Inferno Review

The Dan Brown Robert Langdon series is one of the best-selling collections of novels in the world. And with most bestseller books, it got turned into a film. The Da Vinci Code came out ten years ago (yes, really that long ago!) and Angels And Demons came out in 2009. Now, ten/seven years later, a new chapter in the film series, Inferno.

Inferno stars Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan and Ben Foster and is directed by Ron Howard. The film follows once again Robert Langdon (Hanks) who is in race against time to stop a deadly virus from being released into the world, with the only clues being hidden in famous works of art all over Europe.

I was actually looking forward to Inferno. I’m not a Dan Brown fan, but the trailers got me interested. And for a time I was relatively enjoying myself. The film is set in Florence, but swiftly moves to Venice and Istanbul. We get several sweeping shots of the cities and Langdon and his accomplice Sienna (played by Felicity Jones) run around the tourist hotspots and talk about the architecture and paintings. While sometimes it sounds like Hanks and Jones are reading from “The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Art”, it was like a mini-holiday in the cinema. Apart from those little bits of the art, history and lovely settings, it really is bad.

While the screenplay is not written by Dan Brown, you can feel his influence all over the film. It’s not really a plot, but just lots and lots of melodramatic nonsense. Each scene adds more and more nonsense on top of the previous nonsense, then adds twenty billion twists and several flashbacks, and in the end it becomes a lot less interesting or compelling. Brown really has a contempt for his audience, the characters explain to each other in lengthy detail how certain plot contrivances happen, but then the films show the scene, again and again, even if it wasn’t integral to the plot. Inferno has no time for people wanting to infer anything other than what it wanted.

Tom Hanks does his usual “super-dad” role, although this time he’s read up on his European history and art. Every important place he visits, he gives a little Wikipedia summary of when it was built, who built it, what the paintings on the roof mean, what hand the painter used, where The Ark Of The Covenant is buried, and how many secret passages the palace/cathedral/museum has. Felicity Jones follows him from place to place, giving off a blank, wide-eyed stare, seemingly have lost all of her emotions before the film began. Ben Foster is the main villain of the piece but despite being one of the most charismatic actors around he has less than ten minutes of screen time.

Inferno started out really good. I really enjoyed myself for the first half, full of art and history and interesting puzzles and clues. But the rest of the writing, from the Shyamalan-worthy twists to the vaguely defined characters and motives, it made me shake my head in disbelief and laugh out loud on several occasions. If you are a fan of the other Dan Brown films then it could be fun, but for others, it’s probably a bit too silly for anything other than ironic hilarity.

Score: 4/10 The beautiful settings can’t save an already botched script.

Advertisements

Hell Or High Water Review

Sicario was one of the highlights of last year. A dark, twisting film about an extra-legal team from the FBI trying to shut down the drug cartels in Mexico. So when writer of Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, name came up in the pre-release buzz around Hell Or High Water, my interested picked up. Are we in for another grim treat?

Hell Or High Water stars Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham and is directed by David Mackenzie. The film follows a pair of bank-robbing brothers (Pine and Foster) who after several daring heists are chased by a determined aging Texas Ranger (Bridges).

The three leads are tremendous, a sure reason to go see Hell or Water. Just like other great suspense heist films such as Heat, we see both sides of the law, seeing their wins and losses, with us rooting for both cop and criminal. Jeff Bridges does his usual “too old for this” schtick. He even says that this is his last case (an all too common trope), but he is still an interesting character. Chris Pine and Ben Foster work well together as brothers Toby and Tanner, they have a good back-and-forth, whether it be during the getaway or back home on the ranch. Pine sheds his usual douchy persona and brings a layered character, trying to provide for his family doing something that might get him killed. Ben Foster starts off as the wackier older brother, but thankfully adds more nuance to his performance rather than the played out lunatic bank-robber formula. All three sport Texan accents, which sometimes are hard to understand.

While the film is supposed to be in West Texas, it was actually filmed in New Mexico. Even so, the scenery is beautiful. Much like Sicario before it, Hell Or High Water has may long. wide shots of the never-ending landscapes and stunning setting suns. The film also makes use of the urban environments, little one-street towns and retro diners, leaving a sense of places that simply got lost in time. It gives both a feeling of modern day but also timelessness. If you swapped out the 4x4s for horses and the automatic rifles for revolvers, you would have yourself an old-fashioned Western.

The film is over 100 minutes, but none of it felt like it was dragging or padding out the run-time. The extended bank sequences, using long sweeping takes rather than conventional editing keep the excitement up as the brothers go from bank-to-bank. The film also masters the art of the “ticking-time-bomb”, having something dangerous (in this case a bank robbery) in the background, while the other characters are talking with each other, oblivious to what is happening behind them. These dual approaches to the story keep it moving rather than the slower methods or predictability of previous heist films. The plot might become apparent to more savvy watchers, but the story behind why the brothers are bank-robbing will keep you invested until the finale, with raging gun battles and car chases suiting the more action-oriented fans.

The action is rather sporadic, but it is explosive and brutal. Guns are used more for intimidation, but when bullets start flying they leave blood and brains splattered. It isn’t glorified, again, similar to Sicario, it’s more sickening than fun.

The film is completed by country music, blaring both out of the radio and as part of the soundtrack, created by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. While country may not be to my taste, it fits the film’s setting perfectly, once again creating that atmosphere of young and old merging together.

I was holding Hell Or High Water to a high standard with the list of names attached, but it easily delivered. With tense and dramatic heist sequences, beautiful scenery and supreme acting from the three leads, this is one to go and see.

Score: 9/10 They don’t make many like this anymore.

Warcraft: The Beginning Review

Video games have never had their day in cinema. While some come close (Silent Hill and Tomb Raider 2, in my opinion) none have ever had widespread acclaim. Now Duncan Jones, director of the fantastic Moon and Source Code is trying his hand at adapting the massively expansive World Of Warcraft to film. Does it change the idea of video games films or is it another sad, failed attempt?

Warcraft: The Beginning stars Travis Fimmel, Toby Kebbell, Ben Foster, Ben Schnetzer and Paula Patton and is co-written and directed by Duncan Jones. With the Orc home-world dying, the Orcs come together to take the human realm of Azeroth for their own by force. But a young chieftain (Kebbell) wants to try and live peacefully with the humans. He tries to link up with the commander of the human army (Fimmel) in an attempt to save both his race and Azeroth.

Let’s begin with the good. The art direction for Warcraft is one of the best things about the film. While it has diluted the vibrant colours of the original world and added a more realistic look to the characters, the creatures that inhabit Azeroth are an impressive technical marvel. The detail and nuance, especially of Orc protagonist Durotan (played by Toby Kebbell, who played Koba in Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes) is great and shows that Jones has a care for the series. He wants to make a good film and will not settle for poor digital effects.

The merging of CGI and live-action is also another good point of the film. The characters blend seamlessly through built sets and then into green-screen battles, with very little slip-ups that break the immersion. Some of the cinematography as well, particularly the opening, an over-the-shoulder battle between Orc and Human is very nicely shot.

Sadly that’s where most of the good ends. We have to talk about the bad stuff.

The script is the biggest weak point and it brings down the rest of the film. While the film does try to set up its own new mythology and franchise, a lot of it will be confusing to people who don’t know the games, such as myself. It’s a lot of new places and people; The Fell, The Horde, The Alliance, Stormwind etcetera. It’s all dumped on us through exposition in the first half an hour and before we’ve got to grips with it our main characters are already flying away to mountain-top fortresses and we are completely lost.

The rest of the story feels like a grab-bag of clichés of fantasy storytelling and other fantasy-based films. You can see its influence, (Lord Of The Rings/Hobbit and Dawn of The Planet Of The Apes are the main ones) and since it’s just wanting to set up a new world, it falls back on the tired stereotypes of not just fantasy films but also storytelling in general. It’s such a bog-standard story, you can see the twists and turns from a mile off and with the ten or so main characters, none of them are ever developed well. The best is Kebbell’s Orc Dorutan, mainly through his family interaction that opens the film. Even at two hours, it feels rather empty; characters are dropped rather anti-climactically near the end and since Jones wants it to be a trilogy, we have a lifeless ending.

I found myself really wanting to like Warcraft. After ten years of being in development, and Blizzard Entertainment even turning down legendary hack Uwe Boll’s bid to the rights, the story of Warcraft as a film should have a happy ending. But sadly we haven’t made progress with games based films, and as someone who loves games as a medium and as an art, it makes me weary. But we still have Assassins Creed in December, let’s hope it finally changes, right?

Score: 5/10 The fans are the ones who will get enjoyment.

The Program Review

Sports biopics are a godsend to Hollywood. The story is already written for them, and it usually fits the Classic Hollywood Narrative, where the plucky underdog overcomes the obstacles to become the best in the world at his or her chosen sport. However, with the case of Lance Armstrong, since there is a large addendum to the story, how would the filmmakers make a plucky underdog story out of a cheat? Read on, and you will see.

The Program stars Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Jesse Plemons and Denis Menochet and is directed by Stephen Frears. The Program, based on the journalistic investigation by David Walsh (O’Dowd) follows Lance Armstrong (Foster) through his trials surrounding his illegitimate win of the Tour De France.

Stephen Frears has a background in biopic films. His biggest two films (which were always credited in the trailer for The Program) were The Queen and Philomena, so the man obviously knows how to craft a film around the true facts of a story. However, while his former two films were of merit and sometimes incredibly engaging, The Program just feels drab in comparison.

Talking with people about the film, some thought that because we all know how The Program would end that it spoils the film. I would disagree, for example, we all knew how Zero Dark Thirty would finish, but director Kathryn Bigelow managed to create a film so engaging we almost forgot that the film would end how it would. Unfortunately, Frears doesn’t ever seem to find that balance, where we forget how the events play out, leaving the film to just plod along until it ends rather flatly. I even fell asleep for a few minutes around the midway mark, just because I was so un-engaged by the story.

The standout of the film is Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong. As the film tracks Armstrong’s initial win, then his battle with testicular cancer and then his triumphant return, Foster’s body get’s transformed until he is almost unrecognisable, first showing the brutal challenge of chemotherapy and then the harsh training that Armstrong put himself through to go back and win the Tour. Foster also exudes the charm and charisma that Armstrong projected, which somehow manages you to almost be on his side, despite him cheating to win the races.

Foster however is the only engaging actor, with everyone else seeming incredibly bland. I was looking forward to seeing Chris O’Dowd shake off the “Nice Comedy Guy” role that he seemed to have been typecast in and into a journalist who was disgusted at Armstrong’s cheating (like the trailer showed), but instead he just came across as very disinterested in the role.

There are some great shots in the film. Foster rides his bike through the French countryside, and the camera just follows him from behind as he rides for a good two to three minutes at a time, winding round the hairpin mountain passes and climbing the immense hills that litter the Tour. Coupled with the panoramic countryside surroundings, it’s sometimes a very good-looking film.

The Program uses a lot of stock footage, seamlessly merging it with the endless shots of Foster on his bike, knitting together a film that seems to be half documentary and half biopic. However, there are a few scenes, such as Armstrong confession on the Oprah Winfrey Show or certain press conferences, where Foster just repeats Armstrong’s words and reactions verbatim, which seems odd since Frears is okay with using footage of Armstrong earlier during the races.

In conclusion, The Program just feels like a bog standard, paint-by-numbers biopic. Maybe check it out if you’re an enthusiastic biker or you’re interested in Lance Armstrong, but to everyone else, spend your money elsewhere.

Score: 5/10 Time to be “on yer bike” The Program, you’re not good enough to stick around.

(I’m immensely sorry for including that pun, but it really does fit the film.)