Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (2016) Review

fantastic-beastsA few years back, having brought the “Harry Potter” series to a successful conclusion, Director David Yates boldly declared he would be making a new “Doctor Who” movie, with a new actor in the role and a new continuity, separate from the long-running TV series. Then showrunner Steven Moffat shut that shit right down and Yates went off to lick his wounds, abandoning his plans to make a film version of “Doctor Who”.

Now, after a reasonably entertaining diversion to darkest Africa in the unrepentantly old fashioned “The Legend Of Tarzan”, Yates is back in the director’s chair and back in the Potterverse to bring us the wholly original adventures of an enigmatic and eccentric frock-coated Englishman who travels the world with a mysterious box that’s bigger on the inside.

When Hogwarts dropout Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of magical creatures, he has no way of knowing that he’s stumbled into the middle of a tense political stand-off as tensions rise between the magical and non-magical world due to increasing incidents of dark, destructive magic. When his suitcase is accidentally mixed up with a local muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), he finds himself fighting off MACUSA (Magical Congress Of The United States Of America) aurors and racing against time to rescue his escaped menagerie.

J K Rowling’s return to the wizarding world of Harry Potter moves the action back some ninety years and across the Atlantic, transplanting the story with an understanding of American history and culture which speaks of a couple of hours spent flicking through Wikipedia. Nearly every 1920s/ American cliché available is dusted off and given a quick dusting of magical glitter before being trotted out to bind the disjointed story elements together. Rowling’s first screenplay, it’s an uneven and patchwork affair, jamming together a rather light-hearted slapstick monster mash around roaring Twenties New York with a pitch black tale of religious zealotry, racial tensions, terrorism and political divisions and a death penalty scene which would feel more at home in a horror movie. The change in setting exposes some of the frailties of the fictional world Rowling set up in the original Harry Potter novels. The wizarding world, while relatively contained to the cosy environment of the UK holds up reasonably well but when you take it transatlantic, some of the tenets of the world start to look a little bit shaky. Throw in a handful of half-thought through adaptations to make everything a bit more American and it starts to fall apart.

Most of the stuff with Newt chasing his creatures around is frothy, lightweight fun which merrily takes up time while doing little to advance the substance of the story. Unfortunately it takes up the lion’s share of the running time which means the meatier part involving the Director of the Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and his dealings with a family of anti-magical religious fundamentalists in a quest for a powerful source of dark magic while diverting the MACUSA investigation is underdeveloped and rushed. It’s fitting as Rowling enters her Lucasian period that she’s made sure her prequels contain a few pointless and tedious council deliberations as well.

Performance wise, Fogler and Farrell are the MVPs here, with Ezra Miller also adding some much needed creepiness to the movie’s blandly beige palate. Redmayne performance and his usual physical mannerisms are at their most irritating during the first hour of the movie, a sleepy, shy mix of Matt Smith’s Doctor and a medicated “Four Weddings” era Hugh Grant. Perhaps he just felt – justifiably – embarrassed by some of the clunky dialogue the script forced upon him to deliver and listen to. Yates’ direction – when not assuming the audience is stupid – is leaden and obvious, preferring to let the CGI do the talking, especially in an uninspired and derivative finale which features 2016’s umpteenth diffuse CGI particle monster. There’s no wonder and very little magic on show, the characters are superficial and their motivations ill-defined while the use or non-use of magic is breathtakingly arbitrary and deeply illogical. It may be that many of the non-sequiturs, dead ends or throwaway moments will yet be redeemed or retrospectively enhanced by future instalments of this now-planned-as-five movie series but with Rowling and Yates both confirming they will be respectively writing and directing the next four movies it’s hard not to look at them as settling into a passionless creative marriage of lucrative convenience.

4/10 Score 4

A United Kingdom (2016) Review

a-united-kingdomHandsomely staged and impeccably acted, “A United Kingdom” revisits and reveals a particularly shameful chapter of Britain’s post-war history and lays bare the callous brutality of 20th Century realpolitik.

The film tells the true story of Prince Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) of Botswana (then Bechuanaland) who met and married Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) an English woman while studying in Britain. Pressing ahead with their marriage against the requests of family and their respective governments they must face the diplomatic weight of the Bechuanaland tribal elders and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The film wisely concentrates on the relationship between Seretse and Ruth which is brought to life through the fantastic chemistry between Oyelowo and Pike as they take on their friends and family in the name of love. The British Establishment is portrayed with a broad but probably well-deserved mendaciousness, all snooty condescension and moustache-twirling villainy but the real villain of the piece is only ever mentioned, not seen:  the shadowy off-screen presence of the newly segregated apartheid South Africa using their gold and uranium deposits to pressure the impoverished UK government to its will.

Jack Davenport and Tom Felton play perfectly hissible diplomats, whose sense of entitlement and privilege rankle against today’s modern sensibilities and there’s no denying the film has many uncomfortable sequences which bring home some of the realities of colonial Africa. It’s a solid production which, despite its authentic settings, feels more like a particularly star-studded and lavish Sunday evening prestige TV drama than a feature film but that doesn’t diminish the potency of its message.

7/10 Score 7

Allied (2016) Review

alliedDespite its intriguing premise and impressive pedigree, “Allied” resembles nothing as much as a lavish big screen reimagining of “’Allo ‘Allo”.

In 1942, a Canadian RAF spy encounters a female French Resistance fighter on a deadly mission Vichy occupied Morocco. Later reunited in London, their relationship blossoms into love but as the war grinds on, doubts begin to surface. Trained to lie, how can they be sure they’re telling each other the truth?

At first, “Allied” feels like an odd choice for director Robert Zemeckis but as it progresses you can see his penchant for the technical and digital recreations manifest at every opportunity. Brad Pitt seems particularly lifeless and there are points where he seems to have been supplemented by Zemeckis’ digital tinkering to the point of falling into the uncanny valley.

From its opening moments, the movie has lofty ambitions to be a “Casablanca” for the 21st Century but it falls so short as to be laughable. It almost rivals “Everest” for the most obvious and egregious use of studio sets and the clumsiness of the recreations jar constantly with those scenes genuinely filmed on location.

The story has moments of interest but it’s too slow and unevenly paced and in the absence of any sign of chemistry between Pitt and Cotillard gropes blindly for some kind of meaning. Everyone plays it with a determined earnestness but the script just can’t seem to settle on a tone so ends up being too silly to be serious but too serious to be fun.

Overwrought melodrama and a lack of genuine intrigue makes this a hollow, glossy period piece. For a story about military intelligence, it offers precious little of either and even the combined star power of Pitt and Cotillard can’t overcome its shortcomings.

5/10 Score 5

 

 

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride (2015) Review

all-aboard-the-sleigh-rideHas Black Friday left you feeling blue? Cyber Monday depleted your spirit as well as your bank account? Then come, soothe your festive soul with a mesmerising, calming documentary that redefines chilling out.

Out now on DVD, “All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride” is a beautifully realised real time journey following the path of an ancient postal route. Providing an unobtrusive glimpse into the traditional world of the Sami people of northern Scandinavia, it’s a trek through a genuine winter wonderland with no commentary, music or presenter to break the spell – just the occasional, subtle captions giving an insight into the Sami way of life.

Filmed in Karasjok, Norway – 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle – it’s the perfect antidote to the hustle, bustle, noise and bedlam of the run up to the festive season and nothing will relax you like the gentle plodding of reindeer hooves crunching through snow that’s deep and crisp and even or the peacefully hypnotic jingling of sleigh bells.

Watching as the reindeer pulled sleighs make their steady but unhurried journey through undulating snowy hills, frost-jewelled forests and rustic Sami settlements, you’ll find the frantic, fast-paced world of Prime delivery speeds melts away.

It’s a world away from your usual Christmas specials and TV fare but if you’re in the mood for something refreshingly, peacefully different there’s no better way to spend a couple of hours at this time of year than by curling up under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate (or something stronger) and watching “All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride” by candlelight.

8/10 Score 8

Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders (2016) Review

batman-return-of-the-caped-crusadersAs 2016 becomes ever more horrifying, the demand for the safe, cosiness of nostalgia grows ever more insatiable. Taking a break from propping up the faltering DCEU, Batman joins in the trip down memory lane by making a colourful and light-hearted return to the DCAU, this time reliving his 1960’s heyday.

When Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s favourite TV program is interrupted by The Riddler, The Joker, The Penguin and Catwoman, the dynamic duo waste no time in donning their capes and cowls to Zap! and Kerpow! the bad guys. But when Catwoman manages to scratch Batman with her patented ‘batnip’, she unleashes the worst threat Gotham City has ever faced: Batman himself!

While the cartoon makes a game attempt at recapturing the spirit of the zany sixties TV series, it seems constantly torn between faithfully recreating it and lampooning its campy excess. In a funny way it’s harder for it to reach the giddiness of the TV series because as a cartoon, it’s automatically already halfway there. There’s also a weirdly knowing aspect to the dialogue, a Meta awareness of the series’ own foibles and the wider Bat universe so the film is peppered with in jokes and references including throwing a fair amount of shade directly at the end of “The Dark Knight Rises”. One of the weirdest moments occurs early on where Aunt Harriet glibly implies that she either knows their secret identities or – with an anachronistic casualness – that she knows they’re secretly not into titties (nudge nudge wink wink) but it’s all harmlessly and innocently wrapped up in the end.

Truth be told, Adam West is closer to his “Family Guy” Mayor West persona than authentically recreating his Bruce Wayne but Burt Ward does a reasonable job of delivering Robin’s (still thanklessly exclamatory) lines. Sadly, Julie Newmar’s voice has noticeably changed and her mature tones simply don’t match the slinky, youthful portrayal of her animated counterpart. As for the other trio of villains, the actors playing The Riddler, The Penguin and The Joker don’t even try to recreate the performances of Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith or Cesar Romero, which ends up being disappointingly distracting. It’s not that I was expecting perfect renditions but they could have at least tried.

It’s not quite the bright, breezy caper that “Batman: The Movie” was, its plot feels more like two separate draft ideas jammed together to get the project across the ‘feature length’ finish line and the animation lacks the polish you’d expect from a feature film but there are enough smart jokes and fun moments to make it worth a watch even if it’s not quite the same Bat time or the same Bat channel.

6/10 Score 6

Arrival (2016) Review

arrivalIf alien invasion movies exist on a spectrum where, say, “Independence Day” is the median point and down one end of the spectrum you have the likes of “Battleship” and “Independence Day: Resurgence”, “Arrival” finds its place at the opposite end of the scale.

When twelve alien objects appear on Earth simultaneously, the various governments of the world mobilise their military and scientific resources to find out why they are here. As tensions begin to rise, the international consensus begins to break down and the world teeters on the brink of war.

Although it heavily involves the military, “Arrival” avoids the usual bombast and machismo that tends to be the hallmark of global alien invasion movies in favour of a thoughtful, intelligent approach to the situation, telling a story of the importance of understanding rather than overreacting and the power and importance of language and communication. It has shades of “Contact” and “Interstellar” but handles its central metaphysical conceits far better than either of them.

There’s a purity and lightness to Denis Villeneuve’s latest film that’s almost a photographic negative of the brooding, darkly sterile intensity of his previous film “Sicario”. For a film that feels epic in scope and vast in its storytelling, it’s surprisingly economical in its execution. From the 1990s Athena poster-esque floating pebble alien ships to their smoky coffee mug stain language, there’s a frugality at play that sharpens and enhances the story, placing the drama and dilemma front and centre while the effects work seeps into the background where it belongs.

Anchoring everything is a wonderfully textured performance from Amy Adams providing strength, vulnerability and depth to a role that could easily have been overly mawkish. Jeremy Renner’s theoretical physicist has little to do apart from follow along in Adams’ wake as she puts linguistics and symbology to use in a way that would make Robert Langdon hang up his Mickey Mouse watch for good but he’s at least on board with the contemplative tone of the movie. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have clued in Forest Whitaker who delivers yet another oddly off-key performance, all wandering accent and whispery voiced belligerence that feels awkward and out of place.

There’s a topical subtext in a story that pitches pleas for understanding, tolerance and cooperation against a hawkish background of military aggression and fear of others but it loses its edge in emotional overindulgence.

I wasn’t bowled over by “Sicario” because it felt too detached, too emotionless and here it almost feels like Villeneuve has overcompensated, overegging this intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi tale with an abundance of sentimentality which occasionally feels forced inorganically to the story.

Despite this, “Arrival” is still a bold, beautiful and refreshingly different film that isn’t afraid to pose some pretty big philosophical questions and answer them too.

8/10 Score 8

Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016) Review

art-of-the-dealFrom “Funny Or Die”, the entertainment production company founded by Will Ferrell, Adam McKay and Chris Henchy comes a film for the ages, the long lost motion picture based on Donald Trump’s best-selling book “The Art of the Deal”.

The Donald recounts his life and triumphs to a young boy who stumbles into his office having just shoplifted a copy of the book “The Art Of The Deal”.

There’s  a gleeful edge to the satire in this production as it blends Trump’s many obnoxious and abhorrent traits into a portrait of the man as he styled himself in the eighties, from a present day perspective. It’s a difficult proposition to produce a parody of a man who, on a  daily basis, pushes the boundaries of the absurd beyond the realms of ridicule with seemingly Teflon impugnity.

Johnny Depp’s – yes, it is he – portrayal of Trump may be less cartoonish and affected than Alec Baldwin’s “Saturday Night Live” incarnation but the odious traits are all there to be seen, they’ve just lost some of their power to appal when compared to whatever the self-confessed sexual assault enthusiast has done or said now. Framed as a long-lost eighties classic rediscovered only recently, the production delights in providing VHS-quality visuals, shoddy editing and, fittingly as it purports to be directed by Trump himself, cheap, tacky and tasteless production values.

Trump may be present day’s greatest monster, but this roast sets out to portray him for the hollow, mean-spirited buffoon he really is and while it could have done with being funnier and more savage, it’s pretty good value for money given it’ll cost you nothing more than a couple of clicks on Netflix to watch it.

It may feel uncomfortable to laugh at the Cheeto-complexioned, intellectually stunted demagogue when he’s only a few unwise votes away from the closest thing we have to ultimate power but nothing robs a bully of his power like comedy. It’s just a shame that a comic cast this talented couldn’t keep up with the real thing.

6/10 Score 6

Halloween (1979) #MonthOfSpooks Review

halloween-month-of-spooksAgreeing to join in @TheMarckoguy’s #MonthOfSpooks finally gave me the push I needed to check out one of the all-time horror classics and erase a shameful gap in my movie-going records. This Halloween, I finally sat down to enjoy…er…”Halloween”.

John Carpenter’s 1978 classic (released in 1979 in the UK) is a masterclass in lo-fi, high creativity cinema, resulting in a film so iconic, it defined not only the slasher genre and its tropes but also set the confines within which parodies and homages would operate for decades to come.

In 1963 Haddonfield, a young Michael Myers brutally and without apparent motive or remorse murders his sister on Halloween night. Fifteen years later, Myers escapes from Smith’s Grove Sanatorium and heads back to his hometown pursued by his psychiatrist Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasance) who believes Michael will kill again.

Packed with suspense, “Halloween” is tense and frightening without ever having to rely on extreme violence and gore. Carpenter is wise enough to know that less is more, using the relatively modest $300,000 budget creatively to deliver the chills and thrills. From the use of POV to put the audience uncomfortably in the killer’s place to the unsettling undercurrent of vulnerability lurking within suburbia’s snug little houses and white picket fences, the restricted resources time and again become the mother of invention, resulting in a more potent cinematic experience.

Jamie Lee Curtis – here making her feature debut – is a real find, a genuinely high calibre scream queen, originating the role of the ‘final girl’, a trope which would go as far as to spawn its own movie. That she was the daughter of Janet Leigh (of Hitchcock’s “The Birds”) was no doubt a huge boost to the film too. Accompanying Curtis on her debut was the veteran presence of Donald Pleasance, lending the film a vital gravitas and credibility and ensuring the grisly goings-on feel grounded and serious.

As well as co-writing and directing, Carpenter also provided the score for the movie and the synthesiser-driven eeriness is one of the film’s strongest elements, giving even the most mundane suburban scenes an air of foreboding. Even over the potentially cutesy pumpkin-centred opening credits, Carpenter’s relentless theme twists everything to a darker, more sinister angle.

Whether viewed as a subtext-packed morality play of the dangers of pre-marital sex or – as Carpenter insists – just a damn good horror movie, there’s no denying that “Halloween” retains its power as an effective slasher movie. Simply put, there wouldn’t be a “Scream” without “Halloween” and most of Randy Meeks’ ‘Rules’ are lifted directly from this film. No doubt that’s why the kids in “Scream” are watching “Halloween” during the final party bloodbath. But even that meta reference wasn’t original – “Halloween” itself has its own moment of meta foreshadowing as Laurie and Tommy watch “The Thing From Another World”, a film that Carpenter would remake himself a mere four years later.

“Halloween” is, on its own merits, a great horror movie but its influence on the genre which continues to the present day is what elevates it to an absolute classic.

10/10 Score 10

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Timewarp Again (2016) #MonthOfSpooks Review

rocky-horror-lets-do-the-timewarp-againIt’s astounding. Time really is fleeting. It’s been over forty years since Richard O’Brien’s anarchic, subversive and brazenly salacious musical horror comedy exploded onto the big screen. Buoyed by their recent successes with “Grease Live”, Fox raided their back catalogue to bring Frank-N-Furter and co romping into the twenty-first century.

When straight-laced couple Brad and Janet find themselves broken down on an isolated highway, salvation seems at hand when they spy a light, over at the Frankenstein place. But their arrival has coincided with an auspicious occasion and Brad and Jane are set to experience a night of debauchery that will change their lives forever.

Packed with classic horror and sci-fi b-movie references, “The Rocky Horror Show” has always had a cordial relationship with Halloween, providing so many iconic characters to dress up as and plenty of songs for a spooky party playlist. Of course, there’s little actual horror despite the implied presence of vampires, aliens, zombies and homunculi. There’s a curiously British cheesiness to the whole affair, marked by a fondness for silly puns and wordplay in amongst the joyfully hedonistic and deliriously deviant sexuality of the musical. Like “Grease” before it, when it comes to the film version, they set the bar so high it casts a very long shadow.

It’s a shadow this TV movie reimagining can’t escape, even in the capable hands of director Kenny Ortega (“Hocus Pocus”, “High School Musical”, “Michael Jackson: This Is It”). The decision to avoid a ‘live’ production is understandable if slightly disappointing but the choice to try to mount a hybrid staging with a de facto ‘audience’ watching the production on a mock cinema screen misfires confusingly. Sure, it’s a nice nod to the film’s cult following but it’s just confusing to anyone new to the musical and adds little to the story.

The staging is competent enough and it picks up the fundamental weirdness of the musical without managing to recreate the knowing campiness that set the movie apart. The musical numbers, like much of the cast, feel slightly anaemic and with the exceptions of Annaleigh Ashford’s Columbia and Laverne Cox’s Frank-N-Furter there’s a distinct lack of anything energised, provocative or transgressive. Despite its lascivious roots, this feels tamer and more restrained even than the “Glee” version. It’s a genuine puzzle that in this supposedly enlightened, permissive age, Rocky is required to wear voluminous basketball shorts forty years after a pair of gold speedos were considered sufficient wardrobe.

Too many times the cast lapse into impersonating their movie predecessors and yet lack the charisma and presence to do so. Laverne Cox is occasionally great when she decides to make Frank-N-Furter her own but when she tries to imitate Tim Curry, it feels hollow. Given the timidity of the rest of the production, Fox’s uncharacteristically enlightened choice in the role is to be acknowledged even if, for me, having an actual transsexual actress as Frank-N-Furter robs the character of some of its subversive, debauched frisson. On the other end of the scale, in a musical where subtlety is already in short supply, Christina Milian amps up the ham factor with a manically over-acted Magenta.

It’s toned down, tamely spoopy fun but given the boundary-pushing nature of the original and the scope to do so much more in today’s climate, it’s a missed opportunity to redefine a classic for a new era. It was nice to see Tim Curry back in action one more time, though.

5/10 Score 5

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) Review

jack-reacher-never-go-back2012’s “Jack Reacher” was something of a pleasant surprise. Although on paper a mismatch for Lee Child’s burly protagonist, Cruise’s screen presence was enough to pull off the role of the muscular and relentless investigator. Unfortunately, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is just a ruthlessly efficient in justifying its own title.

Framed for a crime he didn’t commit, Reacher must unravel a conspiracy which reaches right to the heart of the Military Police and deal with a secret from his past which may change his life forever.

The film begins brightly enough, with the sequence in the roadside café shown in the trailers but its downhill from there. Cruise looks a little doughy and tired; much less invested than in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”. He might be starting to show his age but that doesn’t stop him from putting in the running miles as usual. There’s a lot of running in this movie. A lot. But it doesn’t mean Cruise is afraid to change things up, oh no. This time, he spends a good fifth of the movie running to catch various busses. Whatever else the future holds for Jack Reacher, he’ll make good use of that senior citizen bus pass when he gets it.

The potential reveal that Reacher has a daughter he never knew brings a weird ‘dysfunctional family’ dynamic to the movie which sits awkwardly against the ‘I’m going to kill you’ bombast of both the heroes and the villains. The maybe/ maybe not daughter (played by Danika Yarosh) brings a devious and streetwise attitude to proceedings and would have made a more interesting focus for the movie, certainly more than Cobie Smulders’ thankless by-the-numbers tough (but categorically not tougher than Reacher) leading lady.

There’s an attempt to create a nemesis for Reacher in the form of Patrick Heusinger’s Hunter but the rivalry never feels real. The Hunter looks like “Suicide Squad”’s Captain Boomerang might have, before he lost interest in his career and let himself go and he’s just as menacing and effective as his would-be DC counterpart. There’s never a moment where you feel Reacher might be vulnerable and without that risk there’s no drama.

Director Edward Zwick is completely mismatched to this kind of muscular, kinetic thriller and the direction is oddly clumsy. Some of the early scenes, especially those featuring Cruise and Madalyn Horcher are particularly heavy handed in their use of trickery to accommodate Cruise’s stature while the action scenes are routine and humdrum.

In a year which has seen a number of underwhelming sequels, Jack Reacher joins Jason Bourne in falling prey to that most implacable of foes – unnecessariness.

4/10 Score 4

Doctor Strange (2016) Review

doctor-strangeBy the fourteenth movie, what is there left to say about the Marvel Cinematic Universe? “Doctor Strange” is the latest success for the studio, a solidly entertaining superhero blockbuster which introduces not only an important new hero to the MCU but also opens up the fictional universe to a world of astral projection and interdimensional, cosmic sorcery.

Arrogant and gifted neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is sailing through life, aloof from the world around him until he suffers a catastrophic car accident which permanently damages the nerves in his hands. Seeking a cure of last resort, Strange travels to Tibet where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens his mind to the worlds beyond conscious perception. But dark powers dwell in the other dimensions and Strange must learn to master his new skills in order to save the world.

There’s a deserved confidence to Marvel movies now, and “Doctor Strange” is no exception. Under the direction of talented horror director Scott Derrickson, this origin tale of the Sorcerer Supreme has a trippy, psychedelic quality to it from the beginning although it bides its time before it rewards long-haul fans by going the full Ditko in a dark dimensions-set finale. The kaleidoscopic word-twisting visions glimpsed in the trailers are used to fascinating effect to give the fight scenes a dizzyingly fresh perspective but nothing in the film quite beats the brilliantly choreographed timey-wimey climactic battle.

Although it’s a little slow to start – and you may grow slightly impatient waiting for Strange to quit struggling and start mastering the magic – it’s mostly a worthwhile journey to take the arrogant surgeon on the journey to enlightenment. There are a number of nice shout-outs to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe including glimpses of Avengers Tower and a subtle reference to the events of “Captain America: Civil War” which helps place “Doctor Strange” in the cinematic chronology.

Cumberbatch slips into the role of Doctor Strange smoothly and while it may be obvious casting, it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. Chiwetel Ejiofor provides an intriguing foil for Strange as Mordo while Swinton’s Ancient One is a curiously egg-like Zen Yoda, something that shouldn’t really work but absolutely does. The movie does have an effective villain, however most of the time is spent with his henchman Kaecilius, a role which tends to fritter away the talents of Mads Mikkelsen. In the wider cast, it’s nice to see the Flying Carpet from “Aladdin” getting work again.

There’s nothing here that will convince the doubters or shift the needle in the futile DC v Marvel debate but there’s no denying it’s another crowdpleasing hit in their 14-movie run. It’ll chart at various points in the inevitable Marvel countdowns but I’d be surprised if it lands anywhere but the top 50%. Marvel’s only growing weakness is that these solo introduction movies serve only to whet the appetite for the inevitable meetings and crossovers to come. With that in mind, remember to stay in your seat until the very end for two stinger scenes which both have significance for the future of the MCU.

8/10 Score 8

Trolls (2016) Review

trollsWith its DayGlo aesthetic and unashamedly sunny disposition, “Trolls” may prove to be too sugary a confection for some viewers. If, however, you’re a fan of silliness, cuteness and jukebox musicals, “Trolls” is an unabashed delight.

Having escaped from the dreaded Bergens long ago, the Trolls are living happily in their hidden forest home. But when Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) throws the biggest ever party, she accidently gives away the village’s location and must team up with grumpy Troll survivalist Branch (Justin Timberlake) to rescue her friends.

There’s not a great deal of complexity on offer in “Trolls” but its simplicity is its chief virtue.  The straightforward narrative is lavishly adorned with surprisingly snappy dialogue and a rich array of visual gags which all serve the story – a refreshing change after a succession of animated films which felt more like a string of jokes held together by a flimsy afterthought of a story (I’m looking at you, “Storks“…). Another bonus is the soundtrack, a winning mixture of original songs and cover versions, skilfully arranged and attuned to the movie’s personality.  The voice cast is pretty spectacular, with Kendrick and Timberlake leading the pack followed closely by Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Zooey Deschanel as the Bergen Prince Gristle Jr and his scullery maid Bridget. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry (if you don’t even dab at your eyes during ‘True Colours’ you’re a monster) as these fuzzy haired heroes sing, dance and hug their way through this rainbow-hued adventure.

Visually, the film is a real treat. Not just in the dazzling array of colours but in the character design and the rendering of the world of the Trolls. Such is the attention to detail that Dreamworks’ latest manages to rival the stop motion artistry of Laika’s recent output.

If you can leave your cynicism at the door, this wholesomely harmless, happy movie will put a great big smile on your face: I will never not find the spider saying ‘hello’ during ‘The Sound Of Silence’ funny. It’s bright, breezy and irresistibly sentimental – and I loved it.

10/10 Score 10

Inferno (2016) Review

infernoEven a symbologist as obtuse and oblivious as Robert Langdon can’t miss the obvious signs that this franchise is dead. Bloated, boring and often incoherent, “Inferno” looks to Dante for inspiration but it’s the audience who are made to sit through nine levels of Hell.

When a dazed and amnesiac Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a Florence hospital room, he quickly comes under attack and flees with his doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). When they find a Faraday Pointer which projects a subtly altered map of Dante’s Inferno in his personal possessions they realize it’s the first clue in a trail left by recently deceased billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster).

It may be the shortest Robert Langdon film to date but it feels like the longest. Dan Brown’s storytelling is getting weaker and weaker and the plotting of “Inferno” is messy and convoluted without ever once managing to be clever. Without the zeitgeist immediacy of “The DaVinci Code” or the papal intrigue of “Angels And Demons”, “Inferno” rehashes themes which were explored more innovatively and intelligently in the UK TV series “Utopia” and a spinelessly studio-driven decision to change the ending of the novel robs it of even the slightest element of narrative interest.

Neither Hanks nor director Ron Howard apparently retain any passion for the source material and both labour to even phone in their contractual obligations to bring this steaming pile to the big screen. Hanks seems bored to be back in the Langdon saddle and it doesn’t help that he’s paired with a similarly disengaged Felicity Jones. Her dead-eyed and guilelessly duplicitous performance is so achingly unsubtle it tips the movie’s hand in respect of Dan Brown’s usual plot twists but even without it by the time of the reveal you won’t care anyway. The rest of the famous faces are so poorly served by the script that they may as well not have been cast at all.

Accompanied by an intrusive and ill matched score from Hans Zimmer – who seems intent on parodying Vangelis – this is a disappointingly toothless conspiracy potboiler that can’t rise above its pulpy origins.

3/10 Score 3

Harlequin (2016) Short Film Review

harlequinFollowing up his first production, “Layla”, director Jakob Lewis Barnes encounters the renowned ‘difficult’ second movie with the forthcoming “Harlequin”. Short films can be tricky things to review. The brief running time gives the artists involved an acutely finite amount of time to convey their vision.

Another exercise in abstract, experimental filmmaking, “Harlequin” brings a melancholic, almost “American Beauty”-esque nihilism to bear on the timeworn theme of the tears of a clown. There is a noticeable development in Barnes’ talents as a filmmaker since his last project but it’s a mixed blessing, creating a palpable tension as his ambitions strain the limits of this nano-budget production.

The film stars Kenton Hall (“A Dozen Summers”) as Charles, a children’s entertainer who is teetering on the abyss. Hall really delivers on the required intensity of the self-destructing clown but the film’s a little too disjointed to allow the characterisation to really blossom. The lack of cohesion may be a deliberate evocation of the fracturing of Charles’ psyche but for the viewer it doesn’t quite work. There’s no denying the character is intriguing but there’s a restlessness to the editing which doesn’t give enough time to appreciate and contemplate the scene before the next one bustles in. I would love to see this production team tackle something with real narrative weight for their next project, sacrificing some of the visual ambition to focus on a dialogue and performance driven piece.

The music is excellent throughout and the make-up likewise is very good. There are even some shots which hint at a real visual flair but it’s clear writer/ director Jakob Lewis Barnes is coming up against limitations not of his own talent or imagination but of resources.

5/10 Score 5

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) Review

the-girl-with-all-the-giftsBreathing new life into the rotting husk of the zombie genre, “The Girl With All The Gifts” bites off far more than the usual undead apocalypse. It’s a horror movie with more than just a culinary focus on braaaaains.

In the near future, British society has collapsed following an outbreak of a fungal infection which turns the infected into flesh-eating ‘Hungries’. Humanity’s only hope is a group of hybrid children who are infected but retain the ability to think and feel. When the base is overrun, a small band of survivors manage to flee with one of the children. The lead scientist, Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) believes that the child, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), holds the key to a potential vaccine, her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) believes Melanie deserves to be treated like a human being whilst Sergeant Parks (Paddy Considine) only sees a monster who should be killed.

Although the beginning of the story finds itself rooted in zombie movie cliché, Colm McCarthy’s bleakly bright direction quickly moves the film on from hordes of clackety-toothed Hungries to the more curiously claustrophobic environment of abandoned suburban London. Powered by a remarkable performance from Sennia Nanua, the story – adapted from M R Carey’s 2014 novel – pushes the genre in new directions. Twisting the usual zombie movie subtext of fear of the others, the suddenly hostile majority, “The Girl With All The Gifts” can easily be read as a generational war cry, a Millennial howl of outrage at the state of the world bequeathed by the baby boomers.

With a pitch perfect ending which balances hope and melancholy, this is high class horror that gives you plenty of food for thought.

8/10 Score 8

Storks (2016) Review

storks‘Where do babies come from?’ isn’t a question I intend to answer in this review but as to where babies may get their attention spans from, this hit and miss scattergun animated comedy may provide some clues.

Junior (Andy Samberg) is the lead delivery Stork for Cornerstore.com, in line to become the boss when his mentor Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) is ascends to become Chairman of the Board. The only thing standing in his way: he must fire Tulip (Katie Crown), a human who has grown up within the Cornerstore warehouse; the last baby left behind when the baby delivery service was axed. But when the system produces one more baby, Tulip convinces Junior to make one last delivery.

“Storks” feels like a studio movie, one produced more through obligation than inspiration. Having staked out a release date for an animated feature, ideas were no doubt workshopped around a big table laden with coffee and donuts before somebody piped up with ‘storks delivering babies…can we do anything with that?’ and everyone nodded and agreed it was time to break for lunch. Even the executive producership of Phil Lord and Chris Miller (of “The Lego Movie” fame) can’t save this from falling into same trap of mediocrity that’s claimed countless animated movies before it.

The movie starts brightly enough. The character design and animation is bright and appealing and the set-up looks like it’s going to skewer the cost to family life of the workaholic, corporate mind-set, with driven realtors and huge corporate retailers like Amazon in its sights but it quickly loses focus as the script careers through a patchwork of ideas and characters, ending with a weird baby boom finale that has queasily pro-life subtext. There are some funny moments (most of them, of course, shown in the trailer) but the movie has no real idea how to string them together in a cohesive way. The wolf pack scenes are probably where the film sparks into life the most but they dip in and out of the movie with little explanation or logic and there seems to be an underlying belief that if all else fails, having the characters spout the dialogue really quickly and in funny voices will distract from the lack of actual humour or ideas.

It’s a paycheque production devoid of passion and it shows. The cast is a who’s who of animated movie rent-a-stars, none of whom are invested in the project and that lackadaisical attitude feeds through to the audience. The Craggus’ usual animated focus group weren’t overly impressed. Mertmas (10) sat patiently through it but seems to have forgotten it almost as soon as he left the auditorium (the “Trolls” trailer has demonstrated more staying power) while the youngest Craggling (3) got bored and restless after the wolves’ ‘I agree, I agree, I agree, I agree’ peak. The little boy sitting next to us told his mum around the hour mark that he wanted to go home and couldn’t be dissuaded otherwise.

We’re not talking “Norm Of The North” level terrible, but this is serious disappointment from the studio which has been proudly boasting it brought you “The Lego Movie” and “Happy Feet”. It’s not been a stellar year for Warner Brothers in terms of matching they hype and that looks likely to continue as “Storks” fails to deliver.

5/10 Score 5

My Scientology Movie (2016) Review

my-scientology-movieThere’s no denying a Louis Theroux documentary draws a quite different crowd to the cinema. Those docuphiles who wouldn’t deign to visit the unwashed multiplexes during blockbuster season, some who came specifically to sneer at the bizarre tenets of Scientology itself and, I suspect, many like me who were drawn to the screening seduced by the possibility that this documentary was cinema-worthy because it contained some earth-shattering revelation hitherto undiscovered about the world’s most secretive ‘religion’. But were there any actual Scientologists in the screen, mingling undetected amongst us? Listening; judging; observing..?

My idle conspiracy theory musings gained early traction when the Live Stream malfunctioned as soon as the screen lit up. Okay, so I was watching it at Cineworld Whiteley, a venue notable for two things: one, there is absolutely zero mobile signal within the building itself (an architectural oversight retrospectively painted as a deliberate virtue) and two; in the eleven months since it opened, there’s never been a day when all of its systems and technology were fully functional. But those facts aside, was the outage actually a pre-emptive strike by an elite SeaOrg operative, hoping to disrupt the transmission of the movie and its accompanying Q&A. The answer was soon apparent: no. A simple ‘switch it off and on again’ sorted everything out. Stand down, IT Helpdesk – your work is done.

With little preamble and no adverts or trailers (Yay!), the presentation started. It was time to see the implacably ironic Louis Theroux take on the pathologically impassive behemoth of the Church Of Scientology!

Repeatedly denied his requests to make a documentary on Scientology from the inside, celebrated documentary maker Louis Theroux’s first theatrical feature sees him take on the subject in his own inimitable style. Taking inspiration from the Church’s own media productions, he seeks out former Scientologists turned whistle-blowers to aid him in casting actors to play Scientology’s major players, reasoning that if you can’t get inside to experience the church, the only way to understand it is to recreate it on the outside. One thing is undeniable, though: the young actor Louis casts (Andrew Perez) to play David Miscavige has a bright future ahead of him: he’s incredible.

Louis’ deadpan, poker-faced sense of humour prove to be well matched to the utterly un-self-aware reactions from the Church, leading to a number of surreal confrontations, almost tipping the movie into Inception territory as one documentary ends up housing another which in turn contains another documentary. In fact, replace cameras with handguns and there are some scenes which could be ripped straight from a Tarantino movie.

Despite these amusing (with a disquietingly sinister undertone) confrontations with fringe representatives from the church, the finished movie ends up, as many of Louis’ documentaries do, becoming more a portrait of Louis’ relationship with a specific individual, in this case Mark ‘Marty’ Rathburn. Curiously, and despite the constant bizarre behaviour of the Scientology flunkies which doggedly although gently harass Louis and his crew, it’s Marty and his possible complicity in the activities and organisation he now condemns that draws your focus, sympathy and suspicion. Despite his amiably Bill Murray-esque appearance, by the end of the movie he’s a deeply divisive figure, painting a vivid picture of his experiences of life under Miscavige but ferociously closing down any discussions of what he personally did for the Church before his abrupt fall from grace led him to quit.

“My Scientology Movie” is dryly witty and, despite its light tone, still disquieting glimpse at an organisation that seemingly begs to be described as a sinister cult. The Church itself still presents an irresistibly cinematic, compelling archetype: a secretive and powerful organisation under the iron grip of a mysterious totalitarian leader with an army of devoted acolytes who ruthlessly hunt down, harass and seek to destroy their enemies and defectors. It’s the stuff Bond films are made of. As Louis points out, there may be good people working hard to do good things within the strictures and structures of the church’s hierarchy but the organisation is so viciously defensive and so absurdly heavy handed in its public relations that it’s impossible to take it any other way. It’s hard to avoid the thought that the church – for whatever reasons – likes and maybe even covets its whacko reputation; a sort of corporate adoption of ‘The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’.

Ultimately there’s nothing in this slightly disappointingly lightweight documentary that will really shift the needle of your own personal e-meter when it comes to Scientology itself. Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” remains the gold standard in taking the church to task. There’s a scene very early in the film where Louis is driving Marty Rathburn around and Marty asks if they’re filming some B-roll footage. As the end credits rolled, I felt like nearly all I’d watched was B-roll footage, the punches I’d hoped to see land pulled in favour of a gentle poke in the ribs and a Pythonesque ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ attitude.

6/10 Score 6

War On Everyone (2016) Review

war-on-everyone“War On Everyone” sees acclaimed director John Michael McDonagh taking a leaf out of Tarantino’s book and nearly everything but the front and back covers from the Shane Black playbook to bring us a profane and anarchically violent comedy so dark is rivals Vantablack for pitch blackness.

Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) are a pair of corrupt New Mexico cops who have a tidy line in blackmailing any criminals unlucky enough to cross their path. But their freewheeling cash and drugs buffet lifestyle takes a sinister turn when they encounter a ruthless crime lord who’s even worse than they are.

Comparisons to “The Nice Guys” are inevitable but “War On Everyone” pushes further and faster and has far fewer fucks to give when it comes to narrative convention, likeable characters or a cohesive plot. What it does have is a great cast, some great ideas and a gleefully unrestrained attitude to violence, offensive language and morality. It crashes –literrally – into  into life from the very first scene and then refuses to take its foot off the accelerator. It’s a jarring introduction to a film which is likely to prove quite the Marmite-style divider of audiences, helped and hindered in equal measure by its cavalier attitude to misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia.

For me, the first half an hour was more irritating than entertaining as the breakneck pace and leave no group unoffended scattergun dialogue felt like the film was trying way too hard. Thanks to the winning lead performances of Peña and Skarsgård though, it won me round eventually and I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. Theo James’ villain is better in concept than execution but his lack of genuine menace is more than made up for by the androgynous and creepily retro henchman Birdwell (Caleb Landry Jones), a creation who feels like he stepped right out of the original “Dirty Harry”. Lots to enjoy, then, but also plenty to annoy and frustrate if the film’s hit and miss attitude doesn’t strike you just right. It might not delight fans of “Calvary” or “The Guard” but it underlines McDonagh’s status as an always interesting filmmaker.

7/10 Score 7

Swiss Army Man (2016) Review

swiss-army-manThere’s more than a faint echo of “South Park” in “Swiss Army Man”, the feature debut from writer/director duo Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. And like “South Park”, its sharp insightfulness has been unfairly obscured by a focus on its deceptively juvenile sense of humour.

Hank (Paul Dano) finds himself marooned on a tiny pacific island. Having lost all hope of rescue, Hank decides to kill himself, only to be interrupted by a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washing up on shore. Desperate for any kind of companionship, Hank develops an unlikely and surreally impossible friendship with ‘Manny’, discovering that he can use the cadaver in a myriad of useful survival situations – like a Swiss Army knife.

There’s no denying the central premise of “Swiss Army Man” is a bizarre and surreal one, yet if you can make the leap of faith it requires, the film rewards you with a hilarious, genuinely sweet and even romantic story of friendship and humanity. Bolstered by a strong turn from Dano and a frankly astonishing performance from Radcliffe, the story works its premise into a tender and surprisingly poignant exploration of alienation, loneliness and unrequited love without ever really tipping its hand as to what is real and what is fantasy. As Manny slowly reanimates and his friendship with Hank deepens, the sheer lunacy of the film’s central conceit melts away thanks to the warmth of the lead actors’ chemistry, the dreamy quality of the Daniels’ direction and a script which balances pathos and whimsy in equal measure.

Weird, whacky and wonderful in equal measure, “Swiss Army Man” is an unlikely but strong contender for date movie of the year. Suffice to say if your significant other can embrace the humanity and emotional core in spite of (or maybe because of) navigational boners and farting corpses, then they’re definitely a keeper.

8/10 Score 8

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016) Review

miss-peregrinesMarvel movies are notoriously not allowed to use the ‘m’ word and you’ll find it curiously absent from Miss Peregrine’s… even if it feels like an “X-Men” story co-written by J K Rowling and Roald Dahl.

When his grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances, Jake (Asa Butterfield) decides to visit the children’s home that featured in his grandfather’s bedtime stories. Arriving in Wales, Jake finds that the truth is more peculiar than he thought as he finds his way into a time loop rooted in 1943. Awaiting him there is Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) and her children. But Jake is not the only one searching for the time loop.

Adapted from Ransom Riggs’ successful novel, the source material is a great match for director Tim Burton and he embraces it as an opportunity to shed his recent over-reliance on CGI environments and visual effects in favour of filming on location. Although the Victorian grotesquerie matches Burton’s usual style perfectly, the film is refreshingly bucolic and bright in place of his usual dark and gothic aesthetic. That’s not to say the film’s not without its own darkness sprinkled amongst the whimsy, personified in the slenderman-esque Hollows which hunt Peculiars and push the boundaries of 12A family friendly horror although Mrs Craggus was more squeamish about betentacled eyeball eating monsters than Mertmas was. The freak show elements of the children’s peculiarities are well realised and, during a Ray Harryhausen homaging finale, amusingly and cleverly utilised.

The grown-ups in the cast are clearly having a great time, especially Samuel L Jackson and Eva Green, whose Miss Peregrine is, like Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, frequently all eyes and teeth but the children – while all individually fine – lack any real chemistry. Speaking of “Doctor Who”, the story is crammed with enough wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey shenanigans to make Steven Moffat blush and it’s in the plot and script that the film doesn’t quite work as successfully as the visuals. It’s trying to fit too much in and as a result, the early scenes feel a little disjointed and uneven while the remainder of the film spends too little time exploring the intriguing world of the Peculiars in favour of the relative safety of super hero tropes.

All in all though, it’s an effective and kooky action adventure even if it does show off many of its best moments in the trailer. One of 2016’s better blockbuster offerings, it still would have been nice to spend more time exploring the source novel’s ideas and characters in a little more depth.

7/10 Score 7

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016) Review

hunt-for-the-wilderpeopleFresh off the triumph of “What We Do In The Shadows”, New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s follow up is a witty and heart-warming adaptation of Barry Crump’s novel “Wild Pork and Watercress”.

Troubled, hip-hop-loving orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is given one last chance to settle in a foster home or else he’s bound for juvey. Child Welfare officials take him deep into the New Zealand bush to live with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grouchy husband Hec (Sam Neill) on their farm. Just as Ricky starts to let his guard down and settle into his new life, a tragic change in circumstances causes Hec and Ricky to flee into the bush, finding themselves on the run from child services, their fellow hunters and even the New Zealand army.

Anchored by a wonderfully curmudgeonly performance by Sam Neill, the film is brimming over with sly humour and a wry, warmly human look at two flawed but utterly loveable characters. The scenery of New Zealand is, of course, stunning providing a breathtakingly epic backdrop to the trials and tribulations of Ricky and Hec. Waititi keeps everything light and frothy but manages to pack a real emotional punch in amongst the comedy, balancing every element with a sublime ease.

On this form, “Thor: Ragnarok” (Waititi’s next film) has to be among the most anticipated movies of next year. Utterly, captivatingly delightful, “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” is an affecting, uplifting and hilarious wilderness adventure with bags of charm that ranks amongst 2016’s finest films.  Majestical!

10/10 Score 10

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Review

magnificent-sevenArriving 56 years after the original movie, 2016’s “The Magnificent Seven” is, of course, a grandchild remake, the second generation descended from the iconic “Seven Samurai”. An earnest and lavish reimagining, it hues closer to its forefather than its genre spanning cousins such as “Battle Beyond The Stars” or “A Bugs Life”.

When ruthless and unscrupulous goldmine baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) sets his sights on the town of Rose Creek and savagely quells a brief moment of defiance, a widow (Haley Bennett) strikes out on a quest to find someone to defend the peaceful farming town from the brutality of Bogue’s control. She finds Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter who has a personal score to settle with Bogue. Together they recruit a small band of gunslingers to mount a desperate last stand to save Rose Creek.

There’s a great deal less interaction with the townsfolk in this new iteration of the classic western: the Seven keep themselves slightly aloof from those they seek to defend. Rather than the simple motivation of Eli Wallach’s 1956 bandit, Sarsgaard’s Bogue is a much more modern analogue, the ruthless corporate entity seeking to exploit and crush the honest working folk of Rose Creek. It’s in the beginning moments that the film wobbles the most precariously, thanks to the scale of Bogue’s malevolence. A whisker shy of moustache twirling, his casual cruelty and flagrant disregard for any kind of law teeters on the brink of cartoonish villainy, casting the drama as a savagely dark comedy as “The Magnificent Seven” comes uncomfortably close to feeling like a humourlessly brutal remake of “Blazing Saddles”.

Things improve once our focus shifts to the formation of the Seven, with Denzel Washington providing the necessary gravitas to steady the film and keep it on track. He’s very quickly joined by Chris Pratt who adds actual cowboy to his already impressive resume of space cowboy and dinosaur cowboy. Sure, he’s not the most versatile of actors but, like Harrison Ford before him, he does what he does so well and so likeably it feel churlish to complain. It’s actually Vincent D’Onofrio who sneakily steals the picture as burley frontiersman/ ‘bear wearing peole clothes’ Jack Horne, one of the many characters who hint at tantalising backstories which remain sadly unexplored.

Admirably – and arguably more accurate historically – this magnificent seven are a notably diverse bunch and not just in ethnicity. There’s a definite subtext to the relationship of Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux and Byung-hun Lee’s skilled knifeman Billy Rocks if you’re disposed to see it and even Haley Bennett’s wronged and vengeful widow gets more to do than simply be a damsel in distress.

Director Antoine Fuqua is a self-confessed lifelong fan of Westerns and it shows as he makes sure he crams in as many iconic/ clichéd Western camera shots as he can in this slick and good looking movie. The score is excellent too, the last (unfinished) work of the great James Horner and finished off by his friend and fellow composer Simon Franglen. If only the character development had been as polished as the music cinematography, this could have been a triumphant reimagining rather than an ever-so-slightly superficial remake. Each of the Seven are fascinating in their own right and while I’m not advocating for a slew of seven prequels or a Marvel-style ‘Magnificent Cinematic Universe’ but it would have been nice to delve into the characters’ pasts a bit more.

Surprisingly brutal, but staying just the right side of bloody to earn its 12A certificate, it was 10 year old Mertmas’ introduction to the Western genre. He enjoyed it a lot but it was probably at the very edge of what I’m happy letting him watch in terms of screen violence (and way past the limit that Mrs Craggus would have been happy with) but it hasn’t done him any harm.

Polished and punchy, 2016’s “The Magnificent Seven” delivers on the action and iconography at the expense of character but should just about satisfy fans of action movies and Westerns alike.

7/10 Score 7

Kubo And The Two Strings (2016) Review

kuboBreathtakingly beautiful, Laika’s latest stop motion animation is a dazzling, inspired medley of Japanese and Chinese folklore and a joyous celebration of the power and importance of storytelling.

A young boy named Kubo must find and reclaim his father’s lost armour in order to battle and defeat a vengeful enemy who will stop at nothing to destroy him. With only Monkey and Beetle to guide him, he must journey across land and sea to find the means to defeat the Moon King.

Running through Laika’s back catalogue is a strong thread of artistic ambition and technical achievement and their latest creation pushes the artform forward once again.

The intricacy and complexity of the visuals of “Kubo And The Two Strings” is reason enough to enjoy this sumptuous film on the biggest possible canvas but the story itself recommends the movie even more. Respecting its audience, both young and old, it doesn’t give away its secrets all at once, instead unfurling carefully and deliberately like one of Kubo’s exquisite origami creations. There’s a richness to the mythology and the construction of the narrative that it comes as something of a surprise that it’s an original tale and not an adaptation of some ancient text. Sure, there’s evocations of “Journey To The West” but this tale of family, forbidden love and vengeful magic is its own creation, a deliciously dark and occasionally scary creation  – younger children may find the Sisters a little too much; the youngest Craggling (age 3) certainly did – underpinned by warmth, humanity and wickedly clever humour.

The needlessly starry voice cast nevertheless give their all with Charlize Theron particularly impressing as the taciturn and sardonic Monkey although it wouldn’t have harmed the film at all to have been more authentic in its casting of the central characters rather than just wheeling out George Takei to ham it up with an ‘Oh myyyyy’ early on.

It’s a minor quibble though and “Kubo And The Two Strings” is easily the best animated movie of the year, and a contender for best film of the year too. Family films of this quality, both technical and artistic, don’t come along all that often and should be cherished when they do.

10/10 Score 10

Don’t Breathe (2016) Review

dont-breatheAn often tense and claustrophobically clever thriller, a little more humility would have done “Don’t Breathe” the world of good.

When a gang of three opportunistic burglars get a tip off about an easy mark, it seems like their ship has come in. One easy job and they can escape their dead end Detroit lives forever. After all, how difficult could it be to burgle the isolated home of an old blind man?

Co-written and directed by Fede Alvarez, “Don’t Breathe” is an effective twist on the home invasion trope which unfortunately can’t resist showing you just how clever it is. While it manages to generate some moments of genuine dread, the film is just so pleased with itself that it ends up telegraphing the jump scares minutes in advance. In fact, Alvarez seems powerless to avoid using the Swooping Camera Of ForeshadowingTM which swoops and soars through the house pointing out things which will be significant later with a breathtaking lack of anything approaching subtlety.

Fortunately, it manages to keep one or two twists in reserve, deploying them at just the point where you stop wondering how our ‘heroes’ are going to escape and start wondering how they can stretch the premise out for a whole 90 minutes.

There’s an eerily timeless, lo-fi quality to its portrayal of the urban decay of Detroit that mimics that of “It Follows” but it’s mainly thanks to a towering performance from Stephen Lang as the Blind Man and a gutsy turn from Jane Levy that the film transcends its directorial hubris and encourages you to overlook the plot holes and contrivances and just enjoy the. There’s an admirably unsentimental streak to the storytelling, but just as it looks set to deliver a satisfyingly standalone tale of terror, it sells its soul incredibly cheaply at the end, setting up the possibility of an undeserved and unnecessary sequel.

6/10 Score 6

Star Trek 50th Anniversary: My Top Ten Favourite “Star Trek” Episodes

trek50logoFifty years ago today, Gene Roddenberry’s unprecedented perseverance and belief paid off and, after intriguing the network enough to commission a second pilot, “Star Trek” took to the airwaves. A television and pop culture landmark, fifty years later there’s a legacy of five television series (with a sixth on the way) totalling 725 episodes and thirteen movies. Debate continues to rage on what the best version of “Star Trek” is (for me, it’s a tie between “The Original Series” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) but no matter what, no other crew has passed into the collective cultural consciousness the way Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu and Uhura have (happy 49th anniversary to Chekov by the way).

So in celebration of the 50th Anniversary, here are my top ten favourite* episodes of “Star Trek: The Original Series”.

10. S1E23 “A Taste of Armageddon”

1x23_a_taste_of_armageddon_title_cardSuch a classic combination of the key ingredients of the original “Star Trek”: a heavy dose of moral dilemma steeped in allegory, an unbearably officious Federation ambassador, a devious alien leader and Kirk, Spock and the crew caught in the middle. Like many of the season one episodes, there’s an additional comfort factor thanks to the novelisations by James Blish and this episode’s a doozy as Spock’s mystical mental powers team up with Kirk’s cowboy diplomacy to set the warring worlds to rights.

9. S302 “The Enterprise Incident”

3x04_the_enterprise_incident_title_cardNot the first episode to feature the Romulans, that honour belongs to the tense and claustrophobic “Balance Of Terror” but certainly the most fun, and sexy. Joanne Linville is superb as the sensuous Romulan Commander (never granted a name; the 60’s, eh? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Shatner has great fun first as a distant and driven Kirk then as a disguised Romulan but its Nimoy who gets the lion’s share of the action as he flirts with and manipulates the Romulan Commander with just enough subtlety and guile that you’re kept guessing where Spock’s loyalties really lie until quite late on.

8. S2E03 “The Changeling”

2x08_the_changeling_title_cardA very early placeholder for both The Borg and V’ger, the story of an Earth probe colliding with an alien probe and cobbling together a new mission statement from fragments of programming is just one of “Trek”’s great evil computer stories. It also features one of the best examples of Kirk’s innate ability to talk a computer to death. Another bottle episode, it nevertheless manages to wring quite a bit of drama out of the premise, which boils down to the crew living side by side with a ticking bomb. The bit where Uhura’s academic memories are wiped and its resolution is a bit dumb though.

7. S2E21 “Patterns of Force”

2x23_patterns_of_force_title_cardAnother stalwart trope of “Star Trek” was the allegorical society, from the Yangs and Kohms of “The Omega Glory” to the faux Roman “Bread And Circuses” but for sheer push-the-metaphor-to-breaking-point entertainment value, you can’t beat “Patterns Of Force”. The idea of a sociologist deliberately evoking some elements of Nazi Germany as a force of unity and progress and unwittingly unleashing the terrible nature of the regime is a bold and shocking one but the episode barrels along with a jaunty attitude that it just about gets away with it. The Ekosians make quite “Hogan’s Heroes”-esque Nazi’s but there are still quite edgy scenes of torture. Shatner, of course, gets his shirt off but this time so does Nimoy too, no doubt to the delight of Spirk shippers everywhere.

6. S2E13 “Obsession”

2x18_obsession_title_cardThis list is made of the episodes I love to watch over and over again. Sometimes that means they’re not the most intelligent or even tightest plotted. This slot could have been taken by “The Immunity Syndrome” or “Operation: Annihilate” or even the fantastically bonkers “Wolf In The Fold”. Just great sci-fi action adventures. This one has Kirk at his most fearsome and driven, a whole landing party worth of redshirts biting the dust and a tip top high concept monster in the sickly-sweet smelling sentient cloud who faces a race against a time and a cock-blocking Kirk [apologies if you’ve now got The Chemical Brothers in your head] to return to its home planet to reproduce.

5. S2E06 “The Doomsday Machine”

2x06_the_doomsday_machine_title_cardAnother one which makes this list because it’s a great high concept sci-fi adventure and also because of its place in “Star Trek” extended lore. For one, Commodore Decker is the [potentially apocryphal] father of V’ger-botherer Will Decker from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and for the other it’s got a fantastic sequel in the Next Generation novel “Vendetta”. It’s a superb episode, chock full of great performances not just from the main cast but also guest star William Windom. It was always a thrill to see other Starfleet ships in episodes and seeing two of them face down an unstoppable alien machine. It’s thrilling stuff, all the more impressive given it’s also one of Trek’s famously frugal ‘bottle episodes’.

4. S2E04 “Mirror, Mirror”

2x10_mirror_mirror_title_cardSpock with a beard! What’s not to love? Hugely influential in Trek and beyond, the fully realised parallel universe was an established sci-fi concept already but this arguably brought it into the mainstream. The subversion of Rodenberry’s altruistic and optimistic world view is tremendous and the cast embrace the opportunity to play their polar opposites whilst also making some salient points about imperialism and violence. Ignored by “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Mirror Universe was revisited several times during “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Enterprise” but this original tale is still one of the best trips to this universe.

3. S1E22 “Space Seed”

1x24_space_seed_title_cardPut simply, without this episode, we would never have got “The Wrath Of Khan”. Montalban is great as the genetically engineered superman who plots to take over the Enterprise and while the seduction of his wife-to-be is bogged down in Sixties sexism, it’s the power plays between Kirk and Khan which propel the episode. It may have been adorably naïve in placing the eugenics wars in 1999 but that’s just the times we live in. In the sixties, we thought everything would be possible. By the nineties, we’d settled for grunge music and nihilism. Way to go, humanity!

2. S1E25 “The Devil in the Dark”

1x26_the_devil_in_the_dark_title_cardCould this episode be any more “Star Trek”? It’s one of the few episodes which genuinely does seek out new life and a new civilisation. For a ship ostensibly on a five year mission of deep space exploration, the Enterprise spent an inordinate amount of time running errands between Federation colonies but this visit to the mining colony on Janus IV is something special. The story’s incredibly well written and Shatner, Nimoy and McCoy shine in their roles. The Horta is an adorably low-fi creature design but is also one of the few times Trek has made an effort to portray an alien race without just gluing odds and ends from the craft box to people’s faces. Its themes of fearing the unknown and the importance of understanding and empathising with your supposed enemy reach right to the heart of what makes “Star Trek” complex and compelling. Brilliant stuff.

1. S2E15 “The Trouble with Tribbles”

2x13_the_trouble_with_tribbles_title_cardIn amongst all the drama, thought-provoking sci-fi and courageous social commentary, the original “Star Trek” found the time to do something else really, really well: comedy. Nearly every episode had moments of fun and levity, of course, but sometimes the writers and cast threw caution to the wind and had an absolute ball. Episodes like “I, Mudd” and “A Piece Of The Action” are great comedies in their own right but nothing holds a candle to “The Trouble With Tribbles” for managing to blend the sci-fi shenanigans of “Star Trek” with the sensibilities and staging of a theatrical farce. Shatner is on sparkling form as he faces off against yet another of the Federation’s seemingly endless supply of officious nitwits while the rest of the cast embrace the fluffy, frothy fun too. So good an episode and so strong a story, it was a natural place for “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (always the most affection of Trek’s children) to revisit in the 1996 30th Anniversary episode “Trials and Tribble-ations”.

enterprise_render_buffer_layers

*Favourite, not best – which is why you didn’t see “Arena”, “Amok Time”, “City On The Edge Of Forever”, “All Our Yesterdays”, “Journey To Babel  or “Errand Of Mercy” (I could list about fifty more episodes) on the list. Either reason is why you don’t see “Spock’s Brain” on there though.

In reality, multiple episodes could have been in joint positions on this list and there are a huge number which are crowded just outside a Top 10. What are your absolute favourite episodes of the original “Star Trek” to watch? Let me know in the comments below.

Live long and prosper!

star-trek

The Border Season 1 Review

The BorderWith bleeding edge topicality, Polish thriller “The Border” arrives on DVD this week. Previously shown on Channel 4 this year, the 2014 human trafficking drama is as relevant as it’s ever been.

At the farthest frontier of Europe, on the Polish-Ukrainian border, a unit of Border Patrol guards is targeted by a bomb attack, leaving Captain Wiktor Rebrow (Leszek Lichota) as the unit’s sole survivor. Haunted by the death of his colleagues – including his lover – he finds himself singled out by the determined Public Prosecutor Iga Dobosz (Aleksandra Poplawska) as the chief suspect and must prove his innocence by unravelling the conspiracy which led to his unit’s death.

While the Polish/ Ukrainian setting may stretch the definition of ‘Nordic’ to its breaking point, “The Border” sits comfortably within the Nordic Noir milieu. However, where the dramas for which the genre has become celebrated can sometimes move at a glacial pace, “The Border” benefits from tighter, more propulsive storytelling thanks to its trim six episode structure. Don’t worry though – there are still plenty of scenes of brooding middle distance staring soundtracked by mournful violins for fans of the genre. Bolstered by recurring thematic imagery of hunting, “The Border” manages to shine a light on the harsh realities of life along the border of the European Union and still finds time to throw in the peppering of interpersonal dramas and secrets which keep the characters and the viewers on their toes.

Tackling its subject matter with a discomforting frankness, it’s a brutally honest examination of the xenophobia and misogyny inherent in the borderlands of Poland. What it doesn’t do is demonise or consecrate the immigrants who form the backdrop of the story. Instead, we’re privy and party to the dehumanisation of them through the eyes of the major players in the drama: for the traffickers, they are a commodity, a livestock to be traded; to the border patrol and the Polish state, they are a propaganda weapon and a political headache. As Rebrow begins to peel back the layers, it’s clear that the bears and wolves which inhabit the borderland forests aren’t the only things to be wary of (The original Polish title “Wataha” translates as “The Pack”).

Even these days, in the age of box sets and binge watches, it’s a welcome change of pace to have a such a contained run time for a series, meaning you can fit in “The Border” easily in the space of a single evening. Offering gripping drama, bucolic scenery and some thought provoking themes, this is one Border you’ll want to cross – off your ‘to watch’ list.

Score 77/10

The Border is out now on Nordic Noir & Beyond DVD.

To Paraphrase The Romulans…

The Neutral Zone

Matters more urgent caused my absence. Now, witness the result: blog posts abandoned, expansion of Pokémon GO meme posts everywhere. Yes, I have indeed been negligent, dear reader, but no more. I…am back.

A couple of months ago, I got a new job (in the video game industry woot woot) with a longer commute than I used to have and it’s taken me until now to find the balance between work, family life and blogging (while also fitting in a decent amount of Pokémon hunting). I think I’ve got the measure of it now so fingers crossed I’ll be back to blogging regularly now – which I hope is good news!

Craggus Logo 2 corner flip

Swallows And Amazons (2016) Review

Swallows And AmazonsThere’s something cosy and comforting about “Swallows And Amazons”, the latest adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s celebrated novel of swashbuckling childhood adventure. An impeccable production combined with a wonderful cast give this film a timeless quality and watching it for the first time feels brand new and like revisiting an old favourite simultaneously.

When the Walker family arrive in the Lake District, their happy sailing escapades bring them into contact with the shifty and surly Jim Turner, aka ‘Captain Flint’. As they explore the lake and its island in their boat Swallow, they encounter the Blackett sisters and their boat Amazon. But when danger looms, the two tribes must put aside their rivalry and see off a more sinister foe.

Although there are some changes from the source novel, the film remains true to the outdoorsy, youthful spirit of adventure. It adds a meatier subplot about wartime espionage, although there’s little doubt over who the villains are thanks to the casting of Andrew Scott who, at this stage, reveals himself to be the villain of the piece simply by being on screen. Although the scenery of the Lake District is a beautiful backdrop, it’s the children who make the story work and its credit to them that it works so well given this was – for many of them – their first professional acting role. There’s great support from old hands Harry Enfield, Jessica Hynes, Kelly Macdonald and Rafe Spall but ultimately what you’ll take away from the film is a warm nostalgia for a rose-tinted view of the late 1930s and the freedoms of a childhood lived outdoors and away from constant supervision. Life may never have been like that, of course, but it doesn’t mean you won’t wish it still could be.

8/10 Score 8

Sausage Party (2016) Review

Sausage PartyYou know those hilarious conversations when you’re shooting the shit with your friends, high or drunk or whatever? Now, imagine someone made an animated movie based on them. Welcome to “Sausage Party”.

In a world where food has consciousness, all they ever want is to be chosen and taken to ‘the great beyond’. But when one sausage begins to suspect there’s more to life, he sets of on a quest to find the truth.

Don’t let the cutesy animation and jolly premise fool you for a second, this is a seriously adult cartoon, profane in every sense of the word from the second it begins. It’s peppy opening number (with music by the legendary Alan Menken no less) provides amusement but it immediately draws comparison with “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and its not a comparison that flatters. The one thing “Sausage Party” does is prove just how tricky it is to replicate what Matt Stone and Trey Parker have done for nearly two decades worth of “South Park”.

The story, by long time writing partners Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Jonah Hill, leaves no food as genitals joke left unexplored as the premise is stretched way beyond its breaking point. Luckily, its frenetic and foul-mouthed enough that it distracts from its own inconsistencies as it goes. Food is definitely alive, but so apparently are some other groceries, such as toilet paper and, notably, a douche yet there’s no clear line where ‘life’ ends and inanimate objects begin. There are some undeniably great moments but as a whole, it doesn’t quite hang together, feeling more like a collection of themed sketches, some of which are more successful than others.

The voice cast is pretty good, with Kirsten Wiig, Bill Hader and – astonishingly – Edward Norton turning in MVP performances alongside the ever likeable Seth Rogen as Frank, the heroic sausage.

Some individual great moments but as a whole it doesn’t quite hang together. Its overarching theme of faith and religion provides little food for thought and despite its hilariously tasteless no-holds-barred finale, it fails to linger long on the palate.

5/10 Score 5

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016) Review

Mechanic ResurrectionRivalling “Suicide Squad” for worst editing of 2016, “Mechanic: Resurrection” is a confused and underwhelming mix of lush location footage and studio bound cut scenes which feel more “That Riviera Touch” than a modern action thriller. The pseudo-Bond exotic location hopping feels arbitrary and slapped together in service of a plot which promises much more than it can deliver.

When Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) finds his idyllic exile threatened by his past, he is lured into a globe-spanning series of tasks in order to save the life of hostage.

The film starts brightly enough with a Rio-set kinetic action frenzy that almost promises to be the closest we’ll apparently ever get to another “Crank” but then immediately slams the brakes on for a Thailand-set interlude which brings Michelle Yeoh and Jessica Alba into the mix. While Yeoh plays an old friend of Bishop’s, Alba’s role is that of a plot device to push the turgid plot along and set up the disjointed ‘labours of Hercules’ style challenge.

The action – Brazil and the swimming pool scene from the trailer aside – is lazy and uninspired and despite the efforts of Statham (far from his best efforts, though) the film never really bursts into life. It just gets weirder when Tommy Lee ‘Anything And Everything For a Paycheque’ Jones turns up in a third act twist that’s barely a corner.

Boring, silly and occasionally unintentionally hilarious, “Mechanic: Resurrection” is a poor sequel to the 2011 actioner and one of the sloppiest films of the year.

4/10 Score 4

Nine Lives (2016) Review

Nine LivesI think we can safely say that whatever deal with the Devil Kevin Spacey made to have such a glittering career, his tab has been called in. “Nine Lives” is a film which feels about thirty years out of time, inspired by a much more recent phenomenon.

When driven billionaire Tom ‘Fire’ Brand prioritises his company’s new skyscraper over his daughter’s birthday, the fates conspire to teach him a lesson by trapping him inside the body of the family cat. Meanwhile, his boardroom enemies conspire against him.

There’s a notable amount of talent gone to waste in this French production – and Jennifer Garner and Robbie Amell are in it too. Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld – his first feature since “Men In Black 3”, despite the frothy sitcom trappings, it’s pretty clear from the opening credits that the ‘inspiration’ for this movie is the popularity of cat videos on the internet. Spacey barely breaks a sweat in the role of the driven business executive who learns a humbling life lesson and changes for the better and is probably grateful that he was literally able to phone in about eighty percent of his role.

If you’re not a fan of feline shenanigans on YouTube, you won’t find much else here to capture your interest. The rest of the characters and plots are underdeveloped and underserved by an indolent script which can’t be bothered to get much further than alternatives to litter trays as the height of humour.

It occasionally feels like it wants to be a throwback to eighties screwball comedies like “The Secret Of My Success” or “Brewster’s Millions” but it lacks the energy and coherence to pull it off. The only highlight is Christopher Walken who camps it up marvellously in a performance that suggests he’s just doing the role for the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

It’s just about passable fair for youngsters but it’ll struggle to hold their attention beyond the YouTube heavy opening credits which, to be honest, are the funniest bit of the whole thing.

2/10 Score 2

The Shallows (2016) Review

The ShallowsA minimalist horror thriller which squanders its potential by opting for cliché over creativity, “The Shallows” has some genuine thrills to offer before things go off the deep end.

Mourning the recent loss of her mother and seeking some direction, Nancy (Blake Lively) searches out a secret, hidden beach once visited by her mother before she was born to surf the same waves. However, when she is attacked by a shark, she finds herself marooned on a rocky outcrop, only a few hundred yards from shore while the predator lurks nearby.

Lively delivers a solid performance, keeping the audience invested despite the preposterous inconsistencies which accumulate along the plot like body parts washed up on the beach. The film desperately clings to the wrong-headed and frankly harmful myth of the psychotic killer shark. It hasn’t been this personal since the preternaturally stupid “Jaws: The Revenge”.

Jaume Collet-Serra ham-fistedly builds tension only to splurge it in increasingly silly jump scares and set pieces which are delivered with the subtlety of a bloated whale carcass being a potential point of interest for surfers to explore in shark-prone waters. The camera work rivals “Suicide Squad” for its gratuitous fascination with its leading lady’s derrière but it’s through the audience’s intelligence insulting script that the film commits its worst sins. Leadenly expository foreshadowing is dropped into the script like bricks into wet sand and the severity of the injury and dehydration suffered by Nancy varies wildly as the plot decides how much it needs her to be able to move around at any given time.

Had this had the courage to make the shark incidental to the plot and go for the sheer ironic survival horror of being stranded just offshore but out of the reach of safety, this could have been something really, really tense but when it devolves into an action adventure finale, your eyes will be rolling as much as the surf.

4/10 Score 4

Pete’s Dragon (2016) Review

Pete's DragonDisney’s hot streak of adapting their animated back catalogue into live action movies shows no signs of abating with this deeply poignant reimagining of the 1977 musical comedy.

As the local logging company moves ever more aggressively into the forests of the Pacific North West, they disturb the home of Pete, a ten year old orphan who has been living wild in the woods. But Pete hasn’t been on his own – he’s been protected by Elliot, a dragon. But as Pete makes tentative moves to return to civilisation, some people will stop at nothing to capture and exploit Eliot.

Soulful and emotional, this is a world away from the twee original and the success of the story comes through a remarkable performance from Oakes Fegley as Pete. He’s not quite Jacob Tremblay “Room” good, but he’s pretty darn close and matched by Bryce Dallas Howard who finds herself back amongst the monsters although this time at least she’s wearing sensible shoes. A story of family and friendship, there’s no real villain of the piece although Karl Urban comes closest as the ambitious logger. He’s not so much a bad guy as he is the personification of the American Dream of striking out into the wilderness, discovering the grandeur and beauty of nature. And then shooting it.

Robert Redford adds some grizzled warmth and gravitas but it’s always Pete and Eliot who hold your attention. Co-Writer and Director David Lowery cedes centre stage to the engaging cast and the spectacular scenery, his direction surefooted and unobtrusive.

Free of gimmicks and gratuitous set pieces, this is yet another quietly impressive family movie which has been bulldozed out of the way by the garish, hollow parade of overhyped blockbusters this year. Like “The BFG” and “Swallows And Amazons”, its true worth will become apparent as it takes its place as a family classic in years to come.

8/10 Score 8

Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) Review

Mike And Dave Need Wedding DatesThey say the dose makes the poison and your enjoyment of boisterous comedy “Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates” will depend very much on your individual tolerance of Adam Devine.

Mike and Dave Stangle (Adam Devine and Zac Efron), the poster boys for arrested development, are given an ultimatum leading up to their beloved sister’s wedding: they can’t come unless they bring dates. Looking for nice girls, they place an ad on Craigslist and appear on TV where they come to the attention of Alice and Tatiana (Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza), two young ladies who couldn’t be further from the ideal wedding dates.

By this point, Efron’s an old hand at these kind of movies, with “Bad Neighbours” and “Dirty Grandpa” under his belt, the latter of which also co-starred Aubrey Plaza who comes just as close to stealing this movie as she did that one. Kendrick too has a quirkily charming screen presence and so it’s a shame the movie isn’t allowed to focus on the talented trio because every time it tries, it’s high jacked by the subtle as a foghorn scenery chewing mugger of Adam Devine.

Amusing in small doses and when partnered with the right co-stars, he’s the gratingly squeaky wheel of this so-so comedy, selfishly dominating the antics and either hogging or stepping on the best lines. When he’s not on screen, the others are allowed to shine and the movie is better for it. There’s little else remarkable about “Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates” and its hit and miss collection of quips, awkwardness and gross-out gags mostly average out at okay.

It won’t launch a franchise and you’ll likely forget about it before you’ve even left the cinema but it’s a pretty harmless affair, nowhere near as raunchy or edgy as it could have and perhaps should have been.

5/10 Score 5

Suicide Squad (2016) Review

Suicide Squad CineworldIt wasn’t supposed to be like this. By the time “Suicide Squad” rolled around, we were meant to be primed for a little down ‘n’ dirty fun to counterpoint the portentous deus ex machinations of the Titans of the DC universe duking it out in “Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice”. Instead, things have turned all meta as Warner Brothers find themselves looking to this ragtag bunch of ne’er-do-wells and sideshow freaks to do what Superman and Batman were unwilling or unable to do: save the world [of the DCEU].

In the aftermath of Superman’s death, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), a ruthlessly pragmatic government agent, pulls together a proposal to form a squad of hardened super-criminals and coerce them into serving their country. Waller’s belief that with the right leverage, she can control the uncontrollable is put to the test when Midway City finds itself at the epicentre of a potential apocalypse.

From the very first frame, “Suicide Squad” tries too hard. The writing is terrible, the editing worse and the soundtrack is so archly, cynically aimed at the breakout success enjoyed by “Guardians Of The Galaxy” that in the first five minutes alone we’re treated to not one but four insistently ‘iconic’ tracks as the characters are cat walked before us in a beauty parade as unsubtle as Harley Quinn’s baseball bat.

It’s in such a rush to introduce all the new characters that it seemingly forgets a couple, literally dropping Katana into the film about a third of the way through in such a ham-fisted introduction that you can almost read the scribbled note in the margin of the script saying: ‘shit – we’ve forgotten one. Just have her board the helicopter’.

This is an ugly, garish cut ‘n’ shunt of a film, butchered and twisted into shape in the cutting room rather than through the script or during filming. Like a poorly constructed Frankenstein’s monster, the stitching shows the joins and there’s more than a whiff of studio interference. David Ayer is an excellent filmmaker but seems a little overwhelmed by the challenge of a big effects-heavy tent pole movie which unexpectedly carries the burden of breathing life into a faltering DC Extended Universe. Whatever his vision was, I’m pretty sure it’s not what we’ve had presented: an uncomfortable chimera of Hot Topic aesthetic and base fetishisation of guns and violence. The colour palate is lifted directly from Joel Shumacher’s “Batman And Robin” only thanks to the content, we end up with Batman and robbin’ as the Dark Knight flits in and out of the flashbacks to catch the crooks and remind the audience that this is part of the same story all building up to “Justice League”.

Jumbled and at times incoherent, its fundamental story problem is that the entire plot is recursive to the point of redundancy. Put simply – and without spoiling anything – if Waller doesn’t try to assemble Task Force X, the ‘plot point’ doesn’t happen and there’s no need for Task Force X to sort it all out. None of this is helped by a structure which at times defies belief. The opening montage of character introductions and flashbacks would be tolerable were it not immediately followed by Amanda Waller sitting down and having the same conversation with a different group of people in a different room.

In the hands of a less skilled actress, Waller’s inherent contradictions would derail the movie right from the start but Davis brings such a chilling ruthlessness to it all that you find yourself going along with it all because you’re a little bit afraid of her. Will Smith is better than he has been for years as Deadshot although the character is firmly anchored in his ‘wisecracking rogue’ comfort zone. His supposedly heinous acts are only ever vaguely referenced and he’s never explicitly shown doing anything really bad. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, though, is the only reason the film succeeds at all. Take her out of the mix and all you’re left with is a distastefully dark and violent film full of casual racism, bleak sexism and mean-spirited nihilism. Her performance is so energising and clever, embracing and subverting the genre and gender tropes with a mischievous caprice that’s just delicious. Outside of Waller, Deadshot and Quinn, though, most of the others are unnecessary, either cluttering the film up or bogging it down, summed up in the bar scene (which is edited differently from the trailers) which plays out like a mash-up between “Wreck-It Ralph”’s villain support group scene and the HISHE “Villain’s Pub”.

Leto’s Joker is flat out awful in the handful of trippy scenes and flashbacks he’s given: all the excesses of Nicholson with none of the charm and an annoying habit of trying to mimic the voice and intonation of Ledger’s take on the role but with none of the gravitas. He’s less the Clown Prince of Crime and more the Deranged Regent of Sex Offenders. He’s not helped by being relegated to a sideshow attraction and probably would have made a better primary antagonist for the first outing of the Suicide Squad, presenting an unpredictable but mortal and down-to-earth challenge rather than a mystical, bizarrely “Ghostbusters”-like end of the world scenario against which Waller thinks to send a soldier, a hitman, a drunken boomerang hurler, a cannibal with a severe skin condition and an emotionally unstable psychopath with a baseball bat to sort out.

I do actually believe there is a good “Suicide Squad” movie in here somewhere and I’ll be interested to see if Warner Brothers have the guts (or gall) to offer us a Director’s cut this time round because I find it hard to believe that David Ayer would have brought us such an aimlessly distasteful and dark film where its biggest gag is Batman punching a drowning woman in the face.

Batman presents the film with another problem, because the numerous cameos and references plus the appearance of another soon-to-be “Justice League” member serve to make the stuttering DCEU feel small rather than expansive and the film fails to explain why no other heroes (except Superman) turn up to see if they can help deal with the world-threatening crisis. Perhaps Batman was at home, washing his tights. Again. Add to that a mid-credits stinger which completely undermines one of “Suicide Squad”’s main characters while simultaneously further damaging the reputation of DC’s totemic ‘world’s greatest detective’ and you start to wonder what the hell is going on at WB/ DC?

If the changes and cuts were how the studio reacted to the lacklustre “Batman V Superman” reception, what will they do now? Hopefully “Wonder Woman” is too far down the line for them to dick around with but I bet you the notes are just flying in for the currently filming “Justice League”. Maybe they should have let the guys who marketed this movie actually make the movie?

4/10 Score 4

Pokémon Gone?

Do you remember ‘Draw Something’? It was HUUUGE. It was everywhere, and everyone was playing it. Developed by OMGPop it launched in February 2012 and was downloaded 20 million times in its first five weeks. Just over a month later, the app and its developer were bought out by ‘Farmville’ creators Zynga for $180million. The sale coincided with the peak of the game’s popularity which plummeted shortly afterwards and now it’s a forgotten fad, a footnote in mobile gaming. It’s so past its prime, Sony are probably readying an animated movie based on it right now.

A similar fate might just be awaiting Niantic’s Pokémon Go after a series of self-inflicted gaffs alienating both hardcore gamers and casual users alike. Almost coinciding with the launch in the UK, the Pokémon Go app’s tracking feature broke (the three footprints error), making it nigh on impossible to hunt specific Pokémon nearby because they would all appear equal distances away. With no fix in sight – as the app developers focussed on server stability and an enormous multinational roll out – others stepped in to fill the gap. Some of these relied on user input (and were therefore as reliable as other crowdsourced databases) but some found a way to use Pokémon Go’s APIs and provide real time information on location and types down to the metre.

It wasn’t used by every player but it was used by many and the information eagerly shared with strangers and friends alike as the game’s most welcome and unexpectedly transformative benefit brought everyone out onto the streets of towns and cities.

Rather than fix the three footprints issue, Niantic publicly grumbled about some of the services, such as Pokevision.com and then actively worked to get them to cease their activities. Simultaneously, they removed the tracking function from the game altogether. And here’s the catch. Niantic might think these real time tracking apps were ‘cheating’ but as a casual player and – more importantly – the parent of some eager players, it was invaluable.

I was recently on a business trip in a city I’ve never visited before and as well as staying in a hotel which was right on top of a Pokéstop, was in a great area for going out to catch ‘em all. Rather than any fear or unease at wandering round a strange city at dusk, I must have encountered about a hundred other people in groups, pairs or individually like me, phones held out in front of them like Ray Stanz’ PKE metre, all playing the game. Everyone was friendly, everyone eager to share information on where they’d found this Pokémon or that Pokémon. It was almost magical, the power of this simple little free game to bring people out and together. It’s by far and away the best thing Pokémon Go has achieved.

It’s also been something that we’ve done as a family but my ten year old and three year old can’t spend hours and hours wandering around anywhere and everywhere in the hope of catching Pokémon. And neither can I, I don’t have the time. But, if I know there’s a place we can go together for an hour or so and catch a decent amount of interesting Pokémon then great. And I’ll probably shell out for some coins so we can stock up on lures, incense and spare Pokéballs for good measure. Take that predictability away and suddenly hunting expeditions risk becoming disappointments and disappointment quickly becomes disinterest and the game is forgotten – and I’m certainly not going to spend real money on it. That’s the risk Niantic are facing at the moment. It doesn’t help that they’ve also tinkered with the mechanics of the game making the Pokémon far harder to catch and, like their active user population, much more skittish and likely to run away. That’s the way to get kids into your game – make it much, much more difficult. Bravo.

Pokemon Go

The warning signs are already there. The number of active users peaked on the 14th July and has been declining steadily ever since. Recent patches will probably only accelerate that. They may not care about users much while they’re riding the crest of all this free publicity and the good Summer weather (in the Northern hemisphere at least) but they’ll have to do something more impressive than dropping some Legendaries into the game or just releasing a second or third generation of Pokémon to stop themselves becoming the biggest, quickest fad of 2016.

I don’t want Pokémon Go to stop, but it can’t carry on like this.

Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016) Review

Sharknado-The-4th-Awakens-PosterOkay. Enough already. This one-joke franchise has more than outstayed its welcome and this flabby, facile and unfocussed fourth outing should (but won’t) mark the end of it. From the tediously laboured “Star Wars”-themed opening, the whole thing feels tired and dated. The pre-credits sequence set in Vegas immediately underlines the cheapness of the whole affair when the paparazzi crowd greeting the arrival of the partially plot-relevant tech billionaire numbers in single digits.

Actually, Las Vegas works well as a metatextually grotesque and tacky backdrop to this cheapest and tackiest of franchises. From the very beginning, “Sharknado 4” feels as flat and lifeless as its CGI predators. The joke has long since worn out and the writer has abandoned any attempts at creativity. There’s a sequence where they literally do the exact same thing twice in a row, just with a slightly different type of shark.

Demonstrating a crappy grasp of physics (I won’t even credit it with an awareness of marine biology) realised by crappier special effects, even in the Trumpnado climate of 2016, “Sharknado” manages to plumb new depths of stupid. The dialogue is peppered with plenty of Star Wars dialogue references, none of them clever or witty but the references don’t stop there. With “The Wizard Of Oz”, Stephen King’s “Christine”, “Lavalantula”, “Terminator 2” and even a really left-field Action Comics No. 1 “Superman” reference all thrown into the mix, a film which gleefully brings us bouldernados, oilnados, firenados, lightningnados, hailnados, cownados and even nukenados actually blends everything into a fetid, swirling garbagenado.

Nobody deserves to watch this rubbish, and nobody involved in it deserves to work again.

2/10 Score 2

Jason Bourne (2016) Review

Jason Bourne“Jason Bourne” sees the reluctant super-spy facing his deadliest foe yet: the irrefutable sense of unnecessariness.

When Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) reaches out to an isolated and off-grid David Webb Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), it kicks off a chain of events that leads the CIA to try once again to capture or kill the errant spy. Meanwhile, a secret collaboration between the state and private sector nears its fruition.

In its desperation to find something topical to justify its existence, “Jason Bourne” ends up rehashing the exact same plot McGuffin which propelled “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and – in a  slightly more bloated and boring way – “SPECTRE”, but it does so in a lazy and unfocussed way, failing to land any of its flailing punches on its thematic target.

The whole film reeks of obligation which is hardly a surprise given Damon and director Paul Greengrass’ longstanding reluctance to return to the franchise. Universal’s relentless pursuit of the pair fails to pay dividends though as they both phone it in for this flat and lethargic sequel.

The shakycam gets old really fast, which is the only fast thing about this tedious movie that manages to take the stripped down kinetic action which is Bourne’s trademark and make it feel dull and repetitive. Even the set piece car chase through the streets of Vegas feels monotonous and pointless as the truck ploughs through traffic which is clearly made of flimsy shells. Nothing has weight, from the plot to the props.

Even the usually effervescent Alicia Vikander fails to enliven proceedings and Tommy Lee Jones – who has clearly entered the anything for a payday phase of his career – picks up another cheque for a few days of weary hangdog mumbling.

The Bourne series’ continued reliance on the idea that there are secret black ops projects within projects within projects has become a millstone around its neck, as the idea that the US Government’s intelligence services are constructed like a set of bureaucratic Matryoshka dolls strains credibility at this point. Jason Bourne’s story is done. It was over at the end of “Ultimatum” and the constant grasping for a reason for Bourne to be involved gives this movie a chore identity.

5/10 Score 5

League Of Gods (2016) Review

League Of GodsWith China’s growing importance as an export market for Hollywood, it was inevitable that the Chinese film industry would start to eye the possibility of making some exports of their own.

“League Of Gods”, based loosely on the 16th Century Chinese novel Feng Shen Bang, brings a very modern, Marvel-ous take on the old Chinese legend, reframing the dawn of the ancient Gods as the assembling of a team of superheroes destined to battle the forces of darkness.

When King Zhou of Shang is seduced by Daji, an evil spirit posing as one of his concubines, it’s up to Jiang Ziya (Jet Li) to assemble a group of super-powered warriors and form them into a team to save the surrounding lands from the black dragon.

There’s a breezy, gleeful shorthand quality to the narrative, especially for Western tastes. There’s no pause to explain or exposition provided no matter how bizarre the development, you just kind of have to go with it, retrospectively seeing the story take shape. Never mind foreshadowing, you’ll be pining for shadowing, especially during some of the less impressive CGI sequences.

There’s a Lucasian sense of restraint when it comes to CGI in “League Of Legends” and while much of the work is breathtaking, some of it is a bit lacking. Visually ambitious in the way only possibly the Wachowskis have attempted, its operatic theatricality evokes “Dune”, “Lord Of The Rings”, “Men In Black” and even 1980’s “Flash Gordon” and it could be argued it’s the movie 1987’s “Masters Of The Universe” wishes it was.

Mangled slightly in translation, the dialogue is a bit hit and miss and you’ll be questioning the legitimacy of the subtitles more than the script but there’s a joyous, mischievous sense of humour that will appeal to anyone who enjoyed the 1978 series “Monkey”. Not so much ending on a cliff-hanger as simply stopping mid-story, there’s still a ton of fun to be had with this crazy slice of ancient Chinese mythology. After all, when a movie’s biggest set piece involves a roller-skating baby fighting off an army of mermaids with the power of flatulence and urination, what’s not to love?

6/10 Score 6

The Legend Of Tarzan (2016) Review

The Legend Of TarzanSettling into the feature director’s chair for the first time since wrapping up the “Harry Potter” series, David Yates tackles another giant of English literature as he swaps the Dark Lord for the Lord of the Jungle in a movie that may as well have been titled “Tarzan Begins”.

Years after leaving Africa and returning to his ancestral seat of Greystoke, John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) is pressed into service by His Majesty’s Government to visit the Belgian Congo at the invitation of the King of Belgium but refuses until persuaded by American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson). However the invitation is part of an elaborate scheme devised by the malevolent Belgian governor Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) and only Tarzan will be able to stop his relentless exploitation of the natives.

There’s more than a whiff of Christopher Nolan in this bracingly action-adventure take on the tale of the young boy raised in the jungle. With a neat line in mismatched buddy comedy, Jackson and Skarsgård develop a pretty good chemistry and Margot Robbie’s Jane is one of the least clichéd realisations of the role, eschewing the feeble damsel in distress trope for a bolder, feistier take. Waltz brings all of his villainous, moustache-twirling charm to the role of Rom, giving him far more character than his recent turn as Blofeld.

Despite an uneven pace and some variable quality CGI, “The Legend Of Tarzan” manages to pack in some great Tarzan action set-pieces while giving the age-old tale a refreshing modernity despite its period settings. The more troubling aspects of colonial Africa are glossed over somewhat but not in service of any agenda other than to deliver a ripping yarn of the likes we haven’t seen in the cinema for a while. Not quite the chest-beating king of the cinematic beasts the makers may have hoped, the source material hasn’t have been perfectly revived but the high calibre cast get it over the finish line with a modest flourish, more than enough to shine in this lacklustre blockbuster season.

7/10 Score 7

The BFG (2016) Review

The BFGShining like the most gloriumptious bottled dream, “The BFG” bestrides the lacklustre summer blockbuster season like a magical Colossus of Rhodes. A welcome big screen return for the wonderful imagination of Roald Dahl and an even more welcome return for the Spielberg of old, the master of childlike wonder and spellbinding fantasy.

When orphan Sophie is kidnapped in the dead of night by a gigantic cloaked figure, she fears the worst. But it turns out she has been befriended and rescued from her lonely life by the Big Friendly Giant, who catches dreams and brings them to the good children of the world. When the other mean giants discover the BFG is hiding a ‘human bean’, Sophie and the BFG hatch a plot to deal with the horrible giants once and for all.

As you’d expect from Spielberg, “The BFG” is a feast for the eyes and thanks to the late, great Melinda Matheson’s warm and witty script, Dahl’s gift for blending darkness and light into a frothily affecting story has never been better realised on screen (only an anachronistic reference to ‘Ronnie & Nancy’ feels oddly out of place). Mark Rylance’s motion capture performance is utterly perfect and the effects work is beautifully intricate, giving substance and credibility to the idea that giants could walk amongst us without being detected.

Unfairly overlooked and far too good for the crowded summer blockbuster slugfest, “The BFG” would have been better suited to a festive slot in December where audiences could have escaped the winter chill to bask in the warmth of its storytelling. Beguiling and sweet, this gentle movie captivated both Cragglings, capturing the attention of a three year old and ten year old as easily as it entranced their parents.

10/10 Score 10

Star Trek Beyond (2016) Review

Star Trek BeyondWith JJ off in a galaxy far, far away and after more than a couple of false starts, “Star Trek” warps back into cinemas just in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the pop culture icon. But, after the “Into Darkness” debacle, what have Starfleet’s finest got in store for us?

Half way through its five year mission to explore strange, new worlds the USS Enterprise arrives at a remote Federation outpost. When a survivor of a doomed expedition pleads for Starfleet help in rescuing their crew from a nearby unexplored nebula, Kirk accepts the assignment. However, shortly after they emerge from the cloud of dust and rubble they are brutally attacked by a swarming fleet of small ships and marooned on the planet below, at the mercy of the ruthless and mysterious Krall.

It’s a sad state of affairs when we’ve reached the third movie of the recent “Star Trek” reboot series (and thirteenth movie overall) that instead of celebrating the creativity, originality and longevity of Gene Rodenberry’s ground breaking TV series, we have to talk about the egregious liberties the writers have taken with the identity, nature and canon of one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. I am of course talking about Chris Pine’s bro/moan-tic James T Kirk. The first five to ten minutes of “Star Trek Beyond” are an excruciating encapsulation of everything wrong with this realisation of Kirk as our whiny manchild captain records a captain’s log of how everything in space is boring and lonely interspersed with observations that make it sound like he runs his ship like a horny frat house. I don’t know whether it’s the writers, the directors or Pine himself but there’s something so unlikable about Kirk the way he’s played that it beggars belief that they’ve let it run on into a third film. Thankfully, “Star Trek Beyond” may be the film where we reach that promised land of Kirk’s journey finally bringing him much closer to the character we know and love.

Pegg and Jung’s script may tend towards the gnomic when it comes to dialogue but in terms of character beats, apart from the awful missteps in its opening preamble, it delivers in spades. Much more even handed than either of its predecessors, once the Enterprise has been ravaged by Krall’s swarm of attack ships, the crew is split up and up-till-now overlooked characters get a chance to shine. It’s in the mix-and-matching pairing up of characters that Pegg and Jung really succeed. Having been so dominant in the earlier films, Quinto’s Spock and Saldana’s Uhura are split up and paired with Karl Urban’s McCoy and Sulu (John Cho) respectively. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, underlining just what a tragic loss his untimely death is to the franchise, gets more to do in “Beyond” than both previous films put together as he buddies up with Kirk, while Scotty gets the pick of the draw as he encounters the feisty and fascinating Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Of course, in amongst all the sci-fi shenanigans, Sulu also gets a headline grabbing backstory which – thankfully – ends up being more than a token single scene box ticking exercise and actually lends the resultant action and adventure some much needed real life stakes for our intrepid heroes.

The plot itself, and the villain of the piece, are generally less well developed but Idris Elba certainly pours as much menace and malevolence as he can into the roll and honestly once it get’s going and the Enterprise is gone, you’ll be having so much fun the plot holes (why would Starfleet build such a large and important strategic space station near a nebula which was and remains completely unexplored?) and oddly disjointed elements won’t really bother you too much.

Spock’s hair, on the other hand, might bother you just a little. Whether it’s a wig or not, Spock’s locks have never looked so shoddy and slapdash as they do here. Given Spock’s emotional journey through the film, especially the acknowledged-in-universe passing of Spock prime, I’m inclined to give the makers the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a deliberate move: ever so slightly untidy hair being the Vulcan equivalent of sitting around in sweatpants crying and eating ice cream straight from the tub.

That’s the only thing that should upset you visually though, because its greatest triumph is in its looks. “Star Trek Beyond” is beautiful to behold and looks unlike any other “Star Trek” movie. There are giant sci-fi concepts on screen as background detail to the story from the multi-gravitational Yorktown star base to the drop dead gorgeous gravitational lensing at Warp speed, director Justin Lin brings a visual panache that rivals films like “Interstellar” or “Gravity” for ambition and awe.

Plot kicks in and once everyone is separated it’s a much better film. The destruction of the Enterprise is also stunningly realised and although some of the money shots have been given away in the trailers, the ships annihilation is so utterly, relentlessly comprehensive that there’s plenty left for you to see in the film itself. Gloriously not Earth-bound, some of the planetary locations look a little set-like. But the rocks spray painted gold feel like a homage to the studio-bound planet surfaces of the original series rather than cheapness on behalf of the makers of the film.

As befits a film released on the 50th anniversary, there are plenty of references to the origins of the franchise (an oblique shout-out to “Who Mourns For Adonis?” and a little bit of love for the oft unfairly maligned “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” being my favourites) although given that the reboot effectively wiped out all but the dullest Trek from canon *cough* “Star Trek: Enterprise” *cough* it trades heavily on that history, especially in its finale.

Easily the best of the reboot “Trek” films, “Star Trek Beyond” does what good “Star Trek” has always done: offer hope for the future. Oh, it still has some serious problems to overcome: Pine and Quinto have zero chemistry – unlike Sulu and his newly revealed family – so the Kirk/ Spock dynamic continues to trade solely on the work and rapport of Shatner and Nimoy and overall this brave, all-new timeline continues to lean too heavily on the audience’s prior knowledge of events and history rather than earning the emotional investments it seeks to cash in on. But the future at least feels bright again; maybe not bright enough that we gotta wear shades, but we’re certainly no longer plunging into Darkness.

7/10-A Trek 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now You See Me 2 (2016) Review

Now You See Me 2The four horsemen are back – at least three of them are – in this breezy and amiably clever follow-up to 2013’s surprise heist movie hit.

Having laid low since their takedown of TV Sceptic Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the Horsemen find themselves growing restless. However, when they are activated by their mentor and sent on a mission they find themselves outmanoeuvred and exposed by a dangerous new opponent: Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) who seeks to use the Horsemen for his own ends.

“Now You See Me 2” is a welcome return to the world of high concept high illusion heist capers, complete with the usual bag of tricks, flourishes and not a little prestige. The high calibre cast seem to be having a great time as they twist and turn their way through the plot, with Daniel Radcliffe looking exceedingly pleased to be casting off his ‘teenage magical persona’.

With the origins of the group out of the way, the second film dives further into the world of the mysterious magical organisation ‘The Eye’ and in sending the Horsemen on assignments which involve meticulous planning, deception, dexterity and sophisticated tools of the trade, the whole package ends up embodying the spirit and fun of the “Mission: Impossible” TV series far more than the increasingly Tom Cruise ego-driven movies do. “Now You See Me” is one of those movie franchises I would 100% watch a TV spin-off of, as the whole premise begs for a ‘mission of the week underpinned by a series-long arc’ kind of approach.

Of course, to fit the tighter budgets of TV, we’d probably have to let the cast go which would be a shame as they’re all pretty great here, especially Lizzy Caplan who has the biggest job to do establishing herself as a new character in amongst all the references and callbacks to the first film. Thankfully, the breezy tone helps both the action and the characters from getting tangled up by the sheer fantasticality of it all, leaving a surprisingly focussed multi-layered thriller.

Of course, if you weren’t wowed by the first movie, you’ll find little here to change your mind although it’s more out and out fun than its predecessor. If, however, you were a fan of the first, you’ll enjoy the cleverness of the twists and turns and – like me – marvel at the film’s ability to trick you once again with the advice that the closer you look, the less you’ll see. In a summer of flaccid and underwhelming sequels, “Now You See Me 2” manages to deliver exactly what you want: all the fun and intrigue of the first one, with a neat twist or two.

7/10 Score 7

Ghostbusters (2016) Review

Ghostbusters 2016I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’ve remade “Ghostbusters” with an entirely new cast? It’s been pretty low-key and uncontroversial with almost no internet chatter around it so it might have slipped past you. Jokes. It’s been everywhere, dividing movie fandom in a way that makes the sectarian DC/ Marvel schism look like a little local difficulty.

When estranged friends and physicists Erin Gilbert (Kirsten Wiig) and Abbey Yates (Melissa McCarthy) are unexpectedly reunited thanks to a book they wrote and a local haunting, they quickly discover the world of the paranormal is far more real, and far closer to breaking through than they ever thought. Teaming up with eccentric engineer Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) they find themselves standing as New York’s last line of defence against an invasion by the spirit realm.

The film opens with a spooky set-piece which not only instantly invokes the eerie library scene of the very first movie but, by centring around a foreboding portrait and vast quantities of gloopy slime also homages the flawed and lacklustre sequel. It foreshadows an ongoing compulsion the film has to revisit the touchstones of the previous movies at the expense of creating a distinct identity of its own. After the promising opening, which manages to create an effective air of creepiness and tension, the film shifts down a gear and takes far too long to build up momentum once again as it introduces us not only to the central characters of this new iteration but also the seemingly unending parade of comical background characters, all of whom seem to get their ‘bit’ to do.

This film has had to deal with an incredible amount of pre-emptive flack prior to its release and it’s heartening that this seems to have provoked defiance in the filmmakers rather than a desire to appease. The downside of this defiance is that everyone in the movie is ‘on’. Maximum schtick, all the time, resulting in the undoubtedly talented and likeable cast tripping over each other in an attempt to ‘steal’ the scene or the whole movie (Kate McKinnon comes closest to actually doing it). The action sequences (sluggish and overly reliant on CGI as they are) end up being welcome respites from the relentless quirky cacophony of funny ‘bits’ being smashed together.

Wiig and McCarthy are actually a little subdued at the beginning of the movie but are forced to up their game once McKinnon, Jones and Hemsworth start to make their presence felt. Nobody’s helped by an unevenly paced script which is further distorted by accommodating a disruptive ego-driven super cameo from Bill Murray who clearly demanded more to do than the cute nods given to Aykroyd, Hudson, Potts and Weaver peppered throughout the film. The plot itself has some interesting twists to add to the Ghostbusters lore but it’s buried under all the performances and never gets enough room to breathe, largely thanks to an anaemic villain in Neil Casey who rarely feels like anything more than a henchman. It manages to have some effective horror moments scattered among the comedy but never manages to build up the sense of peril which both previous movies – yes, even “Ghostbusters II” – managed to. The effects are, as you’d expect, much better this time round but the action isn’t as engaging and it’s mostly due to the movie’s overt focus being comedy rather than adventure. There’s also some signs of a fairly brutal editing process with a central finale set-piece featuring a possessed Hemsworth leading the assembled police and troops in a song and dance number (a la “The Mask”) cut completely from the movie and exiled to the closing credits.

Ultimately, Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is far better than the doomsayers (and worse) were predicting but it’s not the triumphant, feel-good summer blockbuster some of us were hoping for – if only to confound those very same vitriolic trolls. It’s good, but not great. All the ingredients are there, it just needs to be confident enough of its own validity to not try so hard next time around.

6/10 Score 6

Ghostbusters II (1989) #Rediscovered

“Ghostbusters II” is the sequel nobody wanted to make, and boy does it show. It betrays the ending of the first film in a worse way than “The Matrix Reloaded” does. If you’re currently girding your loins to decry and condemn the unnecessary remaking of the original 1984 classic “Ghostbusters”, you might want to start with the 1989 retread.

#Rediscovered Ghostbusters 2

When I was young, I was always a little impatient with the set-up origin parts of movies. Donner’s “Superman” takes its sweet time getting to the tights and flights stage and even “Star Wars” takes a little while to get to the good stuff which is why I tended to prefer “Superman II” and “The Empire Strikes Back” because the explanations were out of the way and you could get on with the action. “Ghostbusters II” throws this all out of the window and goes out of its way to put the characters and even the world they live in back to where they were before the original film started and straight away, Mertmas is disappointed. Like 10 year old me (who has, at least, since learned to appreciate the craftsmanship of Donner’s work and the visual splendour of the early scenes of “Star Wars”), he’s a bit thrown by the abrupt let-down, especially after the bright opening of the film with its clever foreshadowing of the slime’s psychic origins and the genuine creepiness of the runaway pram but it’s all for naught once we reach the kids party.

It paves the way for a cynical and lazy retelling of the first film’s story, complete with a stressed out mayor and a pushy city hall bureaucrat (Kurt Fuller filling in for William Atherton’s Walter Peck this time). Even if you can get past the fact that it simply doesn’t make sense for events to have unfolded in the way they would need to for the sequel’s opening premise to work (After the near-Armageddon of the original film, the Ghostbusters are sued into oblivion and all paranormal activity simply ceases? Nobody else enters the marketplace? The world over?). It’s outrageously stupid and insulting but still you could overlook it if the film had performances with the energy and chemistry of the first one. Unfortunately Peter MacNicol is just conspicuously weird and painfully unfunny from his first appearance. There’s none of the skilful comedy of Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully to the character which is a pity given he’s effectively an OTT version of the accountant who returns for this sequel only to be painfully underused in a role which looks like it ended up on the cutting room floor. MacNicol’s performance is, in fact, pretty much a dry run of his Renfield which he would deliver in Mel Brooks’ “Dracula: Dead And Loving It” six years later. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s not meant to. In Vigo (Wilhelm von Homburg), at least, the film has an imposing focal villain (thanks in large part to the dubbed voice by Max Von Sydow) but he’s constantly overlooked and side-lined in favour of anonymous rivers of slime. Just because it helps the Kids’ Choice Awards make a big splash doesn’t mean it makes a good movie villain.

Their parties and their choice awards aren’t the only way kids compromised “Ghostbusters II” – the successful Saturday morning cartoon takes a heavy toll on the movie too. There’s a toothlessness to the comedy and the horror elements which gave the original its edge are dialled way, way back this time. From the height of Harold Ramis’ quiff to the cutesier designs for the ghosts and ghouls, the aesthetic of “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon series looms large throughout the film. If you don’t believe me, just ask poor Annie Potts who receives one of cinema’s worst makeovers just to look more like the cartoon. She’s not the worst treated original cast member, though. That accolade belongs once again to Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zedmore. Absent for huge chunks of the movie, when he is there he’s often treated shabbily, for example the courtroom scene (which clearly has scars from kid-friendly rewrites), he flees with the rest of the crowd instead of helping the guys battle the Scoleri brothers. There are hints here and there of a snarkier wit trying to get through, mostly in Egon’s dialogue – which I like to think was a small, deliberate rebellion by co-screenwriter Harold Ramis against the tonal shift which damages the film quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for a moment that “Ghostbusters” is not for kids. Of course it is. The original movie was definitely aimed at the lucrative family market but it didn’t talk down to it audience, even when dropping in the odd sly joke for the adults (compare the phantom fellatio of Ray’s dream to the coy non-sequitur of Egon apparently ‘sleeping’ with the mood slime). “Ghostbusters II” patronises and panders instead of offering something new or different or better. Even the warmed over romance between Dana and Venkman feels forced and artificial because they’re so patently into each other right from the beginning that the idea they split up in the first place doesn’t make sense.

There are fun moments, of course, but they’re mostly pale imitations of sequences from the original. in Bobby Brown’s ‘On Our Own’, it delivers a song which will not the equal of Ray Parker Jr’s original is at least pretty good in its own right. In the end, there’s just about enough to mollify a desire for more adventures of Peter, Ray, Egon and Winston but there’s no escaping it’s a flat and lifeless affair. The clearest indication is that immediately after it’s finished, Mertmas wants to watch the original again and since we’ve watched them both, he’s only ever mentioned watching the original one again.

In my last #Rediscovered review, I described “Ghostbusters” as a lightning in a bottle film. The makers of that film weren’t able to recapture the spirit (pun intended) of the original so I’m open minded but not optimistic about a whole new cast and crew having a go. Perhaps if they do something new or different with it, there may be a way but as “Ghostbusters II” painfully shows, if you’re just setting out to try and retell the exact same story, it isn’t going to work. I ain’t afraid of no remakes, but I’m not all that keen on them either.

5/10 Rediscovered 5

Grease – The South Downe Musical Society Production #Review

2016 GreaseWhere the film musical famously pushed Danny and Sandy to the foreground arguably at the expense of many of the supporting characters, the South Downe Musical Society’s production of “Grease” delivers a much more ensemble approach to this cheeriest and cheesiest of musicals. Thankfully, alongside Danny (Perry Ralls) and Sandy (Hannah Ali), the cast packs the main characters with an abundance of energy and personality, broadening the story to encompass the senior year hijinks and entanglements of the rest of the Pink Ladies and T-Birds, especially the adorkable sweetness of Emily Rennick’s Jan and Matt Sackman’s Roger.

Director Helen Stoddart makes sure the show makes fantastic use of the Ferneham Hall space, bringing the audience right into the action and, if you’re lucky enough to have tickets for the flat surface area (as I did), you’ll have Danny, Sandy and even Eugene rocking and a-rolling all around you. The costumes are great and while I’d like to have seen a little more period authenticity when it came to hair styles, the music, choreography and vocals are absolutely on point. From Rizzo’s (Kimberley Harvey) powerful and heartfelt rendition of ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ to the fizzy ensemble fun of ‘We Go Together’ nearly all your favourite songs are here (‘Sandy’ being the only notable exception). Perhaps the crowning achievement (or should that be halo?) is Steve Reading’s interpretation of Teen Angel, bringing us a knowingly fabulous performance that’s half Greg Wise from ‘Walking On Sunshine’ and half Liberace.

Despite a few corners being cut here and there in terms of story, this is one of the best amateur productions I’ve seen and one of my favourite ever productions of “Grease” making up for what it lacks in lavish production values with joy and moxie. Vibrant, breezy and wackily immersive, it’s one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had in a theatre.

The production runs at Fareham’s Ferneham Hall until Saturday 9th July and there are still some tickets available.

8/10 Score 8

Central Intelligence (2016) Review

Central IntelligenceAre you a fan of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? Sure you are. How could you not be? He’s cinema’s reigning charisma champion. Having helped to reinvigorate the “Fast And Furious” franchise, Journeyed ‘2’ The Mysterious Island and held the San Andreas Fault together with his bare hands, now he’s out to rock the world of buddy movies.

A forthcoming high school reunion is a source of dread for former big man on campus Calvin ‘The Golden Jet’ Joyner (Kevin Hart). In the intervening twenty years since being idolised and voted most likely to succeed, he’s ended up a moderately successful accountant. Deciding not to go, Calvin is contacted by someone called Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson) who claims to be an old school friend. After a wild night out, it turns out that Bob is not only a CIA operative but that he needs Calvin’s help to save the world.

“Central Intelligence” is a spirited and good-natured attempt to channel the energy and attitude of eighties action comedies, albeit their more jovial sequels rather than the original edgier versions. It owes far more to Tony Scott’s higher octane “Beverly Hills Cop 2” than to Martin Brest’s original and likewise its overt comic edge is much more “Lethal Weapon 2” than Murtaugh and Riggs’ first outing. There’s actually not that much action in the movie – all the best bits are in the trailer – but the film succeeds mainly on the chemistry and charisma of its leads; Kevin Hart’s frenetic restlessness balancing out nicely against Johnson’s surprisingly sweet muscle-bound geek. It’s a good job the leads are so watchable because the plot is almost incidental to the high-jinks, poorly thought out, superficially explained and with a twist that you can almost see coming from the opening credits.

The film’s main stumble is actually in its anti-bullying message. Both the film and its trailer rely heavily on the image of an obese teenage Dwayne Johnson with a penchant for En Vogue growing up into ‘The Rock’ after humiliation at the hands of some vicious high school bullying. Instead of finding a better way to resolve that narrative thread (although Johnson brings interesting aspects of it to his entire performance), it falls back on the tired and counter-productive trope that the way to punish bullies is by becoming an even bigger, stronger bully. It’s exactly the same dumb decision Marvel made with their ‘Captain America’ anti-bullying cover variant a couple of years ago. Seriously? One of the character’s defining attributes is he carries a SHIELD and they really couldn’t think of a better way for him to protect the kid from being bullied than threatening worse violence?

Funny and sweet, if a little light on plot and big action, “Central Intelligence” has charm to spare but it’s all a bit forgettable although it does whet the appetite for further Hart/ Johnson collaborations in the future.

5/10 Score 5

Ice Age: Collision Course (2016) Review

Ice Age Collision CourseThere’s a tendency among long running movie series – especially those which have no business being there – to launch into outer space. And so, in its fifth and conspicuously tired outing, the “Ice Age” franchise looks to the heavens for salvation.

When Scrat (the spiritual descendant of Wile E Coyote) accidentally reactivates a buried alien spacecraft in his continuing quest to bury his nuts, he sets in motion a hilarious chain of events which threaten to bring asteroidal doom raining down on Sid, Diego, Manny and the gang unless Buck can figure out a way to save them.

To be fair, I don’t actually have much of a quarrel with the alien spaceship part of the plot – after all, it’s a nice call back to the very first “Ice Age” movie where the gang pass by one buried in the ice (and whatever happened to the humans from the first movie anyway? The franchise has completely forgotten about them).

Unfortunately, the reminder of the original movie (and it’s pretty darn good sequel) only serves to further emphasise how far this series has [continental] drifted from its roots. The characters have each arrived at the end point of their journeys so there’s nothing interesting for the original characters to do. Even Manny and Ellie’s angst over their daughter Peaches’ life choices is a rerun of the driving character arc from the previous film, 2012’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift”.

There’s a slapdash feel to the whole thing, like the principal cast each wrote and recorded their own dialogue separately and it was then mashed into one movie in the editing suite. Whenever the action starts to falter, another one-note character will be thrown into the mix or they’ll trot out some gophers to perform some sub-Minions shenanigans to distract the audience.

There’s an awful cameo from Twitter’s resident Grinchy movie science pedant Neil deGrasse Tyson to lend a veneer of technobabble scientific credibility to the utterly nonsensical McGuffin of magnets, crystals and a fountain of youth run by – wait for it – Shangri Llama [slow hand clap] but it’s Simon Pegg’s Buck who takes the prize for most non sequiturs in the service of simply moving the story along.

There’s little here for all but the littlest cinemagoers who’ll like the bright colours and may not yet be weary of the tired antics of Sid the Sloth. It all ends, of course, with the obligatory pop music singalong to complete the lazy tick box approach to animated sequels, “Ice Age: Collision Course” makes a good case for the franchise’s extinction even if it does feature more realistic dinosaurs (feathers!) than “Jurassic World”.

4/10 Score 4

Ghostbusters (1984) #Rediscovered

Nearly every Friday night, Mertmas and I settle down for ‘Movie Night’, one of the highlights of the week. Usually we’ll watch something I loved when I was his age or work our way through a recent franchise to get him up to speed for an upcoming new release. Recently, we managed to do both simultaneously…

#Rediscovered Ghostbusters

“Ghostbusters” is one of those ‘lightning in a bottle’ films where virtually every single ingredient works perfectly. The finished product is such a well-crafted comedy horror – without short-changing either genre – that I’d be tempted to say it’s the kind of film that just wouldn’t get made today if it weren’t for the fact that they have made one and it’s coming out in a couple of weeks. Whatever its merits, though, I doubt the remake/ reboot/ whatever will be able to tread the fine line between adult and family friendly as the original.

The cold open of the film, in the New York Public Library, is pure horror movie tropes, without a hint of the comedy to come. It’s only when Ray Parker Jr’s peerless theme song kicks in that we’re reassured we’re not watching a really scary movie. Brilliantly, the film then immediately brings us a scene of pure comedy as Peter Venkman (Murray) conducts a dubiously lecherous psychic experiment. Set up as a classic ‘origin’ tale, we’re introduced to our three heroes as they undertake their first proper adventure and it’s in the dialogue and performances that we quickly get to understand and know the sardonic Venkman, the bookish and intellectual Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and the excitable Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd). The story unfolds pretty much as a straight action horror movie would, although anyone who protests it’s not a comedy film is just crazy. It’s through the performances of the cast (most of the film was not performed as scripted and much of the dialogue especially Murray’s was ad-libbed) and the skilful direction of Ivan Reitman that the tone stays light and the action is fun rather than frightening.

It’s not just the three leads who are perfectly cast, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver are spot on too and while Ernie Hudson might be short changed by the script (heavily rewritten after Eddie Murphy passed on the role), Winston Zedmore is still a lynchpin character, keeping the Ghostbusters team grounded and relatable in amongst all the scientific gobbledegook and technobabble. Even William Atherton adds to the fun as the odious and officious Walter Peck, five years before he’d reprise the characteristics as Richard Thornburg in “Die Hard” (alongside Reginald VelJohnson who also pops up briefly in “Ghostbusters”).

Watching it as a ten year old, the film was literally amazing – spooky, funny, silly and thrilling. Packed with amazing special effects (which still hold up pretty well today although the increasing resolution standards can be cruel to the spectacular matte work done in the 70s and 80s). Watching it now as an adult, it’s a different but equally great film (this time the most terrifying moment is the throwaway gag about one of the mortgages Ray takes out is at 19%). There are so many memories packed in the film, and not just the big set-pieces but in the small details too, like the way the rug crumples up against the base of the chair as Dana is dragged through her apartment towards the fridge (a moment which genuinely shocked Mertmas). Ad-libbed or not, the dialogue is consistently pithy and memorable and every single scene adds to the story; not a frame is wasted.

It’s actually a tough film to review because it’s so good in virtually every aspect, it’s tricky to find any purchase to hang a critique off of. For once, nostalgia is absolutely spot on – it’s as good now as it was then. It’s given us one of the best movie nights since we did the original “Star Wars” saga. “Ghostbusters” has instantly become one of Mertmas’ favourite movies and he’s excited for the new one coming out this year. Next up: “Ghostbusters II”…

10/10 Rediscovered 10

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) Review

Independence Day ResurgenceJust in time for the phrase to become politically loaded and potentially tarnished, “Independence Day” returns to cinemas with a sequel two decades in the making. As Earth prepares to celebrate 20 years since the last alien invasion, it falls to current President Lanford (Sela Ward) to reset the counter because – whoops, apocalypse – here they come again.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to dismiss and deride the original “Independence Day” but it’s a crowd-pleasing effects-driven movie that – for better or worse – redefined the summer blockbuster afresh in the mid-1990s in the way that “Jaws” and “Star Wars” did in the 1970s. One of the secrets of its success is that while it wraps itself in the trappings of a sci-fi war movie, it’s really a lavish disaster movie and is structured accordingly, introducing pockets of disparate characters who eventually cross paths and join forces to save the day. It’s a hokey, sentimental and unashamedly patriotic slice of prime American cheese. The cast’s performances lift the characters above the superficial writing and give it real heart, overcoming the story’s shortcomings and plot logic and huge debt to H G Wells. Basically, the whole thing’s so goofy and adorable that you can’t help but get swept up in all the feel-good fun.

“Independence Day: Resurgence”, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t understand what made the first film work and so tries to replicate everything it possibly can with little success. Emmerich has long been trying to self-style himself as the new Spielberg and here he makes one of the same fundamental mistakes as his idol. If Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” taught us anything, it’s that Jeff Goldblum’s quirky and brilliant scientist sidekick characters make terrible lead characters but in the absence of Will Smith (more on that in a minute) Goldblum’s David Levison steps up to take centre stage with the exact same result as when Ian Malcolm did the same on Isla Sorna. The invaluable Judd Hirsch is back too as David’s father but his entire sub plot is a leftover from the franchise disaster movie roots and feels clumsy and awkward, although nowhere near as awkward as the utterly unacknowledged and unexplained (on screen at least) absence of his wife Constance (Margaret Coin).

Someone, somewhere obviously made a note that the characters were one of the best things about the original because every some effort has been made to bring all most of them back. Smith famously passed on returning when “After Earth” soured his (and our) appetite for Big-Willy-Style space shenanigans. In truth the film must have been quite different when he was on board because it’s hard to see where he would have featured in the movie as presented, although it conceivably would have been about twenty minutes shorter because they could have removed all the scenes where someone talked about him, referenced him or looked meaningfully at a picture of him. Without even being in the movie, Will Smith became the franchise’s Poochie.

Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is back too but seems decidedly fragile and an attempt to repeat his wondrously rousing speech stunt from the first film falls flat narratively and performance wise due to his oddly high pitch. There are returns for other supporting characters too – Vivica A Fox is brought back and basically given the role and scene that Boomer the dog had in the original, Maika Monroe takes over for Mae Whitman as President Whitmore’s daughter (not because she wasn’t asked, she declined to audition for the role) and they even wheel out a near unrecognisable Robert Loggia for a disturbing death’s door cameo. Finally, the zany Doctor Okun wakes from his 20 year coma in near-perfect physical health to deliver the film’s only real genuinely sweet moment as he’s reunited with his spouse.

The new cast members, Jessie T Usher (who plays a character who might as well have been called ‘Your father was a great man, son’), Liam Hemsworth and Angelababy all serve to fill the gap left by Smith’s departure and there’s not quite enough character to go around, leaving them blandly interchangeable. They’re all fighter pilots, you see, which brings us to another of the problems the film has. The original was a disaster movie. The sequel, on the other hand, is as generic a sci-fi action movie as it’s possible to conceive of, part satirically neutered “Starship Troopers”, part “Space: Above And Beyond – The Movie”. It wants to be something new and exciting but it still has the baggage of the original to sort through before it can do what it wants. At least there’s a more international flavour to the heroes this time as the producers seek to milk the lucrative Chinese box office.

The Empire Strikes Back” has often been described as having a middle, middle and a middle but it’s a paragon of contained storytelling compared to “Resurgence”. This film exists for one reason only, and that’s to take us from a story that’s already been told to the one Emmerich wants to tell us in “Independence Day 3” (If we get one. I hope we do, I think it’ll be bananas – in a good way). There’s retconning left, right and centre throughout “Resurgence” to carve out the narrative room for the heavily signposted third instalment and as Emmerich dutifully ticks off the list of things he thinks the audience expects to see from an “Independence Day” movie he completely misses re-establishing the palpable sense of dread and doom the first one managed. Although there are numerous moments of characters looking pensive or musing that they probably can’t win, nobody really seems to believe it and there are few if any ‘squeeky bum’ moments when the outcome hangs on a knife-edge. Even the aliens seem not to have learned from their last encounter with humanity and remain as bone headed as ever. In fact, for a race with a strong strategic goal in mind, they seem ridiculously prone to provocation and distraction for petty revenge.

Visually, the film’s a bit of a let-down too. Thanks to the improvements in effects technology, we also get better, longer looks at the aliens themselves but all that means is that their Geiger-influenced design is more transparent and obvious than before. Following the credo ‘bigger is better’, this time the actual mother ship (3,000 miles in diameter) lands on the surface of the Earth. You’ll have seen most of the money shots in the trailer when Goldblum gasps that ‘it has its own gravity’ before delivering his killer gag: ‘They like to get the landmarks’. Yeah, the vast alien ship has its own gravity – except when it doesn’t. The gravity has no effect on the ground or oceans when it lands (witness the tiny research vessel mere miles away from the mile-wide laser drilling into the Earth) and in fact is only seemingly active for the one scene where it drops Kuala Lumpur’s Petronus Towers onto central London to set up Goldblum’s line. It’s cynical trailer-driven filmmaking and atrociously filmed (described memorably and accurately by the great Sarah O’Connell as ‘a muddy CGI shitstorm’). It’s the tipping point where you realise that they can’t top the first film visually but they’re going to keep trying, instead of besting it in the areas where it was weakest. In theory the vastness of a near Moon-size ship squatting on the Earth’s surface sounds awesome. On a human scale, though, where movies need to be, it’s too big to be really relevant. Yes, the sky looks a bit grey and metally and it’s a bit shady but that’s about it. Still, if the ginormity of the mother ship isn’t doing it for you, how about we throw a kaiju into the mix too? Yeah, that moose knuckle you glimpse in the trailer is foot/hand of a great big alien, for some reason.

It still has its moments and – crucially – if you’re not really familiar with the first one it’s probably got some excitement and spectacle. I saw it with a group of 9-10 year olds for Mertmas’ birthday and they loved it. I hope it does well enough that Emmerich gets to make his intended third movie – it sounds pretty awesome and if it comes off could give us the kind of sci-fi action movie we haven’t had for a very long time. The posters for “Independence Day: Resurgence” dutifully warn us: ‘We Had Twenty Years To Prepare’. Well, so did the makers of this movie and it’s hard not to think they should have done a lot better than this.

5/10 Score 5