Tuesday’s Reviews – Special Correspondents (2016)

films, fucking awful, meh, Netflix, news, review, Ricky Gervais

I’ve recently started watching Extras again on Netflix and have been loving the reminder of how amazingly funny Ricky Gervais is. The Office was a game changer in terms of British comedy and the first series of Derek was amazing despite the drama in the press. Gervais is a great comedic talent when he’s using his skills in the right context. The Office and Extras were the same kind of cutting, I don’t give a shit who I offend attitude that got him in trouble with The Golden Globes. It’s not the same attitude he used when writing The Invention of Lying. When Gervais forces himself to so conventional Hollywood then it doesn’t work. It lacks bite and originality. So I wasn’t exactly looking forward to his Netflix original film and probably would have missed it. Until he went all fucking pompous about it and announced how good it was because he was doing it all himself. Now if you make those kind of claims then you have no where to hide.

Ricky Gervais, according to himself, knows what’s funny. It’s making something on your own and not by committee, apparently. I get where he’s coming from but, after watching Special Correspondents, I really wish he’d had at least one person with him. Instead, Gervais has taken on the role of actor, writer and director for his Netflix remake of the French film Envoyés Très Spéciaux. Well I guess that could be the reason that Special Correspondents doesn’t quite work as you want it to. I mean maybe all of the jokes, subtle dialogue and original narrative got lost in translation somewhere?

The film follows radio journalist and minor celebrity Frank Bonneville (Eric Bana) and his geeky sound engineer Ian Finch (Gervais) as they are tasked with covering a possible uprising in Ecuador. Thanks to a mix-up of envelopes, the hapless Ian throws away the tickets and passports so the pair are unable to leave the US. Rather than face their boss the pair hide away above a local restaurant and proceed to phone in nightly reports. Realising that they have to up their game to keep the public interested in their radio station, Frank starts to make up increasingly outrageous and exciting stories about the escalating violence and political intrigue.

When the pair release a fake story that has massive political implications they are told to get to the American Embassy asap. Of course they can’t so Frank and Ian set-up a fake kidnapping to buy them some time. They are turned into overnight sensations and Ian’s awful wife, Eleanor (Vera Farmiga) takes every opportunity to throw herself into the spotlight. She releases a charity single to raise ransom funds and gives out interviews to anyone who asks. Never once mentioning that before Ian left the couple were separated after Eleanor slept with Frank.

There was a lot of potential within Special Correspondents to take a satirical look at the world of modern journalism. The idea of false news reports and reporters not being where they are supposed to be is a potentially huge and very real issue. Gervais chooses to ignore these chances and, instead, goes down an increasingly farcical route. Everything is so over-the-top and handled so clumsily. The story never feels as if it’s taking place in a real world inhabited by real people. Any potential critique we could have seen has been lost in favour of a stupid fake-kidnapping plot. From there the narrative struggles along to find an ending that is satisfactory only in the sense that it means the whole sorry affair is over.

Hands down, Special Correspondents doesn’t work because it just isn’t funny or clever enough to do what it set out to. There is a noticeable lack of jokes and the ones that do sneak into the script are woefully underplayed or dealt with so badly. There is no real chemistry between Eric Bana and Ricky Gervais so their blokey banter never lands where it should either. There is no bromance here. It’s all just dull. Which would be fine if there was enough finesse to make this a different film. The story is an unoriginal hodgepodge of ideas we’ve seen a thousand times before, the characters have no development and the Gervais’ direction is dismal. He has no concept of pacing and, for someone who is regarded as being so funny, he has no idea how to make a fucking joke land.

There is no subtlety at work here and Gervais turns to dialogue to ensure the audience feels what he wants them to feel. Every sentence uttered by one of the characters is intended to tell you everything you need to know and not have to waste time forming your own opinions. It’s just the same old Hollywood guff that, had you not know of Gervais’ input, could have been written by anyone. Rather than the unique and interesting character studies of his early television work, we are faced with stock characters going on the usual journey of emotional growth. It’s all just paint-by-numbers stuff. Even the romance is shoehorned in and dire. It’s an insult to Tim and Dawn that Ian and colleauge Claire Maddox (Kelly MacDonald) are allowed to get their happy ever after because they certainly don’t deserve it.

Special Correspondents goes to prove what we’ve all know for a while: Gervais just isn’t suited for Hollywood. He needs the intimate television experience to get to grips with his characters. He works best in shorter formats with much less scope. He got lost in the excitement and vastness that this project offered him and it’s fallen flat. Of course, we also know this won’t matter to him and the criticism will wash over him. I expect more of this shit to come to Netflix in the coming years.

Godzilla (1998)

CGI, fucking awful, Godzilla, Matthew Broderick, news, origin story, review, Roland Emmerich, terrible

The same colleague who continues to push his misguided, positive Man of Steel feelings on me is currently trying to pique my interest for Gareth Edward’s upcoming Godzilla film. As much as I want to believe Edwards can pull off a film that adequately honours the 1954 Japanese original, I just can’t trust it. Now I can tell what some of you are thinking and I get it: none of the many films starring this reptilian nightmare can really be classed as “good”. There are issues with continuity, the portrayal of the monster, and the basic filming techniques to be found in pretty much all of them. However, there is something about Ishirō Honda’s original that just works so well. Yeah, it might not even be on a par with the 1933 King Kong in terms of quality but fuck it: he’s a goddamn giant lizard monster. Of course, I’ve been burned by heightened anticipation in the past so I’m trying to calm myself down a little. What better way to do this than by rewatching the Matthew Broderick centred travesty from 1998?

Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film Godzilla is dark. Now, by dark I don’t mean like a Christopher Nolan film: I mean it’s fucking hard to see anything. Before New York is cursed with a rampaging monster, it is haunted by torrential rain and gloomy skies. The awful weather should tell you everything you need to know about Emmerich’s visual offerings. I mean it doesn’t scream of a director being confident in his title character when he purposefully creates a situation in which it is almost impossible to see the fucker. Compare it, for example, with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park released five years earlier: Spielberg takes his audience and slaps them repeatedly in the face with his well-lit and well designed dinosaurs. Now there’s a director who trusts his end product.
I could almost forgive Emmerich’s shadowy setting if he were doing something groundbreaking with the rest of the film. However, his script, co-written with producer Dean Devlin, is an insipid reworking of a concept that is more familiar to us than the faces of our family. I guess I can understand him not trying to reinvent the wheels in terms of the structure: it’s a tried and tested formula and Godzilla has a lot of loyal fans out there. Imagine how much more pissed off they’d have been if Emmerich had ignored the vital moments of the ritual: mysterious blips on radar; wrecked ships; traumatised survivor: and hapless fisherman celebrating a “monster bite”.  In between the awful scientist and news station exposition, the director creates a fairly decent sense of foreboding and, once the monster arrives in New York, there are some pretty good special effects on display. There is just the right amount of tension and more than enough destruction for anyone’s inner 12 year old to enjoy.
And there it is: the place where I run out of polite things to say about this film. As for the rest, it’s a fucking sham. There are times when the filmmakers seem unsure about whether they are making a film or a video game and it ends up looking trashy and cheap. Take the scene where a military plane is pursuing the creature: Emmerich is clearly attempting to emulate a classic videogame style but, rather than immersing the audience in the chase (which I imagine was his justification) it just looks shit. There is no real sense that this film knows what it’s trying to do. Is it a comedy, an action film, a romance? Who fucking knows.
The plot (don’t worry I understand the ridiculousness of criticising plot in a mutant lizard film) is just a confused, bloated and self-indulgent mess that I can only imagine Emmerich and Devlin knocked up the night before filming was due to start. We have the basic ‘Godzilla comes to New York and destroys some shit’ plot but the producers clearly saw that this wouldn’t create a very substantial film. The action is dragged out thanks to the ever changing size of the title creature who can magically fit into subway tunnels one minute and can’t enter the Park Avenue tunnel the next. This ability to shrink to whatever fucking size he needs means that Godzilla is constantly able to hide from his pursuers. (Handy considering he is the first incarnation of the creature that can be harmed by human weaponry.) Here’s a quick piece of advice to any bloodthirsty Kaiju out there: go to New York because apparently it’s such a huge place that the army will never be able to fucking find you.
Wishing to drag the action out further, our heroes discover that Godzilla is a proud father. This new plot twist has the overall feel of the writers sensing the lack of a follow-up and hastily gluing the script for the potential sequel onto the first one. It’s totally unnecessary and only damages the potential for success. It’s over two hours long for fuck’s sake. I very nearly fell asleep throughout the final parts of the film and I can’t help thinking that, had I only allowed myself to succumb to exhaustion, it probably would have improved my final opinion of the piece. If you’ve got a shitty story adding an even shitter second story on top it is never going to end well.
Guiding us through these bloated plot-twists is a cast of utterly uninspiring, stock characters. I mean, aside from the French guy (Jean Reno) who I was ambivalent towards, there wasn’t a single fucking character in this entire film that I hoped would survive. The oddball cast is headed by 80s darling Matthew Broderick as a scientist who had been working with radioactive, mutant worms in Chernobyl. Unfortunately, Dr Niko Tatopoulos has no real personality and, despite several women salivating at the very sight of him, looks so much like a 12 year old that it’s difficult to take anything he says seriously. There are moments when Tatopoulos attempts to hold down the necessary pro-Godzilla argument but, once he finds himself in danger, is more than happy to ignore his inner thoughts and watch the fucker get blown to pieces. He’s hardly the inspiring and charismatic hero that a good Kaiju film needs.
But wait, who needs the weird worm guy when you have a mysterious Frenchman bemoaning the state of American coffee? To say that Jean Reno is the shining star amongst the rest of the cast really isn’t much of a compliment but he certainly doesn’t seem as constrained by the same bout of self-delusion that infected the rest of the cast. He embraces the farce and makes it work to his advantage. However, intelligence agent Roché is as underdeveloped as the rest of the cast and only serves to offer up the necessary one-liners and gun-fire.  Really there is never a moment when you have a sense that any of the characters are there except to provide witty or shrewd observations about the action that is unfolding before their eyes: adding nothing to the drama or emotion but the obligatory action movie dialogue.
Emmerich and Devlin famously named two of the characters after legendary film writing duo Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in response to negative reviews of their previous films: the useless but opportunistic mayor Ebert and his advisor Gene. In terms of sticking it to their critics it’s hardly a cutting assault. The characters make it through the film without a scratch for fuck’s sake. If you’re going to make a big deal about getting back at someone then the least you can do is have a giant reptile eat them. I mean if Emmerich can’t get a quest for personal vengeance to work for him how the hell was he ever going to deal with Godzilla himself?
Over the years a few different techniques have been utilised to bring Godzilla to the big screen. He was traditionally portrayed by an actor wearing a latex costume (aka suitmation) but has also been depicted using animatronics, stop-motion animation and CGI. Whilst it may not seem that way looking back now in 2014, the period that Godzilla was released was a pretty exciting time for computer-generated effects. The film was released only 3 years before Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring was released and 4 years before the, it was impressive at the time, Spider-Man was released. It was a good time for special effects is what I’m getting at here.
This nugget of film history serves to remind us all just how spectacular this film could have been. Unfortunately, by the time eventually Emmerich and Devlin became involved with the project they were just too keen to put their own stamp onto everything that had already been planned. They scrapped the original idea to develop a version of Godzilla that remained faithful to the original design and instead okayed a completely new and, if I may be so bold, disgraceful design. The Godzilla on screen wasn’t the upright reptilian sea monster that we were so used to attacking well-known landmarks but the creepy, giant result of a sexy t-rex and iguana union. Let’s be honest, it was fucking awful. So awful that Toho, the Japanese film company that owns him, has officially renamed the monster to Zilla in an attempt to cut any ties with the classic.
I say, if it’s good enough for the Japanese then I’m more than happy to forget that this joke was ever compared to the unstoppable legend.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

comedy, Kristen Wiig, news, Paul Rudd, review, satire, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell

If there is one thing you can say about Anchorman 2 it’s that it has definitely utilised its marketing team. For the past few months (though it feels like years) we have seen Will Ferrell dressed as Ron Burgundy on anything with a captive audience. Not that I’m really complaining. I utterly adore the first Anchorman film and, along with Zoolander, will watch it whenever I need an instant boost. That said, ever since the sequel was announced, I found myself unsure whether it was necessary. Anchormanwas a complete film and I just couldn’t see that there was any need to bring back the characters to continue their story. However, a friend and I found ourselves having only had about four hours sleep on New Year’s Day and needing to find an activity that took place in a dark room and didn’t involve interacting with other people. It seemed like destiny was calling.

Anchorman 2picks up several years after the events of the first film when Ron and Veronica (Christina Applegate), in the midst of domestic and professional bliss, are pushed into turmoil when Veronica is offered a promotion whilst Ron is fired. The relationship quickly falls apart and Ron must restart his life with the newfound knowledge that he is not at all capable of performing the role that he was born to have. Thankfully, Ron is quickly lifted out of obscurity thanks to the birth of rolling news so he reassembles his loyal news team and the group make their way to New York to reclaim their top-spot. All whilst Ron attempts to repair his fractured relationship with Veronica and his estranged six-year-old son Walter.

Of course it will prove difficult as our favourite newsreader is just as pompous and self-centred as he always was. The film soars when Ferrell is on screen and it is especially wonderful to see his failed attempts to face off with his formidable new rival, Jack Lime (James Marsden). Ron Burgundy is on top form when he is unrestrained and downright wacky. The moments when he is in the newsroom doing what he does best are a joy to watch.
On the other hand, there are the times when the pace slows a little: most notably the moment when Ron finds himself doing some soul-searching whilst living alone in a lighthouse. This scene echoes the “milk was a bad choice” meltdown scenes from the first but ramps up the comedy thanks to an orphaned shark. Although this segment is also littered with joyous moments there is an ever present sense that it goes on just that little bit too long. The slicker and more on point first half is pushed aside for this bizarre intermission which, other than a few brief titters, does nothing but contribute to the bloated feeling that bogs down the almost 2 hour long film.
Nevertheless, you can tell that Ferrell, and indeed the entire cast, are happy to be back playing these characters and that really helps the film move along. It’s not just a desperate attempt to make money but a chance to revisit old friends. The characters may not be entirely as we remember them but once the story gets going everything starts to feel comfortingly familiar. (Even if the make-up job needed to hide how much older Will Ferrell has got is slightly off putting and gross in close-up.)
One of the biggest stars to come out of the first film was, without a doubt, Steve Carell as the dim-witted Brick. Offering up hilarious visual gags and numerous quotable lines, Brick was the only character memorable enough to share the limelight with Ron Burgundy. This time, in a great show of self-awareness and common sense, the writers have placed Brick on centre stage with an entire subplot to play with. He is introduced to the world of dating once he meets fellow GNN employee Chani (played by Kristen Wiig). Although funny, there are moments when this feels a little bit like overindulgence and clutching at straws. Instead of just being full of zany sound bites, there are uncomfortable moments when the jokes possibly fall onto the wrong side of risqué. Although, attempting to start 2014 off with a ‘glass half full’ attitude, I intend to remember these moments as acceptable jokes instead of just Hollywood making fun of mental disability.
The thing that made Anchorman so amusing when it came out was that it was comedy for comedy’s sake: it was an entire film of Will Ferrell and co. being silly and outrageous because it was funny. Anchorman 2, perhaps in an attempt to show that the concept has grown enough to justify a sequel, takes its first pensive steps into the world of satire and, for the most part, it just about pays off. In between the familiar moments of Ron shouting and Brick being stupid, we sit back and watch as our hero climbs the journalistic ladder by creating a fresh news format by providing his audience with stories they want instead of the ones they need to hear. Filling his initial graveyard slot with fluff pieces and feel-good tales, Ron quickly becomes a ratings winner. Ferrell and co-writer Adam McKay’s attempt to have their say in regards to media moguls, like Rupert Murdoch, isn’t exactly subtle in its approach but it is possible to glimpse some sort of message within all the other noise.

For Anchorman 2 is certainly a loud film: Ferrell and McKay decided to build upon the first film by reusing and revisiting several of the jokes. The most obvious and most desperate is the big news team fight which builds on the original by throwing an insane amount of cameos into the mix along with a minotaur, a ray gun and the ghost of Stonewall Jackson. It is not that this scene isn’t funny but it just feels a little bit stale thanks to the underlying sense of familiarity. You can’t get away from the ‘been there done that’ idea no matter how many shots of Kanye, Liam Neeson and Marion Cotillard you include. Although, despite this tired idea, it does say something about the strength of the Anchorman franchise that the jumping the shark moment comes so far into the running time.

Anchorman 2is by no means as funny as the original but there are still a lot of the usual funny moments. Ferrell is a naturally funny performer and Ron Burgundy’s narcissism and lack of social awareness provides an infinite number of humours opportunities.  Admittedly, there are some that just don’t quite make it to their full potential and a lot of the jokes are stretched until they are thin enough to see through. However, the fact remains that there are plenty of real laughs to be found and, despite several potentially racist/misogynistic sequences, everything is played out to be appalling in just the right way. It is certainly not the most inspiring or well-crafted comedy of all time but Anchorman 2 has at least remembered to stay fairly classy. And if you disagree, I’ve got Jack Johnson and Tom O’Leary waiting for ya, right here.