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 storytelling 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. As we endure 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 a bombastic attempt 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 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 placed at the vanguard of this 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 definitions 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 disappoints. Helen's activities offer her a chance to shine, all derring-do and slick sleuthing. She soon becomes entangled in the schemes of cyber criminal the Screenslaver and her adventures constitute 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. The two strands, Bob's and Helen's, operate in harmony, one never inspiring longing for the other; each are 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 opens up its throttle, and a series of astounding set pieces roar across the screen. From a high-speed train chase involving Helen and her 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 romp should prove so exhilarating is significant indeed.

That said, The Incredibles 2 is, for all the spectacular trimmings, powered by its characters. The cast is invariably a joy, with Hunter's elite mum a particular standout, as at home chairing 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 feel 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 not at the expense of your family.  

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2018)

Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe

Director: Steven Spielberg

Available on: Amazon Prime

Rating: 4/5

If ever there was a director to tackle Ready Player One, Ernest Cline's inspiringly kitsch 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 his 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 opening death rally starring any number of recognisable jalopies – one of many strands that departs 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 tracks.

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 that franchise's 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 unsettled 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.