Archive for March, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

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Here’s a wild thought – Bill Condon’s remake of Disney’s animated classic, that arrives complete with songs, talking candelabra, clock and tea pot, not to mention a mo-capped Beast (Dan Stevens) as well as Belle (Emma Watson) in the expected attire, is a parable about Donald Trump’s America. Wait, come back! Condon devotes a good portion of the film to the Beast’s enchanted castle, surrounded by perpetual winter and occupied by all manner of eccentric characters, but equal attention is paid to the ‘provincial town’ where Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) reside. The villagers are a varied bunch, but share narrow beliefs and easily thralled by Gaston (Luke Evans), a charismatic local celebrity with great force of personality, who is self-centred and conceited, contemptuous of women and expects everyone to adulate him. Sound familiar? More tellingly, the villagers are easily swayed by Gaston’s charisma to (spoiler alert) go after someone different. The Beast is the most obvious example, but Belle herself is a social pariah while Gaston easily convinces the townsfolk that Maurice is mad, while the minor yet significant character Agatha (Hattie Morahan) is similarly ostracised for not adhering to social mores that Gaston exploits and epitomises. And yet it is these different people, those who are ‘Other’, that display the humane qualities of empathy, kindness and compassion. While the overall story arc is of course about love, a central conceit of not judging by appearances and instead accepting and embracing difference pervades the film. Beauty and the Beast therefore continues Disney’s progressive streak that includes Zootopia and Queen of Katwe. Long may the House of Mouse continue this open door policy.

Kong: Skull Island

 

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Sometimes the most unexpected aspects of a film are the most enjoyable. In the case of Kong: Skull Island, which I enjoyed for multiple reasons, the most delightful aspect was the film’s relation to another film, a relation that is far from accidental and makes KSI an expansion of an established cinematic universe. The question therefore is whether Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film works on its own or if spends too much time being referential. The answer is most assuredly the former, as Vogt-Roberts crafts an immersive thrill ride with a motley crew of adventurers journeying to the titular island, only to find more than they bargained for. This crew are diverse in terms of gender, race and personality, with tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), disgruntled US army colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and visionary Bill Randa (John Goodman), who provides the main link to another film, as well as various other characters that have just enough background to make them more than faceless beast fodder. The 1973 setting, during the US withdrawal from Vietnam, establishes a conceit of humans’ non-superiority in relation to nature. The film explores this premise as several of the characters develop a new appreciation of the environment and their relationship with it. The most important aspect of this is of course Kong himself (played in performance capture by Toby Kebbell, who also plays soldier Jack Chapman), a massive presence who looms over the film even when off screen. Unlike other versions of the big ape, KSI does not overplay a Beauty and the Beast angle, as Weaver is far more capable than Ann Darrow and Kong remains unequivocally wild. This wild otherness gives the film its engrossing atmosphere, which is enhanced by other creatures and never lets up, Vogt-Roberts’ dynamic visual style conveying the thrills and spills of our heroes. With a post-credits scene setting up future developments, this is one island I’ll be keen to revisit.

Logan

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X marks the spot and, by all accounts, the end. James Mangold’s Logan concludes Hugh Jackman’s seventeen years playing the Wolverine, and it serves as a fitting finale to the hirsute one’s cinematic adventures. Shot through with bitterness, regret and melancholia, Mangold’s film in a bold, mature character study that balances pathos and dark wit with more grounded and gritty action sequences than we have seen previously in this franchise. Dispensing with world-shattering events, Logan follows the eponymous mutant along with fellow long-term player Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, and newcomer Laura (Dafne Keen), as they attempt to escape from armed men working for a mysterious company. There is little in the way of super-powered battles, as the action consists of physical fracas of fists, feet and claws, as well as bullets and bombs. The adult rating is well deserved as F-bombs and claret fly with wild abandon, and the bloodletting especially demonstrates how sanitised the earlier X-Men films were. Here, limbs are severed, heads are pierced, bodies erupt and blister. The violence is far from gratuitous, however, as pain and injury is not restricted to the faceless adversaries of our heroes. Logan is at his most vulnerable, bearing scars and wounds, coughing throughout the film and easing his pain with a near-constant flow of alcohol. Charles is worse, suffering from a degenerative disease that causes telepathic seizures. Both men are also deeply troubled by their pasts, some of which we know from previous films but others are only referred to in passing. The fruity language is integral to this burnt-out masculinity, since Logan and Charles have largely given up caring. Mangold maintains the conceit of world-weariness throughout the film, with a measured visual style that often captures the characters in wide shots of the unsympathetic landscape, making the film more like a western than a standard superhero movie (although the Shane references are a bit too neat). Perhaps most bleakly, there is little sense of redemption in the film, as animosity and prejudice remain prevalent, but crucially are not located in any single evildoer. The X-Men series has always been interested in prejudice and difference, but this was simply reiterated in recent entries. Logan reinforces that prejudice and fear of the different are systemic issues deeply imbricated in society, despite supposed progress. This makes Logan not only a fitting farewell to a beloved character, but a highlighting of contemporary issues that demand attention and the effort for change.

The Great Wall

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From a symbol of division comes a tale of unity. This is the thesis of The Great Wall, a co-Chinese-American production that takes one of the world’s great monuments and places it at the centre of a story of disparate people coming together. Zhang Yimou’s bombastic bundle of brash bombardment and balletic battle brings western mercenaries William (Matt Damon, experimenting with a variety of accents) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) to ancient imperial China in search of legendary black (gun) powder. They find the Great Wall garrisoned by the Order of the Nameless One and defending China against the TaoTei, an alien race of monstrous beasts that resemble a cross between a lion and a crocodile. Rapidly drawn into the battle, William and Tovar lend their expertise to those of General Shao (Hanoi Zhang), Strategist Wang (Andy Lau) and Commander Lin (Tian Jing). The film does a decent job of integrating these outsiders into an environment that is both alien yet familiar, and just about avoids the white saviour narrative by making the Chinese characters detailed and not sidelined in favour of the Westerners. Although the action sequences of soldiers VS Tao Tei are stylistically fluid and visually arresting, the film lacks an epic scale or sense of awe, which is surprising considering Zhang’s back catalogue that includes Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Aerial shots of the Wall and surrounding landscape are all too brief, and the combat scenes either take place in long shot or extreme close-up with rapid editing, leaving little time to appreciate the at times breathtaking choreography. While there is spectacle to be enjoyed, the film’s ending is confused and the viewer may be left wanting more. The Great Wall is enjoyable enough, but perhaps ironically lacks real weight.

Patriots Day

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A real life tragedy is a delicate subject to put on screen, especially one that features the incendiary topic of terrorism. Peter Berg largely strikes the necessary tone throughout Patriots Day, a dramatisation of the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. The film expresses the horror of the situation without overplaying a sense of patriotism, nor being exploitative of the bomb victims. Berg’s great strength is his combination of CCTV, news and cell phone footage with standard cinematic techniques. Aerial shots of Boston provide the broad scale of the story, while shaky cam coverage places the viewer within the events. This blend of visual styles is especially effective in the immediate aftermath of the blasts as it conveys the chaos of a terrorist attack. Subsequent gun battles between the police and the bombers are similarly gripping, the viewer placed at an uncomfortable proximity to genuinely frightening violence. These sequences present the various unconnected figures involved in the marathon and the manhunt for the perpetrators, who are thankfully not presented as raving psychotics but as little men wanting glory. Scenes featuring bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze), as well as victims Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan), Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) and Sean Collier (Jake Picking), as well as other people involved in the events demonstrate the randomness and indiscriminate nature of the attacks and their aftermath. The film’s weaker sections are those of coherence, as it slides into generic thriller territory closely connected to the professional redemption of Mark Wahlberg’s fictional cop Tommy Saunders. When Saunders interacts with the individuals actually involved in the attack and subsequent investigation – including police commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach) and special FBI agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) – the film’s coherence sits unevenly with the chaos of the blasts and disparate nature of the investigation. Overall Patriots Day is uneven, but its blending of different types of footage is effective and Berg is to be applauded for avoiding simplistic flag-waving.