It’s that time of the month again, where we round up the movies roaming the multiplex and streaming plains and brand them with our unique opinions. This time around, we corral A Monster Calls, Snowden, Hands of Stone, The Lobster, Elle, and Rogue One. Check it out!
Catalan director JA Bayona brings us A Monster Calls, from a screenplay by Patrick Dowd, based on his own novel, a tale of a troubled adolescent boy struggling to come to terms with his mother’s terminal illness.
Connor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) lives with his mother in a small English town, and when he is not caring for his mum (Felicity Jones), or worrying about her death, or stressing about being forced to live with his strict and emotionally distant grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), he is being tormented and bullied at school. All in all he’s having a pretty miserable time of it.
Unsurprisingly he has horrible nightmares as a result, but his dreams also conjure up a sage creature to help him – a walking, talking, monstrous yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson), a powerful and literal force of nature who will tell him three tales to help him make sense of, and then confront, his fears and his demons.
The yew tree is a fantastic (and, I think, for younger children, a frightening) creation, bringing to mind a fire-filled ent from LotR, and brought to life by a good (though not great) performance by Liam Neeson, who I have often found to be a little flat in solely vocal performances in the past. The one problem is, though, that the tree has to carry much of the dialogue, and therefore the story, and, in the cinema at least, Neeson’s voice is modulated so low, and with so much added bass rumble, that much of what he says is difficult, if not impossible, to make out.
At the conclusion of these three stories the yew tree expects Connor to learn the moral of his stories, and tell him a fourth in return, in which he will admit his fears to himself and, hopefully, find catharsis, acceptance and some peace.
It’s pretty heavy going for a family film, but it’s quite nice to see an effects-laden film actually have some real substance, and the themes of loss of a parent, fear, illness and death are worthy, and perhaps necessary, things for a younger audience to see. The real problem comes with the sheer number of them. While MacDougall as Connor is really very capable of carrying most of this, writer Dowd seems to have decided that the appropriate number of potential troubles this unfortunate adolescent boy must face is all of them, and it’s not just MacDougall but the film as a whole that suffers under the weight of so much misery.
In its favour, A Monster Calls refuses to give simple answers to Connor’s problems, and the morals of the stories are shades of grey and not absolutes, and it is undeniably powerful and affecting at times, even if it is a little overwrought.
Felicity Jones is solid in a surprisingly slight part, given the importance of her character, and Sigourney Weaver is fine, but is definitely limited in her range due to a clear effort to maintain an English accent. Visually it works well – the grey, mundane, small town against the colourful animated worlds of the yew tree’s stories, and the monstrous nature of the tree itself (some of the film’s tone and look brings up memories of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), and some very effective colour work in simple, but key, sequences from cinematographer Oscar Faura, is sure to remain long in the memory, unlike a thousand more colourful but identikit effects-heavy adventures.
Oliver Stone has never met a conspiracy he didn’t like, so it was only a matter of time before he covered an actual real one, rather than dangerous, misguided garbage such as the JFK assassination. We all know who did that, a time-travelling Harambe in collusion with the reverse vampires and the Mulligan Foundation. Here he turns to the accounts of Western government omnisnooping released a few years back, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, omnisnoop enabler turned omniwhistleblower.
This films shows how Snowden entered the U.S.A’s spy business, in a variety of roles, during which he starts questioning the reach of the programs he’s enacting, seemingly moving from a conservative to liberal viewpoint along the way, a struggle which also takes its toll on girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). This leads up to his pilfering of national secrets and leaking them to the media, represented by Zachary Quinto’s Glenn Greenwald, Tom Wilkinson’s Ewen MacAskill, and Melissa Leo’s Laura Poitras, and Snowden’s subsequent flight from a US arrest and extradition warrants, leading to him holing up in Russia.
At the risk of minimising the two and a quarter hours this runs to, that’s pretty much it, and I do find it hard to believe that you’ve not already got the gist of what happens during the theoretically dramatic flight to freedom in Russia, that noted beacon of free speech and limiting government over-reach. It was, after all, reasonably big news not all that long ago.
Also, if you’ve a brain in your head, and as you’re listening to the Internet’s Most Intelligent Podcast I think that’s a safe assumption, you’ll already be aware of the horrors of universal surveillance that Snowden confirms are running in the world, and the lack of oversight, and all that jazz.
What you may not be familiar with is Snowden’s character, which I was rather hoping would be more vigorously examined in the film. It’s mostly about his intellectual conflict between his belief in the liberties supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution and the ways they are circumvented, and very little is revealed about how Snowden came to change his mind.
For example, it seems pretty clear as soon as Snowden first enters the service that these abuses are going on, and he actively helps make them worse for the majority of the film, but that’s not questioned, analysed or mentioned at all. Even as someone who feels Snowden’s on the right side of the debate on whether he’s a hero or a traitor, which is also barely mentioned, it’s tough not to see this as more of a hagiography rather than any serious attempt to capture Snowden’s character.
There’s other issues with the film – Shailene Woodley appears to have been written in purely to whine in a roundly underwritten role, and crucially it’s just too damn long, and my attention had roundly wandered by the end of this despite my usual regard for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
To be fair, none of the problems are the cast’s fault, with everyone mentioned aquitting themselves well, along with the supporting roles from the likes of Rhys Ifans and Nicolas Cage, and they all cover some very dry subject matter as well as they can.
I’d be a great deal more positive about this film if you chopped half an hour out of it, which seems quite possible without significantly altering anything, and I wonder if the material would be better in less credulous hands than Stone’s. It’s fine, and probably earns a recommendation just from the civics standpoint, but I’d hoped for more.
Sporting biopic Hands of Stone concerns itself with Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramírez)’s rise to the top of the profession from an impoverished childhood, becoming champion after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) for the Welterweight belt. He’s helped to this goal by veteran trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro), who’s arguably a more interesting subject than Durán.
However, Ramíerz is charismatic enough in the lead role to provide an entertaining enough central plank of the film, although it’s not doing anything you won’t already be familiar with. The rise-fall-redemption arc certainly doesn’t break new ground, but it makes for a comfortable, familiar framing device for the film.
It’s a difficult film to get too excited about, or write a great deal about, but it’s a perfectly serviceable biopic if you’re in the mood for it. And it’s nice to see De Niro in an increasingly infrequent “acting” role, rather than the flopping around gormlessly seen in a number of recent films.
David (Colin Farrell)’s wife leaves him for another man, which would ordinarily be upheaval enough in your life, but not the the Dystopiaville that The Lobster occurs in. He’s visited by the authorities and carted off to a hotel where, he’s told, he must find a suitable partner in 45 days or be turned into an animal of his choosing. Naturally.
While there he makes a few friends, such as John C. Reilly’s Lisping Man and Ben Whishaw’s Limping Man – this film has a character list that reads like the bottom end of the Avengers’ headhunting list – in the same situation, hoping to find a match which in this world seems to boil down to finding someone that matches one superficial characteristic. Such as limping, or lisping, or getting nosebleeds, or being a complete sociopath.
Sociopathy comes in handy for the evening entertainment at the hotel, where the guests tool up with tranquilliser darts and go off hunting the “loners”, singletons living alone in the woods outside of this weird system. Baggin one of them allows the guest an extra day in the hotel. David eventually winds up escaping to be among them after a disastrous attempt at pairing with aforementioned sociopath, but the loner’s rules are no less strange.
Romance is strictly forbidden, for the same reasons pairing up is so heavily pushed in the rest of this society, which is to say arbitrarily, which David seems okay with until he meets Rachel Weisz’s Short Sighted Woman, whom he falls in love with. Their relationship develops in secret, but eventually Léa Seydoux’s Loner Leader catches on, leading to the events that will have to do as the climax.
As you might have gathered, this is far from a conventional narrative, and it’s handled far from conventionally. It’s treated as an absurdist, Kafka-esque black comedy, with everything very deliberately flat – most obviously the dialogue and reading of it by the performers, but also the way it’s handled behind the camera – the muted colours and flat framing.
All very deliberate, perhaps, but to what aim I’m not sure. If, as a quick swatch at other critics would suggest, this is some sort of satire on the dating culture enabled or encouraged by online dating, then that’s some slender pickings right there.
The end result, for me at least, was something that’s much more funny-peculiar than funny-haha. The incongruity of it all raised a few laughs, and there’s some sharp writing and committed performances from a cast I’m generally rather fond of, but for most of the film I was just left a little confused over what it was aiming for.
Now, any time I’ve looked at this year’s upcoming slate of films, with its unyielding barrage of comic book flicks and unwarranted sequels I’ve felt a real and enduring sense of dread and despair -we’re due Fast and the Furious 8, Saw 8 and the 13th Friday the 13th film this year. I should be championing the The Lobster, as it’s a unique, distinctive and entirely unconventional film the likes of which we really need more of in cinema.
However I’m left with no strong opinions on The Lobster at all, positive or negative. It’s the sort of oddball experience I’d normally enjoy, but all I can really say about it is that it held my attention well for its running time and I took nothing more from it than a way to pass a couple of hours. I would still recommend giving this a chance, based purely on its unconventionality, but I didn’t extract a great deal of joy from it.
Paul Verhoeven is not your run-of-the-mill, bog standard director. Whether they are a scathing satire of war and military fascism, explorations of human nature, the media and corporate greed, musings on reality or his own twist on film noir, and whether you like them or not, Paul Verhoeven films feel decidedly… Paul Verhoevenly. They are distinctive (and, usually, filled with sex and/or violence). His latest, and only his second film in a decade, is Elle, a rape-revenge-comedy-of-manners-horror-thriller-character-drama-black-comedy.
Elle opens with a scene of a woman being raped in her Paris home, while her cats watches, unconcerned. Where this scene is somewhat different from many other similarly-themed films, is that the woman’s response, and the sounds she makes, do more than a little to suggest that she may be finding something enjoyable in the experience. This is certainly a theory potentially given weight by her later behaviour – for example, while having sex with her lover (and husband of her best friend) she lies almost corpse-like. It could be read as her feeling like an object in response to her partner’s exhausting physical requests, it could be that she is deadened to the experience due to trauma, or it could be that she is recreating her attack. It’s only one of several moments where the films raises uncomfortable questions, but provides no concrete, or easy, answers.
After her attack, the woman, Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert, cleans up, takes a bath, and goes about her life as if nothing had happened. “I suppose I was raped”, she casually tells her friends at dinner, who seem considerably more affected by the attack than Michele, who, after previous bad experiences, refuses to go to the police.
While Michele carries on her complicated life as mother to an idiot son, daughter to a vampish, gigolo-loving mother, daughter of a notorious serial killer, and CEO of a videogame company working on a game which involves a rape fantasy, the experience of the rape keeps butting in. She fantasises about having revenge, but these evolve from a straightforward violent defence to something much darker and more complex, a power role reversal. While more closed-minded reviewers have suggested the film is immoral (particularly those with very simplistic ideas of sexuality), a far more appropriate word is that used by the director himself to describe his film, and, particularly, its heroine: amoral. Morality isn’t at the heart of Michele’s story, character is, and this woman’s roles as victim, or masochist, or avenger, the changes between these, are not expressed in moral terms.
It’s certainly an interesting film, and probably worth watching for Huppert alone, but I find it difficult to say it’s enjoyable. Now, for a film that is about rape, then that’s OK – it can be interesting or compelling without being conventionally “enjoyable”, but the other portions are different. Elle is 3 films in one, and Huppert’s excellent performance is necessary to anchor them together, as otherwise the tonal whiplash could make the whole thing unwatchable. It’s not even as if the individual pieces could stand on their own. While there’s certainly humour in the comedy of manners portion, and intrigue in discovering the identity of the attacker in the thriller core, the film has a singular lack of likeable, or relatable, characters, and the motivations of the central character in particular are opaque to me. It is very well-crafted, and strongly directed – there’s an argument to be made that this is Verhoeven’s finest work – but I’m still not sure I’m on-board with it, and I think I need to see it again.
I do very much recommend our listeners watching it at least once, however, partly for Huppert’s performance, as I previously mentioned, but also just because it’s a really interesting film to talk about – is it irresponsible? Is it misogynistic or is it about female empowerment? Is Verhoeven’s blatant button-pushing to prompt us to think about the psychology of victims in a different way, or is it just to provoke a visceral response? Or is it something else entirely?
The march of the Star Wars franchise continues with this side story, a direct prequel to A New Hope that ends about five minutes before that film starts, timeline wise. It’s the tale of the quest to get a hold of the Star Destroyer plans, making it an exceptionally loose adaptation of the first level of the 1995 Dark Forces video game on PC and Mac. Don’t play the Playstation port though, it’s a bit shabby.
Rogue One mainly concerns itself with Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, who finds herself busted out of an Imperial prison camp by Rebel Intelligence Officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (laconically voiced by Alan Tudyk). Jyn’s hauled in front of Mon Mothma and other assorted bigwigs and strongarmed into helping them make contact with exiled extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), who happens to be the guy who raised Jyn after her mother was killed and weapons designer father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken by the Empire. Now word has reached the Alliance of a message that Galen has smuggled out to Gerrera, and they must know its contents. They hope Jyn can give them a foot in the door.
So, off they go, trying to contact Gerrera on some Imperial occupied backwater pursued by Imperial forces headed by Director of Unusually Large Weapon Installations, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and the weapon Galen’s designed, which of course is the Death Star. This fully armed and operational battle station shows off its hitherto unseen lovetap alt-fire mode on said backwater planet, but not before Jyn hears her father’s message – he’s hidden a small vulnerability in the design that, well, I’ll assume you’ve seen A New Hope, so let’s skip that.
However, to exploit this they’ll need to get a hold of the Death Star plans, which will entail breaking into the very high security Imperial Archives facility, which sounds like a suicide mission. This is your last call for spoilers. Last call for spoilers. It is a suicide mission. Everyone dies, but they manage to transmit the plans to a waiting blockade runner, replete with princess and small bin-shaped droid.
And so ends the factual part of this review. I commence henceforth with the bloviation.
Rogue One is one of the most poorly written big-budget films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a very boring film, for a number of reasons, apart from when it’s being a very irritating film, for a number of reasons. Here are a few of each.
Primarily, the reason I find it boring is that sadly they’ve borrowed heavily from their Marvel stablemate’s obsession with throwing loads of characters into a film without having the first idea about what to do with any of them. It’s bad enough that your lead character sleepwalks into being the most committed rebel of them all because otherwise there’s no bridge to the last act, but the rest of the cast barely have a character, let alone character motivations.
Diego Luna’s normally a dependable hand, but here he’s saddled with a character that’s supposed to be ruthless but also sympathetic, but the underwritten, monotonic performance makes him a bland nonentity, which I suppose marries well with Felicity Jones’ equally characterless turn. Also, why must all female leads in Star Wars films speak in clipped, received pronunciation tones? You’re acting against a Space Mexican, so I assume other accents were cast-able? When the most charismatic performance in your film comes from a mildly amusing sarcastic robot, perhaps you should rethink things?
As for the rest of the gang, well, lets just say this. They could all be written out with either no change to the script, or very minimal changes. Does that sound like a solid basis for a film? Particular mention must be made of Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang’s roles, which appear to have been inserted because firstly, we must appeal to the Chinese market, and secondly, because although there’s no reason to have a Jedi in this film, but we want a Jedi in the film, so let’s just put one in and not call him a Jedi. You may think I’m being cynical, but not half as cynical as this film. Ironically, despite them very obviously being parachuted into the script, they’re probably better realised and more human than the leads.
Again showcasing Garth Edwards’ career-long problems with characters, we’re told multiple times in the early going about what a badass Forrest Furnishing’s character is, leading me to expect he’s going to play some strong role in the film. More fool me, instead he mumbles a bit, then despite ample opportunity doesn’t flee from an oncoming wave of destruction for no reason whatsoever. None. He spouts the sort of line that would be said if he were to stay behind to hold off an oncoming force, but there’s no point staying to punch an explosion.
While the script is plagued throughout with horrendous character and plot issues, it seems that rather than spend any time addressing them it’s been decided instead to litter the film with nods and easter eggs relating the the original trilogy in an orgy of lazy fanservice. I think the point I realised that this was going to be a film primarily targeted at 33-38 year old manchildren was when we walk past two boys from the Cantina scene of A New Hope, which shows that it’s not a film that’s secure enough in its own world to not have to keep driving home the point that it is a Star Wars film, in case you missed that somehow. If it had any identity or charm of its own it wouldn’t be so noticeable, but this film uses the franchise as a crutch so blatantly it’s rather annoying.
In the wake of this film, some have started asking questions about the future of actors in this brave new world of CGI resurrection technology. I would answer these questions with a few of my own. Namely, are you blind? Are you going to special screenings where vaseline is daubed in your eyes on entry? Are you unfamiliar with humans, and how they look? The tech on display is little better than dead-eyed virtual Kevin Spacey in the Call of Duty game a few years back, and that was before I upgraded my video card.
I would barely, barely, accept the pseudo-Carrie Fischer monstrosity at the end as just another of the endless throwaway references to previous films that litter Rogue One, but pulling the stunt with Peter Digi-Cushing as Ground Muff Tarking who is, if not a plot critical character, certainly a featured one is, well, let’s charitably say brave. I wonder who looked at this as a tech demo and thought this pallid waxwork automaton was good enough to splash on multiplex screens, and I hope they get the cataract surgery that they so clearly require. It is baffling to me that anyone found this acceptable, although apparently they did, when the only positive thing I can say about this exercise is that it found my personal peak, or perhaps trough, of the uncanny valley. Thanks, Disney!
Between this and The Force Awakens , the recycling of content with recycled digital actors shows a worrying trend towards backwards-looking and navel-gazing for the Star Wars films, which means we may be getting a nominally new movie every year that’s just picking over the bones of the previous work. I’d previously mocked George Lucas’ notion that the Star Wars universe was exclusively about Darth Vader’s story arc, but on current evidence he might be proven right.
Speaking of Vader, he’s really the only returning character who’s handled correctly, in short action scenes joining with the wider action in being the only redeeming feature of the movie. Pretty explosions and all, but very difficult to care about given the soulless puppets carrying out said action.
In a franchise that banks on nostalgia, Rogue One was at least more successful in triggering that for me than The Force Awakens was. Tellingly, not for any of the films, or even the novels, but for the video games. They did the comic relief robot schtick better in the Knights of the Old Republic games, and the space battles were more engaging when controlling the X-Wing rather than watching it. More defined and likeable characters, too.
Now, I’m under no illusions that anyone with a passing interest in this hasn’t seen it already, but I’d still recommend against watching Rogue One. Almost as bad as Captain America: Civil War.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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