Wednesday, 2 October 2019


Rating: 5/5

There are few villains more iconic than the Joker. He occupies a place on the totem pole of pop culture bad guys somewhere around Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, each as dastardly as the next.

The character's threads are, of course, well worn, the Joker’s status as Batman’s decades-old nemesis augmented by a slew of differing portrayals. Cesar Romero played it naughty and knavish during the campy sixties Batman TV series, while Jack Nicholson chewed scenery with wild abandon – “Never rub another man’s rhubard!” – for Tim Burton, and a massive cheque, in the 1989 adaptation.

More recently, Jared Leto offered up a particularly grotesque display in David Ayer’s risible Suicide Squad and Christopher Nolan, famously, captured lightning in a bottle when he cast the late Heath Ledger as his primary antagonist in The Dark Knight. The latter’s Oscar-winning performance was truly something to behold, a relentless demonstration of unhinged nihilism that would make even the average Brexiter reach for the smelling salts.

What made Ledger so darkly unnerving was his anonymity: His reasons, roots and identity remained undiscovered. He was a blank page, an unknowable tribune of chaos, more than content to watch us all burn in the flames of our own absurdities. 

Thus, it is in this earthier vein, rather than any of the more arch incarnations, that Joaquin Phoenix delivers his take on the Clown Prince of Crime in Todd Phillips’s Joker, a searingly powerful origin tale that will captivate audiences and reboot their expectations of the humble comic book movie. 

Phoenix occupies ground far beyond the familiar motifs of cartoonish tailoring and pantomime wickedness. He is defined, instead, by depths and motives. His Arthur Fleck is an outsider, a fringe presence replete with insecurities and deep-rooted issues that trap him inside a vicious, constricting circle and drive him in the direction of the villainy to come. This is a remarkable depiction of a life lived both on the edges of society and within the creaking systems that underpin it. 

A ghost-like, put-upon and frequently victimised husk of a human (witness his learned acquiescence to an early beating), Fleck is a product of cultural neglect and several strains of medication, a man unacquainted with even the smallest of breaks. Nor is he a match for his environment: Gotham City, 1981, a fetid, roiling hellscape of gutted public services and hopeless denizens, all subject to the whims of a caste of gilded and largely unseen overlords – a Tory midnight fantasy given form.

Fleck toils away in a grotty alley of clowns for hire. He spins ‘Closing Down’ signs outside failed stores and amuses sick kids with his generic act, punctuated by sessions with an aloof social worker and the routine of tending to an ailing shut-in mother (the always delicate Frances Conroy). He aspires to a career in stand-up comedy but is prone to sustained delusions – one of which centres on acerbic late-night TV comic Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro in dentures and pancake makeup) – and struggles with a hideous neurological condition that sees him burst out in fits of laughter at inappropriate moments, instantly repelling the already unsympathetic citizens around him. Phoenix’s work, overall, is extraordinary, though he exhibits a truly impactful mix of embarrassment and despair when besieged by this wretched malady.

There is only so far a man may be pushed, however, and in the wake of one especially violent incident, Fleck is set on a path from which there is no escape. His existence, already delicate, is shaken horribly before he consents to the descent and surrenders to the power of fate.

The slow-burn thrills are palpable throughout and Phillips, removed from the bro-comedy populism of the Hangover trilogy and Old School, steers them all with masterful confidence. He crafts a rich yarn, drawing upon Lawrence Sher's grimy cinematography – all mouldy greens and mottled browns – that paints the faded, down-at-heel milieu in which Fleck ekes out his subsistence. 

Perhaps most fascinating is Joker's central conceit. It represents a fable of the little people, those populating the background of a fictional landscape usually reserved for its celebrated caped hero. In focusing on a random nobody, even one who will go on to occupy a special place in this world, Phillips enlivens Gotham's bleakest corners; this is the story behind the face in the crowd. It is a novel spin, elegantly executed, on the very concept of the expanded cinematic universe. 

And what, then, of the Dark Knight himself? He may not loom large, such is Phillips's desire to build the film on fresh foundations, but the director is not ignorant of his picture's heritage. The Wayne family is prominently featured, Thomas (Brett Cullen), the patriarch, presenting as a patronising asshole plutocrat sporting a faintly Trumpian disdain for poor people.

Indeed, it is in the context of the wider source material that Phillips pulls off a smooth second-half twist and ratchets up the tension. The stately pace of the narrative suddenly quickens and hurtles towards a conclusion that feels infinitely more recognisable. Fleck finally unleashes his inner anarchist, fuelling pandemonium for its own sake and luxuriating in the destruction of those not grasping the joke. There is even time to build in a nod to seminal events from the Batman mythos; nascent links between rivals are forged in blood and murder. 

A strong supporting cast, including De Niro and Zazie Beetz (who appears alongside a cameoing Brian Tyree Henry, her Atlanta co-star), undergirds the drama. Yet, at its centre, Phoenix comes alive. 

Armed with the Joker's spindly staccato movements, and his unmistakeable wardrobe, Fleck can, at last, bask in the adoration he craves and the turmoil he conjures. Even at this point, beneath the strut and the leering war paint, the pain that drips from his mocking, insolent, sing-song intonation is real and, perhaps, wholly necessary. You will feel every bit of it.

Friday, 6 September 2019

It Chapter Two

Rating: 4/5

Two years on from It, Andrés Muschietti returns with a conclusion to that terrifying opener,  a chilling, dazzling and genuinely innovative take on the first half of Stephen King’s seminal tome. 

It Chapter Two, striving to touch a high bar, comes complete with grander stakes and a starry cast, the Losers’ Club trading in its precocious tween crusaders for a slate of wearied adults that includes Jessica Chastain (the lead in Muschietti’s 2013 feral child chiller, Mama), James McAvoy and Bill Hader. 

The results are impressive. Chapter Two is a layered, ambitious beast that will shock and unsettle in equal measures. Stripped of its predecessor’s coming-of-age stylings due to the sustained absence of the original players' infectious dynamism, it nonetheless succeeds thanks to a series of genuinely frightening set pieces – large and small – and some whip-smart, emotionally resonant, regularly hilarious writing. 

Indeed, woven into the fabric is an extended and deeper understanding of the events depicted in film one, played out via extended flashbacks. The device melds the movies together as a single work, rather than two distinct entities. Chapter Two feels like a fluid and natural evolution of the story, Muschietti moulding a tale that stands as far more than a simple sequel.

The plot closely follows the route set down by the source material. Convening after the eponymous demon emerges from a 27-year hibernation, ripe with loathing for the kids who vanquished him last time out, the Losers are reunited in their native Derry, Maine, by damaged orphan Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of the gang to stay put into adulthood.  

Obsessed with a vengeful It’s inevitable resurrection, he has quietly appointed himself the local monster beacon and calls on an old oath when things start going horribly awry. 

Repressed trauma is the prevalent theme here. Having reassembled, each must undergo a series of trials inspired by their own fear-flecked neuroses. They burrow into their haunted and repressed memories before driving their gathered strength towards a reckoning. Painting in fairly broad strokes, the finale – nearly identical in concept to that staged in the previous film – even calls on them to descend into murky depths of their tormentor's lair.

The group interplay maintains its charm, in spite of the changing line-up. Their sweary ribbing is still funny and raucous; their mutual affection has lost none of its sincerity or warmth. They seem like the surest of friends, their bonds unruptured by the travails of life. 

Their distinct personalities round out the unit. McAvoy’s Bill, now a successful author (an avatar for the cameoing King), remains plagued by the loss of his kid brother; Bev (Jessica Chastain), meanwhile, has shaken neither the shadow of her father’s clammy abuses nor her instinct for survival. Mike’s dedication has morphed into possible delusion and Ben (Jay Ryan) is now a buff architect who may have conquered his weight but not his affection for a boyhood crush.  

However, it is Bill Hader, as foul-mouthed comic Richie and James Ransone, as skittish risk assessor Eddie, who come close to stealing the show. The former’s relentless sarcasm blends with the latter’s hysterical hypochondria to produce a profane and incredibly likeable double act that goes some way to lightening the prevailing horrors. 

Remarkably, all capture the spirit of their younger selves – Ryan, in particular, looks stunningly similar to Jeremy Raymond Taylor's youthful, chubby version of Ben – and in Derry they revert to their assumed roles, be it leader or thinker, comic or carer. The delicate Bill soon climbs back on his childhood bicycle, zooming around town as if he were a 12-year-old in an early Amblin feature. 

As before, they are harried by It and, as before, It can occupy forms and conjure scenarios closely linked to the Losers' various anxieties: a one-eyed, disease-ridden leper; a witch-like old woman; a long-murdered sibling. At the head of this posse, of course, is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, the demon's most common incarnation. 

Pennywise, a singularly wicked tribune of evil, is the stuff of nightmares. Utterly chilling to behold, he is a watchful and cunning foe who revels in the terror of his prey and carries with him more than a whiff of savage charisma, in or out of the shadows.  

The sly manner in which he first slinks to the fore as a riverbank saviour for a drowning man, all glowing eyes and helping hands, is laced with menace and sudden, gleeful violence. Slaughtering children left and right, manipulating their innocence, Pennywise lurks over everything, his presence detectable in dark corners and dank sewers. He claws at the Losers' traumas, his brutality psychological as well as physical; he peers inside their emotional baggage and immolates the contents. 

Behind the whiteface, Bill Skarsgård dazzles once again. He imbues his harlequin with an otherworldly disdain for weakness and a quavering sing-song voice that pitches high and low, dripping nastiness. At one point, he is glimpsed bare faced, a Victorian carnie-cum-mass-murderer, babbling and leering, his gaze askew. The performance is a thing of joyful, terrible wonder.  

There are, no doubt, weaknesses. Chapter Two is in danger of dragging before the end and an extended sequence that separates the group into individual sub-plots robs it of the strongest element at its disposal. The picture suffers for want of the dollops of 80s nostalgia that made its predecessor so charming, while the reappearance of another antagonist from It is little more than a pointless, if occasionally amusing, distraction in an already crowded space.  

Furthermore, one unexpected character development is heavily hinted at without being fully explored, a fleeting nod to subjects more topical than demonic murder. 

Fortunately, Muschietti, saving his vision from devouring itself, turns in a grand climax. This is a cacophonous spectacle of spiralling madness and heroic endeavour, evil hammering hard against the forces of good. It reminds us of how strong collectives can resist the predations of bullies and that, if we hold fast, the bad times, too, will pass.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Rating: 2/5

It may lack the hysteria and acclaim associated with the Marvel juggernaut but the Legendary-Warner Bros MonsterVerse series, which draws on the startling destructive power of stop-motion veterans Godzilla, King Kong and their fellow travellers, does not want for for glitz or budget.

In 2014, the latest Hollywood reboot of Toho's Godzilla franchise (following 1998's turgid effort) hit screens courtesy of Monsters and Rogue One director Gareth Edwards. Predictably grand, aesthetically impressive and blessed with a fine cast, the film was a box office success. That said, its unremarkable plotting did not linger long in the memory; nor did the finale's obligatory epic-level urban devastation, courtesy of expensive effects  all as common now as Nigel Farage on Question Time.

Kong's time in the sun arrived three years later, his star vehicle a silly, over-engineered retro piece that imagined itself far cooler than it actually was while ably capturing the power, fury and majesty of its central player.

The third volume, Godzilla: King of Monsters, now hits the summer season in the wake churned up by the final Avengers instalment. Given the state of what's on offer here, it is in those foamy waters that this movie is likely to sink. 

A globe-trotting plot, veering from theme to theme, comes replete with expository dialogue and absent the merest drop of emotional investment in any single character, real or digital. Michael Dougherty's expensively assembled behemoth bowl may occasionally dazzle with some startling visuals, pulling no punches with its often relentless kaiju-on-kaiju combat, but beneath that cacophony there exists little to recommend it. Hollow, boring and, even for a picture centred on massive CGI beasts trying to kill us all, increasingly silly, there is little here worth recommending. 

The story picks up in the debris of the eponymous lizard's march through San Francisco in film one, an episode that decimated the lives of scientists Mark and Emma Russell (played by Kyle Chandler and Verma Farmiga, respectively). Now divorced, Mark lives in the American wilderness, photographing wolves, while Emma and their daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, of Stranger Things fame), are holed up in China. Emma works for global monster-hunting outfit Monarch (the common thread in this particular cinematic universe), which oversees a stash of hibernating giants — or Titans, to use the film's parlance  and seeks to control their behaviour, through bioacoustics, using Emma's new gadget, the Orca.

Funnily enough, none of this goes to plan and Emma, along with Madison, falls into the clutches of Charles Dance's gimlet-eyed 'eco-terrorist', whose goal of wreaking global havoc and restoring nature's dominance is funded by trafficking in Titan DNA.

Mark is recruited by Monarch to help in its quest to reclaim the Orca and retrieve his family, all while glowering ruefully in the direction Godzilla, whose perceived benevolence is a constant, cack-handed question throughout, every time the mighty colossus appears on screen. 

Aiding him in this endeavour is a seemingly endless assortment of dull allies. There's the all-action, no-space-for-details warrior bods (O'Shea Jackson, Aisha Hinds, David Strathairn), as well as a collection of movie-scientist stereotypes. Bradley Whitford plays it cool and cracks wise as a silver-haired crypto-sonographer; Sally Hawkins is a sensitive zoologist. Thomas Middleditch phones it in as the awkward-comedy foil and Zhang Ziyi, an ethereal mythologist who counters global catastrophes with photos of cave drawings, is revealed, clumsily and for no apparent reason, to be one of two twins floating around the edges of the tale. Only Ken Watanabe, a survivor, like Hawkins, of Godzilla, makes much of an impression, his sage presence an antidote to the thundering din around him. Indeed, his trip into the depths of Godzilla's Atlantis-like lair — a casually bonkers sub-plot — serves as a rare standout moment. 

Across continents and oceans, this band of mostly forgettable heroes zips to and fro, all with the help of some swish kit, including a flying aircraft carrier — courtesy, surely, of the military-industrial complex — that handles like a Spitfire, and just-ask access to an entire armada of American war machines. Late on, they're even handed a stray nuke because, as Donald Trump says, there's no point in having these things if you're unwilling to use them.

A mid-point twist, of sorts, complicates an overwrought family drama that threatens to obliterate everything around it, such as the awakening of various world-ending demons that lie dormant in Monarch's network of strangely insecure secret facilities. It feeds into a nefarious scheme to deliver Earth back to Gaia by unleashing the Titans, and their associated regenerative radiation, on the planet. 

If it all sounds slightly anarchic, worry not. Dance and friends are suddenly jettisoned long before the end, their villainy replaced by King Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon bearing the moniker 'Monster Zero' and Godzilla's rival for the alpha slot atop the super-species hierarchy. Yet, by the time these two go head to head, nobody will be watching anything they haven't seen before. 

Buildings fall, fires rage and leviathans brawl. Granted, as a spectacle, its vaguely thrilling, and Dougherty does not scrimp when it comes to conveying a sense of scale and impact. Equally, it accomplishes nothing new. Instead, in its money-shot moments, King of the Monsters, represents a mere retread of what's gone before. There may be traditions to observe but this film seems skittish about reaching beyond its familiar genre tropes in particular and those of the modern-day blockbusters more generally.

Sure, Godzilla himself, beautifully rendered, retains a certain air of mystery and depth — is he friend or foe, tyrant or leader? — but that's where the nuance ends. Do yourself a favour and skip over this in the listings. 

Wednesday, 12 December 2018


Rating: 2/5

As the war between the DC and Marvel cinematic ecosystems rages on, one of the stronger players in 2017's fairly ropey Justice League, Jason Momoa's Aquaman, fronts his own picture and brings to the big screen, finally, a character whose arrival has been in gestation for the best part of two decades. 

With James Wan the last in a long line of directors at the helm, Aquaman carries all the weight of a tent-pole studio project, the title character's status as a DC staple bringing with it risks as well as rewards. 

The results are not pretty. This latest instalment from the increasingly haggard DC Extended Universe takes all the inherently overblown strands of the average comic book adaptation and turns the silliness up to 11. Tonally spasmodic, profoundly dull and peddling in the kind of high-camp melodrama that defines the very best Mexican telenovelas, Aquaman is beyond redemption. Not even the easy charisma of its leading man can save this film from the depths. 

Momoa is Arthur Curry, the eponymous superhero's alter ego. Roaming the seas fresh from his world-saving efforts during Justice League – efforts so epic, seemingly, that they warrant just the one passing reference – he is soon mixed up in a dastardly plot hatched by Orm (Patrick Wilson), his evil half-brother (is there any other breed?). Orm, the king of underwater metropolis Atlantis, wants to ally with another underwater bigwig, King Nereus (abarely engaged Dolph Lundgren), and wreck the surface world in retribution for mankind's polluting ways. Or something. 

In response, Curry must wrestle with conflicting feelings around his own destiny and the loss of his Atlantean mother (Nicole Kidman), all while cracking wise and kicking ass. Wan throws all of these elements at the screen, all the time, veering wildly between bombastic action, the throwaway comedy beats that are now practically demanded by the genre, and the emotional currents best exemplified by Curry's vaguely defined mummy issues. Even the early scenes extend this hysterical mawkishness to villains the audience has only just met, setting the stage for a dire paint-by-numbers vengeance subplot.

As the obligatory explosion of pricey CGI arrives at the tail end of Aquaman's grinding running time, there is little left to recommend it. The pace never slows, to be fair, but such momentum sacrifices trifling matters like character development and sensible plotting. 

Few can escape the carnage. Wilson is a cartoonish antagonist, his preening and roaring offset by the fact that the digital effects have him floating around like a fish in a jar. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, phones in his warrior-vizier Vulko, whose presence in Curry's uninteresting childhood flashbacks is presented without anything so boring as context. Amber Heard gives it her all as rebellious princess Mera, though her shtick is nothing new.

Momoa, too, is ill served. He may boast a lethal dose of cheeky charm, and demonstrate more of a genuine connection to the subject matter than the rest of his colleagues combined, but the vacillating nature of the film never allows him to grasp at something solid. It's ultimately faint praise to label him the best thing going.

A few arresting visuals (a breaching submarine; a flare-lit plunge through a swarm of sea demons) notwithstanding, the picture's deficiencies are legion. On its finest day, Aquaman's a damp squib.


Friday, 13 July 2018

The Incredibles 2

Rating: 4/5

Fourteen years and a surprising glut of underwhelming titles have passed since Pixar's The Incredibles, a genuine, honest-to-God action movie boasting all of the mighty animation house's visual genius and story-telling heft, first arrived on our screens.

Now, after what seems an inordinate delay given the critical and financial success of his original, director Brad Bird returns with this dazzlingly thrilling sequel. In an era shorn of heroes who act simply because it's the right thing to do, and in which able women seem more and more like humanity's saviours, The Incredibles 2 is the shot in the arm most of us desperately require.

Picking up immediately after the final scene of the first movie, Bird reintroduces the Parr clan: Bob/Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), and sons Dash (Huck Milner) and toddler Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile). Little has changed in their crucial interplay. They squabble, talk back to one another, escalate disputes and deal in industrial amounts of tension, spoken and unspoken. In short, they are a typical family unit, fiercely loyal and, save for their myriad super powers, relatable as hell.

Chucked out of their government-protected digs (superheroism has previously been made illegal and the Parrs live under the protection of an indebted Uncle Sam) following their bombastic attempts to foil a bank heist, unemployed Bob and Helen come within the orbit of telecoms magnate Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his inventor sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener). He wants to contract their particular set of skills to lead the vanguard of his PR effort to bring 'supers' back into the mainstream. However, turning the traditional set-up on its head, it is Helen, not the mountainous Bob, who is granted the chance to embrace the challenge, leaving the latter to tend house and look after the kids.

It's in these moments that The Incredibles 2 seems most relevant. There can be discerned palpable glee in Helen – whose face should appear next to the dictionary definition of the words 'capable' and 'controlled'  as she falls back into a life thought lost to domesticity. Bob, by contrast, reluctantly fills his wife's role from film one, straining against the friction between his own ambitions and the desire to support her aspirations. In the era of #MeToo, such dynamics are unavoidable. 

In its execution, this narrative duopoly never fails to disappoint. Helen's activities offer her a chance to shine, all derring-do and slick sleuthing as she becomes entangled in the schemes of cyber criminal the Screenslaver. Hers constitutes the bulk of the recognisable hero stuff. Proceedings are framed less by the big, bad Bond-villain settings of The Incredibles  though that picture's gorgeous retrofuturism is retained – than they are the urban crime-fighting aesthetic of Gotham City or Spiderman's New York. 

Back on the ranch, Bob must navigate a domestic minefield comprising algebra, teenage romance and a baby with a fusillade of hitherto unnoticed powers, all while battling feelings of emasculation. These two strands operate in harmony, one never inspiring longing for the other, replete with excitement and endlessly entertaining.

Equally, from a technical standpoint, the movie is a masterful work. The animation hums, as is always the case when Pixar is in full flow, and a series of astounding set pieces roar across the screen. From a high-speed train chase involving Helen, and a sleek electric motorcycle (go green, everyone), to a borderline savage, strobe-lit brawl, the director does not hold back, channelling the energy he captured so admirably in 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. That a family-friendly adventure romp should prove so exhilarating is significant indeed.

That said, The Incredibles 2 is, for all its spectacle, powered by its characters. The cast is invariably a joy, with Hunter's elite mum a particular standout, as at home at the head of a family meeting as she is leaping out of aeroplanes. Bird brings his vocal talents to bear as the returning Edna Mode, the pint-sized, highly strung couturier responsible for the family's iconic costumes. Then, of course, there is the adorable Jack-Jack, a whir of constantly twitching, gurning, burbling energy rendered the world's cutest WMD by abilities absolutely nobody can gauge.

The flaws are largely minor. Urbane sidekick Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is shifted out of focus more than he should be. He accomplishes little of note, none of his gags coming close to The Incredibles's fantastic spin on Jackson's "I have to answer that phone" scene from Die Hard with a Vengeance.

The plot, too, is by turns funny and whip smart, yet it is curbed somewhat by dastardly machinations that ultimately feels flimsy at best. Strangely, the obligatory spectacular finale is the film's most generic sequence. 

Nevertheless, the family is given the chance to shine, no one Parr casting a shadow on the next. A subtle message to teenagers everywhere even underpins the dying moments: choose your friends but never over your family.  

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Ready Player One

Rating: 4/5

If ever there was a director to tackle Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's inspiringly geeky sci-fi tome, then Steven Spielberg would surely sit near the top of any and all lists. The heart of Cline's 2011 paean to the granular detail of eighties pop culture is to be found in the adventure genre that Spielberg, thanks to his endeavours on E.T., Indiana Jones and beyond, played so seminal a role in forming.

As Cline granted protagonists solace and comfort in the warmth of that particular strain of Americana, so, then, is Spielberg, godfather of it all, the filmmaker uniquely placed to bend those familiar tropes to his will. That said, Ready Player One's horizons extend far beyond paying respect to Spielberg's back catalogue.

It is no small task. The fabric of Cline's vision is at once dystopian and retrospective, the not entirely implausible nightmare reality of his story's setting offset by the throwback stylings of the OASIS, the online utopia into which the denizens of this tale retreat for relief from everyday life. 

The year is 2045. In Columbus, Ohio, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) wiles away his dreary days deep inside the OASIS, a sprawling, omnipresent virtual Shangri-La that provides its adherents (basically everyone alive) – through their digital selves – with entertainment, schooling, synthetic connections and, crucially, the playing field for humanity's fiercest obsession: the hunt for a riddle-shrouded Easter egg buried within the platform by its late founder, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). A vast fortune and control of the system await the first person to discover the egg. Thus, as the planet succumbs to famine and deprivation, the quest to conquer a series of three challenges, and locate this invaluable prize, is a desperate one. It's Wade's avatar, Parzival, that makes the first breakthrough, however.

Spielberg's take is invigorating, a stripped-down-and-rebuilt version of the plot that reaches the book's endpoint via a significantly different route. While it loses some of Cline's nerdy charm in translation (the author is credited as a screenwriter), this is, nonetheless, a superior and often breathtaking epic that should dazzle long after the credits roll.

From a technical perspective, Ready Player One soars. If, due to the constraints of a running time, the vastness of the OASIS seems ever so slightly stunted, that which appears on screen is still nothing short of astounding. The film's spirit lives within this world, just as its characters do.

From the demented opening death rally starring any number of recognisable jalopies – one of many strands to depart from the literary source – to the grand, geeked-out final boss battle, this is not a film lacking spectacle. The vistas of the OASIS are gloriously rendered, be they serene and bucolic futurescapes, apocalyptic death matches, or the early Manhattan-themed racetrack, whose sleek skylines collapse, extend and shift as traps and obstacles (including King Kong) chew up the careening competitors. A nightclub scene in the middle third is lit in deep plum shades, its dance floor an abyss into which partygoers plunge, floating and swirling in time with a host of classic tunes.

Given its pedigree, this is a picture always likely to live or die depending on how much it can draw from the cultural hallmarks of geekdom. Spielberg has spared no effort in trawling the zeitgiest for figures and references with which to populate the movie (interestingly none of his own creations feature in any meaningful way). 

There are almost too many to list, but particular reverence is reserved for Robert Zemeckis. One cannot help sensing the director's pride in his erstwhile protégé. It's there in the particular prominence afforded to Back to Future, as the iconic DeLorean tears through the frozen wastes of the unhinged finale and a graceful retuning of the iconic score occasionally floats over the action like a pleasant, friendly spectre. A magical version of Ernő Rubik's eponymous cube even gets a rebrand in favour of Zemeckis.

There is much more besides, of course. An extended tribute to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining will amuse and amaze in equal measures. 

If there is an obvious criticism it can be directed towards the band of central players. Sheridan, so impressive in 2012's Mud, is a fine actor but he borders on bland here, lacking obvious charisma and imbuing his Parzival with an earnestness that is neither interesting nor especially entertaining. As fellow protagonist Art3mis, Bates Motel's Olivia Cooke brings more spunk to bear, though she is ill served by an underwhelming resistance-to-the-corporate-overlords arc that never feels fully developed. Their romance smells rushed.  

The real-world setting, too, fails to impress, even if it is deliberately painted as the grey dregs of humanity's existence. Fortunately, Ready Player One knows the source of its strength and allows room for a coterie of colourful veterans to garland the narrative. 

Notable among these is Ben Mendelsohn's "dickweed" fascist-cum-oligarch Nolan Sorrento, the head of the dastardly IOI conglomerate set on converting the OASIS into a hellish, ad-soaked profit factory. Sorrento's avatar may lack the verve of his rivals but it ripples with Mendelsohn's signature smirk, shifty menace and icy stare. T.J. Miller is also outstanding as a terrifyingly constructed bounty hunter whose hilarious dialogue is a true joy. 

And then there is Rylance. A lesser talent might have upped the crazy when it came to pulling off a savant-like figure with a fewer people skills than Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs combined. In Rylance's hands, however, Halliday is no freak. As vulnerable as it is restrained, this depiction is another reminder of the Oscar winner's hypnotic power. Halliday's depth and humour is only ever hinted at, shielded by a watchful diffidence that is more defence mechanism than aloof disregard for the mortals around him. 

The exquisite brilliance of Rylance's portrayal in the final few minutes will uplift even the grimmest souls and remind us all of why Spielberg, whose work has never once wanted for heart, is the master of all he surveys.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Red Sparrow

Rating: 3/5

Director Francis Lawrence brings his ever stylish eye to Red Sparrow, a luscious adaptation of Jason Matthews's chilly spook novel. Lawrence's reunion with namesake Jennifer, leading lady in the three Hunger Games films he helmed (Gary Ross oversaw the first of the series), comes as Russian espionage, and questions about what exactly they're up to over there, dominates the international headlines.

Whatever it is that's going on, one doubts, somehow, that reality matches the vision deployed here. Reminiscent of many a Cold War drama, Red Sparrow doesn't quite hit those heights. It does, however, succeed as a weighty, serious and violent spy fable, one peppered with recognisable tropes (borscht-thick accents, labyrinthine plots, Soviet-style scheming), perhaps, yet benefiting mightily from the director's opulent framing and a superior cast.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet who is sneakily recruited by a shadowy government agency (naturally) following a series of unfortunate events: First she suffers a horrific onstage injury, brutally depicted; she then falls prey to the trickery of her uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), an SVR bigwig whose plans for his niece are less than wholesome. Tagged as a potential 'Sparrow' – beautiful young agents moulded to wage psychological warfare and practice sexual manipulation – she is packed off to 
the grim training centre for her new future, the elegantly name State School 4.

Later, released into the world as part of Russia's bid for global dominance over the decadent and slovenly West, Dominika must engage in a standard Budapest-based back-and-forth with American operative Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), whose CIA career has been derailed following a botched information exchange with a high-level mole in Moscow's Gorky Park.

What emerges from this initial set-up is an occasionally satisfying thriller. While it is confident enough to burn slow, Red Sparrow's ultimate impact is blunted by a narrative that mistakes confusion for unpredictability. Only Lawrence's central performance pulls it back from the brink, her assured turn providing the complexities and nuance lacking elsewhere.  

Frustratingly, the film's strongest potential element is its least heralded. The Sparrow school, overseen with stern grace and a surprising edge of motherly kindness by Charlotte Rampling's Matron, threatens to compel but is treated as little more than an extended training montage, with added barbarity. Lawrence the director captures the surroundings with a spartan, graceful stillness but it's undone by the speed with which the whole exercise is abandoned. Indeed, this approach only serves to undermine Dominika's transformation from ingenue to weapon of the state, a journey that feels all too swift. 

Later, as the stakes rise, she vacillates between knowing temptress and clueless newcomer, with neither characterisation a comfortable fit. This bleeds into the broader story, unfortunately, and while that smudging of truth might appear a deliberate tactic of the genre, the direction of travel never seems entirely true.

If Edgerton is just as baffled, he exudes enough charm to power through. Mercifully, the interplay between the two leads never sags, his calm visage and guarded countenance never completely undone by the prospective mark's hypnotic air of vulnerability. 

In Lawrence the actress, of course, Red Sparrow possesses a genuine star of the age. She overcomes Dominika's flaws with minimal effort and succeeds in weaving a convincingly steely character, inscrutable and possessed of multiple layers.

Elsewhere, the always classy Jeremy Irons excels as watchful military officer Vladimir Korchnoi, who chain smokes and growls sagely from behind a pair of tinted Gorbachev-era spectacles. In the role of spymaster Zyuganov, Ciarán Hinds is affable and alert, his expensive tailoring a quiet symbol of post-perestroika Russia. 

Nevertheless, audiences should expect little to set pulses racing. Bleak and uncompromising, Red Sparrow may aspire to moving beyond Bourne, Bond and the bloated cartoon savagery of Atomic Blonde, but it needs to get its cover straight first.