Another month, another wide mix of films for us to cast shade or anti-shade on, as appropriate. Find out our takes on The Circle, War for the Planet of the Apes, Okja, Baby Driver, Colossal, A Cure for Wellness, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Taste it!
The Circle sees Emma Watson’s Mae take a job at a behemothian Facebook/Google amalgam, and eye-roll herself silly at the culture of sharing the minutest details of her life on social media, as “politely encouraged” by her bosses. Her attitude reverses entirely after a near-death experience when she’s indirectly saved by the company’s all-seeing new cameras that run on magic, and starts video-blogging her entire life, becoming a lauded brand ambassador in the process. This gets her access to the higher echelons of management, including Tom Hank’s Bailey and Patton Oswalt’s Stenton, although she does notice that they don’t perhaps live by quite the same creed of radical transparency they encourage in others, leading to a partial re-souring of her attitudes.
There’s a good film to be made somewhere about the privacy implications of this age of the digital panopticon, and the gatekeepers thereof, but this is very much not it. A great cast is squandered on terrible writing, with Watson’s character in particular never getting a single convincing rationale for anything she’s doing, or more critically the attitudes she changes towards her work which are entirely at the whims of whatever’s convenient for the plot’s lurching melodrama. Roundly mediocre at its very best.
A couple of years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s people are still at war with humans as a result of Koba’s uprising. One human group in particular trouble Caesar’s tribe: an army unit called Alpha-Omega, led by Woody Harrelson’s “madder than a box of frogs” Colonel. After an incursion by Alpha-Omega into Caesar’s compound leaves his wife and son dead, Caesar sends his people on a journey across the desert to a safe new home, away from humans, while he and a handful of trusted friends head for Alpha-Omega’s base to tackle the threat of The Colonel. (Oh, I hated the Colonel, with his madly swivelling eyes and that crazed look on his face. Oooh, I’m going to imprison your monkeys. Oooh.)
On the way, they encounter a mute young girl suffering from a mysterious, contagious condition, that suggests a link to the Charlton Heston Apes films, as well as former zoo chimp “Bad Ape” (voiced by Steve Zahn), who brings some sorely needed levity to proceedings (the previous two films did tenderness as well as strength, but boy were they serious). Upon reaching the Alpha-Omega camp, Caesar and co discover that the rest of their tribe has been captured by The Colonel, and they must find a way to release them. (“That’s the second biggest monkey prison break I’ve ever seen!”)
For a film called War for the Planet of the Apes, there is surprisingly little fighting, which is actually rather welcome, because “Michael Bay Does Monkeys” is not what anyone wants to see (and is just as well, as the one big war set-piece, the climactic battle, happens for reasons that don’t really make a heap of sense). Instead the film focuses more on the internal conflicts within Caesar’s group, the difficulties and compromises of leadership, and his own struggles with his ethos that “ape not kill ape”. The war of the title is an internal and spiritual one, much more so than a literal one.
Comparisons to Apocalypse Now are sure to be made (the rank of Harrelson’s nameless “Colonel” is no coincidence), and the filmmaker’s themselves don’t hide it – one scene sees graffiti imploring “Ape-ocalypse Now!” scrawled inside a tunnel, but in tone and action it’s closer to “The Great Escape on the River Kwai, Western Edition”
I don’t really want to talk too much about the special effects, because everything has great special effects nowadays, or at least ought to. It has long since ceased to be remarkable. BUT I will give credit to such quality at scale, because that’s a lot of monkeys. (There are one or two rather shonky moments, but, again, it’s due to the sheer scale, and those few minor flaws are barely noticeable).
What is worthy of being really talked up, though, is the combination of the animators’ skills and the human performances, because these apes really feel like characters, especially Bad Ape, but, in truth, all of them. 15 years ago Gollum was a remarkable achievement, technically and artistically, but he was a single character. The vast majority of this film consists of nothing but pixels interacting with other pixels, but the characters feel alive and real. It doesn’t take long, if it happened at all, to stop considering the apes as special effects, and start considering them as actors. Weta know their stuff.
Sadly, most of those actors are as ill-served by the script as the majority of characters in any action film (and I used “actors” as a gender-neutral collective term, but it’s also unfortunately accurate as, aside from the mute human girl, there is pretty much one female role).
Setting aside that it may be the most ironic statement in the history of cinema, a well-known filmmaker once observed, correctly, that “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” While the script of The Big Monkey Battle isn’t going to be setting anyone’s soul on fire, it uses special effects as a means to tell a story, rather than as an end in itself, better than pretty much anything I can think of in the last few years.
For all of that, I wish I had enjoyed it more. It’s absolutely… fine. Entirely adequate. Entertaining for most of its (too long) 140 minutes. But other than as a post-SFX touchstone, I doubt it’ll ever trouble my thoughts again. A pity, but maybe there’s some value or noteworthiness to the fact a cast of almost entirely non-existent creatures can make as believable and watchable a satisfactory action film as a cast of humans.
What looks on first glance to be a charming tale of a young girl Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) and her intelligent, friendly superpig Okja rapidly takes darker turns in Snowpiercer director Joon-ho Bong’s latest film. After the company that genetically engineered these gigantic pigs shows up to reclaim it from the small farm they’d sent it to as a PR exercise, Mija vows to find Okja and bring it home.
She’s aided in this by the Animal Liberation Front, headed by Paul “Book’em” Dano, going up against Tilda Swinton’s security forces and the bizarre turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as a TV zoologist that’s a cross between David Attenborough and a barrel of cocaine. It’s a strange mix of family friendly charm and distinctly family unfriendly violence, swearing and corporate malfeasance, glommed together with a clutch of exceedingly quirky turns. From our experience, 50/50 on whether you’re enthralled by it or left entirely unmoved.
Written and directed by Edgar Wright (and his first film since 2013’s The World’s End, due to the whole Ant-Man thing), Baby Driver is a film Wright has been working on for more than 20 years. It is the story of a talented young driver, Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, whose youthful passion for joyriding saw him take the wrong man’s car. He’s been paying for that mistake ever since, as this man, Doc (Kevin Spacey), has been forcing Baby to be the getaway driver for the heists that he sets up, until such time as Baby has paid back his rather considerable debt.
As well as his prodigious talent behind the wheel, Baby is marked out by his nearly constant use of iPods to provide his life with a soundtrack, and to drown out the chronic tinnitus from which he suffers as a result of a childhood tragedy. This in turn sets up the film’s signature style – that the vast majority of the action sequences are choreographed to the rhythm of whatever music Baby is currently listening to. That’s something that could very easily have become gimmicky, but it stays just the right said of that, and remains entertaining as well as driving the action along at a good clip. (I will say that in the opening minutes, when Baby begins using the car as percussion for the music as he waits for the gang to leave the bank, that I thought he seemed like a complete pillock, but, fortunately, I realised what Wright was doing very quickly, and enjoyed it wholeheartedly for the rest of the film).
As to the rest of the film, Baby does his final job to repay Doc, but is rather naïve in believing that such a valuable asset as he would be allowed to simply walk away, and so he must find a way to extricate himself from this life, and to build a relationship with Debora, the waitress he met. His plans are complicated considerably by the presence of a psychopathic robber called Bats, played by Jamie “Hey, listen up, y’all, I’m Jamie Foxx and I’m taking all these scenes now, y’hear, because I’m Jamie Foxx, in case you forget” Foxx. It’s at this point that the film becomes a Tarantino film made by Edgar Wright, which I am absolutely fine with, even if the excessive violence of the second half seems rather detached from the first.
This is, though, clearly, an Edgar Wright film, and it’s full of the visual flair and flourish by which he made his name, aided by The Matrix DP Bill Pope, with whom Wright also worked on Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Despite being turned up to eleven… ty, Jamie Foxx is entertaining, and there are good turns from Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey, and CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father Joe. Elgort himself, though, is rather… blank. Which sounds harsher than I intend, and the failing is partly in the film’s central conceit – Baby isolates himself from the world through his music, but that isolation makes him rather anonymous as a character. His character is developed a little more in his scenes away from the crime world, but there’s simply not enough, so he remains defined by his earpods and sunglasses, which is not the deepest characterisation you’re likely to find.
There are obvious comparisons to be drawn between Baby Driver and Guardians of the Galaxy (and, again, to Tarantino) due to the use of music, but Baby Driver is considerably more eclectic than Guardians, and the music is much more skilfully woven into the action (something Wright has previous form with, beginning all the way back in Shaun of the Dead).
There is some humour in Baby Driver, but I found myself wanting more, though that could just be because I’ve been conditioned by previous Edgar Wright films – they’re usually very funny, but that, of course, doesn’t mean that all of his films have to be comedies. What is a more legitimate complaint is that the film lacks heart. Not that it’s cold by any means, but it is missing the emotional core that is so prominent in, for example, the Cornetto Trilogy. I wonder if that’s because this film was written by Wright alone; he usually has a writing partner, and perhaps that other person (often Simon Pegg) is where the heart comes from, or, at least, collaboration draws that aspect out of him.
For the action portions of the film, that lack doesn’t really matter. But the middle third really sags because of it, as the focus of that section is the relationship between Debora and Baby, and it just doesn’t ring true. They’re both reasonably likeable, and that they would fall for each other is entirely plausible, but their relationship seems to go from A to L without passing through any of the stages in-between. “We’ve only known each other for two days, but, yes, obviously you love me, and I will go on the run with you!” For why, Keats? For why?
That’s a real disappointment in an otherwise thoroughly entertaining film, and I’d certainly recommend watching it, but I just don’t think that, in a few years, it’s going to stay with you in the same way that, say, Hot Fuzz does. But it does get bonus points for getting Beck’s Debra into a film, for which I thank Mr Wright very much indeed.
There’s not, as best as we’re aware, a great deal of innovation of late in the giant monster genre space, so it’s refreshing to see what Colossal brings to the table. In fact, you’re probably best off not knowing too much about it before you see it to get the maximum enjoyment. Which fits in super-well with my preference for minimising show notes.
Suffice to say, it’s a really interesting film that certainly does not go in the directions you would expect it to, blending a variety of genres with great lead performances from Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis. Both original and good, which is something we can only applaud.
We can say this about Gore Verbinski’s latest – it’s very pretty. That, however, is pretty much all we can say about it that’s positive. Dane DeHaan’s Lockhart, or perhaps the writing, does a little too good a job of coming across as an unlikeable todger in the opening act. He’s playing a banker sent to extract a colleague from a Swiss alpine health retreat, and the character doesn’t get any more sympathetic as mysteries start unravelling, and the plot veers from “far-fetched” to “come on, now”.
Sedately paced to the point of being glacial, there’s no real reason to keep paying attention to this film, making it’s running time feel like it’s extending off into the horizon. There’s clearly been an awful lot of effort put into this, but the polish doesn’t significantly distract from the boredom. Eminently avoidable filmmaking.
Spider-Man: Homecoming, then, featuring the 12th different Spider-man in the last 15 years, and now a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making it the 443rd entry into that series.
OK, perhaps mildly hyperbolic, but this is third actor and the 6th film (7, if you count the character’s appearance in Captain America: Civil Bore and, really, you should, because it was one of that film’s few highlights), for Marvel’s web-slinging crime fighter in a decade and a half. That seems excessive. But gotta get that filthy lucre, I guess.
The big difference this time is that, as the character always should have been, Peter Parker is a kid. Really, a kid. He’s fifteen. In the usual way of Hollywood, Tom Holland, who plays Spidey, was 20 when he filmed this, and all of his colleagues were older than the parts they are playing, BUT it’s considerably less egregious, and far more believable, than has hitherto been the case. While I liked Tobey Maguire in the Sam Raimi films, at no point was I buying the then 27 year old Maguire as a high school student, nor the 29 year old Andrew Garfield in the 2012 reboot. But Holland? Absolutely.
The film begins with some poor schlubs, led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), getting screwed over by the government and Tony Stark as they lose their contract to clean up the aftermath of the Avengers’ battle in New York City. Rightly a tad miffed, Keaton and his crew snaffle some of the alien tech, and set themselves up as gun runners. We then jump forward 8 years to Spidey’s trip to, and part in, the nearly consequence-free CGI smackfest in the world’s most boring location (the airport fight in Civil War), but seen from the point of view of Peter’s smartphone as he records a video diary, which is a considerably more entertaining take on that event.
Returning to Queens afterwards, life is frustratingly normal for Parker as he is consistently not called into action by the Avengers again, and Jon Favreau’s Happy, Spidey’s liaison, seems to be ignoring him. Which leaves Peter with regular high school life, an academic decathlon championship, and petty crime as his main activities. Until, that is, he happens to stumble upon members of Toomes’ crew selling some rather overpowered weapons, and he determines to find out where they are coming from, and stop them.
There are a few problems with Homecoming. Visually, it’s not the most exciting film you’ll ever see. It’s competent, but it’s not special in that regard, and certainly not distinctive. Not that it’s DC-like grim, either, but, while undeniably goofy at points, Sam Raimi’s trilogy had an appealing, saturated, cartoonish aesthetic that suited the material well. But the MCU is supposed to be “serious” and “cool”, so no people being turned into skeletons for this Spider-Man.
It also suffers from being part of the MCU. While it is tied in well, and makes sense, it gets a little tiresome, and elements like the Captain America instructional videos ought to have been jettisoned entirely (something I suspect Chris Evans, in his phoned-in performance, would agree with). Robert Downey Jr. is generally a welcome sight, but I think even he is beginning to tire of this, and Homecoming could do with a good 33% less Tony Stark.
Further, though in this film it isn’t the problem that it could be, as it turns out to be a plot device, Spidey’s Stark-engineered suit is in danger of making the character Iron Man-lite, so I’m a little concerned about where that’s going to go in future instalments. However, it does provide several moments of humour as Peter talks to “Suit Lady”, the spider-suit’s AI (voiced by Jennifer Connelly, who is the real-life wife of Paul Bettany, Iron Man’s Jarvis AI).
But mentioning humour brings us on to the positives, of which there are many, and first is that this is a very funny film. Some of it is at Pete’s expense, but it is generally closer to laughing with him than at him, as this 15 year old tries to get to grips with his new abilities and his responsibilities while navigating the treacherous waters of high school and relationships. Said high school is a very racially diverse place, and also fortunately devoid of the tiresome jock bullies and mean girl cliques that populate so many US schools in cinema.
The writers and directors were apparently influenced by John Hughes films, but that seems, thankfully, fairly minimal in the final product, even with the very direct reference to the inexplicably popular Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And talking of writers, the film feels considerably more cohesive than you might expect from a script with SIX credited screenwriters, which sounds like a recipe for disaster.
The screenplay is actually the film’s greatest strength, after the likeable and engaging performance of Tom Holland. There is, blissfully, no origin story (we get nothing more than “I was bitten by a spider”), and no Uncle Ben moment. It avoids the cheap, lame, jokes films like this would definitely have gone for in the past (“Oh, he’s not got many clothes on and he’s with another boy. Oh noes! He must have the gays!”), and smartly gives Spidey someone in whom he can confide so he’s not doing this all alone. (It must be said, though, that it’s pretty weak on female roles, but story developments suggest this may change in a sequel).
And, crucially, it has a good villain, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. It could be argued that Adrian Toomes, aka “The Vulture”, is not too dissimilar to Ant-Man’s Darren Cross, but with the crucial differences that Toomes’ motivation (dollar dollar bill y’all) is more compelling than megalomania, and that he’s played by Michael Keaton. As Jules Winnfield observed: “Personality goes a long way”. On top of that, a crook trying to make a buck is considerably more engaging, and fitting to Spider-Man, than the end of the world scenarios that trouble much of the rest of the MCU.
It’s going to be a couple of years, I suspect, until I know whether I think this is better than the first two Raimi films, but it’s at least as good as, and this feels like a different Spider-Man, and in a good way. Thoroughly recommended.
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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