Ready Player One (2018)

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Screeching into cinemas this weekend at 88 mph, is the latest feature from Steven Spielberg. It’s fast, fun and enjoyable but that doesn’t completely override the shortcomings of the plot.

Set in 2045, the population are avid fans and players within the OASIS; a virtual reality world where they can be who they want and try to find an Easter egg, only obtained by finding 3 keys placed by creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Trying to lead the pack is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who soon learns from fellow gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) that there’s more at stake, than just a sprawling game.

I’ll kick off by saying, this is an energetic and pacy film that certainly, for the first two thirds at least, manages to speedily put across a massive virtual landscape of endless possibilities. The immersive quality isn’t fully felt but it comes and goes nicely, as if we’re window shoppers to this electrically charged Easter egg hunt. It’s only within the last third that this movie begins to trail and slightly feel like a slog, as the story it’s thinly been telling, takes over from the nostalgia trip and descends into a predictable and less than exciting mode.

There may indeed be problems but I can’t review this Spielberg outing without spouting fanboy praise for a sequence at the Overlook. I wasn’t expecting that at all, it’s at once hilarious and effectively spooky to see the hexagon carpeted floors of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, in a film that families will watch! The entire sequence was done brilliantly and I enjoyed it further, knowing what would happen in rooms etc.

Nostalgia is clearly what is selling this film and I have no issues with that, it’s a seat filler. People love being reminded of fun flashes to their past and this movie sees games and pop cultural figures storm the cinematic screen with giddy abandon. Marvin the Martian, The Iron Giant and Halo Spartans are just a few of the brilliant visual tie-ins Spielberg and the effects team have gifted us, but there should be more to it down to the main narrative, yet at points it does feel like this is a film solely riding on the cool delight of spotting characters from games, film and TV dotted around.

Music also forms a huge factor of the feel-good fuzzy feeling as Hall and Oates, The Bee Gees and Van Halen all riff on this film’s clear course to Nostalgia-ville. There’s a general fun vibe to had with this film and even though there are problems with the story being devoid of heart or much emotion, a side-lined female character who becomes not much more than a love interest and a show of characters that don’t really develop and therefore never grabbed my attention, it’s a movie of wonder and bright colour, zippy visual treats and a technological feat that should be admired.

Sheridan plays the guy out in the sticks aspiring to win and the lead with a lesson in love, in a way that’s alright enough but I’d never say he was someone I rooted for, he’s kind of just there amongst a world bursting with other avatars. Cooke sprinkles some cool chick moves to her turn as the helpful love sidekick and I found her more interesting to watch than Sheridan, as I did with the hench figure of Aech and their subsequent reveal. Ben Mendelsohn is always an effective presence but his role as the villainous Nolan Sorrento is hot and cold, there’s flickers of chilling menace and then it dissipates. Rylance comes and goes but is a fun addition, with a kind of Wayne’s World/Bill and Ted gamer geek, stoner attribute to his character.

The story isn’t as strong or as engaging as it deserves to be but I have to applaud Steven Spielberg and the visual effects crew, for creating a film that is a lively rush for the senses.

7/10

 

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A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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Universe travelling and diverse storytelling are on show in Ava DuVernay’s big budget Disney film, but the grand visual pleasantries to look at don’t override the ambitious scope and its ineffectual handling of the subtext.

Distracted and struggling student Meg Murry (Storm Reid) misses her father, after he randomly disappeared four years ago. Dr. Murry (Chris Pine) was a brilliant scientist and had possibly cracked the notion of teleportation and our existence. One day, three powerful travellers of the universe appear and take Meg, her brother and a school friend to Uriel in the hope of finding Dr. Murry.

I’ll begin with the positives because there’s a lot of negatives I wish to cover. Firstly, the visuals are splendidly colourful and some of the landscapes the characters visit, are lush and rife with stunning cinematography that looks great on the big screen. I liked or perhaps appreciate the bold ideas stemming from the 1962 novel; these themes of family, spreading love and ridding hate are nice enough and espicially with the state of things currently, I found those ideals hold up well but they did feel forced and/or twee. A sequence on a beach with Michael Pena was pretty good with the most tension I absorbed but, alas it was short-lived.

The main issue, I feel, is that the movie never seems sure of what it’s projecting and it heavily flits between moments of science mumbo jumbo that most children wouldn’t grasp and saccharine annoyance that adults will tire of. It’s as if the writers and director were trying to mix childhood fantasy with profound statements on life and love together, which never succeeds, sadly.

Attempts at humour fall massively flat and again feel forced, costume and make up on display from the three astral beings are impressive but they change without reason anytime they shift location, like the movie is shooting for an Oscar nod for Costume Design and Make Up and Hairstyling next year. Meg’s adoptive brother Charles Wallace is mega annoying plus the fact they can’t ever just say Charles becomes grating. CGI in places is less than inspired and wholly distracting in a cheap way, which is odd considering the nine figure budget behind this production.

Generally, I was never by hooked any of the film. Scenes that were obviously going for tension never felt like they were raising stakes. Even with the dramatic altering of the sibling relationship, I still felt bored with the story. I for sure lost my patience fairly early on with this movie which is a shame because there could have been something very special and triumphant about it all, instead of the restrained, sickly sweet and messy feature it turns out to be.

Reid is by and large another one of the only other positives I got from this film, she’s a powerful performer with an evident understanding of this hard subject material and how to portray Meg as a difficult, somewhat stubborn but loving and brave character. Oprah Winfrey delivers messages of hope, light and typical Disney fortune cookie tid-bits in a way that stirs quite nicely. Reese Witherspoon plays Mrs Whatsit, someone without much tact and still learning, she showcases that well but is another annoying factor, as is the performance from Deric McCabe as Charles. Just Charles. Mindy Kaling plays Mrs Who, but is all but pointless in a turn that mainly has her spouting quotes from scholars, playwrights and Chris Rock. Levi Miller is Meg’s friend Calvin who is extremely pointless and I never understood why he was there.

This is a Disney dud that I’ll try and forget in a hurry. There’s only tiny wrinkles in the run-time that kept me engaged but the majority is frustratingly bad.

4.5/10

Unsane (2018)

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Completely shot on an iPhone 7, this psychological thriller from director Steven Soderbergh is an interesting tactic in terms of its execution, but is hugely let down by a narrative that is easy to pick apart and far from riveting.

After landing a new job in Pennsylvania, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) can’t shake the feeling her stalker is still around. She visits an institution to speak about her fears and demons and inadvertently winds up admitted into this mental facility. Within these walls she continues to see her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), but is she to be believed or is she insane?

Well, I obviously won’t answer that because that will spoil the outcome but what I can say, is that the progress of the plot becomes more and more dumb. There are plot holes galore and how a certain character manages to gain freedom of movement without suspicion is insanity in itself. The writing pair of James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein have tried emulating some fraught, claustrophobic sense of horror akin to the wonder of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ from what I can tell, but it’s miles away from that captivating and concerning plight of hospital entrapment. Understandably, it’s unfair to compare this film to that Jack Nicholson feature, because this 2018 release is meant to be a B-movie of intimate proportions, but there’s frequent moments that take you out of the picture as you question what is happening, due to the lack of sense it presents.

The technical achievement is worthy of some credit, to have shot the entire film on a mobile device is impressive and adds some kind of personal madness to the story. It also shows that just about anyone can make a movie whatever the constraints but on the other hand, a name like Soderbergh goes a long way to get a film of this nature green-lit for cinematic release. I imagine if a student with an iPhone had written and directed the same thing, it wouldn’t have got anywhere, the power of his name helps sell a film that is otherwise a gimmicky lukewarm feature.

Aside from the issues the story throws up, I found myself very distant from the film thanks to the way it was shot. It’s as if the filmmakers want you to be immersed in a gritty narrative and believe the craziness on show, which would be fine within a fantasy filled genre but the way that ‘Unsane’ looks and is created with the phone camera; adds a realistic close up touch which deletes the suspension of disbelief you’d usually retain for fantastical movies and truly makes the latter half of this film, far-fetched and coldly distancing.

Foy does excel and is by and large the best thing going for this movie. She commits and gets under the skin as someone your mind sways back and forth with, concerning the notion of her mental state. She manages to make a character that I didn’t connect with someone that I still empathised with. Jay Pharoah as Nate brings a needed level of light relief to the plot and gets some good scenes with Sawyer. Juno Temple is the right choice for an unhinged patient and Temple makes sure that Violet is worrying to be around but every character around Foy are less than engaging and serve as little more than script help for Sawyer to get through the film.

I wasn’t expecting to write so much about this Soderbergh release beforehand, but after seeing it I had a lot on my mind about how poor the story is that I can’t shake that off. Foy is great. Everything else is irritatingly not.

5.5/10

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018)

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Almost 5 years after ‘Pacific Rim’, comes this monster follow up that sees a debut role for Steven S. DeKnight as feature film director. Gladly, Guillermo del Toro has producing credit and seems to have retained some neat apocalypse cancelling world-building in what is otherwise a silly yet joyous popcorn flick.

Ten years have shuttled by since the monstrous Kaiju breached the Pacific Ocean and destroyed many cities. Now, former Jaeger front-runner, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) is taken out of his scavenging ways to train new cadets. A promising talent lies within Amara (Cailee Spaeny), but is she and the battle station ready for the troubling return of the Kaiju?

I haven’t actually seen the 2013 movie since it was released but I recall it being a tremendous blast on the IMAX screens and enjoyed the moments of del Toro handled monster-lore in between the beast vs robot carnage. This one definitely seems to have a tongue firmly stuck in its cheek with a movie that is more about the fun side of proceedings.

You really don’t need to go into this film remembering many aspects of the first feature, or in fact with your mind on at all, it’s a pre-summer blockbuster kind of film that is as subtle as having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick! If that’s your thing then you’re in for a great treat and I honestly have to say that I enjoyed pretty much the entirety of this film.

How the trainee cadets are ever ready to perfectly mind-meld for duty and fight the Kaiju is a thought to push away, as is the question about never once knowing Idris Elba had a son, oh and the countless helpful convenient plot points. But, this isn’t a film warranting script scrutiny, as said, this is one of these films that doesn’t try to be anything more than the big screen madness of its smashy smashy noise.

DeKnight takes over from Academy Award holder del Toro and you can unmistakably see his TV show – ‘Spartacus’ style. The robots beating the metal crap out of each other, the lighthearted asides, the frequent almost epic slow-mo shots all come from his Starz days, from a show I rather enjoyed to tell the truth and that gladiatorial experience has helped craft an enjoyable sci-fi combat movie.

Boyega excels in a fun role here, bursting almost to the seams with quips to counter any possible predicament. It’s a character with far more energy, engagement and sparkle than Finn from the recent Star Wars movies. Scott Eastwood doesn’t really do much in a supporting role that sees him bark orders at people and twinkle his ‘handsome’ eyes when necessary. Spaeny is a talented up and coming actor, her performance is refreshing, vulnerable and yet brashly confident which works well opposite Boyega. Burn Gorman and Charlie Day resume their characters from before, with the former doing well in a backseat science supervisor kinda way and the latter pulling typical Charlie Day shouting and vague comedy that feels wrong considering where his amped up role journeys.

I was never eagerly awaiting a sequel but now this one has arrived in cinemas I can’t say I dislike the fact it exists. It’s a rampaging delight of big and bold destruction and in the words of the late, great Eduard Khil: “Trololo” indeed, this is a damn fun film to feast upon.

6.5/10

 

Tomb Raider (2018)

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Stepping into the shoes of Lara Croft, after Angelina Jolie’s early noughties outings, is Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, who I think is a great choice for this gritty, updated take on the archaeologist character from a 2013 video game of the same name.

Bicycle courier Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is told to take her father’s inheritance, as he’s been missing for 7 years, but as she’s about to, she discovers a clue from Richard Croft (Dominic West) which leads her to Hong Kong to trace what her father had been investigating. On a (nearly) impossible to reach island is Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is keen to uncover a secret tomb on Yamatai.

I’m not someone who played my console a lot growing up and I definitely wasn’t ever a ‘gamer’, and I still am not, but a Tomb Raider game I had was great fun and the adventurous puzzles were ones I enjoyed tackling, so to hear that, after the poor and definitely two silly movies starring Jolie, there would be a new spin on the action explorer was interesting news, to see if they could get Lara and a video game adaptation right for once.

On the whole I think that Vikander, director Roar Uthaug and the writers have managed to do a good job. It’s by no means a brilliant or consistently entertaining film but there’s great action sequences to be watched; which are shot and edited with a visceral and explosive speed which help throw you alongside the adventures of the courageous and capable raider of tombs.

As mentioned, I enjoyed puzzle solving in the game I owned and there is an aspect of that within this movie, which is a cool thing to involve but I just wish there was more of it and when the cryptic moment is achieved, it’s done so in a quick and vague manner to rush the film along to the next big action sequence. The film is also fairly predictable and a final moment is one I saw a mile off but unlike the deeply boring film, ‘The Mummy’, this is a film that feels darker, it has moments of trepidation and on the edge danger which kept me engaged.

It is damn cool to see another woman lead the screen with great confidence, smarts and kick-ass attitude, one that hopefully will get a sequel green-lit, because aside from the less than stellar story, this is a barnstorming action adventure that gives Lara an arc from down on her luck/money roots to finding herself and her place as a Croft. This fierce approach that she has is slightly let down I thought, by a battle scene that she deserved to have won in her own right, not because of some help from a character out of the duel.

Alicia Vikander dives right in as the titular character and ensures that Lara is looked on as a brave and bold heroine. She certainly goes through the ringer, making each punch or fall feel totally real. She also brings a necessary charm alongside her muscled gusto, which helps the ridiculous sequences less so, as long as you also suspend your disbelief. She practically fills the big screen with believable strength and I’m sure she could give Bolt a literal run for his money! Walton Goggins is alright but he never soars as a villain that could have been more interesting or ferocious. Nick Frost and Jaime Winstone appear briefly as the clear comic relief and they are funny, but out of place.

This is a good, grounded take on the booted and braided video game character, with a turn from Vikander that is emotive and on point. The issue is that it’s a film without much fun and fully excitable drive.

6.5/10

Gringo (2018)

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Nash Edgerton, brother of Joel, offers up this misfiring Mexican set crime comedy as his debut film and with an opening that’s bombed hard, he may need to think about going back to the drawing board.

Head honcho of a company, that is heading into a merger is Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) who is a greedy piece of work, as is Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron). The two are laser focused on getting what they want and screwing everyone over, including apparent friend of Rusk; Harold (David Oyelowo) who is left behind in Mexico. Soon he calls through saying he’s been kidnapped and a barrage of heightened moments follow.

I think one of the biggest issues this film has is how messy the plot feels. There’s just a bit too much going on and as more madness ensues down in the heat of Mexico, it gets tiresome and badly handled. This is a great shame because this in fact could have been a nifty movie with surprising turns and cartel-ridden sequences but it falls short of that promising ideal by a big stretch. Another issue lies with the promotion of the film, from the trailer it seems like an oddball comedy and you end up with a crime narrative, which I would have liked had I not expected to be amused along the way.

It’s like I can imagine that Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis have written this thinking what they’ve come up with is funny but it either lands horrendously flat or comes across as rude; i.e – Elaine pretending to be deaf. There’s not one moment where I or the few other audience members laughed or even chuckled, I think I smiled once because of the sheer force that is Oyelowo as Harold trying to keep his head afloat on this sinking, stinking ship.

I will admit that some of the kidnap plot is quite engaging. It starts off interestingly and is vaguely entertaining to watch unravel but the folding in of other characters, places and story-lines just began to detract from this quite enjoyable mishap of errors that Harold finds himself in the middle of. On the whole though, this is something I won’t remember come the end of the year, the scenes are mostly forgettable and the majority of characters are insanely unlikable, in a way that I just didn’t care to try and get engrossed into the plot.

As said, a lot of the figures within this film have no redeeming qualities and leading the pack is Joel Edgerton who, to be fair, does encapsulate the arse-hat boss with arrogance and disloyalty worn on his clothes like badges. Charlize Theron is somehow even slimier and nastier than Richard Rusk, and again she plays these characteristics well but it was a role of spite that I didn’t enjoy. David Oyelowo and Amanda Seyfried are the only actors that exit this film with any real dignity intact. Both of their characters feel human, likable and warm, their interactions are some of the more grounded and better parts of this film.

There are some alright scenes that kept me sort of interested to the film and Oyelowo is great, but I was close to feeling bored in an up and down, messily made film that outstays its welcome.

5/10

Annihilation (2018)

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Arriving on Netflix, is this bold and engagingly strange science fiction from Alex Garland. It’s arguably one of the finer films of this genre I’ve ever seen, questioning the audience with its intelligent themes of rationality and life.

After a figure from Lena’s (Natalie Portman) life comes back into the fold, she ends up at a government facility close to a glistening barrier known as The Shimmer which is expanding. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and three others into this weird anomaly to try and stop it reaching civilisation and to hopefully uncover exactly what it is.

Alex Garland has been writing screenplays since 2002 and after his blistering debut directorial work on 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’, this was a movie I was eagerly awaiting. Garland has managed to capture the traumas and oddities of a strange new world from within Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. As this film goes along, there’s a fantastic sense of slow-burning tension that doesn’t always need to pay off with big action because he directs in such a way that chills to the core and makes this environment feel visceral.

A sci-fi with plenty of intrigue and interesting ideas aren’t always common to come by, so gladly this is an exception, in the same vein as the smartly concocted ‘Arrival’. It’s a film that I think deserves to go down as a classic in its genre, as it grips like a row of razor sharp teeth sinking into you, as you get hooked onto the creepy air of unease and confusion that roams this altering landscape.

The Shimmer itself is a world of melding possibilities leading to some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, ones that I utterly wished I could have seen on the big screen, but again Paramount offloaded one of theirs to be released by streaming juggernaut Netflix. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is sublime and truly keeps you on the edge of your seat as we trek through somewhere, that is at once stunning and dripping with mystery.

There are some unnerving moments within ‘Annihilation’ which I won’t divulge any further as to avoid spoilers, but I will say, what lurks in The Shimmer certainly builds a scary level to the back and forth narrative with Lena. Also, the final act is absolutely incredible. My mouth was agape for the duration and my skin was layered with goosebumps, in a lighthouse set sequence I can only describe as hauntingly glorious and terrifying in a way that seems to burrow into your very being.

Natalie Portman is a strong presence from start to finish, her character background aptly aids her through this lush yet dangerous world of lost memories and trepidation. Portman easily acts that sense of forceful wanting and knowledgeable progression. She also carries an empathetic sadness and regret throughout, which makes her an interesting character to follow. The entire team are a formidable squad of females with enough drip fed information about their lives, to give us understanding of their choices and motivations. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all neatly display the fraying of their minds as they descend further into The Shimmer. The latter gets a crackling turn to shine in a scene that sees her burst with an intensity, adding to the ferociousness of what happens.

‘Annihilation’ is a masterful movie and one I will definitely be watching again. It carries a quiet menace as the unknown is explored and identity is questioned more and more.

8.5/10