Antonio Banderas

Uncharted

20/02/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Has there ever been a truly satisfying movie adapted from a video game? Not that I’ve seen.

It’s a conundrum when you consider that most games are cinematic in their scope and yet, time and again, they somehow fail to make the transition. Uncharted has been wallowing in production-hell for a very long time. Indeed, the original plan was to have Mark Wahlberg play young adventurer Nathan Drake, but time has moved on, and he has to be content with playing the father-figure, Sully, to Tom Holland’s Nathan.

Holland, fresh from box-office-conquering success in Spider-Man: No Way Home, could probably have chosen pretty much anything for his next project, so it’s interesting that he’s gone for this. He’s a self-professed gaming fan, so perhaps that’s what lured him. I should perhaps state at this point that I have never played the Uncharted game – in fact, apart from a few goes at Tomb Raider way back in the day, I have never felt the need to scratch the gaming itch.

Uncharted is a fun project, which makes no secret of the fact that it’s highly derivative, borrowing heavily from films that have gone before it: a splash of Oceans 11, a measure of National Treasure and a great big dollop of Indiana Jones. Indeed, the script, put together by no less than five screenwriters, openly references the latter movie several times, just in case we’ve missed the allusion.

When we first meet Nathan, he’s hanging grimly onto a shipping container trailing out of the back of a transport plane (as you do), a sequence lifted directly from the Playstation game that inspired the film. It’s pretty full on for an introduction, but happily the story then skips back to young Nathan’s life in an orphanage and his hero worship of his younger brother, Sam (Rudy Pankow). Sam is obsessed with the idea of finding treasure – specifically the lost gold of Spanish explorer, Ferdinand Magellan. But after breaking too many rules, he’s obliged to skip town and, after that, Nathan only hears from him occasionally, via a series of mysterious postcards from all around the world.

Back in the present day, Nathan is approached by Sully, who’s looking for somebody to help him find a lost treasure and, of course, it turns out to be the same one that Sam was looking for all those years ago. Sully also mentions that he knows Sam, so Nathan dutifully enlists with him. What follows is an elaborately plotted heist-treasure-hunt-action-spectacular. Thrown into the mix are Antonio Banderas as the ruthless Santiago Moncada, a man whose family history makes him believe the treasure rightfully belongs to him, his vicious hench-woman, Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), who is very handy with a blade, and another treasure seeker, Chloe Frazer (Sophia Ali), who might be trustworthy, but probably isn’t.

The action set pieces are nicely done, though the film’s 12A certificate sometimes jars with the onscreen violence. Vicious punches leave not a hint of a bruise and there’s what must qualify as the least bloody throat cutting-scene I’ve ever witnessed on the big screen. It just feels odd. But I enjoy the banter between Nathan and Sully, and a climactic sequence featuring helicopters and Spanish galleons is definitely a highlight.

All in all, this is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours, but there’s nothing in Uncharted that will linger long in the memory. Fans of the game will doubtless complain that this doesn’t stick closely enough to the source material, while for me, the inevitable post-credit sequence which teases a second instalment, doesn’t feel in the least bit tempting.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Laundromat

03/12/20

Netflix

The Panama Papers – the massive exposé of hundreds of shady shell companies, dating back to the 1970s – was revealed in 2016 by a mysterious whistle-blower known only as ‘John Doe.’ It’s a fascinating tale of greed and deceit and one that was inevitably going to find its way onto cinema screens sooner or later. Furthermore, Steven Soderbergh is exactly the kind of director I would have picked to helm such a project. And yet, The Laundromat doesn’t quite work – mostly, I think, because of its scatter-shot approach.

It starts well. We are introduced to Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) wandering through a variety of exotic locations as they chat direct to camera, sip cocktails and explain that shell companies aren’t exactly illegal, they are simply ways of ensuring that billionaires won’t have the tiresome burden of paying all those pesky taxes they owe.

No big deal. The way they tell it, it sounds almost reasonable. But it can more succinctly be described in two words. Money laundering.

And then we meet Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), recently widowed when she and her husband were on a cruise on Lake George and their hire boat capsized. First Ellen learns that the insurance policy she and her hubby took out for the trip won’t pay up because the firm they bought it from has itself been purchased by a shell company known only as ‘Nevis.’ And then her plans to retire to a condo that overlooks the place where she and her husband first met are brutally scuppered when the apartment is purchased – for cash – by a couple of Russian oligarchs.

Understandably miffed, she decides to devote some time to investigating the dealings of Nevis…

So far, so good, but it is at this point that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns takes us on a whistle-stop tour around the globe, to meet other people who, because of the wheelings and dealing of Messrs Mossack and Fonseca, are the nominal owners of shell companies, purportedly worth millions of dollars, but in reality not worth the paper they are printed on. African billionaire Charles (Nonso Anonzie) is attempting to pay off his wife and daughter over an affair he’s been having with a teenage girl, by making them the ‘owners’ of two such companies – and, in China, Madame Gu (Rosalind Chao) will seemingly go to any lengths to protect the reputation of her husband, whose main method of generating income seems to be trading in human organs.

These side-stories whizz past and aren’t investigated deeply enough to make them feel like part of the overall narrative arc. The unfortunate effect is that, by the time we get back to Ellen Martin’s quest, much of the story’s momentum has been lost. The film is by no means terrible, but it is unfocused – and even a late reveal (which I have to admit I didn’t see coming) fails to salvage it.

There’s certainly food for thought here. It’s interesting to note that the victims focused on in these stories are not the poor and impoverished, but middle-class people who’ve failed to realise that they are toiling at the behest of the greedy rich, whose paramount intention is to hang on to every penny they have generated, with no concern for the human wreckage left in their wake. It’s also sobering to learn that Mr Mossack and Mr Fonseca were able to walk away from this debacle with what amounts to little more than slapped wrists. Because, you know, it’s not really illegal…

For a winter evening stuck at home, this provides a decent night’s entertainment, but it certainly won’t figure among Steven Soderbergh’s best films – and there’s surely a more definitive adaptation of the Panama Papers story waiting somewhere in the wings.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Life Itself

02/01/19

There’s a lovely little movie trapped inside Life Itself. An arch, playful, beautifully acted and intriguingly populated film, with a gently emotive storyline. It’s all there: ripe and ready. Unfortunately, it’s covered in an unwelcome layer of fridge-magnet cod-philosophy, with a side helping of pomposity thrown in. Oh dear.

Things start well. We meet Will (Oscar Isaac) as he stumbles drunkenly into a coffee shop, clearly having hit hard times. His therapist (Annette Bening) encourages him to talk about his relationship with his wife, Abby (Olivia Wilde), and their back-story is revealed in a series of flashbacks. The idea of the unreliable narrator is introduced early on, and reinforced by Abby’s student thesis on the subject. Life, concludes Abby, is the ultimate unreliable narrator, more random and unpredictable than anyone cares to acknowledge. Her friends like the idea, but she fails her course, because the essay strays too far from literary criticism.

Still, as the film goes on to show: she’s right. Time and again, writer-director Dan Fogelman pulls the rug from under our feet, throwing us swerve balls and catching us unawares. The action moves, almost arbitrarily,  from Will and Abby’s New York to Javier González (Sergio Peris-Mencheta)’s Spain – where all the dialogue, naturally, is in Spanish – and back again to New York, where we meet Will and Abby’s daughter, Dylan (Olivia Cooke). All this I like. The characters are captivating, and the seemingly unrelated strands are pulled together expertly. Segmenting movies into ‘chapters’ seems to be a bit of a recent phenomenon, and it works well here. Antonio Banderas is wonderfully understated as the emotionally needy Mr Saccione, and Laia Costa, as Javier’s wife, Isabel, really lights up the screen.

So why doesn’t it work? Because that premise, of life being the ultimate unreliable narrator, is overworked. It’s not left to be played out; we’re not trusted to understand without an actual lecture, delivered in the final chapter by Elena (Lorenza Izzo), Dylan’s teenage daughter, who, we discover, has been narrating throughout. There’s not enough substance to the idea to merit this much talk; it’s a simple – dare I say banal? – concept, enough to carry a story but not to bear such scrutiny. It takes itself too seriously, accords itself too much weight. And that’s a real shame.

There’s a filmed Q and A at the end of our screening, but it reinforces rather than alleviates our concerns. The interviewer, Jenny Falconer, talks of weeping copiously as she watched, but we both feel curiously unmoved. It’s clearly a movie that wants to tap into our emotions, but the narration distances us from events, and makes that level of engagement difficult. I don’t mind this – the film is at its best when it’s witty and stylised, which it is, a lot of the time – but it feels muddled, as if the ‘message’ is getting in the way of all the good stuff that’s on offer here.

3.3 stars

Susan Singfield