Friday 28 July 2023

Review: Barbie


Cert: 12A / 114 mins / Dir. Greta Gerwig / Trailer

Life is pretty good in Barbieland. Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) enjoys an idyllic existence partying, relaxing and socialising with a wide swathe of other Barbies. Beach Ken (Ryan Gosling) joins in but pines from afar, wishing their non-committal relationship could move to the next level, while also enjoying an active social life with all the other Kens. But strange things are afoot, and Barbie notices the shine beginning to rub thin on her daily activities; food tastes bad, showers are cold and she can't shake growing feelings of existential dread.

Visiting Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon) on the outskirts of town, our heroine learns that her problems stem from angst in The Real World, where the girl who owns the doll is suffering a series of emotional upheavals. This discord has caused a tear in the space-time continuum, and the only chance Barbie has of putting things right is by travelling into The Real World (with Ken in tow) and bringing a little sparkle to Los Angeles before Barbieland falls apart...


So it seems Mattel have finally broken into the live-action movie IP business by spending $140 million*1 in remaking The League Of Gentlemen's Apocalpyse. I mean fair play, I did not have that on my 2023 bingo card, but at least they've got the action figures on the shelves already so this is a bonus (HASBRO TAKE NOTE).

After riffing on Kubrick's 2001 as per the teaser trailer, Barbie's opening act is everything you'd expect from A Barbie Movie naturally, and archly self-aware as it is, still feels like being kidnapped by a hen party and waterboarded with Lambrini. That said, the production design is a thing of surgically precise beauty, a wry homage to the brand rather than a parody. The players are entirely onboard and carry this in the same vein, and both Robbie and Gosling are perfectly chosen with excellent comic timing. Greta Gerwig's tight direction makes the most of her script with longtime collaborator Noah Baumbach.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud gags throughout, both in Barbieland and The Real World. A huge supporting cast are having a blast as the various branded iterations of Barbie and Ken, and Michael Cera brings his trademark anxious demeanour as Allan. America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt are superb as Gloria and Sasha, the mother/daughter combo caught up in the strife which has opened a gateway between planes of existence. Will Ferrell plays the (appropriately unnamed) CEO of Mattel by playing Will Ferrell™, and Dame Helen Mirren continues to channel the late John Hurt by providing a voiceover that's so cloyingly tongue-in-cheek it actually cheapens both the film and her own IMDB catalogue.

The film wears its feminist credentials on its sleeve and does so very well, even if the message feels very much on the nose a lot of the time. But the fact that this ethos has made it out of a dozen boardrooms and onto mainstream cinema screens in such a prominent style is a feat to be applauded in itself. The version of what we see could not have been made without Mattel's endorsement, and while the impression remains that the paymasters are generally in on the joke, we're also left with the feeling Gerwig and Baumbach are filing off many of their sharper edges. What's more interesting is the boxes the film refuses to tick. Despite the ferocious branding and leaning heavily into the current, financially lucrative, version of its namesake, Barbie is not a children's movie. Children can certainly watch it (within the expected 12A parameters obviously), but it's made for adults - specifically, ones who remember Barbie but don't necessarily have a house full of them any more. And yet at the same time, this isn't an empty, cash-grab nostalgia exercise. It's promoting the product definitely, but it's more about selling the idea of Barbie. Or an idea, at any rate.


In terms of the actual mechanics of the storytelling, things are a little more... well, vague. The spoilers start here, by the way. Even in a tale of fantastical allegory, the internal logistics have to work for the audience to buy-in on an emotional level. So, if Barbieland™ includes every Mattel doll that's played with then the town would have a population of billions, whereas if there's a separate, self-contained Barbieland for every girl who plays with Barbies then each one would only be populated by the dolls that girl owns. The girl in question here (it's Gloria) only has the few dolls left over from her daughter's recent childhood, not the vast array of specifically vintage and also very up-to-the-minute Barbies on display in the film. There's no clarification over why this is. The Barbieland we get seems to include one of everyone, with no details as to how many other humans are involved at a higher level or how ownership has been assigned. But okay, we'll go with it.

We're told a portal has opened due to a Barbie-fan having a hard time in The Real World, yet in the real world boardroom scene we're told this has only happened once before. As if a lot of people in the real world who've got Barbies aren't having a hard time a lot of the time precisely because of how the real world works. There'd be portals everywhere. But okay, we'll go with it. Likewise, we're told that Weird Barbie has become eccentric because her owner/handler/God went a bit crazy and drew on her with pens, cut her hair with scissors and wedged her legs into permanent splits. Again, kids are gonna be kids and there'd be a lot of these Barbies around town. But okay, we'll go with it.

We don't see the actual, plot-critical portal itself, just a recurring vehicle-montage through Barbieland then the travellers being on Venice Beach, Los Angeles; and vice-versa to return. Barbie and Ken manage to take Gloria and Sasha back through with them, so we'll accept that regular humans can make the reverse trip with no ill effects. But Will Ferrell and the entire Mattel board of directors also manage to surreptitiously follow them, so we've got to assume that it's accessible to anyone on-foot from Venice Beach, yet nobody else has accidentally wandered into this portal that's been open for the duration of the entire storyline. How much more of this do we have to go with?

The Crocodile Dundee, fish-out-of-water routine with Barbie and Ken in LA is executed very well, but doesn't last for long as the pair are soon heading back, as noted above. Meanwhile, most people in the Real World seem remarkably calm about the human iterations of two actual dolls walking around, especially the ones who know exactly what's happened. You'd think this absolute upheaval of mundane reality and revelation of a parallel universe might be a bigger deal, somehow. Similarly, when Ferrell and the gang find themselves in Barbieland, the cultural offset is mined for almost zero reciprocal material. Indeed, the screenplay has no idea what to do with these characters so just forgets about them until the climactic Beach-Off where they have pretty much no constructive part to play (the board's overall plan to 'fix' the situation by putting Barbie back into a branded packaging-box is also weirdly indistinct). For a movie that's genuinely funny, it's staggering how much comedy-potential is wasted here.

Despite all my snarking though, Barbie is good. I don't think it's quite everything it wants to be, but it succeeds in being the film that it (and its audience) needs. It's certainly more than Kenough. It is entertaining and it does also carry a worthwhile message. The feminism, however, is not its subtext - that's very much The Text. Deeper meaning is perhaps more rudimentary than a fuchsia-fuelled crusade for girl-power...


The inhabitants of Barbieland seem vaguely aware that they're dolls and that The Real World exists, but they know next to nothing about it and show little desire to change this. It's not in the dolls' capacity or programming to realise the limitations of their surroundings or question anything outside of them, and so they're completely unable to deal with deeper philosophical problems about anything that can't be quantified in colourful plastic and simple, methodical activities. Even Margot Robbie's Barbie needs to be railroaded into knowledge by McKinnon's older, cynical sister. When peace and regularity is restored to Barbieland at the end of the third act, this is performed largely by reverting to the status quo prior to the first.

Barbie herself (the Margot Robbie one) finally rejects this of course, like a Tyrell Corp replicant now aware of its lifespan and wanting more. Having understood that revolution won't (or can't) work in her hometown, Barbie opts for evolution instead and journeys to live as a human in desaturated, complicated, messy meatspace. As we close, Barbie's future is an open road, albeit a markedly and necessarily less pleasant one in the process. But she's chosen hope and possibility. Gloria and Sasha's lives may be better as the credits roll but they're not that different, and we all know that Will Ferrell's character will still be Mattel's CEO on Monday morning and Gloria will still be working for him. Stereotypical Barbie was the only character in the movie to take a chance, to make a choice that bold, that permanent. And the choice is open to everyone on-screen of course, but the availability of that choice to everybody? That's the feminism, here. That's the equality. Because of course, the price of that freedom means having to accept that some people will decide they want things to not get better...

Back in Barbieland, the remaining collective of Barbies and Kens (okay, and Allan) also have wider knowledge of how things really work now, and they choose repair their society by setting all this to one side and carrying on as before. They're not ready to make the change, yet. Similar to Never Let Me Go, this might be the most profound point the film makes - that the Barbies' and Kens' perfect, repetitive, superficial lives are our lives, as we blankly rush through our ingrained routine to spend disposable income being distracted by a two hour dopamine-boost in a cinema. Or at a party. In a restaurant. At a shopping mall. In dream houses full of wonderful organised, covetable, accumulating stuff, always thinking about tomorrow and never appreciating the nuances of today, just as we recoil in horror whenever someone mentions the truth that we will not talk about: that fact one day soon, we will die.

We could live more, feel more, choose the genuine thrill of uncertainty. But it's easier to choose not to. Stereotypical Barbie has chosen to truly live, and in doing so has chosen death. And this is a final theme upon which Barbie does not dwell of course, because it doesn't do to be overtly reminded you're wasting your life by a toy advert...*2

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Wikipedia lists the film's budget (production, not including marketing) at $128-$145m. And while that obviously is a lot of money, it has to be said that bringing in a Hollywood-grade film with a production-design this polished and featuring this cast for under 150 large ones is pretty damned impressive, especially looking at the box office returns it's making... [ BACK ]

*2 There is a very strong chance I've over-thought all this of course, but please do bear in mind that I'm the one who interpreted the U-rated Boss Baby animated movie as being a study of infant-mortality induced PTSD... [ 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 26 July 2023

Review: Talk To Me

Talk To Me
(Structural spoilers)
Cert: 15 / 95 mins / Dir. Danny Philippou & Michael Philippou / Trailer

Reeling from the recent death of her mother, suburban Australian teenager Mia (Sophie Wilde) attends a party with her best friend Jade (Alexandra Jensen) where a seance-type game is being played. A curious ornament of an embalmed, outstretched hand is used as a bridge between the land of the living and the tormented souls of the dead in limbo. The subject who grasps the hand and recites a mantra is then possessed by whichever spirit answered the call, while friends in the room run a timer and break the connection by blowing out the candle before the player is lost completely.

But when Jade's little brother Riley (Joe Bird) persuades the group to let him try, the combination of his youth and a particularly malevolent visitor result in the boy being catatonically hospitalised. Blaming herself, Mia resolves to rescue Riley from wherever his essence is being held, as well finding time to battle her own demons...


So, the Philippou brothers' film is, in a very real sense, a ouija-movie. The setup of bored teenagers using a physical artifact to channel the netherworld and then realising they've bitten off more than they can chew and spending the next 80 minutes trying not to go mad or die is a tried and tested formula. Long-time readers of this blog will know my patience with this sort of thing is usually wafer-thin at best.

Talk To Me, however is different. It's different in that it's pretty marvellous, and that's entirely because of how it handles its premise, rather than the premise itself.

A measured first act teases the results of a previous group messing about with The Hand, before taking the time to build up the characters of Mia and Jade. Neither are presented as bratty, conceited or unusually damaged (do remember these are teenage girl protagonists in a horror movie), and we get enough background information that it while may seem unusual for them to be diving into a seance, it doesn't feel unexpected.


But it's at the point of the first ritual that the film starts carving its own path. The teenagers in the room aren't surprised when contact is made with the other-side. The 'things' that the subject sees are visible only to that person; to everyone else it looks as if they're just hallucinating. But several of the kids have seen this before. Indeed, they've done this before; that's the game. This isn't a group of giggling children pushing a glass around a table, it's a quantifiable experience that can't be faked - and it's treated here as a drug as they take it in turns, filmed by everyone around them on their phones*1 and enjoyed by all. Because as terrified as each of them are when they're 'under', they return energised and wanting to do it again.

More importantly though, this isn't a film about meddling with the occult. Horror works best as metaphor, and Talk To Me is a study of grief, guilt and mental illness, which isn't altogether unusual for the genre. It is more, however, a surprisingly thoughtful muse on the boundaries of consent and where they intersect with responsibility. The film never asks these questions explicitly and it certainly doesn't offer easy answers, but to even raise this in such an under-the-radar way is a smart move, and one which should be lauded.

We see it play out many times. Once the game's participant is safely strapped to a chair (torso only) and the candle is lit, it's that person who has to reach out and grasp The Hand. It's that person who has to utter the words "talk to me". And after the immediate sight of a decomposing corpse in front of them, it's that person who then has to literally say "I let you in". After this point the dead person takes control of their body (hence the strap), and will remain in place until the candle is extinguished. The subject is fully inhabited by the dead at the absolute mercy of their friends, and they've been a willing player in this game of this from the off. They're reliant on those friends having also experienced this first-hand, and understanding the gravity of the situation amid the 'fun'. So who's to blame when the genie doesn't want to go back in the bottle?

While the already-mythologised origin of The Hand is discussed at one point, there's no second-act scene in a dusty hospital archive where Captain Exposition conveniently reels off a backstory. Likewise, destroying The Hand to magically undo its deeds is never mooted as an option, with Mia actually bringing a cause-and-effect approach to studying its mechanics instead. Although by a certain point in the film it becomes clear that the only light at the end of the tunnel might in fact be its own dark place...


Talk To Me is different enough in its detail to set it aside from the standard posession-horror flick, but is rooted firmly enough in the social tradition of those to ensure that points of familiarity strike home. There are a smattering of jump-scares but the film certainly doesn't rely on them, infusing the audience instead with a sense of dread and sadness.

The main selling point though, is the superb work of the huge make-up and prosthetics team, and a host of excellent dramatic performances from the cast (especially Sophie Wilde), rather than the players defaulting to 'horror movie shriek-mode'. And ultimately, this also comes down to the deft writing of Bill Hinzman and Daley Pearson, and the focused direction of Michael and Danny Philippou, who've shown that not only can they play with the big boys - they understand the game far more intimately*2.

Talk To Me is a very neat little genre movie that's not going to change the world, but is punching well above its weight in an overcrowded fight. I don't need to see sequels (that ending is perfect as it is, thank you), or spin-offs or half a dozen Blumhouse efforts trying to emulate everything this does right, although I suspect all that's coming down the line anyway...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Okay, so when exactly is this movie set, that the characters have shiny new iPhones and MacBooks, but Jade's still got the Crazy Frog as a ringtone? Is somebody looking after Australia..? [ BACK ]

*2 Which is something of a surprise, because prior to the film there was a short welcome-reel featuring the Philippou brothers and quite frankly they come off like an absolute ADHD nightmare. This was part of Cineworld's Secret Screening programme, incidentally, and between the BBFC card and ten minutes into the movie I counted 19 walkouts. Which is entirely fair enough. There are many people who just don't do horror (there can't be any other mainstream genre so culturally divisive), so getting people out of the house for a mystery movie and then springing something you know for a fact that a few of them will hate seems like an odd move. Because those 19 people won't be coming to the next one. It's also worth noting that the Secret Screenings are no longer exclusive to Unlimited card-holders, so potentially some of those walkouts had actually paid specifically to be there. I hope they got a refund... [ 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.

Monday 24 July 2023

Review: Oppenheimer

Cert: 15 / 180 mins / Dir. Christopher Nolan / Trailer

Oppenheimer is a three hour, period-set film about nascent nuclear weaponry from a provenly competent storyteller which somehow features neither a young Emmet Brown sitting in a physics lesson nor Indiana Jones in a fridge.

Christopher Nolan is a fucking coward*1.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Okay, I'll keep this as brief as I can. The note about Doctors Brown and Jones is obviously a joke. The score is not. I did not enjoy Oppenheimer. Then again, I genuinely believe that it's a film not created for enjoyment in any traditional sense, quite a demanding piece to watch and unsatisfying by narrative necessity. We should certainly expect no less a challenge from Christopher Nolan though, just as we wouldn't want him to be anything other than himself as a filmmaker. I suppose.

Playing with non-linear storytelling once again, Oppenheimer is framed as two separate interviews with associated sets of intertwining and converging flashbacks, each spanning the same twenty-or-so years from different points of view, where the guy we're supposed to be rooting for is demonstrated as being a dysfunctional, womanising moral-vacuum who's figured out how to most efficiently carry out genocide before the nazis and complains non-stop about this before, during and after the fact. Leaving a spray of failed personal and professional relationships in his wake, we see Oppo systematically piss off just about everybody in his life and then act surprised when they take against him...

Of course, this wouldn't be a Christopher Nolan movie without mumbled, unintelligible dialogue from the most important characters, battling here against Ludwig Göransson's piercing, intrusive score in a sound-mix that was finalised while somebody was hoovering. All of this has the pacing and delivery of high-drama, but with the implication of a storyline rather than the exposition of one. I know Nolan doesn't like to spoon-feed his audience, but Oppenheimer doesn't even have cutlery on the table.

You see, despite the device itself having a supporting role on the film's poster, this movie is not actually about Da Bomb. This is just as well, because shortly into the first act Nolan realises he can't narratively simplify for the audience either quantum physics nor the workings of an atom bomb, so quickly stops trying. What the movie actually is, is three clinical hours of dislikeable characters doing unpleasant but necessary admin and then everyone being unable to cope with the fall-out (literal, as well as metaphorical) of that, interspersed with the micro-management of international and domestic U.S. politics of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. So I was hardly expecting Terminator 2, but this is lots (lots) of middle-aged white guys in suits sitting around withholding information and showing they really can't be trusted (I go to the cinema to get away from that), leaving the cinema audience with quite frankly nobody to root for. Other than the demonstrable sociopath the film is named after. I suppose.

In terms of moral debate, Oppenheimer occupies the same shelf as Eye In The Sky and Red Joan, where hand-wringing and thousand-yard stares nudge aside the brutal practicalities of Not Losing A War. I never thought I'd watch a movie where Matt Damon plays the most rounded and sympathetic character, but here we are.

While the two timeline strands are clearly delineated by the use of colour, the content in each rarely seems complementary or interactive enough to warrant the effort. Like several of the director's recent pieces, the presentation seems needlessly fiddly yet is perhaps the only thing saving a story which would otherwise be grindingly linear. But without a solid grounding in the U.S. politics surrounding the Second World War, it all comes out as a mess anyway. It certainly feels like there's a price of entry here that's separate from the one printed on the ticket...

Biggest bugbear: We know that test-bomb's not going to destroy the world, lads; we're all here in 2023 watching the film and we'd probably have heard about that before now.

Second biggest bugbear: So what are these clandestine, closed-room hearings for, exactly? What are the nefarious powers in faceless American government trying to do to Mr Oppenheimer, who single-handedly won all of that very specific part of the late-war for them? Are the Suits trying to have him silenced? Discredited? Ruined? Killed, even? No, they're trying to remove his security-clearance. They want his badge back, that's all. They don't want the guy swanning around the lab like he owns the place ten years after he built them a super-bomb and has done nothing since but wear out the buttons on the highly-subsidised coffee machine. Just have a bit of dignity and retire, Oppo. Jeez...

Oh and bonus points to Kenneth Branagh, failing to control an accent in a built-up screenplay. Again. Proof positive that our celebrated auteur director was either distracted on-set, or deaf.

In short (and I'll bet you wish you hadn't clicked into this footnote now), Chris Nolan has not made a genuinely great film since Inception. There, I said it. [ 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 15 July 2023

Review: Spider-Man - Across The Spider-Verse

Across The Spider-Verse

Cert: PG / 134 mins / Dir. Joaquim Dos Santos / Trailer

It's an odd one alright. I complain quite vociferously about the lack of new available content at my local 'small' five-screen cinema, while simultaneously seeming to ignore popular mainstream releases which should by all accounts be right up my alley. There are fatigue-related reasons that Sony's new Spider-Man movie opened at the beginning of June and it's taken me six weeks to get round to watching it.

While I didn't actively dislike its predecessor Into The Spider-Verse, the film was definitely saddled with the burden of being Sony's Spider-Man rather than Marvel's one. And Sony's output is increasingly like a 1980s pop band touring provincial venues with only one original member, and they're not even the best part of the band but they are somehow the one who won the legal rights to use the name. The 2018 animated feature was too long, too messy, too loud and with too much shit thrown at the wall in an attempt to make something stick.

With all this in mind then, I can confidently report that Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse is at least tonally consistent as a sequel.


The storyline follows on from last time, with Earth-1610's Miles Morales being back in his own world and struggling to find a trajectory as he nears the end of high school while moonlighting as Spider-Man. Meanwhile, Earth-65's Gwen Stacy battles with her own issues as Spider-Woman, living with a father who's unaware of her secret identity and determined to catch 'The Spider' for the murder of Peter Parker. But when a Renaissance version of The Vulture starts tearing through the multiverse, the multiversal 'Spider-Society' is tasked to stop him - which will mean reluctantly recruiting Morales to help...

In theory this is all fine; in practice it's too much simultaneous Content™ again. Visuals which would look outstanding for a three-minute music video become utterly exhausting over two hours. Each and every frame here is a work of art, they just make no sense when they're strung together too maniacally to keep track of. There's more detail than the eye can follow through the film's hyperactive editing, and the whole thing turns into the visual equivalent of white noise. Ironically for a film this active, it creates a soporific effect as the brain starts to shut down rather than keep attempting to process the information. Perhaps I just need to watch it on a smaller screen.

Part of the USP with the animation is that its art style is constantly changing, often within the same scene. Initially it seems to be doing this to reflect the character whose point-of-view we're experiencing, but scenes later in the movie only feature two people yet cycle through half a dozen looks. This precocious presentation results in a film which feels like watching a group of first-year art students have a collective seizure. Elsewhere, earnest and spirited vocal performances are rendered unintelligible by an atrocious sound-mix, poorly placed over intrusive, percussive soundtracking. And since around 60% of the dialogue here is catch-up exposition, Across The Spider-Verse basically has to be enjoyed (...) as a visual experience.


My real problem is bigger than all of this, though. The following is not limited to Spider-Verse, but certainly includes it. Put simply, multiverses are hands-down the worst thing to have happened to superhero cinema, and that's only getting more problematic. The concept works in print where the possibilities and limitations can be explored at a more careful pace (indeed, with comics it becomes needed as characters are relaunched for evolving audiences after years of literary service; multiverses allow for a soft-reboot), and I've admittedly enjoyed it at certain points previously. But the cinematic iteration of the superhero-multiverse has fast become the equivalent of 3D, a knee-jerk fad to be ordered at an executive level in lieu of creativity. And it's already on its arse.

As well as encouraging filmmakers to overindulge in distracting cameos and needless fan-service, the open-ended structure of parallel realities means that narrative decisions in one movie can be ret-conned, undone or just flat out ignored in the next (yes I'm looking at you, Gamora). When consequence is removed from the storyline then none of it matters on an emotional level, and cinema is supposed to be about empathy. But hey, why mine for a deeper pulse when you can just make the whole thing bigger and louder with more slightly-different versions of the same thing*1? Audiences know by this point not to expect restraint from corporations desperately trying to keep their intellectual property fresh, and the race for More Stuff™ has become just as repetitive as the origins-formula it was trying to supersede.

Even more ironically with Across The Spider-Verse, Miles Morales (and by extension, the whole audience) gets a whole lecture about 'canon events' - concurrences which need to take place across every iteration of the hero's life (here it's the death of Uncle Ben, or equivalent guardian in each timeline), otherwise their path will be too different from all the other spider-heroes and things will become too unpredictable. What this deftly - if unintentionally - illustrates is that Sony are happy to bring in about a hundred different Spider-Mans from all the corners of the property they've got the rights to but are too afraid to do anything different with the character. Spidey's backstory is permanently locked into our pop culture at the same level as Bruce Wayne's, meaning nothing can be changed on a fundamental level without Sony taking a massive gamble in pissing off the legacy fanbase and also not enticing new viewers. In other worse, Spider-Man is precisely the wrong character with which to explore the multiverse. Well done, guys.


Truth be told, when Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse slows down and actually concentrates on its character-work, it is pretty superb. But the fact that this only happens twice in over two hours means that the film, on the whole, isn't. A textbook example of Style Over Substance. In all honesty, it feels like I'm done*2.

All I really want out of Spider-Man is a third Andrew Garfield flick to close out his trilogy, and a new set of live-action movies for Miles Morales where possibilities can be broadened. And what are Sony bringing to the table instead? How are they maximising on their end of an historic deal from Marvel currently enjoyed by no other studio? With shit-Dracula and shit-Tarzan. We get the protagonists we deserve.

To make matters worse, I just know that Me in some other part of the multiverse is enjoying the good stuff...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 "more slightly-differing versions of the same thing" is, to be fair, Marvel's entire cinematic business-model. And I have to admit it's done them well for at least the first ten years of the MCU... [ BACK ]

*2 It's worth noting of course that this is Sony's mess, not that of Marvel Studios. But Marvel's name is on the can and they signed off on this - they do have that veto. Which means they are in a large and instrumental part responsible for it. And even that'd be easier to forgive if Marvel hadn't put out Eternals under their own banner. If they can be slack in what they serve up, they can expect consumers to give few fucks in return... [ 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 12 July 2023

Review: Mission Impossible, Dead Reckoning Part One

Mission: Impossible
Dead Reckoning, Part One
Cert: 12A / 163 mins / Dir. Christopher McQuarrie / Trailer

Things have finally heated up inside the cinema as well as out and the war is truly on for Summer box-office dominance, as the major studios triumphantly present their long-planned showcases for audiences who stopped going to the pictures in 2019. You love to see it. Paramount's saviour is, once again, Tom Cruise - perhaps the last of the great bankable movie stars who manage to get bums on seats purely by being themselves again in a slightly different hat. Anyway, there's a new Mission: Impossible flick out...

This penultimate instalment sees Ethan Hunt and his ragtag IMF team trying to prevent various world- and criminal-powers getting their hands on 'The Entity', a lengthily described yet sketchily defined self-learning, fake-news generating Artificial Intelligence, which could either destroy humanity or just convincingly swap-out the faces of everyone on ITV (whichever is the most inconvenient), activated by a two-part interlocking key*1 that's been stolen from a Russian nuclear submarine. As McGuffins go, this one is nailed so firmly onto the zeitgeist that it's actually kinda quaint...


Before we get into specifics, it should be noted that Dead Reckoning is incredibly solid. It's just never more than a Mission: Impossible movie. And while it's certainly arguable that it doesn't need to be, the whole thing plays out with breathless adrenaline and surgical flair, yet no real emotion at all. There's never the sense that this is leading to anything bigger than in previous entries (no matter how much Lorne Balfe's score swells), and for a screenplay which spends so much time harping on about its past, you'd be forgiven for expecting it to mean more, somehow...

There are slightly too many characters for the (admirable) simplicity of the story, each set-piece is slightly too long, and every rubber-unmasking is unintentionally funnier than the last.

Simon Pegg gets the lion's share of the comedic quips (delivering them perfectly, it has to be said) and a high-speed chase across the Italian cobbles in a yellow Fiat 500 brings some much needed silliness to the mood, but overall Christopher McQuarrie has gone for brooding intensity over fun. Again, whether levity should even be necessary is a debate for more scholarly viewers, but Dead Reckoning is far more slick in the moments when it's got a grin on its face.


Cinematographer Fraser Taggart puts in solid work all round with framing, composition and deftly following the action, plus capturing the immersive yet distinct colour palettes of the many locales. Unfortunately his work is slightly undone when it comes to the melee scenes (of which there are many), where Eddie Hamilton's editing fast-cuts between angles so quickly that the whole thing loses coherence rather than adding excitement. And because these physical sequences are often used to move the story along, the script then requires regular industrial-sized injections of exposition from Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, as they sit in front of generic nonsensical laptop displays and explain to other characters where we're all at and what's happening next.

The choreography and stunt work itself is - it should go without saying - beautifully executed of course, huge in its scope and minute in its detail. At this point in 2023 however, the thought occurs that since Fast X has already shown us pseudo-family-bonding and destructive car chases, Mr John Wick has brawled and shot his way through half of Europe and Indiana Jones has had a prolonged train-top fight for a powerful golden artifact on a steam engine which is hurtling towards a bombed viaduct... well, what is Ethan Hunt bringing to the party exactly, except for all-of-those-again?*2


Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning is great on a technical level, but unambitious on a narrative one. There's plenty in there to come to the cinema for, and yet little take away. Since the audience only trusts four characters at the start of the movie (and that only really raises to five), there's little jeopardy in tantalising that others 'might be a bit shady'. They're all a bit shady mate, that's why we're here. But Esai Morales going full Bond-villain as the marvellously camp Gabriel lifts that end of things considerably.

Decent, but the series has been better than this*3, so next year's finale has its work cut out.

Oh, and I'm taking points off for McQuarrie chickening out of a potentially brilliant and literal-cliffhanger ending, instead resorting to a damp squib of a decompression coda accompanied by another two minutes of expository voiceover...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 SPOILERS, highlight-to-read: Apparently the powers-that-be are desperate to get their hands on both halves of this key, even though they're shown in the first act as having an exquisitely detailed 3D model of it, so they could just print that and then cast their own copies. There's something about some red and white 'dragons egg' jewels in the key's handle which light up when it's assembled, probably acting as a verification system, but this isn't explained in any practical sense either. We see two guys using it at the start of the movie and they literally insert the key into a lock and manually turn it. Lads, Timpsons are open until 6, they can run one of those out for you...
[ BACK ]

*2 Look, I know it's not Bruce Geller's, Erik Jendresen's or Christopher McQuarrie's fault that the action sequences of Dead Reckoning have been undercut by its own release-date but seriously: we've already seen most of this, and in films which weren't afraid to also make us laugh. I mean if they'd had Ethan Hunt punching a giant prehistoric shark at the end, at least he'd have got his foot in the door before Jason Statham...
[ BACK ]

*3 The first two Mission: Impossible films are the best ones and for wildly different yet complementary reasons thank you I will not be taking questions at this time.
[ 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.

Monday 10 July 2023

Review: Joy Ride

Joy Ride
Cert: 15 / 95 mins / Dir. Adele Lim / Trailer

Having been raised in America by adoptive white parents, Chinese-born Audrey (Ashley Park) is due to make a business-trip to her spiritual motherland where her best friend Lolo (Sherry Cola) tags along for moral support and suggests that Audrey should use the opportunity to track down her birth-mother. Along the way they're joined by Lolo's awkward friend Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), and once in China Audrey is reunited with her college-bestie Kat (Stephanie Hsu), who is now an actress on the brink of stardom.

When Audrey realises that connecting with her birth-mother could actually help her close the deal as well as bringing her personal fulfilment, the four undertake a fish-out-of-water transformational road trip to find her, find themselves and each other...


So, the comedic sub-genre which gave us teen jaunts at the end of the last millennium and ratcheted up to pre-midlife-crises less than a decade later, has now taken the next step by transplanting the central plank of four American white men with four Asian-American women*1. And while that kind of over-simplification does not help sell Joy Ride's many high-points and all they have to offer audiences on a broader cultural scale, it's no less true for that. The screenplay here is banking on its audience being familiar with the journey in advance, because it knows that the average punter can only handle so much being 'different'.

From the off, internal friction comes from Audrey being the successful lawyer archetype who fears she's out of her depth, Lolo is the loudmouthed but well-meaning slacker, Kat is the preening actress with devastating insecurities and Deadeye is the socially-crippled wildcard. All four of these are treated well by the film, but almost everyone else is a sketched-in placeholder. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (of Superbad fame) are named in the producer's-list and it shows. True to genre-form, Teresa Hsiao and Cherry Chevapravatdumrong's script isn't afraid to use profanity in lieu of crafted punchlines, as well as lazy but well-meaning gags about racism and sex organs in the same vein.


For all the extremity of the jokes, director Adele Lim does display genuine heart and sincerity when it comes to characters finding the line between discovering their past as a means of belonging to something, but not letting the weight of that heritage hold them back from forging their own futures. Ashley Park's scene with Daniel Dae Kim and Michelle Choi-Lee late in the movie is utterly delightful. If anything it's a shame that this emotion acts as a coda to the third act, rather than its backbone.

But for all this reviewer's cynicism, the bottom line is that Joy Ride works as a perfectly serviceable Saturday night comedy. It's a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel, but there's no denying that most of the jokes do land firmly as a result. The final product may not be especially unique, but the film does what the film does perfectly within its own remit.


And yet much like No Hard Feelings currently doing the rounds, this smacks of a screenplay that's been floating across various desks for the last twenty years. There are clear demographic reasons why this version of the movie wouldn't have been greenlit back in the early 00s*2, and it's debatable if the 2023-iteration is pushing boldly forward or just playing catchup.

Joy Ride is, though, indecently decent. And I'm adding points for the deserved use of Maroon 5 and Mumford & Sons as a deadpan punchline. But I'm taking points off for the big emotional monologue in the restaurant-finale that drops in 'greatest-hits' clips of the movie we've all just sat through, and taking more points off for having the diners burst into applause at the end of it.

There are some places we just don't need to go back to...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Don't write in. I'm very aware as I write that line that Sabrina Wu is non-binary, as is their character in the film, Deadeye. And I love and respect the fuck out of that (especially the fact that it's addressed in the script but doesn't turn into A Thing), but I assure you that on a marketing, demographic and "being The Hangover but the opposite of that" level, this ticks all the boxes of A Film About Four Women. Less is more, and in the context of Joy Ride it's probably the only thing in the movie which is underplayed. This is also way more queer-friendly than any version of the movie with four blokes would be, and is better for it... [ BACK ]

*2 For what it's worth Joy Ride was part of Cineworld's Secret Screening programme, where viewers didn't know what they'll be watching until the BBFC card after the ads and trailers. Always a gamble. And given the very non-Caucasian angle of the movie, fair play to the one couple who at least waited through a full twenty minutes of dick-jokes before deciding this wasn't for them and leaving early. Because I had immediate visions of this being The Hate U Give all over again, where just under 30 punters walked out in the first ten minutes, presumably because they all remembered they'd left the iron on or something. That must have been it, yes... [ 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 8 July 2023

Review: Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (plot-spoilers)

Indiana Jones
And The Dial Of Destiny

Cert: 12A / 154 mins / Dir. James Mangold / Featurette

I have to admit that after watching Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny three times, I love the film without it having made a huge jarring impact. Much like Solo, this seems to have slotted perfectly into the continuity with no real controversy (other than That Section In The Third Act which will have the usual suspects clutching at their nostalgic pearls, pining for the narrative realism of a magic box out of the Bible full of ghosts). Indy 5 slides deftly into the water rather than making a splash. And ultimately, this is for the best.

If you haven't seen the movie yet, there's a spoiler-free review here and a second one discussing themes here. Everything following the jump contains heavy plot-spoilers. Watch the film first. Hell, watch the film anyway...


Still here? Lovely.

So while it fits seamlessly into the narrative and tonal continuity, the fifth entry in the series does feature a couple of glaring departures from its forebears. And the first of these is the very first thing the audience sees after the ads, trailers and a BBFC/MPAA card, with logos for Disney, Paramount and Lucasfilm. In that order. What this means is that there's no cross-fade from the Paramount mountain-ident into the film's opening scene. Which, frankly, people would expect...

Given that Disney are controlling production and distribution of the property now, it's unclear what part Paramount are playing in Indy 5. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that if the company is important enough to credit with full-screen branding, tradition alone would go so far as transforming the mountain into, perhaps, a pile of spent shell-casings in war-torn 1944?

It's not a huge deal, but this is a real shame and the only thing that's definitively missing (read: fixable) in the whole film.

Dial Of Destiny's other departure from the series is a little more complex...


At the end of Raiders, the Ark Of The Covenant is closed and then nailed into a crate, to be kept safely out of harm's way (or at least until the US Government find a way to weaponise it, presumably). Similarly, Temple Of Doom sees the Sankara Stones returned to their people, and Last Crusade has the Holy Grail lost into the earth. Even Crystal Skull closes with the titular bonce being reunited with its owner and skipping off through the space between the spaces. Indy doesn't get to keep these McGuffins like Mr Benn sidling back to Festive Road with a memento. That's very much the point of the movies: archaeology is about acquiring and sharing knowledge rather than just hoarding treasure*1.

But as Dial Of Destiny winds down, a senior Henry Jones Jr wakes in his apartment to the ticking of a clock and a slow camera-pan (a callback to earlier in the film and a gorgeous nod to Back To The Future) with Archimedes' Antikythera sitting on the desk right next to him. Helena's left it there. It comes as no real surprise by this point that she's has decided against selling it off, but the dial is still in Indy's possession. Whether it can be used is up for discussion (and we're about to discuss it), but this is not an accident.


Shortly after, there's a lingering moment in the final scene where Indy and Marion reconnect in his kitchenette as the audience holds its breath for Mutt Williams strolling in through the door, to give a full family reunion. In this event, we would instinctively know that Helena had made an unseen, dial-assisted detour on their way back from the beach at Syracuse, managing to drop in on Mutt to have a quiet word about his upcoming enlistment in the US Army. The conversation between Indy and Helena in the second act where he laments his son's death certainly sets up this eventuality.

This doesn't happen, of course. Helena has already demonstrated (and with far greater clarity than her godfather) that she's got a firm grip on not changing the course of history. She's very eager to avoid inadvertently destroying the present they're trying to get back to*2, and so it appears she's brought everyone home without further chronological adjustment. Which is probably for the best.


This also results in a far more poignant ending, as Indy and Marion are rebuilding their relationship again (okay, again again) with wisdom, hope and reflection, rather than having their pain magicked away for a fluffy ending which must have been incredibly tempting in the writers' room.

Bur crucially - and for the first time, cinematically - Indy still has the item he's spent the last two and a half hours chasing. This movie may be marketed as the final cinematic outing for Jonsey, but we should be surprised if Disney had bought Lucasfilm to use this particular property only once. And as the final frames in the streets of New York show us, the man is incapable of hanging up his hat for good. Just what form future (or past) adventures will take is unclear, but Helena and the four screenwriters left the dial with Indy for a reason.


Then again, crammed into the third-act catchup exposition is the idea that the Antikythera is 'a forced deck'. That it only ever calculated a portal to travel back to Syracuse in 213 BC and that was its sole purpose. Because if Archimedes' time-fissures are happening anyway and the dial is merely a signpost, why has nobody accidentally discovered one without it? Do these rifts always occur in the air and during a storm, so you'd need to be mad to fly into one? And it still doesn't explain why, by 1969, the world hasn't had visitors or explorers from the future. Or maybe it has? The dial isn't a time-machine per se, but it demonstrably makes time travel possible.

Basil Shaw's decryption notes only show us limited references to to/from dates, and even this is vague since he hadn't figured it all out. So do we assume that Archimedes managed to reverse-calculate 1969's entry-point, knowing that the journey must work because he'd seen the result of it in his own past? That fits with the time travel coil-theory and would make this a One And Done item. In which case - its power spent - the Dial Of Destiny itself fits neatly among its enchanted peers. Not quite so different, after all. Indy can finally get one of his artefacts safely into a museum.

Unless he holds on to it again, of course. Just to remind him...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 A point literally spelled out by John Hurt's Harold Oxley in the fourth instalment, much derided and yet encapsulating the series perfectly. That movie is underrated. I digress. [ BACK ]

*2 Let's not get into the fact that Dial Of Destiny does leave a Syracuse coastline whose archaeological remains apparently contain a two thousand year-old HE-111 bomber plane, along with the non-perishable badges, buttons and firearms of all the nazis who fell out of it. Although because of the film's fixed-approach to time travel, those items were always there anyway. So fair play I suppose. Still, it's odd that in 1969 nobody has found these. Then again, Antonio Banderas' diving crew finally manage to be the ones to stumble across a sunken galleon full of ancient gold that everyone in the local fishing community knew about which is in water so shallow it can conceivably be seen from the surface on a sunny day, so... [ 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 7 July 2023

Review: Insidious - The Red Door

Insidious: The Red Door
Cert: 15 / 107 mins / Dir. Patrick Wilson / Trailer

It has been, lest we forget, five years since the last Insidious movie. And ten years since the last good one. But Sony and Blumhouse have decided there are still fumes in the tank and this time co-leading man Patrick Wilson makes his directorial debut as well. Writer Leigh Whannell returns once more (this time in the company of Scott Teems), and we're back with the core cast where it all began.

In this fifth installment (there may be no numbers in the titles but rest assured Sony, we're counting), it's nine years after the events of Insidious Chapter 2 and the Lambert family's precarious happy ever after has petered to an end. Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) have separated, Josh's mother Lorraine has passed away*1, and the spectral lodestone himself Dalton (Ty Simpkins) is about to go to art college. Josh is struggling with brainfog, as the lasting effects of the post-hypnotic suggestion that prevent him astrally projecting himself into danger are conflicting with his long-term memory. Similarly, Dalton finds that magically forgetting his abilities doesn't stop creatures from the other side seeking him out anyway...


After a slow-burn of a first act which plays like a genuinely interesting family melodrama, the colour saturation and gamma correction are turned down so the push-button, cattle-prod jump-scares can begin in earnest. You get the impression it's not that Patrick Wilson has anything new or unique to bring to this as a director, more that the man has starred in enough mid-budget studio horror movies that he's looked at whoever's sitting in The Big Chair and thought 'yeah, I reckon I could do that'. Insidious: The Red Door is by no means a bad movie, but it utterly squanders the property's cumulative potential.

Ty Simpkins' performance is strong in and of itself, but the role doesn't really allow him to flex as an actor (although has it ever?). Patrick Wilson, on the other hand, feels underratedly solid once again, with a surprisingly delicate turn that's no doubt the advantage of being able to direct one's own scenes. Both Wilson and Byrne have always had a decent handle in these films of conveying the actual weight of their emotion rather than just Shrieking-Fear, and this outing is no different. Sure, as a metaphor for parental anxiety and empty nest syndrome it's a bit on the nose, but the subtext is better for being text rather than being absent completely.


Of course Dalton's college setting opens the door to an array of setpieces the series has been previously unable to exploit: Shitty Teen Horror™. And leading the charge here, Sinclair Daniel as Dalton's roommate Chris seems to be acting in a far tackier version of the movie*2 despite bringing a welcome 'civilian' viewpoint. The keg-stands and explosive vomit occupy a limited section of the film thankfully, but their presence in the first place cheapens it.

Speaking of presence, in-universe character deaths don't stop other familiar faces returning of course, some of whom fill supporting roles while many are relegated to cameo-status. Between the demons we've already met and footage from the first two chapters intercut and re-composited throughout, there's plenty of connective tissue here. But crucially, there's never the feeling of two-way narrative traffic that writer Leigh Whannell once achieved. The film seems to spend a lot of its time pointing out the series' former glories, rather than expanding or exploring them.


If Insidious really had more to add to the story, it would have done so with its third movie. This tonal collection of callbacks has all the physical properties of a competent shocker, but doesn't enhance the events of those early films and barely even adds to them in any meaningful way. The style is fine, but ultimately this is hampered by a lack of coherent writing. The film seems to end just because things stop happening, rather than plot-points having been usefully resolved. This could be seen through some eyes as sequel-bait, but as of the closing credits there really is no story to continue.

The long and short of all this is that The Red Door is more interesting than the last two Insidious movies, and nowhere near as inventive as the first two. Which, at this point, feels about right...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Yes that's right they've written out Barbara Hershey, the only claim to any semblance of dignity these movies ever had.
[ BACK ]
*2 According to this script, there are actual human teenagers in the present day who literally say "BRB" and "interwebs" out loud using their mouths and sweet Christ will somebody please make it stop if I wanted this shit I'd watch Bodies Bodies Bodies.
[ 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 6 July 2023

Review: Fumer Fait Tousser / Smoking Causes Coughing

Fumer Fait Tousser /
Smoking Causes Coughing

Cert: 15 / 77 mins / Dir. Quentin Dupieux / Trailer

To the abstract then, and Quentin Dupieux's semi-surrealist comedy Smoking Causes Coughing. The film is centered around Tobacco Force, a present-day quintet of French, jump-suited action superheroes comprising Benzéne (Gilles Lellouche), Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammoniaque (Oulaya Amamra), Mercure (Jean-Pascal Zadi) and Méthanol, (Vincent Lacoste). Between missions (brawling with mutated turtles and lobsters in a disused quarry), they're sent on a team-building retreat by their boss Chief Didier (Alain Chabat) to regroup before going up against their nemesis Lézardin (Benoît Poelvoorde). As the weekend progresses, stories are told which make the group re-evaluate their past, their future and their values...


If only the film was as straightforward as that paragraph makes it sound. Even its own trailer only reflects about a third of what happens. This plays as Wes Anderson in some places, Tarantino in others, with notes of The Greasy Strangler as told by The Mighty Boosh. By the time we cut away to the tales characters are relaying to each other (none of which are about the heroes or their villains or anything either are trying to achieve), the film has dropped into Experimental™ mode, where performance and emotional-immersion far outstrip narrative credibility.

And if this sounds a bit up itself, it's supposed to. As much fun as he's having (and there is fun to be had here), director Quentin Dupieux delights in testing the audience's patience as the central plot evaporates under Tobacco Force's own scrutiny. And from the creator of a movie about a sentient, killer tyre this feels entirely in-keeping. The cast are impressively straight-faced considering how knowingly preposterous the whole thing is.


As film-making goes, the movie is arguably at its best when it veers away to the anthologised story-segments, although it's never more focused than in the lengthy conversation-scenes between the five. Huge stretches of the film look washed-out, like someone's whacked up the Gamma Correction to view details in a dark scene and then forgotten to set it back again. Dupieux tries to hide his worst excesses by channelling low budget shabby-chic, acting as if the slight crapness is fully intentional. And to be fair, Smoking Causes Coughing looks like it cost around £300 to make, so that will be true to some degree.

As intriguing as this is, it's difficult to recommend as it won't be for everybody*1, especially if the subtitles are going to be a problem*2. That said, if it's not your bag then 77 minutes is at least mercifully short. And related to this, Dupieux probably intended to close on an ironically open-ended, faux anticlimax, but it feels more like an improv group running out of steam three quarters of the way through a sketch. Like I said, intriguing.

Smoking Causes Coughing is a weird little hallucinogenic film. Certainly not unwelcome, but I have no idea what it's for, what it's trying to do or how well it succeeds. But I didn't not-enjoy it, so that has to count for something...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Even just taking the concept at face value, I've never smoked, I've never really got Power Rangers and my french is atrocious - this film was not made to tick my boxes. It's 2023, why parody the Power Rangers now?? [ BACK ]

*2 A thorny issue, but subtitles often make scripted comedies particularly challenging. Not only can the brevity of readable translation itself tangle the mechanics of a joke (as well as cultural differences affecting them), the viewer also loses the majority of the spoken intonation and - crucially - comic-timing. And despite its broad surrealism, Fumer Fait Tousser suffers here. [ 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.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Review: Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny (thematic-spoilers)

Indiana Jones
And The Dial Of Destiny

Cert: 12A / 154 mins / Dir. James Mangold / Trailer

Go big or go home, they say. Well, I'd already watched Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny in my home town, so next up a trip to the IMAX in London's Leicester Square was in order; just to give that de-ageing some real scrutiny.

On a surface-level, not much has changed on a second-pass. That said, the film seems to film flow more evenly and pacing-dip of the second act isn't as evident. Other minor issues are detailed in the first review and those still stand*1. But just like last time, they really don't derail enjoyment of what is A Rollicking Action Movie™.

What's most impressive about Indy 5 is how neatly it fits into the canon, structurally speaking. With the natural exception of the actual modus operandi (and more on that in the next review), everything that occurs here feels in-keeping with what's gone before. What follows after the jump contains thematic spoilers; there's nothing to ruin the story, but it'll tell you how that story is handled. Read on with caution...


So as much as this is firmly part of the cinematic family there are, however, significant differences in the execution this time around. As noted in the previous review, Dial Of Destiny features plenty of adrenaline and excitement, but it never quite manages to recapture the swashbuckling feel of earlier entries; of gravity being Indy's most persistent foe. This is to be expected given that our leading man is 80 years old and has already broken bones revisiting one of his old characters, but it's also worth noting that the actual threat to Jones is of a far more conscious nature, here.


Throughout the first trilogy, Indy faced danger as much from his environment as his antagonists. It's why those films can be an adventure even if he's the only person on-screen. Rolling boulders, runaway minecarts, treasure-guarding traps, spears and blades, or even just a set of stone stairs receding into the walls of a Mayan temple. There were plenty of obstacles for our hero to overcome before he came face to face with the bad guy. But this level of old fashioned derring-do is almost entirely absent from Dial Of Destiny.

Indy may not be swinging from ropes in this movie, but the man is still running for his life. The difference is that a boulder doesn't keep coming back as its grudge builds. The entire film is effectively one long chase-sequence (be it on land, sea or air), but the recurring and persistent mortal threat Indy really has to contend with is Men With Guns*2. Specifically, nazis with guns. Part of this, of course, is a throwback to the Raiders and Last Crusade, set around the era of the Second World War, and it's a decided choice by Lucasfilm/Disney to revisit a more clearly definable 'enemy' (because while the Russians in Crystal Skull where definitely Baddies™, the Cold War was a lot more nebulous as a concept, plus those guys didn't have a highly recognisable symbol on their uniforms).

While Indy's certainly in dangerous situations here, retrieving The Treasure itself is surprisingly straightforward compared to previous trials.


So on a screenwriting-level, is narrowing the danger down to people rather than place a reflection of the film's time-period, where even the romanticism of Hollywood had given way to a far more blunt realism? By 1969, the war in Vietnam was halfway through its second decade, Nixon had just taken his seat in the White House and the country was reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Optimism was struggling to find a foothold on Earth, even if the Moon was offering a glimmer of progress. The dream factories of California were in an emotional slump which wouldn't turn around until the arrival of Star Wars in 1977*3.

That Doctor Jones' battle with his nemesis here takes on an altogether more mechanical form is a testament to its setting, and it's probably no coincidence that this chimes fairly closely with our own times as well. The third act becomes truly and gloriously fantastical of course, but even then Indy is dropped (literally) into another warzone, where projectiles fly without the aid of gunpowder but are no less deadly for that. There's no time to catch his breath, eventually Indy just has to turn and fight.

With this in mind then, Dial Of Destiny was never going to be - on a fundamental level - 'the same' as earlier entries into the cinematic canon. Allowances have to be made (and have been) for the story that's being told and for what the audience is switching-off from when they sit down in front of it. It's about the insidious determination of fanaticism. It's about the nazis returning. And it's about not giving that an inch.


There's no both-siding here, no first-act charismatic charm to the evil. And nor should there be. Jürgen Voller is shown to be thoroughly repellent, and more credit to the writers and Mads Mikkelsen for making this so. Dial of Destiny isn't a lecture, but it's a pretty clear lesson about not letting down our guard, and in this respect it's a great companion piece for Spider-Man: Far From Home. Woke? Yes, and necessarily so.

That's not to say there's no place for rope-swinging, chasm-leaping, dart-dodging adventure in 2023. There absolutely is and god knows it's certainly needed, but at what point does escapism become distraction? There's already plenty of lighter entertainment showing in the other screens, and most of it carrying messages that are far more vapid.

I'm not saying Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny is deep - it's not - but the film does have an acute awareness of what and why it's meant to be. Namely, tinkety-tonk old fruit, and down with the nazis...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 To reiterate though, the digital de-ageing of Harrison Ford is wildly inconsistent - at times passable, at times horrifying - and watching the film on an IMAX screen only makes those flaws clearer, unfortunately. [ BACK ]

*2 I'd like to say men and women with guns, but do bear in mind that Shaunette Reneé WIlson's chronically-underused CIA Agent Mason is the only one who's trying to prevent her colleagues from shooting everyone in sight. [ BACK ]

*3 That's only due to happen eight years after what we see in this movie. Assuming Indy still lives to the age of his TV-persona, do we think this is a universe where he might sit down and watch Han Solo in Star Wars? After all, one of the best things about Dial Of Destiny is the unspoken reunion between Solo and one of the Millennium Falcon's droid-brains. [ 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.