Suicide Squad (2016)

★★

Suicide Squad PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: August 5th, 2016 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman

One of Batman v Superman’s biggest downfalls, as cited by the majority, was Zack Snyder’s reluctance to at least intermittently swerve away from a brooding tone. You cannot have a superhero movie without fun, right? And Batman v Superman was no fun, right? Perhaps I’m in the minority but I enjoyed the serious streak throughout Snyder’s film. Particularly the creator’s move to inject his superhero outing with a bout of harsh reality (co-writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer also deserve credit on that front). The end result never came close to threatening Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, not in genre terms nor thematically, but it did offer an alternative to the mantra of wit championed by Marvel.

Which is to say, essentially, that I was disappointed when I heard about the high profile Suicide Squad reshoots a few months prior to the film’s release. Especially since the rumour mill at the time pinned said reshoots on studio suits requesting more humour, they having seen an early cut of the film. Given this information was made public in early April, just weeks after the release of Batman v Superman, it doesn’t take a Commissioner-Gordon-esque detective to work out why DC higher-ups were worried about Suicide Squad’s tone. It’s a clawing bugbear of mine, changing one’s initial vision to suit the conjectural needs of moviegoers and/or studio execs.

And sure enough, the version of Suicide Squad that has made it through the cutting room and onto our cinema screens is a shell of what it could have — and very well may have — been. Jai Courtney revealed the reshoots were intended to bulk up the film’s action content, which strikes me as odd at best: I can’t say I’ve ever come across an action movie that wrapped filming without enough action. Regardless, if what Courtney claims is true, his words still paint the decision to reshoot sections as a worthless venture. The action in Suicide Squad is, after all, utterly generic. The fantasy elements are weightless. This is less Guardians of the Galaxy and more Thor: The Dark World — no Hiddleston or Hemsworth, only bland enemies and a lot of urban decimation.

Instead we have Will Smith as Deadshot, marksman extraordinaire and de facto leader of a criminal gang assembled by government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to deal with any catastrophic threat, such as a villainous metahuman. “In a world of flying men and monsters, this is the only way to protect our country,” apparently. Other baddies-on-a-mission include: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a psychopath, Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, flame-conjurer El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and a talking crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the guy keeping them all right in the field, though his mission takes on a more personal pretence when the impending catastrophic threat turns out to be his girlfriend. Well, sort of — it’s Cara Delevingne as archaeologist June Moone corrupted by a bland ancient spirit.

Having decided the successful introduction of so many new faces wouldn’t be enough of a challenge, Ayer also summons Jared Leto to play the iconic Joker character. And since the Joker is a classic Batman villain, Ben Affleck is afforded the opportunity to earn a fleeting Batcheck too. This volume is a problem, the film’s most glaring misstep. Suicide Squad is, by definition, an ensemble piece that should be about connecting the arcs of characters already familiar to us. The idea that anybody could reel off so many personalities and effectively colour each of them with specialised quirks and emotive ticks is absurd. It took four years and five films for Marvel to acclimatise viewers to its universe, and only then could The Avengers work as well as it did. (I don’t mean to invoke Marvel at every opportunity when discussing DC outings, but when the former has perfected a storytelling model it would be remiss of me not to point out the latter’s mistake in ignoring it.)

We have Leto, for instance, whose Joker is set up for big things that never arrive. The actor tries, his interpretation of the infamous bad guy more sex pest than chaos-breeder, but Leto’s lack of screen time means the character never gets the opportunity to develop nuance or follow through on threats. He merely exists as a symbolic construction for Quinn to maniacally lust over. There are others with similar troubles, notably Croc, who infrequently mutters, and Boomerang, who does more drinking than developing. The film even seems to acknowledge this persona overload in a defeatist manner when it unveils another squad member halfway through proceedings only to have him killed off within minutes.

A few have better luck. Robbie sizzles as Quinn. A total tease; bright, breezy, and bonkers. Roman Vasyanov’s camera does leer uncomfortably whenever she is on-screen though, apparently revelling in Quinn’s sex appeal and suggestive demeanour (there are numerous shots of Robbie bending over, the camera positioned conveniently behind her). Granted, Quinn is supposed to purvey an overload of toxic allure before uncovering more empathetic tendencies. If only the filmmakers had more faith in the process of emotion and not appearance. Smith and Davis are solid in their roles, especially the latter, brazen and cold as Waller. Kinnaman’s Rick Flag draws the most sympathy and is the one actually worth rooting for. Kinnaman, star of The Killing, should be in far higher demand.

The film begins with a rush of comic book style, neon text splashing across the screen as it describes the various attributes of our new cinematic inmates. We get short vignettes establishing the main players, these clips incorporated in such a way that they reflect the panel format utilised by their source material. It does feel like the writers are stuck in an introductory loop for around 45 minutes; we see and hear about Deadshot’s impressive skills, and then see and hear about them again as the story remains static. When the action does get going it’s unspectacular, falling foul of the genre’s MacGuffin obsession (something about removing an evil heart). Having said that, these sequences are at least grounded in that gritty, wet aesthetic Ayer seems fond of — see Fury. It feels like events are happening on the street and not in a computer game.

The idea, then, is we’re supposed to root for bad people and then wonder why we’re rooting for bad people. In reversing the moral polarities, Suicide Squad is supposed to encourage a more complex interpretation and consumption of the supervillain (and superhero) identity. That there are varying degrees of villainy, for example, and that perhaps some criminal activity has value in the form of defending us from even greater peril. The truth is you don’t really come away from the film debating the intricacies of that mindset. You leave wondering why you haven’t just watched a Batman solo outing starring Harley Quinn and the Joker.

Suicide Squad - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Jason Bourne (2016)

★★★★

Jason Bourne PosterDirector: Paul Greengrass

Release Date: July 27th, 2016 (UK); July 29th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Thriller

Starring: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander

The prospect of another Bourne movie with Paul Greengrass at the helm and Matt Damon in the mix brought out the hopeful side in my otherwise sequel-averse instinct. While The Bourne Legacy done its best to redistribute the focus of a successful, smart franchise onto a new character, it never really looked like hurdling the post-Damon problem. Jeremy Renner has proven to be quite the asset since 2011, each new turn as Hawkeye in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe more successful than the last. But Aaron Cross was no Jason Bourne and director Tony Gilroy couldn’t muster the same level of thrill as Greengrass had during his time in charge (it is worth pointing out that as screenwriter Gilroy has had as much to do with the Bourne franchise’s success as anyone).

Therefore in late 2014 when it was announced Greengrass and Damon would, in fact, be returning for a third outing together — and a fifth overall — I welcomed the news. A lot has happened in world of geopolitics since The Bourne Ultimatum, notably the rise of social media and the undercutting of questionable surveillance techniques by the likes of Edward Snowden. WikiLeaks has become a force, for better or worse disseminating otherwise secretive information around the world, affording us the opportunity to learn about foreign policy tactics and moral mistakes. And just recently, the Pokémon Go app launched to the delight of almost everybody with a smartphone, users a simple ‘yes you can use my location data’ away from catching Pikachu.

Miraculously, Jason Bourne covers all of those bases with a familiar garnish of Greengrass grit. We reconnect with Bourne (Damon) as he steps out of the bare-knuckle frying pan and back into the fugitive fire. The former sleeper agent, now practically free of his debilitating memory loss, learns from former Treadstone contact Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) about some new information regarding said program and his father (Gregg Henry). The CIA pick up on Bourne’s re-emergence and, under the guidance of Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and rising star Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), seek to bring him in — or worse.

Stylistically, Greengrass remains a champion of the 24-influenced techno-sheen: operatives hunch over computers showing complex maps and databases; Barry Ackroyd’s camera harangues characters, zooming in on their stressed faces and back out again; edits are snappy, driving momentum. A tip of the hat, too, to the practical effects used throughout and especially those on display during the final act. All of these visual footprints coalesce to invoke a sense of urgency, as you would expect. Perhaps more importantly they help to paint the on-screen world as our world, as an arena built for the era of borderless technology and ethically dubious decision-making.

The film manoeuvres around three typical set pieces: the first, a multiperson jaunt through an anti-government protest in Athens; the second, a London-based double-cross; and the third, a lengthy game of cat and mouse around the convention centres and streets of Las Vegas. These aren’t exactly new action frontiers for the series — the scene in Athens borrows heavily from the Waterloo Station sequence in The Bourne Ultimatum — but they are all expertly crafted and thoroughly involving. Primarily because they place us right there with Bourne as he searches for answers while attempting to avoid the CIA’s traps. It can get quite tense.

Unsurprisingly, then, the outing is a winner both structurally and technically. What about themes, character, and narrative? The latter two are certainly weaker, though that’s not to say they are weak. Bourne himself has always got by on Damon’s brutish charisma which is again the case here (for a marquee attraction, the actor has but a few pages of dialogue). We see an ageing protagonist at the onset, a lost soul battered by a gruelling life: “All that matters is staying alive,” he says, yet he earns his way as an underground fighter. Tommy Lee Jones’ gruff Dewey is as world weary as the man he wants to capture, but has amassed experienced and is a master player of the game. There is no villain per se — Vincent Cassel comes closest as a hitman employed by the CIA — meaning the piece evolves into a grey area battle between Bourne, courting a lighter shade, and Dewey’s darker prerogative.

Alicia Vikander was always going to be a winning get for the franchise, though the shuffle does dizzy her character at times. She unveils a great glare, her serious face on point throughout as Lee, however the actor is asked to use it a little too often. It’s as if the filmmakers want to her to be the next Bond so badly they’ve created a character so brisk in personality that the casting suits over at MGM simply have to take notice. I suppose everyone on-screen is wrapped up in the seriousness of their various predicaments, and rightly so. Lee does get more involved as the piece progresses and her final destination is an intriguing one, it’s just that Vikander’s talent, for my liking, should have commanded that bit extra. Julia Stiles likewise. Parsons serves a purpose here but as one of the few characters already ingrained in the Bourne community, a grander presence would have been welcomed.

Given this is the fifth instalment of the series, and a picture not based on any sort of primary source material, it is right to consider the film’s aim. What does Jason Bourne have to offer that the previous pictures did not? The answer almost wholly is of thematic content, in that the film expands upon its already established surveillance lexicon and roots itself in updated issues of the present day. That Athens protest I referenced earlier could be happening right now, for instance. Bourne’s unravelling of the Treadstone program brought to light a seedy government process, true, but it also revealed the location of active field agents and subsequently put them at risk. Similar, in conclusion but not effect, to the WikiLeaks reveals which, in some cases, have inconvenienced innocent civilians.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse also incorporate the rise of social media and particularly its knife-edge promise to protect user information. The duo mean well and have the correct issue at heart; we are challenged to consider the probability that our personal data isn’t really that safe when in the hands of mega corporations, which is almost certainly true. It is a clumsily handled narrative thread though. When upstart CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) exclaims “no-one will be watching you” before an audience of technologically savvy people during a lecture on what users should expect when they sign up to his new social media platform, those in attendance all vigorously applaud like mindless cattle. Surely we’re too sceptical for that sort of behaviour these days.

The filmmakers try to squeeze in as much compelling and relevant detail as possible, though are clearly mindful not to overdo it. (A discussion between Dewey and Kalloor even hints at the recent Apple-FBI iPhone encryption saga.) The series has always been admirably faithful to process, much more so than its genre counterparts. This approach doesn’t always work: the need to establish mission procedure and tick every box can occasionally halt character development, and I think it does here. But Jason Bourne is an intelligent action-thriller, a rare breed of tentpole movie that we should demand more frequently. Its message, apt: moral clarity has no place in muddy waters and our geopolitical world is utterly caked.

Jason Bourne - Tommy Lee Jones & Alicia Vikander

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Ghostbusters (2016)

★★★

Ghostbusters PosterDirector: Paul Feig

Release Date: July 11th, 2016 (UK); July 15th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Fantasy; Science fiction

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon

You might use the term “whipping boy” to describe someone who is unfairly or unevenly hammered for the flaws of someone or something else. That political leader who bears the brunt of the blame for a vote gone awry. The footballer whose defensive error gives away the second goal in a 5-0 defeat. You get where this is going. Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters has been, for quite some time now, cinema’s highest-profile whipping girl. And for what? Because it’s a reboot of a cult classic? See Jurassic World. Because it’s the product of a big studio using an established brand to cultivate cash? See just about every summer blockbuster for the past decade. Or because it subs four leading men for four leading women? Ah. Bingo.

Well the four women are funny and, shock-horror, the film is funny too. It’s also in the same ballpark quality-wise as its predecessor, a movie apparently moulded in the hands of God himself (of course God is a guy, pfft). Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters was a fun flick with charismatic players and a popcorn plot. A lot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, in fact. Neither is worth the buzz that surrounds it: Reitman’s Ghostbusters is far from the greatest comedy of 1980s, let alone all time, and Feig’s effort is far from the end of masculinity, let alone cinema.

This incarnation follows Erin Gilbert, Abby Yates, Jillian Holtzmann, and Patty Tolan — Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones — an academic, two scientific minds, and a general knowledge buff who collectively band together to defend the streets of New York City from insurgent ghosts. The ghosts’ sudden arrival has everything to do with spiritmonger Rowan North (Neil Casey), whose barmy devices pave a paranormal path to the real world. Though that hardly matters. What matters is the re-establishment of the ghostbusters, that they are legitimised both within and outwith the narrative, and that we get some laughs along the way.

And there are some laughs, often at the expense of the male characters in the piece. Chris Hemsworth, for instance, plays a dumb blonde receptionist, a role that has historically been reserved for the token female in big budget cinema. Spoiler alert: Bill Murray shows up as the film’s biggest sceptic. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, and by proxy, he doesn’t believe in these ghostbusting women. Even the male tour guide we see at the beginning is utterly afraid of bumps in the night, so much so that he has one of those juvenile ‘accidents’. I can’t recall one strong male character, and guess what? That’s sort of the point. That is the joke. The film does not set out to demonise men (#notallmen) but rather to pithily tear down the cultural and filmic stereotypes prevalent in cinema.

You could argue this approach is overplayed and that it perhaps gets in the way of other would-be satirical adages. For example, the ghostbusters find themselves not only battling their paranormal opposites, but also the non-believers. YouTube trolls bear the brunt of a quip or two: “Ain’t no bitches gon’ hunt no ghosts,” reads one comment. And still, they do. Maybe co-writers Katie Dippold and Feig’s stereotype-smashing could have even gone a tad further, but this is standard comedy fare after all. Besides, Hemsworth’s dopey Kevin — the longest-running and most vociferous of the stereotype gags — is worth his screen time. He wears glasses without frames and has a cat called Mike Hat (phonetics). Hemsworth plays the idiocy straight; Kevin is a cardboard cutout coloured with heightened irony, and it works as well as any other strand of amusement.

The remaining amusement is served up by our key quartet. You initially pin Wiig as the reluctant one of the group, her attire academic and her exterior distant, but that reluctance quickly evaporates. Wiig, perennially brilliant at being awkward and standoffish, gets to be awkward and standoffish before gelling with the gang. That Gilbert so suddenly abandons her academia in favour of beliefs she has repressed for many years does suggest a sense of rushed characterisation, but it at least affords Wiig the opportunity to exercise her versatility. Speaking of gelling with the gang, Jones’ Patty is treated as an equal instantly — it hardly matters that she has no scientific experience, only that she has valid local knowledge and a desire to rid the city of ghosts. Crucially, the performers season a believable camaraderie.

The action is run-of-the-mill. The visuals, expectedly lively (it all goes a bit weird during a Godzilla meets Avengers final act, particularly when Feig invokes 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Shapiro’s score is fun and bombastic and nods admiringly towards its predecessor. And the costume design matches that bombast, effectively reflecting the variable personalities of our four leads — especially the goggles-wearing Holtzmann, McKinnon’s wide eyes purveying excited madness. The story itself isn’t especially laudable, a criticism that has been thrown at many a recent franchise reboot. In a lot of ways Ghostbusters is vintage Feig, cultivating a light atmosphere with steady technical facets and the occasional barb. It is not as volatile as Bridesmaids, and thus not as good, emphasised by McCarthy’s less-brazen approach.

But Ghostbusters is fine. It’s a solid reboot, not narratively groundbreaking but funny enough (listen out for a terrific Jaws gag). It isn’t mistake-free: for whatever reason, there is a disorienting Ozzy Osbourne cameo and the human villain is a barely-realised two-dimensional prospect. However, Feig’s Ghostbusters is not going to taint whatever legacy the original has mustered, but will instead encourage a new generation of fans. It’s frothy, not vindictive. It’s another big studio reboot in an era of big studio reboots that people will either love or hate, and as they decide the world will keep spinning. Relax.

Ghostbusters - Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

★★

Independence Day Resurgence PosterDirector: Roland Emmerich

Release Date: June 23rd, 2016 (UK); June 24th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Liam Hemsworth, Maika Monroe, Jessie T. Usher

When you make as many disaster movies as Roland Emmerich, a few things are bound to happen. One, the law of averages suggests you’ll eventually churn out something a bit rubbish that’ll be branded a “disaster” by a publication whose wordplay skills aren’t quite up to scratch. And two, it is likely customers will start to encounter genre fatigue. Independence Day: Resurgence is Emmerich’s sixth out-and-out catastrophe appraisal, having averaged around one every two years since 1996. And while it certainly isn’t a poor effort, it is a tired one.

We’re 20 years removed from the events of Independence Day and humanity has taken significant steps towards protecting itself against future attacks. The Earth Space Defence programme operates from locations like the Moon, made habitable via good old militant colonisation. Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is one of those orbiting the Earth, a fighter pilot with skill and a cocky demeanour. He’s no Han Solo, but then Resurgence is no Empire Strikes Back. What the film is, though, is familiar, hitting many of the same notes as its predecessor only this time with crisper technical tendencies — the Moon base purveys that futuristic grey-silver Prometheus sheen. Hemsworth’s Morrison is a reflection of that sameness: a marketable replacement for Will Smith’s Steven Hiller, Smith either too expensive to rehire or personally fed up with sci-fi roles.

Some of the familiar is good though. Jeff Goldblum, for instance, recaptures plenty of that self-aware wit he displayed as scientist David Levinson (now a lead Area 51 researcher) in the original. Whenever he appears the film lights up, freely recognising its silliness and gleefully bathing in it. “I heard his son is much more of a moderate,” Levinson says in reference to warlord Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) before meeting with the commander’s militia, each fighter sporting high impact weaponry and a no-nonsense facial expression. It is the sort of snappy levity popularised for better or worse by Marvel cinema, but perfected by Goldblum whose poise and timing are, arguably, unmatched.

However, just because the film is generally aware of its wackiness doesn’t mean it should skimp on an engaging story. Aside from its predecessor, Resurgence has more in common with White House Down than anything else in Emmerich’s portfolio, especially tonally. Both movies take would-be serious predicaments — an attack on the President there and an attack on the world here — and imbue them with carefree notes. There is no narrative weight, which is fine, but Resurgence doesn’t offer any alternative means through which stakes can conjugate. We have already witnessed a failed alien attack on this world and it’s not enough simply that the scale is larger this time around. The characters, though generally likeable, are as expendable as the other billion civilians squished by an enormous spacecraft docked atop half the globe.

The manoeuvring of pieces often feels forced. Former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), whom we meet in a state of mental anguish, evades his high-level bodyguard and appears on stage alongside the current President (Sela Ward). You can only fathom such a thing happening because the story needs it to. It needs to have a panicked Whitmore warn the world about incoming aliens and the only way to get there is through an unrealistic turn of events. While it is true these calamity blockbusters rely little on sturdy plot dynamics, the successful ones often find a way around that issue. San Andreas managed to distract from any story inefficiencies by dabbling in simplicity: hosting a handful of straightforward characters led by a charismatic force of nature in Dwayne Johnson. Goldblum could be that force of nature here but there are so many other players in the game, therefore everyone’s arc suffers and the overarching narrative is rendered a bit baseless. This issue comes to a head right before the third act: as Goldblum spews out waves of exposition, he might as well be reading from the Instruction Manual for Ending Disaster Flicks.

Maika Monroe, breakout star of The Guest and It Follows, is someone who should have more to do. At one point you think she’s going be lumped into a love triangle opposite Hemsworth and Jessie T. Usher (he plays Steven Hiller’s son Dylan, another accomplished flyer). But the complexity of their three-way relationship soon makes itself known, born not out of love but Jake’s cockiness gone wrong (he almost killed Dylan in training). When it becomes clear Patricia’s only romantic ties are with Jake, the focus then shifts to her productivity elsewhere. She is Whitmore’s daughter and an adviser to the current President but Patricia can also handily navigate a fighter jet — not that the film wants to show it. She could be assisting the resistance from the air but instead splits her time between house-buying conversations with Jake and controlling her erratic father. There is a moment of reprieve as the film reaches its finale but by then it has already wasted the fiery talents of Monroe. She even says it herself: “You should’ve let me [fly].”

Emmerich and his squad of writers do try to reflect the catastrophic reverberations of the Independence Day attack in their characterisation of various individuals. Whitmore, as discussed, and also the returning Dr. Brackish Okun (Bret Spiner), fleetingly humorous as he ambles around excitedly looking for the next thing to shoot with a giant ray gun. It’s because these characters are played for laughs that the piece is unable to really delve into the emotional scarring they might be privy to. There is also an instance where you think the film might explore how said scarring has had an impact on the moral endurance of humankind: it involves military decision-makers and government officials debating whether to destroy a seemingly neutral ship. Alas, popcorny action stuff gets in the way.

The brooding hum that plays in tandem with the alien mother ship’s arrival is an example of what could have been had the outing further tapped into its natural sci-fi/horror instincts. Another such flirting occurs later, when military men and extraterrestrials play a game of cat and mouse in a dark bunker. It’s essentially a scene from Alien or Aliens, only without the benefit of a creepily construed atmosphere. Clearly Emmerich had one eye on Ridley Scott’s work when making Resurgence given the alien mother looks like a cross between H. R. Giger’s Xenomorph and Smaug from The Hobbit trilogy.

In 1996, Emmerich used scale models to achieve the level of bombast required to compel the cinemagoing public. While I can’t see too much that sets this sequel apart from its parent, there is something about the practicality of blowing up a mini White House that endears more than the admittedly impressive visual palette on display here. Maybe that sums up Resurgence: a film made with so much technical proficiency that it seems to forget about intuition, be it something akin to the scale model intuition that once charmed viewers, or the sort of narrative intuition that plants us in a recognisable world with new, engaging possibilities. It all feels too easily earned.

Independence Day: Resurgence - Jeff Goldblum & Bill Pullman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

★★★★

The Conjuring 2 PosterDirector: James Wan

Release Date: June 10th, 2016 (US); June 13th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Mystery; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

At one point in The Conjuring 2, Patrick Wilson — as Ed Warren, paranormal investigator — attempts to play an Elvis track on an old record player that he immediately discovers isn’t working. The record player belongs to the Hodgson family, mother and four children. Wilson notices an acoustic guitar upright in the corner of the room, left behind by a cheating husband and father, and opts to give the instrument a whirl. He plays “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, his Elvis twang in full effect, and the children join in soon enough. Mum sobs a little; it’s her moment of reprieve. Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) cries too, envisioning a peaceful life with her husband, free from their hazardous occupation. It is such a sweet moment, quite possibly the sweetest of the year. And it occurs slap-bang in the middle of a horror movie.

I have long considered horror the genre most reliant on aid from other genres. Not because an exclusively scary movie can’t be successful in and of itself, but because it often takes added resonance for a scary movie to make that leap towards all-time great. The Conjuring 2 is not an all-time great. It is very good though, partially because director James Wan knows how to handle his surroundings (he’s been there before) and partially because those surroundings host reliable human drama. Just like in The Conjuring (a film I have seen again since this review and enjoyed a lot more), the sense of eeriness we feel as we watch holds more weight because we actually care about the characters on-screen. That’s good acting, good tone management, and good filmmaking.

Having exorcised demons aplenty, the Warrens decide it’s time to give up the ghost and focus on their own family. That is, until the Enfield case makes itself known: Peggy (Frances O’Connor) and her offspring quartet, Janet (Madison Wolfe), Margaret (Lauren Esposito), Johnny (Patrick McAuley), and Billy (Benjamin Haigh), are haunted by a spirit with historical ties to their flagging council house. At the request of the Church, the Warrens travel to England to observe from a distance, though we all know how that usually goes. It is worth noting that the decision to utilise a fairly unknown secondary cast, likely for budgetary reasons, proves a good one as it grounds those characters in a more believable reality. Since we don’t recognise any of the Hodgsons — Esposito’s role as Margaret is her first ever acting gig — it is much easier to get behind them as your average working class family.

The Warrens are roped into another paranormal investigation then, despite grievances. Lorraine has been struggling with the mental anguish brought on by her gift (she can see stuff) while Ed, though less pained physically, seems a bit fed up with the mainstream denial (we see this during a televised debate during which he sports a mean Wolverine hairdo). To his relief, England appears united in its belief that something spooky is going on in Enfield. One newspaper refers to the Hodgson home as “The House of Strange Happenings”. And the Warrens’ begrudging return to the fold becomes truly worthwhile when they meet their clients, a genuinely nice family due a break. Newcomer Esposito, playing the eldest, relays that same attitude of care for her brothers and sister as Emily Browning did in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The siblings can’t afford to argue because they can’t afford anything. The closest thing we get to a squabble lasts mere moments and is over food. As well as poltergeists, they are up against a social climate preempting Thatcher’s Britain (the film is set in 1977, a few years prior to her Prime Ministerial venture, but it might as well be set in the early 80s). Thatcher herself even appears on television at one point. Although Wan and co-writers Carey Hayes, Chad Hayes, and David Johnson mightn’t have meant it, their movie does act as a symbolic decrying of the former leader’s era in government. Here we have a family isolated and afraid, troubled by a domineering force they themselves can’t touch, with no prospect of homegrown assistance. Their house, walls flaking and furniture dank, recalls The Babadook, another family drama disguised as horror. By contrast, the Warrens’ stateside residence is bright and sunny. A home.

Wan recycles a few elements from The Conjuring: the blunt, yellow text that opens the film, perversely serenaded by a malefic male chorus, is a stylistic consistency that works. The haunted house plot is a tad worn out, but when your central pairing are based on real people who often conducted haunted house visits, that’s a tough one to get around. For the most part any sense of tired repetition is painted over by the development we get character-wise. I’m not saying this is in the same ballpark as a Linklater sprawl or something of that ilk, not by a long shot, but it is a treat to watch well-rounded characters bear the weight of horror. Wan welcomes classic genre tropes, utilising Ouija boards and creepy toys as scare MacGuffins. It’s not really about how the characters use these artefacts but instead the emotional fallout of said usage.

Don Burgess delivers behind the camera, exuding initiative and variation. A jarring, jilted effect during an early séance sets the visual tone and justifies the sort of terror described shortly thereafter as “diabolical”. Later, we become part of the horror as the camera swoops around characters and spirits, flirting with disorientation. Sometimes it hovers above those below like an apparition. Perhaps it doesn’t add texture to the narrative, but Burgess’ work is different enough that it should engage viewers accustomed to the conventional. The cinematographer excels during quieter moments, when we expect a jump scare but instead witness unsettling portraits depicting faces that become unpredictable silhouettes in the dark. Wan and Burgess develop an eerie atmosphere that demands noise as silent scenes are unbearable — a Demon Nun sequence in the Warren household, or the odd actions of a firetruck toy back in Enfield.

It’s not perfect. There is a character arc that veers too near The Exorcist and a character, played by Franka Potente, who is drawn as thinly as can be. At over two hours the movie is too long to sustain its fairly straightforward story, which means the buildup to significant happenings is stretched beyond its narrative limit. The Warrens don’t start their investigation until at least an hour in, for instance, and we do miss the purposeful presence of both Farmiga and Wilson for large chunks of that hour. In fairness, the filmmakers are not doing nothing — they’re spending that time developing the plight of the Hodgsons. It’s just that there is sense of halted momentum, albeit momentarily.

Delighted with the financial prosperity yielded by their Annabelle doll spin-off (an incredible $257 million from a measly $6.5 million budget), Warner Bros. have announced the growth of another cinematic branch centred on the Demon Nun entity that haunts this instalment. Though efficient enough, Annabelle failed to match its elder’s genre know-how. The Nun is certainly a scarier visual prospect and a film based on it will undoubtedly rake in the cash, but I think The Conjuring series is at its best as it is here: more interested in its human characters, grounded by the performances of its human actors, and served admirably by its human director.

The Conjuring 2 - Nun

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros.

Warcraft (2016)

★★★

Warcraft PosterDirector: Duncan Jones

Release Date: May 30th, 2016 (UK); June 10th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Toby Kebbell, Dominic Cooper

It has become the norm: independent filmmakers, fresh off a critical and commercial doozy, cast as the head of a cinematic juggernaut. Colin Trevorrow went from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. Gareth Edwards, Monsters to Godzilla and now Star Wars. And here’s Duncan Jones, a director with science fiction sensibilities and a penchant for creating smart stories, now perched atop the film version of arguably the biggest online role-playing game in the world. Warcraft has been years in the making (10, in fact, but at least three under the tutelage of Jones) and you can see that effort on-screen. You can also see and feel the director’s touch, his love of nuance and, as was the case in both Moon and Source Code, his heralding of complex characters.

Sure, Warcraft isn’t the most original fantasy movie ever made, and sure, there are some significant problems. But Jones brings a maturity that would have likely been missing had a less crafty filmmaker been in charge. Thank goodness too, because that maturity affords viewers the opportunity to engage with those on-screen. Those being: Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a charismatic warrior charged with defending the world of Azeroth when a Horde of rampaging orcs appear via gigantic portal. One of the orcs is Durotan (Toby Kebbell) whose wife is heavily pregnant with their child and whose conscience defies the evil antics of leader Gul’dan (Daniel Wu). Essentially, the latter wants to sap the life from humans and use that energy to further power the aforementioned portal, paving the way for an unstoppable orc army.

It’s a lot to take in, especially when you consider the legion of other characters I haven’t yet mentioned: half-orc half-human Garona (Paula Patton), Guardian mage Medivh (Ben Foster), young apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper). There are more still, and you can see the mythology’s depth throughout the opening half hour as Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt introduce each chess piece. What this means is a period of bamboozlement for us uninformed lot — early scenes are stitched together like multicoloured patchwork, at first confusing and a bit tough to get one’s head around. But to Jones and Leavitt’s credit, events become easier to follow when the individual story strands merge to create a cohesive whole.

In light of the ongoing refugee crisis, you might draw conclusions from the movie’s explicit imagery depicting the movement of populations. But there doesn’t seem to me to be any political point-scoring going on. Quite the opposite given we see good and bad on both sides, something reflected often in the real world though not necessarily promoted by Hollywood. Humans and orcs are treated equally: Jones opens on Durotan and his wife Draka (Anna Galvin) having a laugh and joke about their appearance. It’s made clear that these gargantuan creatures endure the same frailties and hold the same grudges as we do. Some of the orcs are evil, not because they’re orcs but because they’re evil and because they champion power-hungry agendas. Others like Orgrim Doomhammer (Robert Kazinsky) are more subtly shaded, though the reasons why are best left to the movie.

Of course, the human characters are ultimately the most sympathetic — fitting, given they are on the defensive throughout — and you get caught up in their plight. This is mainly down to the work of Fimmel as Lothar, a thoroughly effective protagonist with a magnificent weary war face, and Patton, whose sturdy Garona acts as a genetic bridge between the two races. Their interactions initially point towards a conventional destination but, again, the filmmakers explore a credibly different route. Lothar has been cast as the movie’s Aragorn and there are similarities between the two, however it is Cooper’s King Llane who really dons that crown: like Return of the King Aragorn, he values loyalty and manifests as an amiable ruler at a time where figures of power in real life are not so amiable (“War with us will solve nothing”).

Warcraft does struggle to evade the shadow of Peter Jackon’s trilogy, especially in an aesthetic sense. An extended fight sequence around halfway through might as well be a deleted scene from the franchise, set in a dark ashen gravel-scape resembling Mordor (there’s even an enormous fiery mountain in the background). Look out for an Isengard-esque construction shot, and listen out for a “for Frodo” declaration. Perhaps the comparisons are unfair but everyone who goes to see Warcraft will have seen The Lord of the Rings in some form and the similarities are tough to shake. Having said that, the visuals are generally impressive; minute details differentiate the orcs and make the individual CG characters stand out — a particularly evil baddie sports wolf skull shoulder pads and a pitch black beard. Kebbell, it should be noted, puts in another commendable motion-capture performance.

Paul Hirsch’s editing style occasionally jars as one scene fades to the next but there are fun visual snippets for fans of the game, including an aerial shot that jumps from town to town showing the damage done by a rampaging orc army. And I should point out a spot of superb editing towards the end: Hirsch flirts between two separate inter-species battles, highlighting the need for civilisations to solve their own issues before causing problems elsewhere. Flawed, somewhat parochial systems of hierarchy — Khadgar’s struggles as a young mage; the slave state we see Garona in when she first appears — would have benefited from deeper analysis had more time been available.

The film is bookended by two “Warcraft” title cards, the first of which arrives bearing a summer popcorn aura. Big, brassy letters. A booming score. Jones’ movie opens with that event cinema feel and almost capitalises thereafter. Even though it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights set by the superior fantasy blockbusters of yesteryear, Warcraft wins favour in its attempt to establish captivating, varied characters (the feature passes the Bechdel test during a conversation between Garona and Ruth Negga’s Lady Taria). It’s three stars but three very good stars, and a very enjoyable, surprisingly engaging, two hours at the cinema.

Warcraft - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

★★

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles PosterDirector: Jonathan Liebesman

Release Date: August 8th, 2014 (US); October 17th, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett

Despite never holding the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in any sort of nostalgic regard, one of the most enduring memories I have of my school-morning television-gorging is the theme song to the original 1987 cartoon. The lyrics “when the evil Shredder attacks” have outlasted many a childhood theme song (I can’t even remember the Batman intro), to the point where I now wonder whether I actually watched the show or simply tuned in for the music and then retreated into a cereal paradise. I’m sure I did watch though; I remember being entertained even on gloomy weekday mornings — surrounding content notwithstanding, what eight-year-old boy wouldn’t be entranced by a quartet of giant green turtles doing karate?

Now that I’m a bit older, I guess the surrounding content does matter more. A great deal more. And while Jonathan Liebesman’s live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not a movie devoid of everything except computerised action, there is quite of lot the giant-green-turtles-doing-karate shtick going on. Liebesman has procured an action portfolio in his time as a director, especially in recent years via films such as Battle: Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans. This isn’t as gritty as Battle: Los Angeles but it does employ the same kinetic ground-level tact: snappy panning shots, often incomprehensible. CG also plays a significant part, the movie’s visuals echoing those in Transformers of big beasts thumping each other in not-so-engrossing waves of manufactured pixelation (Michael Bay serves as an executive producer). It’s certainly not on that franchise’s level of abomination though, and Megan Fox is a bit better here than she was there.

She plays April O’Neil, a puff piece reporter with eyes set on bigger things. To its credit the film initially disposes of origin story tendencies and invites us into a world with pre-established goodies and baddies: the latter, the Foot Clan, a tyrannical body of fighters ravaging New York City. During one of their raids (or something) April spots a vigilante fighting back. Four, in fact. Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), Leonardo (Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard). Such an unfettered invitation suggests boredom with the narrative norm and injects immediate urgency. On the flip side, it does feel like there’s a first act missing. Characters don’t get a proper introduction as much as they are coloured with broad brush strokes — heroes, villains, corporate leaders, roving reporters, deceased family members.

This pacy open also sets a shallow tone long-term as the piece swaps the fleshing out of these characters for splurges of exposition. We hear Shredder (Tohoru Masamune) bemoan society’s attempt to “reduce the Foot Clan to a myth,” which seems to be the driving force behind he and his troupe’s antagonistic relationship with the city. The turtles’ basic lineage is also revealed via extended chatter; some combination of breakthrough science and mystical hijinks. The screenplay’s avoidance of setup also means the stakes are low — we spend very little time getting to know those on-screen therefore when the inevitable happens (self-sacrifice), it does so without any emotional clout.

And despite the origin-dumping opening, the inevitable does happen quite a lot. Writers Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Evan Daugherty give in to clichés on purpose: scattered journals and tapes decorate the floor of April’s room because she is a journalist reaching for the brass ring; there is a grandmaster rat in the sewers who guides the turtles, which means long, pointed facial hair and a wise gown; and, of course, the usual nefarious backstabbing is abound. The turtles don’t escape conventionality either, which is quite something given they are, well, giant green turtles doing karate. All four act like goofy teenagers unaware of what they’re doing but aware that they’re fairly good at doing it. They are supposed to be witty and a bit erratic: one of them makes a Star Wars joke because that’s what cool teens do, though I couldn’t tell you which one. I do know that Raphael seems angrier than the other three. He wears a red bandanna for metaphorical purposes.

Michelangelo, orange, develops a romantic soft spot for April that the piece plays on with some comedic success. His feelings are nothing compared to those Will Arnett holds for his broadcast partner though. Arnett is quite likeable as Vern Fenwick, the everyday cameraman pining for the pretty girl. As such, every second line he speaks manifests as an attempt at light satire: “Nothing better than dropping off a pretty girl at a rich guy’s house.” The rich guy in question is old enough to be April’s father — in fact, before tragedy struck he worked closely with her father — but that is beside the point. Arnett’s misplaced hope adds some human energy in places human energy is otherwise lacking, such as the aftermath of a sewer fight sequence.

There are some amusing moments, mainly when the film pokes fun at itself for being so absurd. An impromptu elevator beatbox, for instance, eliminates any potentially serious edge from the fight sequence that follows. Which is how it should be. We never feel like we’re watching something buoyed by any sense of its own self-importance, desperate to shine a light on the criminal underworld or the state of NYC pizza. But then that’s all it can be: a frothy action romp. And unfortunately this romp doesn’t have characters worth investing in, or enough funny gags to hide the weightlessness. When all is said and done, it really is just giant green turtles doing karate.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Megan Fox

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures