core of the film but even more so than previously the rest of the main crew are all part of the action, particularly Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) all having more pivotal roles. On top of this we meet new character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who fits in well with the established cast.

star trek beyond krall

Krall (Elba)

Scripted by Pegg and Doug Jung, Beyond is, for the most part, all fairly formulaic and never really does anything to break the mould of either the previous two films, or big budget blockbusters in general but for the most part is a fun romp. That said it relies a little too heavily on the action side for Star Trek which loses something of what makes the original series what it is.

On top of this it suffers from having an antagonist who never really feels properly threatening as, while Idris Elba’s Krall starts off looking fairly mean and nasty, it’s not long before he becomes somewhat ineffectual leading to a denouement strongly reminiscent of Into Darkness but I never had the sense that Kirk and co wouldn’t prevail.

bones and spock

Bones (Urban) and Spock (Quinto)

There are also moments that put this clearly post-Guardians of the Galaxy giving it an occasional ‘wacky’ tone that doesn’t really suit, including a fairly major and pivotal music cue.

Despite all this Star Trek Beyond was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and while it won’t stick in the memory like some of its forbears, it maintains some of their essence, but for a third film in a row the highlight is Quinto’s Spock.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

La La Land

La La Land posterGoing into a film that has just been nominated for a record equalling 14 academy awards sets up a certain expectation. But, along with a huge amount of positive hype there have been some opposers to La La Land, including stories of whole groups walking out of screenings.

Well, even as the strains to the spectacular opening number died away I was pretty sure what side I would fall on. The film sets its stall here as we enter Los Angeles into that most LA of things, a vast freeway traffic jam with a cacophony of car horns, engines and myriad radio stations before it coalesces into a spectacular song and dance number, including a jazz band in the back of a truck.

This serves the purpose of showing us that, while this looks like the real world, we are in the same kind of fantasy land that gave us the likes of Singin’ In The Rain and other classic ‘golden era’ Hollywood musicals, and so it goes from there.

The story at first looks like some thing fairly well trodden and hackneyed as we meet Emma Stone’s aspiring actress/current barista Mia and Ryan Gosling’s down at heel jazz pianist Sebastian, with a nice Pulp Fiction-esque bit of cinematic trickery.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone

The pair of course meet and, through a few cracking song and dance numbers, become romantically involved and it looks like we are heading for the happily ever after.

Where the film really wins in this regard though is that at any moment that it seems it’s all going to go ‘a bit too hollywood’ and saccharine it subverts expectations just enough but without derailing its overall upbeat feel.

Of course without the music a musical would be somewhat lost and what La La Land does is ingenious. It bases its musical ventures largely around Sebastian’s love of jazz leading to numbers that are great for spontaneous fantasy dancing, alongside more diegetic moments that help the balance of fantasy and reality.

La La Land

Mia and her housemates head out on the town

Despite this the singing and dancing, while well handled, isn’t the film’s highlight. Though both Stone and Gosling acquit themselves fairly well, particularly during emir courtship dance in the Hollywood Hills, it’s fair to say neither are Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds level – though it knows this enough to acknowledge its historical references.

Throughout it feels that the most accomplished dancer in La La Land is the camera as it glides and swoops through lengthy shots and takes both during the musical numbers and otherwise, finding a good balance between over showy camera work and giving the actors a chance to, well, act (often a rarity in mainstream films).

With a story about the downtrodden seeking success and fame in the entertainment industry La La Land is a movie custom-made for Hollywood to love and its classic representation of the American dream, with a slight twist, is refreshing in a world where that dream feels increasingly like it’s been hijacked for nefarious purposes.

John Legend and Ryan Gosling

John Legend and Ryan Gosling

It also manages to attain a feeling of joy I don’t remember seeing in a cinema in this way in a long time and does so in a way that feels like it has some real heart, as well as a point to make about artistic compromise and integrity, all while being startlingly uncynical without a bad bone in its body, making for a wonderful two hours of much-needed escapism.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,