Film review: ‘ WRINKLE IN TIME’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

A Wrinkle in Time is the long-awaited cinema adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s1962 children’s sci fi fantasy novel.   As director Ava DuVernay emphasised in a pre-movie address, the film is aimed at tweens and focused on their interests and concerns: identity confusion, bullies, first romance, the desire to see magic enter their dull suburban lives and the belief that their personal problems deserve to be elevated to universal, earth-shattering significance.   Unfortunately, this confusing and dull film fails to address these themes with anything resembling the insight, wit and inventiveness of really good teen and tween-oriented films such as the Harry Potter movies.

Storm Reid plays Meg, a smart but allegedly troublesome teen who has become sullen and withdrawn since her scientist father’s (Chris Pine) disappearance four years ago. She and her slightly creepy little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and would-be boyfriend Calvin (Aussie Levi Miller) suddenly find their lives transformed when three fairy god mother-like women: Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Witch (Oprah Winfrey) appear in the backyard of Meg’s home and after a largely non-sensical explanation of Meg’s father’s possible whereabouts, spirit the three youngsters to their planet. There, the three kids encounter lots of garishly coloured landscapes, questionable CGI and some cat poster philosophies as they search for the Professor.

While the film’s goals of encouraging acceptance, compassion, adventurousness and empowerment in the young are undeniably worthy, it’s unfortunate these ideas are presented in such a cheesy and unconvincing fashion. The film resembles an elaborate panto with clunky dialogue and mostly silly fantasy characters in ridiculous costumes; Oprah looks as if she’s a member of Roy Wood’s band Wizzard. The film occasionally strikes an emotional chord as it touches on the impact on the world of the human mind’s darker side but it doesn’t explore these sorts of ideas in enough depth. Disturbingly, with its over-the-top colour scheme and cringeworthy philosophising, the film recalls the lamentable Robin Williams fantasy What Dreams May Come.

The young cast do a reasonable job given the questionable material but their characters are hardly memorable and are unlikely to become pop culture icons like Harry, Ron and Hermione. The adult cast hardly distinguish themselves although Reese Witherspoon brings some of her typically endearing sparkle to the film.

Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time is more Mortal Instruments than Harry Potter.

Nick’s rating: **

Genre: Fantasy/ Sci-fi.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Ava DuVernay.

Release date: 29th Mar 2018.

Running time: 109 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: ‘READY PLAYER ONE’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Stephen Spielberg’s Ready Player One is an enormous nerdgasm, a sprawling big screen video game stuffed with retro pop culture references and teen geek heroes. Based on the 2011 Ernest Cline novel, the film is a love letter to gamer culture which means some are going to adore it while others may find it alienating and headache-inducing.

The film propels us into the year 2045 where much of society lives in favela-like slums called ‘stacks’ and where the inhabitants attempt to escape from reality by plunging into the virtual world called Oasis. One of Oasis’ biggest devotees is Wade (Tye Sheridan) a teen nerd who adopts the on-line avatar Parzival. When the world learns that the late Oasis creator David Halliday (Mark Rylance) has left a series of Easter eggs and challenges within Oasis that will provide the winner with phenomenal riches and complete ownership of this virtual world, a frenetic race ensues to unlock the secrets hidden within the game. Cyber geek Charlie Bucket, Wade knows that winning this quest will save him and his aunt from desperate poverty. Unfortunately, a sinister company IOI led by corporate meanie Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) also wants control of Oasis. Teaming up with the on-line incarnations of four friends, Wade tries to negotiate the tangled maze of Halliday’s clues while battling Sorrento in a conflict that eventually reaches into the real world.

Mixing The Matrix, Tron and touch of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Ready Player One is an inventive amalgam of action, science fiction and pop culture obsession. On a technical level the film is phenomenal with astonishing CGI used to capture the world of Oasis and some clever integration of pop culture tropes including having the team insert themselves into a famous horror film. Still, it’s hard to get past the fact that most of the time we’re watching characters in a virtual world who will be entirely unscathed when shot with laser cannons or chomped by Mecca Godzilla. Consequently, the action, while hyper-kinetic and cleverly constructed, lacks tension and real excitement because there’s almost nothing at stake.

Spending much of the film as the voice of his Parzival avatar, Tye Sheridan doesn’t have much opportunity to establish the character of Wade, consequently it’s hard to care much about him. In fact, Olivia Cooke makes a much stronger impression as his love interest the feisty heroine Samantha aka Artemis who leads a resistance movement against the corporate oppressor IOI. Ben Mendelsohn, who seems to be the go-to guy for sleazy sci-fi villains these days, impresses as the despicable Sorrento.

While everything that happens in this film might be entirely clear to long-time fans of the novel and the video games referenced, some of the action is hard to follow. Spielberg has attempted to overcome any confusion by having characters constantly describing what’s going on either through voice-over or by having them guide others through virtual worlds and this constant exposition becomes a little irritating after a while.

For its technical achievements Ready Player One is certainly a remarkable piece of work but as a human story, critique of corporate greed and a satire on technological obsession, it doesn’t grasp us as powerfully as it should.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Sci fi/ action.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Steven Spielberg.

Release date: 29th Mar 2018.

Running time: 140 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: ‘AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

One of the favourite novelties of Marvel Comics is the superhero team-up edition where most of the big-name heroes depart their usual narratives to unite against an enormous muscly super villain. That’s the premise of the latest Marvel movie, the epic Avengers: Infinity Wars, a grand finale of sorts but not the end of the Avengers movie juggernaut.

Here, Thanos, a Hulk-sized meanie with a steroid abuser jawline begins a ruthless quest for nothing less than control of the universe. To gain this power he needs six gems known as the infinity stones each of which controls a specific universal property such as time or reality. As he rampages across the universe in search of the stones, he encounters and pisses off most of the Marvel characters we’ve encountered in the last 10 years including the Avengers, Spider-Man, Black Panther and Doctor Strange. Causing the biggest nerdgasm for fans, though, is the fact that, as the various characters unite to battle Thanos, the Avengers world collides with Guardians of The Galaxy.

This film’s goal is to be big and through the efforts of a nation’s worth of CGI technicians, Avengers: Infinity War contains the franchise’s most massive battle sequences, most ludicrously big spacecraft and the most wide and diverse canvas as the battles rage from US cities, to the plains of Wakanda to desolate alien planets. The vast array of heroes and alien beings makes for an at times exhilarating fight between science, muscle and magic. Thankfully, amid all the Wagnerian fury and bloodless destruction, directors Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: Civil War) insert a sliver of pathos and humanity often from unlikely characters; this is one of the few special effects fantasy epics of recent times to actually contain any emotion.

Unfortunately, there is inconsistent toughness aplenty. Thanos is meant to be the most powerful being in the universe and while he’s able to body slam the Hulk and cause a planet to crumble with the wave of his hand, too often he’s slapped around by puny humans. As with all fantasy films we’re often left wondering why the various beings don’t draw on all their phenomenal powers and instead choose to punch it out. When, at one point in this film, a character produces a gun, suddenly hordes of Thanos’ evil minions look astonished before being mown down.

Amid all the mayhem the characters weave in some typically droll humour with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments courtesy of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony stark and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Fortunately, this film doesn’t try to take the piss out of the whole concept the way Thor: Ragnorok did. Superhero films are hardly acting showcases but despite essentially voicing an animated character, Josh Brolin brings some depth and nuance to Thanos. Overall, the film does a reasonable job of balancing screen time for its many characters although it often feels like a Marvel taster platter and a few heroes such as Black Panther appear a little too briefly.

Drenched in CGI, Infinity War looks a little cartoonish and as with all the Marvel films would have benefited greatly from some realism and grit. Still, the candy-coloured phantasmagoria of the Guardians universe remains a stunning piece of modern cinematic art and makes a striking contrast with other vistas such as the sunlit Savanah of Wakanda.

For those wedded to Marvel lore this film probably has some seriously controversial moments and in the context of the vast Marvel franchise, the film’s ending (which I wont spoil) is a little dubious.

Still, for those who enjoy outrageously over-the-top CGI space operas and ripped characters in questionably tight outfits pummelling each other, Avengers: Infinity War will more than satisfy.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Super hero/ Action/ Adventure/Science Fiction/ Fantasy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Anthony Russo, Joe Russo.

Release date: 26th Apr 2018.

Running time: 149 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: GHOST IN THE SHELL, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Ghost In The Shell is an adaptation of a popular Japanese graphic novel although it looks like it was spliced together from the DNA of Blade Runner and RoboCop with a dash of The Matrix. Like those films, Ghost in the Shell is set within a futuristic dystopia in which people have literally been submerged in questionable technology. Within this world the film touches on themes of identity, humanity, scientific tampering and the nature of reality.

In its vision of a future Earth, cybernetic enhancements allowing rapid learning and communication have become commonplace and the lines between human and cyborg have started to blur. Protecting this world is a security force of soldiers who have been given a cybernetic upgrade by scientists at the creepy Hanka Corporation.   Taking human machine integration a step further, Hanka scientist Dr Oulet (Juliette Binoche) had transplanted a human brain into a robot body creating an elite soldier named Major (Scarlett Johansson). When a mysterious hoodie-wearing hacker begins infiltrating Hanka executives’ cybernetics enhancements and physically killing people, Major delves into a dark virtual world to find him. Her search for the hacker, however, provides astonishing revelations about her past.

As its slightly obvious title tells us, Ghost In The Shell is a cautionary tale about the loss of human identity in a world of machines.  It’s a fascinating theme but one that was explored more powerfully and inventively 30 years ago in Robocop. For this type of lost identity tale to have much impact we have to feel for the character but Scarlett Johansson’s Major isn’t a particularly moving or sympathetic figure and she simply doesn’t convey the existential angst necessary to give this story real potency and emotional depth.

In addition to its existential themes the film touches on the contemporary issues of refugee deaths, exploitation of terrorism fears and the growing threat of cyber warfare. While these are vital concerns they’re not examined in a particularly insightful manner here.

Still, many viewers will want to see this film for two reasons, the first being its special effects driven depiction of a futuristic world. In this respect Ghost in the Shell succeeds. Director Rupert Sanders and cinematographer Jess Hall have conjured an impressively vivid and strange world that recalls the astonishing city-scapes in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Also, Sanders applies meticulous art direction in each scene with compositions often recalling the panels of a graphic novel.

The other lure for many people will be the action scenes and for the most part they’re fluent, vigorous and inventively staged. Also, the fact that we’re dealing with cyborgs allows us to forgive some unrealistic fighting techniques and the characters’ apparent indestructibility.

In the end, though, the film doesn’t quite engage the way it needed to. It’s an attractive shell but it’s heart doesn’t beat strongly enough.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Science Fiction.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Rupert Sanders.

Release date: 30th Mar 2017.

Running time: 107 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: ALIEN: COVENANT, by Nick Gardener from Built For Speed

The first two Alien films were so iconic that any sequels or prequels will inevitably carry a burden of expectation so weighty that even Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson would struggle to lift it. This partly accounts for the disappointment that will gnaw at your guts like the infamous title creature while watching the latest instalment in the franchise, Alien: Covenant but just as in Director Ridley Scott’s previous effort, Prometheus, poor scripting is the real monster here.

With Prometheus and Covenant Scott has attempted to directly link with the original 1979 classic by slowly unravelling what occurred in the lead-up to the cargo ship Nostromo’s arrival on that foreboding planet. Within this plot-line Scott has added a story about mankind’s possible alien origins via giant baldy extra-terrestrials called engineers and their sinister pathogen that forces its hosts give birth to a bouncing alien bub.

Alien: Covenant is set 10 years after Prometheus and sees the crew of the ship Covenant hurtling toward a distant planet which they hope to make home to thousands of humans currently in embryo form. When the ship’s crew receives a strange signal from a nearby planet their leader, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) unwisely decides to investigate placing the hapless crew at the mercy of a sinister cyborg (one of two Michael Fassbender roles) and his hungry alien menagerie.

Does this sound familiar, well it should because this is the plot of the first Alien film. Not only does Covenant shamelessly crib the storyline from original, it contains some near-identical scenes, lifts some of the dialogue and uses very similar music. Some of this is deliberate homage and an attempt to establish continuity within the franchise but it’s also flat-out unoriginal.

Unfortunately, this film lacks the thrill of first exposure to this strange world or the artistry that Scott brought to that first film. Scott’s original was a masterpiece of art direction and white knuckle tension that astonishingly combined the grandeur of 2001: A Space Odyssey with gritty working class realism. Alien Covenant does contain some stunning vistas of the New Zealand wilderness that doubles as the alien plant surface but despite this and all the money spent on cgi effects, Covenant doesn’t look as good as the intricately detailed 38-year-old original.

Also, Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant promises so much with its tantalising alien origins mythology and the mystery of what happened to android David (one of two Michael Fassbender roles) but delivers so little. Scott and the scriptwriters have failed to construct a story that can sustain interest across the film’s two hours and the result is not just a sense of anti-climax but one of emptiness.

The film touches on fascinating themes of mankind’s origins, what it means to be human and the threats imposed by artificial intelligence and robots. It also continues the series’ obsession with psychosexual themes from the creature’s reproductive cycle to an oddly homoerotic recorder playing session between the two the Michael Fassbenders. Again, though, as in Prometheus, none of these themes are explored in a deep or compelling way, they’re simply hinted at and left to evaporate.

Also, as a horror film Alien: Covenant fails to shock or deliver the necessary nail-chomping tension. It’s occasionally gory but the attacks by a variety of aliens occur in such a confusing flurry that they have little visceral effect. Also, film confirms the adage (or at least the ‘Built for Speed’ whinge) that a cgi monster can’t top the old man (or woman) in the suit. The attacks in the original Alien had an element of sexual violation which made them particularly disturbing, much of this feeling is lost when we’re clearly looking at a computer-generated monster.

Fortunately, some strong performances add a little grit and credibility to Covenant. Although she’s clearly a surrogate Ripley – even pinching a couple of her lines – Katherine Waterson makes a fine heroine as the emotionally troubled but resilient First Officer Daniels. Michael Fassbender once again brings a creepy coldness to his robot character David and likeable warmth to his latter day twin Walter. Billy Crudup also does a reasonable job as the stereotypical sweaty bumbling commander. Elsewhere though, the cast are given little chance to make any sort of impression.

Alien: Covenant is by no means a dud but it appears Ridley Scott has not heeded the outcries that followed the disappointing Prometheus.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Science fiction/ horror.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Ridley Scott.

Release date: 11th Apr 2017.

Running time: 122 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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