Friday, 27 May 2016

The Nice Guys

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: Shane Black.

Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Keith David, Kim Basinger.

Russell really wanted to be at home because the Rabbitohs were playing.

SOMEWHERE in between writing the script for Lethal Weapon and directing Iron Man 3, Shane Black wrote and directed a film called Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Initially a flop, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang became a cult favourite because of its offbeat take on the crime noir genre and its inspired comedy pairing of a back-in-the-game Robert Downey Jr and an on-the-way-out Val Kilmer.

The Nice Guys is a very similar proposition from writer-director Black with exactly the same strengths – an offbeat take on the crime noir genre and a surprisingly effective comedy pairing of a still-hot-right-now Ryan Gosling and a probably-on-the-way-out Russell Crowe.

Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a thug who wonders whether he should become a private eye and try to do something good with his life. Gosling is Holland March, a private eye who rarely bothers to do anything good with his life, except provide for his daughter (wonderfully precocious Aussie teen Angourie Rice).

The pair’s paths cross thanks to a girl named Amelia (Qualley), whom lots of people are keen to get hold of for various nefarious reasons, as she may prove to be the key in not only a couple of murders, but maybe also a larger conspiracy.

The story’s multiple red herrings and hard-boiled antics lead around in circles that harken back to the classic noir novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and a ‘70s setting adds fresh spice to the genre, along with some outrageous costumes, cool production design and a funky soundtrack featuring the likes of Kool & The Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Black has great fun with the era, the conventions of the crime story, and in Gosling and Crowe he has a dynamic duo to deliver his delicious dialogue. There are plenty of laughs, and while no one will be suggesting Crowe focus purely on comedic roles from now on, he handles the humour well.

Both he and Gosling give great performances that help smooth out the bumps in the way their characters are written, which is one of the few prominent flaws of the film. Healy goes from being a hard man with no compunctions about killing someone to being sick at the sight of a dead body, while March’s alcoholic widower walks a weird line between smart and dumb.

The supporting cast that weaves in and out of the story is solid, but Rice is a scene-stealer. Her biggest claim to fame prior to this was the little-seen Aussie end-of-days thriller These Final Hours but you can guarantee she is a star in the making on the strength of her performance here.

Overall, The Nice Guys is a cool little neo-noir gem. The plot feels like it’s wandering, but it works (if you take into account how inept/corrupt the police in this film must be) and provides more laughs than a lot of out-and-out “comedies” being pumped out of Hollywood in recent years.

Friday, 20 May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

(M) ★★★½

Director: Bryan Singer.

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee.

"Just because you're a mutant, it doesn't mean you're too good for a seatbelt."
WHILE walking out of a cinema screening of Return Of The Jedi, a character in X-Men: Apocalypse quips that the third part of a trilogy is always the worst.

It’s a particularly meta and self-insulating moment in the third film of the second X-Men trilogy, which is indeed the worst of this trilogy, but in this case ‘worst’ doesn’t mean ‘terrible’.

Bloated, yes, over-the-top, yes, but not bad. X-Men: The Last Stand – the third film of the original trilogy – was bad, but Apocalypse, while not reaching the lofty heights of its predecessors First Class and Days Of Future Past, is still pretty good.

Apocalypse is largely set in the 1980s, 10 years after the events of Days Of Future Past. Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is running his school for gifted children (aka super-powered mutants), occasional villain Magneto (Fassbender) is in hiding, and Mystique (Lawrence) is behind the Iron Curtain rescuing fellow mutants from some kind of mutant fight club.

But a new power is rising. A long dormant mutant named En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse (Isaac) has awoken and is gathering powerful followers to his side as part of his quest to wipe the world clean and start again. Naturally it’s up to the X-Men to stop him.

Unlike many of the previous X-Men films, which have thrived on the mutants-as-hated/feared-minority analogy, Apocalypse ditches any kind of theme that might get in the way of its computer-generated world-wrecking. This is X-Men Gone Global – for the first time in the series, the threat is against all of humanity and director Singer has the FX budget to do it.

Those looking for the more cerebral edge amid the mutant throwdowns will be disappointed, as any cerebral edges have been buffered off, but at least Singer still knows how to handle his mutant throwdowns. A cameoing old favourite is a highlight, Quicksilver (Peters) once again gets a great scene to hang his goggles on, Nightcrawler’s powers are cool, and an angry Magneto is always a watchable Magneto.

In terms of spectacle and fun, Apocalypse delivers. It also juggles a lot of characters and a handful of intersecting stories reasonably well, but as is always the case with such an ensemble, some players get little to do beyond wield their powers in a timely fashion.

It is a shame there isn’t more depth here as it may have masked some of the sillier moments. Fassbender almost pulls off some terribly overwrought lines because he’s so damned good, and so does McAvoy. But you get the feeling everyone is sniggering off-camera about how damned ridiculous Apocalypse looks, which makes it hard to take the Big Bad too seriously.

It seems petulant to poke fun at the over-the-top nature of a film where a main character is an immortal mutant trying to destroy the world. First Class and Days Of Future Past were brilliant at remaining grounded in the face of absurdity (which is also an excellent trait of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first two Nolan Batman movies) but Apocalypse struggles to contain itself. The opening sequence in ancient Egypt is overstuffed with digital bells and whistles, as is the chaotic final battlefield. It makes you long for a time when Singer didn’t have nearly a quarter of a billion dollars at his disposal.

The most impressive thing about the X-Men series is the way it has reinvented itself. Via Days Of Future Past, the film has managed to double-back on its own timeline to give itself a renewed vigour and cast. Apocalypse allows us to meet a new Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey, Angel, and Storm in a way that is not jarring. It also mean the producers can have a crack at plotlines they fumbled first time around, such as the Dark Phoenix saga, which is hinted at here, setting up for a new trilogy filled with its fresh new faces.

However, it’s going to be hard for a new trilogy to top Singer’s past three X-films. Apocalypse isn’t the perfect note to end on, but its an enjoyable enough conclusion to the trilogy.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Mother's Day

(M) ★★½

Director: Garry Marshall.

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Jason Sudeikis, Britt Robertson, Timothy Olyphant, H├ęctor Elizondo, Jack Whitehall, Sarah Chalke, Aasif Mandvi.

There's "agreeing to be in a bad movie", and then there's "agreeing to be in a bad movie wearing a bad wig".
FIRST there was Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, and now Happy Days creator and Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall has plucked Mother’s Day off the wall calendar where he gets his movie titles from.

As with his past two films, this one has plenty of star wattage, a cheesy balance of rom and com, and an excess of intertwining stories, some of which work and some of which misfire worse than a poorly chosen Mother’s Day present.

There are four key narratives here. Single mum Sandy (Aniston) is struggling to come to terms with her ex-husband’s new 20-something bride and having to share her kids with a step-mum, sisters Jesse (Hudson) and Gabi (Chalke) have hidden their respective interracial and lesbian relationships from their bigoted white trash parents for too long, Bradley (Sudeikis) is trying to raise his two daughters after the death of his wife, and Kristin (Robertson) refuses to marry the father of her child (Whitehall). Somewhere among all this, Julia Roberts flits around as shopping channel guru Miranda.

As with Marshall’s previous two films, all the issues of all the characters build to a climax on one day – here it’s Mother’s Day, obviously – where everyone learns a lesson about the importance of family and how amazing and versatile mums are.

It’s a noble and worthy theme to hang a movie on, but unfortunately some of these character arcs are more effective than others. Two work well – Aniston’s chapters are well thought-out and examine interesting facets of modern family dynamics, while Sudeikis’ story has plenty of heart and emotional punch to it, even if it is a little underdone.

But as with many of these rom-com anthologies, proceedings get dragged down by the weaker stories. Hudson and Chalke’s section had the potential to be the most interesting as it grappled with prejudices tearing a family apart, however this part of the film ends up devolving into a mess of slapstick and cheesy epiphanies. Where a note of truth rings out in the two aforementioned stories, this one is full of sitcom artifice.

The Robertson/Whitehall tale is also a swing and a miss, partly because it feels tacked on and partly because it’s poorly realised, even though Whitehall's stand-up routines within the film are pretty good.

Marshall and his editors get credit for weaving the threads together well in the final act, and the stars all do a decent job, particularly Aniston and Sudeikis.

But too much of this is patchy and awkward, like it’s four TV pilots stuck together, or four film ideas no one was game to turn into full movies on their own.

There are a couple of laughs here and some nice sentiments, but ultimately Mother’s Day is a 50/50 proposition, like cooking dinner for your mum but making her do the dishes.

PS. Does anyone want to take bets on what day of the year Marshall will use for his next movie? Surely the smart money is on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?