Finding Dory (2016)

★★★★

Finding Dory PosterDirectors: Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane

Release Date: June 17th, 2016 (US); July 29th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill

You know the story by now: if something is successful and breeds enjoyment, chances are that something will have a successor. Gratification, after all, is a part of life. And it’s a significant part of the Hollywood experience too. When Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton initially heard rumblings from Disney bosses about the possibility of a sequel to his 2003 underwater triumph, he balked at the prospect. But, as revealed in a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he has since had a change of heart, the director now willing to accept sequels are good for business. They pave a path for financial gratification. It’s up to filmmakers like Stanton, therefore, to ensure franchise entities are built atop the correct foundations. That is, sturdy storytelling and not paper money.

Which brings us to Finding Dory, Stanton’s tentatively conceived follow up to Finding Nemo and a sequel built, for the most part, atop the correct foundations. Whereas the previous outing cast Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence) adrift, Finding Dory unsurprisingly sends Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) on a disorienting sprint across the ocean as she attempts to reunite with her long lost parents. Nemo’s father Marlin (Albert Brooks) is again part of the rescue mission, frustrated by Dory’s manic forgetfulness but caring and determined to see her safe return.

That Dory’s short-term memory loss again weaves its way into the humour bulk without negligence is commendable. Stanton and co-writer Victoria Strouse carefully craft amusing sequences that can only exist as a result of Dory’s amnesia — pick out any of her interactions with octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill) — but that refrain from using said amnesia as a target. The moments also work because they have us laughing alongside Dory; she recognises that in certain situations there is amusement to be drawn from her misfortune. “Don’t be such a Dory, Dory,” the blue-tang exclaims following a bout of forgetfulness. But being such a Dory is what endears her to us, and what helps make the film an enjoyable watch.

Nor do the writers stop short at humour; we are encouraged throughout to sympathise with Dory’s predicament. The main story unfolds around a handful of flashbacks which, though repetitive in content, familiarise us with Dory’s mother (Diane Keaton) and father (Eugene Levy). We know who to look out for, but for a period you do wonder whether or not Dory will recognise her family. Little happens during these splashes of the past, each snippet designed mainly to generate a sense of familial bond rather than develop our protagonist’s personality. It’s a decent idea that does at least propel this notion of love overriding hardship even if it doesn’t stimulate much drama.

This means much of Dory’s gravitas is derived not from the narrative, but from the recording studio. Ellen, her amiable voice honed over years of daytime talk show hosting, again affords Dory a wonderfully receptive sound. Let’s be honest: it wouldn’t take a whole lot of wayward writing to turn a forgetful, high energy former sidekick into a main character primed to get on our nerves, but Ellen’s easy listening ambience ensures nothing of the sort even threatens to happen.

Now, though, to the pièce(s) de résistance: Idris Elba and Dominic West as a pair of lazy sea lions. The actors nail the grumpiness of their animated companions, immediately punctuating the screen with a Cockney arrogance that brims with devious intent. They defy the fast-talking mantra laid bare elsewhere in the film: whereas Dory, Marlin, and the rest rattle off words as if they are in a Scorsese picture, the sea lions settle for a more chilled manner. They reserve their vocal velocity for Gerald (Torbin Xan Bullock), a fellow flipper who on numerous occasions attempts to climb atop their resting rock: the duo’s subsequent “Off! Off! Off!” war cry is hilarious.

The sea lions, named Fluke and Rudder for those keeping score, turn up during Marlin and Nemo’s search for Dory at a marine institute. The lions are a highlight, clearly, but our time spent with Marlin and Nemo generally isn’t as interesting as our time spent with Dory. (Perhaps this should not come as much of a surprise given the wild goose chase arc is essentially what we saw play out in Finding Nemo.) The marine institute does welcome more engaging action though, especially since this is the point at which the film whips out its Pixar badge, recalling the likes of Toy Story as it depicts the turbulent ingenuity evoked by a bunch of non-humans navigating a human locale.

I should note the animation itself, especially since the marine section of the film is where we really get to witness the visual prowess contained within the Pixar design ranks. Animation by nature provides a platform for unlimited imagination, but when working within a human world it can also pose something of an adaptation challenge. Getting the right balance between recognisable realism and kooky fantasy is key, as is not seeping into uncanny valley territory when promoting those imaginative tendencies — while it is crucial we see an octopus disguised as a baby in a pram, it is also imperative nobody is freaked out by the resultant visual. And while the antics are out there, the landscape itself shimmers with authenticity. The water texture is wonderful, for instance, especially when viewed from above ground.

Finding Dory is not as emotionally gripping as recent Pixar efforts — the comparison is strained, I admit, but this isn’t on the level of an Inside Out. Nor is it as thematically resonant: there is a point when we arrive at the marine institute where you think the writers are about to delve into the whole Sea World saga, but that thought never gets off the ground. Moments of wit are aplenty throughout though, and while there doesn’t seem to be enough story left for another adventure (unless we’re talking sea lion spin-offs), Stanton and co-director Andrew MacLane have commendably rinsed just about all they can from the series. Heck, they even mould the word “carp” into a one-liner with year-best potential. Incredible.

Finding Dory - Dory

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

★★★

Beasts of No Nation PosterDirector: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Release Date: October 16th, December (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

Beasts of No Nation, concocted almost single-handedly by Cary Joji Fukunaga — or that guy who brought us True Detective season one — has been touted as potential player at next year’s Academy Awards. The catch? It would be the first Netflix original to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s elite on their golden night. Its online distribution platform may well be the future of entertainment (hopefully not exclusively), but the film itself is rooted in the past and present, telling a story of violent civil war in West Africa.

Fukunaga (director, screenwriter, cinematographer) patiently paints youngster Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family with endearing strokes: once a teacher, his father is now a humanitarian clearing land for refugees; his mother evokes a loving aura, carrying out maternal and manual tasks with a smile; and his aloof big brother is your typical teenager, obsessed with muscle mass, girls, and having a laugh. Agu himself is smart egg, a kid full of sneaky creativity. He deconstructs his father’s TV and rebrands the empty frame an “imagination television” hoping someone will fork out some cash or food for it.

Granted, there is a significant military presence in the unnamed village and displaced groups are struggling to find a place to settle, but life for Agu is fairly good given the circumstances. That is, until war truly makes its presence felt. “Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing,” narrates Agu. And everything does change, horrifyingly so. Separated from his family, Agu finds himself lost in the bush and about to unwillingly travel down a path paved in unethical stone. For at this point Idris Elba’s Commandant swaggers on-screen, an eerily charismatic rebel leader who hypnotises with words, poisoning the minds of those too inexperienced to think for themselves. Elba suitably commands, persuasive in posture and delivery.

Head of the Native Defence Force, his followers parade a faux-macho exterior, wagging weapons and wearing the surrounding landscape as a battle uniform. Agu, now with nowhere else to go, falls in line and begins his training as a child soldier. As words such as “family” and “father” ring out, you can see Agu’s resistance collapsing and his loyalties shifting towards Commandant’s bloody policy. The latter trains his young army to understand stringent battle formations and inflict uncompromising punishments, all the while a soundtrack of propaganda wails out in the background. The soldiers also play football, albeit more aggressively than normal, a fleeting reminder of their humanity.

Once in battle mode, the situation turns to abhorrence: one particular execution is horrid, but thankfully (admirably) Fukunaga doesn’t gratuitously linger on the visual. It’s not that type of film. Rather, Beasts of No Nation wants to convey the very real dehumanisation of children via war and mind-warping. The sieges that we see are so impersonal, so chaotic, that it is difficult to tell who is killing and who is dying — and that’s the point. One such invasion is painted red even before blood has been shed, ominously predicting the inevitable while also projecting the drugged-up mindsets of the invading adolescents.

Fukunaga’s lens work gives character to the jungle; shots of mossy foliage landscapes wonderfully signify the denseness of the locale, parading this idea that there is no escape, not even for the rebels. It is a notion best captured early on as Agu attempts to escape a band of gun-toting killers: Fukunaga pulls his camera back, carefully revealing the contrast between the vibrant jungle ahead and the smoke-filled decimation in the youngster’s rear view. The environment transcends reality: the aforementioned coaching sequences, engulfed by mist, are loosely reminiscent of those swampy Dagobahian sessions in The Empire Strikes Back.

Blood Diamond is a clear cousin: the setting, the narrative, the relationship between Agu and his family — these are all shared characteristics. But Fukunaga’s piece doesn’t have said outing’s heart. While the lack of direct Western involvement is entirely justified (character or plot-wise), the lack of a determined, soulful saviour hurts. In Blood Diamond, that saviour is Djimon Hounsou. He plays the father of a young child solider and his stunning performance imbues Edward Zwick’s film with hope and humanity, traits that are somewhat lacking on this occasion. You find yourself yearning for a Hounsou-esque force in Beasts of No Nation, particularly as Commandant’s poisonous grip over Agu gains momentum, but there simply isn’t one.

There is also very little grace — some might argue rightfully — and this causes you to pull away from proceedings. Without a father figure valiantly attempting to save his son, there is nothing really to tow you back in. Abraham Attah is a true revelation as Agu, his transformation from bright boy to corrupt soldier disheartening, but also lacking in any semblance of goodwill. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye is equally as good as Strika, another fighter with whom Agu bonds, yet unfortunately the duo don’t share enough screen time to truly generate a sense of collective humaneness.

I think the film is too long. Scenes reap repetition by the 80-minute mark, though this could be a measure employed intentionally to emphasise the gruelling nature of war. Fortunately, it does begin to incorporate some political elements in the third act; we hit an urban centre where Commandant engages in a verbal joust with another NDF head honcho. As they barter back and forth over payment, leadership, and resource deployment, The Last King of Scotland springs to mind. Had Fukunaga cherry-picked a tad more from his aforementioned genre ancestors, he could have been onto a classic.

Beasts of No Nation - Elba & Attah

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): NetflixBleecker Street

Prometheus (2012)

★★★★★

Prometheus PosterDirector: Ridley Scott

Release Date: June 1st, 2012 (UK); June 8th, 2012 (US)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Idris Elba

Is Prometheus really that bad? Ridley Scott’s loose prequel to Alien digs an enormous hole and subsequently fills it with even grander musings; of humankind, creation, belief and life. It then plunges nose first into said crater, now as deep as the questions posed, before admirably clambering back to fresh air armed with purpose and answers. During this ascension we marvel at spectacle, engage in mystery, taste small bites of action, are disconcerted by horror and ponder classic science-fiction. To a certain extent Prometheus truly is a genre-splicer, but the outing always has its reels firmly planted in the wonders of sci-fi, exactly where they should be. In an era when summer often denotes the arrival of popcorn-churners, Prometheus survives on the front-line, waving the flag for intelligent and thought-provoking cinema.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archaeologists on the brink of silencing the most emphatic of all historical debates: who created us? The year is 2093 and a team of seventeen personnel including Elizabeth and Charlie have just landed on LV-233, a moon prominent in a number of ancient diagrams discovered by the duo. Aboard their vessel funded by Weyland Corporation is David (Michael Fassbender), a robot whose appearance resembles that of a human being, and whose thought process is occupied exclusively by sense. The landscape that enshrouds the team bustles with unknown activity, enticing the crew’s inbuilt need to forage, which they do unwittingly and at their own peril.

Zipping up his spacesuit, David is confronted by Charlie who queries the need for the machine to dawn such protective attire. “I was designed like this because you people are more comfortable interacting with your own kind. If I didn’t wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose,” retorts David, summing up the philosophy of Prometheus in a single answer. The crew are on a voyage to meet their maker, but in doing so unknowingly present a case denouncing the ignorance of humanity. Collectively, we see ourselves as the pinnacle species yet we are wholly unjustified in our complacency. Damon Lindelof’s script explores how we not only rely on other genetic divisions — plants for medicine, animals for food, machines for everyday ease, Gods for belief — we even mistreat them.

Humanity’s naive demeanour is reflected in Charlie’s actions: he howls like a domineering wolf upon reaching a huge stone dome situated atop the uncharted moon, and proceeds to remove his helmet without approval, seemingly above any potential atmospheric ramifications. The film is an eye-opening critical analysis of human behaviour and although the results stop short at shining a positive light on us, they do beckon forth an important topic of discussion.

David’s response also reflects the insightfulness and opulence of Lindelof’s script, one that is not afraid enter to a room packed full of grandiose ideas, and is then brave enough to exit whilst leaving the door ajar. The occasional question is left unanswered which is absolutely fine (but we need some answerable continuity in the upcoming sequel). No issue remains unchallenged though, much to the filmmakers’ credit. Scenes prompted by deliberations over the various characters’ motives and beliefs are subtly tantalising; one involving David, Charlie and a snooker table particularly stands out.

These moments never overstay their welcome as they flirt with extravagant perceptions that are inherently connected to the science-fiction genre. Entering said realm we expect to contemplate life, the universe and everything and Prometheus encourages us to do exactly that. (“Where do we come from? What is our purpose? What happens to us when we die?”) Thankfully events refrain from boiling over into an indulgent territory; the aforementioned questions — unending in scale — are questions that cross our mind often and the significant consideration on show is warranted.

Reflective themes in the bank, Prometheus turns towards tension-ratcheting atmospherics. Alien is in part a horror franchise, there it is imperative that Scott’s prequel retains prequel retains an element of fear to complement the titbits of recognisable Xenomorph mythology on display. Marc Streitenfeld’s jarring soundscape is the genesis of discomfort; sequences that take place inside the aforementioned dome are accompanied by a chilling congregation of distant screaming. This eerie ambience disorientates us. The characters panic. A search buoyed by ambitious questions seeking conclusive answers yields unsettling possibilities. Never has the notion of being stranded in space upon an unknown entity felt so terrifying.

Then brass horns prevail, baring a deep verve that reflects the profundity of proceedings. The film’s stunning visual scale is just that, and its impressive execution qualms any potential worries over digital misfiring. Space vessels flow effortlessly, emitting a sense of authenticity as they embed into the landscape. At times, Prometheus’ sheen resembles that of Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychedelic Valhalla Rising; shots of unnaturally rapidly convulsing clouds remind us that we are in a foreign and undoubtedly hazardous environment. The weather too, another reminder that humankind is not the dominant species.

One element that doesn’t quite acclimatise is the occasional spouting of humour. Some may argue that without a light-hearted adage every now and again, the film would be taking itself too seriously. However, the ideas being batted back and forth along the outing’s grand narrative arc warrant a serious tone. Fifield and Millburn — geologist and biologist respectively — are the stock comic relief duo and though Sean Harris and Rafe Spall are solid in their roles, the characters are wholly unnecessary. In truth, the duo’s presence on the ship doesn’t really make sense — they’re buffoons, why would a multi-million dollar corporation hire them? If humour prevails at any point, it’s through Idris Elba’s suave poise and effortlessly blunt attitude as captain Janek.

There are no disastrous performances here by any means, nor are there any bad ones, but Michael Fassbender stands streets ahead of everyone else. One of two surprisingly ambiguous characters (the other being Charlize Theron’s practical Meredith Vickers, whose ethical mindset rides on a Ferris wheel throughout) Fassbender resonates a peculiar charm as robot David, whilst instantaneously channelling the nonchalant precision of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much like HAL, David’s actions take an increasingly perturbed turn; the combination of Fassbender’s astute portrayal and Lindelof’s creation of an opaque character adds up to compelling viewing. Noomi Rapace is another noteworthy performer as expedition leader Elizabeth Shaw. Her pained abdominal acting will have you grasping your stomach and wincing.

This dialogue-driven piece demands total engagement for just over two hours and justifies the attention it seeks. There’s a mountain of ideas here to sink your teeth into and, trust me, your jaw won’t ache. Scott’s film is a modern cinematic gem. Is Prometheus really that bad? No, it’s really that good.

Prometheus - Fassbender and Rapace

Images credit: IMP AwardsCollider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

Alex Cross (2012)

Director: Rob Cohen

Release Date: October 19th, 2012 (US); November 30th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Mystery

Starring: Tyler Perry, Matthew Fox, Edward Burns

Idris Elba probably wouldn’t have been able to overcome the painfully generic plot or the less-than-enthusiastic dialogue here, but at least he would’ve added some degree of watchability as the lead. Initially cast as Detroit lieutenant Alex Cross, Elba inevitably dropped out and was replaced by Tyler Perry (perhaps Elba caught wind of the script). It’s not that the fairly unknown Perry doesn’t try, or even that Matthew Fox’s outlandish Derren Brown-lookalike villain is overly-wacky (at least he diverges slightly from the unequivocal pit of monotony). Rather, Alex Cross offers nothing we haven’t seen before, and nothing we haven’t seen done much, much better.

Alex Cross is a police lieutenant, psychologist, father, husband and soon-to-be FBI profiler (if he takes the job… he’s going to take the job, right?). Along with his partner Tommy (Edward Burns), Cross is assigned a case that involves tracking down a viscous hitman known only as Picasso (Matthew Fox), who is wanted for murder. Picasso’s objectives are murky at best — what is his definitive goal? Is he targeting Cross? Why is he cage fighting? — but Fox’s bizarre portrayal of the maniac skinhead is just about enough to divert attention in the early parts. However the road of attentiveness must reopen at some point, and when it does the villain’s nonsensical behaviour is exposed with shortcomings flailing all over the tarmac.

Maybe Picasso’s purpose did become clear towards the conclusion, but i cannot recall any explanation with confidence, and this indicates one of the glaring problems present: the film is incredibly unmemorable. Some particularly dreary outings are noted for their particular dreariness (take Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Diana, for instance) however Alex Cross fails to even fall into that category. If mild pepper eating was a contest, Alex Cross would represent the second mildest pepper on the menu — what’s the point in trying the pepper of penultimate blandness when there’s a mellower one there that’ll probably be even more tasteless and will leave your mouth drier, but hey, at least it’ll be a conversation starter the next time a friend asks about the least-hot pepper you’ve ever eaten (and that will happen). There is a distinct deficiency in direction, an inspiration inadequacy. The only characteristic prominent in abundance is mediocrity at its lacklustre worst.

To go in tandem with the vacuum of creativity on display is a collection of head-scratchingly obvious dialogue and a number of coincidences that would give Bilbo Baggins single-handedly slaying an army of orcs a run for its money in the ‘inability to suspend audience disbelief’ category. After spending a significant portion of the film looking for leads on the whereabouts of Picasso, Cross lets us know, “I’m just looking for leads”. At one point Cross and his team are trying their damnedest to convince hotel security that an important German businessman staying there is in danger due to a criminal at large, and then out of nowhere a criminal at large whose target is a German businessman appears. These are only two examples of a severe lack of urgency; urgency both away from the action/thriller norms, and in terms of effort put in by the creative minds.

The criminality unfortunately ceases from stopping there: tension is non-existent; some CGI effects are off (watch out for the flaming man); excessive camera-jerking during fight scenes makes it extremely difficult to follow the action; characters are either underused, underdeveloped or utterly unnecessary (the female prisoner at the beginning, what was that all about?). Perhaps the greatest crime of all is giving Giancarlo Esposito, who exhales charisma, a whimsical two-minute cameo… and it’s still probably the best part of the film.

No, the most entertaining aspect of the film is actually an external story attached to it, completely unrelated to the narrative piece itself: Alex Cross was shown on a number of United Airlines flights travelling around America, resulting in several passenger complaints due to its inappropriate placement on board and subsequent screening in the company of underage children. Director Rob Cohen, offering his sympathies and apologies to those involved, gave his two cents as he explained the PG-13 rating meant it should not be shown in general cabin areas. Trust me Rob, the non-child compatibility is far from why Alex Cross should not be shown on flights.

As scathing as this review is, and let’s be honest, nobody involved in Alex Cross will give this a glance never mind a care, I feel it is warranted given the filmmakers spent $35 million on its creation. Gareth Edwards shot his 2010 debut Monsters for less than $500,000, and it is a galaxy ahead of Rob Cohen’s output here. Edwards is currently directing Godzilla, arguably the most anticipated blockbuster set for release next summer. Cohen might be in the running for an Alex Cross sequel.

“This is over right?”

“No it ain’t Tommy, it ain’t over.”

I wish it was.

The Twelfth Doctor

Doctor who?

Peter Capaldi… that’s who.

Credit: Yahoo! Canada
Credit: Yahoo! Canada

Yes, ever since Matt Smith announced his pending departure from the much-loved science-fiction television show back in June — which will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with a special program this November — Whovians the world over have been perched on the edge of their seats wondering, debating and asking who the Twelfth Doctor will be.

The rumour mill has churned out everyone from Luther’s Idris Elba, to Academy Award winner Dame Helen Mirren. Recently, the likes of BAFTA winner Daniel Rigby and Aneurin Barnard of The White Queen have been the bookies favourites. There have even been those such as Barnard who have explicitly stated their interest in the role.

However, today’s unveiling of Peter Capaldi live on BBC1 means that the Tardis will play host to the man who has previously starred in shows such as The Thick of It and even Doctor Who itself, back in series four. Capaldi will join another recent addition to the cast, Jenna Coleman, who after only one season as Clara, the Doctor’s companion, will be the show veteran of the duo.

I began watching Doctor Who when Matt Smith landed the role, meaning Smith’s upcoming exit is bound to be a sad one for me. Smith’s charisma, timing and charm over the past few series’ have made the program hugely enjoyable to watch and resulted in myself becoming a really big fan — not to mention his performances earned Smith a BAFTA nomination back in 2011 — meaning he will be leaving a significant gap to fill.

Smith has a two episodes to go — a 50th Anniversary and Christmas special — before handing the Sonic Screwdriver over to Capaldi, who will fully take control of the role when series eight hits television screens around Easter 2014. The immediate reaction to Capaldi’s selection as the Doctor has been a positive one, and although I personally have not seen too much of him, I am sure he will be a hit on the show.