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

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, 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”.


*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!


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 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

Gods Of Egypt (2016) Review

Gods Of EgyptBeset by controversy, “Gods Of Egypt” finally arrives in the UK, bringing Harrod’s Egyptian Escalator to gloriously over-the-top bombastic life.

In a mythical ancient Egypt where gods and men live side by side, the vengeful God Of The Desert, Set (Gerard Butler), seizes the throne for himself, blinding his nephew Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and casting him out into the wilderness. It’s up to Bek (Brenton Thwaites), a mortal thief, to convince Horus to overthrow his uncle and restore the kingdom to glory.

From the moment Gerard Butler’s scenery chewing Set beats down his nephew with what looks like a Dyson vaccum cleaner attachment, you know you’re in for a good time (although you may have been tipped off earlier by Bryan Brown being cast as Osiris). Okay, sure, it’s a garish, ridiculous, overblown riff on the myths and legends of Ancient Egypt appropriated and adapted with all the cultural sensitivity of J K Rowling but it’s not for one moment pretending to be serious, cerebral or even loosely connected with any kind of reality. This gold-plated, jewel-encrusted mash-up of nearly every popular (and some not so popular) movie of the last thirty years, is an Eighties sci-fi adventure extravaganza realised through 21st century technology. There’s an undeniable cultural tone-deafness to the fact there are no Egyptian actors in the principle cast but we’re not dealing with an egregious attempt at historical accuracy like “Exodus: Gods And Kings”. Butler is clearly having the time of his life stomping around the green-screen draped sets while Coster-Waldau plays it dead straight, with an earnestness that’s almost endearing. The rest of the cast seem happy just to indulge the pantomime of it all, not least of all Chadwick Boseman who camps it up marvellously as Thoth, the God of Wisdom.

“Gods Of Egypt” is nonsense. Big, giddy, gratuitously dumb nonsense. It’s also terrific Friday night post-pub fun. It’s exactly the kind of movie you would get if you asked “Batman & Robin”-era Joel Schumacher to adapt “Game Of Thrones” and if that’s not enough to persuade you to give 2016’s guiltiest pleasure a try, I don’t know what is.

7/10 Score 7

The Secret Life Of Pets (2016) Review

Secret Life Of PetsIf you were to make a movie about the secret life of my family pet, our cat Rufus, it would probably have to be set at night because what he does during the day is sleep. However, given he’s sometimes turned up at the back door in the morning with everything up to and including a squirrel in his jaws I’m guessing his nights are more eventful – and possibly not really suitable for a family cartoon.

Thankfully things aren’t quite so red in tooth and claw in the bright and cheerful new movie from Illumination Studios. Max (Louis C K) is a happy dog; a good dog. He is deeply contented with his life and his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) until, that is, Katie brings home a new rescue dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet). When Duke starts to muscle in on Max’s perfect life, he decides to find a way to get rid of him but he reckons without an underground movement of abandoned pets, bent on world domination.

“The Secret Life Of Pets” is consistently almost great. It ends up being pretty good, but it clearly wants to be great. It’s a cute idea and there are some witty observations and speculations but most of these are in the many trailers and what’s left for the film to reveal is a rather thin and arbitrary story. There are so many story beats and character moments which feel unfinished or lacking polish. They’re the points where Pixar will deconstruct and retool characters and motivations until they’re got it perfected but here it feels like it’s more a case of ‘eh, close enough’. The most glaring example relates to Duke’s backstory. It’s where the film comes closest to genuine pathos but you know, in the hands of Pixar, it’s a moment which would have had you bawling your eyes out.

Although absent from the movie themselves (they turn up in a short before the main feature though), the Minions loom large in this latest offering from Illumination Studios. The characters populating “The Secret Life Of Pets” are clearly riffing on the “Minions Movie” ADHD-style ‘anything for a gag’ approach to development and as a result there’s no emotional core to any of them and their journeys feel superficial. There are, though, odd moments where the movie actually seems to channel the spirit of “The Muppets” more successfully than Disney’s recent attempts, particularly in the Miss Piggy-esque character of Gidget (Jenny Slate).

Visually, though, the film is a real treat. New York is a sunny, colourful, gleaming metropolis: The Big Candy-coloured Apple. The character design is as adorable as you’d expect and even if the poodle as a secret System Of A Down fan joke wears a bit thin, it’s still kind of funny the fifth time around. The slapstick humour will play well with younger children – while Mertmas did enjoy it (he’s almost 10 now and his cinematic eye is set firmly on seeing “Independence Day: Resurgence” on his birthday), his younger sister adored it. The jokes are pretty funny but not as witty as you might expect from the trailer and while the story trundles along quite merrily, there’s no real peril or obstacles for our heroes which aren’t overcome in a few moments. There are a couple of good movie references along the way, too. “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” provides the template for one action sequence and there’s even a weird “Scanners” homage in the supporting (and otherwise uninspired) Minions short which plays before the main feature. For me, it was a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half but, like the “Minions Movie” before it, I doubt I’ll be in a hurry to watch it again.

Illumination are still trying to replicate the artistic success of “Despicable Me” and while “The Secret Life Of Pets” is a step forward from their last attempt, it’s still not quite there. It’ll still do well thanks to the current dearth of decent family films but against the lumbering might of the “Ice Age” franchise and the irresistible appeal of Spielberg’s “The B.F.G.” it’ll have to make its box office grab quickly.

6/10 Score 6

In & Out (1997) Review

In&OutFrank Oz’ 1997 romantic comedy “In & Out” is a bit of a curiosity, simultaneously ahead of and firmly of its time. A frothy, light-hearted comedy about homosexuality and coming out was a bold move then but now…well, now it’s hard to see it being made at all.

When Midwestern high school teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is outed as gay during an Oscar acceptance speech by a former student, his whole life is thrown into question, not to mention his career and impending marriage to fiancée Emily (Joan Cusack).

Despite being rooted in a more naïve and less ready to be outraged mind-set, the film is a lot of fun. Kline and Cusack give great performances as the betrothed couple whose lives are turned upside down by the revelation (Cusack snagged a best supporting actress nomination for the role) and there’s great support from movie veterans Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley and Bob Newhart. There’s also Tom Selleck – sadly sans moustache – as gay reporter Peter Molloy, determined to follow Howard’s story no matter what.

The film walks a fine line between rejecting and exploiting tired gay stereotypes and while it aims for a cosy Frank Capra-esque style comedy, it’s clumsy at best when viewed through modern eyes. Homophobia is soft-peddled throughout the film, with the town’s discomfort being exhibited through befuddlement and gossip rather than out and out hostility but you really can’t see the involuntary outing of a person being an acceptable basis for a comedy film being made today, nor the town’s reaction being tolerated in such an ‘aw shucks, folks is just folks’ way. Indeed the key theme of the film seems to be that to be closeted is somehow dishonest and that the knowledge of someone’s sexuality should be a matter of public knowledge. Kline’s involuntary revelation even prompts others in the community to unburden themselves of their own long held secrets and its universally shown to be a good thing to be ‘out and proud’ whatever your secret was but in the current climate of incendiary gender and sexual politics it ends up feeling uncomfortable, much like the ten second kiss between Kline and Selleck. As chaste now as it was provocative back then, it functions like a reverse “Superman II” plot device as Howard’s sexuality is revived by what in today’s more sensitive society would probably be considered sexual harassment.

It’s funny and sweet and – hackneyed gay tropes aside – as clichéd as you’d expect from a studio romantic comedy. It isn’t trying to make any points other than people should be free to be whoever they want to be but it’s absolutely not designed for today’s ready to be offended by anything and everything culture.

7/10 Score 7

Competition: Win The Limited Edition Steelbook Of Deadpool

Sold out limited edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbook!

Sold out limited edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbook!

Sold out limited edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbook!

Hi, I’m The Craggus, Editor-In-Chief of What The Craggus Saw. Thanks to a purchasing error I am now currently overstocked on Sold Out Limited Edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbooks, and I am passing the surplus on to you!

One of the breakout hits of the year so far, Deadpool manages to take Marvel’s most irreverent character and brings him to foul-mouthed, fourth-wall shattering life on the big screen. This is your chance to win your own brand new, sealed copy of the Zavvi Exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook of the movie.

Deadpool Steelbook Exterior

Based upon Marvel Comics’ most unconventional anti-hero, DEADPOOL tells the origin story of former Special Forces operative turned mercenary Wade Wilson, who, after being subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers, adopts the alter ego Deadpool. Armed with his new abilities and a dark, twisted sense of humour, Deadpool hunts down the man who nearly destroyed his life.

As well as the movie itself on BluRay and Ultraviolet Digital HD, the Steelbook includes:

  • Deleted/ extended scenes with optional commentary by Dirctor Tim Miller
  • Gag Reel
  • From Comics to Screen…to Screen
  • Audio Commentary by Ryan Reynolds and Screenwriters Rhett Reese & PauL Wernick
  • Audio Commentary by Director Tim Miller and Deadpool Co-creator/ Comics Artist Rob Liefield
  • Gallery – Concept Art, Costumes, Storyboards, Pre-Vis, Stunt-Vis-Shipyard
  • Deadpool’s Fun Sack

Deadpool Steelbook Interior

There are three ways to enter the giveaway and you can try all three if you want:


Follow What The Craggus Saw on WordPress (hit the follow/ subscribe button) and leave a comment at the bottom of this post saying:

I’d like to win a Deadpool Steelbook BluRay!



Follow @TheCraggus on Twitter and Tweet me with this phrase:

I’d like to win a Deadpool Steelbook BluRay! #CraggusDeadpoolGiveaway
(if I don’t already follow you, new followers will get a followback)



Like the What The Craggus Saw Facebook Page and comment on the Deadpool Competition Post with:

I’d like to win a Deadpool Steelbook BluRay!


The closing date is 23:59 Thursday 30th June 2016. Entries posted after this date will not be counted, although you won’t be charged because entry is free.

The winner will be randomly selected from all valid entries on Friday 1st July 2016 and contacted via the method of the winning entry to arrange delivery of the prize. Prize judge’s decision is final. The prize will be posted to the recipient 2nd Class Recorded Delivery and no cash alternatives will be offered. The competition is open to UK residents only, sorry.

Money Monster (2016) Review

Money MonsterReuniting George Clooney and Julia Roberts on screen for the first time since 2004’s “Ocean’s 12”, director Jodie Foster has constructed a topical corporate thriller which attempts to combine the hot button issues of domestic terrorism and socioeconomic anger.

When a slick money market TV show host is taken hostage by an armed gunman during a live broadcast, he is forced to confront the effects his advice has had on the ordinary people who watch his show as well as confront some unpleasant truths about the dark underside of the stock market.

“Money Monster” is a decent thriller and manages to build up a decent amount of tension despite a slightly uneven tone and some odd choices early on to cut away to seemingly random and unrelated locations (they do eventually play into the story but their context-free appearance so early on interrupts rather than intrigues).

Clooney plays shallow TV host Lee Gates with his twinkly-eyed charisma turned up to eleven and there are times when it veers perilously close to “Scrooged”’s Frank Cross in terms of execution. That’s not meant as a criticism but it meant I spent a bit of time imagining what the film would have been like had Bill Murray been cast instead. Julia Roberts is good too, finding an easy and world-weary chemistry with Clooney as Gates’s producer, a feat all the more impressive given the pair actually filmed very few scenes together. The pair may no longer be in their pomp, they certainly showcase why they are both A-list movie stars (although while Clooney is undoubtedly a bona fide movie star he’s never been what you’d call a box office sensation). It’s Jack O’Connell, though, who gives the story its much needed substance and grit, delivering yet another impressive turn as the desperate victim of Wall Street shenanigans.

Ultimately, the story pulls its punches when sticking it to the corporate fatcats, singling out a single entity and individual for egregiously shady practices rather than putting the whole house of cards system under the microscope. Instead, Foster has a more potent target, delivering the film’s slyest sucker punch to the audience by showing that, once all the drama and salaciously televised intrigue is resolved, the general public simply go back to whatever it was they were doing and wilfully ignores everything else that may be and probably is happening in the corporate boardrooms and stock markets of the world. Ouch.

It’s not as clever as it wants to be nor as astutely critical as it should be, but “Money Monster” is a solid character-driven thriller with three great lead performances.

7/10 Score 7

The Nice Guys (2016) Review

The Nice GuysShane Black’s sincerely affectionate love letter to “The Rockford Files” and the seventies in general, “The Nice Guys” is another helping of knowingly comic crime capers, powered by the amiably gruff charisma of Russell Crowe and an unexpected masterclass in physical comic timing from Ryan Gosling.

Holland March (Gosling) is a private detective and borderline con man who spins dead end cases out for as long as he can, or as long as his clients can afford to pay him. When his latest case – tracking down a missing girl – results in him getting ‘warned off’ by freelance hired muscle Jackson Healy (Crowe) he’s ready to drop the matter. That is, however, until it turns out March wasn’t the only person looking the girl and the two men are forced to team up to get to the bottom of things.

Nominally set in 1977, the film – as is writer/director Shane Black’s wont – plays fast and loose with chronology, peppering the movie with jokes, references and musical choices which give a generally seventies vibe without necessarily having been around in that particular year. Did you know Tim Allen was on the LA stand-up circuit in the late seventies? This movie sure does. Looks-wise, though, the film absolutely nails the style and conventions of seventies detective thrillers. This Los Angeles is a hotbed of carefree hedonism, sex, drugs and eccentric henchmen, the perfect setting for a well-balanced action/ comedy which manages not to overdo either. The film barrels along on the heady fuel of the two leads’ on screen chemistry. Blessed with Black’s witty script, both Crowe and Gosling seem to be having a blast and there’s some unexpected pathos and heart provided by Angourie Rice as March’s daughter Holly.

In many ways, “The Nice Guys” is the epitome of a Shane Black movie: his ‘greatest hits’ compilation. It features a hero forced to team up reluctantly, involves a kidnapping plot device, taps into action, comedy, noir and makes an oblique reference to Christmas. The counter-point to all this, of course, is that if Black’s distinctive style doesn’t work for you (as it didn’t for a very vocal couple who went to the same showing I did), you might find some of the idiosyncrasies and non-sequiturs of the film irritating rather than amusing.

“The Nice Guys” – which began life as a potential pilot for a TV series – is a bawdy and boisterous romp through the seedy world of seventies Los Angeles’ underworld of crime and corruption reaching all the way from the porn industry to city hall and beyond. It’s a well crafted, well acted and – if Russell Crowe’s anything to go by – well catered production and might just be the most fun movie released this year.

8/10  Score 8

Third Time’s The Charm: Why Do Trilogies Always Disappoint?


What The Craggus Saw turned three years old this week. To celebrate this third anniversary, I thought I’d take a look at trilogies. Has there ever been a trilogy where the third chapter hasn’t disappointed? Bryan Singer obviously doesn’t think so and ironically made a joke about it in his “First Class” trilogy closer “X-Men: Apocalypse”. Oh, sometimes the creators of the trilogy decide to get the disappointment out of the way nice and early (I’m looking at you, “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”), but generally the third part of a trilogy generally lets the side down. I’m not sure if it’s because it comes partly loaded with the knowledge that something you have been enjoying (I assume you’ve been enjoying it a you’ve come back for parts two and three) is coming to an end or because they tend to try and cram everything in to wrap it all up in a neat little package (albeit leaving enough breadcrumbs to set up a part 4 or, that most awful of beasts, a second trilogy). Are there exceptions? I can’t think of any.

The original “Star Wars” trilogy is slightly unlucky in that “The Empire Strikes Back” is so good, it would be hard for the follow-up to not be a disappointment. It nearly gets away with it too, if it wasn’t for those meddling teddy bears. Ah, you say, but clearly “Revenge Of The Sith” is better than the two films that preceded it therefore we have Exhibit A for the defence. Objection! Yes, of course RotS is better than the dull “Phantom Menace” or the excruciatingly execrable “Attack Of The Clones” but it’s still a massively disappointing film, a veritable smorgasbord of poor writing, awful dialogue, nonsensical plot twists and character motivations and career worst performances of most of the cast. Objection sustained.

I’ve already dismissed The Matrix trilogy and Pirates Of The Caribbean, trilogies where the disappointment is all the bitterer because the first films are so clever/ such fun respectively. Hmm. How about… the Bourne trilogy? Okay, I’ll concede they’re all good films, but the third one still feels weaker to me. The secret black ops project revealed in the second film is revealed to be an offshoot of an even blacker ops programme and Jason Bourne is revealed to have a new name. While the action set-pieces were sensational, The Bourne Ultimatum felt like a retread of The Bourne Supremacy, almost like they had two drafts of the same story and decided to film them both one after the other. So no, but I’ll admit it’s close.

What about “The Dark Knight Rises”? What about it indeed. One of the worst trilogy closers of all time, it’s infuriating because many of the ingredients are so, so good but the way they’re put together is just risible. The plot makes zero sense, chatacters are required to act contrary to their natures just to make things ‘work’ and it’s so poorly put together there are jarring plot holes. It only barely succeeds as a film thanks to Nolan’s directorial style but it’s by far and away the worst chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Lord Of The Rings is the other one I can think of that comes close. The problem with “Return Of The King” was pointed out to me by Mrs Craggus and it’s this: the last hour and a half of that film (slightly longer if you prefer the extended versions. I know I do.) is basically the story not knowing how to end and getting caught in a loop with goes a little like this:

10 We must fight against impossible odds. Even though we cannot win, we must fight this ultimate battle.
20 We have won this battle after all.
30 Goto 10

Once somebody makes you aware of this, the last half of “The Return Of The King” starts to become ever so slightly annoying. Sorry about that. It also means it obeys the law of trilogies. Even Wes Cravens’ post-modern ironic Scream trilogy acknowledges the problem third chapters of trilogies have and then, underlining its ironic nature, “Scream 3” proceeds to tick every annoying third chapter box to hammer home the disappointment.

By this point, I would hope you don’t need any more convincing of the law of trilogies, but in case you do, here’s some other prosecution exhibits:

“Poltergeist III”
“Austin Powers in Goldmember”
“Spy Kids 3”
“Jurassic Park III”
“Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade”
“Spider-Man 3”

What’s your favourite trilogy? Is there one where the third instalment is the best? I suppose if you count “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”, “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” as a trilogy, the final chapter isn’t the weak link but I’d love to hear from you (use the comments box below) if you can think of a trilogy where the third chapter isn’t a disappointment or if you think I’ve misjudged the films I’ve listed then let me know!

[Edit To Add: Since writing this, I’ve come up with “Back To The Future” and Marvel’s “Captain America” trilogy as ones which aren’t a let-down, even if the third chapter isn’t necessarily the best of the three]

Warcraft: The Beginning (2016) Review

Warcraft The BeginningBefore this film, my knowledge of “Warcraft” was pretty much restricted to the brilliant “Make Love, Not Warcraft” episode of “South Park” and that YouTube video of Leeroy Jenkins. Luckily, you don’t need any knowledge of the various other iterations of the franchise to enjoy this rollicking sword and sorcery adventure.

With Draenor, the Orc home world dying, Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) unites the Orc clans and, using a dark magic known as the Fel, takes a raiding party through a portal to a new world: Azeroth. Here, the Orcs begin to raid villages in order to gather enough prisoners to use to open the portal once again and bring the entire Orc race through.

Opening as it does on the Orcs, there’s a period where “Warcraft” threatens to be yet another soulless CGI extravaganza but thanks to some fine [motion capture] performances from the likes of Toby Kebbell, Paula Patton, Travis Fimmel, Ben Schnetzer and the skilful direction of Duncan Jones, it quickly manages to rise above its video game origins and becomes something rather special, approaching in its final hour something resembling a family friendly version of “Game Of Thrones”.

More overtly magical than HBO’s ratings juggernaut, after establishing the main players, kingdoms and races, “Warcraft” patiently begins to layer in hints and allusions to the wider world of “Warcraft” as well as laying the foundations for future developments. The film isn’t [occasionally] subtitled “The Beginning” for nothing. Not that it doesn’t tell a satisfying story in its own right, with intrigue and action within the Orc society and the kingdoms of Azeroth underpinned by a mysterious magical struggle between the Guardian, his young apprentice and the dark forces of the Fel that reaches a dramatic climax at the Fel Gate.

Jones brings some much needed stylistic and thematic depth to the clashing of swords and spellcasting, weaving the responsibilities of each generation to deliver a better life for their children throughout, highlighting the parallels between the Orc and human societies. Legacy is important in this fantasy world and, in the grand fantasy tradition, more than one torch is passed as the older generation makes way for the new.

With action and spectacle to spare, it doesn’t waste a single moment, even where it might have benefitted from it. Like “The Lord Of The Rings” movies, a longer cut (Jones’ Director’s Cut is reputed to be forty minutes longer) may well improve this although the clever way the film has been put together allows the audience to accept much of the details of the world without the need for detailed expeditionary scenes. Its videogame origin and fantasy subject matter may end up putting off some cinemagoers but that would be a real shame. It’s a supremely well-made, visually spectacular high fantasy adventure. I can’t speak for fans of the game (who may find things to nit-pick about) but for Mertmas and me, everything was new and exciting. “Warcraft: The Beginning” is quality blockbuster entertainment and the first of this summer’s pleasant surprises. I really hope we get to see more.

8/10 Score 8

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows (2016) Review

TNMT Out Of The ShadowsAfter Michael Bay and Jonathan Liebesman cowabungled the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reboot movie, I approached this one with some scepticism and lower expectations. As a result, I ended up having quite a bit of fun with it. I always like it when studios are playful with their logos, so the Paramount stars being replaced by shuriken was a nice touch and got me onside right from the beginning.

When rogue scientist Baxter Stockman links up with the Foot Clan to break Shredder out of prison, they inadvertently break through to a parallel dimension where Commander Krang proposes an alliance with Shredder to bring his Technodrome through the portal to Earth. The only ones who can stand in his way are the Turtles.

Director Dave Green (“Earth To Echo”) wisely tones down the Bayisms (although it’s less than twenty minutes in before we get a car-flipping freeway chase) in this second instalment and makes room for some of the joyously anarchic fun which was the hallmark of the successful cartoon series. The personalities of the turtles themselves remain intact but they’re less brash and extreme this time round, making them more likeable – especially Michelangelo who’s dialled way back from the aggressively horny douchebag of the first film.

The supporting characters are repositioned to be just that, with April O’Neil (Megan Fox) becoming a catalyst for the Turtles’ adventures rather than dominating the story. With the extra room, the movie introduces a few more familiar faces from the TMNT canon, such as Casey Jones. Stephen Amell brings all of his range and versatility to the role of Jones, a skilled fighter with anger issues who dons a mask to dish out some vigilante justice and while he’s decent enough in the film, he plays it with a joyless sincerity, completely missing the satirical point of the character of Casey Jones and making it a pale shadow of his TV alter-ego, the “Arrow”. If nothing else, the film confirms that Amell is very much a TV actor, not suited for the big screen outside of a very narrowly defined role (much like Zachary Quinto’s lucky break as Spock).

But, as dull as the new additions on the heroes’ side may be, the film is given a fabulous kick up the butt by the arrival of Rocksteady and Beebop who, in a bold and progressive move, seem set to be Hollywood’s new power couple. Whether by accident or sly, subversive design, the relationship between Rocksteady and Beebop drips with subtext hinting at a partnership much closer than a henchman bromance. It’s actually really very sweet and gives their character arcs much more entertainment value, so kudos to WWE star Sheamus (Stephen Farrelly) and “Boston Legal” alum Gary Anthony Williams for bringing such good natured diversity and complexity to a family blockbuster. ‘Out’ Of The Shadows indeed.

It’s a great example of how this instalment succeeds where its predecessor failed. Unlike the first one, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows” fully embraces the ridiculousness of its premise and the adorable dorkiness of its characters’ cartoon origins. It revels in it and as a result it has a sense of fun and knowing satire that was missed out last time.

The energy helps overcome a script which is still lumbered with some clumsy and obvious writing and atrocious dialogue such as: ‘Well, you know what they say: ‘If you want to get work done, don’t spend time at the zoo’’. Who? Who says that, Casey?

There are still clunky performances (Tyler Perry, I’m looking at you) and awkward product placement (Michael Bay, I’m looking at you sipping conspicuously from your Chinese juice carton) but the Turtles are good, the action is great and is bustles along with such energy and exuberance that you won’t even mind howlers like the Turtles being told they can’t help April break into a lab because it’s going to happen in broad daylight only for the entire sequence to then take place at night.

“Out Of The Shadows” is still dumb and it’s still chaotic but at least this time out it’s silly and fun too.

7/10 Score 7

Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016) Review

Alice Through The Looking GlassWhile 2010’s “Alice In Wonderland” may have left critics unimpressed, audiences embraced its restless, kooky energy as Lewis Carroll’s mastery of the absurd and impossible was filtered through the dark kaleidoscope of Tim Burton’s vision. Six years later, “The Muppets” & “Muppets Most Wanted” director James Bobin has been tasked with delivering a sequel.

Alice faces difficulties in the real world as her spurned ex-fiancé manoeuvres to take her father’s business from her she is summoned back to [W]Underland by Absolom the butterfly (Alan Rickman in his final role) to help save the Hatter, who has fallen into depression. In order to restore her friend, she must venture to the castle of Time himself and journey through the impossible events of Underland’s history.

Bobin does a creditable job of recreating the aesthetic of the original film and, while he’s at it, borrows heavily from Henson, Disney’s “Return To Oz” and even, curiously, Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise. Unfortunately, visuals are all this confused and ultimately pointless tale have to offer. It starts brightly enough with a rousing naval adventure as we find Alice as the captain of her father’s ship, outwitting pirates on the high seas. But once she arrives back in Blighty it loses its way with a disposably irrelevant subplot concerning Hamish’s plan to deprive her of her family’s boat or house. But as uncompelling as the real world story is, it’s a ripping yarn compared to the muddled and convoluted snoozefest that awaits us in Underland.

Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) makes for an interesting addition but Alice’s Whovian quest through history in search of the Hatter’s family isn’t as interesting as it thinks it is and the story never really gets to grips with what it wants to say. Clearly unsure of what, exactly, made the first film popular, the makers also bring back most of the cast for tedious ‘see, here they are – again’ cameos for fear they leave out the magic ingredient.

Dependent as it is on the back stories of not only the Hatter but the White and Red Queen too, this unnecessary sequel suffers all the narrative pitfalls of a prequel too, leeching any sense of drama or genuine peril. It sparks briefly into life when it makes good on its promise of its own version of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect but by then it’s too little too late.

Pretty to look at – even though it’s an all too sugary CGI confection – it’s an empty spectacle, lacking a strong enough story to realise its ambition of reforging Alice as a feminist hero. There’s no faulting the effort put in by the cast, director and crew it’s just that their combined talents aren’t enough to make up for the fact there’s no reason for any of them to be there.

5/10 Score 5

A Hologram For The King (2016) Review

Hologram For The KingCulture clash dramedy “A Hologram For The King” may have taken a few of Tom Hanks’ loyal fans by surprise, or if not quite surprise then possibly left them a trifle bemused. A detached, contemplative and quirkily surreal journey through one man’s three-quarter life crisis, it provides a great platform for Hanks’ natural charisma and provides an intriguing view of life in the Kingdom Of Saudi Arabia.

Alan Clay (Hanks), a newly divorced, down on his luck salesman takes a job pitching for the IT infrastructure contract for a prestigious new development called the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade. As he waits for his audience with the King, he starts to reflect on his life and his future.

There’s a whimsical and hazy approach to the story, which draws us in to Alan’s current world view while it unpacks some of the myths and preconceptions of what life is like in the KSA. Hanks’ everyman routine works perfectly, especially when his would-be energetically optimistic sales schtick comes up against a culture driven by different priorities and approaches. He’s joined on his journey of self-rediscovery by his driver Yousef, played with scene-stealing comic charm by American actor Alexander Black and a beguiling doctor played with grace and sensuality by Sarita Choudhury. It’s with the latter the story takes an unexpectedly romantic turn as Alan finds in her a kindred spirit and the possibility of hope.

It’s an amiable story which unhurriedly allows us to explore its characters against the rich geographical and cultural backdrop of the Middle East with an endearing penchant for fantasy sequences which are vaguely reminiscent of “The World According To Garp”. If nothing else, Tom Tykwer’s bright and playful adaptation of Dave Eggars’ novel has convinced me that I want a full-length version of Tom Hanks performing Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’.

7/10 Score 7

Our Kind Of Traitor (2016) Review

Our Kind Of TraitorAs ably demonstrated by the recent BBC adaptation of “The Night Manager”, John le Carré’s particular brand of complex intrigue and slow burning drama may be best suited to the long-form storytelling afforded by television rather than the need to wrap everything up in under three (and often preferably) two hours demanded by moviegoers. The great and patient chess game of international espionage and realpolitik sometimes doesn’t suit cinemas preferred fast paced spy tropes.

“Our Kind Of Traitor”, thankfully, is a relatively pacey affair. One of le Carré’s less complex plots, it makes for a surprisingly straightforward yarn as university lecturer Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is approached by gregarious Russian oligarch Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) while on holiday with his wife in Marrakech. Dima has a startling favour to ask: he wants Perry to act as a go between to arrange his defection from the Russian Mafia. Trapped between opposing powerful interests, Perry may be the only one Dima can truly trust.

The straightforwardness of the story isn’t helped by the lack of depth to many of the characters. None of the villains ever seem much more than vanilla cyphers; dull and anodyne placeholders for a threat which is often described but rarely shown. Outside the central quartet of Perry, his wife Gail (Naomie Harris), British Intelligence agent Hector (Damian Lewis, all George Smiley spectacles and public school accent) and Skarsgård’s ebullient and rambunctious Dima. The film trades heavily on Skarsgård’s energy and sags noticeably whenever he’s not on screen.

Thankfully, Director Susanna White has an ace up her sleeve, enlivening proceedings with a beautifully intricate aesthetic, using occluded camera angles and a playful approach to focus to create bejewelled, intimate visuals which compensate for the general lethargy of the plot.

Entertaining if not gripping, this is a relatively predictable spy yarn; pretty to look at and enjoyable enough thanks to the solid cast and a standout performance by Skarsgård.

6/10 Score 6

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) Review

X-Men ApocalypseThe latest entry in Fox & Marvel’s own mutant chronicles marks the culmination of the current “First Class” trilogy, as well as the near completion of an almost unprecedented project of rebooting and retconning a much disliked film out of existence. As divisive as “The Last Stand” was, though, we’re still talking about it; which makes it all the more disappointing that “X-Men: Apocalypse” is one of the most forgettable X-Men movies of the nine we have had so far.

Awoken from an ancient slumber, the world’s first mutant – Apocalypse – is dismayed at what he finds has become of both mutant and humankind and sets forth to gather his four horsemen and recreate the world in his image.

The film opens in the ancient past: Bryan Singer’s “Cleopatra” and it’s all very promising. The downfall of the ancient Apocalypse is one of the film’s strongest moments, setting up the cleverly realized opening credits, recognizably still Singer’s trademark X-Men titles style but with a ‘journey through time twist’ “Doctor Who” would be proud of. Unfortunately, once the action reaches the present day, the film tries to pack so much in and service so many ongoing obligations that it loses focus and any sense of exigency starts to leech away. Never before have so many superheroes been gathered together on screen only to spend most of the time standing around looking pensive while we cut away to scene after scene of weightlessly inconsequential CGI destruction. Like the clouds of digitally animated particulates, various storylines swirl and eddy around but there’s little sense that there’s an irresistible force moving everything along, let alone in the same direction. The whole plot seems disengaged and flat despite the stakes being higher than almost any other X-Men film to date, emphasised by the dull scenes of grave men in situation rooms explaining to the audience what the latest special effects fandango on screen actually means. There’s a static quality to it that undercuts the potential drama; for the longest time nobody really does anything.

Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique role practically screams contractual obligation in both writing and performance, her real-world rising stardom creating a gravitational lensing effect on the franchise where she is placed front and centre whether the story requires it or not, often at the expense of everything else. Of the big-hitter cast members, it’s once again Michael Fassbender who really delivers the goods, imbuing Magneto’s latest flip-flop between peaceful good and vengeful evil with an emotional power and heart-breaking authenticity that overshadows every other performance in the film. You could take McAvoy and Lawrence out of the film without affecting the general quality of it but lose Fassbender and the whole thing could end up feeling very “Last Stand” very quickly.

Oscar Isaac, a naturally charismatic performer, struggles to impose himself from underneath the ‘Ivan Ooze’-esque makeup and never feels like a particularly intimidating villain, spending most of the movie conducting a seemingly haphazard recruitment drive. In assembling his four horsemen, there’s no explanation as to why he decides to dress Psylocke (Olivia Munn) in the sluttiest possible costume. Indeed, Apocalypse may have misheard her name as he ensures there always at least a pound of flesh on show while he provides his other evilised [s/o to “Miraculous Ladybug” fans] followers – Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp, impressive in a fairly limited role) and [Arch]Angel (a bland Ben Hardy) – with layers and layers of battle-appropriate armour.

James McAvoy finally gets to shave his head as go full Professor X but neither he or Nicholas Hoult’s Beast get much new to do as attention shifts to (re)introducing the latest bunch of big screen mutants, some of them new faces with familiar names. We get a new young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and a new Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) with the former settling into the role quicker than the latter. We also get a new Nightcrawler in the form of Kodi Smit-McPhee, a welcome return for the character absent since “X2”. Even less surprising than the fact the story would needlessly pivot around Mystique is the fact that the breakout fan favourite of “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” would return for more high speed shenanigans. In fact, the makers of the film are so taken with the Quicksilver gimmick they use it not once but twice and both times make a fundamental mistake about his powers. He has the power to move at incredible speeds, not to slow down or freeze time yet there are points where the admittedly amusing or clever things he does could only be achieved by freezing time. You can’t be moving at incredible speed and stand still at the same time – as the film itself emphasises later when Quicksilver learns his speed doesn’t quite make him untouchable. Of course, there’s the all-important cameo which Fox were sorry not sorry about ‘spoiling’ in the last trailer. All in all, it’s a fun appearance by Wolverine and obliquely explains why he’s back to having metal claws (although in doing so it renders the end scene of “Days Of Future Past” where Mystique posed as Stryker bafflingly redundant) but story-wise it’s an egregious and literal ‘get out of jail’ free card for our plucky heroes.

As refreshed as the “X-Men” franchise has been by the rebooting of the timeline and injection of fresh talent, “X-Men: Apocalypse” encapsulates the contradictions of the potential opportunities and the self-imposed constraints the writers have created for themselves. There’s a pretty heavy set-up for another attempt at doing the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga and the post credits scene widens the potential follow-up possibilities even further, maybe even setting the stage for “Wolverine 3” with some much needed sinister goings on after a needlessly twee super-powered “DIY SOS: The Big Build” final scene. But we’ve now had six films of Magneto oscillating between Magneto is good/ Magneto is bad/ Magneto reconsiders again and is good and it’s starting to strain credibility and credulity (despite the peerless work of Messrs McKellen and Fassbender) and even if they can escape that narrative merry-go-round, there’s still the problem of Hugh Jackman’s iconic Wolverine, a seemingly irreplaceable legacy from the previous cinematic ‘Generation X’ who is (ever so slightly) holding the new cast back a little.

I did enjoy “X-Men: Apocalypse” but two hours twenty-four minutes is a hefty running time and thanks to the flat storytelling and uneven pacing it feels like it. I was expecting better and I still hope for better in the future. Hopefully they’ll stick with the new young cast they’ve brought in this time – would it kill them to let Jubilee finally do something? We’re on our third actress for the role and she’s yet to do anything but appear in the background wearing a yellow coat and hoop earrings! Trust the young cast and let them grow into the roles rather than continue to revolve around the big name cast members. After all, isn’t tearing down the world they’ve built and, from the ashes, building a better one kind of the mission statement of the “X-Men” franchise now?

6/10 Score 6