Doctor Who: Smile (S10E02) Review

Our second outing of Season 10 opens in media res, or at least feels like it and I’ll admit I rewound the live TV just in case I’d blinked and missed a few vital seconds. I hadn’t. After a brief and pointed reminder from Nardole regarding the Doctor’s ‘Oath’ to protect whatever’s in that vault, we’re off on the customary companion’s first trip episode.

In the distant future, at the edge of the galaxy, the Doctor and Bill land near a gleaming white city surrounded by wheat fields, apparently abandoned except for robots. The Doctor and Bill are, at least, happier to find wheat on an alien world than the people in the “Alien: Covenant” trailer. But the happiness is short lived as they discover the macabre secret of the city: anyone who isn’t happy is killed by the Vardy (microbots who control the – for want of a better term – Emoji-Loompas). Resolving to destroy the city before more human colonists arrive, the Doctor sets out to blow up its power source, just as Bill discovers the humans aren’t due to arrive: they’re already there.

Much like Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode “In The Forest Of The Night”, there’s an abundance of ambition and imagination at work here and, just like that episode, it’s not particularly well thought out and the ending is another massive cop out.

The visuals are lifted straight from “Tomorrowland”, thanks to some exotic location shooting in Valencia but the lush location aside, there’s a cheapness to the episode driven by the general lack of a supporting cast except for the very beginning and very end. Was it really worth flying Mina Anwar and Ralph Little out to Valencia for half a day’s work? Seems a bit of a waste, really.

It’s all a bit dull, really. Thankfully, Capaldi can make even the most ludicrous dialogue sound credible so he easily deals with leaden turns of phrase such as ‘grief as plague’ while he figures out why the Vardy have turned on their human creators.

It’s a shame the story – a clumsy mishmash of previous Who outings “The Happiness Patrol” and “The Ark In Space” with dashes of “Big Hero 6” and the aforementioned “Tomorrowland”  – bogs the whole thing down because the quality of the visuals, and some of the dialogue nearly manage to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. There are some marvellous moments of banter between Bill and the Doctor, notably about Scots in Space and there’s a sly shout out to David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ too but thanks to the sparse cast, there’s just too much tell and not enough show for the episodes ideas to really flourish and grow. The ending is perhaps one of the most narratively insulting “Doctor Who” has ever provided as this most derivative of episodes takes its final inspiration from “The IT Crowd”.

Capaldi and Pearl Mackie continue to knock it out of the park, though and Bill is proving herself to be the perfect companion for this Doctor. Hopefully we can chalk this up to an early stumble and the rest of the season will live up to the promise of “The Pilot”. Next week’s looking encouraging. Frost fairs and sinister Victoriana seems like fertile ground for a classic Who-dunnit. But this week, for an episode called “Smile” which dealt with the fatal consequences of unhappiness, its ultimate effect on this viewer was deeply ironic.

4/10 

Doctor Who: The Pilot (S10E01) Review

After an absence so long it almost qualifies for the sobriquet the Fourth Great Doctor Who Hiatus (especially if one understandably overlooks the forgettable “Return of Doctor Mysterio”), proper “Doctor Who” is back on telly for a tenth [thirty-sixth] season. So what does mischievous showrunner Steven Moffat call this overdue return? “The Pilot”, obviously.

The Doctor is working undercover as a University professor, all the while guarding a mysterious doorway in the basement of the faculty buildings. When a regular attendee at his lectures catches his eye, it draws him into an adventure of starry-eyed romance and a peculiarly puzzling puddle.

There’s a trademark Moffat sly cleverness to the episode title, as it figuratively and literally relaunches the programme after a prolonged absence and works perfectly as a jumping-on point for viewers who’ve never watched “Doctor Who” before – if such people still exist.

However, for people who have seen “Doctor Who” before, there are – appropriately – Easter Eggs aplenty, from the word go. As well as a pen pot full of sonic screwdrivers from days of yore, there are also a couple of sentimental photos on the Doctor’s professorial desk, including what will surely turn out to be a Chekhov’s Picture of his granddaughter Susan, last seen spraining her ankle in the Death Zone on Gallifrey in 1983’s “The Five Doctors”.

For a (re)launching point, it certainly embraces the rich history of the series so far, albeit in a subtle way and its most consistent homage is to the late, great Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor. The entire set-up of the curiously long-serving university professor will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the unfinished Tom Baker story “Shada” or read Adams’ “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and the cameo appearance from the silver dreadlocked Movellans from “Destiny Of The Daleks” cements the Adams-esque feel.

Thankfully, against this reverential and self-referential backdrop of teases, portents and promises, there’s a nifty little monster-of-the-week plot and a sparky introduction to our new companion, Bill. The monster – unnamed – is a classic Whovian creation of taking something ordinary and every day – a puddle – and giving it a sinister twist. For a while, I was wondering if we’d get a link back to “The Waters Of Mars” but ultimately, despite its phenomenal powers to pursue and track the TARDIS across millions of years and billions of miles it’s dismissed as a sentient oil leak from a passing alien shuttlecraft.

Bill is instantly charming, offering the same wide-eyed exuberance as Billie Piper did in “Rose”, combined with an inquisitive and irreverent attitude. There’s an instant chemistry with Capaldi’s Doctor, a portrayal which continues to grow and develop in a way that makes it bittersweet that now he’s back, this is to be his last series. I’m still undecided about Nardole – who apparently is partly robotic now – although he’s better here than he was in the Christmas special, probably due to the lack of attempts to retcon his presence after “The Husbands Of River Song”.

The whole episode is a treat and while there are some plot threads left dangling – some deliberately and a few in a typically Moffat way – it’s a giddy mix of adventure, fun and some genuinely creepy moments which riff on classic horror tropes. While he may be a divisive figure to a vocal set of fans, it’s hard to deny that when Moffat gets Who right, he really gets it right. “The Pilot” is among his best work, aware and affectionate of the series’ rich history and traditions but acutely aware of the need for it to remain vibrant, alive and relevant to the wider, non-Whovian audience. It’s a bold and energetic beginning for a series entering its 54th year. I can’t wait to see what the Doctor and Bill get up to next.

8/10 

Fast & Furious 8 (2017) Review

The Fast & Furious franchise continues to surprise and delight in equal measure as it resumes its metamorphosis into a Saturday morning cartoon brought to lavish live-action life.

When his honeymoon is interrupted by the appearance of the notorious cybercriminal Cypher (Charlize Theron), Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) finds himself blackmailed into betraying his team and turning his back on his family. But his family won’t give him up without a fight and so begins a globetrotting race against time to stop Cypher from carrying out her evil plan.

As the Box Office receipts can evidence, the “Fast & Furious” movies have established themselves as the pre-eminent action franchise in cinema today. In the same way that Jason Bourne reshaped action capers in the early 2000s, so this car racing turned action adventure series has done now and as the Bond producers mull which direction to turn after the lacklustre “SPECTRE”, they could do worse than inject some of the fun and ferocity of the adventures of Dom, Hobbs and the gang.

While the trailer itself gives away many of the key vehicular set pieces, there’s plenty of action to enjoy, including an inspired sequence as Jason Statham escapes from a plane. Not content with revitalising the action spy game, “Fast & Furious 8” also manages to do its very own spin on the played out zombie genre and the results are both terrifying and terrific.

The absence of Paul Walker is felt but “Fast & Furious 8” offers a few potential replacements to see which one sticks. First off is the return of Jason Statham’s Deckard, the principle antagonist of “Fast & Furious 7”, pressganged by Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) into working with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to track down Dom. Although Statham has fantastic screen chemistry with Johnson, there’s the lingering issue of his killing of one of Dom’s crew. Kylo Ren can only dream that his killing of Han will be as swiftly forgotten. The other potential Brian Walker replacement is Scott Eastwood as ‘Little Nobody’, an Agent working for Mr Nobody but there’s such a lack of personality to his character, he could easily be replaced by a self-driving car in most of the action scenes. Theron’s villain, on the other hand, is easily the most formidable of the series so far and it’s to be hoped she does what nearly every other villain has done and return at some point in the future.

“Fast & Furious 8” is a near perfect popcorn action flick, the kind of film multiplexes were made for. Superheroes may come to dominate and “Star Wars” will no doubt cap the year off but make no mistake, 2017’s blockbuster season started fast and furiously in April.

8/10 

The Boss Baby (2017) Review

Not since Disney/ Pixar’s “Cars” has an animated movie presented such an incoherent and illogical fictional world as “The Boss Baby” does.

Facing an existential threat, Baby Corp sends an undercover operative (Alec Baldwin) to live with the Templeton family to find out what the Templeton parents know about Puppy Co’s plan to launch a new breed of puppy. But when the Templeton’s son Timothy (Tobey Maguire) rumbles Boss Baby’s cover the two are forced to work together.

It’s hard to encapsulate the many, many ways that “The Boss Baby” just doesn’t make sense. Loosely adapted from a picture book, the final product screams of a concept handed to a writer’s room to make the best of. It’s a shame, too, as the vocal performance are pretty good, especially Alec Baldwin and the animation design is beautiful to look at. It’s just that nothing else makes a lick of sense. “Storks” struggled to reconcile its cutesy plot with the basics of where babies come from but “The Boss Baby” makes it look like a biology masterclass. Even if you can overlook the shakiness of the basic premise, the plot doesn’t work either and the film stumbles from one ‘hey, wouldn’t it be funny if…?’ set piece to the next, connected by the thinnest of coherent narrative threads long after the mild amusement of a ‘helpless’ baby spouting corporate buzzwords wears thin.

Instantly forgettable, Dreamworks needs to stop churning out this kind of rubbish and get on with making a follow-up to “How To Train Your Dragon 2”.

2/10 

Ghost In The Shell (2017) Review

If it wasn’t for the overblown ‘controversy’ over casting, the live-action remake of “Ghost In The Shell” might have struggled to generate much attention at all.

In the not too distant future, cybernetic enhancements are almost universal, blurring the lines between humanity and robots. Major (Scarlett Johansson), a human mind inside an entirely robotic body, leads a squad in Section 9, the anti-terrorist bureau. Her mission is intensely personal to her given she is the sole survivor (of sorts) of a terrorist attack which killed her parents. However, while investigating recent attacks on senior personnel of Hanka Robotics, she begins to experience hallucinatory glitches which seem to be connected to the cyber terrorist known as Kuze.

Given the original anime has been ruthlessly strip-mined for imagery and ideas since it was released to worldwide acclaim (particularly by “The Matrix” trilogy and all the “Matrix” imitators which followed) it seems somewhat disingenuous to be so outraged at the casting of Johansson in the lead role. Yes, the original was set in Japan – as is this one – but the 1995 anime featured a fairly diverse cast of characters including plenty of Caucasians and the character of Major was animated in what looks a lot like an ethnically neutral way. I don’t really buy into the argument that it’s whitewashing or cultural appropriation given the one area the film really succeeds (apart from Johansson’s committed performance) is in its visual recreation of many of the original animation’s signature Japanese visuals. Shouldn’t we be as comfortable with casting Scarlett Johansson as Major as we are with Michael B Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four” (and maybe focus more on why the stories aren’t being told well rather than who’s playing what part)?

For all the outrage, though, “Ghost In The Shell” just doesn’t do anything very interesting with the ideas it’s playing with. It rearranges some of the plot points from the original but to little effect and therefore ends up being very pretty to look at, but lacking any real substance.

5/10 

Smurfs: The Lost Village (2017) Review

Ditching the hybrid live action of the previous instalment for a purely animated outing, the Smurfs are back, and this time they’re still obsessing over Smurfette.

While the Smurfs live happily in their topless blue utopia of nominative determinism, Smurfette frets that she doesn’t have a purpose like her brethren. But a chance encounter with a mysterious Smurf-like creature sets her off on a journey of discovery and a race to find a lost village of Smurfs before the evil wizard Gargamel does.

The arrival of a new Smurfs film, if nothing else, at least solves the mystery of why James Cameron has been delaying the “Avatar” sequels: he was waiting for new source material to adapt. I’m calling it now, “Avatar 2” will deal with the discovery of a ‘lost’ tribe of Na’avi. Turnaround is fair play, I guess because there’s more than a hint of Pandora in the forbidden forest the Smurfs must explore to find their lost people.

The decision to step back from bringing the Smurfs into the real world frees the franchise up from having to maintain an ironic, self-aware edge and the resultant adventure is all the better for it. Without the real world, the oddities of the Smurf society are less obvious and their charm can shine through. The Lost Village is a frothy, fun adventure that skips along singing a happy tune. It’s bright, colourful and pretty funny to boot, even if the idea of a lost tribe of female Smurfs raises far more questions than it answers.

The littlest Craggling (aged 4) sagely pronounced this film as ‘better than “Trolls”’ and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s certainly the best modern Smurfs movie to date.

6/10 

Free Fire (2017) Review

Released tomorrow, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to his adaptation of “High Rise” is a quirky slice of lowlife set in the gun running ganglands of 1970s Boston. With its tongue firmly in cheek and a bullet in the chamber, it’s a breezy and bonkers film which owes a great deal to the works of Quentin Tarantino.

In an abandoned Boston factory, a group of Irish terrorists arrange to buy some guns from a weapons dealer. But thanks to a bar fight from the night before, insults and bullets start flying.

There’s an undeniable eagerness to the movie and straight out of the gate it tries too hard. It’s almost too quirky, too quippy; every line of dialogue aiming for that Tarantino-esque gnomic quality that achieves quotable immortality. Unfortunately, they come so thick and so fast that few of them have time to linger long in the memory before the next witty aphorism barges it out of the way.

Much like “The Hateful Eight”, once the characters are gathered together, the film has an almost theatrical quality as events play out in a single location. Although largely confined to the one set, Wheatley keeps things visually interesting and the fantastic sound design provides plenty of atmosphere for the almost Pythonesque goings on.

Despite the action orientated setting, it’s largely a character driven piece and the performances of the cast are strong enough to compensate for the relative thinness of the plot. It’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is and while everyone in the cast is good value, Brie Larson, in particular, feels underused and only there to keep things from being a total sausage fest. The film does sag in the middle somewhat as the constant exchange of gunfire and banter begins to run out of steam but manages to pick up momentum again for an entertainingly bonkers finale, even if the final outcome is a little bit disappointing.

Blatantly gunning for cult status, “Free Fire” has plenty of violent fun and silliness to offer, but it falls just short of greatness by choosing style over substance at every turn.

6/10 

Life (2017) Review

If there’s one thing you can say about the movie “Life”, is that it answers the question ‘Is there life on Mars?’ fairly quickly. In fact, it answers it in the trailer so there’s little time wasted in getting to the ‘good’ stuff.

When a returning probe from Mars returns with a sample of a single-celled organism, the joy of discovery quickly turns to terror for the five-person crew of the International Space Station as they learn the life form has an agenda of its own.

Blessed with a suitably starry cast, “Life” benefits from some smartly portrayed space science which takes centre stage in the early portion of the film, admittedly at the expense of character development but the film’s biggest mistake is in its rush to get to its own spin on the claustrophobic tension and terror of “Alien” it stumbles into repeating the worst of Ridley Scott’s other xenomorphic outing, “Prometheus”. In order to move its story along, “Life” consistently requires very smart people to make very stupid choices. There are odd gaps in the consistency of scenes and dialogue, hinting at a choppy editing process which sought to salvage something from a different, possibly longer movie. While it’s moderately successful in generating some suspense, there’s never enough depth to the characters to feel fully invested so the grisly developments fail to have the necessary impact. The cast do their best but the superficial script is too in love with its own premise to devote the time and effort needed to create the emotional stakes needed to really ratchet up the terror.

The special effects work, however, is mightily impressive, not just in the alien creation itself but also the portrayal of life aboard the ISS, rivalling “Gravity” for its seamless portrayal of life in orbit. But as glossy and slick as the visuals are, there’s just too much inconsistency and stupidity for the film to work and by the time it tries something really brave and different, it’s too late and you’ll see it coming a mile off. For all its promise and possibilities, “Life” is dead on arrival.

5/10 

Mother’s Day (2016) Review

A limp and saccharine end to a great career, “Mother’s Day” forms the third and final part of Gary Marshall’s ensemble holiday-themed dramedy trilogy and, despite how bad “Valentine’s Day” was, “Mother’s Day” still finds enough depths to plumb to ensure it adheres to the law of trilogies.

In the build-up to Mother’s Day – which is apparently a huge deal for the purposes of this film – a diverse and eclectic mix of friends and families love, laugh and learn the true meaning of motherhood.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Mother’s Day the day. The film, yes, but not the day itself. As usual, Marshall manages to corral a glittering array of big screen talent – and Jack Whitehall – to populate his candyfloss melodrama but ultimately it all feels arbitrary and inconsequential despite setting its sights on such weighty topics as divorce, bereavement, racism and homophobia. It wastes the talents of the likes of Jason Sudeikis and allows many of its biggest names to stay lazily in their comfort zones all in service to a cosily twee resolution. Deeply unpleasant lifelong homophobia and racial prejudices are resolved in the twinkling of an eye thanks to some awkwardly forced hijinks while the absence of a mother is essayed by underlining how inept men are in caring for children, typified by a ‘humorous’ scene where a man who’s apparently been married for over a decade has somehow never had to buy tampons before. It’s okay because then he makes up for his late wife’s absence by showering his children with material goods. Bless.

Despite the film’s frequent and clumsy shout-outs to Julia Roberts’ back catalogue, she also features in the movie’s only vaguely worthwhile scene (unless you count the gag reel which plays over the end credits which is, honestly, much more fun than the film itself) as Julia Roberts and Jennifer Anniston share the screen together in a pivotal encounter. It’s the rom-com equivalent of the iconic cinematic meeting of DeNiro and Pacino in “Heat”.

Trite, pointless and sentimentally uninvolving, not even a mother could love this tedious schlockfest.

3/10 

Power Rangers (2017) Review

I was about ten years too old to really get into the Power Rangers during their 1990s heydey. My formative Japanese super-team of enhanced teenagers came in the animated form of “Battle Of The Planets”. In many ways, “Battle Of The Planets” set the template for “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers“, in being appropriated from a Japanese original, re-edited to insert additional scenes and deliver a story of five teenage heroes tasked with fighting off ‘alien galaxies from beyond space’ (yep, it even trail blazed the Rangers’ sketchy grasp of astrophysics) guided by a quirky robot helper against an relentlessly repetitive alien threat. They even had specialised vehicles that combined to form a more powerful vessel. But by the time a live-action variation on the same themes came along, I’d grown out of it. It seemed a little too childish thanks to its spandex and men in rubber suits fighting styles.

So it was with very little emotional investment and even less expectation that I approached the new, big budget, big screen reboot of earth’s mightiest morphinest heroes.

When a group of misfit teens uncover five alien power discs buried in the mountains near Angel Grove for thousands of years, they find themselves caught in the midst of an alien war that has raged for millennia. Together they must learn to master their new powers and come together as a team to defend the existence of life on Earth.

This is not your rose-tinted nostalgic memories of Power Rangers by any stretch (although there is a fun blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameo from Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnston). The fundamental building blocks (borrowed from earlier Japanese TV fare) are still there of course, but this is a film that embraces the current fashion for moody teenage angst and desperation to distance itself from its dated and embarrassing parent. So it borrows from “Chronicle” and “The Breakfast Club” to give it some teen-edginess. The tone fluctuates wildly between family friendly superhero shenanigans and darker/ crasser stuff. Surely nobody was expecting the new “Power Rangers” movie to open with a joke about jerking off a bull but that’s what you get. There are also a few moments where Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks delivering a performance a universe away from Carla Pérez’ high camp pantomime) goes to some very dark places in her attempts to conquer the world.

Of course, teens these days can’t just be untroubled youths so everybody’s got their signature issue, from rebel-without-a-cause (and Zac Efron-alike) Dacre Montgomery’s proto-Red Ranger Jason through remorseful sexting cyberbully Kimberley (Naomi Scott). There’s an unshowy nod to the LGBT community in Becky G’s Yellow Ranger Trini and teen carers get representation too through the Black Ranger’s back story which shows Zack (Ludi Lin) caring for his sick mother. It’s in Blue Ranger Billy (R J Cyler), though, that the film gets it most right, showing a positive and relatively unclichéd view of a young man living with autism. As clumsily implemented as the diversity agenda is, though, the cast are eminently likeable and make it work. Equally clumsy but much less successful is the vulgar product placement which blights the movie, especially in the Angel Grove showdown.

But, as muddled and manipulative as it might be, the end result is damn good fun. I’ve never enjoyed a “Power Rangers” movie or TV show as much as I did this one and, judging by how much Mertmas enjoyed it, it scored a direct hit on its target 10-year-old audience. It may play out more like a lavish pilot episode for a new TV series than a standalone movie and there’s nothing here that’ll have the current superhero movie titans of Marvel and DC looking nervously over their shoulder but in terms of rebooting a cheesy 90s TV show as a viable 21st century franchise, it’s a solid gold(ar) effort.

7/10 

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) Review

At the height of their TV popularity, it was a no-brainer to bring the brightly coloured chop socky antics of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to the big screen.

Tiring of Rita Repulsa’s continued failures to eliminate the Rangers, Lord Zed revives Ivan Ooze from his six millennia imprisonment. Ooze quickly destroys Zordon’s base, robbing the Rangers of their power. While Zordon lies dying on what looks like a bed salvaged from a Kryptonian jumble sale, Alpha 5 uses his remaining energy to send the Rangers to the planet Phaedos in search of a Great Power which may save Zordon. Meanwhile, Ivan Ooze enslaves the parents of Angel Grove and, usurping Zed and Rita Repulsa, sets himself up as absolute ruler.

The original TV series, adapted as it was from the Japanese original, always had a cheap and cheerful feel to it and director Brian Spicer does a fine job in making sure that the increased feature film budget doesn’t make it to the screen in terms of production values, performances or screenwriting.

After a prologue aimed at bringing non-TV viewers up to speed and emphasising how important it apparently is that the Rangers protect their secret identities, we’re treated to an opening skydiving sequence where each of the teens wears a jumpsuit colour-coded to their Ranger colours. It’s that kind of non-sequitur that ensures the movie retains much of the camp charm of the TV series. The main cast’s performances are as flat as you’d expect and while Rita and Lord Zed ham it up with all the subtlety and nuance of a regional pantomime, it’s in Paul Freeman’s Ivan Ooze that the film gets its biggest and best performance. It’s hard to believe that underneath that purple make-up is the elegant and coolly villainous René Belloq from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” but he chews the scenery with such gusto that he nearly makes the whole thing irresistible.

Most of the stuff set on the planet Phaedos feels like padding and an excuse to change up the Rangers’ outfits as they’re given new spirit animals (no matter how you rationalise it, a frog will never be a cool creature) and cheap looking ninja-inspired costumes. With some lacklustre and shoddy fight choreography and some narrative handwaving about ‘the great power’, the Rangers eventually find their way back to earth and we discover what the director decided to do with the extra feature film money: spend it on some of the worst CGI ever to grace a movie screen. The Zord fight – which should be the movie’s crowning glory – is, instead, an atrociously bad, cheaply animated CGI slam down that makes you long for men in suits lumbering around a scale model sound stage.

It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming modern reboot can retain the charm of the original as it tries to give the franchise a modern edge. Its appeal lies in its cheesiness and for the under-teen market there’s plenty to enjoy in this bright and breezy, endearingly wholesome adventure. Mertmas loved it, and can’t wait for the forthcoming reboot. In the meantime, he’s been devouring the TV series but although the film has its share of fun moments, it’ll try the patience of anyone older than 12 and parents may find themselves envying their mindless onscreen counterparts.

5/10 

Get Out (2017) Review

Tense, gripping and deliciously, darkly oppressive, “Get Out” is a sensational directorial debut from Jordan Peele, one half of comedy duo Key and Peele.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is heading away for the weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Chris is worried how Rose’s parents will react to him being black, but when he arrives he gets a warm welcome. But the warmth of his reception masks something sinister. All is not what it seems at Rose’s family home and Chris may be powerless to do anything about it.

There’s a sharp, political edge to “Get Out”, enabled by a whip-smart script and a beautifully layered performance from Kaluuya. The underlying racial tension gives the movie a topical frisson but it’s in its excoriation of white liberal hypocrisy that the film makes its boldest and most successful points. Peele’s real triumph as writer/ director is to weave his trenchant social commentary seamlessly into a perfectly balanced horror thriller, embroidering genuine wit and humour into the tapestry. His background in comedy means his mastery of the technical skills of horror movie making may come as a surprise, but a very welcome one, setting up and then delivering on or subverting the expected punchlines.

Classy, cheekily seditious and deeply satisfying, “Get Out” – like “You’re Next” before it – twists the conventions to rich effect and sets a high bar for 2017 horror movies.

9/10 

Beauty And The Beast (2017) Review

Did you ever watch Disney’s 1991 animated classic “Beauty And The Beast” and think, ‘wow, that script was really missing something’? The original, animated, Best Picture Oscar-nominated “Beauty And The Beast” had a running time of 84 minutes. This new live-action adaptation clocks in at 129 minutes and adds little but padding with the extra 45 minutes.

The tale may be as old as time, but after a quarter of a century, Disney has decided to revisit the quiet provincial French village once again. Seemingly self-conscious of its need for a reason to exist, its in many of its deliberate attempts to differentiate itself from its illustrious predecessor that it suffers. Emma Watson makes for an appealing Belle and Luke Evans is note perfect as the boorish, brainless Gaston, albeit he’s allowed to assay a much darker edge to the character than previously shown. Unfortunately, Josh Gad’s LeFou is never anything less than hammy Josh Gad and his much-vaunted ‘exclusively gay moment’ is overshadowed by his consistently lame moments. A last minute change of heart and allegiance by Gaston’s willing accomplice and facilitator feels not only forced but unearned and undeserved, betraying both the point and identity of the character. Dan Stevens, even under CGI, is a credible Beast but unfortunately, the script is tweaked in such a way as to remove any agency whatsoever from the Beast. There is no inherent, deeply buried goodness in him rather everything is taught to him and he’s responsible for very little. He’s not the one who makes the first move over Belle’s castle accommodations or the one who makes an attempt to eat soup with a spoon before Belle compromises by raising the bowl to her lips. They’re only little changes but they add up to a sizeable character distortion.

Maybe it’s unfair to blame Belle for being so keen to wolf down the broth. After all, she conspicuously gets absolutely nothing to eat during the empty and soulless CGI rendition of ‘Be Our Guest’ as the dishes implore Belle to help herself only to whip away any foodstuffs which even go near her mouth. Ewan McGregor is a lacklustre Lumiere and the horrible character design doesn’t help him or Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth.

Shunning ‘Human Again’, the song added back in to the stage musical and restored to the animated feature on home release (despite it fitting perfectly with the live action film’s more supporting cast focused approach), the film instead adds a handful of new songs with lyrics by Tim Rice which only serve to show just how great a lyricist the late Howard Ashman was.

The narrative flow also suffers from the decision to cede some of the romantic impetus to the servants of the Beast’s castle and the script itself is saddled with too much unnecessary explanatory dialogue and exchanges between characters designed to make sure the studio gets its money’s worth from the star names. The egregiously forced side trip to a plague-ravaged Paris is just unpleasant and adds nothing of substance to the story.

Where “The Jungle Book” took the classic animated original and breathed new life into it, “Beauty And The Beast” falls into the trap of trying to both replicate the original and then bolting on some extra stuff to give the illusion of something new. Perhaps it would have been better if there were nothing there that wasn’t there before.

6/10 

Kong: Skull Island (2017) Review

In an age of shared blockbuster universes which take themselves terribly seriously, “Kong: Skull Island” is a breezy and brazen breath of fresh air. Preposterous in its premise, it’s not afraid to embrace its silliness and, as a result, is more fun than any of its Hollywood kaiju predecessors.

In the early 1970’s, an expedition to map an undiscovered island in the Pacific makes a startling discovery: a lost world of megafauna ruled over by the mighty Kong. But is he a tyrant or a protector?

Although set in the same fictional universe as 2014’s “Godzilla”, there’s a lightness of touch here that keeps things playful without sacrificing the spectacle or adventure. The cast are clearly having great fun, with Samuel L Jackson and John Goodman particularly enjoying themselves. There’s a sly knowingness to the script which, while relishing its seventies setting, isn’t above peppering in some pop culture references and modern day political satire. Even John C Reilly’s character – who felt a bit awkward and out of place in the trailers – fits in perfectly with the film’s mix of camp comedy and outrageous action. Hiddleston doesn’t do his leading man credentials any harm as dashing jungle tracker James Conrad although he’s more convincing in his swarthy introduction scene than later once he’s had a shave and smartened himself up a bit.

Despite the star-studded cast, it’s the creatures and effects which are the real draw here. Kong himself – performed by Terry Notary – is magnificent and the action sequences and creature designs are spectacular.

With a post-credits scene which hints at the presence of other Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, “Kong: Skull Island” isn’t just the most fun I’ve had in the cinema so far this year, it’s a promise for more Monster mash-ups to come.

8/10 

Patriot’s Day (2017) Review

It’s been less than four years since the Boston Marathon Bombings and I went into “Patriot’s Day” wondering what the film, made so soon after the saturation news coverage, hoped to achieve. Director Peter Berg, of course, is no stranger when it comes to adapting true life events and, after an awkward opening, he manages to deliver once again in retelling the events and aftermath of April 15th, 2013.

The opening twenty minutes or so of “Patriot’s Day” find themselves mired in disaster movie cliché as the various groups of characters are introduced going about their daily lives, oblivious to the impending doom which hangs over them. Once the attack takes place, however, the film grips you and doesn’t let go throughout. The ensemble cast bring their real life characters to life and the film does a superb job of illuminating the nail-biting tension and drama of the city-wide manhunt to catch the bombers before they could flee or strike again.

The only aspect of the film which doesn’t work is producer/ star Mark Walbergh’s improbably omnipresent Sergeant Tommy Saunders whose unnecessary back story weighs down the opening of the film and then distorts the rest of the narrative by seemingly being present – if not instrumental – in nearly every stage of the investigation and subsequent manhunt.

It’s a minor grumble though and despite my misgivings, I found it to be a gripping, edge-of-the-seat thriller, all the more astonishing for the true events it depicts.

8/10 

Moonlight (2017) Review

Beautifully structured and elegantly restrained, Barry Jenkins’ deceptively simple three act coming of age drama packs a powerful emotional punch as we follow Chiron, a disaffected young black man growing up and struggling with his identity and sexuality in suburban Miami.

Throughout each of the acts, assaying a different period of Chiron’s life, we’re treated to the raw cruelty of a life blighted by drugs and gang violence counterpointed poignantly with unexpected moments of tenderness such as the entirely unexpected kindness of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who finds young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) hiding from a gang of school bullies in an abandoned apartment. We see the gross injustice of a life spent fleeing the animalistic pack hunting of his bullying classmates turns to his own punishment for finally marshalling the courage to strike back.

Heart-breaking and affecting, this is artful and personal filmmaking, a dignified exploration of masculinity, society and sexuality.

Simultaneously dreamy and earthy, the cinematography and use of light, both natural and harsh neon hues, lend the film a distinctive palette, helping to define and connect the three stages of Chiron’s life.

While Mahershala Ali may have taken all the plaudits (and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) for his first act turn as drug dealer turned mentor Juan, it’s Naomie Harris who impressed for me, her performance nothing short of transformative. The three actors who bring Chiron to life (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) are fantastic, each bringing their own interpretation and yet recognisably the same person, still the damaged young man despite having grown hard and focussed, sculpted in his physique and adorned with gleaming gold grills.

“Moonlight” is a timely and vital film, a meditation on the brutality and tenderness of life. It may not be the most entertaining or easy watching of the Best Picture nominees, but it’s easy to see why it’s worthy of being crowned the best.

8/10 

Logan (2017) Review

Much has been made of “Logan” being a hard-R superhero movie and it’s certainly in a hurry to prove its adult credentials, opening with a sequence which is almost custom designed to make a certain class of comic fans jizz their pants. There’s even an unnecessary shot of breasts within the first fifteen minutes. For a movie straining to be grown up, it certainly feels like the opening quarter hour was written by a fourteen-year-old fanboy.

Thankfully more mature heads prevail and once the movie stops trying so hard, it succeeds in spectacular fashion. Returning director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman take their inspiration from the “Old Man Logan” comic story and turn it into a melancholy and moving road movie that’s actually more effective when it’s not using its R rating for graphic (and eventually repetitive) violence or excessive swearing.

Although the action is tremendous – and it’s gratifying to finally see a realistic portrayal of what Wolverine’s claws would actually do during a melee – it’s in the film’s quieter moments that you really appreciate the craft and passion Jackman brings to the role. He’s matched by a fantastically vulnerable performance from Patrick Stewart as an ageing and fading Charles Xavier while Stephen Merchant is a revelation as Caliban, bring an unexpected pathos and humanity to his melanin-challenged role.

The X-men continuity of the movie is actually pretty good but it’s peppered through the background in such a subtle manner it’s easy to overlook. The government’s approach to eradicating the mutant menace through genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs makes sense within the fictional world of the X-men but it also uncomfortably evokes the tinfoil hatted conspiracy theorising of the anti-GMO, anti-vaxxer brigade. There’s a subtlety, too, in the various background details which gently place the film in the not too distant future without ever being intrusively sci-fi.

Similarly, the bad guys, while effective, are fairly anodyne because the real purpose here is to let the characters shine and drive the story forward. And as good as franchise veterans Jackman and Stewart are, it would be unfair not to recognise Dafne Keen’s Laura/X-23 contribution, especially given much of her role is without dialogue.

It may at times be a little too nasty, a little too bloodthirsty and a little too keen to show you again and again what it looks like when a skull is shish-kebabed by adamantium claws but it’s all just gratuitous window dressing to a gripping and fascinating character study of a reluctant hero’s last journey.

8/10 

A Cure For Wellness (2017) Review

There’s no denying Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure For Wellness” oozes forebodingly Gothic style. It starts conventionally enough, picking out the theme of the callous emptiness of the rat race and a mysterious Swiss ‘wellness’ clinic which offers respite and rejuvenation in its secretive mountain retreat.

When amoral and ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to the clinic to bring back the errant CEO of the financial services company he works for. Once there, though, he learns that Mr Pembroke does not want to leave. Thwarted at every turn by the enigmatic head of the institute, Dr Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), Lockhart finds that he too will struggle to leave the clinic, especially after receiving treatment for a broken leg. Intrigued by another patient, a young girl called Hannah (Mia Goth), Lockhart finds that the secret of the institute is far darker and deeper than anyone would believe.

For the most part, “A Cure For Wellness” delivers a fascinating mystery backed up by a fantastically unnerving atmosphere and a lavish visual aesthetic. While it retains its sense of inscrutability, it’s tremendously entertaining. Once it starts to reveal its ultimate secrets, though, it all gets a bit silly. DeHaan’s strong performance anchors the growing fear and paranoia as he is sucked further into Dr Volmer’s machinations and while everything is steeped in ambiguity, Isaacs is an effective foil. Unfortunately, Isaac’s character is both the chief architect and victim of the film’s descent into kitschy Hammer Horror melodrama meaning by the time it’s all pitchforks and shouting, the film’s potential and credibility have gone up in flames too.

6/10 

The 4th Annual Craggus Movie Awards

4th-annual-craggus-awards-banne-r

For a year which will surely go down in history for its polarisation, as far as movies went there was a concerted effort to stay centred in an unremarkable consensus of mediocrity, with the average score of the 95 films I watched in the cinema a paltry 6.5/10. 2016 saw 409 movies watched (and rewatched) and 146 blog posts, it brought Superhero smack downs – and Superhero let-downs; high drama and low comedy and a whole bunch of titles which failed to make much of a lasting impact at all.

Once again, it’s Oscars Eve here in the UK, so it’s time once again for the Annual Craggus Movie Awards. For this, the awards’ 4th year, the rules have – for the first time ever – remained unchanged from past ceremonies. All nominees and winners are chosen from films which had their UK theatrical release in the relevant year and only titles Mertmas and/ or I have seen are eligible. Weirdly this means I’ll still be talking about movies like “Room” and “The Big Short” but will be ignoring films like “Spotlight” – which I still haven’t seen – and 2017 UK releases such as “A Monster Calls” or “Hacksaw Ridge”; well, at least until next year! The other thing that hasn’t changed is that exactly like the Oscars, the nominees and winners have been chosen on the basis of personal preference and may bear no similarity to technical or artistic achievement, real or imagined.

So, without further ado…on with the show! And what would a show be without an opening musical number?

Best Song

best-song2016 wasn’t blessed with many a memorable movie song and by and large, it’s a two-horse race between “Moana” and “Trolls”. “Kubo And The Two Strings” gets a nod for Regina Spektor’s haunting cover version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Rihanna’s unexpectedly geek-friendly music video for “Sledgehammer” also merits a look. Eschewing the Oscar’s pick of Auli’i Cravalho’s “How Far I’ll Go” in favour of the show-stopping razzamatazz of Dwayne Johnson as Maui crooning “You’re Welcome”, the final two nomination slots go to “Trolls” with Justin Timberlake’s irresistible “Can’t Stop The Feeling” kept company by Anna Kendrick’s peppy and hilariously frantic “Get Back Up Again”.

WINNER: “Get Back Up Again”Statuette


Best Soundtrackbest-soundtrack

Both “Moana” and “Trolls” also feature in the Soundtrack category, as you’d expect. They’re joined by Dario Marianelli’s masterful score for “Kubo And The Two Strings” and Ennio Morricone’s “The Hateful Eight”. The final nomination falls to Michael Giacchino, for his “Trek” efforts rather than his “Wars”. The Craggus Award, though – decided by sheer frequency of being played – goes to “Trolls”.

WINNER: “Trolls”Statuette


 Best Visual Effectsbest-visual-effects

With the singing and dancing out of the way, it’s time to bring on the old razzle dazzle. Ahem. Movies in 2016 may have lacked many things but spectacle wasn’t one of them. Although it missed out on a nomination, there’s no denying that one of the things Zack Snyder got very right in his otherwise moribund and dismal “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” was in bringing iconic comic book imagery to slavishly accurate life. From the emotionally unearned but nonetheless spectacular destruction of the USS Enterprise in “Star Trek: Beyond” to the Ikea poster aesthetic of “Arrival”, visual effects mastery was everywhere to be seen. Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” pick up the baton from “Inception” and twisted it through all five dimensions to trippy and transcendental effect while “Passengers” made up for its narrative ethical shortfalls with some breathtakingly beautiful astrophysical phenomena. But in the end, the award goes to a film which sought not to recreate the futuristic or fantastical but the natural and historic. “The Jungle Book” defied all scepticism in presenting a thrilling, old-fashioned adventure which channelled the spirit of the 1960s Disney animation while making it fresh, vibrant and alive, despite the near total use of digital effects.

WINNER: “The Jungle Book”Statuette


Best Supporting Actressbest-supporting-actress

An eclectic quintet of roles makes up the Craggus Awards 2016’s Best Supporting Actress nominees. I’m sure Aubrey Plaza’s inclusion will raise an eyebrow or two, as will an awards feature outside The Razzies even deigning to mentionDirty Grandpa” but they’re my awards and I’ll do what I like. I enjoyed “Dirty Grandpa” for what it was but it’s hard to look past Plaza’s subversive, sleepy-eyed oddball performance when it comes from preventing the whole thing collapsing under the weight of its own desperation to disgust. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s acknowledgement for her role in “The Hateful Eight” is a more orthodox nomination, given the depth of character she brings to the role and the film as a whole. A relative newcomer, Angourie Rice deserves her place here thanks to her winning performance in “The Nice Guys”, not least of all for holding her own as Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling skilfully ham it up for yuks. Morena Baccarin’s quintessential ‘tart with a heart’ gives “Deadpool” a sincere emotional core which amplifies the freewheeling nonsense and lets Ryan Reynolds’ merc with a mouth really fly and in Sarita Choudhury, “A Hologram For The King” benefits from an unshowy but almost mesmerically sensual performance, both respectful and revelatory in its realisation of a Muslim woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The film itself may have left audiences unimpressed but it’s Choudhury who picks up the Best Supporting Actress award this year.

WINNER: Sarita Choudhury (“A Hologram For The King”)Statuette


Best Supporting Actorbest-supporting-actor

If you were taken aback by the Best Supporting Actress nominations, then brace yourself for the first of my Best Supporting Actor nominations: Mark Strong for “Grimsby”. Strong delivers an incredibly committed – you might even say seminal – performance as a suave super spy despite the increasingly grotesque and puerile demands of the script. Alan Tudyk, on the other hand, gets his nomination without ever really appearing on screen. His K-2SO managed to be the standout character of a film written with the seeming intent to only involve stand-out characters and I’ve never believed that motion capture should act as a barrier to performances being recognised. Sylvester Stallone, on the other hand, manages to give a powerful and emotional performance of an iconic role without becoming the stand-out character of next generation boxing movie “Creed”, a more difficult balancing act than it may first sound. Sam Neill’s curmudgeonly woodsman earns him a nomination too, providing the perfect foil for the cynical city kid in the delightful “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” and Alexander Black’s role as Yousef in “A Hologram For The King” playfully tweaks some more of the cultural assumptions the movie’s location provokes. In the end, though, there’s only one veteran performer who can take this trophy this year.

WINNER: Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”)Statuette


 Best Actressbest-actress

When it comes to lead performances of 2016, it goes right back to the beginning and “The Danish Girl” where Alicia Vikander was unfairly overlooked thanks in large part to a trite and affected performance by her co-star Eddie Redmayne which is only a degree or so shy of David Walliams’ “Little Britain” ‘I’m a Lady’ sketches. Vikander’s performance is by far the best of the film and I’ve no hesitation in giving her a nomination here. Likewise, both Brie Larson and Anya-Taylor Joy deliver powerhouse performances in their respective roles at the heart of “Room” and “The Witch”, carrying the emotional weight of the story to two very different conclusions. Amy Adams’ more reflective turn in “Arrival” dials down the emotionalism in favour of a cool sentimentality but is no less effective for it and rounding out our group of nominees is Mary Elizabeth Winstead who does a fantastic job in really selling the claustrophobic fear of her character’s stay at “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But good things come to those who wait, so the Best Actress Craggus Award for 2016 goes to Alicia Vikander.

WINNER: Alicia VikanderStatuette


 Best Actorbest-actor

Another motion capture performance kicks off the run down of Best Actor nominees. Mark Rylance manages to infuse the Big Friendly Giant with such warmth and mischievous wit that he’s often the most human and authentic thing on the screen. Daniel Radcliffe brings the exact opposite to the screen in “Swiss Army Man”, turning in a cadaverous performance of extraordinary physicality. Ryan Reynolds may have found his artistic soulmate in the role of Wade Wilson/ Deadpool and John Goodman might have been the terrifying antithesis of his cuddly TV sitcom dad in “10 Cloverfield Lane” but this category was only ever heading in one direction, and that was to young Jacob Tremblay whose performance in “Room” is nothing short of phenomenal.

WINNER: Jacob Tremblay (“Room”)Statuette


 Best Animated Moviebest-animated-film

Lighter fare now and, away from Illumination Studio’s output, it was an impressive year for animated movies. “Kung Fu Panda 3” continued the franchise’s ability to avoid the diminishing quality of sequels which tend to plague other franchises *cough* “Ice Age” *cough* and Dreamworks had another hit with far-better-than-it-could-have-been animated musical “Trolls”. Disney also had a great year with both “Zootropolis” and “Moana” and while Illumination studios may have put profitability ahead of artistic merit, it’s Laika studios which fully deserves this award for the spellbindingly original “Kubo And The Two Strings”.

WINNER: “Kubo And The Two Strings”Statuette


 Best Screenplaybest-screenplay

‘There were script problems from day one’ may be a familiar refrain in the DCEU but it’s not a problem which affected any of the nominees in this category. “Kubo And The Two Strings”, “Swiss Army Man”, “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” and “Deadpool” all demonstrate innovative and slyly witty and unorthodox approaches to storytelling while “The BFG” is simply a masterpiece of adapting a beloved children’s book into a feature film but only one of these so perfectly captures the tone, irreverence and metatextual soul of its source material to a degree that until you’ve seen it done scarcely seems possible.

WINNER: “Deadpool”Statuette


 Best Directorbest-director

So we’re into the final stretch, with the two big Craggus awards up for grabs. The five names in the frame for Best Director are distinctly different and yet each one is a master storyteller in their own way. Dennis Villeneuve continues to impress and after “Sicario” and “Arrival” all eyes will be on his venture into the dystopian future of “Blade Runner 2049”. Jon Favreau continues to cement his reputation as one of Disney’s best directors and at this point, Quentin Tarantino has no need of hagiography to justify his presence on this list. Tim Miller’s triumphant use of the modest “Deadpool” budget is an achievement worthy of recognition but its Taika Waititi and his unique filmmaking voice which enables him to walk away with the Best Director award of 2016 for the quirky and heart-warming “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”.

WINNER: Taika WaititiStatuette


 Best Filmbest-film

A Venn diagram of ‘Best Director’ nominations and ‘Best Film’ nominations would show a substantial but not complete overlap this year. But the winner was a film I saw quite late in the year but as soon as I saw it, I knew the benchmark had been set and that it would be very hard for any other movie to topple it from its perch. I could happily give “Deadpool”, “Room”, “The Jungle Book” or even “Arrival” the nod as my best picture of 2016 were it not for the enchanting, delightful and offbeat wonder that is “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”. Its whimsical yet deceptively incisive sassiness may not be to everybody’s taste but for me, it eclipsed everything I’ve seen in 2016. Congratulations, then, to “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”, the 2016 Craggus Movie of the Year.

WINNER: “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”Statuette


Mertie Award

The final movie award of the night – as far as The Craggus is concerned, I believe the Academy have a few tokens to hand out later – is The Mertie Award for Best Film of 2016. I asked Mertmas to make a list of his five favourite movies of the year and after a lot of deliberation he narrowed it down to:

Ghostbusters

Goosebumps

Captain America: Civil War

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Swallows And Amazons

He was much quicker to narrow the five down to the eventual winner, though, and that was “Goosebumps”. Jack Black’s family friendly effects-laden adventure managed to mix just the right amount of spooky shenanigans and colourful antics to snag the 2016 Mertie.

WINNER: “Goosebumps”Mertie Award


So, there we have it. The 2016 Craggus Movie Awards. Good decisions? Travesties? Who did I snub? Who did I over-praise? Let me know in the comments! And enjoy the Oscars!

Hidden Figures (2017) Review

Set at a time when humanity looked to the stars with hope rather than around the world with fear, “Hidden Figures” is an uplifting true-life drama set during the space race at the height of the cold war.

It’s 1961 and NASA is lagging behind the Russians in the race to get a man into space. The complicated calculations required for spaceflight are carried out by ‘human computers’. Behind the scenes, a trio of African-American women find themselves pushing against the institutionalised racism and sexism of 1960s America in order to fulfil their potential and help win the space race.

As inspirational and heartening as the stories of Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P Henson) are, there’s a distasteful irony to the fact the themes and issues raised by the film remain shamefully resonant some half a century later.

There’s something encouraging about a film which unabashedly celebrates intelligence and expertise and while the film takes a few liberties with the actual events and individuals, the changes are modest to support the narrative flow of the film. The lead performances are sensational, helping to bring the social realism to life to match the lovingly recreated period details in the production design and costumes. The supporting cast, particularly Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst, are on form too, helping deliver an informative and entertaining biopic that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. If America is ever to rediscover its pioneer spirit and revive the American dream the world used to envy, it needs more stories like this and needs to make sure more hidden figures remain hidden no longer.

8/10 

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Review

The second chapter in the saga of “John Wick” is a curious beast. In many ways, it feels like the third part of a trilogy rather than the sequel to a surprise break-out hit and it’s in trying to make the leap from one hit wonder to franchise that the film loses its way.

Having avenged himself for the theft of his car and the death of his dog, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has settled back into retirement. At least, that’s his plan but when fellow assassin Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a favour, Wick finds himself trapped between dishonouring the debt and placing himself in the crosshairs of every assassin in the business.

Randy Meeks from the “Scream” movies would have a field day pointing out all the ways “John Wick: Chapter 2” follows the rules for threequels: it echoes the structure of the first movie but goes back and brings new information about known events. It provides Wick with a near superhuman foe which he can’t conquer unless he breaks his fundamental principles.

Returning director Chad Stahelski brings bags of style to proceedings but its in the substance that Chapter 2 struggles. The world building is more obvious this time around, slightly overcomplicating and convoluting things by explaining too much where the first film succeeded through hints and inferences. The action is as slick as ever but there’s a repetitiveness to it this time that quickly makes it feel stale. As adversaries go, Common is disappointingly lightweight and Ruby Rose – not for the first time – promises much but delivers very little. Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburn at least lend some gravitas to the movie but there’s a lot of effort expended to build a complicated underworld only to disassemble the infrastructure and cut Wick loose at the end.

Glossy, kinetic and stylish, it’s still a quality action movie boasting some genuinely impressive sequences (the opening action is breathtaking) but it’s hard to shake the feeling it was so busy setting up the forthcoming Chapter 3 to deliver the focus this film needed.

7/10 

The Great Wall (2017) Review

the-great-wall“The Great Wall” is an epic Chinese fantasy adventure film unfortunately compromised by the token addition of a pair of western actors in an attempt to increase its box office potential.

Set in the time of the Song Dynasty, the Great Wall Of China is one of the wonders of the world, but its true purpose is to protect the Empire from an extraterrestrial and monstrous threat, the Tao Tei. Manned by the nameless order, the Wall is home to five colour coded brigades, the melee-specialist Bear troop, the acrobatic Crane troop, the archery focussed Eagle troop, the siege specialist Tiger troops, and the Deer troop cavalry. Into this unknown conflict wander two western mercenaries, hunting for the fabled black powder used by the Chinese weaponsmiths.

As you’d expect from epic Chinese cinema, the visuals here are remarkable. While the CGI itself is decent enough, the sets and costumes and lavish fight choreography are the real stars, giving life to the ultimate big screen “Power Rangers” fantasy as colourful warriors acrobatically fight their way through wave after wave of alien menaces.

Unfortunately, the need to include an unnecessary subplot to account for the present of Matt Damon’s Irish? mercenary and his sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) forces the film to contort itself so much that nothing gets the exploration and exposition it deserves to develop the story to the levels of richness on offer in the production design. It’s a counter-intuitive decision to pander so much to western audiences in the casting and yet use subtitles so frequently, adding to the disjointed qualities of the finished product but, saying that, Mertmas enjoyed the movie a lot and the subtitles didn’t phase that 10 year old movie fan as he thrilled to the action and monster mashing on screen.

“The Great Wall” has to go down as a missed opportunity because away from the awkward culture clash, there was an impressive, epic fantasy film here trying to break out and the money spent of getting Matt Damon in front of the camera could have been invested in the skills of director Zhang Yimou, allowing him to bring it to the screen with the sharpness and elegance of his previous work.

6/10 Score 6

Fifty Shades Darker (2017) Review

50-shades-darkerSoulless, mechanical and delivered with a sense of resigned obligation second only to the “Divergent” franchise, “Fifty Shades Darker” skulks into cinemas with all the romance and fantasy of a discarded Mills & Boon paperback fished out of a sewer.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is living her life when Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) returns to control and manipulate it in a series of creepy yet bafflingly successful seduction stunts.

With the axing of the previous director and screenwriter, ‘author’ E L James cements her control over the film franchise and is finally able to let her full talent shine, in the same way a turd does after it’s been polished.

The screenplay, ‘written’ by James’ husband, is excruciatingly bad, indicating his scope for adapting or changing the source material was severely curtailed by his matrimonial obligations. E L James’ ineptitude infuses every single frame and every single word uttered in this movie. The direction is ugly and sluggishly static except for a bizarre sequence where James Foley decides to homage Duran Duran’s “Rio” music video.

Jamie Dornan does his best to smoulder but finds himself mostly guttering thanks to the wet blanket effect of Dakota Johnson’s insipid and obtuse Anastasia Steele, giving the arbitrary and disjointed scenes on screen the erotic frisson of cleaning out a diarrhetic cat’s litter tray.

The first “Fifty Shades” film may have disappointed in its blandness but the only darkness on offer here in its ‘edgier’ sequel is the inevitable tarnishing of your soul for having watched it.

2/10 Score 2

Bad Moms (2016) Review

bad-momsFinally, a bawdy comedy for women, breaking that final glass ceiling and proving that arrested development and irresponsible self-indulgence isn’t just for men anymore, “Bad Moms” is slow to find its footing but eventually settles into a surprisingly familiar comic groove.

Harassed mum Amy (Mila Kunis) is at her wits’ end, trying to have it all; being the perfect wife, the perfect mother and have a career. When the domineering head of the PTA, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) goes too far in enforcing her vision of the forthcoming bake sale, Amy quits and heads off to live the life she wants to rather than the one expected of her.

Riffing on a sequence immortalised in “The Simpsons” episode “Homer Alone”, the film opens by leaning hard into the ‘motherhood as martyrdom’ schtick and comes pretty close to defaulting to ‘Mum Blogging: The Movie’ which is probably in no small part due to the fact this comedy about women, ostensibly for women, is written and directed by men. Therefore, Amy’s own version of ‘Rancho Relaxo’ becomes a descent into irresponsibility, drink, drugs and debauchery because what women really want is their own “Hangover”, right? From casting to execution, there’s an inescapable feeling of the male gaze being firmly in control. Literally every character is a stereotype from the neglectful husband and ungrateful kids, to the shiftless and ignorant millennials, it’s only through the lead cast that the whole thing sparks into life.

Mila Kunis definitely has the comic chops to pull off this kind of zany comedy but she’s never allowed to look anything less than stunning even when she’s meant to be the very epitome of the scraggy exhausted mum. Styling aside, she delivers a likeable lead performance and has great support from Kirsten Bell as a timid stay-at-home mum and Kathryn Hahn as the exact opposite. After flirting with edginess, the film cops out and goes instead for a lazy re-tread of a high school popularity movie but it gets away with it thanks to Applegate giving a deliciously stand out bitchy performance, an achievement all the more impressive given she’s usually standing beside Jada Pinkett Smith so, you know, praise from Caesar.

In the end, it gets just enough right to be a fun movie but there’s no escaping the fact that it wastes the talents at its disposal by forcing them to embrace cliché. If it can find a more authentic voice for the forthcoming sequel, this is a slight misfire which could be bang on target next time.

5/10 Score 5

The Lego Batman Movie (2017) Review

the-lego-batman-movieAfter his scene-stealing turn in “The Lego Movie”, it was only natural that the first spin-off would feature the brick knight himself. While it’s not entirely clear if this is the exact same Lego Batman who appeared alongside Wildstyle and Emmet, there’s no doubting this is “The Lego Batman Movie”.

The town of Lego Gotham is rife with crime, and that’s just how Batman likes it as he busts heads and foils schemes from his extensive rogues’ gallery. But when the Joker and all his partners in crime unexpectedly surrender to the new Police Commissioner, Batman finds himself purposeless. But an accidental adoption and a nagging suspicion that The Joker is up to something means Batman will need to change his ways if he’s to come out on top.

Whereas “The Lego Movie” took individuality and imagination versus conformity as its theme, this movie has its sights set firmly on ‘family’, using Batman’s long and chequered past from both stage and screen to mine both humour and pathos. It plays out its central theme of the importance of relationships through the funniest sex metaphor in a kids’ movie since “Toy Story” characters bemoaned the last time they were played with as The Joker takes it personally when Batman refuses to reciprocate the ‘special’ nature of their relationship.

For the first hour or so, the film barrels along at a frenetic pace, cramming the screen with colour and spectacle while Will Arnett growls his way through the very best of the dialogue. There are nice shouts outs to the entire history of Batman but it’s interesting that when it comes to Superman, it’s the Donner version that’s heavily referenced, pointing to a lack of conviction and confidence at the heart of Warner Bros’ attitude to their current DC output.

The action is frequently hyperactive and the screen overstuffed with imagery to the point of overload; it’s often too cluttered to really follow what’s going on, marrying the visual discipline of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” unhappily to the aesthetic of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman And Robin”. There’s such a frantic pace over that first hour that it’s quite jarring as the film runs out of jokes (and steam), finding itself with nothing left to do but resolve the remaining plot.

It’s at this point that the film’s unpleasant aspect can’t be disguised any longer. It’s an obvious, extended commercial for the Lego Dimensions toy/ video game line hence the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Gremlins and (ahem) some iconic ‘British robots’. But it’s a far bigger and more distastefully blatant advert for Apple iPhones, even going so far as to give Siri her first credited feature film role. I can’t really make up my mind whether the fact the ultimate danger is once again a big swirling vortex in the sky above the city is a sly bit of Meta commentary or just lazy screenwriting but by the time it manifests, the film has already lost much of its satirical edge.

The rest of the voice cast are pretty good, though and had Will Arnett been allowed to bring a little more of his Horseman to this Batman in the latter half of the movie, it probably would have helped even out the whole thing. Zach Galifianakis is a perfectly serviceable Joker but I found myself pining for Mark Hamill’s version, which Galifianakis leans on heavily. Michael Cera strikes just the right note as peppy orphan Dick Grayson, Ralph Fiennes is a great, long-sufferingly tolerant Alfred (although is bafflingly replaced by Eddie Izzard to voice Voldemort) and Rosario Dawson is fine as Barbara Gordon. Beyond them, the cast is packed with big name cameos but nobody really gets a chance to shine thanks to most of the characters being given blink-and-you’ll-miss-them screen time.

The tremendously entertaining first half is let down by a sluggish third act and it’s hard not to suspect a more judicious editing job could have trimmed this fairly hefty 105-minute film down to a trim and pacey 90-minute fun fest. It’s still 2017’s best animation so far and a step above the direct to DVD animated DC Lego adventures but in blunting its edge, it falls far short of the high brick mark set by “The Lego Movie”.

6/10 Score 6

The Space Between Us (2017) Review

the-space-between-usTaking the term literally, “The Space Between Us” gives a new spin on the star-crossed lovers trope in this amiably cheesy and uneven young adult romance.

In the near future, charismatic Genesis CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman) is sponsoring the first colonisation mission to Mars. A few weeks into the journey Sarah Elliot, the lead astronaut, discovers she is pregnant but Shepard decides to keep the pregnancy a secret and orders the mission to proceed. Shortly after landing, Elliot dies in childbirth leaving her son Gardner orphaned on the red planet. Shepard decides to keep events secret to avoid a PR disaster for his nascent colony but sixteen years later, a now-grown Gardner is determined to return to Earth to find his father.

The film is a little rushed and muddled in its first act as it rushes to dump the exposition and set-up on the audience and scramble to the ‘sixteen years later’ bit of the story where it finally slows down and starts to explore its characters, as well as introducing one of cinema’s crappiest ever robots.

Asa Butterfield makes for a likeable protagonist, intelligent but goofily naïve and struck by the wonder of the planet Earth after his arid and rust-hued upbringing. There’s a lightness of touch that helps to differentiate from his more serious and driven turn in “Ender’s Game” and he manages to keep things credible despite a script which requires the same character to be able to hack the electronic security lock of a NASA laboratory and yet be baffled how a bus’ automatic doors work.

The other half of the possibly doomed romance brings a welcome return to the screen of Britt Robertson (“Tomorrowland: A World Beyond“), whose character stops just shy of being a teen movie moody streetwise girl cliché thanks to her performance and chemistry with Butterfield. Her introduction may include a drunken, crop dusting foster father lifted directly from “Independence Day” but it does at least facilitate a cute nod to “North By North West” later on. The ‘adult’ cast aren’t quite so successful, with Oldman in particular guilty of hamming it up shamelessly, leaving Carla Gugino sort of trailing in his wake looking a little bewildered.

Unfortunately, the passable teen romance stuff is set against a bunch of subplots and world building which cry out for development and coherence. There’s a laziness to the screenwriting, leaving much out and assuming the audience will make the leaps in narrative assumption the story requires to work and forgive the many, many aspects which fall unexplored or underdeveloped by the wayside. A prime example is raison d’être for the Mars mission which cites climate change and environmental collapse as the imperative behind colonising Mars only for the subject to never be addressed again, particularly on the Earth of sixteen years later where everything seems absolutely peachy. But the most disturbing aspect of this otherwise passable teen sci-fi romance is the curiously patriarchal and pro-life subtext which is present through much of the story. The discovery of the pregnancy early in the space flight is discussed only in terms of the woman’s responsibility – and irresponsibility – for allowing the event. There are no choices discussed or even mooted beyond continuing the mission or turning back. There’s certainly no question that now the pregnancy has begun there’s an option which doesn’t include carrying it to term. The entire film is content with the implied sidelining of women as disposable baby incubators – note that both lead characters are either cared for by a father figure (however deadbeat they may be) or driven by a search for their father regardless of their current caregiver. Indeed, the only woman the film seems remotely prepared to suffer to live is Gugino’s safely childless spinster teacher/ guardian. It’s too much to be a coincidence and in the current charged political climate, such egregious and thoughtless narrative choices leave a bitter aftertaste to what is actually quite a sweet romance.

6/10 Score 6

50 Shades Of Black (2016) Review

50-shades-of-blackI love a good parody movie, I really do. I also like Marlon Wayans, I think he’s a talented and funny performer with great comic timing and physicality. That being said, “50 Shades Of Black” is so crassly, unforgivably unfunny that it just makes me sad.

These comedies usually have a hit and miss approach to humour and succeed when there are enough hits to make up for the misses. “50 Shades Of Black”, though, it just so grossly racist, obnoxiously misogynistic, tediously homophobic and just generally repugnant that the misses (and not even near misses either) overwhelm the one or two gags which manage to raise a wan smile.

In addition to its obvious “50 Shades Of Grey” target, there are bafflingly unfunny references to “Whiplash” and “The Graduate” which do nothing but debase the memory of American National TreasureTM Florence Henderson, although thanks to the currently in post-production “Grandmothers Murder Club” this debacle won’t be the bitter epitaph to her career. For her, at least, the suffering is over but Jane Seymour has to live every day with the shame of this film on her IMDb listing.

I’m embarrassed to have watched this and I’m embarrassed for everyone involved in making it. It’s so much worse than even the source material being parodied can account for.

1/10 Score 1

Kill Command (2016) Review

kill-commandIf you’re expecting another “Robot Overlords” then you’re in for a bit of a treat. “Kill Command”, the debut feature from writer/ director Steven Gomez avoids starry names in favour of impressive special effects and a tight, muscular narrative that keeps things lean and mean.

In the not too distant future, a group of Marines are disappointed to learn they’ve been selected for a training exercise. Accompanying them on the mission as an observer is a cybernetically enhanced officer of the Harbinger Corporation. But the observation is a cover for her to investigate a programming anomaly in the training facility’s AI units.

Plenty of recent films have explored the benign side of the technological singularity but “Kill Command” returns us firmly to the threat posed by artificial intelligence. Utilising his background as a visual effects supervisor, Gomez makes impressive use of CGI and special effects to get the most from his modest budget. While there’s nothing especially unique about the story elements, they’re brought together and explored in an efficient and skilful manner, using the island setting to provide a sense of isolation and urgency. The design of the self aware weaponry is one of the film’s real strengths as they look both realistically extrapolated from current technology and yet different enough to feel uneasily alien and alive.

The cast is pretty solid for this kind of low-budget independent sci-fi action movie and while a couple of the performances tend towards cliché, Vanessa Kirby provides complexity and ambiguity amidst the soldiers v robots bouts of flying bullets and crashing machinery.

Evocative of both “Predator” and “The Terminator”, “Kill Command” delivers the requisite action along with some intelligent ideas about where technology, the military and AI could take us.

6/10 Score 6

T2 Trainspotting (2017) Review

t2-trainspottingChoose a sequel.

Choose mounting a follow-up to an iconic 1996 film and hope that the audience cares.

Choose revisiting old favourite characters to see what new shenanigans they’re up to

And choose watching history repeat itself.

Choose looking to the past instead of embracing a future.

Choose Renton, Sickboy and Begbie unchanged but older – and kind of sadder.

Choose replicating the style of direction but this time in an aimless and arbitrary way.

And choose the same for the soundtrack, only worse, and smother the disappointment with an unknown dose of an unknown number of references, homages and ‘Easter eggs’ that probably seemed like a clever idea.

And then… take a deep breath.

Spud’s great, so enjoy Spud

Just watch it for Spud’s journey

Choose the nostalgia the film sneers at so much.

Choose a film worth rewatching

Choose “Trainspotting

6/10 Score 6

Trainspotting (1996) Review

trainspottingShot on an indie budget, “Trainspotting” was a brash, foul-mouthed, grotty little movie with blockbuster sized ambition. Wilfully anarchic and wildly spirited, it proved to be a real shot in the arm for a British film industry pigeonholed by Merchant Ivory dramas and sickly sweet rom-coms.

The story of four junkies: Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) skulking around the Edinburgh underclass delivered a blisteringly candid, blackly humorous and deeply human look at the realities of drug addiction and social deprivation.

Like its source novel, “Trainspotting” defies conventional narrative structure, eschewing a cohesive plot in favour of an episodic, anecdotal approach. Director Danny Boyle mixes things up even further by adopting a non-linear approach to the vignettes and infusing the deprivation and desperation on show with an energetically colourful and aggressive shooting style more suited to music videos than gritty and unflinching social commentary. The result is a world of pure intoxication for the senses. “Trainspotting” is a film you plunge into, only occasionally managing to come up for breath as it pushes boundaries and tears down cosy illusions of everyday life to revel in the gutter.

Ironically for a film which sets out to be so determinedly iconoclastic, it’s almost effortlessly iconic itself. From its marketing to its blockbuster soundtrack, for many, the film defines 90s British cinema for many and made a bona fide superstar out of Ewan McGregor and cemented director Danny Boyle as a filmmaker of real note.

Simultaneously darkly glamorising and yet unflinchingly demystifying the hedonistic and parasitic lifestyle of the drug addicted underclass, it still retains much of its power even though it feels rooted in the 90s thanks to its profound impact at the time. Often uncomfortable yet occasionally laugh-out-loud hysterical, “Trainspotting” is one of the few films which really earns its place on the list of films you must have seen.

8/10 Score 8

Introducing #Ten Tag Reviews

2017 has seen What The Craggus Saw branching out to Instagram, with the [over] ambitious #AMovieADay2017 project, posting a photo each day that is inspired by or reminds me of a particular movie. So, if you’re not already following TheCraggus on Instagram, why not give it a look?

And there’ll never be a better time, as February introduces…tentagreviewsAlongside the normal blog, I’ll now be posting reviews to Instagram, but the [self-imposed] catch is: I’ll only have ten #tags to do it in. Sometimes it’ll be the same movies that get a lengthier review here on the blog, sometimes it’ll be something just for Instragram but hopefully, it’ll always be worth a look!

Craggus. Concise. For the TL;DR crowd.

Split (2017) Review

splitYet another director seemingly completing his comeback, “Split” sees M Night Shyamalan building on the momentum of “The Visit” and nearing a return to his best form as he once again explores the boundary between psychological fact and science fiction.

When three young girls are kidnapped, it’s just the beginning of their nightmare. Their kidnapper is Dennis, one of 23 distinct personalities who inhabit the mind of Kevin Wendell Crumb. But Dennis’ plans for the girls go beyond mere kidnapping. They are to be sacrificed, tributes to a soon-to-arrive 24th personality: ‘The Beast’.

Powered by a terrific set of performances from James McAvoy, the film manages to explore the fascinating dramatic potential of dissociative identity disorder without feeling sensational or exploitative. McAvoy finds ways beyond mere costume changes to make each personality a character in their own right, both through vocal versatility and tremendous physicality, aided by a vulnerable but determined turn from Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) as Casey, one of the kidnapped girls who hides a dark secret of her own. There’s also a great performance from Betty Buckley as Kevin’s psychotherapist Dr Karen Fletcher who manages to be interesting in her own right despite having to shoulder the lion’s share of the exposition to support the story.

Shyamalan successfully creates an increasing air of suspense and tension, even as his ultimate storytelling goals become clearer. “Split” sees him returning to the rich source material of superhero and supervillain tropes, exploring them from a very different angle than we usually see. Beyond the issues of mental health and kidnapping, there’s a potentially troubling subplot concerning the abusive past of one of the kidnapping victims which may make this uncomfortable viewing for some, especially as it’s left somewhat unresolved in a nailbiting finale.

A successful psychological thriller in its own right, the masterstroke of “Split” is what it casually reveals in a deceptively unassuming postscript before the credits roll. Whether it’s a fun throwback or an indication of the director’s next project, it’s definitely the ending that you’ll be talking about as you leave the cinema.

8/10 Score 8

Lion (2017) Review

lionA fascinating and compelling true story of survival and serendipity, “Lion” delivers the best cinematic advert for Google since “The Internship”.

Finding himself utterly lost after accidentally falling asleep on an out of service cross country train, five year old Saroo finds himself alone on the streets of 1980s Calcutta. Eventually he is taken in by an orphanage and, unable to identify his home, he is adopted by an Australian family and taken overseas. Once grown, however, Saroo is haunted by the memory of the family he left behind.

It’s become something of a cliché to point out how much of the modern technology we take for granted – especially the internet or smart phones – would render the plots of most of our favourite movies redundant so it’s refreshing to have a story where the presence of technology is not only a benefit to the story but integral to its success. Were it not true, the importance of Google Earth in helping Saroo find his childhood village would seem a little twee but Director Garth Davis keeps the drama sincere and grounded to counteract the lucky coincidences necessary to the tale. The stark, almost Dickensian contradictions of modern day India are brought into sharp relief as the film deftly intertwines Saroo’s present day search with his reminiscences of the months spent homeless and alone, although the script takes care to stay doggedly focused on the personal story and stakes, leaving the larger moral and social themes raised in the background.

Dev Patel delivers a fine performance, acutely realising Saroo’s increasingly toxic cocktail of survivor’s and liberal guilt as he pushes his adoptive family away and isolates himself with his laptop to continue his obsessive search. There are great supporting performances from the likes of Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara but the real revelation is Sunny Pawar, the young indian actor who plays young Saroo. With a performance which rivals that of Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing breakthrough in “Room”, Patel may give the film its drama but it’s through Pawar it gets its heart.

Moving, uplifting and powerfully bittersweet in its denouement, “Lion” succeeds as a biopic and a story of the importance and power of family.

8/10 Score 8

Hacksaw Ridge (2017) Review

hacksaw-ridgeApparently completing the rehabilitative arc of Mel Gibson’s Hollywood career, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a powerful, if uneven, examination of the horrors of war and the demands of true moral courage. The fact it’s based on a true story just makes it all the more incredible.

Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist, decides to enlist in the Army during World War II to help defend his country. But his personal beliefs prohibit him from using a weapon of any kind. Doss must fight for his right to join his fellow countrymen on the front line and service his country through faith and determination rather than violence and aggression.

There’s an unbalanced quality to the film, and Gibson seems initially uncertain handling the parochial everyday drama of Voss’ early life, veering from domestic melodrama to lighthearted comedy as if Gibson has chosen to mount “Hacksaw Ridge” as a reimagining of “Forrest Gump” with deep held religious convictions taking the place of learning disability as the characteristic which makes our hero ‘different’. Indeed, once the film reaches boot camp, it draws equal inspiration from the likes of “Full Metal Jacket” and “Private Benjamin”.

However, once the soldiers, including the vindicated Doss, reach the front lines, Gibson really comes into his own. Mel has always been a director, not just comfortable with, but determined to show in all its grisly, visceral glory the horrors of war and the damage caused by the weapons wielded in conflict. The action scenes are astonishing in their ferocity and power, occasionally straying into the gratuitous because Gibson can’t resist revelling in the carnage. He also can’t resist taking a very black and white view of the conflict and, like the English of Braveheart, he portrays the Japanese in “Hacksaw Ridge” as one-dimensionally brutal, relentless barbarians; monsters against whom the Americans valiantly rail.

However, there’s no denying the finished product is an incredibly gripping and deeply emotive war movie, bolstered by fine performances from Garfield (although he’s a little too goofy in some early scenes), Hugo Weaving and even Sam Worthington. Vince Vaughan also impresses in the role of Drill Sergeant Howell, taking to it so well that a remake of “Stripes” is surely a distinct possibility.

It’s thanks to a committed performance from Andrew Garfield, though, that the film manages to find the humanity amidst the horror and do justice to the real-life heroism of Desmond Doss who, in a poignant coda, appears along with some of his fellow soldiers in archive interview footage.

Powerful and poignant, this scarcely believable tale of bravery and pacifism in the Pacific War lingers long in the memory and forces us to consider once again not only the price of war in terms of lives lost but the cost to the soul of picking up a weapon in the first place.

8/10 Score 8

Sing (2017) Review

singThere are few animation studios which can cut a trailer together like Illumination Entertainment can. Unfortunately, outside of the “Despicable Me” movies, the finished products are increasingly failing to live up to the hype.

When Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) realises his theatre is in financial trouble, he comes up with a sure-fire scheme to save it: a talent contest. Unfortunately, Buster’s elderly assistant Ms Crawly (Garth Jennings) accidentally adds a couple of extra zeroes to the competition flyers and so the city’s inhabitants turn out in their droves for a chance to win the big cash prize.

Set in an anthropomorphised world which looks and feels like a bland suburb of “Zootropolis”, “Sing” certainly isn’t short of ambition. It sets up a veritable menagerie of allegorical animal-folk whose different backgrounds and stories briefly promise to overlap and intertwine in a rich and rewarding way before they…just sort of don’t. Instead, each storyline ambles through the film without much sign of inspiration or intent to deliver a satisfying narrative.

And it’s in its story that “Sing” is most out of tune. It has at its disposal, one of the starriest casts in the history of animation and in its selected target of singing competitions, a target ripe for satire and subversion. The problem is, “Sing” finds itself with nothing of note to say about singing competitions at all. In the era of “The X Factor”, “American Idol” and “The Voice”, “Sing” offers no critique, no sly lampoonery, no witty observations. It’s not even particularly adept at explaining just exactly how Buster’s idea of staging a singing contest was going to save his theatre in the first place.

The animation is solid and the character design cute and appealing but the characters themselves are largely tick-box exercises. Nobody learns, or grows, or changes organically. A few characters do have changes of heart or flip-of-a-light-switch epiphanies when narratively convenient but some of them remain obstinately unaffected by events, even when every storytelling fibre seems to scream of the need for some kind of redemptive arc. Seth MacFarlane’s odiously arrogant ‘rat pack’ mouse is a perfect example of the laziness of the writing. The soundtrack is overloaded with too many song choices, each one so achingly obvious that even the musical director for “Homes Under The Hammer” would roll their eyes.

If you’re content for your animated movies to simply keeping the kids quiet for an hour and a half then “Sing” will be perfectly adequate. But with the Pixar’s and Disney’s showing that animated movies can be fun and entertaining yet still be insightful, layered and inspirational, “Sing” starts to look very lightweight indeed. Unfortunately, thanks to their cunning counter-programming, “Sing” like “The Secret Life Of Pets” and “Minions” before it will rake in the box office receipts and all three have sequels announced for 2019-2020. Hopefully, by then, Illumination will have worked out how to create characters and stories which do their concepts justice.

4/10 Score 4

Underworld: Blood Wars (2017) Review

underworld-blood-warsOh my god, we’re Drac again.

Ding! Ding! Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to round 5 of the grand title bout. In the blue corner, the hairy biters, the silver dodging doggies, it’s their time of the month all month long…the werewolves Lycans! In the…er…other, slightly darker blue corner (because it’s an “Underworld” movie so there’s only one filter available), the mighty bitey, fangs for the memories, you can have any outfit as long as it’s black (and skimpy)…the vampires! Yes, we’re plunged back into the ongoing internecine conflict between the two divergent branches of the Corvinus dynasty. Families, eh?

With the war going badly for the vampires, Semira (Lara Pulver), a council member of the Eastern Coven manipulates Thomas (Charles Dance) into asking the council to grant Selene (Kate Beckinsale) clemency in return for her help in defeating the newly resurgent Lycans who have united under the leadership of the familiar sounding (but new) Marius (Tobias Menzies). But Semira has plans of her own and Selene will find out that enemy or ally, everybody is out for blood.

Although this is a direct sequel to 2012’s “Underworld: Awakening”, it unceremoniously exsanguinates much of the new blood that had transfused life into the franchise last time round. Selene’s daughter has left her, apparently wanting nothing to do with her and Selene has chosen to remain ignorant of her whereabouts to protect her. Also conspicuous by its total absence is the third warring faction: the humans who had become aware of the supernatural beasts in their midst. Clearly humans have not only forgotten but become oblivious because the vampires especially dress with zero subtlety – a pretentious hipster Goth aesthetic, light on the modesty – as they lounge around sipping their no doubt organic grande triple decaf soy blood with extra platelets.

Thankfully the film still retains the fundamental hallmarks of the “Underworld” franchise: stylised violence, spattery signature kills, tedious council deliberations, double triple and quadruple cross betrayals and a hidden secret from the past (yes, again). The past may be a foreign country, but in the “Underworld” universe, it’s an overpopulated one too. Because the vamps are a little monochromatic, there’s a new coven of vampires introduced too: a Nordic race all icy blonde and mystical. They may look like they’re cosplaying as Elves of Rivendell by way of the icy wastelands beyond Westeros’ Wall but there’s no denying their mumbo jumbo helps turn Selene into one bad ombrée.

Beckinsale can Selene in her sleep at this point (and occasionally seems to be doing so) and a returning Theo James seems more comfortable as the heroic vampire sidekick David. Lara Pulver practically devours the scenery, hamming it up to an almost Bill Nighy level while Bradley James provides her with a wooden surface to bounce her performance off. There’s fun still to be had with this OTT gothic soap opera, but it’s fully shifted over to a campy, ironic enjoyment rather than the genuine thrill of creatures of the night facing off, red in tooth and claw.

Stylish but stale, “Underworld: Blood Wars” suffers badly from seen-it-all-before syndrome and while it’s a perfectly serviceable entry for the franchise, it doesn’t offer anything worth getting excited about. Even its big dramatic moments are more likely to elicit giggles rather than gasps. The mystical Nordic Vampires aren’t different enough to revive the series and the franchise’s rigidly distinctive look means debut feature director Anna Foerster has no room to bring anything else new to the table. Preparations for a sixth instalment are apparently already underway, but it really feels like we’re flogging an undead horse already.

5/10 Score 5

Underworld: Awakening (2012) Review

underworld-awakeningAfter the slightly tedious and unnecessary detour to the dim(ly lit) and distant past that was “Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans”, normal service is resumed as Beckinsale squeezes back into the corset and catsuit for “Underworld: Awakening”.

The world has woken up to the presence of Vampires and Lycans and the humans are hell-bent on wiping out both species. Selene and Michael are captured and, thanks to their unique physiognomies, placed in cryogenic suspension. Twelve years later, Selene awakens to discover her species has almost been hunted to extinction by the humans. But her escape is complicated by the discovery that she had been carrying Michael’s child when originally captured and that their daughter is not only still alive, but a vital part of the Lycan’s plan for total domination.

If the previous instalment was short on new ideas, this fourth outing certainly makes up for it. With the underworld now ‘overworld’ and wombling free, the human factor gives the franchise a much-needed shake-up. Admittedly, it takes a little while to get going thanks to a lengthy previous three movie footage driven comprehensive catch-up which leads straight into the paradigm changing expository monologue. Once we’re clear of that, however, the film gets going once again. The action is slicker than ever and the violence ramps up another level, especially as it’s now humans in the firing line.

To aid Beckinsale in the fight, the franchise continues to draw in the best of Britain’s serious thespians with Charles Dance and Stephen Rea joining in the fun. While he remains a plot driver for a while, Scott Speedman’s Michael Corvin appears only fleetingly in previous footage and is unceremoniously dropped from the narrative very early on so in his stead, we are given Theo James as David, a vampire who offers Selene assistance.

Thanks, I suspect, to the involvement of J Michael Straczynski in polishing the screenplay, the film actually manages to deliver a decent and clever twist in the ongoing Vampire/ Lycan war, using the introduction of the humans to deliver a few genuine surprises. There’s also a neat subversion of Selene’s role as the Death Dealer becomes a life giver, both figuratively and literally. Speaking of giving life, the subplot concerning Selene’s daughter and her many abductions is a little patchy but eventually plays into one of the better final battles of the whole franchise. If you’re making a list of people whose daughters you’d be wise not to kidnap, Selene’s is pretty much the second name on the list, right after Bryan Mills.

As slick and stylised as ever, “Underworld: Awakening” does exactly what it promises, shaking the series free of the soporific prequel and giving it a new lease of life.

6/10 Score 6

Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009) Review

underworld-rise-of-the-lycansCommissioned at the same time as the sequel “Underworld: Evolution” – before the original “Underworld” had even been released – “Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans” takes us back into the history of the Vampire/ Lycan conflict to explore a moment which had been fully and satisfyingly explained in two minutes of flashbacks in the first movie.

Hundreds of years before Selene took the war to a new level, Viktor (Bill Nighy) finds Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first werewolf born capable of taking human form and takes him in, raising him with the intention of creating a race of Lycan slaves who can guard the vampires during daylight hours. But when Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Viktor’s daughter, falls in love with Lucian, their love affair ignites a conflict which burns through the centuries.

Prequels are often problematic and “Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans” suffers terribly from the inevitability problem thanks to the first movie being very explicit about how their romance turned out. The casting of Rhona Mitra in the role of Sonja is something of a cynical marketing ploy as she looks and is styled so much like Kate Beckinsale that unwary audiences were probably fooled into thinking this was a continuation rather than a step backwards.

And a step backwards it is, not just narratively but also in worth. Sure it’s great to see a cadaverous Bill Nighy stomping around devouring the scenery with a side of ham but the script is so repetitive and dull and the cod-medieval setting so bland that it feels kind of boring. Michael Sheen – always so courteous and enthusiastic in interviews asking him why on Earth he agreed to do this follow-up – likewise does his best but it’s literally a thankless role as he goes through the seemingly endless cycle of battle, deliberation, battle, deliberation, treading water until the film reaches the required point to dovetail to “Underworld”.

It’s a nice touch that they bring back Kevin Grevioux as Lucian’s henchman Raze. If nothing else, “Rise Of The Lycans” manages to add a much needed depth and history to a relationship only hinted at in the first movie.

Director Patrick Tatopoulos adheres so closely to the limited and gloomy colour palate of the “Underworld” franchise that it drains the whole production of any kind of life or vitality. The rigidly nocturnal setting means the action is often poorly lit and hard to follow and when you’re faced with a choice between muddled action scenes and plodding council deliberations, the only thing that rises is the awareness that without Beckinsale’s Selene, the “Underworld” franchise hasn’t got a lot to offer.

4/10 Score 4

Underworld: Evolution (2006) Review

underworld-evolutionOl’ blue filter’s back! That’s right, we’re back running with the night as we pick up with Selene (Kate Beckinsale), Michael (Scott Speedman) and all our other toothsome chums as we plunge back into the ongoing war between the Vampires and the Lycans.

Picking up directly where “Underworld” left off, Death Dealer Selene and vampire/ werewolf hybrid Michael are on the run from both the Vampires and the Lycans while searching for the truth behind Michael’s unprecedented abilities.

Freed from the need to establish everything, “Underworld: Evolution” wastes no time in making the most of the rich potential of its complex backstory. Maintaining its allegiance to the aesthetics of “Blade” and “The Matrix”, this sequel assimilates another strand of cinematic DNA as it presents us with a very “Lord Of The Rings”-inspired flashback opening to show us the three great vampire elders (Markus (Tony Curran), Viktor (Bill Nighy) and Amelia) arriving to hunt and capture Markus’ twin brother William, the first Lycan. Confidently, almost gleefully, the film depends and entangles the mythology even more by adding in historical double-crosses and adding in even more texture to Selene’s backstory to give her a more prominent and vital role in vampire affairs.

Everything’s stepped up in this sequel as it builds confidently on the commercial, if not critical, success of the first movie. The sex and nudity quotient is notably increased, as is the violence and gore, none more so than when Markus is introduced as the new big bad by literally tearing his way through poor old Kraven (Shane Brolly), villain of the first movie. It even has time for a bit of fun spoofing the ‘Brides of Dracula’ trope as Selene visits her old friend Tanis while on the run.

Although it’s still needlessly convoluted, it’s more linear than its predecessor and less prone to seemingly endless exposition, keeping the action flowing nicely. When it does need to dump some expository knowledge on you, it at least has the decency to have it delivered in the rich, rounded dulcet tones of Sir Derek Jacobi, topping up his pension pot as the first true immortal Alexander Corvinus.

Elevating the Lycan/ Vampire conflict to a cod-Shakespearian tragedy is actually surprisingly effective and while William, the original werewolf is something of a wild and hairy disappointment, there’s no getting around the fact that Tony Curran’s Markus is a formidable villain. Ruthless and brutal, he gives this film the edge it needs to avoid sequel fatigue. “Underworld: Evolution” sees the franchise loosen up a bit and start to have some fun. It’s still slick, glossy, hollow nonsense of course, but it positively revels in it.

6/10 Score 6

Underworld (2003) Review

underworldIt’s ironically appropriate that a film so concerned with the purity of various bloodlines is itself a shameless hybrid of “Blade” and “The Matrix”. There’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of a war between the eldritch creatures of the night but the film is so taken with the cleverness of its idea that it gets carried away with filling in the corners and forgets to make sure the film lives up to it great premise.

Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, one of the elite Vampire soldiers tasked with hunting and killing Lycans, their sworn lupine enemies. When she falls in love with Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a human whom the Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) is desperately searching for, she finds herself drawn into a dark conspiracy which reaches all the way to the top of Vampire society.

Suffused in a relentless blue colour palate, the film manages to have a curiously Hammer House of Horror feel to it, thanks largely to the many scenes set in the grand vampire mansion. As will go on to become a hallmark of the series, there’s no shortage of British acting talent on show, with Bill Nighy on spectacularly unhinged and scenery chewing form as the grand fromage (or at least the grandest fromage currently awake) of the vampires, Viktor. Unfortunately (for now) we’re not treated to an extended ham-off between Nighy and Sheen as the story seems reluctant to focus on the werewolves at all, preferring to focus the bulk of its attention on vampire politics. As a result, the film is wildly uneven: either leadenly expository or explosively, kinetically wordless. The action is a slick blend of wire-fu and gratuitous blood spatters but there’s just too much insanely complex and duplicitous politics and power plays to cover to allow the action to really take over.

“Underworld” is yet another sci-fi/ fantasy epic to fall victim to the fallacy that what the cool kids really want in their movies is interminable council deliberations and political manoeuvring. After all, it’s what made the “Star Wars” prequels and the “Matrix” sequels so cool, right?

It has to be said, though, that Beckinsale makes for a very fetching vampire huntress and acquits herself admirably in both the acting and action stakes. While it may frequently get bogged down in its (under)world building, the fictional world it creates is interesting one, rich in possibilities to explore in future instalments. As a standalone film, the finale comes as a little bit of an anti-climax but viewed as a precursor to the sequel, it’s actually a pretty decent cliff-hanger.

“Underworld” is a reasonably even mix of style and substance and the fact you can tell the cast and crew are having an absolute ball with the gothic grandeur and broadness of it all puts it over the top. If only it had a little more bite, it could have been spectacular.

6/10 Score 6

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage (2017) Review

xxx-return-of-xander-cageWe may be marking the return of Xander Cage, but did anyone really notice he was away? 2002’s “xXx” was a dumb but fun extreme action adventure, a 90’s ‘attitude’ hangover given a last millennial hurrah. Cage never felt as iconic as the film believed him to be, hence his easy replacement by Ice T’s Darius Stone in 2005’s “xXx2: The Next Level”. But he clearly means something to Vin Diesel who, with his rejuvenated “Fast And Furious” clout behind him, muscled his way into the producer’s chair to resurrect the franchise some 11 years later.

When NSA Agent Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) is killed by a satellite toppling weapon which has been stolen a team of extreme action agents, CIA Chief Jane Marke (Toni Collette) brings a reluctant Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) out of retirement to retrieve the weapon before it falls into the wrong hands. But why do the enemy agents have xXx training? And who is really after the weapon?

Directed in frenetic fashion by D J Caruso (hey D J, spin that camera), “xXx: Return Of Xander Cage” is a hot mess the likes of which I thought we’d never see again after “Suicide Squad”. In common with that creative misfire, the return of Xander Cage is accompanied by the assembling of a motley and morally suspect crew of skilled ne’er-do-wells who are manipulated into teaming up to solve one problem only to discover a worse one in the dumbest, most convoluted, most mindlessly violent way possible .

There’s a distastefully misogynistic streak running through the film, most of it in support of a concerted effort to flatter Cage’s (or possibly Diesel’s) ego. There’s a definite effort to put a diverse and talented cast at the forefront of the action but some of the line readings are so terrible the only explanation is a script learned phonetically and a production that didn’t think performance was important as long as things go boom a lot. Not everything is so over-caffeinated and under-rehearsed though. Toni Collette, for example, seems to be under heavy sedation for the duration of the action, possibly for her pain relief but certainly not ours.

Nonsensically plotted, lazily structured and featuring some of the worst CGI action since “Die Another Day”, the only return Xander Cage warrants is one for a full refund. Keep your ticket stub, you’ll need it.

3/10 Score 3

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) Review

the-manchurian-candidateA remake of the 1962 Frank Sinatra/ Laurence Harvey classic thriller, Jonathan Demme’s version may substitute The Gulf War for The Korean War and the contentious villainy of a foreign power for the relative safety of pointing the finger at the more anodyne target of a mysterious multinational corporation (after all, in 2017 who would believe the idea of a Russian plot to subvert the will of the American people and install a puppet president?)  but the central concept behind “The Manchurian Candidate” remains as potently chilling as ever.

When Major Bennett Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a respected Gulf War veteran, begins to suspect his post-traumatic stress disorder is, in fact, a sign that his memories have been interfered with, it puts him on a collision course with the ambitions of his fellow veteran, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) who supposedly rescued all but two members in his unit and was awarded the Medal of Honour, launching his political career.

There’s a disquieting ease and credibility to the ease with which a malignant organisation manages to place its cuckoo in the democratic nest and while some of the brainwashing and technobabble unapologetically crosses over into science fiction, you replace science and serums with money and leverage and the whole thing becomes frighteningly possible, a caustic indictment of just how easily manipulated and compromised a party desperate for power can be.

The film treads a fine line and, in addition to avoiding offending a foreign power (and therefore presumably alienating that nation’s audience) it also carefully avoids committing itself to which party is being infiltrated and controlled. In fact, depending on which lines you connect with which bit of string on your conspiracy mood board of photos maps and news cuttings, you could easily transpose the characters to either the Republicans or the Democrats.

The (not at all overrated) Meryl Streep is fiendishly fantastic as the ruthlessly ambitious Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, mother of war hero Raymond and the way she expertly manipulates and schools the posturing backroom deal making of her party feels achingly topical as she bends them to her will with spin, polls, focus groups and ultimata.

Schreiber gives an excellent performance as the man, unknowingly compromised but beginning to suspect that all is not well while Denzel does Denzel. There’s nothing remarkable or outstanding about Washington here but he’s a solid and dependable lead in a story where the audience need someone they can believe in as the conspiracy unravels around the characters.

A conspiracy theory thriller which feels less theoretical with every passing day, I suppose the ultimate achievement of “The Manchurian Candidate” is to pose the question: is it still paranoia if it’s actually, really happening?

Goodnight, and good luck America.

7/10 Score 7

The American President (1995) Review

the-american-presidentBefore the dignity and prestige of the office was befouled and irreversibly tarnished by a bloviating titian demagogue, there was a time when America had fallen madly back in love with their Commander In Chief and Hollywood was falling over itself to ingratiate itself with the occupant of The White House.

1990s films such as “Dave“, “Deep Impact”, “Independence Day” and “Air Force One” cast the office in a flatteringly wise and often overtly heroic light but none looked at the ‘leader of the free world’ with such rose tinted glasses as Rob Reiner’s “The American President”.

As the widowed occupant of The White House, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is struggling to push a watered down crime bill through a reluctant Congress while being lobbied to push for a bold climate change target by an environmental pressure group. When the group hire experienced political lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), sparks fly. But as the romance comes under scrutiny and opportunistic political pressure, President Shepherd must decide how to juggle his political and personal life without compromising his principles or his integrity.

Written by Aaron Sorkin in a (with hindsight) dry run for “The West Wing”, “The American President” brings wit, wisdom and warmth to the screen, showing the very best of the American political system and making the most of its to-die-for cast. Alongside Douglas and Bening, who quickly develop an irresistible romantic chemistry, you have Martin Sheen (“The West Wing” president-in-waiting), Michael J Fox, Samantha Mathis, David Paymer, Richard Dreyfuss and John Mahoney to name but a few, each of them making the most of the expertly crafted script at their disposal.

Unlike “Dave”, the political McGuffins at the heart of the romantic-comedy-drama are the all too credible and real world concerns of gun control and climate change, as is the gerrymandering and manoeuvring to build a willing coalition of votes to pass the legislation.

Michael Douglas is superb as President Shepherd, the perfect mix of confident authority and playful humanity while Bening is delightful as the hard-boiled lobbyist being unexpectedly swept off her feet.

Where the film now scores extra points for stunning prescience is in its depiction of the opportunistic actions of Senator and would-be Presidential candidate Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), who sees the President’s burgeoning relationship with Sydney Ellen Wade as his chance to character-assassinate his way to power. The way Rumson’s self-aggrandizing, desperate and viciously shallow GOP candidate starts spreading rumours before cultivating them into ‘facts’ is eerily, depressingly topical. Sorkin’s choice of language and exquisitely crafted dialogue is so on point, it could easily have been lifted from Buzzfeed’s ‘Top 20 Trump Tweets’ (if, you know, they weren’t a ‘failing pile of garbage’).

In fact, the spectre of Trump lurks in many of the pithy exchanges between the White House staffers as they seek to support the President and fend off the increasingly personal attacks of Senator Rumson.

It’s no mean feat to craft a film which works equally well as a comedy, a romance and a political drama but Reiner, Sorkin and the stellar cast pull it off. Glossy, uplifting and warmly rewarding, this is another film to have on stand-by for the next four years.

8/10 Score 8

Dave (1993) Review

daveA sly and sparky twist on the age old tale of ‘The Prince And The Pauper’, “Dave” delivers a delightfully upbeat moral fable as a corrupt and callous leader is replaced by ‘an ordinary joe’.

When President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) arranges for a duplicate to make a public appearance to cover up for an affair he’s having with a White House staffer, the White House Chief Of Staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) recruits Dave Kovik (also Kevin Kline), a local employment consultant who has a side-line as a presidential lookalike. Unfortunately, Mitchell suffers a serious stroke while on the job so to speak so Dave is compelled to take over the role of President full time while Bob Alexander plans his assent to power. But once he meets the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver), Dave starts to set out a Presidential agenda of his own.

The idea at the core of this movie is, of course, absurd – no matter how appealing it may seem in the next few days and weeks. The idea of the most powerful man in the world being replaced by a doppelgänger may strain credibility but thanks to Ivan Reitman’s deft comic sensibilities, a witty script from Gary Ross and a sublime performance from Kevin Kline, the whole thing works fantastically well.

Kline is tremendous fun in a triple role of sleazy President Mitchell, good guy Dave and Dave-as-Mitchell, all three of them distinct yet similar enough to sell the film’s central conceit. Langella is all brooding menace and mendacity as the scheming Chief Of Staff (his growling delivery of the line ‘He’s not the president, he’s an ordinary person. I could kill an ordinary person’ is worth the price of admission alone), balanced by the amiability of Kevin Dunn as White House Communications Director Alan Reed who is railroaded into going along with the charade for the sake of the Presidency. Also in on the scam is a very young Ving Rhames as Secret Service Agent Duane Stevenson. Kept out of the loop are the President’s estranged wife Ellen Mitchell and the Vice President played by Ben Kingsley. Although Kingsley’s role is almost incidental, he always classes up the joint.

Kline and Weaver quickly establish a great comic chemistry and as Ellen opens Dave’s eyes to the injustices and influences of the presidency, it’s her compassion and his inherent decency and niceness which become the most powerful levers of government in a frothy, fantasy wish fulfilment agenda which nevertheless manages to make some serious and salient points about government and society as a whole.

Adding to the general jollity is the parade of real-life political figures and celebrities playing themselves in the movie, crowned by an appearance by noted conspiracy enthusiast Oliver Stone trying to convince Larry King that the President has been replaced by a duplicate.

The film’s ultimate rallying cry of full employment lacks a little narrative development and feels a little arbitrary given the rest of the film’s antics and although it feels loosely connected to Dave’s previous job as an employment officer, it strays a little too close to socialist dogma for it to seem credible as a new American Dream.

Nevertheless, “Dave” is a wonderfully light and witty look at White House politics, a neat metatextual parable for Hollywood mentally adjusting itself to the end of the Bush presidency and the promise of the Clinton administration and a perfect pick-me-up if the days ahead have you filled with foreboding.

7/10 Score 7

La La Land (2017) Review

la-la-landThere’s nothing Hollywood likes more than love letters to itself, and “La La Land” is a love letter of such passion and affection for the glamourous halcyon days of old Hollywood that it almost makes you willing to overlook the slightly weird effect CinemaScope has on the actors’ faces in the close-ups.

In modern day Los Angeles, aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) repeatedly encounters passionate jazz pianist Sebastian in a series of meet cute moments supported by song and dance numbers. Eventually, inevitably, they fall in love and the film traces their love affair through its ups and downs as they both try to realise their own artistic dreams and help each other realise theirs.

Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) delivers us a fantastical, iridescent fantasia of Los Angeles, captured with magical perfection as the backdrop to the romance and drama on screen. His script is an intricate masterpiece of elliptical storytelling as we weave backwards and forwards around the intertwined lives of Mia and Sebastian.

When did Ryan Gosling get to be so good, by the way? I’ve generally been indifferent to him, finding “Crazy, Stupid, Love” crazy stupid boring, but between “The Nice Guys” and this, it really feels like he’s stepped up to a whole new level. As Sebastian, he has charm and charisma to spare and establishes a vibrant chemistry with Emma Stone’s Mia which becomes the beating, aching heart of this supremely romantic and romanticised film. Stone herself delivers the performance of the movie, which is quite an achievement given the film tends towards telling Mia’s story purely in the context of Sebastian’s. Her poignant and emotionally raw performance of her audition song ‘The Fools Who Dream’ rivals Anne Hathaway’s show stopping rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from “Les Misérables”. Both, it has to be said, surprise and impress with their ability to keep up with “La La Land”’s playful choreography and it’s their wonderful rapport and combined charm that makes up for their vocals – which while perfectly good – aren’t their strongest assets.

While it honours and celebrates the conventions and artistry of the classic Hollywood musicals, “La La Land” itself isn’t afraid to take an unconventional approach to the expected happy ending, affectingly exploring the tensions and choices inherent in pursuing your dreams and pursuing happiness. Gloriously uplifting, toe-tappingly catchy and unexpectedly emotionally potent, “La La Land” is pure Hollywood cinema at its brightest, breeziest and deceptively insightful best. An absolute joy to watch, now and forever.

10/10 Score 10

The Bureau Season 1 Review

the-bureauA slick French TV thriller in the vein of “Spooks”, “The Bureau” – a Canal+ production – centres around the lives and missions of the operatives of the DGSE (General Directorate for External Security, the French equivalent of MI6) as they coordinate the covert activities of agents around the world.

When one of the DGSE’s top agents, Guillaume Debailly aka Malotru (Mathieu Kassovitz) returns from a six-year undercover mission in Syria his return coincides with a major crisis as another undercover agent mysteriously vanishes in Algeria. While Debailly is tasked with training new recruit Marina (Sara Giraudeau) for her upcoming mission to infiltrate the Iranian nuclear programme, the many undercover lives he has lived come back to haunt him when a former lover from Syria arrives in Paris. Coincidence, or has he been compromised? Debailly will risk everything for love, violating the rules of the agency and threatening the Bureau itself.

With Paris and France itself currently on the frontline of real world terrorist aggression, “The Bureau” benefits from a topical frisson that crackles through each episode. It’s a dive off the deep end into the murky waters of La Piscine as the Republic faces up to enemies at home and abroad, foreign and domestic. With an international plot which involves a complex web of dirty deals and counter espionage as the CIA, the FSB and ISIS become entangled with the DGSE’s activities, there’s more than enough intrigue to keep you hooked for the 10 episode run time and leave you yearning for the second season.

The performances are solid all round, particularly Mathieu Kassovitz, Sara Giraudeau and Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s Henri Duflot, the Director of the Clandestine Service. It may not be quite as action packed as “Spooks” or as bombastic as “24” but “The Bureau” is quality spycraft drama, gripping in its portrayal of the move and countermove of the grand international game chess game of espionage and the human lives caught up in its machinations.

Released on DVD on Monday 16th January by Arrow Films, “The Bureau” is available in its original French with English subtitles.

8/10 Score 8

Silence (2017) Review

silenceOppressively contemplative and impassively brutal, Martin Scorsese’s religious epic sweeps us back in time to the rule of a cruel and uncompromising Japanese Shogunate.

When a Dutch trader delivers the last letter from Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) and testifies that Ferreira committed apostasy after being tortured, two of his former pupils – Father Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) – insist on travelling to Japan to find him despite the warning from the head of their order that they will be the last two priests to be sent on a mission to Japan.

From a purely technical standpoint, “Silence” is a filmmaking masterpiece, as if we’d expect anything less from Scorsese. Visually mesmerising, with Taiwan acting as a stunning stand-in for 17th Century Japan, the first hour or so of this 160 minute epic is a gripping and often gruelling exploration of missionary work in a viciously hostile country and almost resembles a feudal Japanese “Saving Private Ryan”. It’s after this first hour, though, that the film’s contemplative approach falls to navel gazing and repetition, almost in parody of the ritualistic and repetitive nature of the dogma and rites which forms the movie’s core.

Indeed, as it unflinchingly holds its gaze on the sadistic punishments meted out by the Japanese authorities on those citizens who have adopted Christianity as a way of life, the film also lays bare the absurd trivialities, idolatry and empty ritualism of missionary Catholicism, marking the vast gaping chasm between what the missionaries promised and what the new followers were expected to give and endure in return for it. This is not the South Seas style missionary work of bringing civilisation to the primitives, bringing both the word of God and the benefits of modern medicine, sanitation and education. No, this is the aggressive and expansionary Catholic Church looking to establish a foothold in a foreign territory in order to expand its political and financial power, offering nothing but trinkets and rituals in return for absolute devotion and acquiescence to catechism.

Time and again, the story underlines the suffering that must be endured for the sake of belief, with no other reward save the unfulfillable and intangible promise of life everlasting beyond death. As the cost in human life and suffering of this tortuously arrogant belief mounts, the film forces those of faith  – and those without – to contemplate the value of that faith given the price paid. But even as the priests’ devotion to the church is severely tested by repeated cycles of forgiveness and recidivism, the film erodes respect for that piety.

Andrew Garfield gives a tremendous performance as the young priest pushed beyond the breaking point of his faith, as each layer of the structure of his belief is torn down or seems to turn its back on him, but he’s as often a distraction as he is a focal point thanks to his impossibly coiffured hair remaining unfeasibly bouffant throughout his time in Japan, whether he is sleeping rough in the jungle or being held in a prison cell. Although they’re assets to the film, both Adam Driver and Liam Neeson are sorely underused but it’s in Issey Ogata that “Silence” finds its MVP. As the ruthless and implacably relentless governor Inoue Masashige, Ogata’s playfully sing-song, whimsical performance brings a deeply sinister and uneasy energy to the ultimate confrontation between faith and determined, obdurate authority.

This may have been a passion project for Scorsese as far back as 1990, but in bringing it to the screen he seems to have articulated the Passion of Father Rodrigues in unflinching and lavish detail but also exposed the potential emptiness of faith itself. Perhaps the silence isn’t one of peaceful assuredness but the awkward, empty space left by the film’s own unanswered questions.

6/10 Score 6

A Monster Calls (2017) Review

a-monster-callsWhile the trailer may have raised ‘Groot Expectations’, J A Bayona’s sumptuous adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel is a world away from the bombastic bonhomie of Marvel’s galactic gadabouts. Firmly rooted (ahem) in the mundane tragedy of real life, “A Monster Calls” is low fantasy elevated to great heights.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is a creative, sensitive pre-teen who lives with his mum, who is suffering from a chronic illness. As his mum (Felicity Jones) takes a turn for the worse, Conor finds solace and strength in the presence of a monster, summoned into being by Conor’s emotional turmoil. Kept at arm’s length from the truth of his mother’s condition by well-meaning adults, Conor nurses a dark and terrible truth of his own, but he has made a bargain with the monster and that secret is the price he must pay.

There’s a strong moral thread running through not only the story itself but woven through each of the tales the monster tells as he fulfils his side of the bargain with Conor. The film’s great strength is its respect for the source material’s target audience and its unwavering commitment to retaining Conor’s perspective on the world. The well-intentioned deflecting and indulgent behaviours of the other grown-ups in Conor’s life only serve to fuel his pent up anger and frustration as he grapples with feelings and circumstances which threaten to overwhelm him.

There’s a beautifully lyrical, fairy tale quality to Ness’ story and Bayona brings it vividly to life with its magic and wonder intact. The performances are tremendous, especially Lewis MacDougall as Conor and while Sigourney Weaver’s performance as Conor’s maternal grandmother is strong and richly complex, her English accent has an occasional unfortunate tendency to wander. Liam Neeson’s monster, however, is a fantastic creation, full of wrath and fire and compassion.

The monster itself is just one aspect of the beautifully intricate visuals the movie has to offer. The superbly realised CGI creation is bolstered by wonderful, water-colour inspired animations as the movie delivers its allegorical payload, for this isn’t simply a story of a personal tragedy perceived through a protective veil of fantasy, but a powerful and reassuring affirmation of the importance and power of storytelling and the healing properties of art and imagination.

Starting gently, but ramping up inexorably to a poignant, heart-breaking crescendo, Bayona isn’t nearly as archly manipulative here as he was in his previous feature, the exploitative corporate self-aggrandizement masquerading as important survival drama “The Impossible” but there are still a few times where the emotive filmmaking is a little heavy handed, especially as the story itself doesn’t need any outside assistance to tug at the heartstrings.

Moving, insightful and full of wonder, “A Monster Calls” is destined to be a classic, a magnificently melancholy and yet uplifting collage of life lessons, covering life, love and loss through the eyes of a boy ‘too old to be a kid, too young to be a man’.

8/10 Score 8

Why Him? (2016) Review

why-himAn under-the-radar Christmas movie, what “Why Him?” lacks in plot and substance it more than makes up for in a handful of great performances.

When Ned Fleming’s (Bryan Cranston) beloved daughter invites her family out to California for the holidays to meet her new boyfriend, the last thing they expect is for him to be silicon valley tech millionaire Laird Mayhew (James Franco). Things go from bad to worse when Ned realises that Laird plans to propose on Christmas Eve.

There’s certainly a vague attempt at an actual plot here, beyond the confines of the father vs would-be son-in-law knockabout schtick but it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond a few references to balance sheets and deals falling through. No, the real value – and entertainment – is in watching four masters of squirming, embarrassment comedy giving it all they’ve got. Cranston, of course, is no stranger to awkward family comedy from his “Malcolm In The Middle” days while Franco’s default persona tends towards the shameless and profane, this time round to hilarious effect. When you toss Megan Mullally and Keegan-Michael Key, you get a scattergun comedy which may stagger all over the place but hits the funnybone more often than it misses. Sure, Cedric The Entertainer could have had a bit more to do and there’s an excruciatingly unfunny scene featuring nobody’s favourite cameo actor Adam DeVine which could have and should have been cut from the film entirely but generally it’s all good natured, stupid fun.

“Why Him?” won’t win any awards and it may struggle to find a regular slot in any annual Christmas rewatching schedules but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t chuckling through most of it, and even the inevitable final third loss of momentum that these types of comedies always suffer from didn’t cut down on the laugh quotient. After all, where else are you going to find Elon Musk and Gene Simmons in the same movie?

7/10 Score 7

Monster Trucks (2016) Review

monster-trucksA premise so dumb it’s scarcely believable it made it out of a pitch meeting outside of the SyFy Original Movie writer’s room, “Monster Trucks” has been languishing, complete, in Paramount’s vaults for the past two years while the studio figured out what to make of it. Having seen it, I’m afraid I can’t help them.

When an unscrupulous oil company drills too deep and disturbs an undiscovered ecosystem, they accidentally release some of the creatures which live there. Capturing two of them, evil business man Reece Tenneson (Rob Lowe) plots to quietly kill the creatures so his drilling plans aren’t halted but unbeknownst to him, a third creature manages to escape. Meanwhile, Tripp (Lucas Till), a high school senior looking for any way to get away from the life and town he was born into has been building a truck out of scrapped cars and finds more than horsepower lurking under the bonnet.

The greatest sin “Monster Trucks” commits is that it’s simply nowhere near as much fun as a movie about giant trucks literally powered by monsters should be. In place of a rollicking, knockabout adventure it offers a lazy and half-assed grab bag of ‘family movie clichés’ without ever committing to any of them. So we have a hazy pro-environmental theme, a disillusioned teen outsider, a well-meaning step father, an estranged deadbeat dad, a greedy and unscrupulous businessman plus some subterranean alien creatures but somehow the film still manages to be much less than the sum of its parts.

Lucas Till is simply not leading man material, especially when the material is this week. The effects are decent enough and Creech, the eponymous monster, is cute in a slimy, multi-toothed dolphin kind of way but everything just feels lazy and half-assed. It’s the live action debut of director Chris Wedge (“Robots”, “Ice Age”, “Epic”) but on the strength of this, he should stick to animation.

Dull when it should be daft, flaccid when it needs to be fun and lacking in any kind of spark, “Monster Trucks” is destined for the scrap heap.

4/10 Score 4