Passengers – Film Review

The last time director Morten Tyldum plundered the Black List for Alan Turing-based thriller The Imitation Game he wound up with eight Oscar nominations. It makes sense, then, that he would return to Hollywood’s list of the best unproduced screenplays for his next effort. But while Passengers can be wondrous to look at and is gamely played by its two charismatic leads, this tale of literal star-crossed lovers fails to make a lasting impression.

Screenwriter Jon Spaihts’ (Doctor Strange) intriguing premise transports us to an unorthodox setting aboard the Avalon, a luxurious spaceship twirling through the cosmos on route to colonise a new planet. The 120-year journey is disrupted by a violent meteor strike that fries the ship’s systems and causes two passengers (Chris Pratt’s Jim and Jennifer Lawrence’s Aurora) to emerge from cryosleep 90 years early. Faced with the prospect of spending the rest of their lives alone in space, the two space travellers draw closer together as the Avalon spirals towards catastrophe.

3500

If that all sounds a bit like Titanic in space, it’s entirely intentional. References to James Cameron’s epic romance are numerous: Pratt’s mechanic and Lawrence’s renowned author are initially divided by class; a sweeping spacewalk conjures images of Jack and Rose ‘soaring’ on the prow; and, much like the nautical tragedy, Passengers’ early love story gives way to disaster as the Avalon’s systems begin to fail.

Despite some uncomfortably clunky dialogue (“If you die, I die!”), Jim and Aurora’s romance stays just the right side of schmaltz. Pratt and Lawrence give magnetic performances as the two leads, his lightly goofy charm and her dry wit making for a winning combination as Jim and Aurora convincingly seduce each other over time. Though their relationship lacks friction early on, that’s swiftly rectified as the story unfolds to bring the darker themes of greed and betrayal into play.

passengers-lawrence-pratt

It helps, too, that their courtship plays out against such a beguiling backdrop. The impressively designed Avalon has a familiar near-future aesthetic; all sleek white surfaces and transparent computer screens. It even has an amusingly literal android in the form of Michael Sheen’s unnerving bartender, who injects a welcome third perspective to proceedings. Tyldum also pulls off some spectacular set-pieces, including a particularly stunning sequence in which an artificial gravity-malfunction turns the ship’s swimming pool into a giant, floating sphere that is quite literally breathtaking.

So why does Passengers fail to satisfy? For all its visual splendour and wistful charm, there’s very little in this tale to truly set pulses racing. The problem is that every part of this story has been told before. The influence of everything from Romeo and Juliet and Gravity to Alien and 2001: Space Odyssey is keenly felt throughout but hardly any thing feels fresh or invigorating. It leaves the plot feeling functional rather than bracing, much like a long-term relationship: everything seems to be running smoothly but we need a sense of something unexpected to give it an added spark.

Passengers fails to deliver any thing out of the ordinary and as a result it’s merely an enjoyable voyage that leaves only a fleeting memory.

Runtime: 116 mins; Genre: Sci-fi; Released: 21 December 2016;

Director: Morten Tyldum; Screenwriter: Jon Spaihts;

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Film Review

Forget about rebooting the franchise, creating a Star Wars standalone movie is the saga’s riskiest move yet. Like The Force Awakens, this prequel/spin-off has to activate devotees’ nostalgia receptors while also delivering a fresh experience. But it also has to do all that without the aid of lightsabers, Skywalkers or any of the space opera’s other iconic trademarks. That Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One pulls off this mean feat is nothing short of extraordinary, delivering an epic heist movie that will satisfy diehard fans and newbies alike.

Inspired by a vague line from A New Hope’s opening crawl, Rogue One returns to a galaxy far, far away at a time when Luke Skywalker was still pratting about on his uncle’s farm, as a rag bag bunch of rebels prepare for a daring mission to steal the plans to the Death Star.  They’re lead by Felicity Jones’ fiery Jyn Erso, whose father (played by Hannibal’s Mads Mikklesen) designed the giant space laser in the first place. Another courageous orphan left abandoned on a planet, Jyn is closer to Rey than Luke given she has no interest in joining the rebellion until she sees an opportunity to reunite her family. After being liberated from a Imperial labour camp – with the help of Alan Tudyk’s comedy droid, reprogrammed to act like a cranky C-3PO – Jyn receives word that her father lives and has built in a secret flaw into Empire’s super weapon that will lead to its destruction.

rogue-one

It might be free from the dark side/light side duelling of the main saga, but if anything Rogue One is darker and edgier than its predecessors, with a story far more complex than an uplifting tale of good triumphing over evil. Edwards’ retains that scrappy, lived-in feel we all know and love but also brings the grim aesthetic of a war movie to the Star Wars universe. This is an uncompromising trip to the front lines of the rebellion, a place where saturated planets have been ravaged by war and where anyone can die at any time. That includes any one of our mis-match band of heroes, a fact which helps to ratchet up the tension in a story where we ostensibly already know the outcome. The rebels will undoubtedly succeed in retrieving the schematics, but will any of them survive to celebrate the victory?

The cast is solid if not quite as emotionally compelling as the Skywalker clan and, unlike other recent ensemble movies such as Suicide Squad or The Magnificent Seven, Edwards’ gives everyone enough screen time to put their own stamp on proceedings. Jones is suitably tough and battle-hardened as Jyn, but it’s Donnie Yen and Jian Weng who are the most exciting of the new additions. A throwback to Star Wars Eastern roots, the Force-Fu fighting style of Yen’s blind mystic feels like a fresh twist for the series, while Weng offers some cynical comic relief as his grumpy sidekick.

Ben-Mendelssohn-Rogue-One-.jpg

As always, it’s the baddies who get to have the most fun. Ben Mendelsohn is great value as dastardly Director Orson Krennic a corporate suck-up who internally boils with ambition but outwardly kneels at the feet of those above him; yet it’s two returnees who will generate the most post-viewing discussion. We already knew James Earl Jones’ dark lord would be making his wheezing presence felt and Darth Vader certainly doesn’t disappoint in his fleeting but effective appearances, showcasing some of the most devastating use of Force we’ve ever seen from the Sith. There’s also a surprise return for another Empire commander whose recreation via seamless CGI is an unexpected pleasure.

There are times when the plot threatens to overwhelm itself, particularly during a bewildering first act that gets bogged down in complex spy games on far-flung planets; but once it finds its narrative footing Rogue One is an exhilarating adventure culminating in an epic ground skirmish that mixes Return of the Jedi scale with the grit of Saving Private Ryan. It was a brave move to revisit a time so close to the beloved original trilogy, but with some first-rate visuals, inspired twists and plenty of fan-pleasing nudge-wink references, including some genius repurposing of binned footage from A New Hope, Rogue One is a bold first step for future standalone movies.

Runtime: 134 mins; Genre: Sci-Fi; Released: 15th December 2016;

Director: Gareth Edwards; Screenwriters: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy;

Cast: Felicity Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, James Earl Jones, Diego Luna

This review was first featured on FlickFeast.co.uk

Timeless – TV Review

Time travel is having quite the moment on the small screen. Whether it’s James Franco attempting to save JFK in Hulu’s polished 11/22/63 or the crime fighting exploits of DC’s minor characters in Legends of Tomorrow, TV is littered with heroic attempts to reshape history to create a better, brighter present that trumps our own reality. And that’s before we even get to the multiple Earth-hoping antics of The Flash or whatever the heck is happening time-wise in The Man in the High Castle.

But what’s behind the genre’s unexpected resurgence? Could it be that 2016 has been such a thoroughly depressing year that we all secretly want to believe we can go back and stop it all from ever happening? Is this new trend for revisionist storytelling just a global exercise in wish fulfilment? Whatever the reasoning, there seems to be no end to the number of new shows hopping onto the time-twisting band wagon. Timeless is just the latest to zip through space time, landing on E4 last night.

Created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Revolution), the show shares similarities with Legends of Tomorrow and Quantum Leap in that it follows a mismatch team of time travellers jumping into the past in a desperate bid to preserve the present. Abigail Spencer plays Lucy Preston, a world-renowned historian and anthropologist who is recruited by the Department of Homeland Security when rogue NSA asset Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) steals a tech company’s time machine, which looks like a giant Big Brother eye, and escapes into the past to meddle with history. Of course, a university professor can’t be expected to take down a terrorist mastermind alone so Lucy is teamed with Matt Lanter’s special ops lunkhead and Malcolm Barrett’s reluctant pilot of their rust bucket prototype time machine.

timeless_still

There’s no hiding the lack of depth to any of these characters. Although they’re each given a troubled personal life, relayed to us via impressively clunky exposition dumps, they are essentially defined by the skill they bring to the team. Lucy reels off historical facts. Wyatt (Lanter) punches people in the face. And Rufus (Barrett) reminds everyone that he’s black (“There’s no time in American history that will be fun for me.”). That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for a show like this, but what’s more troubling is the lack of fizzy camaraderie between the crew. Shows like Firefly thrived on the snarky back-and-forth between it’s crew, which is not only funny but helps to create an endearing, dysfunctional family dynamic between the cast; team Timeless, by contrast, act like strangers who have no interest in interacting and that just makes them rather hard to warm towards.

Not that Timeless is overly concerned with exploring the inner workings of its characters’ motivations; the show works best as a frothy period crime caper. The neat premise allows our heroes to visit a new time period each week – the first episode sees the team travel back to 1937 to watch the Hindenburg disaster – and experience new environments and wear all new ornate costumes. Cue a flurry of explosions, deadly chases, bomb disposals and anachronistic jokes delivered at a whiplash pace indicative of a show that’s happy to be entertainingly bonkers. It’s also incredibly stylish with the Neil Marshall-directed first episode adding a heightened, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-esque vibe to its detailed recreation of the Hindenburg explosion that’s exhilaratingly evocative.

As with all time travel shows, there are rules to guard against the concept spiraling out of control. The most important of which is that the crew cannot travel back to a time in which a version of themselves already exists. Not only does this smartly sidestep the obvious narrative flaw of why the team doesn’t just travel back to a time before Flynn steals the machine and “shoot him in the face”; it also presents darker consequences when the timeline inevitably alters despite Lucy’s best efforts. When our heroes arrive back in the present, they discover their lives have changed beyond what they could possibly imagine, forcing them to live with the painful knowledge of what once was while knowing they can never go back to put things right.

Yes, the dialogue is awful, the characters are thinner than tracing paper and the twists are eye-gougingly obvious – there’s a hint at the end of episode one that Flynn might not be as bad as he first seems – but as a fast-paced romp through America’s historical landmarks, Timeless is a fun ride, stunningly designed and gamely played by its cast. It might not make television history, but Timeless certainly makes the present a bit more enjoyable.

Moana – Film Review

Thank the island goddess Te Fiti for Frozen. Before Elsa and Anna conquered the world with their beguiling tale of sisterly love, directors John Musker and Ron Clements were planning a sea-faring adventure called Maui which followed the folkloric exploits of its titular tattooed demi god, voiced by Dwayne Johnson. While that movie sounds like it could have been a lot of fun, it surely wouldn’t have been a patch on this uplifting tale of empowerment. Taking Disney’s newfound drive for Girl Power to another level, Moana taps into Polynesian culture to tell a lusciously animated tale about a 16-year-old girl searching for her place in the world.

That girl is of course Moana (voiced by astonishingly talented newcomer Auli’i Carvalho), the spirited daughter of a tribe chief who longs to revive her ancestors’ long forgotten tradition as wayfinders. Though her father insists she remains on the island to serve her people, Moana is chosen by the sea itself to reunite a mystical McGuffin with a missing goddess. With blight ravaging her village, Moana finally sees the chance to venture beyond the reef on a dangerous mission to find a legendary demi god who may be her only hope of saving her people.

moanamaui

If the early scenes feel slightly sluggish, Moana really finds its rhythm with the introduction of Johnson’s fishhook twirling demi god Maui. Johnson’s naturally infectious charisma works wonders here, making his bombastically boastful hero impossibly likeable even as he tries everything in his power to scupper Moana’s mission in favour of his own selfish aims. The bickering, True Grit-esque dynamic he strikes up with Moana proves to be relentlessly entertaining. “I am not a princess,” Moana stubbornly insists. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” Maui immediately fires back. Like Frozen’s central pairing, it’s a relationship built on opposition and respect rather than romance, and Moana is every bit her super-powered companion’s equal, helping him to rediscover his purpose as he aides her in search of her own.

Storywise, Moana rarely strays from Disney’s time-tested formula. What’s really missing, though, is a strong sense of villainy to raise the stakes in what turns out to be a fairly underwhelming final act. An underfed environmental message fails to have the desired effect and Moana’s growing bond with Maui lacks to emotional gut-punch necessary to fully compensate.

moanababy

Musker and Clements (Disney veterans responsible for such classics as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid) offer just enough visual tweaks to the traditional tropes to forgive their narrative shortcomings. Maui’s hand-drawn tattoos are a particular highlight, dancing across his cliff-face pecks like an inky Jiminy Cricket, while the sea is turned into a cheeky sentient wave that guides the heroes along their journey. There are plenty of skilfully executed set-pieces to enjoy too, including a surreal underwater confrontation with a gold-encrusted crab (voiced superbly by Flight of the Conchords’ Jermaine Clement), who battles our heroes while singing a David Bowie-inspired ditty about his love of all things shinny.

The whole movie is stuffed with such ear worming anthems, some penned by Hamilton’s all-conquering creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Maui’s slick signature song You’re Welcome is unbelievably catchy and proves Johnson can carry a tune (as if he wasn’t perfect enough already), while sweeping sea shanty We Know the Way will be the one the lodges itself in your brain for weeks to come. Moana may not be as ground-breakingly subversive as Frozen, but with its vivid animation, vibrant performances and suitcase full of irresistible tunes, it’s still a fantastic voyage that will have the whole family swept along in its mighty current.

Runtime: 103 mins; Genre: Animation; Released: 2 December 2016;

Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements; Screenwriter: Jarred Bush;

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Carvalho, Jermaine Clement

This review was first featured on FlickFeast.co.uk