Film Review: Passengers (2016)

Passengers (2016, dir. Morten Tyldum) follows two passengers aboard spaceship Avalon on its way to colonise a distant Earth-like planet named Homestead II. Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) are awoken from their induced hibernation 90 years too soon and face the prospect of dying before they will ever see the destination promised to them when they left Earth.

On paper the movie had a lot going for it. Two very talented leads (of whom I am a big fan) in (what I thought would be) a suspenseful and isolated plot setting that has worked on numerous other sci-fi movies before it. Unfortunately, I found the film never really reached its potential and never pulls anything out the bag that sets it out from the crowd.

Although the small cast do a great job with what is given to them, it is hard not to pick flaws with the plot. A few times during my viewing I noticed some glaring plot holes and the plot itself is not complicated. It features a very Hollywood plot from start to finish and yet left a lot to be desired despite its simplicity. I actually feel the movie would have benefited had it took place non-chronologically or utilised suspense and a lack of information fed to the characters and us as the audience to keep us guessing. Rather than being able to see where the movie is heading long before we reach the conclusion. I can’t get into the details as to why I feel this way without spoiling it. But if you find yourself watching it you’ll know what I mean.

Also, with a space setting I feel there is no excuse for the prettiest part of your film to be the cast. Yes I know, Pratt and Lawrence are two of the best looking actors on the planet. Yet there is an endless possibility given the freedom of sci-fi and space to create stunning cinematography. I found the set and costume design to be unimaginative. Maybe because sci-fi has been done to death at this point, but with the scope the genre provides it shouldn’t be a struggle to stand out. It has its more unique moments, I really liked a particular scene involving a swimming pool suffering from zero gravity and the Avalon where most of the film had a great exterior aesthetic. But as a whole not as stunning as The Martian or Alien, both of which know how to portray the isolation of space. Which should have been the angle Passengers pushed towards more.

I certainly don’t think it’s a bad film, just extremely average.

Rating: 6.9/10

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Why You Shouldn’t Watch: War On Everyone (2016)

“Are you from the precinct?”

“We’re from hell baby”

After loving The Nice Guys (2016), I was in the mood for some more (good) buddy cop movies. In browsing through Netflix I came across War On Everyone, which didn’t strike me as a comedy based on it’s Netflix promotional photos but more of a seriously toned drama. So when I got 60 seconds in and I was watching a mime being run over I had to quickly readjust to what I was settling in for.

War On Everyone follows the immensely driven asshole cops Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) who are back from suspension after assaulting a fellow (racist) cop. The pair are as corrupt as they come robbing criminals, taking drugs, accepting bribes and so on. In doing so they become tangled up in

Outside of being the worst police have to offer, there’s not much more to these two. Bad for bad’s sake and its hard to believe these morons ever wanted to become police officers in the first place. Never mind actually hold down the job after hearing and seeing some of the things they get up to throughout the film. If you do manage to suspend disbelief (congratulations are in order) there are a couple laughs to be had but I found more jokes fell flat. The one that sticks to mind is Bob and Terry’s boss bluntly stating he was married to a ‘chink’, it’s not clever it just relies on you being utterly bewildered at the blunt racism. I will admit the dinner scene the pair have with Theo James’ character (the villain, I forget his name) was pretty funny but that’s only a couple funny lines out of 100 minutes worth of dialogue.

 

Speaking of dialogue, the film is also extremely talkative as far as cop movies go, more time discussing backstories and setting up villains in the first half hour than is necessary. Yet despite all this talking I still didn’t feel like caring for any of the characters so I find the film really achieved nothing. It didn’t entertain me with action nor have me route for our anti-heroes in their quest.

When you finally get some action you’re disappointed its just a simple sucker punch. Or Bob and Terry walking into a crime that’s already happened. Then when some actual action starts, its an unimaginative foot chase through public areas where the public look completely uninterested that two cops are exchanging gunfire with a criminal. It’s really difficult to get yourself on board when you don’t care about the characters and the extras mimic that sentiment.

 

If you love your cheesy one-liners and you can stomach the erratic pacing I wouldn’t write this off. Put it on in the background if you’re really struggling to find something on Netflix. But it’s just not my thing and after the cleverness of The Nice Guys or the spectacle of the Jump Street series I struggled to find redeeming qualities for War On Everyone. I wouldn’t lose sleep if you told me you hadn’t seen this film, its as unimportant as movies get.

Rating: 3.9/10

Why You Should Watch: The Nice Guys (2016)

The tried and tested buddy cop trope has been pretty rough to be a fan of recently. Ride Along and it’s sequel come to mind, although I like both the leads the story was mediocre and relied too heavily on it’s stars to pull an audience to laugh at them. The Nice Guys however gives Gosling and Crowe much better writing to work with and the comedy is clever, both visually and dialogue driven and gives the actors (even those outside of the front two) some great moments to shine in.
Following the death of a porn actress, March (Gosling) and Healy (Crowe) cross paths in their search and through mutual goals team up to find her. Running into the lowest, trashiest LA have to offer in the process. Yet finding self worth in this work these two have clearly lacked for the better part of their lives.

It’s just as crude, if you like that in your humour, but doesn’t use cheap ways to make you chuckle. Baring maybe the kid proclaiming he has a big dick. Crowes straight face, hard man attitude bounces off Gosling’s warmer yet gormless character really well. I’d be doing the film an injustice if I didn’t mention the performances of Beau Knapp and Holly March, who more than hold their own.

The set design is immaculate and provides great for smooth, tension building action set pieces that are a pleasure to watch. I’m not surprised I liked this film because it shares a lot with Drive (2011), same location, lead actor and although the genre and narratives are completely different the style is still there.

The intrigue comes from how these two (let’s face it) idiots will go to great lengths to do their job. And in doing so go from completely hating each other to teaming up over a hatred of the scum around them. I have to say, it’s nice to know the buddy cop film hasn’t dissolved completely, so long as there’s a chemistry and heart to it that makes you care more about what’s happening on screen than where the next dick joke is coming from.

Rating: 9.2/10

Why You Should Watch: Drive (2011)

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and based on a book of the same name by James Sallis released in 2005, Drive is the film I always think of first when I’m asked about my all time favourites.

The film’s premise sounds like a lot of films you’ve probably seen before. A highly skilled unnamed (we’ll call him Driver, imaginative I know) stunt driver by day utilises his astute abilities in the night as a getaway driver for small time criminals. After developing a strong bond with his neighbour Irene and her son, the driver looks to protect them by offering his expertise to Irene’s recently released from prison husband who owes a large amount of money for the protection he received during his time behind bars.

Now I personally find what sets Drive apart from the crowded action movie market is it’s ability to tell a story by showing rather than telling. The Driver is a quite character and his love for Irene is portrayed not through dialogue, but rather through sincere gestures and looks  between the two characters. It’s a minimalist approach to romance that is refreshing and makes you really believe Driver is doing what he does best to improve the lives of those he cares about. A genuine motivation rather than action for actions sake that creates investment into the high stakes drama that only rises in tension as the film goes on.

All of this set in the backdrop of Los Angeles. Stylish shots, neon colours and a strong, pop/techno soundtrack creates a neo-noir tone that immerses you into the hectic world that The Driver does his best to make sense of.  You get the impression Driver is taken advantage of by his employers, criminals and anyone else that can profit from him, often violently. But, he is truly happy behind the wheel and if he benefits himself from his driving he is happy. And even happier still to do so for the few he cares about.

Plot backed by brilliant performances from Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks who would each steal their scenes if the talent wasn’t as consistent throughout, I was completely on board with the premise and motivations. This made the impact of every characters actions hit home and made me really route for Driver to come out on top. He’s not saving the world, he’s doing everything he can to make himself happy.

Drive teaches us not all action/thriller films have to be mindless. Showing, not telling, us why we should care at all puts this film up there with the best in my mind. Creating motivations we can get behind makes the action worth watching rather than being dazzled by explosive set pieces or shocked at gory violence. Why should you watch Drive? Because every scene hits home. Style, substance and immersion makes every moment one you cant take your eyes off, for the characters drive the action. Not the other way around.

Rating: 9.7/10

TV Review: Gotham (Season 1 – 2014/15)

(vague season one spoilers only)

Being a casual batman fan, I was intrigued by Gotham’s premise but I kept away from anything to do with the show because the last thing I needed was to start another TV show only to be stuck waiting for new episodes week on week. So now with Season 3 of Gotham almost entirely released I decided to give it a shot.

Violent. Gotham City is violent, how could it not be with some of the craziest ‘people’ alive fighting for control of its streets? I don’t think even the Dark Knight Trilogy portrayed the city as the living, breathing entity Gotham City is supposed to be. Being given the ability to see the city from street level, business to business, mob to mob was refreshing. Crimes and characters with much more personal incentives and implications crossing between 4/5 recurring heroes and villains. Creating new gripping drama in an unfamiliar time-frame with familiar characters.

Matching this with unique interpretations of many character’s origin stories including Catwoman, The Riddler, Penguin and so on provide insight to someone like myself who hasn’t looked past the movies and video games for Batman lore. Interactions between The Riddler, currently named Nygma (he’s not evil yet. Strange and weirdly likeable in fact)) and James Gordon are interactions you never even thought existed but glad they are and there are many different examples through season 1. There is a particularly funny scene between Nygma and Penguin, as one tries to escape the other nonchalantly. But fails to do so. Comedic moments like these are rationed out, but generally hits the mark. And shouldn’t really be your reason behind starting this show.

Taking away the multiple batman references you’re challenged to catch during every episode, you’re left with a good crime-drama with the great dynamic between Gordon and Bullock. Each episode typically sets them out to solve an often disturbing crime or catch a serial killer with odd motive and ends with them having solved that crime. Crimes which are smaller scale, similar to Marvel’s shows Daredevil and Luke Cage. Cleaning up the streets rather than saving the world. Inter-spliced are all of the doings of Fish, Penguin, Cat, Bruce Wayne to create the arc of the whole show. Predictable but saves face with it’s deeply intriguing characters with their varied and conflicting motivations. The battle for Gotham is a good watch for a drama fan, (probably) a great one for a true Batman fan.

Rating: 8.5/10

Review: Jarhead (2005)

Time in the desert: 122 days, 5 hours, 22 minutes.

Separating this film in my mind from The Hurt Locker and American Sniper was a little tough, the films share the now abundantly clear ‘war is hell’ message. But Jarhead turns it on its head a little bit. What’s more hellish than war? Training for a war you’ll stay at least 200 meters away from at all times might just be.

Watching Swoff (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his rag-tag group of jarheads navigate war is different in that the intensity of the scenes do not derive from the huge action set pieces or intense firefights with the enemy. Rather the war takes its toll psychologically with the gruelling training and hard-asses Swoff has to call his superiors, ultimately all leading to in-fighting and emotional trauma you’d expect from your anti-war movies. But the closest we get to having a foreign entity to blame causing such trauma to our war heroes is through a high powered rifle scope.

 

I enjoyed Swoff’s rapidly changing circumstances. Right as I find myself getting bored of sand, army camps and misery we are shown the delight that is raining crude-oil and burning oil wells, changing the scenery from wide-open nothingness to the hellish backdrop of Iraq, or hell. That works too.

Such a backdrop would suit the final action scene where the jarheads are finally able to unleash all they learned through training by wiping out uncountable enemies through sheer superiority. Instead, Jarhead hammers home a different message. No spoilers but you feel incredibly frustrated for Swoff and his spotter when their time to go home arrives. The war took everything from them and gave nothing back, even if what they wanted came from pure blood lust. Swoff’s experiences are frustrating, unsatisfying and pointless.

The darkest point for him comes when he has to leave the war behind, war he dedicated years of his life to, war which he had very little impact on. Watching on as everyone else celebrates the end of violence. What are they celebrating after all? Leaving behind all the blood, sweat and tears and coming away with nothing to show for it. Leaving him isolated and purposeless. Death might be the worst thing about war, but it’s not the only thing that makes it as damaging as it is.

Encapsulating the war experience well in a tidy, unique way with some great acting and tightly written dialogue. The narrative leans more on its psychological journey than its physical one, so if its action you’re looking for you might be better off with American Sniper. Look for something less heavy-handed and more well-rounded and you’ll find yourself at Jarhead.

Rating: 8.0/10

[on par with my ratings of Quantum of Solace and Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials]

Film Review: iBoy (2017)

When I first heard about iBoy, I was quietly optimistic. I thought a British take on the superhero genre would give it a breath of fresh air it desperately needed. It certainly gave it a valiant effort and the film is OK but its highs are high and its lows are oh so low.

Starting with what worked well, the story doesn’t take its time to get going. The origin story, although vital to any superhero, more often than not drags on and takes away from the actual ‘superhero’ portion. iBoy avoids this by getting all the necessary establishment of characters out of the way within the first 10/15 minutes. Our main character Tom, gets the ability to control all electronic devices because parts of his phone get lodged in his brain. The film doesn’t even attempt to justify how ridiculous this is and probably for the better. It becomes an easy out for the writers when they need him to hack a phone or escape a sticky situation. They just revert to “oh yeah his super power includes blowing up other phones now” but never stop to explain how.

This wouldn’t have been so bad if the film was a comedy, but instead it tries to hard to be both a comedy and a gritty British film rather than committing one way or another. Makes the film very confused in that remark. iBoy also suffers in that iBoy himself is not very likable. I didn’t have many reasons (if any at all) to root for him. Similarly the villains seemed to lack any motivation at all beyond just being bad people for the sake of being bad people. The whole ordeal is very personal, it all takes place within a small subsection of a London apartment block and yet I didn’t feel a personal attachment to anyone bar maybe Maisie Williams character Lucy.

Lucy just so happens to be the best part of iBoy. Either she got the best standard of writing dedicated to her, or Williams does a great job in making her character stand out among an average crowd. She just so happens to be the bravest character and the biggest hero in the entire story, which is laughable considering Tom or iBoy is the title character.

I can’t help but feel iBoy had a lot of wasted potential. It’s okay but very flawed. It takes a lot to suspend disbelief and go with the flow. Even then when you see a progress bar for hacking a phone you feel like face palming really, really hard.

Rating: 4.8/10

[I don’t have any 4.8’s to compare, but I gave Spider-man 2 (2004) and The Incredible Hulk (2008) both  5.0/10]

Film Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

Anti-hero might be the wrong word for Abel Morales. But he is a man who finds himself somewhat close to that label by turning his unrelenting need for business progression into a fight. A fight with an enemy he doesn’t know nor can he find. So his anger has no target. Anger which finds its way towards the wrong people.

It’s a unique problem and the narrative for A Most Violent Year is not one driven by action. Rather it is driven by the actions and reactions of the characters to the unravelling scenario they find themselves in. Our main character Abel is one of integrity. He has always done things by the books. And it would take a brave man to question that. But his ambition is so strong that it might just get the better of him. Mix in a financial struggle, a large increase in crime and family trouble and Abel becomes a lot less emotionally intact quickly.

If 1981 New York could be personified it would probably be Abel. The off white/orange tone with blue highlights sets the mood of NYC at pessimistic and keeps it there throughout. Just the intensity of events it homes ramps up as the story progresses into an uncontrollable state of affairs. As NYC gets worse as does Abel. And this downwards spiral is enthralling to watch.

As a thriller I believe J. C. Chandor has done a good job. Outstanding? Maybe not but I was entertained non the less. The performances were great throughout and the writing created three dimensional and varied characters. Which more than made up for the slow pacing early on and truly made me connect with and understand each individual character and the decisions they made. I won’t spoil the film but I wasn’t the biggest fan of the ending. Which I feel left a little to be desired. But it was not enough for me to dislike the film at all.

I’ll certainly have to check out Chandor’s other work to see if it’s of similar quality. A Most Violent Year is not the greatest film ever made. But it’s a good, well developed, thriller. Which just so happens to be my favourite genre.

Rating: 6.8/10

[other 6.8’s include Focus (2015) and Gangster Squad (2013)]

FILM REVIEW: The Revenant (2015)

I find it weird saying I enjoyed a film like The Revenant. When all it is is 2 and a half hours of watching Di Caprio’s character Hugh Glass go through some of the worst torture imaginable. But there’s something very human about the efforts he goes through in order to survive, as a kind of ‘Glass Vs. Natural Selection’ movie. It certainly reaffirmed to me that there isn’t a lot I nor anyone else wouldn’t do in order to hold onto life.

The performances throughout the film were all top notch, and I found it surprising that I remember people saying it was Di Caprio’s least Oscar deserving performance. Maybe it was the fact that he was flanked by equally outstanding performances from Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson. But just because he didn’t steal the show doesn’t make the performance any less Oscar worthy. Every ounce of pain, anger and desperation is conveyed excellently and at no point did I find myself questing what was shown on screen as illegitimate. To suspend my disbelief is all I can ask for from the cast, and they did so well.

What also caught my eye was the action set pieces, of which there are many, that are shot in a particular way that it stood out from the dozens of action films I have seen before The Revenant. The scenes don rely on shaky cam footage, hyper-cutting from shot to shot in order to crank up the intensity. Rather the camera moves calmly and intimately around the action. Moving in and out of trees, to and from characters going through hell on earth showing every detail possible. Highlighting the monstrosity of human nature so we can see exactly what is going on rather than having to guess because the film refuses to show us explicitly. I found this a breathe of fresh air and I can only compliment the director cinematographer for making a choice that I found to work far better in making an impact.

If there was anything I’d nit-pick about it would be the run-time, which I hear is a common complaint among critics. I found that in between dialogue and action were a lot of, although very pretty, ultimately pointless shots that made Act 2 seem to go very slow. Maybe if these shots were cut it would take away from the scenes where things are actually happening and turn the film back into every other thriller you’ve ever seen but without seeing that cut of the film I cannot make judgement. So I can’t really knock the film too hard because of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it already. But I would give it a miss if you aren’t good with gore, blood or violence. Cause there it’s in this film in abundance.

Rating: 9.1/10

[other 9.1’s include 50/50 (2011) and Whiplash (2014)]