Thursday, 30 July 2015

Movie Review: Amy (2015)

As a human being who possesses the basic concept of empathy, I am sad that Amy Winehouse died as young as she did. Knowing her then-widely publicized struggles with substance abuse and alcoholism, regardless of the oft-repeated jokes that were made at the time of her death about how ironic Rehab sounds in hindsight (which, I humbly admit, I indulged in a bit of myself), just adds another stitch to the tapestry of the tragedies of fame and the loss of human life to its vices. Hell, regardless of her fame, dying as she did to alcohol poisoning after all that had happened is kind of heartbreaking. Of course, as a human being who knows what he likes when it comes to music, I am really friggin’ sad that Amy Winehouse died as young as she did. Knowing how shite pop music has gotten over the last few years (or, rather, shite-er) and how she was one of a select few that stayed consistently good with their output, it makes me kick myself every so often for not giving her the attention I should have while she was alive. So, in keeping with the idea of crystal-clear hindsight, how does this documentary on the life of Amy Winehouse pan out, speaking as a major fan of her work? This is Amy.

The premise: A look into the turbulent life and career of singer Amy Winehouse, chronicling her early days surrounding the release of her first album Frank, to her years in the public eye due to her involvement with drugs and alcohol and her work on her acclaimed sophomore album Back To Black, right up to her untimely death in 2011 from alcohol poisoning.

This is a mostly archival documentary, in that it is comprised solely of either photo stills and pre-existing footage and home video of Amy herself, along with audio interviews of her family, friends and collaborators. Using the video footage is a particularly nice approach as it gives a very natural and proximal feel to the production and gives the impression that we are seeing something closer to her than the tabloids would have been able to scrape up way back when. However, even with how much this works in the film’s favour, it starts to falter when it gets to the photo stills. These scenes, some of which last for a good minute or two, consist of a static photo with an interview played over it. Now, this could have worked, especially since the photos chosen fit with the interview topics, it gives an unfortunate sense of cheapness to the film after a bit like we’re watching a trashy ‘exposé’ on the E! Network. It fails to engage as well as the other scenes that are more dynamically put-together.

Since we’re dealing with a musician here, it should be expected that the music be on-point and it most certainly is here. We get numerous instances of Amy Winehouse’s music, with both live performances and recorded demos or otherwise previously unreleased tracks. The addition of lyrics on screen during most of the songs, either added digitally for the former or showing the handwritten original lyrics for the latter, not only pleases that part of me that frequents a little too often but props are deserved for the attention to detail on them as well. Whenever the lyrics are shown over grungier-looking video footage, the visual quality of the typeface differs to keep everything looking consistent. Along with Amy Winehouse belting out every number, we also have an original score composed for the film by Antônio Pinto. I may have my misgivings about the man himself, considering he lent his skills to the abomination on all things cinema that is The Host, but the mellow and jazz-tinged tracks he brings to the film accompany Winehouse’s musical style very well.

In terms of depicting the creation of said music, as showing the connection the artist and their art is an important aspect of any film that centers on making music, we definitely get a good look into her creative processes with this one. We see the more contemplative Amy, using her music as a way of coping with her depression, but we get also a good eye-full of the fan girl Amy when it shows her working with one of her idols Tony Bennett on a cover of Body And Soul, as well as when Tony is reading for one of Amy's Grammy wins. With the former, she has a very moving line about how she feels lucky that she has an outlet for how she feels whereas some others with depression aren’t as fortunate. This aspect of her pouring her troubles into her music is helped by expert placement of her songs in relation to her life’s story. The inclusion of interviews of her key producers, them being funkiest white man alive Mark Ronson and frequent collaborator of god MC Nas Salaam Remi, sheds some light on this as well, both sharing their personal connections with her as well as reminiscing about studio time with her. I would have appreciated more word from Ronson, as he’s only heard once in the film whereas Remi features quite regularly, but what he does provide is still good, particularly him talking about working with Amy on her hit song Rehab. The description Remi gives to a certain studio session where Amy’s bulimia got the better of her is pretty gripping too. Then there’s the interviews with Yasiin Bey AKA Mos Def, whose detailing of an occasion when Amy visited his hotel is heart-breaking, and The Roots drummer Questlove who talks about a supergroup he, Amy, Mos Def and Raphael Saadiq were apparently going to put together, which is also heart-breaking but for entirely different reasons. If I ever got access to a time-space transporter, first thing I’d do is visit a parallel universe where that group released an album because that team-up is made of pure win.

Beyond the music, the film paints a pretty vivid picture of Amy herself as well. She is shown as a very emotional and caring person who listened to the advice of some people in her life that she probably shouldn’t have. She loved the people around her and wasn’t shy to admit who she didn’t like, as we see in a couple of hilarious moments where she shows her confusion/disdain for pop stars like Dido and Justin Timberlake. She was also well and truly in trouble long before the media furor started, given her history of mental health issues; it just so happens that the attention made it all worse. We get a fair amount of demonizing the media here, showing a few clips of comedians making fun of her drug problems and the paparazzi hounding her everywhere she went. Now, as much as I would rather turn my nose up at the notion of how vile the paparazzi are, given how loud the sentiment is these days, between the disorienting flashes of the snapshots and the seriously dickish and glib things they said around her that we see on camera, the filmmakers here at least give good evidence for it. The interviews with her friends and family also help portray how she was seen by others, and it is here that we reach the token ‘controversy’ concerning the film: The depiction of her father Mitchell Winehouse, the man that inspired her to write Rehab. When this film first came out, he cried foul due to him being portrayed as the villain because of his influence on her. However, he doesn’t really have much to worry about here as he isn’t really portrayed as a monster in this film; rather, he’s shown more as being misguided in his actions concerning his daughter which, in all honesty, is true of a lot of people connected with her as the film shows. I may question his actions in a scene depicting him bringing his own reality TV crew with him to see Amy at a retreat, but for the most part he is shown as honestly as everyone else is.

All in all, this is a very well-made and moving depiction of one of the great modern pop divas. It may be spotty concerning the visual choices, specifically with the use of photos, but it gives a good idea about Amy Winehouse beyond simply the substance abuse that the news always highlighted. The access to both home videos of Amy and her friends and family as well as interviewing everyone closely involved with her definitely set it apart from other media that take a similar look into the life of Amy Winehouse, and the inclusion of rare recordings of hers makes this a must-watch for other fans of her work. It ranks higher than Jupiter Ascending, as there’s not one moment of enjoyment here that isn’t well deserved, but its basic use of photo stills makes it lose a few points, putting it just below The Gunman.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Movie Review: Magic Mike XXL (2015)

Every so often, a film comes along that makes me go “Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, do not screw this up.” And it seems that it’s about that time again. I have been seriously looking forward to this film and, no, it isn’t for the obvious sweaty reasons: I love Steven Soderbergh. To me, he is just about the most versatile filmmaker out there, being able to weave in and out of genres with surprising ease. Not only that, he is able to take very awkward premises and scripts and turn them into films capable of besting whatever else is out at that time. Probably the best example of these traits would be 2012’s Magic Mike, a film about male strippers that had a lot of heart and intelligence behind it. Yeah, I may have been like everyone else at the time and left it alone because… well, beefcake wasn’t exactly my thing at the time, but after seeing Soderbergh turn the very unsettling story of Liberace and his relationships into the disarmingly warm Behind The Candelabra, I gave it a chance and found a lot to like about it. So, when I heard that there was going to be a sequel made of it, I was all for it. Then the news hit that Soderbergh was going to take a sabbatical from feature filmmaking, meaning that he wouldn’t be directing this one. Then the trailers and extremely cheesy poster came out for the film. I want a film about interesting characters and smart dialogue that just happens to center on male strippers, and all I’m seeing so far is nothing but more grinding than Tony Hawk's MMO. Time to see if I get proven wrong, in one of a growing list of situations where I would gladly accept being so: This is Magic Mike XXL.

The plot: It has been three years since Mike (Channing Tatum) left his life as a male entertainer to pursue his own dreams, while the other Kings of Tampa are gearing for one last performance at a stripping convention in Myrtle Beach. Mike decides to join in as the gang go on a road trip to the convention, coming across some interesting situations along the way.

Despite my misgivings of Soderbergh’s absence from the film, this is still very much one of his projects. For starters, the man still has his name on it… kind of, since he does the cinematography and editing for most of his films himself under different psuedonyms and he returns in that capacity for this one. Not only that, director Gregory Jacobs has worked as an assistant director on almost all of Soderbergh’s filmography, including the original Magic Mike, and the original writer Reid Carolin is back as well and my initial mistrust of this film starts looking even dumber. This very much has the look of a Soderbergh production, with a very tight and labored-over feel to every shot we see and how they’re spliced together. It’s like he’s still back in film school and trying to ace every practical assignment he’s given and provide legitimate entertainment at the same time, the latter being something that a lot of other ‘film student’ directors seem to neglect. Other than the gorgeous production values, the other main thing that I loved about the original was the soundtrack. Between the excellent choices of songs for the stripping sequences, the drug trip set to Victim by Win Win featuring Blaqstarr that I still haven’t gotten out of my head yet, and McConaughey’s song Ladies of Tampa/Miami, it’s all really damn effective. Here, while most of the soundtrack is still good, some of the song choices are a little… obvious. Something about having a striptease with a candy theme set to 50 Cent’s Candy Shop doesn’t sit well with me, regardless of how lame the song itself is.

Okay, things seem to check out behind the scenes, but what about in front of the camera? Well, the banter between our core characters is still fun and their actors are still good in their roles. Standouts include Channing Tatum, who fits back into his title role like he never left it, which makes sense considering it’s partially based on himself, Joe Manganiello making a nice dramatic foil for Tatum as Richie and selling a particularly goofy dancing set piece at a gas station with panache, and while Gabriel “Hey Juice” Iglesias may have a diminished role, what we get still makes for damn good comedy. The characters may still feel a bit flat but it seems that Reid wanted to put more effort into developing them as characters this time around and not just have it be all about Mike; hell, all of Tarzan (Kevin Nash)’s dialogue seems to focus on how little the others, and by extension the audience, know about him. As per Soderbergh productions, the other casting is both baffling and yet ideal. Jada Pinkett Smith as the group’s MC Rome works the crowd well and helps add a lot to the script’s ideas and themes. Speaking of MCs, Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino is here as well, a move that blind-sided me initially but ultimately makes the most sense in terms of this movie, given how he plays a serenading ladies’ man in Andre whose introductory scene might be the defining point of the entire film. Yes, the geeky stand-up comedian/rapper who made his mark as a master of punchlines is the high point of a film about female fanservice. We also get Elizabeth Banks and Andie McDowell, the latter continuing another tradition of Soderbergh’s involving digging up largely forgotten actors, whom both have very distracting Southern accents here but work within the confines of their roles.

But that’s not what you all want to read about; no, you want to hear about the sexy guys with no shirts. Well, here’s where things get… interesting. My initial worries going into this film were that it would ignore the first film’s writing, which took a rather intelligent look into the hows and whys of male stripping, and just make it about watching men dance on stage for two hours. These worries were avoided, and yet they were also met at the same time. This film may not have the original’s insight on the economy and the ideals concerning people doing what they want rather than what they have to, but instead it turns that same level insight inwards into the world of male stripping itself. There’s really no other way to put it: This film takes the concept of guys grinding on stage to Ginuwine’s Pony and making it out into some form of high performance art, giving it an almost mystical air in the process. If this sounds farfetched, bear in mind that this idea, at least how the film presents it, actually works. It’s a natural continuation of Dallas’ dialogue from the first film about the effect they have on their female audience, normalizing it and putting on the same level as any other kind of escapism. Through the introduction of Rome and her own approach to the art form, the film even tries to push it further into some bizarre form of worship; not of the male stripper, but of the women he is dancing for, giving them the attention that they may not be getting elsewhere. This is best illustrated in Andre’s first scene, where he asks some details about a woman he brings on stage, then he raps, sings and dances for her; that, combined with his line about how he and the others are “like healers”, and it manages to give some credibility to the idea of male strippers as entertainment: It may be shallow and just an excuse to see sweaty guys take their shirts off, but it fulfills a certain emotional need for some people. I would stomp all this philosophizing out by making a comparison to tween porn like Twilight, if it weren’t for the fact that the film made one for me. That, and an out-of-nowhere Matrix reference, but my point still stands: This film wants to make stripping out to be just a form of entertainment like any other and not something to be stigmatized, similar to what Soderbergh himself did with porn and prostitution when he made The Girlfriend Experience.

A shame, then, that the film doesn’t make good enough use of its beefcake to properly justify such notions. Don’t get me wrong, said beefcake will still work for its target audience, but it isn’t spaced out nearly enough to have the full effect it should have; the final show at the convention, featuring all of the Kings of Tampa performing both as a group and individually, is shown in its entirety one right after the other. It’s a bit much to take all at once, is what I’m saying, which coupled with the annoying song choices weakens them a bit. Still, even with the cheesy music options, this film still managed to do a better job of making bondage sexy in a 3 minute scene than Fifty Shades did in its entire running time.

All in all, while it may be a tad weaker in areas compared to the original, this still has a lot of what made that film as good as it is: Funny and natural dialogue spoken by charming characters, an overall script that has a surprising amount of layering to it, nice music, excellent camerawork and, of course, lots of guys ripping off their clothes. Even then, this makes for a really good companion to the first film as, whereas that film was about what the work meant for the strippers, this film looks more at what it means for their audiences. As much as I want to promote this film out of respect for the art of filmmaking, I understand that not everyone has the same tolerance of bare man chest that I do; basically, if you can tolerate the idea of seeing guys strip on screen every once in a while, as there is a decent chunk of this film that doesn’t contain it, then I recommend checking it out along with the original. It’s better than Rosewater, as this doesn’t require background knowledge on the film to get its full effect; in fact, as I illustrated above, knowing about the film’s background kind of diminished things for me a bit. However, it ranks below Going Clear as, while both films opened my eyes a bit on their respective subjects, there’s no denying that anything that can make me feel sympathy for Scientologists wins out in the end.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Movie Review: Terminator: Genisys (2015)

Back in the tail-end of May of this year, I looked at the latest installment of the sand-encrusted cult series Mad Max with Fury Road, a surprisingly amazing offering. Then, a little while ago, we had Jurassic World, a mildly entertaining but ultimately pointless addition to the already flagging franchise. Today, we conclude this look into how Hollywood today deals with reviving older sci-fi series with a reboot of the Terminator series. Terminator undoubtedly has the strongest footing of the three series for a follow-up, regardless of how my opinion of Mad Max differs from the norm: The first film is a seminal classic of neo-noir and sci-fi in general, and Judgment Day is the epitome of the ‘perfect sequel’, along with being one of the greatest films in any genre without question. Then came Rise Of The Machines which, through a baffling mixture of self-parody, re-hashing of the second film and just plain disrespect for the series mythos as a whole, heavily contrasted what came before it by being one of the worst sequels ever, not to mention a pretty atrocious film in its own right. Salvation had its fair share of issues, but it was nevertheless a fun watch. Yeah, lots of baggage behind this one even without getting into its core theme of bending the space-time continuum over every table. So, how does this work as a means to reboot the series? This is Terminator: Genisys.

The plot (it involves time travel, so bear with me on this one): John Connor (Jason Clarke), the leader of the resistance against the machines in 2029, discovers that a T-800 Terminator has been sent back in time to kill his mother Sarah (Emilia Clarke) before he is even born, ending the resistance movement. His right-hand soldier Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) volunteers to go back to protect Sarah, but what awaits him in 1984 is far from what he expected: Sarah is a battle-hardened soldier, a liquid metal Terminator (Lee Byung-hun) chasing her down, a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) serving as her protector and even John himself is in the past, although he may not be all that he seems. It seems that whatever timeline John was taught by her mother, and he taught Kyle in turn, to prepare for has been drastically altered and Judgment Day is coming.

Rather than tackle the mass of continuity that is the Terminator series right out of the gate, let’s talk about the technical side of things first. Given how a large number of characters here are ones that fans of the series are familiar with, and hell some of them have transcended the films into pop culture legend, their casting for this reboot is crucial... and it’s mostly good. Jason Clarke does a great job as the human resistance leader as well as the intimidating Terminator that he becomes (such information is in the trailer, so no spoiler tag), which honestly makes him the best pick for the character yet in the entire franchise; as much as I love T2, Edward Furlong could get a little too whiny in places. Arnie comes back in prime form as Pops (or Guardian, as he is officially credited), showing a character that is similar to the iconic T-800 we’ve seen in Judgment and Rise, and yet has enough to him to make him stand out, making for the most human portrayal of the role he’s given yet; it also makes for the most jocular portrayal too, fitting in with the very in-joke tone of the film overall.  Byung-hun may not have the same menace as Robert Patrick, but he fits the T-1000’s shoes nicely enough. We also have Matt Smith of Doctor Who fame as Skynet itself, and while his obviously unnatural American accent is off-putting, he carries a certain presence that works with his role of a tyrannical computer program; then again, that might be because he has had some experience with portraying evil robotics as part of Doctor Who. However, one look at Emilia Clarke and I immediately tilt my head; I know that the character is only meant to be about 19 or so, but Emilia looks too young even for that age as Sarah and the fact that the writers were clearly going for a T2 iteration of the character makes things even more awkward. Oh, and our own sentient red flag Jai Courtney is here too, but really the only notable thing about his casting here is the fact that it happened at all, given the rest of his filmography of late.

With the first two films showing rather spectacular practical effects, and the next two sticking to run-of-the-mill CGI for their respective times, I’m genuinely surprised at how good the visuals are here. Audiences who remember the unintentionally disturbing look of CG-Arnold from Salvation should also be surprised as, when the film does its own take on the scene from the original where the Terminator gets his clothes from a gang of punks, the Terminator looks really good. It may be in that “this guy is obviously a robot with a human-ish face” kind of way, but he is a damn nice looking robot with a human-ish face. Shame that they went with CGI for when he’s fighting Pops, but what we get is very welcome regardless. The T-1000, and by extension the T-3000 John Connor, looks really good and works as a logical cinematic progression for the liquid metal look as rendered in CGI. It may overuse the effect of making the Terminator immediately facing what’s behind him, which admittedly made my jaw drop when I watched it in T2 for the first time, but overall not only is it visually appealing but the filmmakers made good use of it, whether it was the scene with the MRI machine or the fight scene with Pops.

Now for the amorphous blob that is the writing for the film, and here is where the bigger problems of the film show themselves. Since this is a reboot of a series that made its name on re-writing history, I was expecting the characters to be re-worked a bit to give some originality to what is apparently going to be the first in a trilogy of new films. What I was not expecting was character… well, assassination is a bit overblown, but mugging at the very very least. Sarah, as per T2 since that is the obvious inspiration for this iteration, was a tad psychotic but overall a strong-willed character that was shaped by the world-shattered events that were inflicted on her, not to mention the pressure on her shoulders to essentially play Mother Mary for the savior of the human race. There are bits of acknowledgement of the more uncomfortable ideas behind her character, like her needing to have sex with Kyle to ensure the future regardless of how she feels or how everyone attached to her is in potential danger, but otherwise the attempt to bring her into her best incarnation prematurely backfires. What makes this even weirder is the fact that it is probably an unforeseen side effect of trying to correct a possible sticking point from the original: That it was Kyle Reese that essentially made her the ‘strong independent woman’ we see her as in the sequel. Well, by dodging that potentially anti-feminist bit of character development, they end up doing the exact same thing only with Pops filling in that role with her and somehow making it worse on that front. At least Kyle was only in her life for a very finite amount of time, whereas Pops has been influencing her behaviour for years by the time we meet up with her. Not to say that I have any horses in the race for making strong independent women (at least as Hollywood views them) in this case but when it’s clearly an attempt to correct something and ends up just doing the same but worse, call a spade a spade I reckon. As a result of Sarah being as assertive as she is here, Kyle is gipped and barely does anything for the plot as opposed to Sarah or even Pops, who admittedly has some nice development concerning his relationship with Sarah. He mostly serves as the audience insert point, being just as initially confused by the altered timeline as the rest of us as we learn more about it. Well, as much as the film is willing to tell us at least.

Yeah, the plot is a bit of a mess here, and it really stems from a hallmark problem that comes out of anticipating a series to be made from a film: Not being a complete story. The original Terminator film was a complete story, done and dusted; the sequel built on the original and had a conclusion that, in my own personal canon, is where everything should have stopped. Hell, as much as the ending for Rise Of The Machines took a gigantic crap on the core message of the first two, it had a conclusion that made it feel like a complete film. Here, we essentially get a third of the whole story, as some rather substantial elements of the plot aren’t divulged in favour of waiting for the follow-ups to explain everything in good time. Basically, it’s the same main issue I had with 2012’s Prometheus and considering there’s no word yet on if we’re even going to get a follow-up to that one, that’s not a good thing to emulate. Given how this is the second attempt that has been made to create a new Terminator trilogy, and that the first attempt with Salvation ended up incomplete due to producer The Halcyon Company going bankrupt, you’d think that director Alan Taylor would be more careful. Instead, we get the first plot in the franchise that I would genuinely call convoluted, as the aforementioned bending over the table devolves into repeated smashing of the continuum’s head into said table, and a backstory for Skynet that I had to look online for to actually get a grasp on. Don’t get me wrong, the direction they seem to be going with for Skynet is promising, going for a multiversal observer this time around apparently, but the way it’s portrayed in-film is very underwritten even as just a teaser for bigger developments later on.

All in all, this is very much like Salvation in that it is a fun ride but also extremely disjointed. The acting is good, even if the casting is suspect in places, the action beats are fun, Arnie still hits his one-liners just as well as he did in his hey-day, and the plot we’re given shows some potential. However, said plot only gives us part of a complete story, the time travel shenanigans contained within can get confusing, and even though this is a reboot of the entire series, I strongly advise checking/re-checking the previous films if you haven’t already so as not to get more lost as it is still waist-deep in the series’ mythos. And even then, familiarity with the other films might make this feel worse, given the directions some of the characters are taken in. As this stands against the rest of the series, it’s just above Salvation in terms of quality as the characters aren’t quite as dumb as in that one, but doesn’t even touch the first two. As this stands against the other two films in this impromptu look into 80’s-90’s franchise revamps, it’s squarely in the middle as it has a reason to exist unlike Jurassic World but isn’t as well put-together as Fury Road. As this stands on my list of films this year, however, it’s just above the atonal mess of A Royal Night Out, but just below the clichéd yet pleasant Boychoir. I’m definitely curious about where they go with this in Terminator: .exe-DOS or whatever techno-weird name they give the next one, although if this is what they have to tantalize us with, I’m not even sure if a follow-up will be worth it even if it is just for closure.