Month: December, 2016

Passengers

passIn Passengers, Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) has directed a hotly anticipated summer flick, that from reports of early screenings, seem to have polarised ethical opinion on the responsibilities of its protagonist.  I couldn’t find any evidence of this in the trailer that I saw, so I was dying to find out more.

On route to a distant colony planet, the transport ship Avalon suffers a malfunction that wakes one of its five thousand hyper-sleeping passengers.  Jim (Chris Pratt) is left to wander the empty halls of the ship which still has 90 years of its journey to complete. Despite his best efforts, Jim cannot find a way to re-enter hyper-sleep and is essentially doomed to live out the remainder of his days onboard. A year later, as he understandably starts to feel lonely, Jim begins to contemplate the dubious act of waking up another passenger. Most of his deliberation plays out in conversation between himself and the ship’s android bar tender, Arthur (a very affable character superbly played by Michael Sheen). Jim sums up his situation best when he asks Arthur: What would you do if you were marooned on a desert island but had the power to wish someone with you, knowing that you will seal their fate … would you do it?  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what he decides, after all if you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know that Jennifer Lawrence turns up at some point.

Soon after, the film unfortunately takes a turn for the worse.  Rather than fully exploring the implications of a deliberately presented ethical dilemma, it opts to focus instead on another less cerebral problem — saving the ship from falling apart. Yes, the original malfunction has conveniently spread, leaving the ship in jeopardy. In reality, it provides an easy out for writer Jon Spaihts, who appeared not to know what to do with his excellent setup. Spaihts also suffered a similar problem with his previous work, Prometheus, where an interesting premise is tantalisingly dangled in front of its audience but is not fully explored.  A couple of set action pieces later and I was left scratching my head wondering why it was that I felt so deflated.

Technically the film is beautiful to look at and the production value is top-notch. As a stock standard sci-fi it’s actually not bad and worth your money, if that’s what you’re after. If you’re after anything more you’ll be lamenting the lost opportunity.

3 stars out of 5

You can see the published review here

My favourite film of 2016

na2Very briefly, my favourite film of 2016 was … Nocturnal Animals.

Moana

mo_620x311Disney’s first Polynesian-themed animated feature film since Lilo & Stitch (2002) has certainly landed with a splash. The film opened in the U.S. amassing over $200,000 in its first three weeks. This is perhaps standard fare for a tentpole Disney animated feature, but it is still nice to see such attention poured out on stories close to our own shores.

Moana is loosely based on the myths and legends of Polynesia and does well to coalesce these into an entertaining story. On an undisclosed Polynesian island we are introduced to the titular Moana voiced by newcomer, Auli’i Cravalho. She is chosen by the ocean to find the narcissistic demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson), and convince him to return the stolen heart of the mythical island deity, Te Fiti.  It is worth noting that a number of liberties were deemed necessary to shoe-horn in a story fit for consumption, and this has left some characters barely recognisable from their legendary counterparts.

Directed and co-directed by Ron Clements, Don Hall, John Musker and Chris Williams, and penned by a creative team too long to list (although I will mention Taika Waititi had an input), there is no doubting that Moana is a team effort.  Its a wonder with all these chefs in the kitchen that they have produced a coherent film, but they did. In fact significant lengths were taken to achieve a high standard of story telling. In an interview with Huffington Post, lead director Ron Clements mentions how he and his co-directors visited islands in the South Pacific in order to gain artistic and authentic references for the film. Clements said of his experience that he encountered many traditions that had “respect for nature, respect for the ocean and the elements – all of these things – really had a huge influence on us and then began to make their way into this film’s story.” 

Testament to its connection with nature, Moana unintentionally shares many similarities with the superb but little known Irish animated feature Song of the Sea (do see this film if you get the chance!).  Despite being worlds apart in many ways, I was struck with how both films are similar in their treatment of myth and legend. They serve to illustrate how we are connected as humans.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the music — original songs by Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda are incredibly catchy and you’ll be singing Jermaine Clement’s “Shiney” long after leaving the theatre. Moana opens in New Zealand on Boxing Day.

4 stars out of 5

You can see the published review here

A United Kingdom

aukIf I am honest I can’t say that I was particularly enthused to see A United Kingdom.  A story of love that ushered in the birth of democracy in Botswana certainly sounds intriguing, yet something in its trailer left me wanting. Nonetheless, a dull trailer sometimes offers the film a gain — as they say, under promise and over deliver.

Set against the backdrop of post-war politics in the forties and fifties, A United Kingdomis based on the true story of the relationship between Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white salesman’s daughter and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), a black Bechuanaland (now Botswana) national who happens to be next in line to the nation’s throne. Racial concerns initially beset their relationship; however, disapproval from the British government as well as Bechuanaland’s current ruler cause further strain later in their marriage. Battle lines are clearly marked out and Seretse’s choice between love and duty is a conundrum that fully hits home in a stirring speech to his people: “I love my people, but I love my wife”. The waters are further muddied by the subsequent forced exile of Seretse which both separates him from his nation as well as the now pregnant Ruth. His desperation to return home sets up the film’s final stanza which thematically explores the conflict between entrenched institutions and progressive change.

Director Amma Asante (Belle) has entered the hostile territory of race relations and politics at a very personal level.  Her ability to tell a love story amidst the political turmoil of fringe post-war politics is handled confidently, and she appears to have drawn very heart-felt performances from Pike and Oyelowo, who both skilfully traverse the fragile path of mixing politics with the personal.

Yet, this very interesting story is let down by a very tame screenplay (by Guy Hibbert) that at times lacks subtlety and unfortunately doesn’t risk any opportunities where a nuanced approach might have worked better. There is no doubt that this is a crowd pleasing film and it appeared to win its audience over … at least in the theatre I was in. Moreover, it certainly engaged me on a personal level. But alas, the mild mannered approach to its political agenda left me wishing it had a little more teeth.

3 stars out of 5

You can see the published review here

Office Christmas Party

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Every so often a gross-out comedy comes along that has a certain genius bubbling beneath its absurd, crass, and shocking exterior. Office Christmas Party is not one of these. Well, that’s not entirely true – it is absurd and crass, but unfortunately not even a hint of genius is to be found.

Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who mildly tickled my funny bone with Blades of Glory, have nose-dived with this woeful mess. The story centres around the employees of a struggling tech company. When CEO Carol Vanstone (Jennifer Aniston) demands the closure of one of its branches, the branch manager (who also happens to also be Carol’s brother, played by T.J. Miller) sets about changing her mind by winning a big contract. In order to do this he and his chief technical officer (Jason Bateman) set about hosting an epic office Christmas party in an effort to impress the potential client and close a sale that will save their jobs.

It’s not long before you realise that Office Christmas Party deals solely in the currency of the crass, the vulgar, and the slapstick. It peddles a base sense of humour with farts, men photocopying their arses and 3D printing their penises – yes, dildos, hookers, drugs and bad hip-hop.

This assault to the senses is festooned with one liner gags delivered like a bad skit-show stitched together with crepe paper that’s been soaking all night in tequila. It’s neither clever nor funny and unravels into a boring and annoying mess rather quickly.

I know, it’s the prerogative of the gross-out comedy to play in the muck and to be fair, all may have been forgiven had the film actually delivered some laughs. Try as it might, it barely raised a chuckle, leaving the film with very few redeeming qualities. So, my Christmas gift to you, dear reader, is a piece of advice: Don’t bother with Office Christmas Party.

Star rating: 1 out of 5

See the published review here.

Tight lipped on Office Christmas Party

So, I had to sign an embargo at the media screening of Office Christmas Party.  I think I know why.

Review this weekend.

Allied

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Hrmph … Allied.  Its trailer smacked of a run-of-the-mill spy thriller. A Hollywood vehicle to transport its stars toward a seasonal pay check by means of a reliable director at the helm.  I’ve seen the likes of it before so I really wasn’t keen to see this film … but I’m glad I did.

Paramount’s formulaic approach was certainly never going to set the world alight, but Allied surprised me by its entertainment value alone. Directed by the very safe Robert Zemeckis (Castaway), with a cast of two stars that will certainly get bums on seats … against my better judgement, it appears that the studio got the balance just right.

Set during the Second World War, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a Canadian intelligence officer. During a deadly mission behind enemy lines in Morocco he encounters his accomplice, a female French Resistance fighter named Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard). Their faux marriage (for the benefit of the mission) soon becomes a reality after they reunite in London later in the war.  However, when doubt is cast over Marianne’s loyalty to the Allied cause it prompts Max to question his own loyalties.

Sounds fairly dull, I know, but Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) has penned a script that is so watertight, Zemeckis could have used it for Tom Hank’s raft in Castaway. Yes, it’s a little on-the-nose in parts, but the provocative glamour reaches beyond its stars’ pulling-power and steals the show. Of course there are the film’s stars. Brad Pitt is, well, Brad Pitt – It’s difficult to be anything else when you are that famous and handsome (that man still has great hair). And Cotillard injects a ripe sense of intrigue and mystery to proceedings. But central to the film’s impetus is its desire to hearken back to the classic Hollywood studio films of yesteryear, where star power and glamour were reasons enough to see a film. Make no mistake, Allied is one of these films. It’s certainly not without its faults, and there are moments of over pronounced referential eye-winking at war-time classics such as Casablanca, but despite this Allied set me on a journey that arrested my critical faculties and had me believing the unbelievable; sacrificing realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. Yes, it is impossibly glamorous and the sex scenes among the swirling sand-storms of Morocco felt a little forced, but I didn’t care. Hrmph … I wanted to dislike it, but it was just too much fun.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

See the published review here