All posts by Joel Copling

Review of T2 TRAINSPOTTING

Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova. Directed by Danny Boyle. Rated R. 117 minutes. 2017.

Stewing in nostalgia is no way to go through life, but it’s the only way the characters in T2 Trainspotting know how to live. The film, catching us up on the lives of characters to whom we were introduced in 1996’s rambunctiously enjoyable Trainspotting, also stews in that sense of nostalgia, much of it empty, because while the ending of the first film certainly hinted at an enormous amount of interpersonal conflict between its characters through the self-preservative actions of one of them, this film only deals with that conflict when the machinations of John Hodge’s screenplay allow it to do so. Instead of dealing honestly with its wounded characters, director Danny Boyle inserts each of them into separate plots, then shifts randomly between them. The sense of focus and rhythm has been replaced by routine.

One of the plots dedicated to these characters works surprisingly well, and that would be our reunion with Spud (Ewen Bremner), whose position as the comic-relief of the central foursome hasn’t really changed. There’s a sense of melancholy to the character this time around, as we learn that his wife Gail (Shirley Henderson) has left him, with their son in tow, after he relapsed and spiraled into the drug world once more. There’s also a lot of potential in what we learn about what Renton (Ewan McGregor), the de facto leader of the group, has done in the interim since making off with almost all of the money owed to the others. The only one to whom he gave any money was Spud, who of course abused his chance at an escape. Spud is in the middle of attempting suicide when Renton is reunited with him and saves his life.

If these two are the ones who are treated as genuine characters, the others in the group are treated as narrative devices. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has been leading a life of con artistry with Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova), blackmailing upper-class society people with forged sex tapes to take a considerable portion of their income. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been in prison, although he breaks out by staging a shivving with a fellow prisoner and being sent to hospital. When he gets out, he can’t wait to get back into his life of crime, even going so far as to employ his son in a scheme that nearly goes terribly awry. Much of these threads is played as comedy, although Sick Boy’s schemes quickly evaporate as the film sees less and less use for them and Begbie’s animosity toward Renton (once the film, in its last act, finally reunites the two) leads to a massive shift in tone as it all becomes a caper with a horror-movie killer as the predator.

Interwoven through this surprisingly thin material is a movie that consistently looks backward with an oddly misplaced sense of fondness that misses the point of the earlier film. There was at least a bit of optimism in that film, particularly when Renton twisted an anti-drug advertisement to look forward; here, he gets a similar moment that has itself been twisted into something as cynical as how he once viewed Scotland. He eventually turns to his old ways, which feels like an obligation in a screenplay that also contrives for Diane (Kelly Macdonald) to return for one scene to pass judgment on Renton. With T2 Trainspotting, Hodge and Boyle commit an act of revisionist history that feels dishonest, both toward its audience and toward characters who, for all of their flaws, deserve better.

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Review of POWER RANGERS

Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G. Directed by Dean Israelite. Rated PG-13. 124 minutes. 2017.

There is a solid start, as well as a firm foundation in its characters, to Power Rangers. That is a surprise for this adaptation of the goofy television series that has just recently entered its 24th season and is primarily known for the over-the-top brand of karate-infused acrobatics employed by the titular superheroes to defeat various, fantastical villains and monsters. In fact, director Dean Israelite and screenwriter John Gatins barely seem interested in introducing the Rangers of the title until the point at which its climax begins, and that ends up being a good decision. I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because for a long time, it’s easy to rally behind these misfits-turned-heroes, thanks to genuine chemistry between the actors and a screenplay that considers how they must end up being Rangers.

The effect is a nice deviation from the beats of the plot that we expect, but it only lasts so long. Until that point, we are introduced to those eventual heroes. The first three meet in detention. Jason (Dacre Montgomery), the Red Ranger, is a disgraced football champion who got into trouble with the law after an incident involving a male bull that was confused for a female cow (Think about it) and an ensuing chase with police. Kimberly (Naomi Scott), the Pink Ranger, was involved with an unfortunate candid-photo incident that drove her to knock a tooth from her boyfriend’s mouth. Billy (RJ Cyler), the Blue Ranger, accidentally blew up his lunchbox. There is an amusing energy to the scenes between the heroes, who also ultimately include Zack (Ludi Lin), the Black Ranger, and Trini (Becky G.), the Yellow Ranger.

This is especially true after the driving narrative is established. The fivesome merge after an incident at a closed-off work site leads them to some glowing rocks and a collision with a train that unintentionally binds each of them to the color signified above. They meet Zordon (Bryan Cranston), a former Ranger who died burying the rocks in order to secure the destiny of five future warriors, and Alpha 5 (voice of Bill Hader), the remarkably annoying robot who has been waiting 65 million years for these warriors. It becomes clear that the warriors could technically have been any five people who stumbled across the glowing rocks, but whatever: They must save the universe from the clutches of Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), a villainous villainess of villainy who is searching for some sort of other glowing rock thing that’s been hidden away in a Krispy Kreme location (seriously) and who has a leviathan made of gold as her main lackey.

The best scenes of the teenagers accepting their destinies as Rangers include the initial discoveries of their increased strength and speed, a training montage that might be a montage but seems more focused on the physical comedy of teenagers whose hormones are raging as much as their new powers, and a fireside chat in which we learn about some of the issues plaguing the kids (Zack’s mom is ill, Trini is currently questioning her sexuality, Billy is autistic, and Jason and Kimberly are suffering from the ennui of their dull existence in the town). The particulars of the plot held by Rita are hogwash whose conclusion has apparently been left to the inevitable sequel, and the build-up to the climactic action set piece, in which the characters don their suits for the first time, is so long that, when it comes, the visually ugly chaos that ensues is all but entirely anticlimactic. Power Rangers is intriguing enough to make one wonder where a series spent in the company of these characters might lead, but then it becomes a Power Rangers movie.

Review of MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI

Featuring the voices of Gaspard Schlatter, Sixtine Murat, Michel Vuillermoz, Paulin Jaccoud, and Veronique Montel. Directed by Claude Barras. Rated PG-13. 66 minutes. 2017.

My Life as a Zucchini is a film of solemnity and quirk, of sadness and strangeness, that makes a significant impression in spite or, perhaps, because of its short length. At barely more than an hour, the film covers a surprising terrain of emotions within complex, well-rounded characters who are not what one expects from an animated feature. We are accustomed to the broad strokes. Animated characters, especially those who are children, are inherently innocent unless the film goes out of its way to underline their evilness. Here is a film that doesn’t coast on such assurances. These are remarkably vulnerable children at the center of this narrative, of which there is a thin one that kind-of, sort-of frames the central action. They mean well, but their spirits are utterly decimated by life’s cruel twists of fate. If they hurt others, that is because they are a product of their environment.

This is a roundabout way of saying that our story begins with young Zucchini (voice of Gaspard Schlatter) accidentally killing his mother by slamming an attic door on her head and sending her tumbling back down the ladder. The mom (voice of Natacha Varga-Koutchoumov) was a verbally abusive drunk, but he didn’t mean to do her any harm. She’s his mom, at any rate, and the incident changes the boy’s mood. His name, of course, isn’t actually the vegetable, but it’s what his mom called him. He keeps (or reclaims) it, much as he packs one of the hundreds of beer cans that were littered on the floor of their home and which he used to build various structures in what increasingly feels like a previous life. They are souvenirs of that past existence, certainly not of happier times, but as a reminder of them and as a keepsake.

After the mother’s death, Zucchini is transferred to the care of the state, his father having not been in the picture for some time. The officer who handles his case, a kindly man named Raymond (voice of Michel Vuillermoz), finds himself identifying with the boy during his stint with a home for damaged children. The two correspond while Zucchini becomes accustomed to life with a makeshift family of troubled youngsters as his siblings and with the likes of Rosy (voice of Veronique Montel) and Mr. Paul (voice of Adrien Barazzone) as their parental units. It’s a state of limbo while better plans are made for the children, but one gets the feeling that such plans are rarely fulfilled for this lot. That isn’t, of course, a reflection upon the children themselves, who are an eccentric lot as prone to compassion for others as anyone else, but their situations have made them into ticking time bombs with an emotional charge.

A few of them exist in the background, but it’s a tribute to the screenplay (by Germano Zullo, Morgan Navarro, and director Claude Barras, adapting the novel by Gilles Paris) that the few characteristic traits we receive are comprehensive ones. Ahmed’s (voice of Raul Ribera) mother was deported one day while the boy was at school, and he bursts from the structure asking if she’s returned every time a car door slams outside. Alice’s (voice of Estelle Hennard) father did “disgusting” things to her that have left her with a scar over her right eye and a tendency toward anxietal tics such as tapping her spoon or intentionally entangling herself in a jump rope. Simon’s (voice of Paulin Jaccoud) parents committed a crime that landed the both of them in jail and their son to the state support system.

They are characters defined by trauma, but the definition isn’t a simple one. That becomes plain upon the introduction of Camille (voice of Sixtine Murat), a new child at the institution. The girl witnessed her father commit suicide after killing her mother, and now her aunt (voice of Brigitte Rosset) verbally abuses and degrades her. The film’s final stretch, which involves an elaborate escape plan for Zucchini and Camille, with Simon’s initially reluctant help, is, on the face of it, an unnecessary addition of external conflict, but the effect is sneaky: The stakes for these characters extend far beyond the film’s story, and their escape from a life of waiting for a new destiny that seems unlikely to come is joyous to behold.

The film’s style contributes a lot to its effect, because such a sad story feels inherently oddball and, thus, absolutely right. The film is a stop-motion creation, featuring characters with unusual proportions, although Zucchini’s strangely sized and shaped head is the oddest of them all. There’s a cute factor to the animation here that is undeniable and attributable to the usual charm of seeing stop-motion in work. The story told with such a style would seem more apt for black-and-white live-action, so the rush of affection for its characters is heightened by such a representational shift. The oxymoron works in My Life as a Zucchini, which is uncommonly powerful for the animation medium, engrossing us in the lives of wounded characters and returning, to some of them, a bit of emotional agency. What a wonderful and sorrowful film this is.

Review of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline. Directed by Bill Condon. Rated PG. 129 minutes. 2017.

The 1991 animated masterpiece, a Disney production that was the first of its kind to be nominated for Best Motion Picture at the Academy Awards, receives a live-action reimagining with Beauty and the Beast, which spends a lot of time reminding us of its originator and ends up doing it too well. There have been some cosmetic tweaks in the storytelling, some of them appreciated and others mostly innocuous, but one spends the duration wondering what the point to the whole enterprise is. It’s not a cynical thought, either, or at least it isn’t once one moves past the question to look at the creation that sparks it. Director Bill Condon and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos are so enamored with the earlier feature that they’ve gone and essentially created a facsimile of the thing. Comparisons, pesky as they can be, are impossible to avoid in this case.

The story pretty much remains the same. The Beast (Dan Stevens, in a great performance of immense sadness and reluctant compassion) still becomes one after scoffing at the ragged woman who was actually an enchantress, although we receive some appreciated context into the prince he was before the curse was cast. The tragedy of the Beast, of course, is that he was less desirable as a prince than as a misunderstood brute, and this film does a solid job of capturing that sad truth about his character. Belle (Emma Watson), meanwhile, is still a farm girl and an enigma to townfolk who still think it unwise that a girl be a bookworm. She is still sought by Gaston (Luke Evans), the self-obsessed lout who wants her as his bride whatever the cost (Speaking of Gaston, he is still shadowed by LeFou, played by Josh Gad, who looks upon his friend with – let’s say – a little more fawning admiration than in the animated feature), and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline, boundlessly wonderful) is still considered the village madman.

During a horse ride, Maurice still stumbles upon the Beast’s castle, at which he is stunned to discover moving and speaking dishes, furniture, and decor. Trapped by the Beast in a holding cell, Maurice is still found by a frantic Belle, who offers herself up as a tribute for imprisonment in the place of her father. She is treated gruffly by the Beast but kindly by the animated inanimate objects that populate the castle. The candelabra Lumiere (Ewan McGregor) and the carriage clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) are still the comic relief, the teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson) and her teacup Chip (Nathan Mack) are still sources of sneaky wisdom, and the wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), the piano Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), and the feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are still pretty much background decoration. The designs of these characters are clever in the way the physiological features develop naturally from the designs of the objects, but the realism is also odd and slightly irksome in execution.

The other design elements, from the magnificent castle to the seamless visual effects to the emotive motion capture work on the Beast’s profile, are stunning to behold, but they tend to outshine everything else here. The bevy of old songs feel, with the exception of the title theme, obligatory (Lumiere’s dinner welcome of “Be Our Guest” falls especially flat as it becomes a lot of random visual noise with an orchestral arrangement that overpowers the lyrics), and the handful of new songs are simply interruptions that say what’s already been said. Unfortunately, this Beauty and the Beast only emulates the pleasures of its animated counterpart, bloating much of a simple story beyond the two-hour mark and removing much of the passion from the production. It’s a gorgeous but mechanical whisper of its true potential, never as before and rarely a surprise.

Review of A UNITED KINGDOM

 David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Vusi Kunene. Directed by Amma Asante. Rated PG-13. 111 minutes. 2017.

It is important, first and foremost, to remember that film is a visual medium. It’s an obvious point to make about an art form that forces its consumer to view a series of rapidly moving photographs, but it is also important to remind oneself that, when it comes to relaying a true story through such a medium, the result must not simply coast on the extraordinary nature of its specifics. This is the trap into which Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom falls, unfortunately, for here is a film whose makers seem to have believed that the story they were telling was of more importance than their telling of the story. Even the broad subject matter is fascinating for the previously uninformed, such as myself, who had no idea of the marriage between the heir to an African king and a salesman’s daughter from London.

The heir is Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, offering a fine performance that would make a good companion piece to the one he gave as Martin Luther King Jr.), and as his parents both died when he and his sister (Terry Pheto) were very young, Seretse is ready to take the throne of rule in the British protectorate of Bachuanaland (now known as Botswana) that was previously their grandfather’s. He is soon to return from London, where he has been completing his schooling, to assume his reign, but within the final months, he meets Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), who, unlike Seretse, doesn’t come from great wealth and is white. Their courtship is quick, and when he is faced with a return to his country without the woman with whom he has fallen in love, he asks her to marry him, much to the disapproval of his uncle (Vusi Kunene) and her parents (Nicholas Lyndhurst and Anastasia Hille). She, of course, says yes.

The situation is, to put it lightly, complicated, as it also turns out that neither the African regime nor the British government is approving of this union, especially after it is consummated. For the African tribe of which Seretse is meant to be king, it is a question of tradition: The wife of a king is also their queen, and they understandably see the rule of a white queen as another power move from colonialist England. For the British government, it is a question of decency: Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the government’s liaison to South Africa, and Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton), a commissioner, can barely remain discreet about his smug prejudice, which is shared by many whites among the upper class. For Seretse and Ruth, it is a question of love: Theirs for each other is undying, even in the face of such discrimination and a game of proverbial chess between countries.

The problem is that screenwriter Guy Hibbert, adapting a book by Susan Williams, doesn’t offer much insight here beyond what is on the page. Seretse and Ruth have an appropriate sweetness as a couple (Pike is also solid as Ruth, especially in moments when she realizes she has entered situations beyond her control), but they remain cyphers when treated individually. They are defined entirely by their roles as subjects of a biographical picture whose intent seems to be hitting the beats of the story without much to-do. There are scenes of individual power, such a pair of speeches given by Seretse that prove both his worthiness of a position of leadership and Oyelowo’s skill at delivering them, but the whole of A United Kingdom is too broadly drawn to garner much response beyond the kind that one has to the story it tells.

Review of LAND OF MINE

Roland Moller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman, Oskar Bokelmann, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard. Directed by Martin Zandvliet. Rated R. 100 minutes. 2017.

The men must scour the shore for landmines that their fellow soldiers laid down to trap the enemy. It is slow and grueling work, and the catch is that these are not actually men. Many of them are boys, these prisoners of war, and the hard men that lord over them care not a lick if they live or die. The sergeant says so, repeatedly, including after a bout of hunger in his workers and even when one of them catches ill, vomiting into the night and unable to stay awake for very long. The workers must use poles to prod the ground at intervals of roughly six inches, and the process to defuse the mines is simple in theory but unthinkably tense in practice. It’s a potentially hopeless life that is led by these young men in Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine, but the writer/director doesn’t wallow in it.

That’s an important achievement, because it means the characters are able to be and grow as characters, rather than needing to supply fodder for a message movie. This is, quite decisively and effectively, an anti-war polemic, but it doesn’t have the anger of the usual polemic. There are no blustering speeches raging against the System for sending these boys into a war they hardly understand. The situation is harrowing on its own terms, and it doesn’t need the burden of such acidic political statements. The realpolitik here is inherent in the story Zandvliet is telling, although the film does supply melodrama of a different kind by way of the story framing the situation. It loses some of its potency in those stretches, but that also matters less than it could have. The urgency is still present.

Some of the young men are essentially interchangeable, although a few of the interchangeable ones are afforded a personality trait (or, if they are lucky, two), such as one boy whose hands are so shaky we are never sure that he will survive. The job, after all, requires a steady hand. The ones who are not so interchangeable act as our entryway into the story. Sebastian (Louis Hofmann) wears a cross that reminds him a father whose fate he does not know, and he’s the one who readily stands up to their commanding officer on behalf of his brothers in arms. Helmut (Joel Basman) is the eldest and the makeshift leader of the young men, but his squirrelly attitude and conniving ways are a constant source of punishment for the whole group. There is a pair of twins, Ernst (Emil Belton) and Werner (Osker Belton), so one must only count the minutes until the pair are separated.

The commanding officer is Rasmussen (Roland Moller), and the focus on him is where the film occasionally stumbles. He begins with contempt for the boys, whom he sees as nothing more than another group of German soldiers worthy of death. “Better them than us,” says his own superior officer Jensen (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard), and Rasmussen’s look of concession to the point says it all. That sense of murderous superiority shifts quite radically, albeit slowly, when deaths occur (The craftsmanship in showing us the aftermath of a mine explosion is effective and somber, even after we start to expect it by way of a cleverly framed shot) and especially when Jensen abuses his power to humiliate the boys. The film essentially becomes another drama about a stern teacher who learns to warm to his students, although Moller’s performance is good enough that it doesn’t hurt the picture too much.

And that’s especially true when everything else is as effective as it is. The emotion might push a bit too hard in such scenes as a silly game of soccer, scored to some flowery compositions, but it’s a stark outlook elsewhere. Every scene in which the prisoners much go forth with their mission to find and defuse landmines is rich with tension and unpredictability. No character is safe here, and the stark presentation of the violence at hand is utterly compelling. Also effective are performances that, every one of them, are convincing and precise. There is not a single actor here that makes a misstep. The sense of focus in Land of Mine is less assured, but the drama is in the pitiable nature of a war that forces boys to fight as men and, if not fight, die without dignity.

Review of KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. 2017.

I hesitate to call Kong: Skull Island a “good” movie, for it is also a movie of undeniable idiocy that contains an ensemble of characters who are really just cutout cardboard figures in the path of the ape of the surtitle. To embrace its simple pleasures, though, one must disconnect with one’s own expectations of seeing a movie with Kong in it, for this is not really a traditional King Kong movie. It uses the character popularized by the 1933, 1976, and 2005 pictures (and the various sequels they might or might not have spawned) as a springboard for an ensemble-driven action-comedy that, if the post-credits stinger is to be believed, wishes to insert the eighth wonder of the world into a new cinematic universe. Whether that franchise has legs remains to be seen, but it’s also immaterial to this film, which is just a lot of expository build-up to a string of action sequences.

The human characters matter approximately none, but we are still offered an eccentric cast of them, played by an eccentric troupe of actors. There is the expedition group that leads the charge of the main narrative engine: John Goodman as Bill Randa, who heads an ultra-secret government group that wants to explore the untapped terrain of a recently discovered island, Corey Hawkins as Houston Brooks, the college kid confronted by Randa because of his theory that the earth holds secrets, and Tian Jang as San, who just kind of exists to echo Brooks’s confidence in his theory. They confront a military colonel to green-light their expedition, which of course involves also green-lighting a military escort, a tracker who can guide them through the muck of the island, and a photographer to capture the journey for scientific and journalistic purposes.

The military escort is led by Samuel L. Jackson as Preston Packard, a soldier fighting in Da Nang who believes the U.S. has abandoned the war in Vietnam when President Richard Nixon calls it off. He’s grateful for one last mission, even one as seemingly trivial as an escort for a scientific study, and spends the rest of the movie apparently feeling he is still in combat with the human enemy. His men, who are mostly interchangeable, are still played by the personality-driven likes of Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, and Eugene Cordero. Tom Hiddleston is James Conrad, the tracker in question, and Brie Larson is Mason Weaver, a photojournalist who passes up the cover of a popular magazine to tag along on something historic.

That seems like a lot of introduction to characters that, this review claims, don’t matter, but that’s also all the introduction we get. They are cutout cardboard stand-ins for the audience, with the exception of John C. Reilly, who is boatloads of fun when he shows up as Hank Marlow, a WWII veteran who was marooned on the island of the subtitle before his deployment ended. The real story of the movie kicks in when they reach the island. They encounter Kong (whose movements are provided by Kebbell via motion-capture) immediately in a superbly mounted scene of controlled chaos in which Kong considers the helicopters in which they arrive to be nothing more than giant gnats. The beast isn’t so much a tragic one here, though, as a territorial one, even more so when the interfering humans awaken the creatures that reside underground: They are fearsome beasties – giant lizards with lots of teeth.

There are yet more monsters on this island, such as an inexplicable cross between a bison and a leviathan or a far less mysterious arachnid with bamboo legs. The spectacle here is enormous and infectious, with screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connelly keeping the tone light while director Jordan Vogt-Roberts approaches the genuinely berserk action violence with as much aplomb as anyone has recently. The film exists for the sole purpose of witnessing various evolutionary nightmares do battle and seeing foolish humans come between them. It’s all very inconsequential, frequently dumb-as-rocks, and almost exclusively successful in a way that requires one immediately discard one’s brain at the door, but Kong: Skull Island works, and it works because it knows it is all of these things. Sometimes, good-enough is good enough.