Friday, 17 February 2017

Iron Man sucks.

The LEGO Batman Movie
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Well, at least the DC legacy lives large in one of Warner Bros’ big screen franchises. Managing to take the piss out of the company’s comic book kingdom and make it much more fun, engaging and coherent than the real deal is no small achievement, but Chris McKay’s superior spin-off to 2014’s The Lego Movie succeeds and then some. The LEGO Batman Movie is almost exhaustingly funny, embracing the kind of rapid-fire gag momentum we’re familiar with from the Zucker Brothers (and Abrahams), Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and, of course, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller.


It’s probably no wonder Batfleck appears poised to walk away from the wrecking ball that is the Snyder-supervised main offering, when he looks at what is ostensibly a joke that has been so rapturously received. Sure, Will Arnett’s Batman may be looking to the campery of Adam West as the true godfather of this movie (from the theme tune, to the Robin costume, to the Zap! Pow! inserts of the climactic fight, to the unrivalled Bat Shark Repellent, and even a clip from the movie – along with several from Jerry Maguire, amongst references to a number of near-forgettable romcoms), but he manages to leave you invested in his Batman/Bruce, which is more than I’ve done with the series since, well, Batman Returns probably (and Michael Keaton was hardly in that); I know, that will have Bale fans up in arms, but really there was one great movie in that trilogy, and what was great about it was all Heath Ledger.


Yes, the picture inevitably moves in the direction of inclusive sentiment, because it has to have an in-your-face moral as it’s a kid’s movie. So, a little more sincerely than South Park mocking the same, and a long way from how The Naked Gun made no pretence at such feeling at all, but it’s still far from the rather awkward and intrusive appearance of Will Ferrell in The Lego Movie, and the general bending over backwards therein to insert a message so unpalatably cynical you choke on it (I tend to the view that even kids’ movies are better when they aren’t spoon-feeding morals, although I’m not a parent, so what do I know?). 


As Arnett comments in the third trailer, “You know, it’s kind of like the original Lego Movie, only vastly superior because it revolves entirely around me”. The key is that it never loses sight of having fun with Warner’s licences and characters, cutting a swathe of irreverence across the screen even when its’s forced to wax lyrical about the importance of family (Dom Torretto would be proud, but then there is only one current emotional undercurrent to studio movies currrently, it seems).


Alfred: Sir, I have seen you go through similar phases in 2016 and 2012 and 2008 and 2005 and 1997 and 1995 and 1992 and 1989 and that weird one in 1966.

Following a deliriously funny opening in which Batman squares off against Zach Galifianakis’ Joker while acknowledging all the tropes (but not that he hates him; Superman is Batman’s greatest enemy) before riffing on the rivalry with Supes (a returning Channing Tatum) to maximum effect (I wish there’d been more of this; I did get a vague feeling that they only went so far with Supes and the Justice League so as to avoid Warner completely self-immolating the actual franchise’s chances come November – especially since what we see here is – that word again – much more fun and visually appealing than anything Snyder has come up with), Batman must face his greatest fear. No, not snake clowns, but letting others in, which means orphan Robin (Michael Cera). And, until it gets too sincere, this makes for a formidable hive of humour.


But it’s the decision to play with one of Superman’s main devices, the Phantom Zone, that yields the widest-ranging, most fruitful and freewheeling dividends. By this point, we’ve already had an obvious but still funny backhander aimed at Suicide Squad – what idiot would send villains to catch villains – and the parade of ludicrous, but I can quite believe are all accurate, C-list villains from the Bat oeuvre, including a few better-known ones (Bane in particular, is hilarious, Killer Croc is attributed one line that defines him more than Suicide Squad did – “I actually did something!” – as well as being much better designed, while Billy Dee Williams finally gets to play Two-Face).


The Phantom Zone unleashes, in haphazard yet inspired fashion, the likes of Sauron (Jermaine Clement, always great value, particularly his delivery of “My eye!”), Voldermort (not Ralph Fiennes, busy playing Alfred, but Eddie Izzard), Agent Smith(s), Godzilla, British robot villains the Daleks (I would never have conceived that Batman would meet the Daleks, outside of a Joe Dante movie, which brings me to…) and Gremlins (who even get linked to their The Twilight Zone namesake when they set to work on the Batwing).


The level of comic invention is so frenetic that, like those other comedy past masters, it scarcely matters that some of them miss. The musical interludes/Bat raps are fine, but none are as inspired as Batman’s Song (Untitled Self Portrait) in the first movie (as such, this is a classic example of something going down so well that attempting to repeat that inspiration is fated to fail). And, with regard to Batman’s emotional journey, it is undoubtedly hammered home, but all involved are far too wised-up to make you buy that it’s too genuine (as in, more important than making us laugh – the makers would be fools not engineer a reset of some description for the sequel, because that faux-moodiness is the appeal of Arnett’s performance. They’ll probably turn Cera into a rebellious teenager too).


Visually, this is, like its predecessor, an incredibly busy movie, particularly when it comes to the Day-Glo, technicolour cavalcade of ADD action that is the climax (it might have been inspired by the filmography of Stephen Sommers). Perhaps not too much for the microchipped kids, able to process ever more alarming quantities of information at ever higher rates, but for the elderly it can be difficult to keep up, best expressed (visually) by Poison Ivy killing an infinite succession of penguins (not the character) inserted between her and Batman.


So the six(!) credited writers have done well. Making a change, Seth Grahame-Smith’s mashup fixation is actually productive, enabling him to throw any element he can think of at the page, and once the gag writers (Chris McKenna and Eric Sommers from Community and American Dad probably had the most significant input) have bulked it up, he even comes off looking almost accomplished.


Vocally, Arnett is the business (after about five minutes of Wayne chilling in his Bat cowl, I thought this might be intent on reversing the conceit of unmasking the famous lead actor at every available opportunity), and his Arrested Development co-star Cera is, as expected, entirely serving and submissive to the material, while Galifianakis makes for a worthy sparring partner.


Is the Lego movie franchise unstoppable? I’d guess that depends upon whether it can maintain a broad appeal. As long as they’re holding screenings full of adults (as mine was), quite probably, but God knows what LEGO Ninja Hildago Movie (as I want to call it) will mean to anyone outside of the tots. And it’s always dangerous to flood the market with movies of the same ilk, unless you’re Marvel and know what you’re doing. There were points during The LEGO Batman Movie where I thought they’d surely left nothing in reserve for The LEGO Batman Returns Movie, so unswerving was the willingness to throw anything and everything into the pot. But then I realised that was just foolish. After all, the entire main DC franchise will probably really have gone down in Bat flames by then, and there’ll be a whole lot more grist for the Bat mill.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

I have to find my way back home.

Lion
(2016)

(SPOILERS) A picture of two halves. The first being compelling, powerful and moving. The second featuring Dev Patel. No, that’s unfair. Patel’s BAFTA-winning performance in Lion is perfectly respectable, and it’s easy to see why he has also garnered an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Hair and Beard Ensemble, but he’s nevertheless far subordinate to his character’s junior version, played by Sunny Pawar, who might be the most winningly wide-eyed whippersnapper to grace the screen since Salvatore Cascio in Cinema Paradiso.


That’s not a bad comparison, actually, as everyone remembers Cinema Paradiso for the establishing scenes with Phillipe Noiret; the rest of the character’s life reminisced is watchable but lacks the same spark. So it is with Lion, possibly the most non-descript of Oscar nominees this year, recognised for its well-meaning and worthy thematic content, rather than how successful it is as an overall movie (that, and it being the picture Harvey Scissorhands chose to put his tried-and-tested weight behind for awards consideration – namely Patel for Best Supporting Actor, a canny move as he wouldn’t have got a look-in in the lead category).


The traumatic episode that befalls Pawar’s five-year-old Saroo, separated from his brother at a train station and finding himself bound for Calcutta, a thousand miles away, soon becomes a succession of narrowly avoided dangers and threats, as he evades a wave of predators, from men capturing street kids, to a man and woman (that latter seemingly benign at first: too benign) intent on selling him into the child sex trade, and finally eking out an existence begging before winding up in an orphanage.  Saroo is well- treated there, even though another orphan has told him it is “a bad place”; soon, he is duly sent to Tasmania for adoption. Despite its accessible PG certificate, then, this part of the picture offers an emotionally demanding exploration of child poverty, where the glossier Slumdog Millionaire (also starring Patel) opted to deal with the subject as an excitingly-fabricated thrill ride.


Garth Davis, in his big screen directorial debut, is uninterested in visual fireworks or fancy editing, letting Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran’s expressive score provide a potent underpinning to Saroo’s journey. He knows intuitively that simply focussing on Pawar will be sufficient, whose expressive eyes and entirely natural demeanour are a match for any child performer you care to mention. Saroo’s a stoic youngster, able to survive without his mother and brother (and sister) and quickly cognisant of those who’d bring him into harm’s way. But, crucially, he’s unable to provide information about his home village (it turns out that “Ginestlay” is “Ganesh Talai” mispronounced, just as “Saroo” is actually “Sheru” – the Hindi for “Lion”).


The problem Davis encounters subsequently is that Luke Davies’ screenplay (based on A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose) has very little dramatic meat left to propel it. Adult Saroo looking at Google Earth for six years isn’t the stuff of a commanding viewing, and Lion soon develops the feel of artificially-extended material, from his conflicts with girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, very good, although the role isn’t up to much), adoptive parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), and adoptive brother Mantosh (Dividan Ladwa).


Because the material is thin, at times the translation to screen tends to make Saroo appear more self-involved than genuinely distraught and conflicted, as if he is unnecessarily making an ordeal of matters. The plot thread with Mantosh’ emotional and behavioural difficulties is obliquely touched upon, but is actually the only really challenging part of this later section (in real life, it appears that the poor guy isn’t dealing so well with the picture’s release, something that should perhaps be considered before becoming too effusive about the good things the film will do for promoting the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption).


Kidman’s fine as the mother, although her technical skill rarely translates into emotionally-invested characters for me. Wenham’s very much on the side lines. The eventual reunion, bittersweet due to the discovery that Saroo’s brother Guddu died years before (that very night, hit by a train) is slightly detracted from by a too-prevalent device of throwing in footage of the real people, as if to say “Look, this really is true, making us all the more valid”. Admittedly, in the case of Hacksaw Ridge, it led me to seek out the documentary, but usually I find it an unnecessary step too far; the picture shouldn’t need reinforcing that way. As for Oscar night, Lion may walk away empty-handed, but if it has any longshot chances, it’s in the categories of Score and Supporting Actor. Possibly, if Pawar had been acknowledged, he’d have been a sure thing.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch
(2015)

(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.



Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably in getting under the skin, working its spell through the power of suggestion rather than shock tactics (albeit, the Mark Korven score sometimes over exerts itself, seemingly looking to Gyorgy Ligeti’s Requiem for cues).


While The Witch proffers an ostensibly literal take on witchcraft – we see one in the first scene, and we’re led to assume she has boiled the family baby for a flying unguent – there isn’t much here that cannot be read as the paranoid delusions of an isolated group afflicted by ergot poisoning (we’re shown their blighted crops). There are no scenes – that I recall – where adult protagonists independently verify the supernatural (even the sequence where the siblings see a witch sucking on a goat could be paralleled with the converged hysteria of The Crucible), be those incidents a talking ruminant or levitation at a witches’ Sabbath.


Which is a positive, as the most persuasive aspect of the picture is the disintegration of the family unit out of a desperate fear of pervasive devilry (just as in The Wicker Man, the final “sacrifice” is secured through the blindness instilled by devotion to a God who never shows his face), and more especially blaming fault lines on the machinations of external forces. Those being, everyone pointing the finger at Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) through guilt over their own indiscretions of thought and deed.


Eggers makes it clear that both father William (Ralph Ineson, previously of Game of Thrones) and eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) have incestuous thoughts towards Thomasin, while mother Katherine (Kate Dickie, also previously of Game of Thrones) blames her for every problem that arises, masking her own deficiencies as a shrewish wife recognising a blooming daughter eclipsing her (in this context, the picture takes on a Freudian, coming of age quality, Thomasin killing her mother and entering into her own fully-explored sexuality as the now-free title character, give or take the odd goat master). The two youngest children, twins Mercy and Jonas, meanwhile, under the assumed influence of the family he-goat (“Black Phillip saith I can do what I like”), repeat the mantra of Thomasin’s witchery until it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


It’s thus easy to see why some, misguidedly (one wonders at the Church of Satan’s endorsement of the picture, such that one can only assume it was understood in its shallowest form), regard the innocent Thomasin’s eventual accession to the wood-dwelling coven as a triumph; she’s released from the destructive impulses of these uber-repressed Puritans, who see Satan in every shadow, including in the heart of their own family when the going gets tough.


Certainly, if Thomasin had ventured back to the plantation, she would surely have been tried and found guilty of witchcraft (this prefiguring Salem witch hysteria, casting it as a virus of suspicion and paranoia spreading from small units to entire settlements in the interim). The family that strives to walk with Christ rather walk entirely with fear and the daily underlining of their own sinfulness (Eggers’ use of an apple, both in the lie to Katherine over where William and Caleb have been and the object caught in the latter’s throat, emphasises Original Sin).


As such, the natural world is seen as something inherently twisted, rather than God’s creation. William comments, “We will conquer this wilderness. It will not consume us”.
Nature is untameable, however, and its denizens (“You cannot escape the wood”), be they rabbits (familiars), “wolves” that carry off babies, or witches – in such a reading, they are extensions of nature, an oppositional force to the suffocating restriction and inadequacy of Puritan beliefs – are destined to usurp all interlopers.


Admittedly, I have to come down on the side of suggestion being more effective than making explicit here, however subjectively you want to label whatever is shown. While certain sequences of supernatural incident exert a powerful effect – Caleb’s death bed scene, which concludes in a parody of heavenly ecstasy that might have startled even Ken Russell, and Katherine’s vision of her suckling baby turning out to be a raven pecking at her teat – others reduce the impact of what has been a resolutely lo-fi stage, utilising natural light and semi-authentic language to place us in the seventeenth century.


Thus, the skyclad, sky riding at the climax is, visually at least, a disappointment, even if it has thematic resonance. So too, after all the build-up, Black Phillip given voice is lacking in insidious/seductive wallop (although, the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” is, well, delicious). On the subject of which, while I have no wish to diminish her performance, if you cast Kate Dickie in something, you practically know she’s going to be unhinged by the end of it, even if she wasn’t at the start.


The Witch appears to have been one of those pictures whose critical hype failed to ignite quite such proportionate audience interest (that said, it still made very decent returns on its meagre budget). One might argue the reason for this snobbishily – that it’s only lowest common denominator horror movies that turn out to be a gold mine – but it wasn’t for want of trying (the poster art is entirely misleading of the content). And The Witch is undoubtedly a layered, subtle picture, very much inhabiting a world whereby “the folk tale” (its subtitle being “A New England Folktale”)arises from reported incidents, reported incidents awash with strange feats and superstitions (arising from credulous Christian testimonies, and so feeding further into the idea of a threat fashioned by the family’s own fears).


So no, The Witch didn’t scare the hell out of me, but it did resonate and linger in the mind, effectively reigniting the themes of the more sober and earnest The Crucible in an unsettling and wholly cinematic fashion. It’s also a pretty damn good killer goat movie.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.