Review in Brief: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2018/19)

You don’t tend to see chamber pieces about big men with guns, but that’s exactly what THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is, which is pretty novel. Someone in this militia has opened fire at a cop’s funeral and everyone is baying for their blood. James Badge Dale is reliable as always, here a coiled spring acting as chief interrogator of such character actors as Chris Mulkey and Gene Jones and writer-director Henry Dunham gives the film a good murky look to match the deception at play. But it somehow manages to feel much longer than it actually is, the dialogue doesn’t have much crackle and the surprises, when they eventually come, aren’t all that surprising. You’d also be hard-pressed to nail down exactly what the film is saying about American gun culture, “both sides”-ing the debate. It’s a decent effort but nothing that you’ll remember come the morrow. SSP

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Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (2019)


It’s been emotional: Bona Film Group/Heyday Films/Sony

The release of a new Quentin Tarantino film is an event. Even if it’s not his 9th. It’s really not his 9th – by my count it’s either 10th or 11th. You generally know what to expect from QT, so you’ve got to give the man credit that he’s doing something a bit different for much of ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD.

Former Hollywood heartthrob Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is past it, and his industry knows it. Stuck in a rut of demeaning TV villain guest star roles, Dalton is only kept a functioning human being by his stunt double-turned-gofer Cliff Booth, who himself has a possibly dark past and a go-nowhere career. The Swinging Sixties are drawing to a close, Hollywood is changing and opportunities are aplenty for rising stars like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who lives on Dalton’s street, but can he find a place for himself again or is he condemned to irrelevance?

The first half is pretty restrained as far as Tarantino films go. No violence, relatively little swearing, not even much showboating in the script. We just follow Rick and Cliff looking back at when they mattered and forward to the not-too-distant future when they most likely will not. We then progress to palpable menace and Acting for the second movement where some stuff actually happens before coming finally to an uncomfortable black comic horror finale.

Speaking of acting, yes it’s probably the best work from DiCaprio and Pitt for quite a while, the former throwing himself into full-on breakdown mode and the latter doing much of the heavy lifting with a more subtle performance (subtle, at least, when he’s not fighting Bruce Lee). Robbie as Sharon Tate dazzles when she’s on screen (sadly not all that often) and even gets to take pleasure in watching the woman she’s playing on a cinema screen at one point.

Once Upon a Time is focussed on a peculiar period in Hollywood and a very particular kind of star. While the maverick young filmmakers of New Hollywood rebelled and made their statements, some performers found themselves trapped in a demeaning cycle. Old Hollywood to New, TV to film, there were a lot of uncomfortable transitions.

The best scenes for me were a pair of intimate minor-key moments, one where a tired Cliff Booth gets home to his ramshackle trailer and feeds his dog and himself, the other where Rick Dalton gets a crash course method acting lesson from an eight-year-old (Julia Butters).

Tarantino knows what you think about his obsession with feet, so he’s going to shove them in your face. It almost gets parodic at points, with pretty much every female character with a speaking role making a point of drawing attention to their lower appendages for no real reason. Each to their own, but surely a fetish shouldn’t distract from what matters?

The Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) scene (and it is just one scene) didn’t really bother me. I completely understand why it might not have gone down well with audiences but the scene is from Cliff’s POV and it’s Cliff’s skewed view of the world and jealousy of anyone doing well in an industry that doesn’t really want him in it anymore.

The ending is shocking, but not in the way you expect a film with the Manson Family on the periphery to be. Without giving away exactly what happens, think in the same ballpark as what Tarantino did at the end of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Sharon Tate’s memory isn’t disrespected either; Tarantino is never anything but affectionate, bordering on reverent for her.

Hollywood the place will no doubt love this, because it’s about itself. Tarantino makes it clear in every frame he can that he’s done his research and he’s going to pay tribute to his favourite things from this period. The most entertaining material is how he pastiches the most popular TV shows (Westerns and Procedurals) and films (War and Spaghetti Westerns) of the time.

Much like everything else he’s done over the last decade-and-a-half, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is good but not great, with plenty to admire, a killer look and great performances but as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Maybe I’ll pick up more on a second viewing, but as of now it did not meet the sky-high expectations Tarantino’s supposedly penultimate release had generated. It won’t be in my top 10 of 2019. It might not even be in my top 20. SSP

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Review in Brief: Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

Well you can’t accuse anybody working on this of just doing the same thing twice. PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING might be even dumber than the first film, which was Guillermo del Toro valiantly attempting to get something with thematic substance out of massive robots hitting massive monsters with cargo ships. Speaking of which, can you believe GDT would prefer to win Oscars than make another one of these? New director Steven S DeKnight throws plenty at the plot, a few unexpected twists and turns, many ideas which only kind-of work and a fair few which don’t work at all, but the film moves at pace and the brightly coloured spectacle is undeniably enjoyable. Cailee Spaeny steals the show from our uninspiring leads John Boyega and Scott Eastwood and Burn Gorman and Charlie Day get a lot more to do this time to mixed success. SSP

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Tim Burton Movies Ranked SSP

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Review in Brief: Fighting with my Family (2019)

I am not a wrestling fan. Childhood friends were and I suppose I must have unconsciously absorbed a few names and special moves, but I still know next-to-nothing about it. And yet I found FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY, this (mostly) true story rather compelling. It’s got all the classic beats of a sports movie (yes, even a training montage) and many of those expected from a British biopic too, but the honest performances, warmth and life lessons carry it through. You can laugh, you can cheer, you can get pretty darn emotional as you follow Paige and her mad family on their quest for success. Florence Pugh is versatile as always, embodying Paige at her best and worst and strong support is on hand from Nick Frost, Vince Vaughn and Jack Lowden. SSP

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Review: Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)


No HE’S balder!: Chris Morgan Productions/Universal Pictures

I came to the FAST & FURIOUS franchise in time for FAST FIVE, when any pretence about the series being about cars and street racing anymore went up in a bloom of ignited fuel. Since then we’ve had 2 very good and very silly action movies and one less good silly action movie. HOBBS & SHAW is another less good silly action movie, but I can’t say I didn’t get what I came for.

DSS Agent/human tank Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and former baddie mercenary-turned-less-bad mercenary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) reluctantly team up to secure a deadly engineered virus carried in the blood of Shaw’s estranged sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby). But unstoppable cyborg fanatic Brixton (Idris Elba) is on their tail, an opponent who may be too much of an obstacle even for all three of them, if they ever get along.

Johnson and Statham are a pleasing bickering double-act and both are given memorable reintroductions (Shaw destroys a room full of henchmen with a surprisingly durable champagne bottle and Hobbs does the same to a similar bunch of bad guys with his fists and head). They then trade insults and emasculating put-downs throughout, some of which really push the film’s age classification. David Leitch of DEADPOOL 2 is directing so it isn’t a surprise when the gags fall in the same ballpark (“ball” being the optimum word).

Vanessa Kirby steals the show from the titular heroes without breaking a sweat. As Hattie Shaw she’s easily the most layered character (in that she has some) in the film not to mention proving herself particularly deadly an opponent to anyone standing in her way (the noises some people made in the cinema when you see how much damage she can do just with a fold-up chair…).

There’s no reason for this to be 2 hours+. It’s an A-B chase movie but it chooses to take a really circuitous route to get there. If it had just received a bit of a trim, made more streamlined and pacey it might have been more enjoyable overall. The final act in Hobbs’s homeland of Samoa would have also had much more of an impact if we hadn’t been shown the whole thing in trailers.

The most hilarious thing in the film, intentionally funny or not, is bulletproof super-soldier Idris Elba always putting his motorbike helmet on before a chase scene. I know it would have made the stunt work much simpler to film if you’re not worrying about using doubles, but the amount of times Brixton and his sci-if bike is clearly CGI, you might as well have reinforced his fearless nature.

The CG compositing in general could have used another pass – the stunt work is good, as are individual stunts and effects, but when it goes from one to another it’s jarring on the eyeballs, especially when Idris Elba seems to become a rubbery Mr Fantastic to get his bike around sharp corners. The much-ballyhooed train of off-road vehicles chained to a helicopter going over a cliff must’ve had some practical basis but I really can’t tell where the the effects work takes over from the tactile, so that’s something I suppose.

Hobbs & Shaw is mostly harmless fun that refuses to subscribe to logic or put a check on its stars’ egos or on-screen personas. You probably saw that story the other week about how Johnson and Statham (among other F&F stars who now have producer roles) have an iron grip over how their characters are allowed to appear in this franchise, which makes everything less organic but not any less fun. Just sit back, get comfortable and let the stupid come to you. SSP

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Review in Brief: Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

The Manga eyes didn’t bother me, it was the mouth, the split-second between changes in facial expression you pick up from a human performer (Rosa Salazar) motion-capturing an almost-human. It’s completely different from creating a believable ape or orc or Gollum. Lead character aside, not a whole lot in ALITA is memorable. Now I’m not saying every character in a Manga or Anime adaptation needs to be Japanese, but at least some of them should be. It looks expensive, the action is flashy and the world is detailed, but you never feel like you’re really in it. Christoph Waltz has to laboriously explain in his admittedly honeyed voice every new concept and conflict, who is what class and why, but too much is left to be continued in writer-producer James Cameron’s arrogant presumption of guaranteed sequels. What we’re left with is a pretty, empty and unfinished story. SSP

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Review in Brief: Dumbo (2019)

To its credit, this Disney remake has some good gags (a circus strongman making a valiant effort to double as their accountant) and a level of visual sumptuousness impressive even by Tim Burton’s usual standards (the costumes, the reimagining of the pink elephants scene). Vexingly, half the cast seem in disagreement over what kind of movie they’re in and the tone is all over the place. After a reasonable and recognisably DUMBO first half, the big-eyed-big-eared elephant’s journey seems to start all over again without the whole route being mapped out properly. Dumbo himself tugs at the heartstrings, but the humans all struggle to make a connection with generally bland performances across the board. I’d never call Michael Keaton’s turn as a villain bland, but I’d struggle to describe it in human terms either, changing accents, energy and poise from one shot to the next. SSP

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The Art of the Social Media Thriller; Narcissism, Paranoia and Tools for Good or Ill SSP

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Review: The Lion King (2019)


Nothing to see here, just a bird and a lion being a bird and a lion: Disney

I watched the original LION KING the night before I saw this new version to have a point of comparison. I now realise that was a mistake. The 1994 film is so efficient in its storytelling, so full of animation subtleties and beautiful characterisation in aid of emotional connection. The new CGI version re-tells the same story with characters who can’t emote at all, never mind provide nuanced performances or make you care. At least the music is mostly unspoiled. Mostly.

Simba (JD McCrary) is ready to one day take over his father Mufasa’s (James Earl Jones) kingdom and take his place in the great circle of life, until his jealous uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) instigates a coup and banishes the young lion.

I’m so glad people are realising how ridiculous it is to call this a live-action remake. There isn’t a frame of the real here, just a good-looking and stunningly detailed reality simulation. It’s an impressive technical exercise but should have probably stayed at the proof-of-concept stage, which is what the opening shot-for-shot recreation of “Circle of Life” feels like.

This first scene made it very clear very fast that this wasn’t going to work as an enterprise. The shots might match but there’s a key element missing. In Lion King ’94, Zazu flies ahead of the procession of pride land citizens coming to pay tribute to the new prince, he lands and bows before a regal and stoic lion surveying his kingdom, before Mufasa’s face breaks into a warm beam of recognition at his old friend. In the remake a bird flies above a load of other animals, lands in front of a lion, the lion looks at the bird and the bird looks back.

As the film went on it started to annoy me how little they were prepared to deviate from the original story. Almost beat-for-beat, it’s the same. Even when they do do something new it’s to make what came before less interesting. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” is the only musical number with any choreography, or any real movement, to be honest. They turn “Be Prepared” into a badly written politician’s speech with a strange cadence. Gone too is the exaggerated scenery and the moody lighting all in the name of realism. The stampede is a boring scene now. How is that possible?

In terms of voice talent, it’s a mixed bag. The highlight is probably John Oliver as a prim and particular Zazu prone to telling comic anecdotes that nobody listens to. Billy Eichner brings nervous energy and decent pipes to Timon, Seth Rogan is funny as always as Pumbaa but should never have a go at singing again. Ejiofor has an interesting new take on Scar but his delivery is too subtle for the medium. James Earl Jones provides the continuity but sounds on autopilot, the lower vocal register he’s reached with age resulting in the odd veer into Vader.

Going for a tone as grandiose and serious as the stoney-faced lions we’re being asked to empathise with might have elicited some kind of response if it was consistent, but then Jon Favreau and co decided to wink at their completely captive audience. The fact that the adult Simba (Donald Glover) has an unexpectedly good singing voice and Rogan aa Pumbaa most definitely does not gets an acknowledgement, and there’s even a spoof of another Disney movie (one to also receive the remake treatment, no less) used as a plot point later on. It all just comes across as a bit try-hard.

While most of the songs you know and love survive intact, you might want to either close your eyes or cover your ears to get any real enjoyment of the new Lion King. The audio-visual dissidence of photo-real animals belting out Broadway musical numbers without Broadway-style expressive performances completely takes you out of the story. Photo-real lions can’t smile or cry. If there’s one thing Disney don’t want their remakes to leave their audience feeling, it’s cold. If there’s one thing they don’t want to leave their audience thinking, it’s “I wish I was watching the original”. SSP

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