View Post

Endless Night

Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

In 1909, American, Robert Peary, embarked on an Arctic expedition, and – after a momentary stop over to impregnate a fourteen-year-old Inuit – claimed to have reached the geographical North Pole for the first time. Whether Peary actually reached the Pole was and remains a fact of some contestation. Nevertheless, his life and works, particularly his imperialist treatment of the Inuit people, are dramatic enough to make for a compelling film.  Unfortunately, it isn’t this one. More Godot than Kurtz, Peary is the shadowy eminence whose fabled presence never materialises, not even for a cameo.

Rather, Endless Night entirely concerns his wife, Josephine Peary, played here by Juliette Binoche. Living in Greenland, Josephine grows tired of waiting for her husband to return, and so sets off on her own trek through the ice to find him, guided by Gabriel Byrne, egregiously cast as a native Sherpa. Naturally, the decision proves disastrous, and after losing Byrne to the auspices of nature, Josephine finds herself sequestered in an igloo for The Polar Winter with the Inuit girl, Allaka (Rinko Kikuchi), who is carrying Robert’s baby.

Endless Night is a terribly inconsistent film. It starts off like African Queen on the tundra, but Byrne is gone after thirty minutes, and it devolves quickly into an unhallowed mixture of Nanook Of The North meets She’s Having A Baby. While the decision to make a film about the explorer’s wife rather than the explorer may have seemed an interesting usurpation of roles on paper, there is not enough genuine substance in the characterisation, nor enough excitement in the film, to merit its existence. There are a few touching moments between Josephine and Allaka, but mostly it proves difficult to get past the tired stereotypes – the haughty, out of her depth society matron; the wise, tender native – and the clunky humanism which are supposed, but fail to, compensate for the actual lack of a story. Even the scenery proves undiverting, being as it is, made entirely of ice. Endless Night – despite its occasional rays of sunshine – is likely to leave you cold.

 
View Post

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Game, Home, Review Leave a Comment

As the credits rolled after the final mission of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a trophy notification pinged on screen. That trophy read, “Pacifist: you completed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided without killing a single soul. Bosses are people too.” I found myself suffused with a genuine sense of accomplishment. At the start of the game, I had decided to play non-lethally, using a combination of stealth, stun gun, hacking, and a tranquiliser rifle. After 30-something hours of tense, engaging gameplay, I had succeeded, and damn it feels good to be a cybernetically augmented Gandhi.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Set in 2029, after the shocking “Aug incident” – where augmented humans went berserk and started attacking everyone in sight – we find ourselves in a world where mankind is, you know, divided. The unaugmented humans are scared of “clanks” (the pejorative term used to describe augmented humans) and have segregated them into specific communities and camps. Naturally a large number of Augs are less than delighted with this indignity, and are becoming radicalised and ready to strike back. Society is a powder keg, and soon after Adam Jensen (the gravel-voiced, heavily augmented protagonist who inexplicably has retractable sunglasses bolted to his head) enters the story, the first spark is lit and a train station is destroyed in a shocking terrorist attack.

Jensen, an agent of Interpol who has friends and loyalties on both sides of the “mechanical apartheid”, now needs to find out who committed this latest atrocity and how to end the violence. Exactly how he does so is up to the player, but really the big two options seem to be lethally or non-lethally. Pleasingly, both options are a great deal of fun. Jensen comes equipped with the ability to briefly turn invisible, remotely hack into computers, turrets and CCTV cameras, shoot explosives, unleash blades hidden in his mechanical arms, and leap tall(ish) buildings in a single bound. He feels tough but never utterly overpowered, and players will have to think laterally if they want to triumph.

A screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

A screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

In terms of gameplay, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a lot of fun, once you get used to the initially confusing, slightly clunky, mechanics. The graphics are decent, if not spectacular, but the lighting, music and general mood of the piece is utterly engaging, particularly in the spectacular, Blade Runner-esque Golem City, a location just as evocative and intimidating as it sounds. The dialogue veers occasionally into silly territory, and some of the characters’ facial animation is a bit stiff; Jensen himself is animated like a bobblehead doll left on a dashboard, but the story will hook you. On that note, the story raises fascinating mysteries and concepts, but then ends before many of them can be resolved! This isn’t a deal breaker in a game dense with solid worldbuilding and genuinely significant side missions, but those looking for closure and a definitive answer will be disappointed.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided also comes with a new game mode, Breach, which is a more fast-paced, combat-focused hacking game that provides much-needed catharsis after you’ve been sneaking your way around air vents and storage closets.

Ultimately, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided feels more like a solid next chapter in the Human Evolution saga than a standalone experience. But when the chapters are this compelling and engaging, it’s hard to be salty about that fact. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start my second playthrough, and this time I’m going to rain bloody death on all who even look at me sideways.

 

 
View Post

REVIEW: Ben-Hur

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

With a brief prologue that explains how adopted brothers become deadly rivals, Ben-Hur begins with a tease of the notorious chariot race that forms the film’s exciting climax, and then melts into a tedious flashback that laboriously explains the preceding events. It’s a 95-minute slog before we return to the thrilling horse-drawn contest, and somehow those seven minutes of pure excitement just don’t feel like enough of a payoff.

Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) is a Jewish prince living a life of privilege with his family in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. After he is falsely accused of treason, he is sentenced to a life of slavery, enduring five years in the galley of a Roman slave ship until his escape during a sea battle. Meanwhile, his adopted brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell), ascends the ranks as an officer in the Roman army. The pair eventually face off during the grand chariot race spectacle.

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in Ben-Hur

Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman in Ben-Hur

A handsome carpenter with a sexy Brazilian accent pops up from time to time spouting revolutionary ideas such as, “God is love” and promising, “He has a path planned for you.” Rodrigo Santoro is suitably charismatic as Jesus, especially in his shaping of the destiny of Ben-Hur. Sporting grey “Predator-style” dreadlocks, Morgan Freeman is also good as the wise Sheik Ilderim, but the gambling deal that he presents to Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbæk), the governor who oversees the chariot race, is pure nonsense.

Russian filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, directs, but all his idiosyncratic appeal (seen in Night Watch and Wanted) seems to have been worn away by the producing team of Roma Downey and Mark Burnett (The Bible), rendering his film the cinematic equivalent of a bland, smooth pebble. Despite being heavily reliant on CGI special effects, plus random felled-driver point-of-view shots, the chariot race is chock full of thrills and spills. The gruesome pileups and ferocious battle makes for welcome drama. Post-race, the story shifts into an accelerated version of the tale of Christ, from his arrest at The Garden Of Gethsemane to his crucifixion. A handful of miracles bring the story to a close

A complete snore-fest and, thanks to its generic approach, utterly lacking in heart, this fifth film adaptation of the 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale Of The Christ, by Lew Wallace, feels entirely pointless for a 21st century age.

 
View Post

Green Room

Home, Review Leave a Comment

About 20 minutes into Green Room, the third film director from Jeremy Saulnier, a mosh pit is shot in slow motion; the vicious spitting and kicking to punk tunes is morphed into something calming and poetic. This is the quiet before the storm, and after this point, all bets are off.

Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, was a taut revenge thriller as beautiful as it was violent. He applies that same aesthetic here, when a young punk band agree to play at a right-wing club for some extra cash. Their idealistic roots are clearly in stark contrast to the patrons’ Nazi sympathies, but money is money. Unfortunately, when the band’s bassist, Pat (Anton Yelchin in one of his last roles before his passing), witnesses a murder, hospitality quickly sours, and the group are put under house arrest in the club’s green room, along with another witness, Amber (Imogen Poots).

For all its ferocity and intensity, Green Room is a controlled affair, as Saulnier uses the titular enclosure to stoke up the tension in preparation for the lynchpin that takes the film towards its brutal closing act. That lynchpin being Patrick Stewart as Darcy, the softly spoken owner of the club with the mind of a military strategist. Stewart is a stoic monster who plots to dispose of the band with the same casualness of someone remembering to put the recycling out. It’s a grand performance that contrasts sharply with the organised carnage that he unleashes. Special mention must also go to Macon Blair, a regular in the director’s films, who this time plays Darcy’s right-hand man, and manages to make a murdering racist almost sympathetic. Saulnier has created a worthy follow up to Blue Ruin that walks a fine line between mainstream cinema and exploitation. The moments of calm that he chooses to give us are merely opportunities to recuperate before he throws us to the dogs again.

 
View Post

Bastille Day

Home, Review 1 Comment

Bastille Day is the third film from British director, James Watkins (Eden Lake), and it received a fair amount of press attention after its 2015 release was delayed due to the Paris terrorist attacks, before being pulled altogether in France after the tragic events on Bastille Day earlier this year.

It will be unsurprising when you hear about the film’s content, which sees CIA agent, Sean Brier (Idris Elba), reluctantly joining forces with conman-turned-terrorist suspect, Michael Mason (Richard Madden), to track down the real culprits of a bomb blast in Paris. On paper, it sounds like a political hot potato, but isolated from the events of the last two years, Bastille Day is a run-of-the-mill thriller. Yes, it tips its hat toward French nationalism and racial profiling, but never to the extent that it feels like Watkins is trying to say anything profound. He’s merely reaching out for low hanging fruit – social network activism, corrupt politicians – in order to service the plot.

Bastille Day’s issue is that it never quite finds the sweet spot between the buddy comedy that it could have been, and the action movie that it desperately craves to be. Madden and Elba are given numerous situations that allow the pair to bounce off each other trading quips, all of which are delivered flatly in dubious American accents. It’s not entirely their fault, as the screenplay, co-written by Watkins, never gives either actor anything to sink their teeth into. The CIA operative is grumpy, whilst the con artist is sassy. That, unfortunately, is as much character development as you’re going to get. But there are still moments of enjoyment to be taken away from Bastille Day, including an energetic chase across the Parisian rooftops, where the character’s apparent Parkour skills are used to great effect.

 
View Post

Pele: Birth Of A Legend

Home, Review Leave a Comment

Pelé: Birth Of A Legend pretty much lives by its title, being that it charts the formative years of Edson Arantes do Nascimento (aka the titular Pelé) from his impoverished childhood through to playing in the Brazil v Sweden World Cup Final. Considering his contribution to the “beautiful game”, and how lauded he is as an athlete, it’s surprising that Pelé hasn’t been given the biopic treatment before. And taking on board what we’re given in this film, produced by the man himself, there’s probably a better way to pay tribute.

There’s nothing particularly offensive about Pelé: Birth Of A Legend; it just plays everything extremely safe and by the numbers. Written and directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, the film has the unenviable task of all biopics: boiling a person’s life down to a series of key moments. Unfortunately, here it feels like just that: a series of key events with no narrative flow. Like Mary McGuckian’s Best, which set its sights on George Best, it never really gets under the skin of its subject. Pelé plays with his friends, he gets discovered, and he wins the world cup…it’s a cinematic checklist.

The scenes of football themselves, though, are extremely enjoyable. Take the opening credits that show young Pelé and his friends running around their hometown, with a makeshift football bouncing between them, displaying incredible skill. The rest of the film engages as well as these scenes, even when it tries to add some weight by tying the narrative of Pelé’s life into that of Brazil’s identity in the world. “You’re the spokesperson for our nation,” Pelé (Kevin De Paula) is told at one point by his manager (Vincent D’Onofrio). It’s the kind of obvious dialogue that does the film’s intent a disservice. No one is asking for a warts and all biopic of the man, but equally we don’t just want the legend.

 
View Post

Forsaken

Home, Review Leave a Comment

With superhero movies filling our cinema screens seemingly monthly, it’s sobering to remember that the western was once the big daddy of the silver screen. With the likes of last year’s The Hateful Eight and the upcoming remake of The Magnificent Seven lighting up the screen, there could even be a resurgence. For now, whilst the genre doesn’t ride into town nearly as much as it used to, it’s always willing to show its face once in a while.

Take, for example, Forsaken, from director, Jon Cassar, and starring father-son combo, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland. Kiefer plays retired gunslinger, John Clayton, who returns to the roost to make amends with his father, Reverend William. Things don’t get off to an auspicious start, with William not only disapproving of his son’s former lifestyle, but also brooding that he missed his mother’s passing.

The Sutherlands have, surprisingly, never actually substantially shared a scene together, so those of you who have been waiting a long time for this scenario will be pleased as punch to see the two bumping heads over many an issue. Particularly the issue of how to deal with ruthless “businessman”, McCrudy (Brian Cox), who is using the services of a slick gunslinger (Michael Wincott) to frighten the townsfolk from their homes so he can sell the land off. Demi Moore also makes an appearance as a former lover of John’s wishing to reconnect.

And whilst the script cashes in on one too many clichés, it never does so in the manner of a wink to the camera. Instead Forsaken is a sombre, slow affair that allows its two leads to wrestle with emotions rather than just reaching for the six-shooters. Its discussions of conscience, forgiveness, and male pride paint the dusty landscape instead of blood. So much so, that when shots are fired in the finale, it’s almost a disappointment.

 
View Post

Slumlord

Home, Review Leave a Comment

It’s probably fair to say that Slumlord, the directorial debut of Victor Zarcoff, will do nothing for future landlord/tenant relations. Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and Ryan (PJ McCabe) are a seemingly perfect couple moving into their new apartment and expecting their first child. But everything, straight from the get go, is not as it seems. Ryan is a manipulative, emotional abuser who is also sleeping with his assistant, leaving Claire alone most evenings. There’s enough there already for a kitchen sink drama, but Zarcoff throws in the volatile variable of Gerald, the “happy” couple’s landlord.

Played by Neville Archambault, Gerald is a well-built but greasy looking homunculus who has numerous cameras installed in his tenants’ apartment, which he views from the comfort of his presumably rather smelly bedroom. When he bears witness to Ray’s infidelities, Gerald decides to intervene. Archambault truly lives inside this grotty man: he’s largely wordless, twitchy, and reminiscent of Laurence R. Harvey’s turn in Human Centipede 2.

Outside of this standout performance, Slumlord never quite sticks its landing. A large part of the problem stems from a leap of faith that’s asked of you with regards to Gerald committing atrocities within the spare room of the couple’s apartment that only he has a key for. Parents of young musicians often sing the praises of dependable sound insulation, but Slumlord takes it to the extreme. And even if Claire and Ryan are caught up in their own relationship issues, it’s hard to swallow the possibility that they wouldn’t at least raise a query with their landlord about the strange muffled noises that they hear in their own home. If you’re willing to push that to the back of your mind, then the film at least manages to be a solid enough home invasion flick.

 
View Post

REVIEW: War Dogs

Review, Theatrical Leave a Comment

Between Suicide Squad and now War Dogs, 2016 is officially The Year of the Obvious Needle Drop, with both soundtracks packed to the gills with instantly recognisable classic tracks. But whereas SS‘s soundscape is another symptom of Warners playing desperate catch-up with Marvel following the surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s schmaltz-tastic tunes, writer and director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) is mining a deeper vein here: War Dogs is his Scorsese picture, although never quite as bold or smart as the Old Master. This is Goodfellas with Gun Runners, right down to the use of a classic ’70s groove over a plot-wrapping montage (although it’s The Who’s Behind Blue Eyes rather than Derek and the Dominos’ Layla).

Based on the Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson, War Dogs is the true-ish story of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two free-wheeling Miami stoner dudes who make a splash in the world of international arms trading thanks to the Pentagon’s policy of offering up all its contracts for tender on a public website. By canny wheeling and dealing, plus always undercutting their competition, it isn’t long before the pair are bidding for bigger and bigger contracts, culminating in a multi-million dollar deal to outfit the Afghani Army with a vast armory. Of course, as the numbers increase, so does the danger, as they come into the orbit of truly dangerous international criminals, such as Bradley Cooper’s Henry Girard, an upper echelon arms merchant who wants to use them as a cut-out to sell illegal Chinese munitions to the US.

War Dogs is a rise-and-fall narrative, and while it’s genuinely shocking to see the scale of the military-industrial complex from the actual shop floor, there’s not nearly as much condemnation as you might expect. It could be that Phillips expects his audience to be au fait with the cost of war and business after a couple of decades of the 24 hour news cycle, but that still means that any moral objection to our boys’ dabbling in the arms market comes from David’s babymama, Iz (Ana de Armas), who is presented as more an obstacle to fun and profit than any kind of voice of reason. The film goes out of its way to portray David as a good guy who gets caught up in something bigger and darker than him – he’s just a guy who wants to provide for his family – but never condemns him for the end result of his actions which is, let’s face it, a lot of filled body bags. The whole enterprise is too much fun for that kind of introspection.

Efraim Diveroli, on the other hand, is a villain – not because he’s a war profiteer, but because he’s a greedy, untrustworthy slob who can – and does – sell out his best mate if there’s a buck in it. Hill is absolutely fantastic in the role; his (pretty far from actuality, by the way) Efraim is a morbidly obese, sweaty, unctuous, graceless, pig of a man, a figure of pure id, always indulging in food, drugs, booze, sex. He’s an avatar of greed, but the film only condemns him when his flaws impinge upon his personal relationships – there is no societal standard to which he’s held.

And that is, perhaps, the point. Todd Phillips is a cynical guy – you can’t make three Hangover movies without a degree of misanthropy – and it could be that a society which condones mass carnage for profit holds no mores worth adhering to, and so only personal transgressions – the breaching of the Bro Code – matter in the end. This might go sailing over the heads of the target demographic, though, who are having too much fun with Jonah and Miles firing off machine guns and running Berettas into Iraq to notice the subtext – it’s Truffaut’s axiom in action.

 
View Post

REVIEW: Kubo And The Two Strings

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Laika Studios, the stop-motion animation company owned by Nike co-founder, Phil Knight, hasn’t really put a foot wrong. From Coraline to The Boxtrolls, their stop motion work has become synonymous with marrying darkness with a great deal of heart. Although all of their films are stop motion animations, they are also each distinct, be it with the suburban American ghouls of ParaNorman or the macabre Dickensian world of The Boxtrolls. Unlike Aardman, every new Laika production is anything but familiar. And with Kubo And The Two Strings, they have created their first masterpiece.

The film starts with an expressionistic scene of a mother sailing the choppy seas with her newborn boy, Kubo. We soon see Kubo (voiced by Game Of Thrones’ Art Parkinson) as a young boy, living Grinch-like away from town and possessing powers that allow him to play a shamisen (a Japanese banjo-like stringed instrument), which turns paper into life-size origami. He’s also a storyteller, earning whatever money he can by busking in the local village. Warned to never stay out after dark, Kubo breaks his curfew, and the darkness of the world forces him on a journey to uncover the secrets of his family, assisted by a talking monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey).

Wac_FilmInc_C27QHD_TOPBANNER_1040x90

The above description is generalist and obtuse for a reason, and that is because this is the kind of wonderful movie experience that needs to be taken in with fresh eyes. There are, of course, elements influenced by Miyazaki, Kurosawa and Japanese spirituality and culture, but in the hands of Travis Knight, it is made accessible to all. Ultimately, this is the most original creation from an American studio that you will have seen in the past five years. Its flights of creativity are not hindered by pre-existing knowledge or genres or shared universes; the only touchstone that could be brought up is the effect of watching The Wizard Of Oz for the very first time.

First time director, Travis Knight, has been working behind the scenes at Laika since its inception, and you can probably guess that he’s the company owner’s son. Nepotism aside, perhaps that is the reason that this film is so free with its creativity – it’s like the usual studio restrictions and executive notes did not apply here. There are parts of Kubo And The Two Strings (including its cryptic and open-to-interpretation title) that happen so organically, without any explanation, that it’s a joy to behold for modern audiences who are so used to spoonfeeding. And this, in a family film!

Like last year’s Inside Out, it seems that it is in animation that we are seeing today’s cinematic storytelling groundbreakers. Kubo And The Two Strings melds stop motion animation with the latest CGI; and Asian mythology with American artistry, and the result is the first, and potentially last, great movie of 2016. And parents, please don’t be put off by some of the highfalutin influences and dark themes at play here; open your mind with this film for the ages.

FILMINK_EDM_600X150_NOW