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Film Review: Logan

So: Logan
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Wolverine character, not because of Jackman but because most of the X-men films were little more than Wolverine and his cheerleaders. I’ve only seen the first of his of his stand lone films and on the strength of it didn’t bother with the rest. So I went in with expectations low.
I came out impressed.
Jackman and Steward were handed a cracking script which is both dark and deep, with the relationship between the aging Logan and elderly Xavier showed in a way that’s both sensitive and convincing. It shows both the indignity of old age as well as both the love and resentment the can build up between the aged and their carer.
On the action front, Logan is vastly more brutal than any of the previous films and make very clear that when dealing with a man who has knives in his hands, things are going to get… splashy.
Frankly this is the last Wolverine film the world needs. Granted it won’t be, even if Jackman doesn’t do any more they’ll eventually re-cast the role but it would be nice to leave it for at least a decade.

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Film Review – Rogue One – spoiler free

I didn’t go into this one with high expectations, actually that’s a bit of a lie – my expectations were limbo pole low. This is mainly because I though The Force Awakens was a banquet of mediocrity written by an accountant who measured the worthiness of each line according how much merchandising it was estimated it would generate, so I really expected more of the same from Rogue One.

So let us cut to the chase is Rogue One good? Yes

Is Rogue One great? No.

Now in the name of full disclosure I’ll say this: I love the original Star Wars films. They were a huge part of my childhood, I got the a Millennium Falcon toy for Christmas one year – my late Grandfather apparently searched most of Belfast for. I know that I look at the originals through full on rose tinted glasses. The prequels on the other hand the glasses came off and I gave up on them after the second film. The old Expanded Universe I never got into so I am mostly ignorant of what it covered.

The very short summary is that this is the tale of how the rebellion found out about the Death Star and how the data plans reached Princess Leia at very the start of New Hope.

Now in my own opinion where Star Wars films have been weak is the sense that this is a galactic level civilization stretching across tens of thousands of worlds where everything of importance revolves around the same half dozen or so people. By having such an extreme focus on the Jedi and the Skywalker clan, a setting of thousands of worlds ended up being boiled down to a collection of people could fit into a single room. Rogue One redresses this, certainly there are some familiar faces but they are supporting acts. In fact the world building as a whole is where Rogue One really shines, with the Star Wars universe coming out this film a good deal richer than it went it. The whole worlds looks more grubby and lived in. In particular I think it is worth mentioning the politics. There is somewhere between five and ten minutes of dialogue spread across the entire film covering political matters, it gives us an Alliance that is shown to be a good deal more tenuous than seen before while the Empire is still having to step with some care around the Galactic Senate. In short it has done something very impressive – it has managed to fill in some of the logic gaps of the first film and dovetail in very smoothly.

The other thing that I think worth noting is the character of Jyn played by Felicity Jones, she is the first leading Star Wars character who isn’t hyper competent. Luke Skywalker flew the setting’s equivalent to a high performance fighter with no training while the Force Awaken’s Rey demonstrates similar levels of hyper competence. Here there are pauses when characters of faced with new equipment and situations which makes them a good deal more human and relatable.

That said there are negatives and without heading into spoiler territory there is a limit to what I can say about them. The opening twenty minutes is very choppy. The cameos were a bit of a mixed bag. Some were good, some not so good due to limits of technology, only one was a complete waste of six seconds. More seriously character arcs as the film went along became increasingly predictable and there were one or two gaps in the internal logic, including one of my bugbears – irresponsible use of FTL.

Overall I view Rogue One as a positive viewing experience both as a single film and for the franchise as a whole. A bit of life has been breathed into a franchise that has been sleepwalking for thirty years and hopefully we can hope to see more of this setting without the stupefying shadow of the Jedi.

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Ghostbusters (2016)

Somewhat belated but I haven’t done a film review in an age.

So, Ghostbusters. Not bad, reasonably good even. Made nods to the original but was still its own story with its own characters and challenges. Leslie Jones’s character seemed to me the weakest of the four, with a bit too much of the stereotypical ‘black and sassy’ and not enough blue collar local historian. Kate McKinnon didn’t get the best lines but certainly the most memorable as a full on mad scientist in the I-was-going-to-make-ghost-catching-device-but-then-got-hungry-and-ended-up-with-a-nuclear-powered-nutcracker sense. The weakest part though by far was the villain of the piece. I’d say the scriptwriters were taking a pop at the various man-babies who’ve been screaming into their keyboards ever since it was announced that the Ghostbusters re-boot was going to be ovaries heavy. Problem being he didn’t really convince as someone who could be a threat to anyone outside of twitter.

Still I went in with low, really low expectations and surprisingly came out happy.

Oh and whoever made the trailer, quit, you’re supposed to make the film look good!

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So… The Martian

Okay first off the Martian was my personal book of the year. Secondly I went in to this film with low expectations, really low expectations. After Gladiator Ridley Scott films started to go downhill and by Prometheus it was starting to feel like a power-dive with afterburners. Also in the main role I had doubts about Matt Damon. He isn’t a bad actor but what I mostly associate him with is the Bourne films it a role where the character wasn’t the most expressive. But let us start with the obvious question, is it faithful to the book? Yes, incredibly so, in fact it’s probably one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen. Not the most faithful, that title goes to Ender’s Game, but with one difference. The Martian is a good film.

What the two books have in common is that the meat of the story is first person, so much of the books is about what is going on in the head of the main character as events happen. It’s something that book can handle fairly easily but film or television – because they are almost inherently third person – struggle with. The Martian works around this via Mark Watney (Matt Damon) addressing the camera directly via video logs and in doing to give us a sense of the man.

Yes there are differences but overwhelmingly they take the form of omissions rather changes. These are understandable and justifiable as this film clocks in at over two hours and frankly it’s a busy film. Coming away from the film I was left with the impression that this book ended up in the hands of people who got what it was about – where science and human drive can take us. I would say one slight problem is that for anyone who has read the book, the sheer faithfulness does mean that it’s harder to get a sense of tension but that might just be me. If you’re wondering which is better, the book or the film, for my money the book, as I said the book has been trimmed to make the run time reasonable, so the book simply has more room to breath.

One thing that I think is also worth noting is the question of women and minorities, this film is pretty good in that regards (although no black women is speaking roles that I can remember) in that we have both women and men who are not white in plot relevant roles. The book, with its female characters and characters with sufficiently un-Anglo Saxon names  undoubtedly helped but even ten years ago I suspect the likes of Chastain would have found herself playing a love interest as opposed to a spaceship commander, but perhaps I am being cynical.

So in summary, one worth watching and then if you haven’t read the book, move on to that.

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So… Inside Out

WARNING: probably spoilers ahead.

It was a cinema heavy weekend for me with Pixar’s newest entry Inside Out opening the weekend’s viewing. The film main character is Joy, the lead emotion for an eleven year old girl called Riley, whose life has been turned upside down when she and her family move to San Francisco, the stress of which has brought Sadness to the fore. When Joy and Sadness are accidentally swept into the outreaches of Riley’s mind, the only emotions remaining in Headquarters are Anger, Fear and Disgust.

Okay let us not beat around the bush, is it good? Yes. Is it very good? Yes. Is it great? Hmm… for my money, close but no cigar.

It’s likely been said before and undoubtedly will be said again a large part of Pixar’s success come from the fact that they don’t really make children’s films, they make films children can enjoy. I was at an early evening showing, with the about three quarters of the seats and children were pretty few and far between. At its heart Inside Out is a film about growing up and the search for emotional balance that come with it.

As the voice of Joy it falls to Amy Poehier to do the heavy lifting and she proves equal to the task. She manages to get across the endlessly upbeat attitude and the sometime difficult relationship with the other emotions, in particular with Sadness, where there is definitely more than a hint of suppressed urge to aim a kick. Joy means the best but suffers the flaw that she is bit of a control freak who really wants things to stay the way they are.

One thing that I thought was interesting and quite admirable was that Riley was a girl. With one or two small changes to the script the character could have just as easily been a boy. Her passion for ice hockey and the fact that she is good at it is a major part of her character and at no point is anything made of this. By that I mean nothing is said or implied that this is in anyway unusual. I think not that long ago a point would have been made that she was good at hockey despite being girl and I think that is a positive change.

During their journey through Riley’s mind Joy see parts of the child she was and adult she will become, which I think nicely shows how all of us are in state of transition from the person we were to the one we will be. I mentioned earlier the search for emotional balance is a central theme, the phrase that closes so many classic stories is: They Lived Happily Ever After; Inside Out shows how a person dominated by a ‘positive’ emotion like Joy, would be as much an emotional cripple as one controlled by say Anger because quiet simply, there will be times when negative emotions gets things done.

The visuals are up Pixar’s usual high standards, bright, clear but by how we’re come to expect this and indeed it would be shocking if the visuals weren’t effective. One visual idea which I liked was that the emotions control panel changes and is upgraded as Riley ages, the first one being a single button (cry or don’t cry) while at the close they have a new and extended panel (what’s this button marked puberty? I don’t know, I’m sure its not important). So why then do I not think this should go down as great?

Well I’m still pondering that one myself. I think because this is a film which I think an adult will get more from than a child. Perhaps I’m wrong, I don’t have a child to ask but just don’t think this is quite the stuff of classics.

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So… Tomorrowland

Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.

SPOILERS NOT SO MUCH POSSIBLE AS PROBABLE

Tomorrowland, a film about… well actually a lot of things. To cut to the chase it’s an interesting film but in my opinion not an entirely successful one. The film opens at the 1964 World’s Fair with Frank Walker (Clooney) explaining how as a young boy and with the assistance of a girl called Athena he found his way into an amazingly futuristic city, existing outside of our world, called Tomorrowland. The city is the incarnation of every positive vision of the future, where all the imagined future technologies of the nineteen sixties  (rocket packs, robots etc) are a reality. The narrative then shifts to the present day and now the optimism of Tomorrowland is completely absent and we’re introduced to Casey Newton (Robertson), the daughter of a NASA engineer, who is actively attempting to sabotage to demolition of a rocket launch pad. After a brush with the law, Newton finds herself in possession a badge which grants visions of an amazing city; via a now grown up Walker and a still young Athena she attempts to find her way back.

Apparently Tomorrowland has done badly which is a pity but I can understand why. It is a film that no shortage of ideas, what it doesn’t seem to have is focus. Despite the title, only a modest portion of the film is actually spent in the city. The majority of the action takes place in our world, with the heroes chased by a robot execution squad determined to stop them. A long the way and in the most drawn out fashion possible we find out that the end of the world is nigh – for reasons that are never specified. Only by getting to Tomorrowland can this – somehow – be prevented.

During the course of chase we’re told repeatedly that Newton is Special, that she has a score on some kind of intelligence scale that is amazingly high. But in course of the story she doesn’t demonstrate this, she isn’t stupid by any means (although she seems to be slow on the uptake a few times) and it isn’t a failure of the actress. Her only consistently special trait is optimism which frankly seems thin. It’s only in the third act that she suddenly grasps that the time viewer by which the impending apocalypses was detected is causing a self fulfilling prophecy.  Since her credentials as a genius or saviour have not been established this feels incredibly pulled out of thin air.  Frankly she’s only just arrived in Tomorrowland, she should still be trying to figure out how the three seashells in the bathroom work.

When they do finally reach Tomorrowland, there’s no sense of wonder or even consistency. The robots in our world have summarily murdered anyone who might find out about Tomorrowland but when the heroes finally reach the city, the head of the city David Nix (Hugh Laurie) is actually quiet civil. It’s a jarring contrast without any apparent reason (seriously in the middle act one American town had half it police force wiped out). He attempts to persuade them tat the situation is futile before sending them back to live out their last few days. Tomorrowland itself is really an empty shell, we only see about three people, thus we get no sense that it is a living breathing community.

There no doubt that when the film finally gets to the city, things do get really preachy on Green topics which anyways seems to wind some people up. This is a line from Nix

 You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation, explain that one. Bees butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s a possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality.

I’m not sure whether this was intended but Nix represents actually one of the most interesting parts of the film in that he ends up representing both extremes of the environmental question. As you can see from the line above we have all the environmental buzz words. But what I find interesting is that also highlights the weakness in the green lobby. A rigidity of ideology that matches the politicians and industrialist Nix speaks scornfully of, it is his way or no way. The constant doom-mongering he offers results in people either switching off or viewing it as unavoidable. Also he isn’t prepared to countenance letting people into Tomorrowland, a very ‘I’m alright jack attitude’.

Lets finish with some positives though. Raffey Cassidy as Athena was really impressive. In many respects she was playing the Obi-Wan Kenobi type character, a role usually reserved for an old guy but proves equal to a role that was probably the most challenging in the film as she flicks between childish to adult very convincingly. The relationship between her character – a pre pubescent girl and Clooney’s character – a man looking at middle age in the rear view mirror – could have come across as incredibly creepy. This they manage to avoid this just about.

So the bottom line is that Tomorrowland is not a good film. There are some interesting ideas, some go performances but really, it’s hamstrung with a poor script.

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So… Mad Max: Fury Road.

In broad terms I think there are two kinds of films: those that get better on further reflection and those that get worse. Fury Road is one that falls into the first category. At first glance it is THE FILM WITH NO PLOT, basically one long chase sequence with anything resembling character development sacrificed to yet another car explosion.
However on reflection it is a film with a surprising number of layers. The first and probably the most noticeable is just how much agency the female characters have, in fact that rather understates it. Charlize Theron character’s – Imperator Furiosa – makes at least ninety percent of the running. The plan to rescue the five wives of the despot is her plan and by the time she meets Max she’s successfully pulled off the first stage of the plan. Max is virtually a supporting character; I have to wonder whether this film started life as a ‘Furiosa’ film with Mad Max only tacked on when a Hollywood suit realised they were in danger of making an original film and panicked.
Even the secondary female roles make significant contributions as willing human shields that their attackers can’t simply shoot through. Considering in most of the films I watch the female characters are the trophy that is awarded to the hero at the conclusion, usually without an acknowledgement that even conceivably she could have an option on the matter. A strange thing to find in a film that appears to be this years biggest dumbest film.
Another layer can be found in the form of Nicholas Hoult’s Warboy character, who gives us an examination of how individuals can be persuaded to sacrifice their own interests to a charismatic leader who controls through both means of production and religion.
In more general terms the visuals are impressive with physical effects front and centre. CGI I presume was used for some shots only because I haven’t heard anything about Charlize Theron having her arm amputated. I saw it in 3D and I remain unconvinced it is worth the effort or the gimmicky shots that it seems to bring to a film.
This isn’t an good film, its an okay film. Had they ditched the Mad Max character completely and spent the time on developing Imperator Furiosa, her history, her motivations and fleshing out the world she lives in, then perhaps it could have been good.

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