Sunday, 20 October 2019

Review: Gemini Man





Gemini Man (SPOILERS)
Cert: 12A / 117 mins / Dir. Ang Lee / Trailer



Who among us ever thought they'd see the day, where old and new can collide seamlessly before our eyes? The marriage of cutting-edge technology (to the point where it's not yet finished, in fact) and some of the most retrograde action filler you've seen since the early 90s straight-to-video boom? Yet here we are, standing agog as US Government black-ops hitman Henry Brogan (Will Smith) battles it out with someone who looks a bit like Will Smith used to look a quarter of a century ago, if you squint. And you've had a couple of drinks. And if you never really paid that much attention to Will Smith a quarter of a century ago.

FUN


But hey, it's all good fun! No wait, it's not is it? That's right, it's not good fun. I'm always getting those mixed up. The first act of Ang Lee's Gemini Man lopes along like a perfectly serviceable moody thriller that's about to set up its mind-shattering reveal. Except that reveal has already been completely undercut by a) the film's title, b) the film's poster, and c) the film's trailer which explains the entire fucking concept before its audience has even had a chance to buy a ticket.

Dropped into the October schedule like a badly rendered stepchild, Gemini Man comes over as a shelved 199x Van Damme thriller which has been waiting for the technology to catch up, and when it did Jason Statham said he was busy so they phoned Will Smith instead. And then it turned out the technology had lied about catching up. And lied badly.

So it's Looper but for people who don't like thinking about stuff. Will Smith trying to kill his other self, except one of The Will Smiths is younger and both of The Will Smiths are good people really and it was all Evil Clive Owen's fault anyway, with the latter's accent from the Washington DC suburb of Walthamstow and having gone up four trouser sizes on account of all the fucking scenery he's chewing. Benedict Wong stars as the gadget-guy / pilot / comic-relief. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is The Girl One*1. More on her later.

SPENDER


On the plus-side, the action sequences are relatively well shot and directed in terms of actual physicality. The movie features a gorgeous continuous tracking shot of Smith-Senior on a motorcycle, and that's doing so well until he starts being chased in turn by Smith-Junior. The resulting fracas contains some of the worst animated acrobatics in living cinematic memory (think of the swing-sequences in 2002's Spider-Man, except it's 2019 and now there's really no excuse). Your leading man puts in a satisfactory turn in a role which isn't more than half-written anyway, as do Winstead and Wong. But Gemini Man was never about characterisation to begin with.

Yes, as to the main attraction? Well, future-phobes will be relieved to hear we're not there yet. Much like Tarkin and Leia from Rogue One, the digitally de-aged Will Smith looks more or less fine. Until his face begins to move that is, at which point we're sent hurtling down the Uncanny Valley fast enough to give us whiplash. Although as much as Smith-Junior looks like Pixar's work-in-progress of animating a new turnip character, his digital visage still emotes more feeling than that of Clive Owen; the cinematic equivalent of a bookmark in that he just sits there inert, not adding anything to the plot and whose only function is to periodically remind you where you'd got to. Gemini Man is clinical proof that any mediocre film can always be made worse by Owen's presence.

So in the third act where, coincidentally, a third Smith turns up (in a twist so ham-fistedly telegraphed that you can almost hear Ang Lee hoping that no one in the audience has seen Oblivion) - I was thinking 'Oh, hang on... ace-marksman assassin, super-fighter, wearing a mask... is Will Smith's other self Deadshot? Is this a deftly-marketed Suicide Squad lead-in?' Nope. No such luck, mate. Wishful coincidence. It's just another Will Smith.

CROCODILE SHOES


The passage of time is treated as an inconvenience throughout, international air journeys undertaken off-screen and in apparently zero-time according to the conversations continuing around them. The whole thing is edited as if a two-hour movie has been commissioned for a 45-minute TV slot (oh that it were so short). Although at one point during an in-car, background-painting conversation as Smith-Junior asks his progenitor "you grew up in Philadelphia, right?", I at least thought we were going to get some rapping thrown in to add some much-needed goodwill nostalgia. Nope, another opportunity missed.

Still, at least a flick like this can bring some woke 21st century sensibility to the action genre, right? As if. At one point where Smith-Senior is fighting his younger self in the Budapest catacombs*2, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's sole purpose as a trained, qualified and experienced government agent is to stand pointing a shotgun at them. Not as a threat or a warning, but because it's got a torch mounted on the top and the audience wouldn't be able to see what's happening otherwise. Five minutes later when the brawl has moved to a subterranean pool, she drops a flare in and jumps in after them. I mean does the Bechdel Test even matter when your supporting actress is doubling as your lighting technician? Isn't that equality enough, guys?

We close with some faux-philosophical bantering about the ethics of cloning and patriotism (no, seriously), a payoff which probably looked neat on the page followed by the kind of implausibly happy ending that feels like it was written and assembled over a year after principal photography. Not least because Smith-Junior's CGI face is by this point so warped and distended that it looks as if a swarm of wasps may be about to emerge at any moment.

"I'm gonna be okay!" says our reformed demi-protagonist as the credits beckon. No. You're really not, mate. None of us are going to be okay until the Uncanny Valley is left out of Hollywood journey-planning for good...



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Screaming into a mirror and noticing your reflection is out of sync.
And is drawn in crayon
.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is not.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Not particularly.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It is not.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
That's possible.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Ric Olié is in this.

And while we're on the subject, David Benioff has co-written the screenplay to Gemini Man. That's David Benioff as in "Benioff & Weiss" from The Game Of The Thrones. Now, I don't watch GoT (long story, no real agenda but catch me about it another time), but if Gemini Man is anything to go by then the upcoming Star Wars project from Benioff & Weiss is probably in the shit already...



And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 And if you find yourself in the fandom subset of being a) British, and b) slightly in love with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, you'll be pleasantly surprised when Will Smith arrives on his aggressively pursued date to find Mary already halfway through a pint. Fantastic stuff, albeit another callback to mid-90s UK culture. Mind you, a waiter brings over two more pints a minute later and all of a sudden the one she had in front of her is gone. Like the waiter's taken that away. We didn't see her finish it. Either the continuity sucks in this movie or the table service does... [ BACK ]

*2 And why does this part of the film take place in Budapest? No idea. No real reason at all mate. Not mentioned. Scenery and/or tax breaks, one imagines. But they come and go back to Langley VA like it's nipping round to the Co-Op for some milk. Which would be arguably a more interesting film... [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Review: Werewolf

This post originally appeared at SetTheTape.com



Werewolf / Wilkołak
Cert: 15 / 88 mins / Dir. Adrian Panek / Trailer



Writer and director Adrian Panek brings us Werewolf (Wilkołak in its native Polish), set toward the end of the Second World War. In February 1945, Allied Forces are liberating the prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps. One of these, Wolfsberg, is in chaotic freefall as its murderous officials know the end is near. After the intervention of the Russian Army, eight children are taken to a remote abandoned mansion in Poland, which serves as a temporary orphanage – their parents having all been killed at other camps.

Under the sole care of Jadwiga (Danuta Stenka), the children try to adjust to their freedom until help arrives. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t happen, since the woodland surrounding the house is populated by creatures that have killed the soldiers who left them there. The children become trapped indoors with no running water, food dwindling and tension rising by the hour. One way or another, this can’t go on for long…

HOUSE


So the children are starving inside the house while the monsters are ravenous outside. Both are desperate to survive, the only difference being that the hounds aren’t turning on each other. The film is more a dark survival thriller than outright horror, but Panek certainly borrows from the gory supernatural in bringing his threat to life. And while the title isn’t as literal as audiences might expect, it’s still wholly relevant to the text of the film.

With its subjects imprisoned for a second time, the storyline necessarily ramps up a sense of claustrophobia. The drunken Russian soldiers evoke an inherent distrust of authority akin to 28 Days Later, while the internal group dynamics here are closer to The Secret Of Marrowbone than Lord Of The Flies. But that’s not to say the threat within the walls is any easier to deal with than the one outside.

BACHELOR


The youngest of these characters would only have known life in the camps, separated from their parents for who knows how long. They have little to no idea how to function now, not savages but ill disciplined and impetuous. The older ones meanwhile are emerging into a world they barely remember that’s still unsafe, and are facing the rollercoaster of puberty with no guidance. It would be easy to make the children brattish, instead Panek brings a very sympathetic portrayal of even the most unlikeable members of group. Ultimately it's only their humanity which can save them.

Although it’s performed in Polish (with German and Russian from the soldiers as appropriate), Werewolf is very economically scripted with a show-don’t-tell approach, meaning the subtitles never become a distraction. Panek gets outstanding performances from his players, a triumph of writing, direction and of course acting (not least due to the potentially harrowing preparations required by a cast this young). There are particularly strong turns from Sonia Mietielica (Spies of Warsaw), Nicolas Przygoda (Panic Attack) and Kamil Polnisiak (who debuts here).

OFFICE CHRISTMAS



In a work this delicate there are pitfalls, however. We only really get to know half of the children, and with a pool this small that seems negligent for characters the audience are supposed to be rooting for. Because they’re not counted-in during the first act, it’s difficult to keep track of how many of our heroes there are, and who’s missing at any point.

Additionally, the film’s ending seems to resolve everything a little too neatly. While it certainly works in terms of the character arcs and subtext, in practical terms this feels a little on-the-nose. But at only 88 minutes, Werewolf is surprisingly well paced with plenty of room to breathe.

It feels odd describing a piece with so much growling, barking and screaming as ‘quiet’, but there we are. Werewolf is as introspective as it is fraught, and reminds us that the real monsters don’t always live in the woods…



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
The Secret Of Marrowbone, The Cured.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you can, do.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's a high bar to clear in the future, put it that way.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
I shouldn't imagine so.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Werner Daehn is in this, and he was in that Valkyrie with Terence 'Valorum' Stamp.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…




DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Review: Joker





Joker (spoilers in the footnotes)
Cert: 15 / 122 mins / Dir. Todd Phillips / Trailer



It's not supposed to be an easy-ride. Just keep that in mind as you sit down to watch the story of a middle-aged man, single but living with his elderly mother in a run down apartment block as he ekes out an existence as a jobbing clown in a city which has forgotten how to laugh. As he's taken for granted, mocked, ignored and assaulted on a daily basis. As he has neither the social nor the practical skills to pursue his dream of being a standup comedian, evoking only laughs of pity rather than knowing camaraderie. As it's not one thing which tips him over the edge, like the timings of a fast food outlet breakfast menu, but a succession of bad decisions and worse reactions that corner him and seem to offer only one logical way out. As that involves becoming one of the most notorious villains of comic culture, by which bloodsoaked point he's long past trying to make other people happy. It's not supposed to be an easy ride.

DOWNFALL


Which is just as well, really. Todd Phillips' highly anticipated Joker movie is very good but is also bloody hard work, for both the right and wrong reasons. Charting the downfall of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), it's a snapshot of crisis which plays as well to today's time as its 1981 setting. And don't let that year fool you, the sets, wardrobe, makeup and titles have a delicious 1970s vibe, as does Lawrence Sher's cinematography. His desaturated eye flits from the confines of Fleck's claustrophobic apartment to voyeuristic tracking shots across the street as he makes his way through Gotham's urban jungle. This is a city which doesn't know the decade has ticked over.

There are references to wider DC lore (to the point where even a Marvel-kid like me picked them up), but the movie is largely self-contained. Comparisons are inevitable of course, and tonally Phoenix is perhaps the closest to the Nolan/Ledger Joker, with the sense of deranged threat every bit as palpable when the character is pinned down. Of course that earlier performance was by definition more mysterious, his backstory shifting every time he spoke to someone new. There's no such ambiguity here. Phillips wants to (and does) explain every excruciating beat of Arthur Fleck's fall between the cracks. And while Joaquin's hypnotic performance adds intrigue to the characterisation, there's still no real Mystery™.

BABY


But it's the performances that matter here, rather than adherence to any previous timeline. Phoenix leads brilliantly as usual, although we'd expect nothing less at this point. And while there are strong supporting turns from Robert De Niro as talk show host Murray Franklin, Zazie Beets as Arthur's neighbour Sophie and Frances Conroy as his mother Penny, everyone else is firmly in second-place here*1. At a hair over two hours, the film is tight but never rushed. And with a full stage to himself, Phoenix manages what Leto couldn't and redefines the character properly. This new iteration carries all the critical DNA of the Joker, while still being its own thing.

The story is underscored by a fantastically mournful score from Hildur Guðnadóttir and a darkly wry jukebox soundtrack*2. The film is definitely over-egged in places but Phillips paints his scenes perfectly, and it's an overdue lesson to others in the DC-verse insisting that visual and thematic darkness are automatically the same thing. Although the director is by no means unaware of his successes here, and spends the last ten minutes of the movie cruising past a swathe of natural end-points, desperate to wring every last drop out of his subject with patience-testing curtain calls (confirmation: there's no bonus content during or after the credits).

YOKO ONO


This wants to be the Logan of DC, and in many ways it succeeds. But while there are certainly plenty of things working in Joker's favour, I don't think it'll become the classic it's being lauded as in some quarters. When the hype has died down, we'll be left with a damned solid love letter to 70s noir cinema, viewed through the socio-political lens of 2019. Phillips has assembled this well, but it's too reliant on the movies it homages to be truly groundbreaking.

Joker often feels like it's Phillips making a statement rather than telling a story. And it's a statement which will be taken out of context by some*3. And it really shouldn't be, but not everyone can read in subtext and there are some genies you just can't put back in the bottle...



So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
This looks like The French Connection and feels like The King Of Comedy meets You Were Never Really Here, with maybe just a dash of Watchmen (or a healthy shot of Alan Moore, certainly).

It's pretty bleak
.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Best? Probably not.
'Up there'? Definitely
.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Given the movie's provocative nature and mixed critical reaction, that's probably not unlikely.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Joaquin Phoenix is in this, and he was in The Sisters Brothers with Riz 'Bodhi Rook' Ahmed.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Interesting casting point: A young Bruce Wayne is shown here in a couple of scenes, played by Dante Pereira-Olson. Dante also starred in You Were Never Really Here where he was the childhood iteration of Joaquin Phoenix's character, Joe. So while this movie toys with the long-recurring theme that Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, that's done with performers who have previously played the same person in the same film, again with a generational divide between innocence and clinical psychoticism. It's a small point which is unlikely to be picked up in the cinema, but adds to the architecture of the film. Lovely stuff. [ BACK ]

*2 At one point there's been a production meeting in which someone has asked "So can we use Gary Glitter on the soundtrack?", and it appears that someone else has replied "Yes. Yes, that is entirely in keeping with the vision of this piece. Do that." Er, okay mate. [ BACK ]

*3 Although at least it's a statement which stands up to some scrutiny, unlike some of the utter bollocks Phillips has come out with on the movie's promotional-trail. Ho-hum. [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Review: Fleabag (NT Live)





Fleabag (National Theatre Live)
Cert: 15 / 80 mins / Dir. Vicky Jones / Trailer



And so Phoebe Waller-Bridge*1 takes to the stage once more with the solo show that started it all back in 2013, this time at Wyndham's Theatre London for a sold-out four week run. This is a stripped down, black-box presentation. A single chair, build for function not comfort, houses the character. Framed in darkness, sound effects and lighting fill the gaps in the viewer's imagination, while the rest is entirely down to PWB's performance.

And what a performance. Obviously the 2019 audience are already on-side here, but PWB owns the stage, the room and the crowd instantly. We're thrown in medias res with a job interview which is going badly. Flashes of backstory begin to emerge immediately, and before long we're in the midst of a rambling confessional inner-monologue. Many themes and emotions are covered but guilt is the touchstone, the connective tissue between stories, between the performer and the audience.

ARTIST


PWB absolutely shines here, an artist at the very top of their game. Confident without being self-satisfied, vulnerable without mawkishness. It's difficult to know if she'll ever truly escape the shadow of the character she's created, this beautiful snapshot of anaesthetised millennial angst. The phrase 'tour de force' is bandied around far too often in theatrical critical circles, but it must have been dreamt up with this show in mind.

It's just that...

...well, presenting this show now to this audience - which is to say a re-staging of a 2013 work to a crowd who mostly haven't seen it before, but who have almost certainly seen the 2016-19 TV show that followed - creates a disconnect. When the play features routines and scenarios which were later retooled and adapted for the small screen, this draws the audience out of the live performance and into their memory of the filmed one. Even if it's just to take note of the differences. Although if you're able to un-remember the first time you saw something as iconic and starkly touching as Fleabag then this probably won't be a problem for you.

CHRIST


Had this presentation been a recording of the original 2013 run, this wouldn't apply of course. But it's not, and the audience knows it's not. The room - and the expectation - is bigger this time around, and both feel so. Even with the minimalist set and one-person structure, the intimacy we've come to expect from Fleabag is somehow removed. In the TV version, the character confides with the viewer on what feels like a 1-on-1 basis, quiet asides to the tumult of her life. Here, it's a continuous train of thought, at times bellowed into the auditorium*2, at the expense of that personal connection. We still get to know the character and feel every beat of the story through PWB's outstanding performance, but it always feels just like that - a performance to an audience.

Maybe it's because on the small screen she doesn't have to be so animated. The character causes other people to lose their shit and then it's a masterclass in reaction-shots. By virtue of having to flesh out the other characters here, PWB is tested more as an actor (and succeeds notably), but something of that later development is lost once more.

BRUCE


Now, I can't say that the televisual iteration of Fleabag is 'better' than the stage play - they're different media created at different times. But the TV version has been expanded, refined and polished. Even with addition of other cast members (because of them, in fact), it's still undeniably PWB's gig.

If I'd been a proper theatre hipster and seen this in 2013, I'd have been blown away by the show (and this review would be a damn sight more smug as a result). But I didn't. So I saw the National Theatre Live screening of Fleabag the same way as the majority of its audience - as a retrospective viewed for the first time. An exquisite, but crucially imperfect, work-in-progress.

And that's not to take away from the brilliance of the play nor its author and star, but none of us are who we were in 2013, we can't pretend otherwise and that's probably for the best...


So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Live stuff that's Very Much New Theatre™ and you pretty much know if that'll be your thing before you go in.


Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you get the chance, yes.
Not least since it looks like that's your only option
.


Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
If the National Theatre ever decide to go down that route*3 absolutely.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Fantasic? Yes.
Best? No
.


Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Entirely possible.


Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.
Sound-effects feature as well, no excuse
.


Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: L3-37 is in this.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…
Don't look at me like that, I've explained why.


*1 Hereafter referred to in the review as 'PWB' since 'Phoebe' sounds too familiar, yet my surname go-to of 'Waller-Bridge' is as unwieldy as typing her whole name each time. And while I'm on, I'll be referring to her character as 'the character', since Fleabag isn't actually her name. It's become slang for the character of course, but she's never named directly, which is sort of the point.
[ BACK ]

*2 On a side-note, there were several inflections and flourishes in PWB's performance here where I thought 'that's like Richie in Bottom. Oh my god, this is exactly how Rik Mayall would play this role! And that is brilliant'. And once that was lodged in my head it was a pretty difficult idea to shift. I mean it as the greatest compliment to both performers, of course. [ BACK ]

*3 WHEN YOU'RE READY NATIONAL THEATRE, DANNY BOYLE'S FRANKENSTEIN BLU-RAY, DOUBLE-FEATURE, THANK YOU SO MUCH. [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.