Review: Midnight Special

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DIR/WRI: Jeff Nichols • PRO: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones • DOP: Adam Stone • ED: Julie Monroe • DES: Chad Keith • MUS: David Wingo • CAST: Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton

Jeff Nichols is a very rare type of filmmaker. With films like Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, he has proven consistently that he has an innate ability to write smart dialogue and imbue his films with a very certain type of mood, all the while managing to keep his films focussed on what is ultimately their most important element: the characters. And now, he’s been given a larger budget with which to tell a larger, more sprawling story with his latest feature, Midnight Special. And while his talent for writing characters and keeping a consistent mood throughout is still present, he doesn’t seem to have gotten the hang of handling large, sprawling narratives with multiple plot threads, characters and factions yet. The result is a film which, although good in its own right, is probably the weakest of all his features.

Midnight Special tells the story of Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon) who must go on the run with his telekinetically-charged young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher, in a star-making performance) and his close friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) in order to rescue his son from a federal government that wants to know how this kid has access to all their secret data, and a religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) reminiscent of the Branch Davidians, who see Alton as their profit/saviour.

The plot manages to have a large scope, simply by cutting the exposition to a minimum while dropping us headfirst into a narrative that’s already in motion. A lot of major events, such as Alton discovering his powers, and the construction of the religious sect built around his powers and predictions, has already taken place, and it’s very clear that we’re witnessing the tail-end of a much larger story.

But like all of Nichols movies, and good fiction in general, a simple plot overview really doesn’t do it justice. What we’re really here for is the father-son relationship between Roy and Alton, and the fact that it works so well is mostly due to Shannon’s spectacular performance as Roy. Like many of Shannon’s great performances (Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter, The Iceman) he uses his face extremely well, using it rather than the dialogue to articulate Tomlin’s feelings and thought processes. Very few actors can pile joy for the return of their son and fear for their son’s safety into one brief look, but Shannon pulls it off spectacularly. Throughout the film, Roy comes across as behaving very harshly toward his son, forcing him to push on despite his ever-weakening state as their journey nears its end, and although Roy’s character could easily have come across as cruel and unfeeling under another actor, Shannon manages with mere looks to imbue this man with a deep compassion for his young, gifted son.

Once you strip away all the ancillary government conspiracies, and the religious phenomena, what you have here is a simple story about a man trying to do right by his son. It’s just unfortunate that Nichols keeps cutting away from the father-son dynamic in order to give more screen-time to the government’s investigation of Alton, a sub-plot which while good, never manages to be as compelling as the father-son narrative, and in the end it just becomes an annoying distraction. Nichols just isn’t as good at the whole government-conspiracy plot as he is at the small character-pieces he used to make his name..

The screenplay is definitely one of this films stronger attributes. This film that is more than happy to leave you in the dark, metaphorically as well as literally. Not only does a lot of the first half of this film take place under velvety black skies (photographed beautifully by D.O.P. Adam Stone), but it has no problem leaving plot points ambiguous, and it’s more than happy for you to try to figure out what’s going on here.

The ending isn’t stellar, but then again this is one of those films that’s all about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the message, not the narrative. This isn’t the story of a man trying to get his son to where he needs to be, or at least it’s not solely about that. It’s about a man trying to do right by his son, it’s about our desire, our need to believe in something concrete, and the forces outside our control, like family ties and adversity, that drive us forward and force us to keep going despite the odds.

The editing from Julie Monroe is superb, lingering on characters faces long enough for the emotion to sink in, while at the same time assuring that the pace never gets too slow for its own good. As well as the pacing, there’s an admirable restraint here, for the first half Monroe will cut away before any acts of violence actually occur, so that in the second half when gunfights actually happen, the sight of blood and the sound of gunshots actually carries some weight because it hasn’t been like this since the film started.

Overall, while this film isn’t great in and of itself, it does still manage to impress, and more importantly, it works as a sign of Nichols’ potential for more films that reach the standard of Mud and Take Shelter in the future. The atmosphere, the tension, the characters, Nichols has all three down to a tee, and, judging from his movies, he knows how to get an excellent performance from his actors. If he learns how to handle big, sprawling storylines as well as he handles small character pieces, then there’ll be pretty much nothing he can’t do.

Darren Beattie

111 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Midnight Special is released 8th April 2016

Midnight Special – Official Website

 

 

 

 

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Review: Trumbo

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DIR: Jay Roach • WRI: John McNamara • PRO: Kevin Kelly Brown, Monica Levinson, Michael London, Nimitt Mankad, John McNamara, Janice Williams • DOP: Jim Denault • ED: Alan Baumgarten • DES: Mark Ricker • MUS: Theodore Shapiro • CAST: Diane Lane, Bryan Cranston, Elle Fanning

Trumbo is the latest film from director Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers trilogy and theh first two Meet the Parents movies, and tells the true story of Dalton Trumbo, a writer who was a member of the Hollywood 10, all of whom were expelled from Hollywood for being members of the Communist party, publicly humiliated, rendered unable to work, imprisoned, and how, led by Trumbo himself, they were able to fight back and beat the system.

Fittingly for a film about writers, the script is top notch, with some excellent dialogue and back-and-forth banter between the characters. The ensemble cast are all excellent, Cranston proving once again that he’s the man, while Louis CK plays a genuinely serious character and pulls it off formidably, David-James Elliott has John Wayne’s way of speaking and mannerisms down to a tee, while Dean O’Gorman play Kirk Douglas so well that when the real-life Kirk Douglas was shown an early print of the film, he commended its accuracy, while Helen Mirren plays Hedda Hopper brilliantly, and John Goodman dominates every scene he’s in.

What is noteworthy about this biopic, is its relevance in today’s world, a world where the media is still used to misleading the general public and stir up hatred against the innocent, (cough, Fox news, unconvincing cough), as well as the hypocrisy of many of the leaders. For example, John Wayne talking about the war they just fought, despite the fact that he never actually fought in it, similar to how so many Republicans consistently encourage young men to join the army, while they and even their own sons refuse to serve.

The score from Theodore Shapiro is top-notch, imbuing the first act with the sense of manic energy it needs to instantly engage the audience, while  during the hearings, adding an audible sense of danger to the proceedings.

The film has a lot to say about this time period, such as how there are no real heroes or villains, just victims of the system, and how what the government was doing was unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the film beats that second one into the ground, with Trumbo himself making speech after speech about how they have to stand up for their right to speak, although Cranston does manage to consistently make that speech engaging.

The film uses original radio broadcasts and also re-creates many news reports from this time, which adds to the immersion, and it shows how cunning and savvy Trumbo was, doing dirty backhand deals in order to stay in the game. The set and costume design is spot on, allowing for further immersion in the era.

While the film is over two hours long, it remains engaging throughout squeezing in a lot of information without ever feeling like a docudrama.

However, there are problems with Trumbo, as he always comes across as in the right. Granted, a few characters question whether he’s fighting the blacklist for freedom of speech or just as a point of pride, but this never really goes anywhere, and his moral ambiguity is left mostly unexplored.

Also there are one or two problems with the film itself. While Trumbo spends around one year in prison, for some reason his daughter has been replaced by Elle Fanning, who is not only much older than the 11-year-old he said goodbye to when he went inside, she’s also much taller and looks nothing like her.

On top of this, good acting doesn’t make up for poor character development, and there was a missed opportunity to show these events from the perspective of John Wayne and his ilk, to let us get into their mind-set and allow us to understand why they thought the way they did, acted the way they did, etc., instead leaving them all reminiscent of the uncomplicated, two-dimensional villains of the films of this era.

Still though, highly recommend.

Darren Beattie

15A
124 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Trumbo is released 5th February 2016

Trumbo – Official Website

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Review: Dad’s Army

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DIR: Oliver Parker • WRI:Hamish McColl • PRO: Damian Jones • DOP: Christopher Ross • ED: Guy Bensley • DES: Simon Bowles • MUS: Charlie Mole • CAST: Toby Jones, Michael Gambon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Nighy, Mark Gatiss

Dad’s Army is a light-hearted comedy based on the sitcom of the same name from the 60s and 70s, and features an all-star cast, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Bill Nighy, Toby Jones, Michael Gambon, and Blake Harrison, all of whom have proven time and time again that they can easily handle comedic acting. It’s just unfortunate that their considerable talents can’t make up for the weak, toothless, and above all unfunny script provided by Hamish McColl.

Gone is the subtlety, the nuance, the class-warfare jokes, the wit of the original show, instead replaced by pointless innuendos and a plot that demands every single character act like a fool in order for it to make sense.

To the plot. It’s 1944. The Nazis are looking for information on Britain’s upcoming invasion plans, so they’ve sent in agent Cobra (Catherine-Zeta Jones, who tells them her name is Rose Winters) to uncover the plans, or something. I’m not really sure why she was sent there, but then again neither is the film, so it all balances out. Later on, characters try to credibly state that if the information she has manages to find its way to the Nazis, they could lose the war.

Now the original show had its fair share of slapstick comedy, as well, as wit and charm, and while those last two can be quite difficult to capture properly, slapstick is usually easy enough to make funny. It’s just too bad that the slapstick here is completely uninspired, often falling into the cliché territories of characters hitting their heads or falling out of windows, or flashing their genitalia at German soldiers. O.K. that last one isn’t cliché, but believe me when I say, this film executes it pretty poorly, so it still isn’t able to make you laugh, which is a pretty big failing in a comedy.

Now, that isn’t to say this film is completely terrible. The cast all do well, Gambon, Nighy, Jones, and Harrison all do their best with the sub-standard script, and did make me chuckle begrudgingly a few times, and Zeta-Jones does extremely well as the wily femme fatale, using her good looks and charm to get the information she needs from the oafish men of the town.

Also, on the plus side the cinematography is done well, and D.O.P. Christopher Ross deserves a lot of credit for how good this film looks, with its bright colours, brilliant shot composition, and breath-taking use of the English Countryside in order to immerse us more in this small seaside town.

But really, though, these positive aspects are in a small minority when you examine this film as a whole. As well as the problems mentioned above, the whole plot feels completely inconsequential, there are no real character arcs, and you never get the feeling that anything’s really at stake.

Ultimately Dad’s Army is a “comedy” which fails so spectacularly to amuse that it would embarrass even Adam Sandler.

Darren Beattie

PG
99 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Dad’s Army is released 5th February 2016

Dad’s Army – Official Website

 

 

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Review: Creed

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DIR: Ryan Coogler • WRI: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington • PRO: Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton, Charles Winkler, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler • DOP: Maryse Alberti • ED: Claudia Castello, Michael P. Shawver • DES: Hannah Beachler • MUS: Ludwig Göransson • CAST: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson

Creed is the latest film in the Rocky series, and manages to do the impossible: redeem Michael B. Jordan for that god-awful Fant4stic movie. The film was written and directed by Ryan Coogler, the writer-director behind 2013’s excellent Fruitvale Station, and this film proves, once and for all, that Mr. Coogler is not a one-hit wonder, he is an amazing up-and-coming talent and I for one cannot wait for his upcoming Black Panther.

As our story starts, Adonis is in a boxing match in Mexico. After winning the fight, he goes back to his comfortable office job, then hands in his notice so that he can pursue a career as a professional boxer. Unfortunately, this proves more difficult than it would seem, as all of the coaches he encounters refuse to train him because… well, that’s never really explained. The coach mentions it’s because he’s the son of Apollo Creed, although that really should be a reason to train him, seeing as he literally has the blood of a champion in him. Anyway, all the trainers in L.A. refuse to train him, so he goes to Philadelphia to find Rocky Balboa and get him to train him, kick-starting a heart-warming journey of redemption, friendship and becoming your own man.

Now the first thing I want to mention is the cinematography courtesy of The Wrestler D.O.P. Maryese Alberti. This film looks absolutely amazing, capturing the dirty, grimy feeling of Philadelphia in a way no Rocky movie has since the original film from 1976, and the boxing scenes are best that this franchise has ever had. The camera moves, swings, dodges, and ducks with Adonis himself, making you feel like you’re the one in the ring dodging those punches, and throughout every boxing scene my heart was pounding so hard I was expecting it to leap out of my chest like Ridley Scott’s Alien. One fight in particular, halfway through the film, is executed with a three-minute tracking shot and is easily one of the best one-on-one fight scenes I’ve seen in a long time.

Creed also boasts great performances. From The Wire, through to Creed, taking in Fruitvale Station and Chronicle along the way, Michael. B. Jordan is proving himself again and again to be one of the best actors Hollywood has to offer. Sylvester Stallone proves that no matter how many stupid Expendables movies he appears in, he’s still a fine actor, giving his best performance since Copland, and Tessa Thompson is excellent as up-and-coming musician Bianca, while the rest of the supporting cast also give it their all.

Creed successfully recaptures the feeling of the original film, being about the characters more than it is about the boxing. Adonis isn’t fighting just for the money and glory, he’s doing it because he wants to get out of his father’s shadow. He doesn’t just want to use someone else’s name and reputation to live comfortably, he wants to forge his own name and reputation, similar to this film as a whole, which makes sure to forge its own identity with its new characters and the hip-hop infusions which it blends seamlessly into the old Rocky OST.

Rocky, as well, is more broken and damaged than he’s ever been, as his wife and most of his friends are dead, his son is in a different country and barely keeps in contact with him, and he’s feeling less and less motivated to keep living, and Bianca is slowly going deaf, which, naturally, is detrimental to her music career. Like the original Rocky, Creed understands that characters who are undergoing personal struggles are a lot more interesting than characters fighting roided-up Russian killing machines. The reason this film works so well isn’t because of the boxing, which admittedly is excellent, it succeeds because the characters are so well-realised and their arcs carry so much emotional weight.

However, that isn’t to say this film is perfect. For one thing, the fight in the middle is so good that the end fight, the climax of the film, ends up being less exhilarating than the fight which ultimately doesn’t matter and makes no difference to the over-arching plot. For another, I didn’t fully buy into the romantic sub-plot between Adonis and Bianca. It seems like they meet, get to know each other for a bit, and before you know it they’re suddenly madly in love. As Hank Moody would say, it’s not really settling for Mrs right so much as it is settling for Mrs right in front of you.

However, these are the petty nit-picks of a critic trying  hard to find something to complain about. The bottom line is that this is one of the finest films to come out this year. Go and see it.

Darren Beattie

12A
132 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Creed is released 15th January 2016

Creed – Official Website

 

 

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Review: By the Sea

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DIR/WRI: Angelina Jolie • PRO: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie • DOP: Christian Berger • ED: Martin Pensa, Patricia Rommel • DES: Jon Hutman • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Mélanie Laurent

 

By the Sea, written and directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt and starring both herself and her husband Brad Pitt, is the first time these two have been on-screen together since Mr. and Mrs. Smith a decade ago. This time their film tells the story of a deeply unhappy middle-aged married couple. Oh dear.

So as our story begins, Roland (Brad) and Vanessa (Angelina) are in the South of France for their second honeymoon, in what appears to be a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. He drinks too much and she spends too much time moping around, popping medicine and not eating anything. After a loooooooooooooong, sloooooooooooooooooow first act, a newly-wed couple is introduced, and it just so happens Mr. and Mrs. Just Married are in the room next to Roland and Vanessa, who soon discover a peep-hole which they can use to view them having sex, and from there things get even…. weirder.

Now if there’s one thing this film definitely has in its favour it’s that it can’t be faulted on a purely technical level. The locations are beautiful, and the cinematography, courtesy of DOP Christian Berger, is beautiful. The colour-palette is brilliant, adding to the atmosphere by showing us the world as seen by a depressive: dull, and nowhere near as vibrant or colourful as it usually is. On top of this the sound design is incredibly crisp and sharp, also adding to the immersion.

The acting from Pitt, Jolie and the supporting cast is on point and there’s an ambiguity to proceedings which works well. Usually in stories like this, the husband is framed as some brutish, insensitive oaf who doesn’t actually care for his wife, whereas here things aren’t that simple. Roland clearly cares deeply for his wife, and makes it clear with the little gestures he makes, such as when he straightens her glasses, and knows when she needs to be left alone. At the same time, it is clear that she has not made married life easy for him, and if we had had time to actually get to know the characters, I’m sure they would have been quite interesting.

The flashback snippets imply what may be causing her depression, and the claustrophobic cinematography in their bedroom conveys how  trapped she feels in there, trapped in her own depression.

Unfortunately, everything else about this film is plagued with problems. The film is a bundle of good ideas balanced by poor execution. The atmosphere-building is good, but there’s too much of it, and it soon wears itself out, then keeps going for good measure – and when the film finally gets to its emotional peak, it’s anti-climactic to say the least. Of course you need to take time to establish that the characters are depressed, but there’s a line between establishing a plot point and beating the audience over the head with it, and if you keep beating people over the head with the one and only good plot point you were able to come up with, then they’re going to get very bored very fast.

By the Sea wants to be a big, serious, dramatic, slow-paced mood-piece, but it doesn’t have enough ideas for a feature, and would have been much better off as a short film, and, as a result, it’s relentlessly padded to the point of monotony; its plot very loudly and dramatically goes absolutely nowhere; no-one’s character is developed in any way – not even the two leads, and when you can spend two hours with a character and know barely anything about them, then you know the writing has failed miserably.

 

Darren Beattie

15A
122 minutes (See IFCO for details)

By the Sea is released 11th December 2015

By the Sea – Official Website

 

 

 

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Review: Grandma

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DIR/WRI: Paul Weitz • PRO: Terry Dougas, Andrew Miano, Paul Weitz • DOP: Tobias Datum • ED: Jon Corn • DES: Cindy Chao, Michele Yu • MUS: Joel P. West • CAST: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden

Grandma is the latest feature from writer/director Paul Weitz, and boasts excellent performances, a stellar script, some of the most fleeting yet memorable characters to appear in a film this year, and an ability to send a message without being preachy.

As our story starts, we meet Elle Reid (Tomlin), a bitter, sarcastic old woman in the middle of breaking up with her much younger girlfriend of four months. Tomlin’s performance perfectly encapsulates the soul of her character: a woman dying on the outside, yet hard as a rock to the outside world. After the break-up, her teenage grand-daughter Sage (Garner) turns up on the door-step, knocked-up, broke, and in desperate need of an abortion.

And here we have one of Grandma’s greatest strengths: its refreshing lack of the usual song-and-dance routine about whether or not abortion is ethical. Sage needs $600 by 5:45 pm or she can’t get the abortion. Trouble is, she doesn’t want to go to her own mother, because she’s afraid of being judged to death, so she goes to her grandmother for the money, who unfortunately is broke for the next week; so they decide to embark on a day trip wherein they’ll travel around the city, meet Grannies old friends, and see if they can beg, borrow and steal enough money to pay for the abortion. Of course, it’s never explained why they can’t just cancel the appointment, wait a week until Granny gets paid, and then get the abortion, but the film overall is so stellar that I’ll give this plot-hole a pass.

So as our heroines get started on their road trip, we learn about the life of this particular grandmother. And what a character she is. In a lesser film, Elle Reid would be a doting, silly, not-all-there comic relief character – there to ease the tension while everyone else gets things done. Instead, she’s easily the most-capable character in the film, as forcibly determined as she is intimidatingly intelligent.  I won’t give anything away, but this is one old woman that you do not want to mess with, throwing out sweet punchlines throughout the story that prove that the old dog is very much alive and kicking.

The acting across the board is excellent, with Julia Garner doing brilliantly as Elle’s young, timid grand-daughter, while Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, John Cho and Sam Elliott all perform excellently during their brief appearances.

While it could be argued that this film really is just a linear sequence of character interactions that exist to fill time before the ending, it’s so well-executed that it’s difficult to fault it for being that. The film also succeeds on its ability to send across a positive message without preaching, landing a few excellent digs on the anti-abortion crowd, while casually referencing the abhorrent harassment that abortion-seekers get every day of the week in the U.S.A. The social commentary is subtle, nuanced, and doesn’t feel the need to beat you over the head with its message.

One of the best movies of the year.

Darren Beattie

16
78 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Grandma is released 11th December 2015

Grandma – Official Website

 

 

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Review: Theeb

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DIR: Naji Abu Nowar • WRI: Naji Abu Nowar, Bassel Ghandour • PRO: Bassel Ghandour, Rupert Lloyd DOP: Wolfgang Thaler • ED: Rupert Lloyd • DES: Anna Lavelle • MUS: Jerry Lane • CAST: Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat, Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen, Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh

 

Theeb is the debut feature from U.K. born writer-director Naji Abu Nowar, and tells the coming-of-age story of the eponymous hero. With stunning locations, a great musical score, and some sharp performances from the non-professional actors comprising the films cast, this is a true must-see adventure for the summer of 2015.

As our story begins in, we meet Theeb, a recently orphaned member of a Bedouin tribe of pilgrim guides, and his elder brother Hussein. Right from the get-go, it’s obvious that these two have a strong bond and a mutual compassion for each other, quite the achievement considering these two aren’t professional actors, which says a lot for Nowar’s directing abilities.

After giving us a look at basic tribal life, (gathering water from local wells etc.) the plot kicks in as a stuck-up British soldier and his Arab agent friend show up at the encampment looking for a guide to bring them to the train-tracks. Despite the fact that the tribe has nothing to do with the civil war in the Ottoman Empire taking place at the time, they’re sucked in because their own customs dictate they must guide anyone in need of guidance. Theeb’s elder brother Hussein agrees to guide them there, and Theeb decides to tag along despite the soldiers protests.

From there, the film feels a lot like a classic western, specifically the classic True Grit (1969), in that a snarky teenage protagonist must learn to adapt in order to survive in a harsh environment. The film’s stunningly beautiful locations are also reminiscent of many a John Ford classic, and the themes of survival and vengeance will certainly be familiar if you’re a fan of the classic Westerns. The musical score also feels like it could find a home in a Sergio Leone movie, albeit with more of an Arab touch, appropriate given the setting. At first, the plot seems simple enough, four guys wandering around the desert together, but like all good stories, it throws a few curveballs at you to keep you on your toes.

Much like Theeb and the other Nomads, by the half-way point of this picture, you have no idea what’s going to happen next, and this feeling of uncertainty is more than welcome in a boy-hero’s journey such as this. Like many coming-of-age stories, this is a story of a young boy being introduced to the harsh, violent stage of life that is adulthood, and in this case unwittingly taking part in an event that will bring down the Ottoman Empire. The danger the gang encounters along the road is palpable and immersive, thanks to the excellent sound design, and a minimalist musical score that allows you to focus on the action, unlike the average Hollywood blockbuster which smothers every fight scene with a bombastic musical score that more often than not distracts from the action.

One of the better films I’ve seen this year.

Darren Beattie

100 minutes

Theeb is released 21st August 2015

 

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Review: Pixels

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DIR: Chris Columbus • WRI: Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling • PRO: Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Allen Covert, Adam Sandler • DOP: Amir Mokri • ED: Peck Prior, Hughes Winborne • DES: Peter Wenham • MUS: Henry Jackman • CAST: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan

Pixels is one of the worst films I’ve had the displeasure of watching, and an immediate contender for the worst feature film of 2015. Badly written, badly acted, and so disgustingly misogynistic I’m amazed anyone approved this script for shooting.

Basically, what happened here is that Sandler and his goon squad from Happy Madison took a brilliant concept for a film, and messed up. Terribly.

So, the plot of this train-wreck is that in 1982, some video-game footage, taken from an arcade competition, where we see our lead characters as children, was sent in a probe to outer space, in the hope that aliens would find it and realise what lovely beings the human race are. And indeed, aliens did find it, and they somehow mistook it for a declaration of war, and decided to launch a full-scale offensive against Earth, the aliens presumably having nothing better to do. Wait a minute, let me get this straight. Aliens find this thing that’s been randomly floating through space for the last 30 years, which would indicate that it’s gotten pretty far away from Earth at this point, somehow mistake it for a declaration of war, and instead of going back home to get their defences ready for the invasion that they think is oncoming, instead they immediately fly over to Earth and launch an attack without even trying to contact earth’s leaders about the transmission? Maybe asking about it, making sure it was a declaration of war before killing millions? For an alien society which the film at a later point establishes as peace-loving, they seemed very quick to launch an offensive against the planet. Anyway, as you may have seen in the trailers, instead of the traditional alien Warcraft flying around destroying things, the aliens instead use creatures modelled from the data they got from the probe, i.e. they send down giant pixelated versions of Pacman, etc. to kill us.

They decide to challenge humanity to a video-game off, i.e. giant rounds of one videogame or another get played, the winner of each round gets one point, if humanity get more points, the aliens leave peacefully and stop trying to destroy us. This causes U.S. President Cooper, played by Kevin James, (no really) to call upon the arcade champions of 1982, the year the probe was sent up, to play for the Earth, as he considers them the Earth’s best hope, and this begins another man-child hero’s journey similar to Happy Gilmore or Billy Madison.

We’re then introduced to the gamer characters, and of course they’re the stereotypical weirdo gamers who have of course done nothing with their lives, because it’s of course inconceivable to think that any video-game fans could possibly have normal lives… Oh wait, yes it is, it’s just that writing a character like that would be original, and originality is too much to ask of a film like Pixels. To be honest, I would have understood the point of maybe one of them being a loser still infatuated with gaming, while the others have moved on with their respective lives, perhaps there could have been a character arc about the loser learning about the dangers of all-consuming nostalgia, the need for variation in our hobbies, and the need to grow up and do something constructive as well as have hobbies?

As the trailers have been boasting, this film doesn’t just feature James and Sandler, it also has  Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad, and both are… absolutely terrible. Dinklage, for some reason, spends the entire film doing a voice which I think was meant to indicate that he was from the hood, and although he did admittedly make me laugh once, the one and only time I laughed during the run-time of this supposed comedy, Josh Gad messed up completely. Not only does every one of his jokes fall flat on its face with an audible thud, he seems to confuse comedy with screeching like a prepubescent child whose balls are still in his neck trying to match the screeches of a Dragon-ball Z character as they power up for 10 hours. And of course, it goes without saying that tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum do their usual things: Sandler comes out with unfunny one-liners while James does the usual “clumsy funny fat guy” routine he’s been doing since King of Queens.

I’ve heard a few people call this film Scott Pilgrim for complete douches, and I agree. You see, whereas Scott Pilgrim used the video-game rules in real life thing as a way to tell an interesting story that used gaming iconography to make thoughtful commentary on love and the human condition, Pixels uses video-game iconography to show us a video-game character, say “oh look, I recognise that and for some reason that now qualifies as a joke! Oh look its frogger! Give us money to remind you frogger existed!”

There’s another sub-plot involving Gad’s creepy caricature of the stereotypical gaming nerd being madly in love with a Buffy the vampire-slayer-esque action chick, (who by the way wears an outfit that looks like it was designed by a hormonal teenage boy with scissors for hands, and who never speaks) and when he finally meets her, she can for some reason go non-pixelated even though all the other aliens look like they were beamed straight off an NES. .

There’s also the problem of this film having no idea who its audience is. Given all the retro-gaming references, you’d assume it was meant as a nostalgia trip for all the members of Generation X that would have grown up in the arcades playing these games, but since anyone who actually played these games in the arcades would be 30-40 by now, why is the humour so blatantly dumbed down and made for 6-year-old children? Every single one of the unfunny jokes in this film is like something a six-year-old might laugh at. I get that they want to make it kid-friendly so parents will spend money on it for their children, there is business sense there, but could they not have had a few innuendos, some Dreamworks-esque adult joke that kids won’t understand?

You know what hurts the most about this film? The fact that it could have been good. Let’s go back to the beginning of the film, the arcade championship. I actually did enjoy the first few scenes of this film, and the child actors they got to play the kid versions of Sandler, James, Dinklage and Gad were surprisingly good, and this film is directed by Chris Columbus, director of the first two Home Alone movies, the first two Harry Potter movies, and the classic Mrs. Doubtfire, proving that he knows how to get good performances out of child actors, a skill not every director has. What if, instead of skipping ahead 30 years, the alien invasion had happened back in 1982, and we had spent the entire film with the children? We still could have had the whole retro-game thing, and if it had been set back then, it would have been even more of a nostalgia trip for the Gen Xers who grew up with these games. It could have been The Lost Boys with aliens. It could have worked. If they’d tightened up the script a little bit and gotten rid of the misogyny, it could have been good!

In the interest of objectivity, I feel I should mention the fact that the CGI is genuinely excellent, and looks amazing! It’s just too bad everything else about this film falls flat.

Alright, I’ve been dancing around this issue long enough, I think it’s time to address the giant, tuberculotic elephant in the room: the rampant sexism and complete disregard for all female characters. Firstly, Adam Sandler and Michelle Monaghan have about as much chemistry as Hayden Christianson and Natalie Portman had in the Star Wars prequels, and Sandler comes across as pretty eerie a lot of the time, especially when he first meets Monaghan. Honestly, if you edited “Creep” by Radiohead over the scene where Sandler and Monaghan first meet, it would be quite fitting. Then there’s the larger issue, i.e. the fact that there are a total of five female characters in this entire film. Two have no dialogue, and one of those two spends all her screen-time walking around in a Xena: Warrior Princess-esque fetish outfit, two are celebrity cameos, four of them are princess peach-esque trophies for the male characters, and only two of them have any relevance to the over-arching alien invasion plot.

In the end, this movie is easily the worst thing to happen to gaming since Jack Thompson. The acting’s sub-par across the board, the script is terrible, none of the jokes are funny, it’s openly misogynistic, and Columbus finally made a film worse than Nine Months. Well done.

Darren Beattie

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 minutes

Pixels  is released 14th August 2015

Pixels – Official Website

 

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