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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Christopher Nolan - From Best To Worst

From 2000 until 2010, there were few directors who could rival Christopher Nolan. He had a Pixar-like strike rate of awesomeness. Across six films - from Memento (2000) to Inception (2010) - he did incredible things. He made us think backwards, rebirthed an iconic character, made the greatest superhero movie of all time, gave us remarkable performances from the likes of Robin Williams and Heath Ledger, and took us into a dream inside a dream inside a ... well, you get the picture.

Then he made The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar and oh how those films annoy me.

Anyway, to mark the release of Dunkirk (and to respond to this list by my friend and fellow movie buff Eddie) and to fulfil my ongoing need to reduce someone's life's work into a pithy list, here is the Absolutely Definitive And Unquestionably Correct Listing Of Christopher Nolan's Films From Best To The One I Haven't Seen.

1. Memento

This remains the greatest script ever written. And do you know what beat it to the Best Original Screenplay Oscar? Gosford Park. Sheesh. Good film, but sheesh. You don't hear anyone in 2017 going "You know what film had one of the best scripts of all time? Gosford Park". But 17 years on from another oversight by the Academy, it remains mindblowing just how perfectly Memento's Herculean task of screenwriting works. And it doesn't merely "work" - it's not just a gimmick of writing, successfully pulled off. Memento goes beyond stunt-writing and becomes an incredibly enjoyable, gripping and surprisingly powerful film (poor Sammy Jankis and his diabetic wife). It's also surprisingly easy to understand and follow, which is a spectacular feat of directing and editing (as well as writing). Guy Pearce has given so many great performances and his turn as Leonard, the vengeful man with the broken memory, is up there with his greatest, but Matrix buddies Carrie-Ann Moss and Joe Pantoliano give career-best turns. The washed-out LA sunshine provides the film with the look of a faded polaroid and the score gets under your skin like Leonard's tattoos. It's not just Nolan's best but one of the best of all time.

2. Inception

As time goes on, it's becoming increasingly difficult to give audiences something they've never seen before. Inception does it time and time again over the course of its two and a half hours, which is part of what makes it such a stunning piece of cinema. The key visuals are the folding cityscape and the spinning hallway punch-on, but the whole thing is a breath of cinematic fresh air, so much so that you don't even care that almost every line of dialogue is exposition. Nolan's trick here is taking us somewhere new, making it look familiar and continually giving you a kick whenever things get too comfortable. And how good is that cast. And that ending. And that sound. BRAAAAAAAWWWWRRRMMMM.

For the record, I totally nailed how awesome this was in my 2010 review, which almost never happens.

3. The Dark Knight

The greatest superhero movie of all time. The reasons for this are many. Ledger is the key one. His is a benchmark performance. Pity the fool who tries to be a Joker after him (too bad, Thirty Seconds to Leto) and pity anyone playing an unhinged supervillain after this. Ledger's shadow is long. Bale's good too, feeling as comfortable in the Batsuit as he is with his Bruce Wayne mask on. And that's another thing that makes The Dark Knight the best cape-caper to date - it explores the psychology of the superhero more deeply than any other example of the genre (except for Watchmen). Which is more real - Bats or Bruce? And how far will Bats/Bruce go to keep his version of the peace and protect Gotham from a person that probably wouldn't exist if the Batman wasn't going around doing his vigilante thing in the first place? This is all far too profound for silly superhero nonsense, right? And let's not forget that just about every shot in this looks superb.

4. The Prestige

In which Batman and Wolverine start a magical war against each other - now there's a movie idea. But seriously, I can probably live without that knowing I can watch Bale and Jackman as obsessively driven prestidigitators trying to one-up each other at the end of the 19th century. It's a devilish plot, perfectly executed, led by great performances from its two stars (plus some great help from Scarlett Johansson, the late great David Bowie, and Nolan regular Michael Caine). Even knowing the twist, The Prestige remains thrilling, which is probably the real sleight of hand Nolan pulled here.

5. Batman Begins

Nolan's trick with Batman Begins was to treat a superhero movie like a real movie. As simple as that. X-Men and Spider-man were great and relished their comic book origins, but Nolan went dark and deep and forever changed superhero movies. This was SERIOUS. DC built its entire Expanded Universe on this idea, and even Marvel took note for its MCU. "Nolan-esque" became a word with this film, and its definition can be found in the gritty reality he and co-writer David S. Goyer shoved the Dark Knight into, something which was a necessity in order to reclaim the character from the neon puke and '60s throwback of Joel Schumacher's previous Bat-outings. By throwing in Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow to the origin story, Nolan hit upon a rich subtext to drive the whole film - the power of fear. The cinematic superhero league would never be the same again.

6. Insomnia

Robin Williams' "Dark Trilogy" of 2002 - One Hour Photo, Insomnia, and Death To Smoochy - provided the late legend with three of his best roles and gave us three of his best performances. That he out-performs and steals the show from Pacino, who was yet to become a caricature of himself, is testament to how good Williams is in Insomnia. On the surface, it feels like a bit of cruise control for Nolan on the heels of Memento - it's a Hollywoodisation of a then-five-year-old Norwegian thriller - but it's actually a supremely under-rated slowburning piece of Alaskan noir. Nolan gets the mood of the eternal sun landscape right and captures Pacino's insomniac cop Will Dormer (Dormer is pretty close to the French word for sleep BTW) mental unravelling beautifully. Well worth a revisit, if only to remember Robin. 


As stated in my recent review, Dunkirk is damned near perfect, except for that annoying non-linear narrative Nolan's got going on in it. If it aims to demonstrate the different passages of time for the various storylines, it doesn't work. It's frustrating because Dunkirk is a powerfully minimalist, precise and punchy look at an incredible WWII story. Stripped of Nazis, flowery speeches and unnecessary characterisation, it's everything it needs to be and nothing more. It's also the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

8. The Dark Knight Rises

This disappointing sequel is agonisingly close to being great, but its plotholes become so overwhelming that most rational brains stop working long before the end. It's a shame, because Bane is a great character and Tom Hardy does a cracking job. But its highlights - Bats Vs Bane, the football field explosion, the nonsensical opening plane stunt, Catwoman - get lost amid a fumbled theme about haves-against-have-nots and an erratic script. Sad end to what should have been one of the greatest trilogies of all time.

Here's my review from 2012, which is on the money but too generous with its star rating.

9. Interstellar

The more I thought about Interstellar, after its initial "wow" factor wore off, the more I hated it. Nolan's attempt at doing his own 2001: A Space Odyssey was ambitious but its final twist was too much for me. It's adherence to the laws of physics is (apparently) impressive and its visual spectacle is stunning, but its bloated running time, frustrating structure, under-developed characters and its plot-turn trickery are deal-breakers. Nolan disappears not into a blackhole, but more likely up his own derriere in this grand folly. McConaughey is great though. 

10. Following

I haven't actually seen Following, but then neither have most people. So hardly anyone is going to be able to tell me I'm wrong about putting it at the bottom of the list. And those that have seen it assure me it's Nolan's least good film, so I'm going to trust them on that. So it's win-win really. As soon as I see it, I'll adjust this list accordingly though and be sure to let you know.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

War For The Planet Of The Apes

(M) ★★★★

Director: Matt Reeves.

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Gabriel Chavarria.

Woody wished his sunnies had wipers.
WHEN it comes time to talk about the greatest trilogies of all time, the new Planet Of The Apes films need to be in the discussion.

That's not to say they're better than the original Star Wars trilogy or Lord Of The Rings or Toy Story, but Apes deserves a spot at least in the top 10, maybe even top five.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes were both far better than anyone expected - the first one because the bad taste of Tim Burton's re-imagining lingered, and the second because it was largely assumed the first one was a fluke and sequelitis was sure to set in.

So the expectations on War For The Planet Of The Apes were higher than they'd been all series. And, oh boy, War delivers.

The aftermath of Dawn sees humans and apes in an ongoing battle, with Caesar (Serkis) and his simian colony hiding in the North American woods, only fighting when they have to. But self-styled warlord The Colonel (Harrelson) wants complete victory and pushes Caesar to the edge, sparking a journey into the heart of darkness for the ape leader that threatens to end one of the species.

These films have been so great because they've consistently featured amazing characters and explored the human condition and such deep themes as love, hate, power, trust, revenge, forgiveness and other such meaty subjects. It just so happened that most of those characters were apes played by motion-captured humans, and the themes played out against a backdrop of rebooted dystopian sci-fi.

In other words, writer/director Matt Reeves, Rise director Rupert Wyatt, and trilogy writers Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver treated them as "proper" films, never letting the spectacle get in the way, and ensuring the incredible CG wizardry on show was used in the service of the story and not the other way around.

War does all of those things too. It takes Caesar - one of the best and most under-rated characters of the past decade - to dark places as it explores how far someone can be pushed before they set their morals aside and give into the bloodlust. Serkis is, yet again, nothing short of magnificent. The CG is seamless, but Serkis makes Caesar real. And then some. Remember how they gave Peter Jackson all the Oscars for Return Of The King, as if to acknowledge how good the whole LOTR trilogy was? They should do that for Andy Serkis. This performance is no better or worse than his incredible work in Rise or Dawn but he's never even been nominated. Give him some recognition, Academy.

Serkis' fellow apes - Konoval, Notary, and newcomer Zahn - are also great. They never feel anything less than human, which has helped make the series a revelation.

Also great is Harrelson, the Colonel Kurtz-like figure waiting at the end of Caesar's metaphorical journey up river. Apocalypse Now is a big influence here - War is part-that, part-The Road, and part-The Great Escape - and Harrelson embraces that without being slavish to Brando. It also says something for the script and Harrelson's performance that The Colonel is a character that can be empathised with, despite being the Big Bad of the movie.

I have loved all three of these films, yet there's still a feeling of surprise that they're so good. Even now, having been enthralled and moved to tears by all three, it's difficult to shake. If you'd said 10 years ago that a prequel/reboot series of Planet Of The Apes films featuring mo-capped monkeys would become one of the best trilogies ever, you'd have been laughed out of town.

But you would have been so very, very right.

Sunday, 23 July 2017


(M) ★★★★

Director: Christopher Nolan.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, Jack Lowden, James D'Arcy.

The queues for coffee at music festivals are always out of hand.

There are few modern blockbuster directors who conjure up the "what will they do next?" intrigue and anticipation quite like Christopher Nolan.

Even after the disappointments of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan's star is untarnished, such are his talents and his incredible winning streak spanning 2000 to 2010.

Thankfully Dunkirk is a return to form. In spite of its almost self-sabotaging non-linear narrative, it manages to re-tell an amazing war story in a manner that is somehow both intimate and sweeping in scope.

The Dunkirk evacuation of WWII, in which more than 300,000 British and French troops were removed from their prone position on the French coast, is told through three interwoven stories that encompass the land, the sea, and the air.

On the Dunkirk beach, British private Tommy (Whitehead) joins thousands of his fellow army men in trying to find a way home. On the sea, civilian sailor Mr Dawson (Rylance) heads across the English Channel to do his bit to bring soldiers back to Blighty. And in the skies over the channel, pilots (Hardy and Lowden) do battle with the Luftwaffe in an effort to protect the soldiers on Dunkirk beach and the vessels trying to rescue them.

Like all good war movies, Dunkirk puts you in the metaphorical trenches alongside the soldiers - in this case its on the beach, in a small pleasure boat, and in the cockpit of a Spitfire. This creates an unlikely intimacy to the film, despite the scantness of its character development. For such a huge production, Dunkirk feels strangely small-scale at times, which is to the benefit of the film. It's refreshingly short and is very much about doing the bare minimum to maximum effect - this is big-budget minimalism.

Nolan hones in on the action and the necessities, drawing enough depth out of his characters so we care about them and their seemingly insurmountable predicaments, while never wasting a moment of screen time on trivial matters. The cast members are uniformly excellent, particularly seasoned veterans Rylance, Murphy, and Branagh, as well as newcomers Whitehead and Styles, all helping to bring these lightly drawn characters to life.

The film is particularly impressive not just because of what it includes, but also what it leaves out. There are no warm-and-fuzzy moments where characters reminisce about their lives and wives back home, no unnecessary swathes of dialogue, and no stirring speeches (save for someone reading Churchill's famed "we'll fight them on the beaches" bit at the film's end). In fact, in the majority of its best moments, no one says a word. Nolan lets the action speak.

There are also no German soldiers. We know they're there, shooting at the Brits, piloting the Luftwaffe fighters, and firing the torpedoes, but we never lay eyes on a single Nazi. This unseen enemy creates a daunting inhuman threat, as well as letting the focus remain on the imperilled British. It ramps up the tension, and is a neat, almost unnoticed trick.

The set pieces and constant hurdles, especially those facing Tommy, keep the action rolling along. Nolan also crafts a pretty good aerial dogfight in between trying to drown us and disorientate us at every opportunity. In fact, the film is a balance of contradictions, capturing the chaos and the mundane nature of the Dunkirk evacuation, the humanity and inhumanity within the situation, and the personal and the large-scale elements of it.

The only downside is that damned staggered narrative, which plays with the film's passage of time. It makes the audience do extra work, which wouldn't be a problem if it wasn't so unnecessary. This story could have been told just as easily and effectively without the disruptive non-linear structure.

Thankfully it's not enough to sink Dunkirk. It's such a thrillingly compact and direct war story that no amount of ill-judged narrative trickery can undo its worth. It is chilling in places, powerfully emotional in others, and a stirring re-telling of a valiant wartime effort to lessen the impacts of a devastating military defeat. Nolan, being the proud Londoner that he is, has given us the cinematic equivalent of the British stiff upper lip.

I can't wait to see what Nolan does next.

Friday, 14 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Devil & Daniel Johnston

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jeff Feuerzeig

Historic photo or modern-day hipster pushing the archaic sound format revival too far?
The downfall of the talented artist is a common story throughout the history of popular music.

It's by equal turns sad and fascinating, and the resulting docos are car crash stuff - we can't look away, whether its Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis, Syd Barrett, Michael Hutchence, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, etc etc.

The Devil & Daniel Johnston matches that same description, but with the added twist that Johnston was still alive, still recording, and still touring when it was made (he's still alive at the time of writing in 2017).

That he could be a somewhat active participant in his own documentary (released in 2005) only makes his story all the sadder though. By then, Johnston had long been a passenger in his own life and his presence in the film is like that of a ghost haunting the house where he used to live.

In the eyes of some, Johnston was a genius. His music and art made him a cult favourite on the Austin music scene in the late '80s, and his fame rose to bizarre new heights, partly thanks to Kurt Cobain championing his music, in the early '90s. All the while, Johnston was suffering severe mental health issues and bouncing in and out of institutions.

The Devil & Daniel Johnston is an encompassing biography of a music industry fringe dweller, a deeply troubled artist, and a man battling his many demons. It's insight and understanding of his condition, talent and personality is brilliant.

There's an abundance of home video and audio recordings Johnston made over his early years to drawn on, and director Feuerzeig blends in contemporary interviews, live gigs, photos and Johnston's own artwork to tell the muso's story with an almost unparalleled amount of depth. The incredible surfeit of first-hand historical material is not only the greatest possible gift to the film-maker, but it confirms a central idea of the film - that Johnston always presumed he would be famous, and courted the idea, sought it out, and lived in preparation for it. The sad part is he was never really ready for it and never could have dealt with it. Real life, let alone the life of a famed musician, was difficult enough.

This notion is important because it somewhat offsets the uneasy feeling that sitting down to watch this is akin to paying the man outside the freak show tent. There can be a fine line between exploitation and celebration, and The Devil & Daniel Johnston rides it pretty hard at times, particularly when showing Johnston watch footage of his old flame, or seeing him dance over the credits. Ultimately, this is the story of one man's journey to hell and back, and its unclear how capable he is of understanding what this doco means.

If you can shake that troubling idea, embrace the sentiment that this is actually what Johnston always wanted, and take the doco at face value - which I highly recommend doing - The Devil & Daniel Johnston is a remarkable look into the world of an artist that lost his mind and struggled to find it again, along the way creating some incredible music and art. That people can watch this and maybe hear True Love Will Find You In The End, The Story Of An Artist, and Some Things Last A Long Time for the first time is a beautiful thing.

Ultimately sad yet weirdly uplifting, this is a story of a troubled yet fascinating man, told with a deft and comprehensive touch.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Baby Driver

(MA15+) ★★★★½

Director: Edgar Wright.

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones.

"Third floor, cool stares, ladies' and men's sizes."
It takes a lot of effort to be effortlessly cool.

I don't know this from personal experience (because I am super uncool) - I read it somewhere (see?).

But if you need proof of the amount of work that goes into being unfathomably hip (does that still mean cool?), then check out Baby Driver. It's the very definition of offhand awesomeness, and by virtue it has a lot of effort put into it, all totally worth it.

It's there in the largely CGI-free car stunts, the cut-to-the-rhythm editing, the jokey cadence of the script, and divine song choices. And while it's tempting to dismiss this as a flimsy B-movie love-in or a soundtrack in search of a movie or even some kind of flippant teen fantasy, that's at your own peril. This fast and furious piece of fun has heart to burn and an engine full of cool. Get in, put on a seatbelt, and enjoy one of the best cinematic rides of the year.

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular Baby, a wheelman for Doc (Spacey) who is a ruthless crime organiser - he ropes in the crims to pull off the heists he plans, with Baby always behind the wheel of the getaway car.

Baby's links to Doc go back to an unsettled debt, but once the debt is finished, Baby thinks he's out of the game. But there is never "one last job", and Baby's attempts to get free put himself and the new love of his life Debora (James) at risk.

The big talking point of Baby Driver is that soundtrack. The best since Guardians Of The Galaxy, it plays a similar role in the film - it's part-character, part-plot device, part-mood-maker, part-scene-setter, but bigger and better in each of those ways. From the opening car chase scored by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Bellbottoms, it is an impeccably curated playlist featuring Beck, The Damned, Queen, Sam & Dave, Martha & The Vandellas, and heaps more. It is track after track of excellence, with the film exquisitely edited to suit every beat, guitar solo and breakdown.

Much of this music-matched editing is in the pedal-to-the-metal car chases and a handful of shoot-outs. It makes Baby Driver feel like a movie adaptation of video game Grand Theft Auto, which is not a bad thing. In making his ideal soundtrack-heavy car chase-driven B-movie, Edgar Wright has accidentally made the perfect example of what a GTA movie should be - lots of police pursuits with the music cranked, peppered with the occasional shoot-out and cool-as-hell cut scene.

But this is not a video game, and those "cut scenes" are where Baby Driver gets its heart and soul. The characters may seem thin but they're drawn with just enough detail to make them surprisingly well-rounded, despite being impossible people that couldn't exist outside of a crime caper. Ansel, in his Han Solo-referencing jacket, is quirk upon quirk with his ever-present headphones, insane driving skills, and laconic ways, but he's a loveable, cheerable hero. Collins is utterly believable as the love-at-first-sight ingenue, Hamm, González and Spacey get the cheesiest of lines and deliver them with ease, and with on-the-edge bankrobber Bats, Foxx has added another great character to an under-rated collection of interesting choices.

From its first two scenes - the Bellbottoms chase and a long, single-take introduction to Baby as he walks around Atlanta to the sounds of Bob & Earl's Harlem Shuffle - Baby Driver sets itself up in its own world. It's a world where crims have class, and crimes are planned with chalkboards by uber-crims, and everyone has code names, like a mix of Reservoir Dogs and Oceans 11. It's a world with meet cutes, love at first sight, and perfectly synchronised music/life interactions. If you're accepting of this world, if you buy into it, you're going to love Baby Driver. If you don't, well, I feel sorry for you, and maybe you should check your pulse before going out and finding a healthy dose of fun because maybe you have a deficiency. Or worse, some kind of fun intolerance.

The biggest criticism you could level at the film is that it's missing an extra level of depth that would have been nice. There are no grand themes or big ideas at play here, unlike Wright's other films (the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim). If you scratch the surface below the car chases, quirky characters and killer soundtrack, and there's nothing much else there.

But sometimes that doesn't matter. Sometimes you just want to enjoy a really well-made film that is supremely fun, and that's what Baby Driver is. It sets out to be an immensely quotable car-chase movie with plenty of great tunes, and it is exactly that. It would be destined to become one of the great cult movies of all time, except that it's going to be too damned popular for that title.

And deservedly so. Bravo Edgar Wright.

The only downside is it makes a lot of people (like me) even more pissed off that we never got to see your Ant-Man movie.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jon Watts.

Cast: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei.

Spider-Man ruled the jungle gym.

SO Spidey is back where he belongs - sitting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the likes of Iron Man and his fellow Avengers.

(Sony still own the film rights to Spider-Man and are desperate to keep their golden goose but can't figure out how to get it laying again, so technically Spidey's on loan to Marvel.)

We got a taster of what this meant in Captain America: Civil War, where Tom Holland's iteration of the wallcrawler debuted via some excellent cameos. But here he is hosting his own MCU movie, making this the third reboot of the character in 15 years. Is that too much Spider-Man? Can the MCU give us something new with a character that's been in five films already in the past decade and a half?

The answers are no and no. Hang on, hear me out.

Firstly, there can never be too much Spider-Man in my book. In terms of success, the Maguire years were two out of three, and I think the Garfield years got an unfair pasting, with the first film particularly good. Tell me how wrong I am in the comments.

Secondly, there isn't much that's really new in Homecoming. Marvel have made deft decisions about what to leave out and what to emphasise in the Spider-verse. It's a fresh, fun, and immensely enjoyable take on Ol' Webhead, but it's also a safe one. They're not reinventing the wheel here - in fact it's probably the most risk-free MCU movie since Iron Man 3.

That's not to say Spider-Man: Homecoming isn't great, because it most definitely is. It does everything it needs to do, and does it all really, really well. What's not to love? Just don't go expecting this to be a game-changer or a ground-breaker.

Ignoring the bitten-by-a-spider-and-discovers-his-powers first act (that's pretty much dealt with in one sentence), Homecoming sees Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland) re-adapting to normal life in the wake of having a taste of the big leagues in Civil War (again dealt with cleverly and succinctly).

While he eagerly awaits his next Avengers call-up, Parker goes about trying to be a Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, where he stumbles on the illegal activities of Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Keaton).

As stated, it's not so much that this is a new take on Spider-Man, but rather a well-crafted one. Director Watts and the five (!) other screenwriters have honed in on key parts of the Spider-mythos, ignored other parts, and dished up the filmic equivalent of mum's lasagne - it's comforting, tasty, nothing special, but exactly what you're looking for.

Gone is Uncle Ben (except maybe one oblique reference), as well as any attempts at rewording the line "With great power comes great responsibility". The latter is still a key theme, but here it's presented in a "show, don't tell" scenario via Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) and his mentoring of Parker. There's no J. Jonah Jameson or Norman Osborn, no photography skills, and no Gwen Stacy.

In their place is a greater focus on high school, which creates interesting new problems to test Parker. The much-spoke about "John Hughes" vibe of Homecoming is the freshest part of it, although it's a good example of the filmmakers emphasising and better-using existing Spider-themes (Parker was in high school in the first Maguire and Garfield films).

Parker is given a confidante named Ned (Batalon), who does an excellent job with the comic relief, and a more interesting backdrop - the world of Avengers - to play around in front of. For the first time, we get to see how a kid who grew up in the Post-Superhero Era reacts to that world, and it makes for an intriguing version of Parker. Tony Stark as the Iron Mentor is another spin-off of this, and a welcome one.

Of course, that "version" is largely thanks to Holland. Mindblowingly likeable in the role, he's everything Peter Parker needs to be. Perfect in Civil War, this is merely a double-check, and, yep, Marvel's casting department got it right.

In Vulture/Toomes as the villain, we get the best Marvel big bad since Ultron. He is sympathetic yet menacing, and comes off as believable and far from cartoonish. Toomes is a 99 per center with an axe to grind against the Tony Starks of the world, who were born with a silver spoon in his mouth, whereas Toomes had to salvage and sell the spoon to feed his family. Keaton (who's gone from Batman to Birdman to Vulture) is excellent in the role and ticks all the boxes to make Toomes a well-rounded baddie.

One criticism is that all the pre-film promo meant there were few surprises left when it came time to sit down and watch Homecoming (even though just about every shot in the trailers has been tweaked or an alternate take has been used in the finished film). There are one or two twists that remain unspoilt, but the majority of the key scenes had been summarised or quoted in the barrage of trailers and TV spots. It gives a feeling of over-familiarity on a first watch, which is far from ideal. Or maybe I just need to stop watching so many trailers.

This aside, Homecoming is Spider-Man done right. And after five films in 15 years, that's probably better than should be expected.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Tokyo Story (1953)

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Yasujirō Ozu.

Cast: Chishū Ryū, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, So Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyōko Kagawa, Eijirō Tōno, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirō Ōsaka.

"I'm gonna whack that kid so good when he rides past again."
SOME films sneak up on you.

When talking about Tokyo Story, that's not just a summation of how the simplistic plot or deceptive pacing of Ozu's gentle examination of the widening generation gap in post-war Japan wins you over. It's also a description of the film's lot in critical terms over more than six decades.

Derided as "too Japanese" upon release in 1953, it finally found its way to the UK in 1957, winning the British Film Institute's inaugural Sutherland Trophy in 1958. It didn't make its way to American screens until 1964, by which time Ozu was dead.

In fact, it was only after screenings in the US in the early '70s that the film's reputation as one of the greatest of all time began to emerge. It took until 1992 for it to make the top 10 of esteemed film critics' Sight & Sound list, and 2012 for it to top the corresponding directors' list. That's 59 years of sneaking up on the world's greatest filmmakers.

As for the audience, Tokyo Story slinks its way under your skin, despite boasting one of the most basic set-ups in cinematic history - old parents visit their grown-up kids, then go home again.

Of course, it's far more than that. Tokyo Story tells of elderly couple Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama), who make the lengthy journey from their home in Onomichi to Tokyo to visit their children and grandchildren, in the knowledge they may never get the opportunity to do so again.

Upon arrival, they quickly find their kids' lives are busy and full, with little time for entertaining the oldies. As they are bundled from son to daughter to daughter-in-law (and off to a resort for a bit), Shūkichi and Tomi wonder where it all went wrong before heading for home.

In lieu of a decent trailer, here's an excellent montage of moments from the film, with some erudite comments by A.O. Scott, who nails it far better than I ever will:

Tokyo Story is a snapshot of the generation gap and ageing, not just in terms of 1950s Japan, but of any era. The kids don't have the time, or can't seem to find it, and the parents are too polite to question them. It's only when Shūkichi gets drunk with some old buddies (in an hilarious highlight of the film) that he voices his true feelings about his kids.

The inaccessibility of the children is made all the more painfully obvious by daughter-in-law Noriko (Ozu favourite and film stand-out Setsuko Hara), who is the only member of the family who makes an effort (beyond the monetary) with Shūkichi and Tomi. That Noriko's husband - Shūkichi and Tomi's son - died in the war makes their connection all the more poignant, leading to some beautifully sad scenes, none more so than the film's final moments.

It's not until that heartbreaking denouement that you realise how immersive Tokyo Story is, and how it's snuck up on you and worked its way into your heart (just to break it, the bastard).

With its contained and cluttered sets, and its static "tatami-mat" camera angles, Ozu puts you in the room, sitting on the floor, with the family. In between are the moments where you stretch your legs in Tokyo, seeing some of the sights and dip your toe into the era, but for the most part it's a shoes-off, grab-some-floor kind of vibe. And as a filmmaking trick it's incredibly effective. The slow pacing becomes lyrical and without even realising it, you're embroiled in and hooked on the familial melodramas, where everyone is smiling politely but secretly disappointed, and you're there quietly seething and cheering and laughing.

Ozu does some odd things with his edits (there are a couple of camera line-crosses and weird scene exits/entries by characters) but you'll get used to them (and there's a great explanation for them in this video). What matters more is that Ozu made a film that is both thematically timeless yet also a fascinating snapshot of life in a rebuilding and westernising Japan.

Tokyo Story took its time to get recognised, just as it takes its time to get its hooks into you, but in the end it's all worth it.

I watched Tokyo Story at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

The Devil & Daniel Johnston - July 12

Cloud Atlas - July 26

Rubber - August 9

Marina Abramovic - August 23

Rashomon - September 13

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

The Queen Of Ireland - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

The House

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Andrew Jay Cohen.

Cast: Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Ryan Simpkins, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel.

"I love it when we blow each other, honey."

POP quiz: What was the last genuinely funny live action comedy starring Will Ferrell?

It's probably The Campaign, back in 2012, which was under-rated. But if you were one of the many who missed that one, you'd have to go all the way back to Step Brothers, which was almost a decade ago (The Other Guys didn't do it for me, sorry). And Step Brothers was panned by critics, growing in esteem as an almost cult favourite over the past nine years.

Which brings the us to the next question: is it possible that, especially of late, Will Ferrell has been punching below his weight? Or, even worse, is he over-rated?

If nothing else, Ferrell has been under-performing and his latest venture The House doesn't exactly stop the rot, but it's a pause in the losing streak. It gives Ferrell the perfect foil in Poehler, who can match him joke for joke, and their combination elevates the whole film above its creaky moments and paper-thin plot.

Short version of that scant storyline - Poehler and Ferrell run an illegal casino.

Slightly longer version - Poehler and Ferrell team with their gambling addict buddy Frank (Mantzoukas) to run an illegal casino in Frank's house so they can afford to send their daughter to college.

In the same way that many of Ferrell's run of sports movies were largely plotless vehicles for him to be silly in (Ferrell plays basketball, Ferrell is an ice-skater, Ferrell drives NASCAR), this is all about wacky Ferrell running rampant through a high concept. The notion of Ferrell pretending to be De Niro in Casino works for a surprisingly decent amount of time.

What takes The House to a pass mark is Poehler, and the pairing of her and Ferrell as husband-and-wife team Scott and Kate. Poehler hits as many zingers as Ferrell, but they're better together. Their comedic chemistry elevates the material and keeps the gags coming for longer than logic would permit - when they're hapless suburbanites feeling their way into the underworld of illegal gambling, they're funny, and when they embrace their roles as casino mobsters, they're still funny. 

Further upping the ante is Mantzoukas as loose cannon catalyst Frank. He has as many aces up his sleeve as Ferrell and Poehler, in particular a golden moment (as seen in the trailer) when he attempts to deliver a tough guy line while fighting the urge to vomit.

The House doesn't have much else going on though. It introduces a cameo bad guy late in the piece that could have been set up better, its evil mayor villain (Kroll) is underdone, and there is a missed trick in the idea that the casino business alienates Scott and Kate from their daughter (Simpkins).

Pleasingly (although it may rub some people the wrong way) the film is utterly morally bankrupt. It revels in its dark side and doesn't try to Disney its way out of the darkness with a redeeming message. It just goes "fuck it, we did some bad shit", and is refreshingly accepting of its absurd irredeemability.

All in all, The House wins more than it loses. It's built on weak foundations, but it hosts a decent-enough good time before it all collapses in on itself.