17 Mar 2021

At The Movies for 17 March 2021

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 17 March 2021

Simon Morris reviews an American drama starring Sam Neill, a C-grade bit of sci-fi with Bruce Willis, and a new Disney feature, mostly created in the animators' own homes.

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Photo: Disney Animation

Simon Morris:  Right now we're consuming films - in cinemas and online - like there's no tomorrow, with no thought as to where they're coming from. The fact is, most of them originated a year or two before the all-conquering pandemic.

There's got to come a time when all those shots of people crowding together, with no thought of social distance, are going to run out.

The number - and cast-lists - of films being shot anywhere in the world are now considerably limited. Interesting times, as the old Chinese curse has it.

But one person's obstacle is another's opportunity. Chaos is a ladder, as some other smart-aleck put it. Goodness knows there are quite a few movies reaching the cinemas that might have struggled to get in before.

Right now we're consuming films - in cinemas and on-line - like there's no tomorrow, with no thought as to where they're coming from. The fact is, most of them originated a year or two before the all-conquering pandemic.

There's got to come a time when all those shots of people crowding together, with no thought of social distance, are going to run out.

The number - and cast-lists - of films being shot anywhere in the world are now considerably limited. Interesting times, as the old Chinese curse has it.

But one person's obstacle is another's opportunity. Chaos is a ladder, as some other smart-aleck put it. Goodness knows there are quite a few movies reaching the cinemas that might have struggled to get in before.

The latest, Cosmic Sin, makes you wonder what Bruce Willis was thinking when he signed up for it.

It's received some of the lowest ratings on record, for some reason. OK, yes it's bad, but is it that bad. We'll see.

One area that's less affected by social distancing is animation. Much of the work is done by solo artists at their computers anyway, so it's no hardship to do it from home.

And sometimes the result is astonishingly good.

The Disney Studios' latest is called Raya and the Last Dragon.

Much of the publicity is about the fact that it's a fairy-tale with a decidedly South-East Asian bent. The fictional land of Kumandra borrows from Malaysia, Vietnam and the Phillippines for a change.

But it's also worth noting that the animation is pretty amazing - easily the equal, technically, of their Pixar stable-mates.

In the past, the old Disney classics came from a wide range of sources - from Dumbo and Fantasia to Pinocchio and 101 Dalmatians.

But these days, a Disney feature often means a new Disney Princess - from Rapunzel and Mulan to Pocahontas and Moana.

And another thing - these days Disney Princesses don't need Prince Charming to save them, or to do anything with them really.

Sisters can do it for themselves in Disney World.

Meanwhile, there's another guaranteed audience aside from consumers of Disney Plus. Older audiences here are regularly drawn to films with actors they like.

People like Kiwi Sam Neill and honourary Kiwi Kate Winslet, who after all got her start in Heavenly Creatures. They both feature in a film called Blackbird.

Unlike some recent films targeting older audiences, Blackbird not only has a terrific cast, it has a sensitive director who knows what to do with them.

Roger Michell made his name with the popular Notting Hill, but he won over the critics with more challenging fare like Venus and The Mother. Here he brings together a family gathering.

Lily and Paul - Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill - have invited their family and loved ones to their home on a New England beach.

And it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary social event. This is a farewell. Lily is very sick and is planning an assisted suicide.

It's clearly a sensitive matter - apart from anything, the procedure is illegal in this state. But for the first day, everyone tries to go along with Lily's wishes without question.

As it happens, this is pretty much how they've always behaved with the wealthy Lily. She's used to getting her own way.

Daughter Jennifer is played by Kate Winslet. She's the straight member of the family, with her equally straight lawyer husband Michael - a bit of a stretch for comedy actor Rainn Wilson - and their teenage son Jonathan.

Recently Jonathan's been showing signs of a mind of his own, egged on by Grandma.

Younger daughter Anna - played by Mia Wasikowska - is the perennial outsider, never quite fitting in, unable to even commit to her girlfriend Chris. They regularly break up, though they're together for this weekend.

Anna has plans to disrupt the proceedings. Is it a conscientious objection or something else?

As far as sister Jennifer is concerned, it's just attention seeking - you know what Anna's like. But does the family actually know what Anna's like - or indeed anyone else?

There are secrets to be revealed, and despite the time of year, a last-minute Christmas to be organized.

And there's one more cuckoo in the nest - Lily's long-time best friend Liz, played by Lindsay Duncan.

Why is she here? ask Jennifer and Anna, in a rare moment of agreement. As it happens, Liz is always there, supporting both Lily and husband Paul. Is there more to this than meets the eye?

Susan Sarandon is the undoubted star of Blackbird - a title that never gets any sort of explanation in the film by the way

Sarandon plays Lily as that rare thing in these family dramas - the alpha female. Will anyone stand up to her, particularly at this worst time for the whole family?

But while Lily is the motor running the film, the heart of the story - if I can mix my metaphors a little - is Sam Neill as husband Paul.

Decent, loyal, charming and funny - Sam's essentially playing himself here, and nobody does it better.

Sam Neill characters are often noted for their stiff upper lips. So when Paul breaks down, confronting his wife's situation, it's that much more moving.

Blackbird is based on a Danish film - adapted by the original author in fact. But families are universal, especially at Christmas. Even a made-up Christmas like this.

Director Roger Michell balances the characters delicately. Interestingly he uses close-ups very sparingly - much of Blackbird is made up of wide shots.

The film is trying to show all sides of a controversial subject, and in the end it allows the characters - and us - to make our own minds up.

At a time when quite worthy films struggle to get made, I suspect the sci-fi thriller Cosmic Sin had no difficulty at all.

It's got aliens, it's got things blowing up, it's got the omnipresent Frank Grillo and lady wrestler CJ Perry. And above all it's got Bruce Willis. Where do I sign?

The movie industry generally has ambivalent feelings towards the money-people who actually pay for these films. On the one hand, it's assumed they know everything and must be pandered to at all times.

On the other, they're also apparently incredibly stupid, and will only support familiar elements.

It's undeniable that Cosmic Sin is pretty dumb. It ends with an Earthling soldier punching an alien warrior on the jaw, after all.

But it also needs an awful lot of early exposition.

I won't take up your time with the several pages of introduction to Cosmic Sin. In fact, it opens like an old-fashioned video game.

In the near future, we read, Earth space-explorers colonized various planets, and a general called James Ford - shots of Bruce Willis - set off a Q Bomb and got fired. Now Ford hangs out in bars and gets into fights.

But the action opens on a near-deserted planet, where a skeleton crew - always more cost-effective than a large colony in films like this - suddenly realise they're not alone.

They've made First Contact with a gang of aliens. And then it all goes horribly wrong.

Another budget-cutting device when making a film about alien invaders is to have it so they can instantly inhabit other people's bodies.

So, only one cheap alien costume required, while the other aliens are simply the people who were running away in the previous shot.

Former General Bruce Willis - last seen getting into a bar-fight, remember? - is invited to join old colleague Frank Grillo.

It's time to put a band together to fight these First Contacts, even if this flies in the face of Standing Orders.

We're told that exterminating First Contact aliens with extreme prejudice has been deemed a Cosmic Sin- lest you think the title of the movie is as random as the rest of it.

Here comes the team, which includes The Doctor, an old squeeze of Bruce, we gather, as he gives her a twinkly look over his spacesuit.

There's The Kid, General Frank Grillo's petulant nephew who doesn't want to be left out of this fight.

There's a sergeant without many lines - guess who gets killed first? There's Bruce Willis's sidekick Dash, and the toothsome tech who gives him cheek.

And off they go, splintering the laws of physics, sense and dramatic structure, as Cosmic Sin stops and starts, blows stuff up, and generally behaves like a video-game produced by Roger Corman.

And to my surprise - and some relief - the film has been hated, particularly by the audience it was clearly aimed at, but who couldn't wait to bite the hand that fed it.

Ratings for Cosmic Sin were universally seven times lower than they ought to be. Even the least demanding consumers of genre movies ganged up to trash it.

An expensive lesson for the 20 or so producers, I suppose, though I imagine Bruce Willis banked his cheque and moved on.

But it's gratifying to learn that occasionally you can go broke underestimating the intelligence of the film-going public.

The releases of Disney animated features have reached production-line regularity. So it can't be expected that the result will always be up to five-star standard.

For every Frozen, Zootopia and Moana there's bound to be a few Ralph breaks the Internets and Winnie the Pooh sequels.

But one thing remains certain in a Disney feature. The animation will be pretty impressive, often setting the new benchmark for the art-form.

The latest, Raya and the Last Dragon, seems to have lifted the depiction of physical movement to a new high.

This is particularly impressive since the animation was mostly done at home, with the animators in lockdown, nowhere near live-action models - apart from their own families.

Raya and the Last Dragon borrows from Korean martial arts, Japanese anime classics and Chinese fables. But it's entirely original, set in a fictional realm.

Five fictional realms in fact. The original kingdom of Kumandra was broken into five by an evil force called the Druun.

The Druun was defeated by a bunch of magical dragons, at the cost of their lives. There are no dragons left, only one magical dragon gem.

It sounds more complicated than it does in the film. The Disney people have had ninety years practice getting exposition across painlessly.

The last jewel is looked after by Princess Raya and her noble Dad, until…. Well until disaster happens, the Druun returns and the jewel shatters.

Now Raya is going to have to get the five bits of dragon jewel back together. And to do that, she's going to have to find Sisu the Last Dragon, so she starts searching.

Six years pass and Raya arrives at the last possible dragon haunt. Will she find Sisu?

Of course she will! The film's called Raya and the LAST Dragon, isn't it?

Anyway, Raya and magical sidekick Sisu - as always in Disney movies, played by a star comedian, in this case, Chinese-American favourite Awkwafina - head off on their quest. But first they'll need to get a crew together.

There's a one-eyed pirate called Tong, there's a feisty street-kid with his own boat called Boum, there's a cute baby pickpocket and an enormous armadillo called Tuk Tuk.

And it seems Sisu the blue water-dragon can turn into a blue-haired human, looking rather like Awkwafina.

But while they combine forces to bring together the five bits of magic dragon gem, our motley crew is under threat from a former friend of Raya - now her sworn enemy - Namaari.

Look out, here she comes now on her feline steed.

The great thing about having the sort of budgets Disney films can toss about is they don't have to put up with anything that'll just do. Getting it right is the aim, and they're prepared to pay for it.

For instance, each of the five lands has its own topography and culture, each borrowing from a different South-East Asian country.

And the voice talent has been carefully selected too, benefiting from the fact that there are a lot more star Asian voices available. From Britain, Benedict Wong and Gemma Chan, from Canada, Sandra Oh, and Star Wars' Kelly Marie Tran as Raya.

Is Raya and the Last Dragon a stone-cold Disney classic for the ages? Hard to say - you never know until it's been around a few years.

But it looks fantastic, its heart is in the right place, it's funny, but there are also moments when you truly believe things may not work out.

And the film's much-trumpeted diversity is put to good use - not as an example of the dreaded "virtue-signalling", but because new stories and new characters are interesting, less predictable and, frankly, more fun.

As I always say with a film like this, borrow a kid and go and see it - you'll both have a good time.