The Wonderful World of Waititi

Amongst all the big budget special effects and megastar cameos, the whip-sharp in-jokes and self effacing humour, there are two things that stand out for me in the latest Marvel outing, Thor: Ragnarok.

Firstly, there’s the wonderful seventies styling of the production. From the branding of the movie itself, to the eye-popping landscapes of the world at the edge of the universe, Sakaar, this is a film dripping in classic sci-fi heritage. Compare the movie posters and typeface for Thor with those for sci-fi staples such as Logan’s Run (1976) and Buck Rogers (1976) and you’ll see more than a little similarity. Check out the buildings in Sakaar and you’ll find a palette of colours that are straight from the seventies, with blues that wouldn’t look out of place on a Ford Anglia and mustard shades that are straight from the faux leather interior of a Hillman Hunter.

For all the fawning and breathless raving about Blade Runner’s world building, the Sakaar landscape is every bit as inventive, original and inspired. And it doesn’t have to rain all the time to build atmosphere.

This is all, of course, very deliberate. On a mission to break the mould of a franchise that was fast becoming predictable after just two films, director Taika Waititi has drawn inspiration from the golden age of sci-fi, when heroes were as quick with the one liners as they were with their ray guns, yet at the same time were not afraid to show their vulnerable side and get their asses kicked.

Which brings us to the second stand out feature of this surprisingly enjoyable film; that of Taika Waititi himself. To be able to take a behemoth of a franchise like Marvel and Thor, and make it so clearly his own, is a remarkable achievement. This has everything you expect in a Marvel movie, yet it is undeniably a Taika Waititi film. Anyone familiar with his pervious work will see the quirky humour of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows shining through.

Waititi even gets away with a show-stealing cameo, as rock monster Korg, giving himself some of the funniest lines in the film. Take the infectious energy and optimism you see in that character, and imagine it behind the camera too, and you can quickly see how Waititi’s fingerprints are all over this film.

In a post-Guardians, post-Deadpool world, humour seems almost compulsory in superhero films these days. Directors have to tread a fine line between being funny enough, while not letting that humour spill over where it doesn’t belong. In this respect, Waititi walks the tightrope with all the skill of Philippe Petit, knowing exactly when to back off the gags when Asgard, or its occupants, are in real danger. It’s a rare skill and one that Guardians 2 could have used a little more of.

Not all the gags land, and it lacks that complexity of humour that rewards a second viewing with previously unseen treasures, as you get with the Guardians movies. However, Thor is still a hugely enjoyable film, with the odd casting of Cate Bland-chett as the only real mis-step. Marvel, and Hemsworth himself, have both claimed that this will be the last stand alone Thor movie, but I can’t see that myself. All involved seem to have had far too much fun making this to turn down fourth outing, hammer or no hammer.

 

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The mother! of all movie experiences

So…mother!…

Where do you begin with a film like this? Well oddly, the film begins with the end, but that’s perhaps the least strange thing about it.

Take a look online and you’ll find as many different interpretations and hypotheses about what mother! means, as there are articles about it. So let’s leave the deconstruction to the philosophers and film studies students and take a look at mother! as a viewing experience.

The film’s main star, Jennifer Lawrence, admits that mother! is “not enjoyable while you are watching it. It’s hard to watch. It’s an assault”. And she should know, as the whole film is shot from either her point of view, over her shoulder or directly in her face, putting her on screen in every scene of the 2 hour run. “This was the hardest movie of my life,” she says.

And she’s right. mother! takes hold of you from the off and doesn’t let go, with the first-person filming putting you claustrophobically right in the middle of the madness, as the level of insanity rises and rises and rises. You will feel this film, physically, in every muscle of your body, cringing and cowering in your seat, with never a moment to relax and re-gather yourself along the way.

mother! brings a whole new meaning to brutal, making the gritty Detroit look like the Wonderful World of Disney on a wet bank holiday afternoon. It’s tough going, it’s relentless and it’s unimaginably dark. And it just doesn’t stop.

Writer director, Darren Aronofsky, says he wrote mother in a five day fever dream, writing constantly, without sleep, as the idea poured out of him – and you can see that. As the film progresses, you sense that delirious loss of touch with reality that comes with prolonged lack of sleep. That staggering between hysterical bursts of energy and delusional hallucinations that you experience as your brain tries to soldier on without rest.

mother! is challenging and demands so much more of you as a viewer than most movies, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re fed up with flimsy films, which you’ve forgotten by the time you get back to your car, then maybe, just maybe, you’re ready for this ride. So strap yourself in, take a good grip of your arm rests and brace yourself for a two hour rollercoaster through Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream.

mother! may be a mayhem of the macabre, and a merry-go-round of utter madness, but it might just be a masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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That’s a rap!

For a comedy drama about an aspiring rap singer from New Jersey, the critically acclaimed Patti Cake$ feels oddly British in its indie film aesthetic. Sitting somewhere between Edgar Wright’s smart domestic observations and Shane Meadows’ sharp social commentary, it looks and feels like something Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner would produce.

That said, it tackles some very American, and very current, themes, from the burden of healthcare costs for those in low paid jobs, to the endless rows about cultural appropriation in music that have been around since Elvis.

I’m sure many people will be put off by the ‘rap’ theme of the movie, but they shouldn’t be. This is not a film about rap, it is a film about people, about friends and about family. The rap storyline is just a vehicle for some great performances and some smart dialogue, and you don’t even have to like the musical style to appreciate the struggles and successes of Danielle MacDonald’s titular heroine.

There is something very un-Hollywood about this film, which might explain why it was such a hit on the festival circuit, with nominations at both Cannes and Sundance. There is no fairytale journey here, no improbable success story, just a gritty slog that three friends, and rather delightfully Patti’s wheelchair bound Nana, manage to negotiate each day with a smile.

Patti Cake$ takes a little while to get you on-side, and MacDonald’s character is strangely hard to like at first, but stick with it. You will grow to respect and root for her, not because the script or the score tells you to, but because she earns that respect through her sheer tenacity and self-belief.

Patti Cake$ is ultimately an uplifting story, not because of the success, or otherwise, of the amateur hip hop group (no spoilers here!), but because of the warmth of the relationships between the complex central characters. What Patti learns about family, friendship and forgiveness is worth far more than any big money record deal.

So don’t let the ‘rap movie’ label put you off. If you’re looking for something different from the bland blockbusters we’ve seen so far this summer, Patti Cake$ is a worthwhile wander off the beaten track.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Devastating Detroit

It is a rare that a film makes you feel that you are part of the action, drawing you in as if it is going on around you rather than in front of you on the screen. Yet this summer we have had two such films in quick succession, first with Dunkirk and now with Detroit.

From the frenzied opening scenes of riot and disorder, shot with hand held cameras to capture the anger and energy, to the intensity of events at the Algiers Motel, shot from multiple angles that don’t miss a moment, you are never merely watching Detroit; you are constantly experiencing it first hand.

With two and a half hours of humanity at its worst, this is not an easy experience, but then neither should it be. If you don’t know the background to recent events in Charlottesville, or if you don’t understand the racial tensions and challenges that simmer just below, and often break through, the surface of American society, then this is a must-watch movie.

Using real events from the Detroit riots in July 1967, Kathryn Bigelow shows us just what it feels like to be considered a lesser human being merely because of the colour of your skin. She is quoted as saying that she didn’t set out to make ‘entertainment’ but the film is no less gripping for her mission to tell the truth.

Trump may have got into trouble recently for suggesting there were problems ‘on both sides’ in Charlottesville, but that doesn’t stop Bigelow from setting a balanced context for events here. From an animated intro explaining the Great Migration to the Northern cities, to the vivid violence of the black demonstrators, rioters and looters, which left 43 dead and 2,000 buildings burnt to the ground, this is no PC whitewash. Yet no amount of context can explain or excuse the events that follow.

The middle act, set in the cramped corridor of the Algiers, is sickeningly brutal and horrifying, and in many ways, the third act court scene is even more so. It’s easy to understand, though not forgive, the motivations of an under-pressure policeman whose colleagues have been shot at by rioters, but we expect more balance and fairness from the courts. If the blatant racist behaviour of the defence counsel and the verdict of the all-white jury don’t leave you feeling angry and dismayed, then you really haven’t been paying attention.

Detroit is one of those films that leaves you longing for a Best Ensemble Cast category at the Oscars, because the performances are excellent across the board. Baby-faced Will Poulter may well end up collecting the statue on behalf of the cast, after his chilling turn as the sadistic racist cop at the centre of the action.

At the end of the day, Detroit is not a date movie, or a film to relax to after a long day, but it is a film you need to see. When it comes to important cinema, there will be few more profound or more powerful pieces this year.

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A world of pure imagination

Very early on in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, there is a reference to Willy Wonka’s ‘World of pure imagination’, and this is most definitely where you will spend the next two and a bit hours (although I couldn’t help wondering if the reference hadn’t been put in there just for reviewers to pick up on as their opening gambit!).

Of course, this isn’t just any imagination; this is freaky Frenchman, Luc Besson’s imagination – the man who makes Tim Burton look sane and restrained. And it’s been set free, with a reported $210m budget to help him bring it to the big screen.

The result is a visual gift that never stops giving. Unlike most sci-fi, where you get the occasional wacky alien-packed bar to set the scene, Valerian’s multiple life forms are a constant presence in all their weird and wonderful beauty, complete with no less than 2734 special effects shots.

Personally, I’d like to have seen more of the 200 different species involved in the plot, and many of them end up as little more than window dressing to a very human based story. But perhaps I’m just being greedy.

The humans carry things along nicely, with Cara Delevigne particularly (and surprisingly) impressive as the feisty Laureline, and Clive Owen doing that sinister baddie thing that only British actors seem to be able to pull off. It’s just a shame that Woodane DeHaan’s Valerian doesn’t give Laureline a better run for her money, and I found their lack of chemistry left both her and the film floundering on more than one occasion.

Fortunately, the pace, the action and the breathtaking beauty of the film more than makes up for its occasionally clunky dialogue – even when Clive Owen starts channelling Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup in his over-dramatic confession scene.

There will inevitably be some who will call Valerian derivative, and certainly you can see Star Wars in the Moroccan market, the braid-heavy military uniforms of the World State Federation and even the use of a garbage chute. The residents of planet Mül are also rather close cousins of the Na’vi from Avatar. However, it is worth remembering that the source material for Valerian pre-dates all of these, and it is this that was plundered by George Lucas and James Cameron, not the other way around.

While Valerian may never be hailed as a sci-fi classic alongside these earlier films, this is not for any lack of ambition. If anything you’re left with a sense that Besson bit off more than he could chew in trying to do so much in one movie. With such a rich, vivid and vibrant world around them, the pretty standard human action-adventure story was always going to come up a little short, even without its DeHaandicap.

So is it worth your time and ticket money? Absolutely. There is no denying that Valerian is a work of genius. A mad, crazy, slightly unhinged genius perhaps, but a genius nonetheless. Just don’t wait for the DVD. If ever there was a film that demanded the biggest screen possible, and even 3D if you can find it, then Valerian is it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hit and Miss Sloane

Sometimes a film that you didn’t think much of at the time, stays with you and grows on you until you feel compelled to see it again. You convince yourself you have missed something and that it is actually much better than you originally thought.

Similarly, there are other films that you thoroughly enjoy at the time, and come bouncing out of the cinema after seeing, which start to fade almost straight away. By the time you have talked about them and thought about them for a while, it becomes clear that they really weren’t the masterpiece you first thought after all.

Sadly, Jessica Chastain’s Miss Sloane falls firmly into the second category here.

Roused by a great twist towards the end, which made me want to cheer and whoop out loud, violating the Wittertainment Code of Conduct in so many ways, I came out thinking this was a great thriller. As a fan of Aaron Sorkin shows such as The Newsroom and The West Wing, Miss Sloane ticked a lot of my boxes for entertainment. It even had a few Sorkin alumni in the cast to make sure the viewer made the connection, and Sam Waterston and Alison Pill put in solid performances.

(It has to be said that Sam Waterston is one of the most effective swearers in Hollywood. It feels like watching your cuddly grandpa swear and he achieves an impact that more foul mouthed actors can only dream of).

The plot seemed fairly intelligent and had a few nice twists and turns along the way, and Jessica Chastain was suitably bad-ass as the hottest political lobbyist in town.

I came out smiling and felt properly entertained, rather than insulted by mindless SFX and bland dialogue (You know who I’m talking about, Spidey). So what went wrong?

Sadly, the great twist that I had enjoyed so much, made no sense at all when I stopped to think about it. It just wasn’t even remotely feasible. Similarly, Chastain’s performance as the titular Miss Sloane had very little depth to it once you wiped away the stylish veneer, and I became almost annoyed by the fact that the two dimensional writing had hoodwinked me so easily.

Perhaps I have been spoiled by the sheer quality of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, especially the way he makes every character count, in a way that many in Miss Sloane simply didn’t. He was certainly conspicuous by his absence here. The dialogue here was good, but it never came close to his searing wit or break-neck pace.

Now I appreciate that it is not really fair to compare Spider-Man with Sorkin, they are doing completely different things for different audiences with different tastes. However, if you are going to set your movie firmly on his turf (and even cast his actors), then you need to raise your game to match.

So even though I originally thought that this was a hit, and had even planned my DVD purchase, ultimately Sloane really was a miss.

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Baby Driver flawlessly floors it

All too often, the films we are most looking forward to are the ones that end up disappointing us the most. We build up such high expectations that when we finally get to see the film, it can only be a let down. It happened to me last year with the much-anticipated Minions movie and I was concerned that it would happen again with Baby Driver.

Cornetto Trilogy creator, Edgar Wright’s latest quirky adventure has been lauded far and wide for its inventiveness and style, with critics in awe of its unique look and feel. The superlatives have been flying thick and fast, to the point where you end up thinking that it can’t possibly be that good. Yet it is. It absolutely is. And then some…

This is near flawless film making, from the smart script to the seamless on-street action. What’s more, every single move on the screen is immaculately choreographed to the insanely good soundtrack we hear through Baby’s headphones, as he tries to drown out his tinnitus.

This is a car chase movie like no other, which puts the Fast and the Spurious to shame, not least because all the action is driven, not green screened or CGI. The music, too, is played live into the actors’ ears, so the footsteps, gunshots and every other movement are made to the beat on the set, rather than the beat being added later to sync with the movement.

By all accounts, Edgar Wright was obsessive on set, and it shows. No lounging in a directors chair, watching a monitor for him; he was strapped to the back of the speeding cars, directing the action first hand. He was also disciplined in the editing suite, avoiding the head spinning rapid cut styling that makes Michael Bay movies so hard to watch. Baby Drive is alive with breathtaking action, but that action is so slick and stylish it feels like it is choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

The result is a film that is at the same time effortlessly elegant to watch, yet keeps you right on the edge of your seat from the opening car chase to (almost) the final credits.

In its rare five star review, Empire magazine says you won’t see another film like it this year, and they are right. In fact, you may never see another film like this. While there are countless nods to its inspirations, from Blues Brothers to Walter Hill’s The Driver, from The French Connection to True Romance, this is an utterly original movie that never stops amazing you with the skill, flair and sheer attention to detail of its writer / director.

When a critic as busy as the BBC’s Mark Kermode finds time to see a film three times in the space of a couple of weeks, you know it is something very special. I have no doubt that my second, and even third viewings will also reward me with so much that I missed first time around.

If you love cinema, Baby Driver is the chance to appreciate the art form at its very best. If you love music, Baby Driver will put a spring in your step as you bounce out of the screening. But perhaps most impressively of all, if you are tired of predictable blockbuster, franchise cinema, Baby Driver could just be the movie that will renew your faith in film.

It really is every bit as original, as stylish and as accomplished as the critics would have you believe. Do not miss it.

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