Bad Times at the El Royale: substance and style aplenty

Drew Goddard began his career writing for cult classic show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then became part of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot team penning scripts for Alias and Lost. In 2013 he helped set up the first season (as showrunner) of Netflix’s Daredevil (one of Marvel’s stronger TV shows) and before that wrote monster film Cloverfield (2008) and debuted as writer- director with the excellent Cabin in the Woods (2012); then followed this up writing the screenplays for World War Z (2013) and The Martian (2015).

Basically he has a filmography to die for – from a writer and up-and-coming director’s point of view.

And now, as writer-director, he brings us another original tale in Bad Times at the El Royale (great title); starring the relative unknown Cynthia Erivo (one of the best actors in new film Widows at the moment) along with seasoned actors Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson.

The story takes place at the El Royale hotel, a building that has the border of two states running through it and feels like a throwback to a bygone age. We open with a man stashing something under the floor in one of the rooms. He’s then shot. Fast forward a decade and the hotel has fallen on hard times (basically: no guests). Yet a random, entirely unrelated group of guests turn up at the same time, and it’s clear from the off they’re each hiding something and have their own agendas.

So far so Tarantino.

Travelling salesman Dwight (Hamm) does most of the talking in the opening scene (tapping into his Don Draper days), deploying charisma, charm – and a bit of smarm – to the max. Singer Darlene (Erivo) arrives and acts guarded; alleged holy man Father Flynn (Bridges) seems genial enough, but is clearly hiding something.

Finally, moody chick Emily (Dakota Johnson) completes the group. She says almost nothing, other than to write ‘fuck you!’ in the ledger when asked her name.

The hotel’s concierge Miles (Lewis Pullman) tries his best to provide the group with the full hotel experience but it’s clear none of them are remotely interested. You can almost sense the tension in the air and predict that everything is going to go sideways pretty quickly.

All it will take is a spark.

Once they head off to their rooms we follow Dwight and learn some interesting things about him. After he discovers certain unsavoury things in his room he explores the hotel further and finds a hidden corridor which allows visual and audio access to all of the guests’ rooms. And so the plot thickens.

Without giving too much away it’s worth saying that the aforementioned stuff stashed in one of the rooms really just acts as a MacGuffin to drive the plot along and allow the characters to clash in interesting ways.

It all starts to go a bit mad by the time Chris Hemsworth’s character turns up and, overall, the whole thing could lose twenty minutes off the running time. But it’s still a fun watch.

For me, it didn’t quite hit the heights – in terms of sheer enjoyment – of the Cabin in the Woods, but it’s still an entertaining watch.

 

Mission Impossible Fallout: the best one yet?

We were first introduced to super spy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) in the first Mission Impossible in 1996 (directed by Brian de Palma), and it represented a bit of a departure for Cruise. His last film credited film before that was Interview with the Vampire (1994) and, with maybe the exception of Top Gun, he’d not really done action before.

Not that the first Mission was big on action, it was more a spy thriller with an action feel. And it’s fair to say the franchise has grown and morphed over the years. It switched gears, opting for full blown action for the second film and hasn’t looked back.

Now a juggernaut blockbuster, a huge part of the franchise’s success has been down to Cruise driving it, such is his star power.

For the sixth instalment, Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie returned as director (the first to do so), and went about giving it a different look and feel to his last film, Rogue Nation. The main premise here being the ‘fallout’ from all Ethan’s prior missions. So, in terms of setup (not that it matters much), we learn that Ethan’s team have lost three nuclear weapons which, obviously, they’d like back before a terrorist group called ‘the apostles’ decide to unleash them – as is the way with bad guys.

Blaming Ethan for losing the nukes is CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Basset), who decides to pair him up with Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill) to ensure the job gets properly. Ethan’s a scalpel and Walker is a blunt hammer. They immediately butt heads, but both grudgingly accepting that they have the same goal.

Cut to a trial by fire for Walker, who has to immediately proceed with a halo jump out of a plane over Paris for his first mission with Hunt, infiltrating a fancy party to make contact with a lead that should get them closer to the nukes. And whether it’s intensely visceral brawls in bathrooms, foot or motorbike or car chases, Cruise is at the heart of it all.

Now, we know he does all his own stunts, and a major part of the appeal of watching these films is wondering what crazy stuff he’ll do next. To the point where you find yourself exclaiming, ‘Oh my God, that’s Tom Cruise, he’s running across the top of Blackfriars bridge in London! He’s really doing it!’ This happens multiple times – often within a single scene.

The clever thing the filmmakers have managed to pull off is finding new and inventive ways in which to get from one action set piece to the next. And new ways in which to put Tom Cruise is perilous situations. You can almost imagine the headlines, ‘Tom Cruise died filming the latest Mission Impossible.’ Whilst it would be sad news indeed, it wouldn’t be hugely shocking. Probably with people saying, ‘Well, it’s the way he would have wanted to go.’

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Mission films are now a finely tuned machine. The action is tangible, visceral and exciting, and if CGI is used, it’s hard to pinpoint where or when. Indeed, McQuarrie manages to get a number of the action set pieces to feel like Christopher Nolan put them together, which is high praise indeed.

Then there’s the storytelling.
Yes, these films are action blockbusters, but they also feel like they deliver on character in a dynamic way. Never did I suffer from action fatigue, or feel that any character moments were being shoehorned into the story between the car chases and explosions, it all felt organic and well put together.

To the point where I’m comfortable saying that this is the best Mission yet.
Mr Cruise, I look forward to seeing what you’ll do for the next one, should you choose to accept it.

Sexiest characters in the Walking Dead

Over the seasons, The Walking Dead has gotten more and more grim. Literally, nothing good ever happens. The characters go through hell and then some, then dust off and go again.

I’m very close to being done with watching it. But it did get me thinking, despite all the characters being permanently under a layer of blood and dirt, the show does have quite a few sexy actors in its line-up.

I know I know, I’m shallow and a terrible person. But one of the reasons we watch film and TV is to be entertained right? And yes, granted, good storylines are great, compelling characters hook us in, but, if I’m honest, it does help if they’re attractive too right? Yeah, I’m going straight to hell.

Anyway, here are my favourites from across the show.

THE MEN

Jesus, played by Tom Payne

He’s a young, peace loving dude with kick ass martial arts moves, piercing blue eyes and an impressively hipster beard. In recent seasons he’s served as Maggie’s close advisor (with me vaguely hoping they become a couple at some point). He remains one of the show’s most moral characters.

Shane, played by Jon Bernthal

Ah Shane, how we miss thee. Actor Jon Bernthal was a big part of what made the first season so good. His tension with Rick was palpable and fans loved his intensity and charisma, to the point where he often thoroughly dominated most scenes. Although, weirdly, I’ve managed to choose a picture of him looking kind of cuddly.

Ezekiel, played by Khary Payton

Who doesn’t love a character that gets introduced as ‘the King’ and comes with his own pet tiger? Ezekiel is regal, wise and noble. All things a king should be. Plus, he’s just so damn cool. As his kingdom collapsed under the threat of the Saviours it was interesting to see him adapt and grow.

Negan, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan

First Shane, then the Governor, then there was a gap in our lives. At least in terms of a big, bad Walking Dead bad guy. That was until Negan showed up in his leather jacket, oozing charisma and sex appeal, whilst menacingly swinging his barbed wire bat, Lucille, as he monologued evilly all over the place. And we loved him for it.

Rick, played by Andrew Lincoln

Over the seasons Rick’s fortunes – and mental state – have gone up and down, largely depicted by what kind of majestic beard he’s sporting. Not that his beard defines his character, he’s driven, strong, brave and selfless, basically the ultimate hero, and thus forever captures our hearts.

Aaron, played by Ross Marquand

The show’s first openly gay character, Aaron, is a bit of a bad ass. Tough, sensitive, resilient and brave, we first meet him as a recruiter for the Alexandria community. He forms a close bond with Rick and, as the show progresses, he grows a beard, which makes him look even more fetching.

THE WOMEN

Sasha, played by Sonequa Martin-Green

A firefighter pre-apocalypse, Sasha sought sanctuary in Rick’s group with her brother Tyreese. Her brother lasted a little while before biting the dust, yet Sasha – a far more interesting character – endured and went on to become a core member of Rick’s team as the group’s sniper. As a testament to her ability to hold the screen, when Martin-Green left the show she went on to become the lead of Star Trek: Discovery.

Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Cyndie, played by Sydney Park

Introduced in season 7 as part of an all-female community called Oceanside, Cyndie and her gang had previously encountered Negan’s Saviours and had since chosen to stay as far away from them as possible. We meet her when Tara gets separated from the main group and they form a bond of sorts.

Maggie, played by Lauren Cohan

Talk about the evolution of character. When we first meet Maggie she’s just one of Hershel’s daughters, living on a peaceful farm and somewhat oblivious of the danger in the world. She grows and toughens through the show to become one of the main group’s leaders, heading up the Hilltop tribe. After the death of her partner Glenn she becomes tougher and harder, assuming a key leadership role and is as essential to the group’s survival as Rick, perhaps more so.

Rosita, played by Christian Serratos

I read somewhere that when Rosita’s character was introduced it was pretty much as the male fantasy version of post apocalyptic – short shorts and a crop top. Over time this was toned down as her character was beefed up. Particularly after she suffered the loss of her partner, Abraham.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: it’s quantum baby!

The first Ant-Man was a welcome surprise – funny, inventive, and it had a lot of heart. What would the sequel offer, more of the same? Go bigger? Go smaller?

It’s worth mentioning that in the first film the story touches on the quantum realm, the place where Ant-Man can go if he shrinks to sub-atomic levels. Well, for Ant-Man and the Wasp the story picks up after events from Captain America: Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), after siding with Captain America by getting in an almighty fight with the rest of the Avengers in an airport in Germany, finds himself under house arrest for two years, under the watchful eye of the FBI, led by the surprisingly amusing Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) – who clearly admires Scott as a hero, but has a job to do keeping him contained.

The first film mentions Hank’s wife Janet, lost in quantum realm for decades. Hank and Hope begin to suspect she might still be alive, so set about building a device to bring her back.

They learn that, after his brief journey into the quantum realm, Scott may now have a connection to Janet, so they need his help. The issue is, a strange, shadowy figure named Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) also has an interest in their quantum technology, as does dodgy technology dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins).

And thus we have chase after chase (putting to use size in inspired ways, giant Pez dispenser anyone?) around the picturesque streets of San Francisco as Ghost and Sonny try and steal Hank’s lab and technology, as Hank and Hope try aim to evade them. And Scott sort of gets in the way a bit.

So, plot wise, it gets a little bit samey and bogged down with all the characters running around in circles a little. However, it does make for some nice set pieces, in particular one where Scott’s suit malfunctions in a school with hilarious results – in a scene that wouldn’t have felt out of place in a Deadpool movie.

That said, it’s full of jokes, probably funnier than the first film, with bigger set pieces, more action and higher stakes. Hope as Wasp, in particular, gets a lot more screen time and is an exciting hero. Different enough to Scott’s Ant-Man (she has wings and blasters, and also a much more fluid fighting style), so as a duo they’re a ton of fun to watch on screen, throwing bad guys left and right.

In general, as far as sequels go, it’s a big thumbs up. Some critics have said the stakes aren’t high enough and it doesn’t reach the heights of Thor: Ragnarok, Infinity War or Black Panther, but those are basically three of Marvel’s most successful films out the 18 or so they’ve produced, so I think this comparison is unfair to make. More accurately, how does it compare to say, Thor: The Dark World or Guardians of the Galaxy 2? In my book, it’s up there, better than both possibly, sitting comfortably middle of the pack. Which is no bad thing at all.

It also has, for my money, one of the best stings from Marvel in some time. That’s all I’ll say on that, but watch to the end to see if you agree.

Sense8 finale: just what we needed

Sense 8 was a show that was cruelly cut down before its time. But, thanks to a fan campaign, came back to life for a finale recently, courtesy of Netflix. And, happily, the result was a delight. Generally, in film or TV, kowtowing to fans has rarely ever given us audiences good results but, for once, in this instance, a bit of boxticking to give the show’s characters a good send-off was exactly what was needed.

The premise (and frankly, if you need this explaining you shouldn’t be watching the finale first) is that eight people across the globe come to learn that they’re psychically connected. They can communicate with one another and think and feel feelings of the others in the group, their ‘cluster’. And whilst they’re still independent people with their own agency, they’re far beyond what you or I would experience in terms of connection (physical and mental).

Which all sounds a bit, well, superhero. And perhaps in other hands this would be the case, but Sense8 is a show that’s simultaneously more cerebral yet also more grounded.

At its core, it’s about connection, acceptance, love (in many forms) and freedom of self-expression. Which we get to experience, ultimately, through the interactions the cluster have with one another.

Because, like all good shows, it has great characters that you come to love over time, and, handily, there are eight from which to choose your favourites. There’s Riley (Tuppence Middleton) an Icelandic DJ living in London; Nomi (Jamie Clayton) a hacktivist in San Francisco; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) a safe-cracker in Berlin; Will (Brian J. Smith) a cop in Chicago; Capheus (Toby Unwumere) a bus driver in Nairobi;), Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) an actor in Mexico City; Sun (Doona Bae) the daughter of a businessman and an underground kickboxer in Seoul; and Kala (Tina Desai) a pharmacist in Mumbai.

Naturally, though, you have to have an overall antagonist for the eight of them to face off against. In this case it comes pre-packaged in the form of an evil organisation called BPO, who are hunting them down for experiments or something.

Basically, this part of the show doesn’t hugely matter, the thing the fans come back for, and indeed protested about when the show suddenly ended, was that they wanted to see more of the eight main characters interacting together. More interesting and inventive things they could do with their powers, more love, more sex, more of Wolfgang and Sun kicking ass, more polyamorous connections, more slow-mo shots of the whole annoyingly attractive lot of them dancing to Euro trance.

Which the show’s creator, Lana Wachowski (her sister Lily was also involved, but stepped away from the show after season one) was only too happy to give us. Yet, she understood that it couldn’t all be orgies and explosions, so she balanced it out.

We had humour, some lovely character moments and scenes (a wedding at the Eiffel Tower complete with bearded fairies for example!) and a sense of finality and closure.

And to be honest, you couldn’t really ask for more for the ending of a show that you love. Now if only Serenity could do the same thing…

Top ass-kicking actresses on TV that I like lately

Lately, I’ve started to become dimly aware of something. A lot of TV shows I’m currently watching seem to have not only a decent gender balance in general, but also well-written female characters in leading roles. Perhaps this has been the case for a long time, but, somehow, I’ve just noticed it. Maybe these characters have always been present, but perhaps in the past just to serve the journey of the male characters? Sort of mild fridging, or pre-death fridging perhaps? But now, in the golden age of streaming TV with Netflix and Amazon Prime, and in the age of #metoo and #timesup, female characters seem to have more agency. Are we at some sort of turning point? I asked this in a recent post about action women in film, and I think the same applies to TV.

It’s kind of a refreshing and exciting place we find ourselves in, from a storytelling point of view. At the very least, as recipients of said stories.

So with that in mind, below are a selection of characters that have entered my TV watching world in various guises, from women that plot and scheme, through to those that straight up fight, to those that code and those that build. TV people take note, more of these characters please. Modern storyelling needs them, now more than ever.

Thandie Newton
As Maeve in Westworld

As one of the AI ‘hosts’ of Westworld, Maeve starts out as a madam in a brothel, but quickly becomes one of the show’s key characters, breaking her programming and fighting back against her creators. She evolves to the point where she controls other hosts and has them do her bidding in a mission to rescue her daughter.

Hannah New
As Eleanor Guthrie in Black Sails

Eleanor, following in the footsteps of her father, runs a black market operation out of Nassau, dealing with cut-throat pirates day in day out. And, in an environment where the only other female characters of note are prostitutes, she cuts her own path as a canny businesswoman, striking unsavoury deals with dangerous pirates to keep her enterprise going.

Kathryn Winnick
As Lagertha in Vikings

Married to a farmer with big ambition and King-in-waiting, Ragnar Lodbrok, Lagertha starts the show as a shield maiden, but makes her dismay clear when Ragnor leaves her behind during his first raids on England. She’s firmly part of the team on the next raid and remains a key figure throughout the show, growing in power to become the Earl of a nearby area, as well as a key figure in the viking raids on Paris. Whilst she’s a fierce warrior on the outside, she’s really an emotionally complex and thoroughly interesting character. Her fractious relationship with Ragnor is one of the most compelling and watchable things in the show.

Lindsey Morgan
As Raven Reyes in The 100

As the youngest zero-G mechanic to come through the ranks of humanity’s last survivors in space, Raven is clearly smart as hell, highly capable and about as tenacious as you can get. Not only does she launches herself in a tiny rocket to get to Earth, she builds homemade bombs to fight the ‘grounders’, and bests a homicidal AI through a combination of frantic coding, no sleep and a lot of coffee. And she does most of this after being shot in the spine and having to relearn how to walk.

Mackenzie Davis
As Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire

Cameron enters the show early, being recruited by Lee Pace’s stuffed shirt ex-IBM sales guy to build a PC that’ll blow the big boys out the water. She acts as a good foil to the show’s buttoned-up, tightly wound male characters, in that she dresses like a geek, listens to punk rock and heavy metal whilst coding and does things very much her own way, to the chagrin of the men.

Maggie Siff
As Wendy Rhoades in Billions

Maggie is a psychiatrist tasked with ensuring the traders of Bobby Axelrod’s (Damien Lewis) hedge fund remain ruthless and committed when it comes to their work. She’s equally close to Bobby as well as his arch nemesis, Chuck, the District Attorney hellbent on destroying him – who also happens to be her husband. Oh, and on the side she’s a Dominatrix in the bedroom, giving Chuck a spanking when he gets out of line.

The rise of the action woman

Recently I was listening to a podcast with Alicia Vikander, one where she talked about her role as the new Lara Croft and how the character has been rebooted as a more realistic heroine for modern women.

She mentioned how it seems there’s momentum these days, indeed appetite, towards high quality, well put together, action-driven films that feature a female lead. She mentioned Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde and others, which got me thinking, is there momentum? Was there a specific moment that was the turning point?

Thinking back, Angelina Jolie has done the bulk of the heavy lifting since about 2000, with Charlize Theron playing her part too. But did they pave the way for the films we see now or has this been a longer time coming?

For me, I think the ’90s are a good place to start.
So below are the films and the various time periods that, for better or worse, I consider to have had a hand in where we are now. I’ve listed the actress, character, film, year, whether they were lead, co-lead or in a prominent supporting role, and the Rotten Tomatoes score, to give a rough indication of how the film was recieved by audiences.


THE 1990s

Yes we had Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien at the tail end of the ’70s, but the ’80s were dripping in macho testosterone. So, for me, the ’90s is where this movement started to gain traction, with actresses like Linda Hamilton and Geena Davis leading the way, putting in decent performances in exciting, entertaining movies.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) 92%
Sarah Connor (supporting) – Linda Hamilton

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) 68%
Samantha Caine (lead) – Geena Davis

G.I. Jane (1997) 55%
Jordan O’Neil (lead) – Demi Moore

The Matrix (1999) 87%
Trinity (supporting) – Carrie-Anne Moss

THE 2000s

The good work the ’90s women put in gets somewhat undone at the start of this decade, with a bunch of terrible films (Eon Flux the biggest offender) and, whilst it’s no fault of the various actresses involved, it took a one-two punch of Angelina Jolie (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Uma Thurman (Kill Bill) to set things right. So by the end of the decade we were getting better films – and characters – with greater frequency (Hanna, Salt).

Then, by 2012, we’d probably reached a turning point. Angelina Jolie (aged 35 in Salt) couldn’t fly the flag forever, so others had to step up. Enter women like Jennifer Lawrence (22 in Hunger Games) and Saoirse Ronan (17 in Hanna), actresses that appealed and inspired a younger generation and helped push things further forward.

Charlie’s Angels (2000) 68%
Natalie Cook (co-lead) – Cameron Diaz, Dylan Sanders (co-lead) – Drew Barrymore, Alex Munday (co-lead) – Lucy Lui

Tomb Raider (2001) 20%
Lara Croft (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Resident Evil (2002) 34%
Alice (lead) – Milla Jovovich

Eon Flux (2005) 9%
Eon Flux (lead) – Charlize Theron

Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) 59%
Jane Smith (co-lead) – Angelina Jolie

Kill Bill (2003) 85%
Beatrix Kiddo (lead) – Uma Thurman

Wanted (2008) 71%
Fox (supporting) – Angelina Jolie

Salt (2010) 62%
Evelyn Salt (lead) – Angelina Jolie

Iron Man 2 (2010) 73%
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (supporting) – Scarlet Johansson

Hanna (2011) 71%
Hanna (lead) – Saoirse Ronan

Hunger Games (2012) 84%
Katniss Everdeen (lead) – Jennifer Lawrence

2015 ONWARDS

In 2012 Disney acquired Star Wars as a property and set about making plans to expand the franchise with new films and characters, ones that would appeal to a modern audience. The majority of moviegoers want to see female characters better represented on screen, so franchises like Star Wars really need to lead the way.

Additionally, along with Marvel’s MCU and a smattering of female superheroes, even DC studios got in on the act, with a female-led action movie in Wonder Woman (something Marvel could only really match with supporting characters in films like Black Panther). Momentum and quality, though, had really shifted. If the below selection are anything to go by.

Mad Max (2015) 97%
Furiosa (supporting) – Charlize Theron

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015) 93%
Isla Faust (supporting) – Rebecca Ferguson

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) 93%
Rey (co-lead) – Daisy Ridley

Rogue One: A Star Wars story (2016) 85%
Jyn Erso (lead) – Felicity Jones

Wonder Woman (2017) 92%
Diana Prince (lead) – Gal Gadot

Atomic Blonde (2017) 77%
Lorraine Broughton – Charlize Theron

Black Panther (2018) 97%
Shuri (supporting) – Letitia Wright and Okoye (supporting) – Danai Garira

Top 10 films about making films

I recently watched a film in which the plot revolved around, or at least touched on, the process of making a film. Which got me thinking about other films where this happens. Here are ten of my relatively recent favourites.

Their Finest (2016)

A rather sweet WWII-set flick which tells the story of the relationship between two screenwriters (Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton) writing a screenplay for the Ministry of Information to boost troops’ morale. Also includes Bill Nighy doing Bill Nighy, which is always a good thing.

Tropic Thunder (2008)

In an attempt to make a war film more authentic a hapless director (Steve Coogan) drops his actors into the Vietnamese jungle. Trouble is, they end up in the middle of a real drug war. It takes some of the filmmakers (including Nick Nolte and Danny McBride) a while to realise what’s actually going on.

The Aviator (2004)

As part of the thread of this film, billionaire and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to make the film Hell’s Angels which, whilst it went on to be one of the highest grossing films of the silent era, it still lost money due to the inflated budget.

Get Shorty (1995)

Mobster (John Travolta) is sent to Hollywood to collect a debt from film producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman). But upon pitching his life as a movie idea he finds being a gangster and a producer are not that different.

Saving Mr Banks (2013)

For a film about the making of Mary Poppins and the relationship between its author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), it’s incredibly sweet-natured. Particularly the scenes where they’re coming up with the songs.

Son of Rambow (2007)

School bad boy Lee Carter (Will Poulter) and Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) become friends, in sort of an odd couple way when they bond over a film they’re making for a competition. Their friendship gets tested when more kids join in and Lee feels cut out.

King Kong (2005)

Ambitious director Carl Denham (Jack Black) manages to persuade playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) to head to Skull Island to film his new flick. However it all goes awry when Kong kicks off, swipes Ann and heads off into the jungle.

Super 8 (2011)

A bunch of kids (including Elle Fanning) are making a zombie movie, when all of a sudden they witness a train crash. Turns out it was no accident, and a series of events and disappearances follow. It’s up to the kids and Deputy Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to discover the truth.

Cloverfield (2008)

A bunch of rich and attractive New York kids (including Lizzy Caplan and T.J. Miller) are having a party when a huge monster starts smashing up the city. They film their experience on a camera as they try and flee the city with their lives.

While We’re Young (2014)

Middle-aged filmmaker Josh Schrebnick (Ben Stiller) is stuck in a rut. Until a young, hip guy called Jamie (Adam Driver) turns up. He breathes new life into Josh’s film but then enjoys more success in weeks than Josh did in years. So, inevitably, sparks start to fly.

Infinity War: the pathos of Thanos

So, Avengers: Infinity War from Marvel Studios. The biggest of epic battles to end all epic battles (although not quite, as there’ll be an Avengers 4 in 2019, but more on that later). So, yes, there’s Thanos (Josh Brolin), a really bad guy. The worst. He’s purple, with a big chin from the planet Titan. He’s from Titan, not just his chin. That would be weird.

Yes, so Thanos. He wants to acquire some powerful trippy stones, so he can kill half the universe (that old chestnut). But… he has obstacles in his way, heroes! Earth’s mightiest ones, in fact. There’s Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) aka Iron Man, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) aka Spider-Man, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) aka, er, Thor, plus precisely 57 others I cannot be bothered to name.

But rest assured, they’re all great. Many have capes, for example.

And because there’s so many of them (and imax screens are only so big), the directors (the Russo brothers) have opted to split them up. Have them fighting battles in different locations. Some earth, some in space.

This is a nice idea and provides a change of scenery, so it’s not just one giant battle on earth. It also means we get some sexy pairings we’ve not seen before (Tony Stark, Steven Strange and Peter Parker, Rocket and Thor, that sort of thing). And from these odd couplings banter springs forth, classic Marvel. Keep the jokes coming. They’re sorely needed in an epic film such as this, lest we stray into dour DC territory.

But we don’t. It’s all good. The filmmakers know what they’re doing. They also, wisely, keep the focus on Thanos. This is his story. Nay, no longer will we have bad guys with questionable motivation, for Thanos has a decent reason. It’s just his execution (pun intended) that is perhaps somewhat suspect. Brolin sells it though, humanising the purple-chinned one. We connect, even if we don’t agree with him.

It’s not all Thanos Thanos Thanos though. Each hero (yes, all 57 of them) gets a little moment to shine, at least once, even if it’s a tiny line. Some get more than a line of course, it’s all about whose agent negotiated for what screen time. Isn’t it? I mean, let’s take the credits. Chris Pratt gets ‘with Chris Pratt’. His agent has to get a bonus for that one surely?

Anyway. The war. Yes. Each hero gets a moment and some get really cool ones too. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for example, finally, shows levels of badassery we’ve not seen. And it’s joyous. Thor gets a moment that rivals a couple of the best bits of Ragnarok (this other film he was in) and Tony has upgraded his suit to repair quicker than Wolverine (sorry, other franchise). Drax quietly steals most scenes he’s in and Star-Lord questions his masculinity when confronted with a pirate-angel (this will make sense when you see the film).

Basically, the film’s really good, albeit exhausting. Must be all the grizzled heroes and big-chinned bad’uns spouting worthy dialogue all over the place. Anyway, if you love Marvel films, you’ll get all as giddy as a cosplayer as comic con. You’ll be thrilled, shocked, scared, entertained and, perhaps saddened a little in places. But don’t worry, the conclusion of this story, a bit like Game of Thrones and winter, is coming (right after Deadpool 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp this year and Captain Marvel next year).

May the force be with you.
Sorry, wrong franchise. Um, how can I make this better?

Hail Hydra.
#teamthanos

Ready Player One: a young man’s game?

‘Have you heard the news? Spielberg is directing Ready Player One!’ Thus went the geek cries across the interwebs – and I was one of them. For this was pleasing, one of cinema’s greatest directors was going to bring to screen a fast-paced and cinematic – but frankly tricky – book by Ernest Cline.

Mostly because it’s packed with ’80s pop culture references, which go some way to explain its huge popularity. So it made sense from a licensing point of view, that only someone with as many connections as Spielberg could pull it off. Plus, with the film straddling the real world as much as an artificial one, you’re effectively, almost, directing two films.

And there’s less than a handful of directors with enough experience to be able to juggle this effectively, and get something that’s both true to the book, cinematic and emotionally engaging to screen.

It also helps that it’s a young man’s adventure/coming-of-age story that’s set in a sci-fi future. One where humanity spends most of their time in a virtual world, because it’s better than the real one. Which is a perfect fit for Spielberg right?

At least, maybe it was almost two decades ago when he gave us films like Minority Report and AI. And to be honest, Tin Tin aside, this past decade he’s focused on more historical stories (War Horse, Lincoln, Bridge of Spies). Which had me wonder, would the heavy performance capture side of this film be beyond him? Is modern sci-fi and fantasy – on this scale – more of a young director’s game?

Well, we could argue that a director like Duncan Jones is (relatively) young and his performance capture fantasy fest Warcraft didn’t strike a huge chord with audiences and critics. So perhaps inexperience plays a part too. Moreover, computer game adaptations never seem to do well. Although Ready Player One isn’t an actual computer game, it does occupy a lot of that territory.

Ultimately though, beyond technology and techniques, a successful movie has got to be about the story and how much we engage with the characters. Spectacle can only get us so far. And granted, performance capturing huge chunks of any film must be a slog for a director of any age, but if we don’t connect with the characters we don’t like the film. Simple as that really.

Well, in the case of Ready Player One the story starts with the inventor of the aforementioned virtual world (the OASIS) James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and his death. This releases a recording in which Halliday says he’ll gift control of his world – and his vast fortune – to whoever finds three keys hidden within the game.

The way you find them is by knowing as much about past pop culture (films and retro gaming in particular) as much as Halliday does (or did). Luckily, our main character Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is one such geek. Perhaps the ultimate geek.

Although he’s not alone, other gamers (known as gunters) seek the keys, too. As does an evil corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). Halliday’s vision was that the OASIS was free, a place of escape. But Sorrento and his gang would prefer to run lots of ads and monetise it (shout out Mark Zuckerberg).

So that’s the setup. (And a bit of my usual brain dump and rambling thought process.)

Here’s the thing. I read the book, as did my partner. She enjoyed the film but I only found it to be a so-so experience. For me, more, meh.

Now I don’t want to be one of those people that loves a book and finds any excuse to hate a film, honestly. I really wanted to like this film. I just don’t feel like it captured the spirit of the story in the way I’d hoped. Particularly given it was Spielberg at the helm – the ultimate blockbuster adventure director.

Without delving too much into specifics (head here for that), I get why Spielberg made most of the choices he did. Books give you a chance to add in a lot more detail, a chance for characters to allow their inner monologue to run wild, a chance to build up certain timelines and indulge in specific things you just cannot get away with in a film. In short, you can take your time.

In a film you’ve no such luxury. So Spielberg ditches a lot of the early setup of Wade building up his credits within the game, his initial meetings with love interest and fellow Gunter Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and other such indulgences. Out goes much of the real world scenes early on, in favour of getting straight into the meat of the action. He also has Wade meet Art3mis face to face much earlier than the book, presumably so they have more of a connection that feels real.

For me, the film comes alive when Wade and his friends are united (in both the real world and the OASIS) around the time they’re going after the second key. This harkens back the sort of storytelling and sense of adventure Spielberg brought to The Goonies (he more or less co-directed with Richard Donner), E.T. and countless other films.

Perhaps, on a second watch, I’ll find more that I love about this film. Perhaps, despite enjoying the book, the film wasn’t really aimed at me (I am in my 30s) and is, in fact, The Goonies for the gaming generation, Gen Z or whatever they are. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had set my expectations too high. Whatever the reason, I found this film to be good, but not great. (Although other opinions are available.)