Friday, 22 September 2017

IN THEATRES: Kingsman - The Golden Circle

After the Kingsman organisation is destroyed, Eggsy (Taron Edgerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) have to join forces with their US counterparts, Statesman, to take down a global drug baron (Julianne Moore) intent on taking her operation legit - even if that means sacrificing millions of her customers in the process.

    Man, this movie really suffers from a bad case of sequel excess.

    Everything you liked about the original (Colin Firth; gadgets; ultra violence; hip soundtrack) is back, but pushed to the most obnoxious level. If you found the original entertaining, you will be underwhelmed. If you thought the original was too mean and violent, this might not change your mind.

    The freshness of the original is missing, and what new ideas it does have (Julianne Moore's villain; a sociopathic US President; Elton John) don't feel as developed or interesting. It does not help the movie's case that it is constantly referencing its predecessor, to the extent of including flashbacks to the original. Making it even worse, brief sightings of Samuel L. Jackson's Valentine and Sofia Boutella's awesome Gazelle only reinforce the movie's lack of interesting elements.

    The movie's focus on re-treading old ground also reinforces the movie's lack of purpose. The original Kingsman had a pretty clear thesis ('What does it mean to be a gentleman?'), and was structured to show that being a gentleman has nothing to do with background or economic status. By contrast, The Golden Circle never really figures out what it wants to be about.

    Aside from the main plot, there are so many subplots that it gets a bit lost in the fray:
    • introducing the new organisation Statesman 
    • re-introducing Colin Firth's Harry Hart 
    • Eggsy's relationship with Princess Tilde from the first movie
    • the US President (Bruce Greenwood) using the villain's planned genocide as a way to achieve his own goals
    • Eggsy's uneasy partnership with Statesman agent Jack Daniels (Pedro Pascal)
    There is an interesting sub-theme about the war on drugs, which links the film's various antagonists, but it never feels related to what our heroes are up to. I did enjoy Bruce Greenwood's moral crusader President. Coming from a movie released in 2017, with an actual religious fundamentalist a heartbeat away from the office, he is easily more terrifying than the film's villain.

    I know this franchise is a take-off on James Bond, but it is sad that it did not take on a few more tropes from the series - ideas like a simple plot (Bond v bad guy; Bond kills bad guy; end), ignoring continuity (e.g. no flashbacks) and no world building (Spectre aside). This movie is so busy that it never really has room to breath and become fun. Instead it just feels like a victim of modern trends in franchise-building.

    The big new addition, Statesman, comes off like a cheap joke. Well, it would if the movie did not spend so much time on it. The focus on developing the organisation from an archetype of Southern white masculinity is a little questionable, but also feels a bit tired. Kingsman felt more fleshed out in the last movie, but its American cousin feels like an after thought. It does not help that the key players (Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry) are barely in the movie, and do not contribute much to proceedings. (BTW, it does not say much for Kingsman or Statesman that they have no idea that the other group exists).

    The focus on Pedro Pascal as Whiskey also feels unnecessary. He is not that interesting as a character, and he is sidelined as soon as Colin Firth returns to action.

    Speaking of which, Colin Firth's return never really feels essential, despite the movie diverting a large part of its middle act to his rehabilitation (amnesia, baby!). It does not exactly undermine the significance of Harry's death in the original - but does not add anything to it, or his relationship with Eggsy (here's hoping the plot device that brings him back is dropped in the next movie).

    CG is plentiful, and so is a lack of stakes. All of the set pieces are airless and fantastical. They are fun to watch, but never immersive (most exterior sequences scream green screen). There was plenty of cgi and speed-ramping in the last movie (two things which I did not particularly care for), but these elements felt necessary as an augmentation for what was already there (such as Gazelle's legs).

    While the movie is overblown and overstuffed, it is still watchable. The returning cast are all on pretty good form. Taron Edgerton does not get much in the way of character development, but he tills what soil he is given. Firth and Strong are also good, although some of the avenues the script sends them down feel a bit arbitrary.

    As far as the newcomers go, Julianne Moore is having a blast as the villain. Poppy is the secret puppet master behind all of the world's drug trade, and Moore gives her an air of surface charm which the filmmakers never really exploit. She gets a terrific entrance, but then the movie gets mired in other nonsense until the third act. I wish she had more screen time so we could get more out of her - we never see that cheery facade crack, and it would have been nice to get more depth out of her (we don't even get something as simple as Valentine's aversion to blood in the first movie). Her lair suffers from being an obvious set, but I like the idea of an exiled billionaire recreating the things she misses from home. The juxtaposition of fifties Americana (Poppy's diner and hair saloon look amazing) and jungle is great.

    And Elton John's role is pretty fun - they actually find a way to make his role a bit more involved than you initially expect, and his scenes are some of the few points where the movie steps off the gas and just bathes in its own lunacy.

    Overall, while it is never bad, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an overlong, uninspired sequel that never comes into its own.

    Related posts

    Kingsman: The Secret Service 

    Monday, 18 September 2017

    The Ballad of Dynamotion

    This piece was written last year and has never been published.

    When Lara Liew was growing up, she knew one thing: she was going to be a ballerina. The ballet shoes are gone, but Lara is still dancing -- although in a style and context her younger self would have never contemplated. 

    Lara is the co-creator and choreographer behind Auckland dance company Dynamotion. Co-founded with her friend Tom Sainsbury, Dynamotion takes every cliche associated with professional dance companies and throws them out the window.

    Lara Liew. Credit: Tim George

    Instead of taking inspiration from classic literature, Dynamotion has created a series of musical comedies drawn from b-movies and Hollywood blockbusters. And where other dance companies pride technique, in Dynamotion, dance ability comes a distant second to enthusiasm.

    While a few cast members have some dance training, most of Dynamotion’s cast have no professional experience beyond their work on previous Dynamotion shows for the last four years.

    “Previous dance experience is certainly not a requirement when we are casting,” Lara says. 

    The focus is on personality and performance ability. Instead of an audition process, the group stay vigilant for people with the “right amount of wackiness” and “big expressive faces”.

    The key to Dynamotion is not dancing, but ‘dacting’. Lara explains the term this way: “That ability to express through the face as well as the body what the emotion is.”

    While it started as a tongue in cheek term to describe their amalgamation of dance and acting, Lara and her collaborators take it very seriously. 

    “The more shows I go to that are dance related, I go to Tom and say ‘That show needed more dacting!’”

    This emphasis on the face is present in burlesque, but Liew feels it is undervalued in more traditional forms of dance.

    Part of the inspiration for the show came from Lara’s background in burlesque dancing.

    “I trained in classical ballet and what they call modern dance — similar to jazz I guess — and I did that for my whole childhood and through high school.”

    At 15, Lara’s confidence had been shaken after she failed an important ballet exam three times. 

    “Looking back I don’t even know why I was disappointed because I liked ballet but I like modern and street jazz much more.”

    Despite her success with these disciplines, Lara was solely focused on ballet, and after she failed the exam for the third time, she thought her dancing career was over.

    “I didn’t even really think that you could have a career in dance outside of being a ballerina, which is so ridiculous…”

    Lara shifted focus to acting. While studying at Unitec, Lara’s fire was re-ignited when she saw people studying contemporary dance without learning ballet. After acting school, friends encouraged Lara to audition for a burlesque company. Lara began working regularly in burlesque and it was through burlesque that the seeds of Dynamotion were sown.

    “I had sort of found most of my burlesque work was rooted in comedy,” Lara says. 

    It was through burlesque that Lara met Thomas Sainsbury. A local playwright, Tom loved to dance and together, they started spitballing ideas.   

    Tom Sainsbury. Credit: Tim George
    The idea was based on making dance accessible and funny, with an underlying message that anyone can be able to dance. They talked about what kind of story would lend itself to being told through dance. Tom was going through a phase of watching b-grade horror movies from the Seventies, so they designed a story based in that style.

    “We thought that b-grade, naff aesthetic would be something we could achieve with actors who were trying to dance,” Lara says.

    Lara admits that the first show was not an easy experience, but unintentionally, it laid the template for all of Dynamotion’s future productions. 

    Due to the small size of the cast, not only did Tom and Lara come up with the story and the choreography, they had to take the lead roles. 

    Rehearsals took place in Tom’s tiny spare bedroom, a claustrophobic hotbox where the only window was stuck closed. Minor reprieve came from a crack in the glass. The carpet had been ripped away leaving bare floor decorated with old staples. And before they could get to work, they would have to move a heavy slate bed that folded into the wall.

    “We just had to do tiny movements and we could barely move on the spot,” Tom Sainsbury says.

    The show played three nights at the Maidment Theatre at the University of Auckland. Despite getting out of the spare bedroom and onto a real stage, the pair were never sure of how their pet project would turn out.

    “We were backstage going ’we don’t know if this will work’ because we’d never really seen anything like it before,” Tom says.

    Despite the inexperienced cast and poor attendance, the audience response encouraged Lara and Tom to continue. 

    FACTBOX: Timeline
    October 2012 
    Terror Island 
    May 2013
    Terror Planet
    February, 2014 
    Purple Rainbow 
    July-August, 2014
    Terror Highway 
    August, 2016
    Mia Blonde in ‘Ice Dagger’

    In terms of production, every Dynamotion show takes four months. For Mia Blonde, they started working on it in May and it came out in August. Rehearsals were three nights a week for two months. Since the people work full-time, these rehearsals had to be organised in the evenings.

    When they choreograph the numbers, Lara and Tom make sure that the more proficient dancers are given more technically difficult choreography.

    “If I can do something and Tom can’t do something then we probably know that it’s in the ‘too hard’ basket,” Lara says.

    Thanks to their fast turnaround, the Dynamotion company has become more adept and ambitious in the types of dance numbers they create. 

    Lara says: “We are capable, as a cast, of harder choreography than we were four years ago.” 

    Most of the shows did not use dialogue, so focus had to be paid to movement and song choice to convey the story. They make one long playlist to measure out the runtime.

    As Lara says. “So if something goes wrong… there is no leeway.”

    Following their first show, Dynamotion has produced a show almost every year, with each production targeting a specific movie genre: Terror Planet parodied Terminator 2; Purple Rainbow took aim at the zombie genre; and their latest offering, Mia Blonde in ‘Ice Dagger’ was  a gender-swapping homage of the James Bond franchise.   

    “It’s such perfect Dynamotion fodder that it was a real natural fit,” Lara says.

    Because the group’s (assumed) informality, people are eager to join the group. Lara claims their audience have occasionally acted as a standby talent pool. 

    “Occasionally spots come up when someone can’t do a show and we go ‘Ah, you know who’s been on the waiting list for a long time?’ 

    On person who has never missed a show is Roberto Nascimento. He is one of only two dactors (the other being Kate Simmonds) who have been involved with every Dynamotion show since the beginning. 

    Roberto got involved through his friendship with Tom.

    “We had just done a different play together and he goes ‘Oh, do you want to be in this show that we’re doing? It’s like a dance comedy thing and there’s no dialogue, we just dance.’ And I said ‘Yeah’.”

    Despite having no idea what he was getting involved with, Roberto jumped in -- and he’s stuck around. Out of the 12 members of Dynamotion, he is the longest serving behind Lara and Tom.

    “I was just lucky that they thought of me at the time,” Roberto says.

    Roberto loves the lack of pressure that Dynamotion offers — it is just a chance to have fun and dance.

    “It’s important to remember you’re out there to have fun and also if I make a mistake, I’m the only one who knows.”

    Raewyn Whyte is the dance editor for Theatreview, New Zealand’s most popular theatre review website. Whyte has seen every Dynamotion show, and not just as a critic.

    “I saw it at the Fringe and I thought ‘this is cool!’ These guys are having a go and they have some really clever ideas, and there’s a good formula,” Raewyn says.

    Raewyn believes Dynamotion have carved out a unique place in Auckland’s theatre-dance scene where the emphasis is on sheer entertainment.

    "Comedy conveyed primarily through movement is very hard to pull off, and dance comedy is even harder. Most performers lean heavily on some kind of text, or the lyrics of the music. Dynamotion do use those devices but they have also mastered the knack of embodying their wacky characters wordlessly, which makes them so very entertaining,” Raewyn says.

    Roberto is extremely thankful for getting to be a part of such a unique group. 

    “Hats off to Lara and Tom for carrying it through and making it happen, because it’s tough to make things happen in this country sometimes.”

    Strangely, it is Dynamotion’s creator who has gained the most confidence from being a part of the dance troupe. 

    Lara claims her failed dream to be a ballerina hampered her dancing career. Even though she worked as a burlesque dancer for several years, Lara always thought of it as “the other dancers and me”.

    “It’s really only been in the last couple of years that I’ve had to challenge my perception of myself around dance and go ‘Wow, what a really narrow view to have of yourself as a failed ballerina’.”

    Because of her childhood disappointment, Lara never saw herself as a real dancer. Working with Dynamotion has freed her from this mindset.

    “I’m in a situation a lot of the time where I’m working with non-dancers and people who aren’t necessarily trained and I’m saying to them ‘Yes, you can be a performer. Yes, you can dance. Who cares if you’re too fat for ballet or too tall for ballet or too un-co-ordinated. Who cares if you’ve never done it before.’ And so part of it has been walking the walk, picking up what I sort of preach to other people.”

    Saturday, 16 September 2017

    I Wake Up Screaming & The Chase

    It has been a minute since I covered some film noir. Here are a pair of gems from the classic period.

    I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
    Following the murder of his beautiful protege Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), hotshot promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) is the prime suspect. Hounded by an imposing detective, Cornell (Laird Cregar), Frankie has to go on the run to find the murderer before he goes to the chair.

      One of the earliest noir, I Wake Up Screaming represents an interesting intersection point between a couple of different genres and what we now know as film noir. Framed as flashback heavy mystery, I Wake Up Screaming features many of the tropes one would come to associate with the genre: a wrongly accused man as the protagonist; use of chiaroscuro; a sense of fatalism as the protagonist falls deeper and deeper into danger. More abstractly, it also provides an early example of the genre's fixation with femininity, here reflected in the deranged obsession the film's antagonists have with the beautiful murder victim.

      The character of Cornell is the most fascinating (and disturbing) element of the film. His creepy obsession with the dead woman makes for a nice contrast with his public facade as a hard--nosed detective. In many respects he is a spiritual forebear to Laura's Waldo Lydecker, only he covers up his infatuation with bellicosity and machismo. His desire is closer to romance than Lydecker, although it feels strangely infantile and impotent.     

      While he is not the culprit, he does get the film's stand-out suspense sequence - appearing at the foot of Frankie's bed, appearing like a ghost out of nowhere.  


      Despite these elements, the film is not a fully-formed noir. Much of the action is played as a comedy thriller, with an emphasis on the burgeoning romance between Betty Grable and Victor Mature. The film's multifaceted tone is actually one of the film's selling points. The mix of (relatively) light romance and dark psychological drama complement each other, giving the story's dramatic shifts more punch.

      Once Frankie goes on the run, the movie begins to resemble The 39 Steps, mixing the suspense of the police manhunt with the romantic atttraction between Mature and Grable. The film's recurring motif of using 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' as a romantic refrain gains an ironic edge, as Frankie gets deeper into his predicament.

      In terms of acting, the cast are all on good form. Mature has a good time as the flashy Christopher while Grable is surprisingly effective as the 'plain jane' sister (although that is a stretch). The real standout is Laird Cregar as the deranged Cornell. Simmering with rage, he underplays his mania just enough that the reveal of his real motives comes off as a genuine surprise.

      The movie's 82 minute runtime ensures that it moves at a clip but this is one case where it could have used a little breathing room - Frankie's peril never feels that real, in spite of Cregar's imposing presence.

      Overall, a solid chunk of old-school entertainment and an intriguing look at the development of the genre we now know as film noir.

      The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946)
      When you watch a lot of film noir, you are going to notice the name Cornell Woolrich (or his pen name William Irish) pop up a lot in the credits. Woolrich wrote many novels and short stories which were later adapted for film, including the classic noir Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmack, 1944), boy-cried-wolf thriller The Window (Ted Tetzlaff, 1949), and most famously, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954).

      Based on a story by Woolrich, The Chase is based on a familiar Woolrich scenario: a protagonist caught in a nightmarish scenario.

      Chuck (Robert Cummings) is a WWII vet-turned-Miami drifter who, thanks to an act of kindness, becomes the chauffeur for a vicious gangster, Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). While working for Roman, Chuck falls under the spell of his tortured wife, Lorna (Michele Morgan).

      He quickly comes up with a plan for both of them to escape to Havana. They manage to get away, but it is not long before Roman has Chuck framed for Lorna's murder. Back on his own, he is murdered by Roman's sociopathic stooge (Gino).

      At this point, Chuck wakes up. It is the day he and Lorna are supposed to take the boat to Havana. His attempted escape was all a dream. At this point we learn that Chuck suffers from PTSD and has completely forgotten about Roman and Lorna. He goes back to the only place he remembers: the military hospital.

      Meanwhile, Roman has discovered Lorna is in love with Scotty and is not too happy. Will Chuck remember what happened in time to save her?

      The Chase is a pretty solid thriller for its first half, growing increasingly more bleak as it progresses. And just when it could not get worse, it pulls the rug out. But while it could be an easy cop-out, it is just a springboard to a different kind of thriller: a race against time in which the hero is completely helpless... or so it seems.

      While it is not the most well known noir, The Chase has gained notice for its unique structure: the entire second act is Chuck's nightmare of their escape going wrong, with both characters ending up dead.

      While Cummings and Morgan are fine, it is the villains who really make this movie stand out. Steve Cochran is an actor I am not that familiar with, but on this evidence I need to check out more of his stuff. With Lorre as his second, I was expecting him to steal the spotlight, but it is the more clean-cut, 'all-American' Cochran who stands out. He balances an excruciating level of politeness with sudden bursts of violence - the scene where he socks a hairdresser for a minor mistake is genuinely shocking.
      Lorre is also great as Gino. He plays the role as a sadist who cannot be bothered disguising his disgust for other human beings. Between his apathy and Cochran's sadism, they give the movie a malicious sense of humour that adds to the sense of events escalating out of control.

      The ending is a bit too neat and tidy, but The Chase is still one of the best noirs I have seen in a long time.

      Friday, 15 September 2017

      BAD MOVIE JAMBOREE: Rock the Kasbah (Barry Levinson, 2015)

      Burned-out rock manager Richie Lanz takes his last client on a USO tour to Afghanistan. After she bails and abandons him, Lanz tries to figure a way out of his predicament. Along the way, he runs into a collection of oddball characters: Kate Hudson's saintly call girl; Scott Caan and Danny McBride's gun runners; Bruce Willis's hard-nosed mercenary; and a young Pashtun girl who dreams of becoming a singer (Leem Lubany).

      The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The same goes for Hollywood dramas with social relevance. Hollywood has a history of taking important political events, figures and issues, and refracting them through a white guy's point of view (Cry FreedomThe Help or this year's Bruce Lee kinda-biopic Birth of the Dragon).

      Rock the Kasbah is a particularly obnoxious example of this storyline. Every decision made, at every level of production, reads like checklist of what not to do with a movie based on real events.

      To be honest, this movie feels like a dodge. Two studio executives had some money in an offshore account that they wanted to get rid of, and so they took a bunch of drugs and dictated a rambling story about their own lives to some poor schlub and presto!

      Throw in a talented director and cast in need of some quick cash... and you got yourself a movie baby!

      It is almost unbelievable how strong the cast's collective pedigree is here, and yet everyone is completely off-base. Murray, usually so sure and on-point in his choices, is a cartoon. A portrait of a boorish Ugly American, Murray's self-obsessed scumbag completely overshadows the central figure of the story: Leem Lubany's Salima.

      Ultimately this movie never clarifies what its purpose is. While it offers a dedication to the real woman the movie was based on in the closing credits, that story is never foregrounded - it just becomes another kooky subplot, and a catalyst for Murray's redemption.

      But even that arc makes no sense. Murray's asshole producer does exactly the same thing he did at the beginning at the end. The only thing that changes is that he gets shot - taken out of the third act entirely. It falls to other characters, offscreen, to get him out of trouble.

      There is the kernel of a movie here, but it is buried under a bunch of self-consciously eccentric characters and subplots. For such a simple concept, it feels so top loaded with unnecessary nonsense. It feels like five or six movies mashed together.

      It is so frustrating, because the story does not need to be padded out. Murray's character is so unnecessary for the story, yet he is in every single scene. Salima never gets a sequence on her own - her whole story is basically cutaways from whatever BS Murray is doing.

      Lubany is good, but is completely stranded in this dreck. Hopefully she finds better roles in the future, and is not just 'exotic' window dressing for Hollywood egos.

      Related reviews



      Thursday, 14 September 2017

      IN THEATRES: American Assassin

      After his fiancé is murdered by terrorists, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) goes on a one-man war against the cell responsible. His activities draw the attention of the CIA, who recruit him to become an assassin for America.

      Rapp is soon on a new mission to stop a former agent (Taylor Kitsch) with a nuclear weapon intent on death and mayhem.

      Vince Flynn is one of those thriller novelists I've seen on the shelves but I've never bothered to read. Hopefully his books are better than this movie, because it's been less than a day since I've seen it and I can barely remember what happened.

      Sometimes you watch a movie and all you can see is the movie it desperately wants to be. American Assassin has all the ingredients of something decent: a great cast, a focus on the protagonist's psychology, as well as the old standbys of fights, explosions and pointless hot chicks. The fact that all these elements are also the building blocks for a hundred Redbox rentals and direct-to-streaming dreck should also be an indicator for how far this movie fails to engage as a theatre experience.

      American Assassin is stuck between these two poles, offering early promise that it is more than it's generic title, before completely falling off a cliff into mind-numbing mediocrity.

      The cast are mostly solid. O'Brien is strangely believable as a baby-faced killer; Sanaa Lathan and David Suchet add a little class (but not much else); and Taylor Kitsch is completely vanilla as the psycho bad guy. The highlight is Michael Keaton as Rapp's taciturn instructor in the art of American Assassin-ing. He brings his offbeat intensity to what could have been just a gruff cliché, and it adds a little bit of spice to the otherwise bland proceedings. I don't know why they just didn't make him the bad guy.

      The movie is at its most interesting in its first act, as the script moves economically through his transformation from traumatised victim to hardened vigilante, coolly tracking down the cell responsible for killing his fiancé. From there the movie turns into a conventional 'loose nuke' story - complete with an obvious double agent and a finale in which our hero has to go rogue to get the job done.

      The script wants to be a bit deeper than a simple action movie - it makes reference to the parallels between the villain, a fellow agent who lost his mind, and Rapp's own inability to keep the mission and his own murderous desires separate. This is a solid foundation for a character in an action movie (or any movie, really), but this movie never clarifies exactly what Rapp's flaw is, mostly because his flaw is a need for violent retribution, and that is what his enablers/employers are in the business of doing.

      The character arc is clearly meant to be Rapp learning to not let his emotions get in the way of being an assassin for America, but this is just lip service in the movie. There is a creepy implication from the CIA bigwigs that they are eager to use Rapp because of his psychotic drive to kill, something which they have been unable to find in their other American Assassins. This attempt at moral ambiguity is blunted by the movie's celebratory focus on Rapp's inability to follow orders. The movie ends with his bosses unable to track him down. While they bumble about Stateside, the movie ends on Rapp as he is about to assassinate the next president of Iran. The character does not really change that much from the beginning of the movie until the end, apart from the fact that he learns how to properly stab a dude in the neck. He is a stone-cold killer at the beginning, and is a stone-cold killer at the end. So much for character depth.

      In the end, the movie feels like a 20 page treatment for a generic spy movie, rather than a fleshed-out story. All the key beats are there, but they have no connective tissue tying them together. The movie just winds up feeling like a bad network TV pilot, hinting at storylines which will be explored across 22 episodes. This is one of those projects that clearly needed a few more minutes in the oven.

      Even with a generic script, something entertaining could have been salvaged by the direction, but sadly it is not much more inspired. While he avoids shaky cam, Michael Cuesta does not show a lot imagination or understanding of dramatic staging, particularly in the fight scenes. The angles and cuts are often confusing and fail to establish a clear sense of geography. There is a sequence in a Turkish bar in which a key piece of plot info is revealed, our hero and villain meet for the first time, and a key character dies. Watching the scene, I could not even describe the room, let alone where characters were within the room. There is an overreliance on coverage, and a disinterest in scene-setting which reinforces why this movie feels like it belongs on the small screen.

      The art direction and choice of locations does not help. A large portion of the movie is set in Rome and Istanbul. You would not know because the movie takes place in shadowy rooms, tunnels and back alleys. It just feels banal. In the case of the tunnels, they evoked the similar tunnel used in episodes of Lost back in the day. This lack of care is evident in the one set that does pop - a hotel room with a massive floor-to-ceiling window, against which Rapp battles an arms dealer's bodyguard.

      Wow, I am amazed I had that much to say about this movie. American Assassin is not an aggressively bad movie, but it is an exceptionally dull and uninteresting one. Which is even worse.

      On this evidence, O'Brien and Keaton deserve another shot at an action franchise, but for Mitch Rapp, the mission is over.

      Sunday, 10 September 2017


      In the small town of Derry, Maine, a group of kids who call themselves the Losers have begun to notice something strange going on. Kids are going missing. And whatever is behind the disappearances is after them too...

      I have never read the book this is based on, nor the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. It improves the viewing experience if I don't having anything to compare it to, and allows the movie to stand on its own feet.

      The original novel switches between the Losers facing Pennywise as kids, and later as adults. The filmmakers here have made the choice to seperate the two narratives - this movie ends with a tag rebranding itself as It: Chapter 1.

      The biggest part of the movie's success is the young cast. They are all terrific - as soon as they are together onscreen, the Losers feel like a group of friends.

      The standouts are Finn Wolfhard as the clownish Richie, Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben and Sophia Lillis as Bev. Already known for his role in last year's Stranger Things, Wolfhard has a lion's share of the film's comedy. As the one female of the group, Lillis would stand out, but she gives her role such a weight and sense of pain that it almost feels like she is in her own movie. It helps that the script basically makes her a co-lead with the group, as she tries to evade tormentors at school and home. Honestly, Lillis had such a gravitas to her performance that I thought she was a 20-something playing a teen. 

      As the new kid in town who has a crush on Bev, Taylor is the most relatable character in the movie. Within the ensemble context, his story feels a little compressed - there is a beat during the climax that does not quite translate. I wish he had more screen time.

      And now onto the title menace. It is a great antagonist, and It's main incarnation as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) is pretty creepy. The old fashioned design is interesting (I particularly liked the unfocused eyes). I have more comments on the villain which I will save for a little later.

      Andres Muschietti's direction is good when it comes to the scares and the atmosphere, and he handles the relationship and comedic elements competently. The scenes where It confronts the kids with their fears are highlights (the lady in the painting is terrifying). And while the movie is R rated, it never feels gratuitous. Despite having kids as the main characters, the movie has a nice take-no-prisoners approach to its violence which I appreciated. Pennywise's attack on Georgie was surprisingly brutal, and sets the tone immediately in a neat way. I also liked the set piece in which a fire-obsessed bully comes to a nasty end in a sewer pipe, and the sequence in the library.

      While the scares are good, what elevates this movie is the tonal balance it strikes. The movie has a great sense of humour (the Gazebo line killed me), and it really helps glue the Losers together as a group of people that you can grow attached to. Movies are always better when the characters feel vaguely like human beings, and It boasts a really terrific ensemble.

      The movie does have its flaws, mainly in the script. For one thing, a few members of the Losers feel superfluous. There are a few points where it feels like the movie's emotional beats are not tied together in a believable way. I have a feeling that it might be a case of there being too many kids - with not enough development for their stories (the book is over a 1000 pages long). As the story develops, it feels like we are rushing through set pieces, and the scares became a little repetitive. And because of the focus on the group, Bill's emotional arc (dealing with his brother's death) feels a little undercooked. The one element I could have done without is Benjamin Wallfisch's score, which is a little overbearing and cuts into the film's impact.

      As the movie progressed, I began to feel like my own taste in horror and the movie's choices became a bit at odds. My big thing was how much time Pennywise is onscreen. With horror, I've always felt it is scarier when you can not rationalise what it is you're seeing (compare the murderous phantom  of the original Alien with its flaccid return in this year's Alien Covenant).

      This idea is one that Stephen King himself dealt with in his book-length essay Dance Macabre, using the example of a monster behind the door. When the only information you have is the sound of claws and a silhouette under the doorframe, your mind runs wild (think of Mel Gibson trying to catch sight of the alien trapped in the pantry in Signs). But once the door is opened, and the monster is revealed as a vampire/zombie/Godzilla etc, your mind is able to comprehend it, and the fear - to whatever degree - is reduced.

      For me, while he was effective for the most part, by the end of the movie Pennywise had lost his novelty. Thanks to modern filmmaking (and the use of modern special effects), there were times where I felt like he was not disconcerting enough. By the finale, when he is morphing into all of the kids' fears, it felt like the tension drained away. The ending still works, but having such a firm grasp on what the character looks like and It's modus operandi took away from the tension a bit.

      Final thoughts? It is a really good movie, which boasts enough characterisation and humour to match the scares. I chalk up my own criticisms to a certain amount of over-hype. Hopefully with a few more viewings I will be more onboard with the raves the movie has been getting. I'm definitely in the bag for the sequel. For anyone reading this review, It is definitely worth checking out. 

      Thursday, 7 September 2017

      NZIFF Live Cinema: It (dir. Clarence G. Badger)

      Released in 1927, this film stars the original 'It' Girl Clara Bow, a massive star of the Twenties.

      Shop girl Betty Lou (Bow) has a crush on her boss, Mr Waltham (Antonio Moreno). While he quickly falls under her spell, their romance is jeopardised when Betty Lou puts her reputation on the line to save her roommate's child from being taken away by welfare workers. Sadly, Waltham's idiotic buddy Monty (William Austin) witnesses this ruse and runs off to tell his bro. Despite the source, Waltham believes that she is an unwed mother, and hence spoiled. Waltham declares that, while he loves her, she can only be his mistress, and nothing more. Heartbroken, Betty Lou breaks off heir relationship. In time-honoured tradition, Betty Lou realises what has happened and goes after the moron to win him back.

      A lively audio-visual experience, this film proves that silent cinema can only truly be appreciated on the big screen.

      In the title role, Clara Bow is terrific. Based on her reputation, I went in expecting something more overtly carnal (she is held up as an exemplar of the kind of cinema that the Production Code was designed to quash). What was striking about It is how much agency the character has, and how that agency is not conveyed as sheer lasciviousness (which is the stereotype I was expecting). Bow is interested in her boss, but she is also interested in having her own life and independence - it's a combination that you do not see a lot of in classic Hollywood cinema m(or a lot of modern-day rom coms, to be honest). She does not have the firecracker intensity of Louise Brooks (who does?) but she has a bolshiness and charisma that are extremely watchable.

      For the time I am guessing Bow's forthrightness was pretty outrageous, but there is a sense of agency and confidence that feels timeless. This is especially true in the scene where she pretends to be an unwed mother to protect her flatmate from losing her baby. It is a mark of the times that her character is never punished (to be honest she does not really do anything that bad).

      The times make themselves felt in less appealing ways - the movie betrays a casual disregard for women who are not in Bow's position - Waltham's fiancé is a doormat who exists purely to highlight how fixated Waltham is on the new 'it' girl in his life. And while the movie is based around Betty Lou's subversion of traditional patriarchy, the third act boils down to a final romantic clinch with Waltham. While the movie ridicules him as a pompous idiot, it feels a little too convenient for them to wind up together, considering his earlier behaviour.

      William Austin as dim bulb Monty
      The performances by the rest of the cast are perfectly attuned to the tone of the piece. While the style is broader than sound features, it feels appropriate to the story and the limitations of the medium. The standout is William Austin as Waltham's dumb(er) friend Monty. He becomes a romantic rival to Waltham, and is the one who informs him that Betty Lou is a scarlet woman. His reactions provide some of the biggest laughs in the movie; he really is the standout comic character.

      Stylistically, this movie is fascinating as it shows how, by 1927, filmmakers had developed the basic cinematic grammar that we now know as classic continuity filmmaking. The limited use of close-ups and title cards to convey key points of information - it is like a jigsaw puzzle where the audience can fill in the obvious detail. It reminded me of the Lubitsch equation for filmmaking: if you show the audience '1 + 1', they can figure out the sum by themselves. Clarence G. Badger is not a director I'm familiar with, but his work is pretty solid here (according to Wikipedia, Josef Von Sternberg also had a hand in directorial chores, although it is hard to identify his stamp on the final product).

      Yes, It is an artefact from another era. But do not confuse age with irrelevance or lack of entertainment value. It's a fun movie, and a great instalment of the film festival's Live Cinema showcase.

      Ethel & Ernest (dir. Roger Mainwood, 2016)
      One of the movies I ushered, this adaptation of Raymond Briggs' autobiographical graphic novel is wonderfully understated. Staring Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blythen in the title roles, the movie is a collection of key scenes from their marriage, from first meeting to their deaths - only months apart - in 1971.

      Animated in a way that evokes Briggs' visual style, the film is relatively restrained and is largely confined to the family home. The movie begins in 1927, with the pair's initial meeting. Raymond himself is a side character, popping in and out of the story - sent away during the Blitz and away at university in the sixties. One element of the film that is noteworthy is how Briggs does not try to sand off his parents' rough edges - casual sexism; class consciousness; and the couple's political differences are all foregrounded. They feel more real.

      We go through the depression, the build-up toward WW2, the Blitz and then the rise of the post-war welfare state (delighting his Labour-voting Dad, and inversely his Tory mum). Using sound bytes from the era, including radio broadcasts from the likes of Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Some of this historical signposts come off a little obvious, but most of the time they become are a part of the background detail.

      While some of the historical signposting is obvious, it is not a detriment. The film's simplicity is a major asset, as it reinforces Briggs' focus on two ordinary people who are extraordinary simply for being themselves. Having a child; buying a new home or appliance; or strolling through the park - this film is about the simple pleasures that come with living.
        One of the most empathetic and human films I saw at the film festival, Ethel & Ernest is worth hunting down.

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