Review: In The Heart of the Sea

All I could think after watching this adaptation of the fictionalised account of the true story that didn’t really inspire the book of Moby Dick (despite the claims of the film), but was possibly used for part of the research (not in the manner presented though) was that they would have been better off adapting Moby Dick for the big screen again as it would have made for a better tale.

The film has a decent pedigree, with a strong cast such as Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, and Ben Whishaw amongst others, and a usually solid director in the form of Ron Howard. The tale itself is of the ship named Essex, a whaling vessel that was lost at sea in 1820. The tale of the sinking was officially reported as having run aground, but survivors of the wreck tell a different story. The film bookends the main story by having Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) visiting one survivor, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), to obtain his story in order to give him the inspiration to write his next novel, Moby Dick. The tale recounted to the writer is one of determination and obsession in hunting whales, which leads the Essex out to disaster when a giant white whale sinks the ship. The survivors are left stranded at sea, and must make terrible decisions in order to survive.

HgCpB

However, despite the pedigree, the film just fails to make any impact. Yes, the cast are well placed, and Howard’s direction is as visually striking as you would expect from the director, but the story is weak, and doesn’t have the grandeur that it thinks it has. The historical accuracy issues aside (and embellishment of scenes for dramatical effect), there just isn’t enough depth to the characters, nor any real tension, to make this anything more than an average experience. It’s a shame that so many aspect that would have added to the film are dropped rapidly, such as the initial antagonistic relationship between Hemsworth’s First Mate, and Benjamin Walker’s Captain which just fizzles out early into the voyage. As do any signs of potential unrest in the crew, which are thrown aside as a passing reference, as opposed to actually making us believe the crew may be ready to mutiny. Yes, I get that some of that would have meant embellishing the tale more, but given the film has already taken many liberties, why not at least take some to give the tale a bit of bite? As commented in the opening paragraph, Melville’s tale of drive, determination, and obsessive revenge would have made a better adaptation for the big screen, whilst this feels more like a History Channel movie of the week.

In the Heart of the Sea isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t one likely to make any waves at the box office, and is unlikely to have any lasting impact on audiences who view it. Oh, and it in no way, shape or form needed a 3D release!

Advertisements

Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… or more precisely over three and a half decades ago in a cinema in another town, a film came along which had a huge impact on the mind of a young 4 year old. The experience of that film made a lasting impression, introducing him to the majesty of films, the joy of space set adventure, and the galaxy of Star Wars. Decades later, the love affair with the franchise has wavered a slight bit. Yes, the love for the originals (untainted versions) is still as strong as ever, and the expanded universe of books and comics (and the occasional video game) has maintained the thrill, but a trilogy of prequels came and tainted any excitement for future instalments. So it was that, even after an impressive trailer campaign, I entered the screening of the new film, The Force Awakens, with a degree of trepidation. I’d been stung too many times, so wasn’t going to get too excited.

As the end credits played, I was that 4 year old kid once more, wanting to see the wonders on screen again, and desperately wanting to collect the toys and models that tie into the film!

Especially this little guy!

Especially this little guy!  Guaranteed to be on many Christmas lists this year!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first of a new trilogy in the ‘core’ series (there will be other films set within the Star Wars universe, but they will be spin-offs, not forming the basis of the core tale), and it comes in the wake of the sale of the franchise to Disney. Sadly, this does mean no 20th Century Fox fanfare before the opening titles, but that’s only a minor disappointment. Director JJ Abrams, who in recent times has re-invigorated the Star Trek franchise (which he was criticised for making it feel too much like Star Wars), as a long term fan of the series, was a strong choice for the job. As the pieces were pulled together, excitement in the fan community began to build. Old cast were returning, whilst a new batch of fresh faces were being unveiled for the new chapter in the tale. Most importantly of all, throughout the whole trailer campaign nobody could really work out what the story was going to be about, and I’m not about to spoil it here. All I will say is that the opening scroll is a much better read than stuff about ‘trade negotiation’ and ‘political disputes’.

So, if I’m not going to talk about the plot, let’s look at the players. Obviously the return of Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Luke will please old fans, and they all play key parts in the film, but this is not really their film. No, it belongs to the new faces, mainly Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger from a backwater planet, John Boyega as Finn, a redeemed Storm Trooper, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the dark force warrior. Oh, and of course BB-8, a small droid that carries an important message. Ridley and Boyega are instantly likeable in their parts, making for the kind of team up that we saw between, say, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, whilst Driver is furiously menacing as the villain of the piece, although his inability to control his emotions adds a depth of character to the part that wasn’t really seen in the role of Vader until the back end of the second film. The film serves as a way to hand over the reins to the new cast, who pick them up with ease, showing good promise for future entries into the saga.

forceawakens4-xlarge

Action set-pieces are plentiful, albeit imbued with a fair bit of familiarity. In fact the film, as a whole, follows the beats of the original film much in the same way that Superman Returns did with Donner’s original film. JJ, along with long-term writer Lawrence Kasdan, fill the run time with echoes of the 1977 film, but not in a manner that is detrimental to the story, but in a way that redefines the franchise for a new generation, making it clear that this is a sequel to the original trilogy, and not the prequels. Even the lightsabre fights resonate more with the style seen in Empire or Jedi, and not the acrobatic, superhuman antics of Phantom, Clones and Sith.

It is safe to say that this is, perhaps, the third best film in the franchise to date, right after Empire and Star Wars, and sets up the story for the next chapter well. If there is any flaw it is that the fan-service within, whilst looking great, does mean that it never really defines itself as a film in its own right. However, with this re-introduction out the way, we can look forward to a glorious new future for the franchise, and for the first time in over a decade I am excited to see where the films take me next.

Review: Steve Jobs

[imdb id=”tt2080374″]

One of the true shames about this film is that many people will choose not to see it for all the wrong reasons. There are those who turn their nose up at it as they don’t see why another film about Steve Jobs has been made (after the Ashton Kutcher film of 2013). Then there are those who vocally oppose Apple products so much that they refuse to accept there is any merit in a film about the founder of the company. This second group, to me, are a curious bunch – did they also feel Downfall wasn’t worth seeing because Adolf Hitler was a bad person? Already in the US, this film has had a poor opening and been pulled from a substantial number of screens, despite critical praise for the director (Danny Boyle), the writer (Aaron Sorkin), and the lead actor (Michael Fassbender), as well as the support cast of Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogan among others. Audiences, it seems, are not that bothered with a film aiming to get under the skin of one of the icons of the past few decades.

The film is inspired by the biography by Walter Isaacson, but in true Sorkin style takes a fresh approach, focussing on three key moments in time, and the relationships Jobs had with a small group of people at each point. The film is segmented into 3 chunks of around 40 minutes each, playing almost real-time behind the scenes activity at the launches of the Apple Mac in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In the time before stepping out on stage to each of these launches, Jobs interacts with his confidant and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), the co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the CEO of Apple John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and his daughter Lisa, as well as John Oritz, a GQ journalist who interviews him through the film, and a handful of others. Through his interactions with these people we see both the cold, distant Jobs, focussed purely on his product and company, but with the occasional glimmer of the humanity he buried deep, whilst gaining some understanding over the course of the film as to why he kept such a distance from those around him.

With a script by Sorkin, a writer who doesn’t just hand over his words and walk away, instead sticking around and being an integral part of the film-making process, you can expect swift and fluid dialogue exchanges from the offset, and also plenty of ‘walk-and-talk’ moments (a trope which Sorkin popularised in shows such as Sports Night and West Wing), making dialogue heavy scenes more dynamic, and adding a sense of urgency to every conversation. The result is a conversation heavy film which never seems drawn out, never slows down, and keeps you engaged throughout, and has a light sprinkling of wit to raise a few smiles at points.

But Sorkin is only one piece of the recipe for this film, and Danny Boyle’s direction is solid throughout, with touches of flair that make you remember how much of a visual style director he is. The three periods in time have slightly different looks, from a slightly grainy early 80s, through to the smooth focus of the late 90s segment, and sharp use of backlit images (from Bob Dylan lyrics, to NASA footage) lend striking impact to scenes. In addition the performances he gets out of all the cast ensure that at no point do you write off Jobs as heartless, and the way in which he touched the lives of those around him (who, it has to be said, stayed loyal to him despite his flaws) is reflected well in every scene.

Finally, a mention must be made of Fassbender who delivers yet another fantastic performance, with a commanding presence as a man obsessed with how others seem to betray him, who fails to see that his icy demeanour is have far worse an impact on close friends and colleagues such as Wozniak, and his daughter, Lisa. Jobs was an enigma to many, but Fassbender seems to have deciphered what made him tick and channels everything into the role. He may not look much like Jobs, but he swiftly becomes the man entirely.

Steve Jobs was a complex man, and this film (and indeed any film about his life) can only scratch the surface of what drove him, but Srokin, Boyle and the cast do a sterling job of tapping into the persona of a modern day legend, sparking a desire to find out more about his life, his drive, and his impact on the world – because even if you are not an Apple fan (which I am not), you cannot deny the legacy he left behind after his passing, and the impression he made on the tech world.

Review: Maze Runner – The Scorch Trials

I was quite late getting around to watching the first Maze Runner film.  The trailer didn’t sell the film to me, and I dismissed it as, “Yet another of those Hunger Games type things!”  Even the word of colleagues who told me that it was worth checking out didn’t convince me.  So, it was only a few weeks ago that I finally watched the first film, and was pleasantly surprised with what unfolded.  Whilst the film had flaws, it engaged me for the whole run time, and left me wanting to see how the tale of Thomas and the rest of the survivors of the Maze plays out now they have escaped.

The Scorch Trials picks up right from the end of the first film, and sees the Gladers taken to a refuge by the army who we saw pick them up at the end of the previous film.  Led by Janson (Aiden Gillan), this group promise to shelter the group and help them escape to a safe zone somewhere beyond ‘The Scorch’ (the name given to the apocalyptic wasteland).  In the complex the group are introduced to other survivors of other mazes, but Thomas is suspicious, and the threat of WCKD still looms.  Before long the group find themselves fighting for survival as they try to cross the Scorch to get to the mountains, where it is rumoured that a resistance group are located.  Along the way they encounter the zombie-like Cranks, a mercenary group led by Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito), and the perilous conditions of The Scorch itself, as well as finding themselves constantly on the run from WCKD, who want them back at any cost.

"What you doing?"  "Ah, just hanging around!"

Just building bridges….get it?  Building…..bridges…..aw forget it!

The previous film, whilst boasting some impressive visual moments, relied more on the mystery and character, whereas spectacle is the order of the day for this second film as the location shifts to sprawling deserts, apocalyptic landscapes, decimated cities, industrial facilities, and subterranean pipelines.  With more of this decimated world to work with, the film is understandably quite a journey at around 130 minutes in runtime.  Whilst, overall, it maintains attention, there are moments where it plods along, and a few scenes could have easily been excised for a tighter pacing.  One such section sees an otherwise star turn by Alan Tudyk as Marcus, the self serving owner of a bar within the city ruins.  Whilst Tudyk is on great form in such a small cameo, the scenes add very little to to the overall story, and could have easily been dropped, allowing the movie to progress with a bit more pace.  In addition, Gillan is a bit of a casting misstep as fans of his work on Game of Thrones will instantly be suspicious of him, and so within minutes of the film starting we are just waiting to find out what he is really doing, making the slow build up in the first act kind of pointless.

But these niggles aside, the film ticks many boxes and whilst never being more than predictable sci-fi fluff (with inspirations taken from a variety of sources – heck, it even seems to go ‘Last of Us’ at one point), it just about holds attention to the end – an ending which leaves us hanging, waiting for the next film to continue the tale.  Some people may complain that the film is meaningless on its own, and the necessity to see the first, and the need to see the next in order to make a complete story is a negative.  To those folk I simply say, ‘Empire Strikes Back’, drop the mic and walk off stage.  This is the middle act of the story, and doesn’t try to resolve itself.  Instead it simply expands on the minor information about this world, and the virus (the flare) that has wiped out so much of humanity.

The Gladers just hanging out for a while.

The Gladers just hanging out for a while.

Fans of the books may be upset at the removal of some key elements, and reshuffling of stories, but isn’t this the norm these days anyway?  The film is tailored for a cinema audience, and as such this second film should please those who, like myself, were pleasantly surprised at the first film.  Scorch Trials is a visual spectacle that doesn’t quite outstay its welcome, and sets up the pieces ready for The Death Cure, due in 2017 (and if Wes Ball stays to direct will be one film, unlike the fad to split final books into two films for no good reason).

 

Review: Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a TV series that ran in the 60s, and focused on two secret agents, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, who work to keep the balance of power stable during the height of the cold war.  It was known and loved for the style and humour (although the later episodes erred too far toward camp farce at times as the late 60s influences took hold).  A film adaptation has been bandied around for a while now, until it landed in the lap of Guy Ritchie, who drew up his vision for the film and got the greenlight.  The film is set before the formation of U.N.C.L.E and sees CIA operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) assigned to team up to prevent a terror plot involving nuclear weapons.  The pair, having already met as opponents in the film’s opening act, have a rocky relationship, but must learn to work together to prevent world disaster.

One of the most refreshing things about this reboot of an old franchise is that it keeps to the setting of the original, and doesn’t try to become modernised.  Unlike the Mission Impossible films, or the A-Team film, Man From U.N.C.L.E embraces the 60s aesthetic with aplomb.  The clothes are sixties chic, the music is packed with the flavour of the era, and the locations are as well chosen as any seen in Conner era Bond films.  Guy Ritchie brings a little of his own style to the direction, with some such as split screen action feeling perfectly suited to the settings, but other moments are a muddle of confusing cuts with none of the fluidity of action direction that we saw in the recent Sherlock Holmes films.  The directors shtick of retelling key moments from different viewpoints, each time telling us something extra to eventually piece the facts together is put to good use here, and generally the film is a solid update of the old material.

image

The name's Solo....Napoleon Solo.

However, there is something missing.  The generic plot does the trick for starting the potential franchise off, but the leads take too long to settle into their roles, and a lot of their interaction feels flat.  Support cast do a lot better in their roles, from Hugh Grant and Jared Harris as agency bosses, but most importantly Alicia Vikander as Gabby, the only lead the agents have on the assignment, who adds glamour and charm to the film, as well as being the glue that keeps the two agents together.  The wit is handled well enough, but sometimes misses the mark, and feels a little forced.

As far as origin tales go, the film does a lot better than many other franchises manage, and entertains enough even if it won’t leave any lasting impression. The biggest problem is that in an era dominated by some of the best spy films (Bond, Mission Impossible, and Bourne), U.N.C.L.E. just doesn’t quite stand out enough.  By the end of the film, however, the seeds are sown for future films in the franchise to run, and I’d be interested to see more. 

What I learned re-watching the Mad Max films recently.

***Note: I originally intended to post this before the release of Fury Road, but didn’t get round to finishing it.***

With Mad Max Fury Road finally arriving on the big screens over a decade after it was originally intended to be made (and if you still haven’t seen it, then get out and do so now), it seemed an opportune time to revisit the films about Max, the road warrior.  It has been a long while since I last saw any of these films – in fact it was round the release of Beyond Thunderdome, a film so disappointing at the time that it retroactively destroyed all memories of the first two films.  Whilst re watching the trilogy, I began to realise a few things about the series, and why they are so iconic.

1: The first film is the only ‘true’ story of Max
Now, I’m not trying to claim that there really is a road warrior out in the Australian outback, ramming cars into bikes, trucks, and strange men in gyro copters.  No, what I’m saying is that the first film is the only part of the series that is realistic and restrained to some kind of grounded setting.  As the origin story for our protagonist, it is told as is, not via voice over of someone telling the tale.  Grounded in reality it may look cheap at times (hey, it was a low budget film), but it tells  powerful story of a lawman who tries to put his family first, but loses everything and is pushed over the edge.  By the end of the film to all intents and purposes Max has lost his mind and gone off the deep end.  The Mad of the title can be seen not as a word for angry, but for genuine insanity.

2: Kids imaginations are responsible for the bondage-punks style of the villains
Mad Max 2 introduced the , mythical aspect of the road warrior by telling the tale via flashback.  The opening and closing is narrated by an elderly tribe leader, talking about his encounter with the mysterious stranger.  The thing is, as we find out to the end (did I say spoiler alert?), the narrator is the feral boy from the film, a primitive character who was quite clearly a disturbed young child (he had a bladed boomerang – that’s not normal).  The story he is telling is quite clearly exaggerated by his childhood memories, and likely enhanced to make for a better story.  So, the good guys dress in white (or cream colours), the bad guys have weird masks, spiked leather bondage clothes, and drive cars built out of Satan’s meccano.  This is similar to when you start to tell your mates about that time you got in a fight on a night out, but realise that the reality (that you were beaten up by a girl and ended up a bloodied mess on the floor crying) wasn’t that impressive, so you add 14 armed bouncers to the mix, who you deftly took out one by one until that one guy sucker-punched you.  Yup, the events of the second film were probably just a small argument at a petrol station which turned into a bit of a fight, but as told by this aging madman it becomes a mythical adventure, inspired by old stories of lone cowboys fighting off bandits.
Now Fury Road may seem to dismiss this theory, as the opening voice over is by Max, but to which I refer you to the last line of the first point.

image

Hold on..that's Weird Science! Ah well..

3: Practical effects from decades ago look better than modern CGI
Look, they just do, you can’t deny it.  Whilst some CGI can look great (the recent Planet of the Apes films for example), so much today looks cartoon like and fails to impress.  When you watch CGI cars flipping around in Transformers films, you can’t help notice that they are bouncing wrong (we all know how gravity works).  Now, regardless of how old it is, if you have a shot of a real car smashing through a real bus, it will always look like a car smashing a bus because, well,  it is.  Same goes for dismemberment and blood spurts – yes, it does look a bit fake at times, but the fact it was done practically with models and fluids makes it still work better than doing similar with CGI.  Thankfully the new film, according to reports, knows this and we can expect real stunts and blood bags ahoy in Fury Road.

4: Thunderdome wasn’t actually that bad
Look, it is a bit of a mess, and mashes two stories (Bartertown and the plane survivors) unconvincingly, and Tina Turner is a bad choice, but it still has some great moments.  Just accept it as a warped tale being told by an aging survivor trying to recite his encounter with Max, possibly whilst getting drunk with his mates (see point 2), and you can find it a lot easier to accept the failings of the film.

5: They can tell any tale in this world
Thanks to the mythical nature of the series since that second film, you can spin any story out of the setting.  Seriously, think about it for a second.  Say, for example, someone came up with the idea to pit Max against a mutated hyper-intelligent dog, well they could easily add a back story of genetic research being conducted some time before the fall of civilization, and we’d just chew it up and accept it so long as it had cars and bad guys in bondage.

image

Even epic vehicles like this!

This is also why everyone has been quite accepting about the new film being made.  Bear in mind that reboots and remakes get a bad rep, with many judging before it is even made, Fury Road was warmly embraced from day one, even when it was made clear that Mel Gibson wasn’t coming back.  The world collectively said, “So what? Just give us cars and carnage!”  Think of Max in the same way as James Bond, anyone can play the role so long as it sticks to the basic conventions of the setting (Bond = spy, Max = twisted future).  Although if in the next film (which has a script ready to go) Max drives an invisible buggy to an ice castle, I’m out.

Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

It is quite common in this day and age to find old franchises given a new burst of life via a reboot, sequel, or remake. Much of the time any such announcement is met with derision from the fans, and nonchalance from the general public, resulting in many people already making up their mind to hate the film before it even starts filming. Strangely this has not been the case with this new Mad Max film, which has been embraced by the whole community from the offset. Perhaps it is the fact that the original creator and director is still involved, or perhaps it is that people realise that tales of Max are timeless and can be told for each generation to enjoy. Either way, it is safe to say that there was a lot of anticipation from the fan community for this new entry into the series.

Real stunts by real madmen!

Real stunts by real madmen!

This new film kicks off right into the action. Max stands alone, haunted by memories of those he failed to save, when he is ambushed by a gang, resulting in him being used as a blood-bag for a warrior in a great kingdom built into rocks. The leader of this domain, King Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the first film) rules from high up in the rocks, where his control of the water has given him power over all, and allowed for him to build trade routes with nearby fuel and ammunition tribes. When one of his regular trade runs, led by Furiosa (Charlize Theron), diverts from the route, Joe discovers that his Five Wives have been taken and sets off in pursuit. Caught up in amongst the carnage that follows is Max, hooked up as a bloodline to Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a War Boy intent on proving his worth to Immortan Joe and entering Valhalla in the afterlife.

Much has been said of the fact that the stunts and carnage were done with as little CGI as possible, and this staple of the franchise not only works well here, but has some of the most spectacular action moments on film this year. The explosions, carnage, and destruction are all brutal, and unlike certain CGI fuelled action films of recent years, believable. But it isn’t only in the destruction that George Miller shows his skill at direction and visualisation. Beautiful shots of sandstorms, swamp-walkers, and cities built into rock flesh out his mythical future world even more, and serve not only the story, but the whole franchise well. On top of that there is the expected bizarre vehicle design, all beautiful in their twisted construction, but none more so than the drummers, wall of speakers, and guitarist on a vehicle serving as mock buglers,sounding the battle chimes. Comical, and stunningly impressive, this one vehicle alone represents the madness of this future world – a world gone very wrong.

Seriously awesome!

Seriously awesome!

With a character as iconic as Max, it was always going to be a hard job to follow Mel Gibson’s take on the part. After all he made the role what it is, and anyone attempting to copy him would be under severe scrutiny. Maybe this is the reason that the character doesn’t have a lot to say through this film, as it gives a chance to redefine the physicality of the character in the form of a new actor, rather than forcing us to compare mannerisms and voice inflexions. Suffice to say, Tom Hardy rises to the challenge, and aside from adopting an Australian accent, doesn’t attempt to copy Gibson’s take, instead making the part his own for a new era. Charlize Theron also steps up to the plate as Furiosa, and the film is more about her than Max. As the one-armed driver of the rig who goes off-mission and starts the whole chase off, her character begins as cold and empty, but as we learn her story she grows more depth. As, too, does Hoult’s character, who at the early part of the film we want killed, but as the film progresses you start to root for him. Such character growth in what is essentially a 2 hour action extravaganza put many recent blockbusters to shame.

It has been thirty years since Beyond Thunderdome, that’s 30 years in the wilderness for Max Rockatansky. But it has been 30 years well spent if this is anything to go by, and with Miller saying he already has plans for two more films (at least), then it is a welcome return. We may not need another hero, but we do need Max to show action cinema how to really do it.