Review in Brief: Jane Got a Gun (2016)

JANE GOT A GUN is a boring movie. That’s not a comment on shootouts being few and far between – UNFORGIVEN and THE HOMESMAN took their time, but it got deep into what made their characters. Here we have Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton with no chemistry and few defining characteristics. On the rare occasion when its allowed to be its own thing, Jane Got a Gun becomes unpleasant: “He said take care of her. Not sure what he meant by that so I took a guess”. While we are given plenty of flashbacks, very few are illuminating. Flashbacks as an editing technique are for the express purpose of character and plot development, and Jane Got a Gun somehow avoids doing either when it looks back. To give credit where it’s due, Jane Got a Gun is shot and lit very nicely (props to DP Mandy Walker) but that isn’t enough for it to stand out on its own terms. SSP

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Netflix Original Triple Bill

You have to say this for Netflix: their original films are an eclectic mix of stories. Here’s my take on just three examples to be found on the ever more interesting and diverse streaming service. 

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Tallulah (2016): Netflix

TALLULAH (2016) Is TALLULAH anything more than an incessantly smug indie? Maybe a little bit more. A little bit.

Tallulah is mostly horrible and uninteresting people being horrible and uninteresting. Thank goodness Ellen Page is so charismatic because the character of Lu is unappealing from the off. Fine, do what you want to do with your life, be free, but who do you think you are chastising a loved one for missing their mother or wanting some stability in their life? She demonstrates basic human decency but is otherwise a selfish and irritating protagonist. Allison Janney is great of course, but that’s like saying water is wet. Speaking of water, character highlights for Margo include finding a release by  letting her divorce papers drift away from her in the bath then hastily hair-drying them in the next scene.

A privileged mother who it’s “hard to make excuses for”. The emotions of the film are honest, and so are the performances, but I’m not really sure what it’s trying to say beyond “people suck”. The film’s style is mostly naturalistic accept when people float into space, grounded until an upping of the stakes and a required suspension of disbelief at the sluggishness of the manhunt that makes up the film’s finale. It’s an interesting enough watch but I can’t say it had a major emotional impact on me.

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Mascots (2016): Netflix

MASCOTS (2016) This is no THIS IS SPINAL TAP. You know what you’re going to get from a Christopher Guest project, but his fake rock doc really was lightning in a bottle and MASCOTS just isn’t.

There’s some nice low-key bittersweet commentary on anyone with passion for alternative lifestyles: “I got an honourable mention, which is like first place, but the weird first place”. Tom Bennett and Christopher Moynihan serve as the dual hearts of the piece and you care for their characters, even if there is little tension in the mascot competition itself where the former’s Hedgehog and the latter’s plumber put their all into routines for a tiny audience.

The channel interested in broadcasting the event, The Gluten Free Channel, “runs in over two cities nationwide” and never got over being branded “the channel that killed Santa Claus” after a stunt went awry. Darker jokes like this makes Mascots worth a watch, as do some pleasingly bizarre sights: a mascot funeral with an elephant in full costume lying in a coffin and a dance number with a plumber chasing a giant turd around a stage. Moments such as this are sadly few and far between, and while Guest doesn’t often do “laugh out loud”, in a comedy you do want more consistent laughs of any kind.

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iBoy (2017): Netflix

iBOY (2017) The graphics on show here may be outdated, but this little movie’s heart is definitely in the right place. iBOY may in fact be just the right superhero for this generation: a tech-savvy teen vigilante cleaning up the streets and finding his place in the world. Like Spider-Man without the spandex and the latest Apple products lodged in his noggin.

The film boasts two excellent and endearing performances from Bill Milner (SON OF RAMBOW) and Maisie Williams (GAME OF THRONES) and a gloriously incongruous one from Miranda Richardson as a kick-ass grandma. Yes, Miranda Richardson is now old enough to be playing someone’s grandma.

The first half of the film is a well-intentioned and pretty gritty chronicle of inner-city life with an awkward teen with tech powers taking the fight to the dealers who own his neighbourhood. The later stretch with a final showdown between iBoy and Rory Kinnear as an East End Kingpin (snigger) never really convinces, and you kind yourself wishing this could have manifested as a TV series giving characters more room to breathe. It’s zippy enough and the central relationships are likeable, but for all the swearing and violence towards teenagers, this could have been darker and more complex. SSP

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Review in Brief: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)

MISS PEREGRINE is jam-packed with ideas, particularly on an aesthetic level (typical Tim Burton). It’s nice to see Burton acknowledge that other colours exist, and the world he has created with author Ransom Riggs is vivid and pleasingly warped. He really gets to go to down on the macabre, to the extent that some images might be too disturbing for the young (stuff involving eyes and corpses). The mythology is admittedly awkwardly introduced and the film as a whole is a bit too long, but it’s a lot of fun to watch Eva Green and Samuel L Jackson chewing scenery voraciously and the action is fun and varied throughout. My highlight: puppeteer of homunculi Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) raising a squad of skeletons a-la JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS to fight invisible monsters on Blackpool Pier.   I never thought the grand finale of anything would be set in Blackpool, but I’m pleased Burton saw the strange potential in the place. SSP

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Review: 13th (2016)

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13th (2016): Kandoo Films/Netflix

Anyone under the misapprehension that film can’t impact the real world, that it’s escapism and nothing more, should take note of the moment in Ava DuVernay’s documentary highlighting how DW Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION not only revitalised the Ku Klux Klan, but gifted them the powerful symbol of the burning cross. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and with 13TH DuVernay is using the medium of documentary filmmaking to send a powerful message about one of the great modern injustices in Western civilisation.

A chronicle of injustices committed as a result of the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution (1865), which abolished slavery but allowed for the large-scale abuse of the rights of prisoners, especially African-American males.

Decade by decade, administration by administration, we are guided through this ongoing travesty of discrimination. From Nixon’s plot to associate hippies and black people with the drug culture (since “we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black..”) to Reagan’s initiative to increase the penalty for dealing or using the derivations of drugs that inner-city black communities encountered. It’s not just Conservative Republican policies that are torn into either, with footage of a young Hilary Clinton using “super-predators” to describe young black men branded as criminals in the media and Democrat campaigns proclaiming a harsher stance on crime to effectively compete with the Republicans and thereby exacerbating existing societal problems and making a flawed justice system broken.

Aside from lobbying group ALEC’s big business connections promoting prisons as an enforced manufacturing industry, and a justice system that “treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent”, the media perhaps comes off worst of all here. The power “experts” and newscasters hold to warp and poison public perception of certain groups in society (even the way said groups saw themselves) by utilising power over a captive television audience cannot be underestimated. 13th chooses its arguments carefully, but there is more than enough of a pattern visible to judge informative TV as biased against black and ethnic minority communities. The types of stories reported relating to different groups is heavily skewed, and it’s telling that the only positive or socially aware media coverage in the documentary comes from late-night satirists.

“We don’t need to see pictures to understand what is going on” says one commentator. Images are powerful, they can be used as weapons of all sides, and just as they were, and are, used to make snap-judgements, they are being used to fight back, to expose atrocities to all. The collage wall of acts of police violence is perhaps the most powerful image in the documentary, DuVernay lingering and demanding justification.

The debate is presented through the prism of black voices and culture (the only way this story could or should be told) as provocative lyrics are emblazoned across the screen and the prison population ticks ominously upwards as time passes by.  We learn that 30% black males in Alabama still can’t vote because they hold a criminal conviction, so they can’t move on or give back. Punishment still dominates where reform would be more useful to America. Most shockingly, 1 in 3 black men are likely to serve time vs 1 in 17 white men, and this is a cycle difficult to break without reform of both legislation and mindset.

Nobody who made this documentary expected Trump to win. The clips of his hate speeches – presented a given that he would suffer a humiliating defeat – that were ultimately ignored by enough of the US population adds a real vein of bitterness and an innate tragedy to this story. There is much work to be done to redress the balance in society and citizenship in America, but it will not be done by the current incumbent. Those who watch 13th and have their eyes opened or their convictions reaffirmed and their resolve strengthened can still make a difference to their country and drive to fix their broken and unjust system. SSP 

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Review in Brief: The Purge: Election Year (2016)

This would be a whole lot funnier if he hadn’t won. THE PURGE as a franchise didn’t exactly hit the ground running – the first movie was dull and clunky and not the least bit scary – but the franchise came into its own with the sequels. ANARCHY was angry and cuttingly satirical in addition to being a really tense thriller, and this trend continues with ELECTION YEAR, the horror for our troubled and uncertain times. It works really well as a chase movie, and while the villains are cartoony (they probably didn’t need the chief henchman to have “White Power” emblazoned across his body armour – the head tattoos were enough) but sometimes so are villains in the real world. Mostly the subtext is a hard-hitting accompaniment to some hardcore horror-action shootouts and some memorable imagery. Expect this franchise to have quite a life over the next few years, as long as Mad Max-meets-Dirty Harry Frank Grillo hangs around, and unless the filmmakers consider their battle a lost cause. SSP

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Review in Brief: War on Everyone (2016)

What a fall from grace WAR ON EVERYONE represents for John Michael McDonagh. Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård are both fine, but the characters they play manage to be unappealing and uninteresting at the same time. They’re up against a weird bunch of bad(der) guys that don’t work in the slightest, and strange editing choices and stunning New Mexico landscapes are used to make up for a lack of substance. It’s not nasty enough to be an exploitation film, not smart enough to be satire and not funny enough to be a comedy either. McDonagh’s own CALVARY was funnier than this, and that wasn’t a comedy. When your best joke is spotting the one black guy in Iceland and your best scene is Skarsgård dancing with Tessa Thompson to Glen Campbell, you know you’re lacking a certain something. SSP

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Review: The Crown – Season 1 (2016)

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The Crown (2016): Netflix/Left Bank Pictures/Sony Pictures Television

THE CROWN was by far and away my television highlight of 2016. Following the first decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign, it boasts stately performances, sumptuous production design and an intimate examination of real people in a unique situation.

After the untimely death of her father George VI (Jared Harris), Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) ascends the throne of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Born to royalty but banking on a more private life with her husband Philip (Matt Smith), Queen Elizabeth endures family scandal, political upheaval and seismic shifts in society across the globe. This is only the beginning.

This is a series built on the central performances, chiefly the challenges and balance of power in the relationship between Foy’s hard-as-nails monarch and Smith’s sidelined and uncertain consort. John Lithgow manages to avoid parody as an increasingly frail Winston Churchill and both Vanessa Kirby and Victoria Hamilton come into their own as the season goes on as Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother respectively.

There are some great moments throughout the first season. After their all-too-brief period of real happiness is ended, Elizabeth and Philip get their GRADUATE moment towards the end of Episode 2 as they are driven away to their destiny. At this point there really is no turning back, no way to save their former lives. I would have probably liked this chapter to have closed on their terrified, determined faces, but the impact of this moment is still huge.

My favourite scene was the heartbreaking point when Elizabeth and her father George VI both realise and acknowledge without words that the royal mantle will be passing from him to her rather more imminently than planned. As a final gift to her he gives her the tradecraft to bypass political smoke and mirrors and they bond over the King’s red box of Cabinet papers. Witnessing a father’s way of saying what needs to be said without actually saying it is poignantly lasting.

Later we have a wonderfully playful and mannered sequence tracking Princess Margaret’s call to her sister through switchboard after switchboard to request dinner. A moment flipped on its head to end the same episode as Margaret desperately tries to reach her again as her happy life is destroyed.

These are real people first and foremost, royalty second. They may be privileged, may not have earned their positions but they dress, undress, talk, row, joke and show passion just like anyone else. Philip also makes a very un-royal, almost CARRY ON proposition to his wife and monarch at one point which you’d never see if this was a BBC production.

Peter Morgan keeps things moving in interesting ways throughout, and though you may know a lot of this story, things rarely play out quite how you expect. “Act of God” is an atmospheric slow-burning mini horror movie set during the Big Smoke, with figures lurching out of walls of fog and danger in the shadows of every alley concealed a few feet further than perception. “Scientia Potentia Est” has Elizabeth doing her best EDUCATING RITA as she aims to overcome ignorance of all non-constitutional matters of the world with the hep of an unconventional tutor.

It’s a great looking show, with the considerable budget in evidence in every scene, meticulous attention to detail and eye-catching moments aplenty (Churchill’s arrival at Number 10, filmed from above has his scuttling insecty shape escape into his imposing sanctuary; the sparing but glorious coronation scene).

Time marches on, and even a 60 year reign seems like a passing glance when there is so much to do and so much your are not allowed to do. Most scenes prominently feature incessantly loud time pieces dominating every pause in conversation – a witty device to employ.

The quote of the series, all about what monarchy has to represent to serve a purpose, has to come from abdicated Edward VIII’s (Alex Jennings): “Who wants transparency when you can have magic?”. For me The Crown brought that across, it made me understand that surviving royal families still serve a purpose and still allure. For any staunch republicans out there, it’s an extremely well-performed and detailed character study that can only go deeper as this story continues. SSP

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Review in Brief: Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR has a series of stunningly pretty images to open with: sparkling snowscapes, dappled sunlight, a slow-motion ballet performance. Even the death that follows this montage is beautifully composed, as horrible as the act remains. The visual splendour continues throughout with pristine reflections of characters examining themselves and noirish contrast of light and shadow. Perry (Ewan McGregor) goes along to the kind of party that has hard drugs and a model riding around the house on a horse and things go very badly very fast for him after this. Characters are sometimes bafflingly stupid, like when our heroes recap the spying they’ve been doing the moment they’re left alone in a limo, even though it’s been made quite clear everything is bugged. It’s not a battle of the best spies around but between slightly past-it intelligence service and international organised crime, the slight update to le Carré’s story allowing for some punchy commentary: “We Russians have had a mixed reputation in Europe recently”. Tell us about it.

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Review: T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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T2 Trainspotting (2017): Cloud Eight Films/DNA Films/Decibel Films

T2 TRAINSPOTTING was never going to match its predecessor. Lightning, we are told, doesn’t strike twice. TRAINSPOTTING captured the zeitgeist and summed up so succinctly and stylishly the people and culture of Britain in the 1990s. We fell instantly in love with some deeply flawed characters and we wanted to see them get out OK. You’d never be able to quite replicate all that in the same way. That said, I really liked Danny Boyle’s long-awaited return to this world and will say it takes the older and no wiser characters to some interesting places.

Twenty years after Renton (Ewan McGregor) ran away with all the money from a large drug deal and left his friends empty-handed, he is drawn back to his native Edinburgh. The city has changed almost beyond recognition, but addled Spud (Ewen Bremner), skuzzy “entrepreneur” Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller) and the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) have not. Renton’s return causes old friends to reminisce, new schemes to be hatched and revenge to be plotted.

“So you came back for nostalgia?” Sick Boy asks Renton. Boyle, writer John Hodge and their film pointing out that this is a shameless look back at a great story doesn’t exactly elevate the material, but it’s a clear statement of intent.

Ewen Bremner is still the secret weapon here. They keep up with tradition and give Spud the film’s chief comic gross-out moment, but Bremner also has fun with Spud’s hitherto undiscovered (and amusingly miraculous) talents and guides him on his own moving story of self-discovery. By the end he’s become a sort-of Irvine Welsh surrogate, which I’m sure the author would be very happy with. Renton gets a tweaked and biting “Choose Life” speech to belt out and Begbie gets unexpected moments of humanity in addition to his usual pitbull behaviour, John Hodge restoring a key character moment from Welsh’s first novel that was absent from Boyle’s original film. It’s pleasing to see Robert Carlyle take his thug in a slightly different direction. Yes, he flies off the handle – attacking his parole officer over a table and chasing a terrified Renton through Edinburgh at night – but elsewhere Carlyle plays it much lower-key, and is far more menacing as you really can’t tell if or when he will lose it. A scene with his teenage son (Scot Greenan) following a failed burglary is beautifully handled and difficult to predict the outcome of.

T2 of course features plenty of nods to the original with flashbacks, location callbacks, striking jump-cuts and familiar music cues, not to mention another killer soundtrack of its own. It’s a story of looking back, of not being able to move on and of the worst times in your life looking rosy compared to your current tribulations. So many things never change and others only get worse. Renton’s visit to his family home is rendered bittersweet by the absence of his mother, as he sits at the kitchen table with his old man (James Cosmo) with an empty chair opposite casting a sad shadow.

I always found the original Trainspotting really funny, in a black-as-pitch kind of way. T2 is funny in a broader sense, with slapstick brawls, deals going right then very wrong in quick succession, and in one scene a hurriedly improvised song advocating the extermination of Catholics to a blood-baying sectarian crowd. Some of the most enjoyable scenes just follow the boys hanging out, going off on tangents and coming up with the next hair-brained plan to escape life’s cruel cycle.

The plotting is admittedly fractured, some set-ups don’t pay off particularly satisfyingly and it only becomes something more than a trip down memory lane when all four central characters have come into contact (or conflict) again. It may be a retread, but that’s the point: that’s what a lot of life feels like. It’s great to spend some more time with these friends who feel like our friends and see what they’re up to and what they haven’t learned. Hodge avoids anything too sensationalist and anything too soapy, the cast slip back into their roles like a pair of favourite shoes (or a relapse) and Boyle gives the whole thing pumping energy and visual pizazz enough for a pretty decent hit. SSP

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Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016): Broadway Video/Little Stranger/Paramount Pictures

I wasn’t expecting to get as much out of WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT as I did. I do like most of Tina Fey’s work, but war comedies can be a difficult balancing act, especially when handling such recent, raw events. Thankfully, the film is smart,  mostly sensitively handled take on the war in Afghanistan held together by a very strong lead performance from Fey.

Journalist Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is sent to Afghanistan at the height of US military involvement to bring coverage of the war back Stateside. She begins as a dangerous liability to the unit she is attached to but finds her confidence enough to do important work on the ground and keep the American public informed. But on the ground and in the middle of a war zone the situation changes quickly and Kim’s home life begins to interfere with her vital role as a war correspondent.

Robert Carlock’s dialogue is witty but not overly polished, the gags rarely run exactly as you expect them to. It’s a cruel but amusing setup for why certain journalists were sent to Afghanistan: “You are all the unmarried, childless personnel”. Basically, who can we afford to lose if things go wrong? There’s probably a certain amount of truth in that. American Soldiers aren’t presented as the invaders here, but their reason for being there is constantly called into question, like when Kim, in interview mode, asks a marine why he enlisted, he replies “I’m a big fan of the movie PREDATOR and I’m the same height as Arnold Schwarzenegger”. There are some nice one-liners too, when Kim produces an orange rucksack that she plans to bring on patrol, a sergeant screams, “Where you gonna hide this, inside a sunset?”

Tina Fey is recognised as a brilliant writer and talented comic performer, but I think she is underappreciated as a “serious actor”. Here, despite the film’s marketing as the usual raucous comedy, like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS with a location change (this isn’t) Fey is able to show her considerable range. The subject matter is challenging, the debate is intense, some of the imagery pretty horrific. There are moments of intense contemplation, the real cost of the war is never in doubt, and Fey completely sells that drive every good journalist has to tell the right story at all costs. Christopher Abbott as Kim’s guide Fahim brings a lot of heart and another perspective to the film and Martin Freeman has fun playing a jerky photojournalist even if his role becomes ever less necessary as the plot moves on.

Now what on Earth is Alfred Molina doing in this film playing a Muslim community leader? He’s dropped out of somewhere else, a far more unpleasant place of lazy parody and stereotypical shortcuts. It’s like a character from a 70s sitcom decided to try his hand in something more serious, and it’s completely innocuous. Margot Robbie is ridiculous as well, so ridiculous and unpleasant in fact that her vacuous character is probably a close approximation of somebody real. Her presence seems solely to justify a scene describing just what a girls’ night out in Kabul entails (a sequence which mostly manages to waste the skills of A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT’s Sheila Vand).

There have been funnier war comedies and more biting satires, but it’s the earnesty that comes through strongest in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot; real people in difficult situations trying to do what they think is the right thing. When it’s really pushing for a gag (the disastrous televised first woman in Afghanistan driving) it doesn’t work as well, but when it’s letting Fey do what she does best or questioning the point to the war without diminishing the sacrifices of real people, it comes close to shining. SSP

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