Settle down with your favourite fuds as we give you the skinny on The 5th Wave, Jane Got A Gun, Bone Tomahawk, Our Brand Is Crisis, The Assassin, and Zootropolis. For once we even have divergent opinions on most of them. It’s truly exhilarating.
This adaptation of the “young adult” sci-fi novel of the same name sees 16-year old Cassie Sullivan, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, thrust into a role where she must save her younger brother, and along the way the entire world, somehow, from an alien invasion as well as a shoehorned in love triangle in a film that’s shamelessly mixing and matching from The Hunger Games and Twilight, but with space aliens. Space aliens indistinguishable from humans, which I’m sure was intended to keep us guessing about who can be trusted but comes across as a way to save on the effects budget. This had been released to widespread boos and hisses, and so I don’t think we need to labour the point other than to briefly add to the chorus – the effects work that does appear is third rate, the acting is phoned in, particularly from a bored-looking Leib Schriber, and the plot could only politely be described as ludicrous, with what has to be the worst alien invasion plan in film since Signs. There’s perhaps some potential shown in the first twenty minutes, but that’s quick to evaporate. Very much not good on every level.
We head out to the Wild West for this film, which is saddled with a troubled production history that saw it conclude with an entirely different cast and director than it started with. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it delivered a coherent film at all, let alone one that’s actually pretty decent.
Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman) is just trying to raise her family with her husband Bill ‘Ham’ Hammond (Noah Emmerich), but their past soon catches up with them, a past that’s made known to us through flashbacks that I don’t think I should delve into in any detail as the fractured narrative is one of the stronger aspects of the film, filling in details and providing solid dramatic impact.
In general terms at least, the basics of the plot are that Bill shows up riddled with bullet holes warning that outlaw John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his gang are close to tracking them down and that Jane should flee with their daughter. Unwilling to do so, she instead fortifies the homestead to repel an assault, in desperation turning to her embittered former fiancée Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) for help which he grudgingly gives.
All of the leads do well, the period detail seems solid and looks good, and as mentioned it’s a rare case where a fractured narrative actually helps build tension and develop character rather than being a pointless annoyance.
I thought this was a really solid, enjoyable film all round, albeit one that doesn’t do anything too spectacular to give it that spark of greatness. There’s no shame in that though, and I’d wager this will still turn out to be better than a good chunk of the films I’ll see this year.
Staying out West, albeit in a rather less conventional genre piece, trouble starts a’brewing when murderous brigands stumble through an old burial ground, desecrating it along the way. After poor old Sid Haig gets his comeuppance, a fleeing David Arquette accidentally leads warriors from a tribe of what is soon revealed to be violent, savage troglodyte cannibals to a quiet little frontier town. I should probably add at this point that this is a much better film than you’d be lead to expect by terms such as “savage troglodyte cannibals” or “David Arquette”.
The tribe, who for want of an official name I shall call The Troggs, abduct Arquette, a deputy Sheriff and Lili Simmons’ Samantha, who had been tending to the gunshot wound Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) bestowed upon David Arquette, presumably for his performance in Ready to Rumble. This understandably leads to the Sheriff rounding up a posse to go after them, consisting of himself, elderly “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), cynical, womanising, injun’-hatin’ Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Samantha’s husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), who’s nursing a badly broken leg but understandably cannot be dissuaded from going.
Against the advice of locals who have heard tales of the viciousness, fearsomeness and vicious ferocity of The Troggs, claiming them to be wild things who make everything kvoovy, the band start tracking them to their home valley encountering the usual hazards of frontier life – wildlife, barely charted terrain, bandits and brigands and the like, with Arthur’s injury continually complicating matters.
Perhaps the most interesting struggle in this section however is internal rather than external, as the varying degrees of animosity between the characters flares and ebbs, backed by a clutch of good, believable character performances. It’s as good a stretch of modern Western as I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s only when our intrepid band catch up with their prospective quarry that things get weird.
In their struggle with The Troggs it really starts to earn its Horror categorisation, with some quite extreme dismemberments and much, much worse going on as it takes a rather more Eli Roth-ian tone, although again nowhere near as bad as the words “Eli Roth” would have you believe. It is, however, a real stylistic whiplash moment, which to an extent provides the shock value it was aiming for but nonetheless doesn’t feel quite right to me. It marked a very sudden suspension of my suspension of disbelief, and even knowingly that it was coming the mood shift was something that refused to sit properly with the rest of the film.
Bone Tomahawk feels like an hour and a half of a decent Western, with the final half hour of The Hills Have Eyes accidentally spliced into it. It’s as weird in practice as that sounds in theory, and so while “Horror Western” is a genre mashup I don’t think I’d seen before and is certainly distinctive, possibly unique, it’s not one that’s an unqualified success – but certainly better than “Sci-fi Western”, as Cowboys & Aliens and Wild Wild West would attest. A wickey wickey wah wah.
Sandra Bullock takes the lead as a spin doctor cum campaign manager in this fictionalised tale of the 2002 Bolivian election. Her opposite number is played by Billy Bob Thornton, and the film seems to be banking on the antagonism between the two giving it some spark, but that cheque remains uncashed, as Bullock has all the innate charisma of a box of cereal. The plain stuff. Supermarket own-brand value cornflakes, that sort of thing. Without that, it’s just an unpleasant tale of unpleasant people unpleasantly smearing and counter-smearing each other, and if we wanted to see that we’d just watch the news. Not worth bothering with.
Hsiao-Hsien Hou is a highly celebrated director whose works have been on my “to-watch” list for some time, however I think this is the first film of his I’ve actually caught up with. It’s being pushed as a redefinition of the wushu genre, ala Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers, which I don’t think is entirely the case, but at any rate I’m getting ahead of myself. Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu), taken from her parents as a child and raised to be a peerless assassin, however after suffering a sudden attack of morals and refusing to kill a target in front of his son, she’s sent back to the province of her birth with orders to kill the man she had been promised in marriage to and seemingly still harbours feeling for, and a man in charge of the largest military forces in seventh century China.
It looks stunningly gorgeous. If this isn’t the most attractively shot film of the year then we’d need to see something truly extraordinary. To a degree it calls back to the previously mentioned films, with strong, bold, vibrant use of colour and painterly framing, often sedately held for some time, with Hou somewhat anachronistically using the Academy ratio giving it a very distinctive look. Visually it’s an absolute treat. I’m a sucker for this period, and the detail is incredible. The pacing, while sedate, held my attention, and the brief flurries of action are satisfying, and it’s adroitly acted.
Rather less edifying, I had only the loosest grasp on what was going on, and who most of the characters were, or their relation to each other. From the recaps, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly complex story and I like to think I’m savvy enough to follow plots of this nature, so I’m left unsure if this was just an off day for me or if the story is obfuscated somehow.
Perhaps more a criticism of the coverage of the film rather than the film itself, but I’m also not exceedingly clear as to why you would champion this as a redefining work in the wushu genre, unless you’re happy with “redefining” meaning “leaving most of the genre out entirely”. That’s a perfectly valid way to focus on the characters, acting performances, and the detail of the period – but it then makes it a drama with occasional wushu elements, not a wushu film. It’d be like “redefining” the Fast and Furious franchise by removing cars from the next film and making it about dirigibles. And while I’m entirely on board with such an airship based outing, calling it a Fast & Furious film would be perverse.
For me at least, the positives well outweigh the negatives, and I can recommend it on the aesthetic level alone – and if you’re less of a dummy than I am you may even like the plot as well.
Zootropolis (as it is, for some reason, called here, rather than the original name that it still carries in the US of “Zootopia“), is the latest from Disney Animation. While I went into this film with no preconceptions, had I come out of it disappointed or underwhelmed, I would have been entirely unsurprised. Fortunately, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this – it’s the first genuinely good Disney animation since Lilo and Stitch, 14 years ago.
It’s the tale of a young rabbit who aspires to be the first bunny police officer in the history of the great city of Zootropolis. Fighting prejudice, presumption and outright antipathy, Officer Judy Hops must prove herself in the vast metropolis, which she is given the opportunity to do when she begins to investigate a missing persons case. With the help of a sidekick coerced into helping her, a sidekick who just also happens to be a fox, a rabbit’s most ancient enemy. In her investigation Judy discovers that the missing animals are all predators who have turned “savage”, information which threatens to tear the partnership, and also the whole city, apart.
What follows is part journey of self-discovery, part buddy-cop movie, part film-noir detective story. Anthropomorphic animals are nothing original, especially for Disney, but the world of Zootropolis is vivid, colourful, exciting and full of detail. The characters are well-written, and are played well by the voiceover artists, with Ginnifer Goodwin, Idris Elba and Jason Bateman being standouts (Bateman in particular seems to relish his role here).
Zootropolis is undeniably preachy, hammering home the message of not judging people by their looks/colour/species etc. with a distressing lack of subtlety at some points. And I strenuously object to the anti-carnivore propaganda present throughout. But in finally shifting away from princesses and romances, Disney have given us a strong female character worthy of the term, and, most surprisingly, more successfully than Pixar have managed, with the arguable exception of Inside Out‘s Joy. While it would have been nice if they’d laid off of the Frozen references, which saturate the film, this is a charming, colourful and really very funny effort from Disney, and is definitely a film worth making an effort to see.
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