Monday, 30 July 2018

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Ron Perlman faces larger problems than ever in Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien/Angel of Death/Chamberlain), Seth MacFarlane (Johann Krauss), Luke Goss (Prince Nuada), Anna Walton (Princess Nuala), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), John Hurt (Professor Trevor Bruttenholm), Roy Dotrice (King Balor)

There is something quite sweet about the Guillermo del Toro taking all the chips won for directing Pan’s Labyrinth and cashed them in for this comic book sequel. There you have the distillation of the man’s career right there: one for the artist and then one for the teenage boy he used to be. But Hellboy II is a marvellous creation, a gorgeous to look at, magical, rather funny comic book film crammed with amazing images, ingenious creatures and sparkling moments of action and adventure.

Thousands of years ago, the magical creatures of the world, led by the elves, fought a war against mankind. To win a desperate victory, goblins created the dreaded Golden Army, an indestructible mechanical army. Horrified at the slaughter, Elven King Balor (Roy Dotrice) offered a truce. His son Prince Nuala (Luke Goss) disagreed. In the present day, Nuala goes about to collect the three pieces of the crown needed to control the Golden Army – and only Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his friends from the BPRD can stop him. 

Hellboy II is immensely imaginative and wonderful to look at. Perhaps inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth, the film plays like a cross between the most brain-twisting magic depths of that film and a traditional comic book. So we get dozens of creatures, each pulled from the pages of some sort of acid tripped Tolkien novel: with extended hands, distorted heads and steam-punkish extremities, the creatures on show are masterpieces of design and character. The juxtaposition between this ethereal, magical world of elves and goblins and mankind’s expansion brings home the danger this world is in: the Elven King’s palace in the modern day is in a sort of converted sewer, while Nuala’s base is an abandoned underground line. With some performers (often del Toro’s muse Doug Jones) under layers of make-up and prosthetics, it’s extraordinary the amount of personality each of these creatures gets. When the film takes a turn down a Diagon Alley-style market, you regret Del Toro never got to make a Harry Potter film.

Hellboy looks both part of this world and also like a muscular bull in a china shop. Ron Perlman continues to be perfect in the part, and captures the wry, cynical, slightly teenagerish humour of the part. Del Toro does a wonderful job of showing the sense of family between Hellboy, his lover pyrokinetic Liz (a decent performance by Selma Blair, although she is too often relegated to the “woman” role), and his surrogate brother, amphibious empath Abe (Doug Jones getting to provide the voice as well this time, and getting a fine display of growing emotional expression). The quiet character moments between the action really ring true – a very funny sequence sees Hellboy and Abe bemoan their romantic entanglements by getting drunk while singing Can’t Smile Without You.

It’s scenes like that which add the heart alongside the throbbing action and colourful character weirdness of del Toro’s vision. It’s also part of the distinctiveness of the whole vision of the film. Everything is seen with as fresh an eye as possible, and makes for some really striking images and scenes. The steam-punk aesthetic of the Golden Army seems to fit together perfectly with the more organic world of the Elves. There’s a sense at all times that the design and pacing of the film have been carefully thought through so everything fits logically together. Starting the film with a wonderfully animated Golden Army backstory (voiced by a briefly returning John Hurt for maximum impact) is just another reflection of the artistry at work here.

There is a nice vein of humour running through the film – there are some funny sight gags as characters walk nonchalantly through bizarre goings-on in BDRP HQ – and the more gory moments of the action are shot with a certain black comedy. The film also gets a decent few points in about how humanity rejects things that are different, which are not surprising but still hit home.

Hellboy II does start to become a bit more generic as it heads towards its final denouement. Most of the events of the final few scenes are pretty predictable from the outset, and offer little in the way of surprises. For all the chemistry she has with Perlman, Blair is more or less relegated to the sidelines for large chunks of the film (usually the action). But for most of the run time, it’s inventive, imaginative fun with a director bringing a distinctive vision to the genre while also kicking back his heels and having fun. And fun is what it wants the viewer to have as well – don’t try too hard, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

Chris Pratt comes face-to-face with an old friend in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Director: JA Bayona
Cast: Chris Pratt (Owen Grady), Bryce Dallas Howard (Claire Dearing), Rafe Spall (Eli Mills), Justice Smith (Franklin Webb), Daniella Pineda (Zia Rodriguez), James Cromwell (Sir Benjamin Lockwood), Toby Jones (Gunnar Eversol), Ted Levine (Ken Wheatley), BD Wong (Dr Henry Wu), Isabella Sermon (Maisie Lockwood), Geraldine Chaplin (Iris), Jeff Goldblum (Dr Ian Malcolm)

I don’t care how old I get. I still love those dinosaurs. Doesn’t everyone? And of course what’s better than seeing dinosaurs munch down on them what deserves it? Well you got plenty of that in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which throws everything it can at the screen and is enjoyable enough, even if it feels a little like one for the money.

It’s been five years since the events of the first film, and the old Jurassic Park is now abandoned and the whole island given over to the control of the dinosaurs. In what you have to say is a pretty damning indictment of InGen’s planning (but then they really planned nothing well on this whole project) turns out the whole island is actually a volcano and, yup, she’s gonna blow. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is leading a campaign to win government support for saving the dinosaurs, when she is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), chair of a charity foundation set up by ageing businessman and park co-founder Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to lead a ‘Noah’s Ark’ mission to the island. But they need the help of Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) to find Blue the last surviving member of his Velociraptor pack. Arriving on the island howeer, they find not everyone can be trusted.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom plays like a remix of events and moments from each of the earlier films. So you more or less get exactly what you might expect, and the film never really surprises you at all. You have a dangerous mission on the abandoned island (Jurassic Park III), dangerous chases in a lab (Jurassic Park), a bioengineered super dinosaur running riot (Jurassic World), dinosaurs on the main land (The Lost World) and businessmen with ulterior motives (all of them). None of the sly wit and the relatively patient build-up of Jurassic World is really present here: instead we are almost immediately thrown into an island literally exploding, and the film gets bigger and bigger from there (even if it doesn’t get better).

JA Bayona directs this with a breezy professionalism, with a decent sense of pace and some well-constructed tension sequences. There are some decent call-back jokes, not least to Claire’s far more appropriate choice of footwear. The film also gets some decent material out of exploring the back story of Owen’s bond with the velociraptor back, not least his parental bond with lead velociraptor Blue. It makes for some interesting emotional material, but it’s a shame that this never really feels like it plays back into any broader theme in the movie. There is some stuff in there about parental bonds (Lockwood and his granddaughter, Wu’s plans to have Blue “mother” his latest super dinosaur abomination) but it doesn’t go anywhere.

That’s part of the problem of this film: it goes nowhere we haven’t really been before. Even the beats of wonder as people go “oh wow that’s a dinosaur” feel repeated and tired – the first moment even revolves around a brachiosaurus, just as the same moment did in the first film. Bayona does however draw some heart rendering material from the dinosaurs running vainly from death in the volcanic eruption – most notably from a brachiosaurus tragically bellowing in despair as it is engulfed in volcanic gas. 

But it’s all pretty samey. And the plot moves at such a lick that it actually starts to feel a little bit silly. So of course Owen and Claire are persuaded in minutes to go back to the island. Of course they are betrayed in the first few minutes. Of course the island starts to erupt almost as soon as they arrived. Everything happens at this crackerjack pace, that actually starts to make things feel even more cartoonish than a film about a load of man-made dinosaurs feels like to start with.

That’s on the top of the fact that none of the new characters make any real impact – most of them might as well have “Trope” or “Plot Device” written on their faces. The villain stands out a mile away the instant he appears. His main henchman is so nakedly untrustworthy, you marvel Claire and Owen even consider going on the mission with him. The comic relief character is insanely annoying. Countering this, Chris Pratt plays off his charisma extremely well to remain a very magnetic hero, and I think Bryce Dallas Howard gets much more to play with here as a Claire far more plugged in and competent than in the first film.

But the atmosphere of affectionate nostalgia, and delight that powers the first film so well and makes it (for my generation) such a huge joy to watch, with its tongue-in-cheek but also smart and not-overly-done fanboy style, is missing here. This feels more like a film assembled by people who have seen all the films and basically wanted to box tick everything you might expect to see. It’s not really trying to do something different, it’s just treading water.

But despite all that, it’s still quite good fun.  That’s the odd thing. Yes people in it behave with staggering stupidity and the film doesn’t offer any surprises (the dinosaurs have clearly read the script when planning their meals). Yes it’s derivative and unoriginal. But I still rather enjoyed it. It’s lacking in any inspiration or (you feel) the sort of genuine affection Colin Trevorrow brought to it, but you know it’s good enough. Whether good enough is good enough is of course another question.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix plays a complete prick in this unbearably pleased with itself satire Her

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore Twombly), Scarlett Johnasson (Samantha – voice), Amy Adams (Amy), Rooney Mara (Catherine Klausen), Olivia Wilde (Blind Date), Chris Pratt (Paul), Matt Letscher (Charles), Lukas Jones (Mark Lewman), Kristen Wiig (Sexy Kitten – voice), Brian Cox (Alan Watts – voice), Spike Jonze (Alien child – voice)

Every so often you start off engaged with a film and then, the longer it goes on, the less and less you like it. I couldn’t put my finger on the exact moment where I started to really take against Her, but I certainly had by the end of it. As someone once famously sort of said about Kriss Akubusi: “hard to dislike but well worth the effort”.

Anyway, Her is set in the near future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sensitive, insular man who writes personal romantic letters for other people who aren’t articulate enough (or bothered) to do it themselves. Getting divorced from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore downloads a new Artificial Intelligence Operating System for his computer. The system is designed to create a personality that appeals to the customer – and that is certainly the case here with this system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore, finding it hard to connect with the real world, is drawn to Samantha and, as she grows and develops, they start a relationship. But can the relationship survive the divide between realities and Samantha’s growing self-awareness and personality?

Okay. I’m going to swing hard for this film, so let’s start with what’s good shall we. Spike Jonze directs very well. It looks beautiful. There is some lovely music. The future world it shows is close enough to our own to still feel connected. Amy Adams is rather good as Theodore’s old college friend, and Rooney Mara turns in a very good performance as Theodore’s wife, a woman who doesn’t let Theodore get away with his excuses. Scarlett Johansson is perfect casting as the alluring and engaging voice of Samantha (much as I was primed to be annoyed by her post-production replacement of Samantha Morton, who had been on set with Phoenix). There are some sweet and even romantic moments.

Okay that’s it. This is a film overwhelmingly, unbearably, unbelievably pleased with the cleverness of its own concept and trite ideas (a man loves his computer – take that our modern consumerist world!). It then goes on to tell us almost nothing, bar the most basic statements about our struggles to interact with, and relate to, each other in this technology-filled world. Apparently it’s hard to create bonds with real people where we are viewing everything through our phones. Bet that has never occurred to anyone before right?

But my main problem with this film is the lead character. Now I will say that Joaquin Phoenix does a good job with this role, and his skilful acting brilliantly holds the story together. He does extremely well with a part that is almost exclusively reacting to someone not actually there. But my problem is with this characterisation of Theodore. To put it bluntly, he’s a prick.

In fact, he’s the sort of quirky nerd beloved of this genre, but take a long look and he’s basically a complete creep. And all his relationships with women seem to be based on him not wanting to engage with the problems of the other person. He requires the focus to be on his wants and needs, as if he is the only person in the world who can be sensitive or sad – no wonder he falls in love with a computer programme designed to reflect the behaviours he finds appealing.

“You want a wife without the challenges of dealing with something real” his wife accuses, eagerly pointing out his inability to deal with or even want to engage with human emotions. The film wants to give him a pass, because he is such a sensitive soul, but it’s bullshit. Theodore is a deeply selfish person, despite what the film wants, who has that geeky, arrogant, self-satisfied sensitivity that blindly says “if I struggle in the world, then it’s the fault of the world not me”.

Theodore is a constant happy victim, a whining, softly-spoken, guilt-tripping prick who only sees himself as a victim and makes no effort to change or understand his behaviour to other people. The film wants us to think that the world is a puzzle to his poetic soul, but it’s actually a maze he doesn’t want to find a way out of. He doesn’t want to engage with it and only feels justified and reinforced in these feelings by everything he does.

He is like the perfect ambassador for passive aggressive guys: “Oh I don’t get the girls because they don’t want to open themselves up to my sensitivity blah blah blah”. Theodore goes on a blind date early in the film: it goes well, they make out, sex is on the cards and then she asks “Before we do anything, will you see me again?”. Theodore can’t even bring himself to make even the smallest offer, meekly babbling about having a busy weekend. When she reacts angrily and leaves, the film wants us to side with Theodore’s timidity, rather than say “yeah it is a bit shitty to let a girl put her hand down your pants and then not even show the slightest interest in seeing her again, and then call her unpleasant”. Fuck you Theodore.

Theodore is basically a controlling arsehole and it’s where the romance of the film drains out. He clearly has no idea why his marriage ended, but while the film wants us to think he’s too sensitive for the rough and tumble, it seems clear he had no interest in, or comprehension of, his wife’s life. She is constantly subtly blamed for not having patience with Theodore – the film ends with him writing her a cathartic e-mail saying he will always love his memory of her and thanking her for being part of his life, forgiving her from leaving (again, screw you film). Instead she, like other people, doesn’t deserve Theodore because she doesn’t have the patience to delve into his life.

Theodore, though, has no depths. He’s a bland, faux-poetic guy with a nervy disposition and a disinterest in other people’s emotions, focused only on his own gratification. He wants his relationships to adjust to what he needs them to be. As Samantha grows and develops into a more fully rounded personality, his first reaction is hostility and jealousy at the thought of her talking to other people and operating systems. It’s not sweet and endearing – or Theodore again being taken advantage of, as the film wants us to think – it’s creepy, and Theodore is the sort of passive aggressive gentle guy who ends up stalking and murdering the girl who rejected him.

How can you engage with the points of this film, when the central character through whom everything is filtered is so awful? Distance in relationships in this modern world – and the lack of genuine interaction – is a point that hardly needs hammering home as it does here. The trite points about love and relationships the film makes are all wrong. The film is so on the nose about distance between people and the artificial nature of our interactions, the hero even writes other people’s love letters for them. It’s subtle as a sledgehammer.

Computers and phones are everywhere and everyone uses them, but there is less insight and heart in this story than an average episode of Black Mirror (which would have done the same thing in half the time). The film does its best to build a romance between the two, but it never quite lands or has the impact it should, because it never feels like an equal relationship: first Theo has the control, then Samantha grows beyond anything Theo is capable of but is still trapped by her initial programming of devotion to him. What point is this meant to be making about romance and commitment? Theo lives in a dream-world and does so until the end of the film. 

Her is the sort of film lots of people are going to love. It uses the conventions of romantic films very well. It has darker moments, such as a sequence where Theo and Samantha try to use a surrogate for sex (a scene where to be fair I could understand why Theo is creeped out and disturbed), but none of these ever comes together into a coherent point. And Theo remains, at all times, a block on the enjoyment of the film, an unpleasant figure hiding in plain sight that stops you from falling for the film. In love with itself, in love with its idea, in love with its cleverness, this is a film that tells you everything about the smugness of the geek and nothing about the subjects it actually wants to get you thinking about.