Another month, another batch of films present themselves for judgement. What will we make of Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9, Luca, The Tomorrow War, The Dead Don’t Die, and Censor? Tune in and find out!
Finally, an answer to the question that’s been on everyone’s lips, just what did Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff get up to in-between Captain America: Civil War and Whatever the Next One Was, Probably an Avengers Film. A question that I presume someone must have had? Maybe? No? Me neither.
Anyway, here we are. Or more precisely in 2016 we are, after a flashback to 1995 where a young Natasha is part of a deep cover unit with David Harbour’s Alexei Shostakov, Rachel Weisz’s Melina Vostokoff and, once she’s grown up, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, where they are shown having the appearance, and perhaps more, of a family until they are activated and have to leave in a hurry, Agents of SHIELD in pursuit, back to Russia. The unit is disbanded and the kiddywinks head off to Ray Winstone’s General Dreykov’s shady Red Room facility.
Back to more modern times, and Romanoff is busy running from SHIELD, escaping to Norway where she finds she’d been mailed some vials of McGuffinium, and the Taskmaster, who initially seems like a kung fu robot, stomps after her. Escaping again, she globe-trots off to Budapest, reuniting there with her “sister” Belova and, after a bit of defecting-based tension, the two reunite in a bid to take down the Red Room once and for all, aided by the McGuffinium which, it turns out, is an antidote to the mind control techniques General Dreykov’s using to control his army of Black Widow Operatives, who are now all sic’d on Belova and Romanoff, so they’re going to need a little help from their family to complete their mission.
Before I get too far in to the weeds with Black Widow I should say that it passed the time well enough, and it’s another dependably Marvelish instalment in their Universe. So if you just want the short form of this, if you have any tolerance left for Marvel films, fill your boots. However, after not all that much thought about it, I’m mainly left with a feeling of wasted opportunities and wasted potential from the film.
There’s a good number of ideas and elements I like here, but the one thing that stops this being all it could be is that damnable Marvel label, and is now surely the disproval of the idea that it is a masterstroke that all these films have the same tone no matter what the subject matter is. Now, taking any ideas from DC is obviously dangerous, but it would not hurt to make one film in this interminable parade of them be a little dark and gritty, with a bit of a sharp edge, would it? And wouldn’t it be this film that screams out for it, a film where nigh on everyone is a mass murdering assassin, or the head of brainwashing program that makes mass murdering assassins? Shouldn’t one of these films maybe explore that whole mass murder thing, just a little? It’s surely a better venue for a discussion on the morality and necessity of killing than Man of Steel, right?
And there’s moments where it’s edging towards that, before hastily backing away and cutting to David Harbour gurning with a comedy Russian accent, which to be clear is wonderful, but not the tone this film needs to join up its actions and its emotions. A lot of this, particularly early on, plays like Marvel’s Bourne Identity, and is much more interesting for it, but this just cannot help getting the same Marvel standard paint job, so in the same film where someone’s trying to come to terms with the bombing of innocent children, the same character is also descending from a crashing space station by jumping down bits of falling debris like some cut-rate Sonic The Hedgehog cutscene. This is definitely an instance where they should not have gone big, but instead quite literally gone home.
For all the rest that Black Widow does right or wrong, my abiding memory of this film will be ultimate confirmation that the Marvel Universe will not tolerate deviation from the norm, even when the story badly needs it, and expecting any growth or change in it would be as futile as expecting any better from The Fast and the Furious. I give up. No mas. Well, maybe the next Thor film. If Korg is in it.
Marvel film / 10.
Fast & Furious 9
I felt compelled to watch Fast & Furious 9 because I am a completionist. And you may very well say, “Drew, that’s an unusual way you have of pronouncing “idiot””, and you’d be right to do so, but we all have to struggle with our own particular personal insanities, and this is mine. And certainly it is a struggle, especially since, despite me having had the idea that the series was supposed to conclude with this entry, there are in fact not just one but two more still to come. Please, send help.
In the meantime, let me vent my spleen on this pish. Sorry, I mean inform you of the nature and quality of this audio-visual entertainment release by Universal Pictures, starring Mark Sinclair (better known by the daft, but admittedly more interesting, moniker, Vin Diesel), Michelle Rodriguez, John Cena and Charlize Theron, amongst others.
These violent criminals are now in the world-saving business, I am sure you will remember, and they are called on once again to do just that, this time by rescuing some sort of magical device that can hack any and all weapons systems, and which has been lost in a plane crash. (This device, incidentally, is described by the definitely and absolutely not here just for a new speedboat nor failing to even pretend to try Charlize Theron as “a weapon that’s so dangerous it shouldn’t exist for 50 years”, which makes no sense whatsoever, but it’s about the standard of writing we can typically expect from this mystifyingly popular franchise. Will its danger be OK in the future?)
After holding off a regiment of bad guys also trying to get this device, Diesel’s Dominic (who starts banging on about family really early in this film, before literally abandoning his infant son within minutes to go off on this dangerous adventure), Rodriguez’s Letty and the others have their target snatched from them by John Cena’s Jakob, who is also Dom’s never-before-mentioned-nor-hinted-to-even-exist brother, because family. (Let’s set aside one of the other entries in the series directly denying even the possibility of his existence.) Something something family family. (I was struggling not to swear and groan loudly in the cinema every time the word “family” got mentioned because it is A LOT: if this film series had any self-awareness at all it’d possibly be funny. It has this not.)
The magic device, it turns out, is in two parts, the second of which, in a revelation sure to at least please Scott, is kept in a vault under Edinburgh Castle (you know, where all the really secret stuff is hidden), leading to a lengthy action sequence in a city we here know very well, so that’s kinda nice. It is, however, completely undermined by a “Scottish” accent so bad I audibly winced in the cinema, and Nathalie Emanuel’s totally necessary second hacker character delivering some of the daftest and dumbest dialogue yet in the franchise. It took me a while decide if Emanuel herself is terrible, or if it was the dialogue she was being given to say, but I realised I was burning unnecessary cognitive cycles determining this when the answer was clearly “it’s both”.
This sequence also sees the beginning of a strand that will last to the end of the film that demonstrates that writers Justin Lin and Daniel Casey have an even flimsier grasp on the functioning of magnets than the Insane Clown Posse. That’s quite a feat. And then the film, somehow, gets stupider. I’m not sure if you are, Scott, but anyone listening familiar with Top Gear may remember the episode in which James May and Richard Hammond attempt to turn a Reliant Robin into a space shuttle. The climax of the film features what is basically a scaled-up version of that, in which Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson’s “comic relief” characters, Tej and Roman, save the world by going into space in a junky old car. I’ve skipped a lot between Edinburgh and space, but none of it’s interesting, and I’d have to use the word “family” so often it’d reach semantic satiation and lose all meaning.
I appreciate that this is not really my type of film (for anyone interested, my preferred genre is “good movie”), but even for fans of the series I struggle to see much appeal, because it’s all so derivative. I don’t think there’s a single original idea in here (F9 even resurrects another character considered dead), and Dom’s family thing is at taking-the-piss levels, even adding in some nonsense about being “worthy” of the Toretto name. The action scenes are lacklustre, the hand to hand scenes unviewable thanks to Bourne Supremacy-esque editing, the acting is awful, the writing worse and, perhaps most crucially, almost everyone involved is taking it all deadly seriously. I say almost everyone: Charlize Theron clearly could not care less, while Helen Mirren probably couldn’t be unprofessional if she tried. Though why her character is an arms dealer AND a jewel thief is not something the film comments on, but I would’ve thought being one precluded having time for the other.
The only thing that made Fate of the Furious even vaguely tolerable was the charisma of Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson, and their clear acknowledgement of the nonsense they were acting in. Neither Statham nor Johnson are in this film. And I realise now I could have reduced this review to that one sentence. C’est la vie.
The latest Pixar film is a fairly broad adaptation of the Suzanne Vega song, it must be said. Although he does live fairly high up at some points in the film, probably a reference to the second floor. Yes, that’s probably what happened.
Off the shores of Italy, young sea monster Luca (Jacob Tremblay) lives a sheltered life herding goatfish, fearing the vicious land monsters that stalk the local town of Portorosso, although he cannot help but be curious about it. That curiosity leads him to Jack Dylan Grazer’s Alberto, a slightly older sea monster who spends much of his time on land, and who helps Luca adjust to the magical changes that occur to a young boy as he moves from sea to land, that being looking like a common or garden human boy when dry, and a sea monster when wet.
The two become fast friends, in part over a shared love of the Vespa they see in one of Alberto’s posters, but Luca’s parents find out about his expeditions on land and threaten to send Luca to the deep sea. Not fancying a diet of whale carcass, Luca and Alberto go on the lam to Portorosso, where they meet Emma Berman’s Giulia, a fellow outcast and an ally against the local bully Ercole. Another friendship forms, this time with a goal of winning the Portorosso Cup Triathlon, with the funds affording them an opportunity to buy a rather less cosmetically impressive Vespa than they might have hoped for.
Needless to say things do not go to plan, with Luca’s parents searching for him and the constant threat of, well, any water at all revealing the seamonstericity of Luca and Alberto, making them fair game for the town’s bounty hunters, and Ercole and his henchmen being a continual thorn in their side.
Now, you could reasonably accuse this film of being Pixar by numbers, and I think in a potted plot recap it certainly comes across that way. In fact it doesn’t sound all that far away from Onward, which isn’t a good sign, but I think Luca has a great deal more heart to it than we’ve seen from Pixar lately, and even if it is ploughing a fairly familiar field, this is the most fun I’ve had watching one of their films since Coco. It’s funny, has an abundance of charm and captures the feeling of childhood friendships adroitly. My heart was warmed.
I don’t think I have a great deal more to say about Luca, so for once I’ll resist the urge to dribble on to fill time and just recommend it to everyone, bar any hardcore Pixar haters.
The Tomorrow War
Amazon, in the guise of Amazon Prime Video, has been trying to catch up with Netflix for years, and there are many similarities between the two services. Inevitably, then, and at the risk of giving my opinion away in my opening paragraph, to approach parity Amazon would need to keep building their own bank of disappointing science fiction titles. And so enter The Tomorrow War, another box office victim of the pandemic, pulled from cinemas and sold to Amazon for $200 million so that they could say, “observe, Netflix, we too have garbage, banal, trite science fiction action films that completely squander an interesting premise”.
That premise is that about thirty years in the future humanity is on the verge of extinction, having been mostly eaten by creatures called “white spikes” that seemingly just turned up one day. (Spikes are not the most instantly noticeable features of these aliens, they’re in fact almost entirely white and “white spike” is an almost deliberately terrible and insipid name: it is, in fact, a name very emblematic of the film as a whole). To save the species, future us-es conscript soldiers from the only available place: the past.
That high-concept idea actually starts with one or two interesting moments. The future humans decide to announce the war and the related draft in the middle of the World Cup Final in Qatar next year (featuring an instantly recognisable Brazil versus a made-up country, for some reason), one of the single-most watched televised events in any year it happens, and with worldwide appeal. That’s actually pretty smart if you want to make sure your message is seen by as many people as possible.
OK, it starts with one interesting moment. It’s also, unfortunately, the last, and everything else is just derivative. Now that’s not necessarily a barrier to enjoyment or quality. No. It’s everything else in the film that is. A large part of that is actually the very first thing we see, which is Chris Pratt, perennial relegation-contender in the great Hollywood Chris League, and his big, goofy face trying to look all serious and worried. Things do not get better from here, really, and goofiness in general is a big part of the problem, starting with the casting. As well as him off of Parks and Recreation and Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Chloe from 24, a goofy recurring character from Parks and Recreation, and Richard from Veep, all trying, and failing very, very hard, to be funny in a film that involves the worldwide human population having been reduced to less than half a million people, and those that are left routinely becoming snacks.
Such a situation can employ humour, certainly, but goofy and buffoonish “comedy” ain’t it, chief. Dark humour would be the thing, and of course you’d want someone who could actually handle that. Perhaps a gifted comic actor, like the great JK Simmons. Who is in the damn movie and isn’t given a single funny thing to say and is in all ways completely squandered! And that in itself is enough to advise you giving this a body swerve.
There are plenty of others, too, like the plot and the details and the acting and the writing. And the action. And the design. The screenplay’s the biggest ill, refusing to address things like what actually convinced people that the future us-es were real, and then to sacrifice their lives; why a politician refuses to sanction a mission that might save the entire species; why soldiers were pointlessly sent to the future with literally no training; why the key to the survival of the human race comes down to a high school pupil; or why material from the future couldn’t be sent back to the past to give humanity an extra thirty years of research time. The answer for the most part, of course, is “because a movie needs to happen”, a most unsatisfactory answer for an intelligent and logical person like myself. Or probably even for a concussed puppy. They could at least pay lip service to some of it.
But the worst sin is that it’s just really dull, and it’s nigh on impossible to care about it. (I am aware that my words up until now may well belie that, but I care in the abstract rather than in the actual.) A lengthy scene in the future period between two characters might, in another film, have been touching, but here’s it’s kind of irrational and mostly a scene between two people, both of whom have faces.
Most of the film feels like that, at least when it’s not being hugely derivative, with the clear influence of (and occasional direct references to) everything from The Thing from Another World, The Thing (the good one) and The Thing (the terrible one) to Battle: Los Angeles and Prometheus. And, yes, the monsters DO roar at the screen. Several times. Happy times for yer old mate Drew, you can be sure.
Mediocre pish. Avoid.
The Dead Don’t Die
Jim Jarmusch’s 2019 zombie flick is maybe not the obvious choice for revisiting, given that I’m not a massive fan of either horror films or Jim Jarmusch films, but it presented such a contrast from last months execrable Army of the Dead that it seemed like it would make for some interesting comparisons.
In tried and tested zombie film style, a small American town in beset by a plague of the dead rising from their graves and causing their unique brand of shambolic mayhem while the quirky bunch of locals try to survive. Broadly speaking, anyway. The police force are of course first responders to this unpleasantness, headed by Bill Murray’s Chief Cliff Robertson and Adam Driver’s Officer Ronnie Peterson, the latter of whom knows that this will end badly, because he’s read the script and is already tired of Sturgill Simpson’s title music. Yes, it’s one of those films.
More characters in the ensemble are introduced, like Steve Buscemi’s irascible racist Frank Miller, a farmer, Danny Glover’s Hank Thompson, a hardware store owner who is most certainly too old for this shit, and Tilda Swinton’s Zelda Winston, the town’s new undertaker, played as if she was David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell To Earth By The Way Of The Isle Of Lewis, for good reason as it turns out.
There’s many other well-kent faces, of course, like Selena Gomez’s Zoe who’s part of a stereotypically young adult out-of-towners whose days are obviously numbered, Iggy Pop as a Coffee Zombie, if I recall correctly RZA as a delivery driver, and with all credit to whoever wrote the wikipedia entry for this, Tom Waits as a baroquely bearded eccentric hermit.
It’s the sort of film where any sort of detailed plot recap would be redundant, so let’s just say that it’s an exceedingly low key take on the genre, at least in terms of the reactions of most of the cast to the events, the incongruity of which is where the film derives most of its humour. The critical question is, of course, is it funny, and my answer is, eeeeeh, kinda.
Which itself is quite a trick, as its early doors fourth wall demolition made me want to buy a physical copy of this just to destroy it, but in hindsight it popping up as an occasional running gag does kind of work for me, particularly by the end at which point the silliness of it has been cranked up from underlying to overwhelming.
It’s humour is more situational than setups and punchlines, and will one-hundred percent not be to everyone’s tastes. In fact I’m pretty sure everyone that watches this will find it hit and miss, and the relative percentages of both will naturally determine your overall enjoyment of the film. And it’s very hard to guide you, dear audience, if it’s going to land for you, but lets just say if you cannot stand the sort of torture comedy of Austin Power‘s extended urination scene then there’s at least one chunk of this that will drive you up the wall.
I’ve not seen the obvious comparison point, Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, his vampire flick, but I can at least say this shares a similar sense of urgency and danger as the other Jarmusch Driver vehicle Paterson, which is an outlandish thing to say. I’ve also seen it described as respecting the genre – I’m not so sure on that – while the practical zombie body chomping effects are a homage to Tom Savini, there one jab, or what I perceived as one, at any rate, about the exceedingly superficial ‘critique’ of consumerism that’s attributed to Dawn of the Dead, and yes, I will die on this hill. And then come back as a zombie and eat you.
So where does that leave The Dead Don’t Die? For a film that appears, on a quick bounce around review sites, to be a film that you will either love or hate, I’m broadly indifferent about it. Overall I suppose I enjoyed it enough to not regret spending a couple of hours with it, and if you have a greater affinity for Jarmusch’s quirky indie sensibilities then you’ll probably enjoy this, but that’s certainly not a broad recommendation. If it sound up your street, watch it, if it doesn’t, don’t. I’m not the boss of you. Live your life, be free.
It’s been a while since we had an entry into our occasional series, “Drew Tries Horror Again”, a series which perhaps ought to carry the subtitle “Jesus, will he never learn?”. Still this film, Censor, wasn’t directed by Ari Aster, the party responsible for the last two entries in this strand on the podcast, it looked interesting, at least, and I liked the poster, which was original, played on the film’s concept and didn’t look like one of the six styles that all other posters have (something that’s probably illegal, now I come to think of it), and sometimes that flash of creativity can be enough to hook me.
The film itself is a modestly-budgeted British horror, set in the early 1980s, during the “Video Nasty” era, when busybodies like the prudish and puritanical Mary Whitehouse were stinking up the joint. In another almost certainly illegal step, this is a 1980s with nary a glimpse of a Rubik’s Cube, deely bopper or other such lazy visual shorthand: rather, this is a 1980s of ugly clothes, uglier offices, and brown.
In one of these ugly offices and some of these ugly clothes (brown, naturally) is our protagonist, Enid (Niamh Algar), a censor for the BBFC whose potentially rather unpleasant job it is to watch and rate films, suggesting cuts where necessary, or in some cases banning the films entirely. Her boss at the BBFC seems very cosy with the producer of some video nasties, Michael Smiley’s Doug Smart, and soon Enid is personally selected to watch and rate some of the films resubmitted for classification by Smart. While watching one of these films, Enid is reminded of an, if not suppressed then very hazy, episode in her past, when her sister, Nina, went missing while the two were together. Nina was never seen again, but her parents have just obtained a death certificate in the hopes of allowing everyone, in particular Enid, to move on.
There’s something else going on, it would seem, though, as Enid’s parents seem vague on details and certainly aren’t keen to answer Enid’s questions on the matter. Prone, it seems, to obsessive behaviour, Enid starts to become preoccupied with her sister, even more so when she convinces herself that an actress in another of the director’s films is, in fact, Nina. Enid then tries to find this actress, and begins by visiting the producer, Doug, at his house late one night. This meeting does not end well, at least for Enid’s mind, and that’s where we spend the remainder of the film, as her reality dissolves and becomes mixed with the video nasties.
I didn’t expect this to be scary (and, beyond one entirely unwelcome and ineffectual orchestral stab it doesn’t try), but I was hoping for unsettling, creepy or disturbing. But nope, nothing doing. It’s just really boring. It’s certainly not entirely without merit, as there are moments here and there of flair, including some simply but very effectively-lit scenes that recall some of the nasties of the time, as well as more widely-known horror titles like Suspiria, and a really, really effective suggestion of unseen goriness through the means of the bottom of the cone of light from a projector turning red. But that’s all it’s got going for it: a little style, and that mostly in paying homage to (or, less charitably, aping) some classic (and not-so-classic) horrors.
Director Prano Bailey-Bond and her DP, Annika Summerson, also try to match the aesthetics of grainy VHS, but when was that last impressive? There must be hundreds of After Effects plug-ins or smartphone apps that can do the same job, or perhaps even better, as some of the videos actually look too good in Censor.
You’ve perhaps noticed that I’m mostly talking about the visuals, and there’s a reason: Censor’s all surface. There’s certainly plenty of scope for something substantial here: the Video Nasty moral panic itself; the unending hypocrisy of newspapers; perhaps the fact that during some of the years of the panic politicians decried the effects of imagined violence while parts of the country were literally on fire in protest against Margaret Thatcher’s policies. It could even address the effects of multiple years of this kind of work, which is the closest the film gets to saying anything, though it seems clear that Enid was troubled in spite of this job, not because of it: it just provides an interesting visual device for her fractured psyche.
It is also deathly slow, which is distressing in a film that is only 84 minutes long. Classified NS as not suitable for any audience.
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