Tuesday 31 January 2023

Review: Stewart Lee - Basic Lee

Stewart Lee: Basic Lee
Oxford Playhouse | Monday, 30 January 2023

It's a cold, damp Monday night in Oxford, but the full-house crowd at the Playhouse theatre is in chipper spirits as the lights dim. Stewart Lee takes to the stage, bleached-out by the lights in scruffy black jeans, walking boots, an oversized black Teddy Boy jacket and bottle green polo shirt. The touring-version of his Basic Lee Edinburgh show from 2022, this is the opening night of a now-traditional week long residency in the city, with all performances sold out in advance.

Greetings out of the way, one of the first things Lee tells the audience is that this is a back-to-basics show - hence the title - lacking the overarching structure of his previous tours. The last part of this is of course untrue, but at this point the comedian has lain down the gauntlet for the audience to piece together the structure for themselves, albeit giving them a helping hand in the process. What Stewart means is that there's no specific and visible prop this time, be it an outsized Caffé Nero loyalty card or set manufactured from rolls of carpet or standup comedy DVD cases. Instead, the form here is the structure, and the structure is the form, with Lee's trademark rambling style flipping down callback-markers as it staggers through what it means to be a touring comic in 2023.


Lee does make overt references to earlier jokes in previous shows, usually commenting on the mechanics or expanding and adding to the joke as a self-aware reference, for audiences members who recall it from last time (and at a Stewart Lee gig, this means most of them). The attending crowd comes in for a gentle, non-directional ribbing of course as is standard, but without the theatrical vitriol we've seen previously. Unless, that is, you happen to be a patron looking at their phone during the performance, in which case it becomes rather more pointed*1.

Our host also makes prolonged and repeated references to in-theatre happenings (late arrivals, lighthearted heckles etc), and while Lee isn't necessarily one for extended improvisation, it will be interesting to see how this evolves over its 15-month run. The show in its present form is open to adaptation as the months pass (even with the ever-present first half disclaimer that there's no point in writing semi-topical material on a Monday which will be out of date by Friday). Segments on Fleabag and Barry Cryer will doubtless remain, by virtue of their timeless reliability to showcase Stewart's own finer talents.


But there's something about Lee, either in perceived or studied style, that craves the larger structure. Notwithstanding that his 'event' show format has been creeping upward for over a decade, it's also what the audience (okay, me) expect. And if tonight's lesson is that the shows can't all be hyper-focused comedic surgery then it's a one worth taking on board. But the end result is that Basic Lee isn't quite as satisfying as previous outings, even if it's no less entertaining*2.

On the whole this is a lot more relaxed than Lee's theme-based shows, and as such is a potentially good place to get new, casual, fans on board. Personally, I think I prefer the focused rage (faux or otherwise) of other recent pieces, but there is still an absolute joy in watching Stewart Lee be on top of his material without having to conjure tangible demons for the audience's amusement...

Basic Lee is at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 4th Feb, then tours the UK.
Tickets at StewartLee.co.uk

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 There were several of these moments in both halves of the show. Lee admits on-stage that he hates making direct eye contact during performances, essentially making it difficult to detect if he's actually addressing someone or if this is a routine designed to make people in the audience look round among themselves for the offending person. Nonetheless, I did see a phone-glow in my peripheral vision for one of his curt interjections, so it isn't all 'a bit'. [ BACK ]

*2 Spoilers, highlight-to-read: For what it's worth, I'd have happily had the first half's JK Rowling routine and the jazz-description in the second to be longer, if only because the patrons on either side of me weren't nearly uncomfortable or worn-down enough with the repetition... [/End] [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.

Sunday 29 January 2023

Review: The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans (spoilers. ish.)
Cert: 12A / 151 mins / Dir. Steven Spielberg / Trailer

Cinema is magic, and its creators are magicians. Steven Spielberg, for example, can make 2½ hours of quasi-biographical coming of age story feel like five*1. It's not that The Fabelmans drags, just that it does not let up.

Beginning in 1952, this is the tale of the young Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle / Mateo Zoryan) spanning twelve years of his life (hence the two actors) as his parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) move to several cities across the US in an upwardly mobile spiral. Already fascinated by movies and process of film-making, this is massively disruptive for Sammy and his sisters (Keeley Karsten / Alina Brace, Julia Butters / Birdie Borria), and the movie tracks the weaving course of their lives and Sam's growth and self-discovery.


And it's fine. The story about a Jewish kid learning about the world and finding purpose in life through the art of translating ideas to celluloid is superb. The twee, mawkish, shrieking and overbearing soap opera which happens all around it, far less so. The two are intrinsically intertwined of course, and the film itself is named after the family unit, not the protagonist. My problem (and this is very much my problem as a viewer, not the film's as a creation) is that it's so sincere, all of the time. Your mileage will vary but most of the humour feels forced and most of the angst feels gleefully wallowing. I love Michelle Williams as much as anyone, but she's on Ten™ from the very first scene, a high-maintenance character in a film of domestic histrionics and it is draining to sit through.

The subplot with Seth Rogen's 'Uncle' Bennie is so telegraphed and then spelled-out as to be physically painful, and it's a shame since his character initially feels like a breath of fresh air - albeit a breath which is necessitated by the fug of Mitzi's constant drama. Paul Dano puts in a reliable performance as the family patriarch who only understands Science™, but the role demands relatively little of him as a performer, a charge which can be levelled at most of the supporting parts here.


The real ray of sunlight comes in the form of Judd Hirsch as 'actual Uncle' Boris, the cranky, scrunch-faced black sheep of the family who arrives gibbering in distorted syntax to everyone's consternation. He's also the only character here who effortlessly sees through the bullshit and understands Sam's attraction to the arts - better at that point than Sam does - and the sacrifices which may be required to attain greatness. He is this story's Yoda, and is in it for nowhere near long enough.

When we see Sam making films - the actual physical process of coordinating, directing and shooting - The Fabelmans is great. Unfortunately, this accounts for less than a third of the film's run-time. But this is the lesson of course: we can't dedicate ourselves completely to creativity because the admin of life will always get in the way to some degree. And we either learn to live with that, or we give up creating. The process of cinema is where science meets art, and Sam Fabelman and his story are the embodiment of that collision.

Steven Spielberg has many weapons in his armoury. Understatement is not one of them. The Fabelmans almost comes over as something that the director needed to get off his chest, rather than an insight-unveiling introspective.

A self-indulgent missive of this intensity is certainly forgivable from a director as accomplished as this, but probably only as a swan-song. Steven, however, seems far from done...*2

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 And while it's nice of the man himself to sit in what looks like a generic hotel suite somewhere and record a special pre-film message to audiences who have come out to cinemas to watch his latest epic, it feels notably strange that one of the world's greatest film directors has recorded one of the least convincing thank-you messages ever.[ BACK ]

*2 Which I'm not complaining about, by the way. I certainly don't get on with all of Spielberg's work, but the man's been responsible for enough absolute bangers for me to appreciate what he's capable of. Okay, very few of those bangers have been made this century, but hey... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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 28 January 2023

Review: The Whale

The Whale
Cert: 15 / 117 mins / Dir. Darren Aronofsky / Trailer

Adapted for the screen by Samuel D Hunter from his 2012 play, The Whale brings us Brendan Fraser as Charlie, an online teacher of English and writing*1, trying to reconnect with his estranger daughter Ellie (Sadie Rink) before morbid obesity claims his life. Added to this is Liz (Hong Chau), a qualified nurse and carer who helps Charlie on an unofficial basis due to their years of close friendship. But the game is really set playing due to the unexpected arrival of door-to-door religious missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), whose past is not quite what it seems.

Another pleasingly odd film from A24, beautifully shot and presented in 3:4 aspect ratio just for the hell of it. You'd expect a movie set almost entirely in one dingy flat among the detritus of the housebound protagonist's life to be inherently claustrophobic, but Aronofsky manages to avoid that completely. The director perfectly captures the intense melancholy of the story without tipping over into outright despair. The film is nowhere near as bleak as it would be in other hands, but fair warning: it's also pretty far from uplifting.

The performances here are all they're cracked up to be, and more*2. Brendan Fraser brings his central character to life without asking for pity and without needing it*3. His chemistry onscreen with Hong Chau is utterly sublime. Although Sadie Rink and Ty Simpkins support excellently in a side-story which is almost independent from the main thread, it has to be said that the film's most interesting scenes are in the first act between Charlie and Liz. Everything after this is backstory and melodrama frankly, and the third-act arrival of Charlie's ex-wife Mary (the fantastic Samantha Morton) only exacerbates this. The nuts and bolts of the story itself feel far more pedestrian than the acting deserves. Despite Aronofsky's best efforts, I did not blubber.

The Whale is intensely watchable for its craft, but never seems to become more than the sum of its parts. But fair play to Sam Hunter, I did not see that Kill Bill reference coming...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Well, we're told Charlie's a teacher and we briefly see him taking classes, but he never seems to be actually teaching, just reciting trite platitudes to his obviously bored students. If I did a writing course and all I got from the tutor was "remember what you're writing about", "be honest" and "don't edit or revise, just publish", I'm pretty certain I'd be asking for my fees back. If anything it's more interesting that Charlie's not some brilliant, maverick teacher, just a fairly average one - but the film doesn't explore this (because to be fair, that's not what it's about). [ BACK ]

*2 Scenes of Charlie furiously munching his way through various courses of junk food to smother his pain are brutally frank and presented without apology, but never feel exploitative. That said, sufferers of Misophonia will be wanting to make a break for the fire exits; the sound design here is... haunting. [ BACK ]

*3 And aside from the superb acting, if the makeup and prosthetics teams of The Whale don't leave awards season with hernias from all the trophies they've been carrying home, there's no justice in the world... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.

Wednesday 25 January 2023

Review: Unwelcome

Cert: 15 / 104 mins / Dir. Jon Wright / Trailer

Directed by Jon Wright, Unwelcome is the story of a young expecting couple in central London - Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) - who inherit a house from Doug's elderly aunt in rural Ireland. Upon arriving in the idyllic village, the pair are cautioned by neighbour Maeve (Naimh Cusack) that certain superstitious traditions have to be upheld. More pressingly though, repairs to their semi-dilapidated home are being carried out by local ne'er-do-wells The Whelan Family (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Chris Walley, Kristian Nairn and none other than Colm Meaney - the Poundland Brendan Gleeson). The incompatibility between city attitudes and countryside manners soon grinds everything to a halt as Maya and John begin to find out who their enemies really are...


Some movies struggle to balance all their ideas, feeling like they've been written by a committee. Others suffer because only one person was at the typewriter, unable to fully develop ideas or bounce them around to greater effect. Unwelcome is firmly in the second camp and, frankly, Uneven. The film teases its semi-demonic Powrie (or red caps / little-people) well enough throughout, but the backstory and methodology is too vaguely defined to really sell their malevolence to the viewer. There's plenty to enjoy for seasoned fans of mid-budget horror, but for everyone else the film will be markedly less satisfying.

It's perfectly cast, albeit for slightly undemanding roles (I certainly wish I could have seen the version of the film that Hannah John-Kamen seems to be acting in; it looks much better), and initially appears to be beautifully filmed with crisp, rich, warm tones from cinematographer Hamish Doyne-Ditmas. But then this look continues. And increases. Now I'm as guilty as the next reviewer of complaining about stylised desaturation these days, but this is too just colourful for the atmosphere it's trying to conjure. Even the night-scenes are lit up like an operating theatre...

Despite clearly sitting within a set budget it's not that the film feels cheaply made, but cheaply written. Penned for the screen by Mark Stay (from a story by him and the film's director), this begins in heavy-handed full-throttle and pretty much continues in this vein as even the 'friendly' people in the village seem inherently weird. But this isn't some London-phobic tale of outsiders being shunned by locals, we're just hanging out with a couple who can't catch a break. There's also a rich seam of dark comedy waiting to be mined out in the countryside, but for the most part the gags are DOA because of how needlessly harrowing the rest of the movie is.


The main problem is that once our heroes arrive in Ireland, the intense colour saturation lends the film a dream-like air, as in a video game or a badly shot soundstage pretending to be an exterior location. In this environment, it's impossible to introduce a credible threat since a sense of reality doesn't exist to be disrupted. Therefore, the only way to generate sympathy for Maya and Jamie is for the film to relentlessly punish them for misdemeanours they really haven't committed. Director Jon Wright clearly despises his characters, but would like you to stroke your chin at their misfortune instead.

Unwelcome never slows down enough to properly build tension. The Whelan family are certainly very unpleasant, but never become real characters to be properly frightening. And the only person in the entire town who seems to know anything about the Powrie is Maeve, who fails to really give enough detail about why they're to be feared/respected. Jamie's Aunt may have entered into some bargain with the little people, but it doesn't follow suit that Maya has to continue it, particularly since they don't seem to be intimidating the rest of village (not in an organised way, at least).


On a social-level, the film deals with its very specific themes very acutely, but there's little beyond that. Horror works best as metaphor; this is just a modern retooling of the Hammer-era folk chiller (by way of Dog Soldiers, then by way of Labyrinth) using mawkish audience manipulation rather than actual storycraft. If anything, it's disappointingly literal.

When the film finally lets rip with its bloodsoaked finale, the story has spent so long gleefully abusing its protagonists that all of the inbuilt ridiculous humour instantly evaporates, but the focused urge for crimson revenge isn't quite there either as the bad guys are split over two hastily sketched - but entirely separate - groups.

I can envision Unwelcome playing really well to a packed film-festival crowd who are into the corniness and care slightly less about pacing, but in a quarter-full multiplex screening this sort of fell on its arse a bit. The lack of atmosphere in the room is not the film-makers' fault of course, but that does affect a viewer's perception of what they're watching. A civilian audience isn't going to wryly guffaw at a heavily pregnant woman being terrorised for over an hour and a half.

This is a weird little first-draft of a movie. As a trashy, cautionary-horror flick it's absolutely fine, but there's the unscratched-itch that Unwelcome could have used its runtime for something much smarter and more meaningful...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

• ^^^ 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 23 January 2023

Review: Babylon

Cert: 18 / 189 mins / Dir. Damien Chazelle / Trailer

Roll-up roll-up then - if you will - for a sizzling period-piece epic from a celebrated, eclectic auteur of a film-maker; an arch, blistering love-letter to Hollywood starring Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt, where everything happens all the time for three hours but without a coherent central narrative. Again. Welcome indeed, to Babylon...

A sprawling tale of path-crossing and deal-making in the golden age of cinema, writer/director Damien Chazelle seems to have been at something of an impasse over what genre he wanted this to occupy, and has instead gone for 'as many as possible, please'. Comedy meets drama meets high-camp head on, and even horror waits to be found in Los Angeles' seedy underbelly.


Taking the concept of all-star casting to admirable levels, the film spends its time weaving between the intersecting lives of jaded heartthrob Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), rising starlet Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) and aspiring producer Manuel Torres (Diego Calva). All the people they all meet over the next five years seem to be included here, played by a sea of familiar names and faces all happy to blag their 15 seconds onstage at this party. Beginning at the end of the silent-film era in 1926, Babylon's own excess earns that 18 certificate (no mean feat for a non-horror piece in 2022), some of it necessary for the story but most of it not.

To his absolute credit, Chazelle is a master of note-perfect, gloriously long takes, showing off not only the skill of his cast but also a tight reign over rehearsal and production discipline. One of the funniest segments centres around Nellie trying time after time to nail the perfect take of a very simple scene, channelling Alden Ehrenreich's turn in Hail Caesar but no less endearing for that. It's also one of the only parts of the film with any sense of form.


Obviously Chazelle has merely created the illusion of 189 minutes of self-indulgent chaos, but that doesn't make the final product any more orderly (the lone title-card arrives over half an hour into the movie for approximately no reason). Visually sumptuous, technically stunning, narratively desolate and morally agnostic, this is a three hour Rorschach test; the cave on Dagobah, with glitter.

Packed to the rafters - again - with subtle references, direct references, themes and actual lifted plot points of his favourite film, I fear that if someone doesn't let Chazelle just remake Singin' In The Rain he may very well expire*1, although ironically this is perhaps closer in overall tone to De Palma's Scarface. For clarity, none of it is overtly bad, in the same way that watching a kid play happily with all of their toys at once brings a smile to the face. But only one of you is actually having fun.


On occasion, this film thinks it has something meaningful to say about artistic yearning and the darker side of showbusiness. It doesn't*2. Babylon is mawkish and manipulative, full of straw-man arguments for hypothetical dinner parties, with Chazelle scripting as if he not only holds the answers but has also been the first to come up with the questions. As a result, this really is a film for audiences who think that explaining artifice is the same thing as telling truth.

And yeah, points are coming off because it ends with a greatest-hits reel of its own first act. Nailed-on celluloid onanism.

In his labour of cinematic love, Damien Chazelle may well have captured the very soul of tinseltown; Babylon is engaging, exciting, eviscerating, and even by the time the end-credits start to roll it means absolutely nothing...

Perhaps that's the real lesson.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Spoilers, highlight to read: Look, I'm as much of a fanboy of the Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly classic as everyone else in here - really, I am - but the first two and a half hours of Babylon are a hyperactive retooling of Singin' In The Rain, then the final 30 minutes are the main character literally sitting in a cinema and watching Singin' In The Rain and crying at all of the sequences that have been ham-fistedly referenced earlier. This might as well feature Chazelle walking past the bottom of the screen holding a placard which reads 'do you understand yet? It is this. I want to make this'.

Oh, and that meta-flash-forward at the end where Manuel imagines visions of iconic cinema yet to come, intercut with clips of the greatest films of all time (plus Avatar)? I notice you couldn't get the rights to Star Wars, Damien...
[/End] [ BACK ]

*2 For the record, I genuinely believe there are points to be made about art vs entertainment vs consumerism, the intersections between the three and when it is and isn't helpful to define them. And for the record I genuinely believe that this movie hits precisely none of those marks... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.

Friday 20 January 2023

Review: Till

Cert: 12A / 130 mins / Dir. Chinonye Chukwu / Trailer

Directed by Chinonye Chukwu and screen-written with Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp, Till is the adapted true story of Emmet Louis Till (Jalyn Hall), a 14yr old African American from Chigaco who was murdered in 1955 by a white lynch-mob while on holiday in his family's heartland in Mississippi. The film covers this, and follows his mother Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) in her subsequent fight to bring the killers to justice - unheard of at that time and place.

Cutting straight to the chase Hall is great, but for obvious reasons has limited screen-time. And while it may be named after Till's character, there can be no doubt that this is Deadwyler's film. Her performance is magnificently layered as a parent who is both cloyingly over-protective, and shown throughout to be entirely justified in that caution. Scenes of panic and of despair play as you would expect, but Danielle's skill lies in capturing the alternating numbness and simmering fury of her grief. Backing her up ably is John Douglas Thompson as Emmet's uncle Moses who was present on the night of the abduction, again with a complexity of emotion that most films would skip in favour of glowering silences.


The production design and cinematography give this the aesthetic and colour palette of a much gentler film, so it's really down to the script and acting to deliver the story's punches. The drama builds more slowly than expected, rarely descending into theatrics even at its most heightened points. It's is rarely an easy-watch, intentionally and deservedly so, and Chukwu manages the intensity of the themes fairly well within a 12A certificate. While this certainly holds back in places, it's not likely that a 15 would allow the film to paper over its cracks, and ultimately the accessibility of the 12A is more important.

Other than the behaviour of the press in how these cases are covered during trial, there's not really any contemporary angle to the film. Till is an historical story, presented historically (had this been about a child being murdered by the police, it would play very differently in 2023). After a purposeful first act and its inevitable halt when the key plot-point takes place, the pacing feels off for a while as players are moved around the board; not so much like the film is building tension but actually putting off its crescendo.


The third act is essentially a Mississippi courtroom drama as Mamie's persistence leads to the landmark arrest of two men for the murder. It's well assembled but feels somehow ordinary for a film with this much to say. Because the screenplay has already shown the truth of events in the first act, there's no unravelling or revelation awaiting the viewer at the trial (other than watching the antagonists vilify themselves further), and the sequence borders on becoming admin.

The (thankful) exception to all this is the single, minutes-long, unbroken close-up sequence where Mamie is cross-examined by both the prosecution and the defence. Focusing purely on Deadwyler's delivery and reactions, it is an absolute masterclass. This scene will be the one which lands awards and leads to the film being seen by a wider audience, and ultimately that's what matters.

Till's performances are exceptional in some places solid everywhere else, but a pedestrian screenplay can't save the narrative limitations of historical fact, and the frankly unsatisfying nature of what is one dark chapter in a much larger story. At its most testing points, this risks turning into a John Grisham pastiche, and the story deserves better than that...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

• ^^^ 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.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Review: Plane

Plane (spoilers)
Cert: 15 / 107 mins / Dir. Jean-François Richet / Trailer

What a world. In other times, a film of Plane's calibre would have been shuffled directly to video; in 2023 it's used to prop up ailing cinema schedules. Yes, The Butler is back! Everyone's favourite Caledonian commando returns as Brodie Torrance™, the white, middle-aged, single-dad, widowed-husband, troubled-past, diamond in the rough airline pilot who routinely turns up late to his own flights looking like he's slept in a skip and somehow not getting breathalised on every single step of the gangplank. A man who's spent so much time at high altitude, his oxygen-starved brain can't remember what accent it's supposed to be sending to his mouth.

For the avoidance of doubt, Brodie is Scottish™, a fact which gets mentioned in the script approximately every fifteen minutes as a sort of disclaimer to international audiences who won't be able to understand three out of every four words he says. Sadly, the territory where Gerard will achieve the lowest level of actual verbal decoding, is Scotland...


But to the film. Brodie departs Singapore one dark and stormy night bound for the good old US of A, his small passenger manifest being bumped up by an accompanied felon who's being extradited after capture abroad. Flying through the maelstrom, the craft is struck by lightning causing a power-outage, meaning the captain is forced to make a crash landing on the first landmass which comes to sight. The plane touches down roughly, with two on-board fatalities. What's worse though, is that upon debarking the crew work out that this island is under the control of separatist militia, and the inhabitants of the plane won't be rescued by these people, but more likely taken hostage and/or just murdered. So it's up to Dark Horse Brodie Torrance to put his RAF-past into good use, and put his trust in the most dangerous man on the plane to help them all out...

So it's worth remembering that while The Nasty Militia come to be the film's antagonists through luck rather than judgement, all of this is caused by a lightning strike as Gerard flies through a storm. Yes for clarity, the real bad-guy in this movie is weather. Although given the carbon-footprint of launching a 155-seater McDonnell Douglas MD-80*1 just to carry 14 passengers, it certainly feels like mother nature's ire is justified.


A po-faced survival thriller custom designed for all the dad-heroes in the audience, the problem with Plane is that is just isn't very good. Butler seems to be playing a dialled-down version of his usual action-hero hoping for gravitas, but comes off as chronically tired instead. The script doesn't have his usual level of quippery, and charisma isn't making up the shortfall. And sure, maybe Gerard's not quite right for the part, but after Willis, Gibson, Neeson and Statham, who else is answering the phone in 2022?

Mike Colter strives as Louis Gaspare, the handcuffed antihero on sudden day-release, but the film only uses him for action sequences and does absolutely nothing to actually explore let alone redeem him. Everyone else is set-dressing, there are no characters in this movie. Most of the faces here are barely even archetypes. Once the separatist militia villains arrive, this turns into exactly the sort of mildly xenophobic action thriller we've all been expecting since the titles. Maybe not to Besson-levels, but even Captain Phillips bothered to find out what it was the pirates actually wanted.

There is some interesting camerawork in the film's combat scenes, to the point where you can tell this was all director Jean-François Richet was really interested in capturing. Although to be fair, that's a charge which can be levelled at a large percentage of the target audience, as well. Truth be told, at a nuts-and-bolts level the film is about as well assembled as you could hope for this sort of thing. The problem here isn't the execution but the product itself, the first screenplay seemingly written by ChatGPT*2.


Apart from anything else, the plane's only in the air for 19 minutes. By that logic they might as well have called the movie 'Shirt', at least Gerard waits the full half hour before ditching that. In a just universe, that craft would have come down on the island from H.P. Lovecraft's Dagon, then we could spend the rest of the film watching every character wish they'd smashed into the sea instead.

Despite the occasional feint in the direction of a plot twist the film is reassuringly linear, and no matter how wide-eyed and earnest Gerry gets with his mugging to camera, Plane is bland, disposable and frankly boring. Of course it could be worse. We should probably think ourselves lucky that Mark Wahlberg wasn't flying it...

Asda. End of aisle cardboard pop-up.
Gifts for Father's Day.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Seriously, I fucking love plane-geeks just like I fucking love train-geeks. If Star Wars didn't take up all my brain-shelves I'd totally be in one of those clubs. Magnificent work you beautiful people. [ BACK ]

*2 Spoilers, highlight-to-read: And fair fucking play, I did not have the film turning into Flight Of The Phoenix on my bingo card. Rather than killing the all bad guys (because he's only killed several), Gerry decides he'd better repair his own plane and fly the rescued passengers all out of there. Because sure, he's ex-RAF so that means he's a fucking one-man ground crew. And sure, he could have performed this (apparently) five minute task at the start of Act II well before the militia showed up, when he had the time, the space and significantly fewer bullet holes in him, but let's not split hairs, eh? [/End]
Mind you, while I'm on: I'm assuming none of their mobiles work once they're on the main island after the crash? Because if that's mentioned in the script it's well buried among the screeching and complaining, and not a single character keeps forlornly jabbing at their Samsung that we see. And yet there, in the film's closing moments, is Gerry sitting on the back steps of the plane on the blower to his girl. How? This scene only takes place fifty miles away from the rest of the movie, there's either coverage in the Phillipines or there's not. Apart from anything else, all those militia bods are totally the type to be with 3 Mobile... [/End]
[ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.

Sunday 15 January 2023

Review: M3GAN

Cert: 15 / 102 mins / Dir. Gerard Johnston / Trailer

Gerard Johnston's cyber-chiller is the story of a software engineer, Gemma (Allison Williams), who masterminds a next-level interactive toy; a life-sized android of a little girl named M3GAN (Model 3 Generative ANdroid) complete with an artificial intelligence which exponentially grows and adapts to its owner/subject. When Gemma's niece Cady (Violet McGraw) is orphaned in an horrendous traffic collision, she is awarded interim custody of the child whilst trying to juggle a modern, independent life and her demanding career. When M3GAN appears to be the perfect companion for the grieving Cady, Gemma sees this as indicative of the projects success, while her boss David (Ronny Chieng) sees this as indicative of a product which needs to be hurried through production to maximise profits. But no one seems quite prepared for how M3GAN attaches herself to Cady, and the lengths to which the surrogate babysitter will go to protect the pair of them from outside harm...

Now, narrative cinema requires a suspension of disbelief from its audience; the ability to forget they're sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers watching a series of rapidly projected images created by hundreds of people thousands of miles away for millions of dollars, and a willingness to buy into the in-universe reality and emotion of the story they're being told. Science fiction and horror need this above all else, because of the logical unbelievability of their content.

Director Johnston, along with screenwriter Akela Cooper and story-lead James Wan, require what can only be described as several gargantuan leaps of faith from the media-savvy viewer in 2023. They are asked (indeed, expected) to believe that a) a doll of this technological and mechanical complexity can be fully developed and then produced to retail at $10k, b) that there will be enough takers in the domestic, suburban market to make this a viable business model, rather than using the same tech to create workers for hazardous environments (ie the replicants in Blade Runner), and c) that aunt Gemma is in any remote or meaningful way equipped to be the legal and moral guardian of a traumatised child, despite her not being sure and every single other character in the film (including the robot) confirming this doubt repeatedly. The last of these challenges is where reality just hangs up its gloves for the rest of the movie...


So this write-up feels like it's peaked already, but there's no way to skirt around the elephant in the room. M3GAN isn't awful, but it's a long, long way from being great. Oddly slow to start (given that it's a movie which is perfectly encapsulated by its 2½ minute trailer), this is a social satire implemented with a hammer rather than a scalpel, practically winking at the camera every time one of the vacuous adult characters makes a pointed comment about technology being loud, confusing or unstable, like it's been script-edited by a committee of Daily Mail readers.

It's not that the film is stupid - it's really not - but in order for this to be smart it needs nuance, and that's something to which the budget would not stretch. In producing this film it apparently took twelve million dollars to create a screen-realistic synthetic human that looks deliberately false for story reasons, but authentic enough to be perfect as the film's uncanny antagonist. And yet Hollywood™ still can't find anyone who can convincingly Photoshop together a mantlepiece photo of three actors who are supposed to be on family vacation together...

Weirdly, while the central performance of the eponymous android is every bit as believable as the story requires, the whole thing is repeatedly hamstrung by the surrounding humans making the simplest mistakes, dumbest assumptions and most tonally myopic oversights that the genre has ever witnessed. It's not that you're rooting for the robot exactly, but M3GAN certainly seems like the most level-headed character.


To be fair, there are positives in all this. The film holds a very respectable number of female characters, not just the story-leads but in supporting positions too. It never overplays this or makes it a thing (so forgive me for making it a thing), but this really works in M3GAN's favour as not feeling too much like a standard studio-horror. There are also a handful of scenes where Johnston and the cast finally embrace the silliness of the situation and effectively turn it into an eighties slasher movie. These are very welcome, but they're too few and far between to be a defining feature.

The cast give it their all as far as they're able; of my varying problems with the film, acting isn't among them (although it's worth noting that young Violet McGraw is great at playing 'emotionally scarred' to the point of absolute unlikability; as previously noted, zero nuance). Allison Williams carries the lead well, completely aware that her character's flaws are integral to the plot mechanics. First and foremost though, the combination of Amie Donald's physical performance, Jenna Davis' vocalisations, and the model-making, animatronic and digital artistry which completes M3GAN herself is, if anything, beautifully understated. Because the audience is told the character is artificial, the need to find flaws in the presentation immediately evaporates, focusing attention on the story. That the story isn't particularly great*1 is by the by, but yeah...

M3GAN isn't trashy enough to be fun, and it's not clever enough to be provocative. Passable Friday-night fare, what this wants is to mix philosophical morality with self-aware satire and cutting edge visuals, like a 21st century take on Shelley's Frankenstein by way of Ex Machina. Instead, this is Lawnmower Man for the TikTok generation*2, desperately hoping the 'what if' will be loud enough to drown out the 'yeah but how?...

It'll make money though, so at least Blumhouse's largest box is ticked, right?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Spoilers, highlight-to-read: At the climax of Act III it turns out that the robot isn't remotely waterproof, which feels like the shittest thus-far-ignored plot progression since H.G. Wells painted himself into a corner and made all the Martians catch a cold so that his story could end without everybody just dying. That isn't the clincher, though: in an actually-telegraphed move, it's shown that anyone could have just stabbed M3GAN in the face at literally any point to stop things getting out of hand. [/end]
[ BACK ]

*2 Yeah it's easy for me to be that snarky, but it's also easy for the film to try and be better. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.

Review: A Man Called Otto

A Man Called Otto
Cert: 15 / 126 mins / Dir. Marc Forster / Trailer

Content warning: This film contains upfront references to suicide. Along with various spoilers, so does this review.

A Man Called Otto is the new outing from Marc Forster (written for the screen by David Magee), as we follow its titular hero (played by Tom Hanks) struggling to adapt to life without his recently deceased wife (played by Rachel Keller in an ongoing series of flashbacks). Otto has always been a stickler for order and routine, but cannot find comfort in these at his lowest ebb. An attempt to take his own life is interrupted when a young family (Mariana Treviño, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, with Alessandra Luna and Christiana Montoya) moves in across the road of the gated compound which he has made his fiefdom over the years. Never one to share his problems publicly Otto slowly warms to these new arrivals, although his own demons prove harder to evict...

First things first: the film is nowhere near as twee and cuddly as its carefully market-tested trailer might suggest. Second things second, it's nowhere near as coherent and heartwarming as it needs to be, either. The central lane of this particular journey is a man repeatedly trying - and failing - to take his own life. Adapted from a Swedish novel and its own screen-version, the fingerprints of a pitch-black European farce are still evident, but it's clear much has been lost in translation (not to English, but to Hollywood™). In a bid not to upset the mainstream appeal of its leading man, the film never truly explores the depths of his despair, opting instead for a series of soft-focus flashbacks in which genuine emotion is drowned in cack-handed schmaltz. Back in the present-day, everyone seems to be acting for the PG13 Judd Apatow version of the movie, also at odds with the story about actual grief.


It's probably worth remembering that this is the director who previously helmed Christopher Robin and World War Z; both from much loved source material, both ambitious with clear good points, and both something of a mess when all was said and done. Hanks plays Hanks™ here of course, great in its own right but not suitable for a character who needs much rougher edges. Hoping to come across as Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, Tom's curmudgeonly outbursts at neighbours and store-clerks never really convince, and while his quieter scenes of reflection are much more reliable they feel like similar performances from his other films.

Worse still is the bewildering choice to cast Hanks' actual son Truman as his younger-self for the unfurling flashbacks: a man who neither looks, sounds nor acts like his father. If anything, Truman seems to be channelling the wide-eyed, clunky innocence of Forrest Gump, which would be fine except that's not the way Tom is playing things, even if both characters are clearly neurodivergent (but in massively different ways - Tom understands this, at least). So for two thirds of the film you never forget that you're watching Tom Hanks, and for the other you never believe that this guy is going to grow up to be Tom Hanks...

That said, at least they tried to solve this with casting. One flashback sequence features a digitally de-aged Hanks to play Otto at a point where he neither looks like 27yr old Truman or 66yr old Tom. And as CGI-work goes, it's not too bad. Well, not too bad apart from the effects team's range of reference material meaning that every intercut camera angle shows Hanks at an apparently different point of his younger life, as if the one scene out by his garage takes place over about ten years.


The reason all of this is so frustrating is that when A Man Called Otto does work, it's nothing short of beautiful. At its core this is a story about companionship and humanity, and the best sub-plots are the quieter ones where the performers aren't relying on the dialogue. Given how robbed of screen-time everyone apart from the Hanks's are, it's actually remarkable that Rachel Keller, Mariana Treviño and Mack Bayda turn out to be the film's high points. There were a couple of moments where even a hardened old cynic like myself almost had Something In My Eye, and they hint at a much better version of exactly the same story waiting to be made.

But ultimately, there's just not enough connective tissue between what's great and what Columbia Pictures thinks the audience of a Tom Hanks movie wants, expects and indeed deserves. Story-turns and reveals feel sketched in, and it's left to the goodwill of the audience to paper over the cracks in the screenplay*1.

Not as bad as it could be, nowhere near as good as it should be, the necessary darkness is almost non-existent and Marc Forster can't even get the heavy-handed, cookie cutter, mawkish sentimentality right. A Man Called Otto has moments of greatness, just not enough to make it the film it wants to be.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Okay spoilers, highlight-to-read: In the third-act it's revealed that Otto's wife Rachel had been paralysed in a traffic accident shortly after they were married and had moved into their dream-house in the 1960s or 70s. There was an earlier throwaway comment (in the present-day) from a neighbour about the house having low-worktops in the kitchen (except they're not that low, so at that point you just assume Rachel was short), but this new information comes after we've already seen that the house has an upstairs. And no stair-lift. Otto and his wheelchair-bound wife have apparently lived for over forty years in a house where he's had to carry her upstairs - unaided - every single day, and apparently he's not then built like Hulk Hogan. And we know by now that he's got a heart condition as well. Neither of them had thought about moving to a house more suitable for their needs, they're both so in love with their dark, poky little new-build, inner-city compound-condo, even getting slightly outraged when more houses are built at the end of the street (that they can't see until they go outside, since they're facing their opposite neighbours across the dual-lane tarmacked roadway). It's like they're all living in an open prison-complex, and this script feels like it's still in second-draft... [/End] [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.

Thursday 5 January 2023

Review: Empire Of Light

Empire Of Light
Cert: 15 / 115 mins / Dir. Sam Mendes / Trailer

And so to January, where the annual internal-committee decision that there really should be more of an effort with reviewing films walks in largely lockstep with the sort of emotionally laden awards-fodder that wore down a writer's resolve to begin with. But no matter, we are where we are. Following stints showing the routine physical and moral punishment of James Bond and the entire allied forces, Sam Mendes turns his directorial eye to one of our national ruddy treasures in Empire Of Light...


We meet Hilary (Olivia Colman), a middle aged woman working at a cinema in a small seaside town*1 in the closing days of 1980. While not exactly dilapidated, quiet business reflects the downturned fortunes of the town in general and society as a whole. When the small team is joined by Stephen (Micheal Ward), an affair is struck up between the two of them which reveals longstanding tensions but ultimately cements their friendship further.

Boasting Colman, Colin Firth and Toby Jones in its ranks, there are few more British™ films around at the moment than this. That said, Empire Of Light is not the twee chocolate-box outing the casting might suggest. All three of these are big hitters in the Drama™ stakes of course, but Mendes also restrains himself from diving headfirst into the angst-pool. Mostly. Fans of genre mainstays the Loaded Silence and Sideways Glance will not be disappointed. Tony Jones is great as ever as projectionist Norman, and Colin Firth ensures full value for money as greasy cinema manager Donald. Colman and Ward are fantastic.

The film's colour palette is a subdued as the lighting, with master cinematographer Roger Deakins indulging the quiet claustrophobia perfectly. This is counterbalanced by the delicate, sweeping score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, almost a character in its own right.


While it's essentially a portrait of Hilary over about nine months, various external social troubles intersect her already-tested soul. These are handled somewhat bluntly, but we view them from those who are affected the most directly and there's certainly little sense in trying to dial any of this down. In other hands this would have been a film about the racism, the mysoginy or the mental instability, but here they're just pieces of Hilary's larger picture - albeit an unflinching one. Likewise, Norman's occasional interplays about cinema being a magical tool of escapism in turbulent times almost feel pasted in from a different draft of the film where that was the focus. He's always a welcome of presence of course, it just feels like this version of the film shortchanges both the actor and the character somewhat.

The central thread is all executed competently (although would we expect less from this director?), even if some of the turns seem clearly signposted at times. In its most tense scenes, you can almost see Sam Mendes at the side of the set, grinning as he toys with the audience. Fair play to him. Overall, Empire Of Light is less of an A-to-B narrative and more a mood board on the fleeting nature of interpersonal relationships in a chaotic world, and the film is arguably all the more interesting for that. A 'Sunday Evening' type of thing, this is worth watching for the performances alone; perhaps not as philosophical as intended, but always thoughtful and sometimes even beautiful.

Mind you, there's a brief section in Stephen's flat where the television is on showing Wogan-era Blankety Blank featuring Norman Collier and Diana Dors. That episode was originally transmitted on 02 October 1980, and this part of the film takes place well after the New Year's Eve scene at the start, meaning the story is now in 1981. The episode in question was not repeated the following year. Well done, Sam. Film ruined.

And it is for this entirely avoidable reason that I have no choice but to award Empire Of Light the lowest possible score...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

There. I said it.

*1 This was mostly filmed in Margate (Kent), and while the town isn't specifically named as Margate, the script refers to "the South coast" and it's not not named as Margate either. Also, to anyone who's ever been to Margate this is Very Obviously Margate. That said, Empire Of Light also shows its characters getting on a regular passenger-bus that's destined for Hastings (East Sussex), a mere 70 miles away and nestled well into the next county. So who knows? [ BACK ]

• ^^^ 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.