18 August 2013

Review: The Lone Ranger

(Dir: Gore Verbinski, 2013)

It would be impossible to write a review of The Lone Ranger without making mention of the mauling its received in the media, as well as the ludicrous reactionary comments made by the filmmakers [here] in response to the dire box office performance. If ever it seemed like the media wanted a film to fail, this was it. The reasons behind this keen knife-sharpening are mystifying, yet it's an attitude that seems to permeate large swathes of the media, who seem to foam at the mouths in anticipation of failure. How many times this summer have we read excited stories about box office bombs - After Earth, Pacific Rim, The Hangover Part III etc, or about films expected to be bombs. The media seemed pretty determined to highlight the plethora of issues that World War Z had getting made and reacted in surprise when lo and behold it did decent business, because you know, a troubled shoot and reshoots automatically equate to a rubbish film (look at how Apocalypse Now, Jaws and The Shining turned out after all). Why this desire to revel in failure? Whilst writing this I came across a ridiculous "feature" on Yahoo! Australia [here] highlighting the biggest box office bombs of the year, including The Bling Ring - a film with a budget of $8m that has made just short of $6m at the box office. A small independent film that's not pretending to be anything more - one of the biggest box office bombs of the year huh Yahoo? Get a fucking grip.

So what of those comments by Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski, Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer? It's understandable they're defensive about the film, they've put a huge amount of time and effort into making it, but their righteous statement of its quality and how it'll be perceived differently in time seem blind. More worrying is their outright laying the blame for its failure at the critics door. Firstly, are they deluded enough to believe that critics play such a pivotal role in the decision-making process today? Yes, last century the opinion of critics proved a true arbiter of influence, but times move on and the public now has access to all the information they might need wherever they are. They can know everything about a film, watch it's five different trailers ad infinitum, have seen every leaked on-set photo, as well as know what their friends think about it all with the click of a button. These comments willfully ignore the fact that the world has changed and there are now other factors at play in opinion-forming. And with marketing activity now regularly starting so far out from release, including the media's excessive coverage of such big releases, it's not hard to imagine a bit of fatigue from audiences when the film does eventually get released. This can only impact the immediacy one must feel to see a film.

But regardless of all that, The Lone Ranger is still fighting something of an uphill battle right from the get go. Disney's decision to invest a reported and not inconsiderable $215m in the film was one hell of a gamble. Western's seem to be one of the only remaining genre poisons at the box office now (although this summer also seems to sadly suggest original sci-fi too). Cowboys & Aliens didn't do well last year, barely scraping it's way to $100m, whilst True Grit produced an exceptional $171m, but of course that was a Coen Brothers film aimed squarely at adults with the benefit of Oscar and awards recognition. Both The Lone Ranger and Cowboys and Aliens were aimed a lot younger, a considerable struggle when today's younger generation have moved on a long way from Westerns (for better or worse), seeing them as "old" and second rate in terms of the high-tech action they're used too. Yet Disney clearly approached this with the logic that pirates used to be box office anathema and we of course know what happened when Johnny Depp donned a ton of make-up, put on a stupid accent and climbed aboard a galleon. Literal box office gold. Perhaps not unreasonable then to believe that he could make it happen again?

Except Depp is one of the primary failings of The Lone Ranger. He's not necessarily miscast, but his tendency to overplay these sorts of roles works against the character. It just feels like Depp pulling the same schtick yet again and it's frequently difficult to divorce the man wearing the make-up from the character, particularly when there's moments of cheeky comedy or a strange selfishness that feels like it's playing up to the camera. Tonto is the most interesting character here - he has a curious past and a massive weight on his shoulders, but we have to put up with the annoying Deppish character traits that obfuscate this until the plot demands its revelation later on. Hammer's character, the Lone Ranger John Reid himself, is paper-thin, but he perhaps doesn't need to offer anything more than a classic heroism and a rote desire for revenge. Hammer is well cast, exuding a dashing quality that feels very rooted in the type of heroism of stars from the thirties / fifties (depending which iteration of the source you want to consider), that also feels like a perfect fit for the era of the films setting.

The villain side of things offers a similar split. William Fichtner's Cavendish is grimy and cut from the right evil cloth for someone to whom life is cheap - a classic seeming Western villain if you will. On the other hand Tom Wilkinson's Cole, who is pulling the strings here, is a pure cliché of power and industrialisation obsession, but with a decent beard. Meanwhile James Badge Dale provides some decent support and Helen Bonham-Carter is solely here for a two scene cameo and to ape one of the crazier ideas in Planet Terror.

Yet the curious thing about The Lone Ranger is that it's more entertaining than any of this suggests it should be. The story is pretty standard fare but it tries to offer up something with a bit more meaning around Native American rights, although the way it deals with this is pretty ham-fisted and you still feel like it's all about the white man winning in the end. At least the fact it's pointing in this direction is a positive thing. Visually is where the film really excels. Much has been made about the cost being so high due to shooting on location and trying to minimise the amount of the film constructed in computers. This shows, which makes it more interesting and somewhat more exciting to watch. It genuinely does look fantastic, but surely that's the least we should expect from modern day big budget films set in scenic locations? It's rarely boring yet it still feels overlong and bloated and some trimming would've really helped, particularly cutting out the execrable and entirely unnecessary framing device.

The Lone Ranger is successful at offering generic big budget fun. It's certainly not the car crash the media has made it out to be (much like the awkwardly unnecessarily media hate John Carter received last year) but it is a film with many issues that hold it back, not least of which is Depp. This is just another in a recent long line of films where he's excessively made-up and annoyingly hams it up, to the point where you're watching the actor rather than the character. His status as an interesting actor is now a long long way behind him, as even recent films where he's not playing dress-up have been poor. The worst thing he can do for his career now is another Pirates of the Caribbean film. But if you can get past Depp you might just be able to enjoy some well staged big action scenes, amazing scenery and classic heroism.

8 August 2013

Review: Only God Forgives

(Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

Welcome to hell. That's seemingly what it feels like to enter Only God Forgives' Thai torture chamber. A harsh sounding intro perhaps, but an apt description of the seedy world we're thrust into from the start. This is not the "safe" world of Drive, as some might expect from a re-team of Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling. We're far from the familiarity of Los Angeles and the breathless romance of that film. This is an alien land. This is a form of purgatory.

Only God Forgives is the story of a man, Julian (Gosling), who knows he deserves to be stuck biding his time in this faceless, unglamorous, unfamiliar part of the world. His hands have had to do bad things and he wants rid of them. His mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives here and is a hellish force of nature. Playing against type Scott Thomas is fantastic, with a controlling vitriolic manner exuding from underneath a trashy blonde wig. Is she really the Devil; the one pulling Julian's strings; the one that he's been waiting here for? At heart he has a sense of honour, seen when he learns the reasons for his brother's death, but something seemingly unacceptable to the evil dripping from his mother. Revenge begets revenge.

But they are not alone - the death of Julian's brother sparks police officer Chang's (Vithaya Pansringarm) interest in them. A quiet but effectively lethal man. An avenging, wrathful God even, meting out punishment to sinners from the blade of his sword. Julian knows he deserves to suffer, he wants to be judged for his sins, he wants to feel the swathe of the sword, even if it means picking a fight with God to get his just punishment. He is a righteous man struggling as the Devil pulls at him. A man who wants to take a sword to the Devil but despises the ability of his hands to do so. This is the world Julian is lost in, perhaps forever.

The visual style of Only God Forgives offers a striking representation of damnation. Hues of red and darkness amidst beautifully framed and composed shots enhance the detachment of this place and make the scenes of brutal ultraviolence even less surprising. It's never short of stunning to look at. Meanwhile a score that from the start shudders under its immense weight of portent, enhanced with the rhythm and booming of Thai drumming, ensures a deep undercurrent of unease. Mix this with minimal amounts of dialogue and Chang's karaoke, which ratchets up the level of local weirdness, and the effect is overwhelming.

Darkness pervades Only God Forgives. It's a gripping descent into the fractured world of a man facing his demons and the empty possibility of salvation. Gosling is the perfect choice - a master of quiet, enigmatic moodiness, yet stylish and good looking enough for the films arty visual approach. It's beautiful to look at, but intentionally weird and obtuse enough to frustrate many. It's full of fascinating themes, which it tempers with a savage violence. This ain't Drive mark II. This ain't a light watch. This is all the better for not being either of those things. Only God Forgives is a superb spiral into hell.

6 August 2013

Review: The World's End

(Dir: Edgar Wright, 2013)

Is the reverence towards Edgar Wright justified? He stands in the intriguing position of being worshiped in geek circles, whilst being considered a writer / director worthy of affection by the mainstream media. The fact that his career is intrinsically linked to current filmic national treasures Simon Pegg and Nick Frost does him no harm. Spaced with its quirky late nineties / early noughties out-there-comedy says yes it is justified, as does the clever but not quite as amazing as some make out Shaun of the Dead. Scott Pilgrim vs the World certainly makes the case for yes, but Hot Fuzz has always been the weak link here, stretching a somewhat forced, thin idea far too far. That film could've been considered an anomaly, but the release of The World's End throws that theory up in the air.

The final part of the so-called "Cornetto trilogy", The World's End sees Pegg and Frost reuniting yet again, but this time in a slightly less buddy buddy manner. The film is about a gathering of former friends who have not seen each other since school days, returning to a home town they've almost all escaped from to complete a pub crawl that defeated them at age eighteen. But in typical Wright fashion all in Newton Haven is not as it seems.

As a set-up this falls on the unexciting side of adequate. The return to ones roots after many years apart always has the potential to be interesting, but to truly work it relies solely on decent characterisation, which unfortunately is something seriously lacking here. The cast of actors assembled is typically impressive, however when your group of friends consists of Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan, it's criminal to under-use them. Marsan at least gets a couple of decent scenes, but generally they're all a bit bland and faceless. Frost's Andrew is the most well rounded character, a very satisfying change from both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz where he is the annoying / slightly lacking sidekick. We get more background and a sense of him being a decent man; someone worthy to root for whom for the most part makes logical sense as logic escapes their situation.

For a change Pegg plays a character, Gary King, who is the complete antithesis - an extremely unlikable and irritating character without a single redeeming quality. His arrogance, narcissism and childlike obsession with recreating what transpired twenty years ago is left unexplained. He hasn't changed in that time, but we don't know why he was like that to start with and why intervening life has done nothing to alter his path. This raging ego means he continues to not give a damn about his so called friends, who themselves remain sceptical about why they even listened to him again. They don't like him and there's clearly no way the audience can either, so how do we root for him or the group to succeed? Attack the Block, another British film with this exact primary failing, comes to mind - that's a film that's impossible to like to due to detestable characters you desperately want to see lose. Pegg plays King really well, embodying his chaos and arrogance, but that's meaningless when the character is awful. And within this, sight of the deeper questions of where life has or hasn't taken you whilst reimagining your childhood aspirations, is lost in a reminiscence of the joy of getting pissed with your mates.

The film does have some interesting visual ideas as it takes its turn into sci-fi weirdness, such as the strange blue light emitted from the towns residents when they're displeased, but it's pure Invasion of the Body Snatchers homage, just with a Stepford twist. It's a shame that there's nothing more original to this aspect of the story, as the pub crawl surface layer is desperately crying for a more interesting story beneath it. This is supposed to be a comedy but there's precious little to laugh at - a handful of mildly amusing chuckles do crop up, but there's nothing to elicit an actual proper laugh. The previous films in this "trilogy" offer many more occasions to laugh, as well as more enjoyable silliness.

The World's End is a thoroughly disappointing film. There is some potential somewhere in there, if not from the blandly unoriginal story and poor characterisation, then from the decent cast. But a chief protagonist who remains detestable for the duration of the film, alongside a lack of laughs or even any sense of fun, leave an unappetising experience. In fact it's a boring film that seems to drag on interminably, and Frost is the only one to escape positively. This is easily the worst film Wright has made. Considering the quality and enjoyability of Scott Pilgrim vs the World, hands down Wright's best film and the only one without his usual cast of friends, it's positive that his next project, Ant-Man, is likewise based on a comic, suggesting there's still something curious to come from him. The World's End doesn't make it easy, but for now at least I still believe in Wright.