The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017) Review

Sometimes, all you need to do is get the right cast in front of the camera and let them do their thing. “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is one of those times.

With the trial of notorious war criminal Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) desperate for witnesses, the authorities turn to notorious contract killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson) to testify. But when Guttersnipe’s forces ambush the Interpol convoy, they’re forced to bring in private protection agent Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to get Kincaid to the Hague on time.

Originally envisioned as a straight action movie (it was one of the 2011 Black List scripts), it underwent a complete rewrite shortly before production began to capitalise on its leads’ fantastic chemistry and it’s a gamble which pays off.

Neither Jackson or Reynolds is operating outside their comfort zone here, but there’s so much fun to be had in this Nick Fury vs Deadpool road trip that it feels churlish to complain about them doing what they do so well just because it comes easily. Belying his 68 years, Jackson is in the thick of the action, as if having seen the flabby theatrics of “XXX: The Return Of Xander Cage”, he realised he was going to have to show them how it’s really done. His freewheeling, profanity-strewn hitman is the perfect foil for Reynolds’ neurotic motormouth agent with a chip on his shoulder. The ‘ticking clock’ of the witness deadline may feel a bit arbitrary and forced at times but it’s used as a framework for a non-stop procession of impressive action sequences where director Patrick Hughes (“The Expendables 3”) focusses his attention, secure in the knowledge his cast know what they’re doing. Coventry may be Hollywood’s most unlikely setting for a mercenary throw down but it’s merely an appetiser to some truly thrilling action stunt work once the movie shifts to the Netherlands.

Oldman’s role may be small but he puts everything into it, creating a threatening and chillingly ruthless villain who feels more authentic than the usual one-dimensional bad guys these films usually have. There are also surprisingly satisfying arcs for both our heroes too, the subplots and characters development being provided by the fantastic Salma Hayek as Kincaid’s wife Sonia and Elodie Yung as Interpol Agent Roussel.

It may not be quite as sharp as “Lethal Weapon” or as bombastic as “Bad Boys” but it’s an action packed, undemanding crowd-pleaser with bags of charm and likeability to spare featuring Reynolds and Jackson at the top of their game.

8/10 

Iron Fist – Season 1 Review

Why can’t we have nice things? There was something almost inevitable about the pre-release critical and cultural bashing “Iron Fist” received. After a run of small screen Netflix success, I guess Marvel was due a backlash, and after constantly outgunning their rivals cinematically, the great and the good of Twitter and beyond, as well as the trite and terrible, were gunning for the House of Mouse’s House of M drop the ball. In “Iron Fist” they saw their chance.

Oh, how they gloated over its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 17% (note the audience score is a much fairer 78%) and revelled in the misguided lambasting it received for the alleged whitewashing of its cast and general cultural appropriation. Ultimately, it’s nowhere near as bad as was foretold, and often manages to be quite good fun.

Presumed dead for 15 years, Danny Rand (Finn Jones) returns to New York to confront a growing evil and reclaim his legacy. Standing in his way are his former childhood friends Joy and Ward Meachum who now run Rand Enterprises. Danny has returned a changed man, a living weapon known as the Iron Fist, sworn to defend the land of K’un-Lun from the shadowy forces of The Hand. But New York is also under threat from The Hand and Danny will find his distant obligation has manifested very close to home.

There’s no denying “Iron Fist” may be the weakest of the four Marvel Netflix shows but its relative daytime brightness is a welcome change from the dark foreboding of “Daredevil” season two. Part glossy Eighties soap opera, part kung fu epic, there’s plenty going on in “Iron Fist”. Unfortunately, for a superhero series, it spends far too much of its time – especially in the early episodes – focussing on the sub-“Dallas” corporate shenanigans over who will eventually control Rand Enterprises. Granted, this gives plenty of screen time to Tom Pelphrey’s Ward Meachum who is so archly a go-go-Eighties Reaganomics ‘business guy’ that I expected him to die of boneitis at any moment. Much like “Arrow” was in the past, the series suffers from a sophomorically simplistic view of corporate governance, rendering much of the boardroom shenanigans laughably unrealistic (never to the extent of “The Dark Knight Rises”, though) and it’s only after Danny encounters Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and begins to recognise the presence of The Hand that the series gains traction.

Arguably the least impressive of the Defenders in terms of power set (he’s good at kung fu and can use the glowy Iron Fist every so often), he’s got the billions to back him but he lacks the intelligence of Tony Stark or the detective skills of the Dark Knight to really put them to use. Finn Jones has the unenviable task, then, of playing a kind of hipster gap year Bruce Wayne and he struggles to distance himself from coming across like a petulant trust-fund kid thanks to the flat writing of the show. Supporting characters such as Colleen Wing and, in a too convenient and contrived plot development, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) fare better and the subplot around Howard Meachum is far more interesting than anything involving his children’s meeting room machinations but it’s when The Hand is front and centre, especially the formidable Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho) that the series hits its stride.

Most of the flaws in “Iron Fist” lie not with the cast or the character but with the plotting of the series and in the writing and therefore the showrunner, Scott Buck. His declaration of disappointment with the Iron Fist’s powers at the very beginning was a warning sign and it’s at his door the blame for the disappointments must lie. That being said, I consistently enjoyed watching “Iron Fist”, albeit as something I could binge watch on TV while doing other things e.g. blogging, surfing the net and maybe that’s its biggest flaw. Entertaining, yes, but gripping? Rarely. There were only a couple of episodes where I put aside whatever else I was doing and watched intently, unlike “Daredevil” Season 1, “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” which kept me glued to the screen even during their midseason sluggishness. “Iron Fist” is almost all ‘midseason sluggish’ but I still watched it in full from beginning to end over a couple of weeks (unlike “Daredevil” Season 2 which I stopped watching for a while and eventually returned to finish).

Thankfully, Marvel has decided to pass the Buck for the second “Iron Fist” series, appointing a new showrunner (Raven Metzner (“Sleepy Hollow”, “Heroes Reborn” and…er…the movie “Elektra”) may not immediately inspire confidence, but he can’t really do much worse) and with Danny Rand meeting Luke Cage in “The Defenders” we can all start to hope for a “Heroes For Hire” TV show. Yes, it’s the weakest of the four Netflix Marvel shows, but that’s still pretty strong, considering. It certainly beats the third seasons “Arrow” and “The Flash”, although that’s a bar you’d barely need the Iron Pinky to smash through.

6/10 

Luke Cage – Season 1 Review

After his star turn in “Jessica Jones”, I was looking forward to seeing Luke Cage’s solo adventures and Netflix’ latest MCU adventure doesn’t disappoint.

Luke Cage (Mike Colter), an escaped convict who was left with superhuman strength and impenetrable skin after being experimented on in prison, is keeping a low profile in Harlem. But when a local club owner and arms dealer, Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali), makes moves to take over the neighbourhood, Cage finds himself caught up in a complex web of corruption and politics.

There’s a lot to like about “Luke Cage”, thanks in large part to Mike Colter’s magnetic lead performance. It also doesn’t hurt that the main cast is full of top notch talent, from the aforementioned soon-to-be-Oscar-winning Ali to Alfre Woodard and of course Netflix MCU mainstay Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple. Thanks to its immersive, slyly retro style and a socially conscious attitude, “Luke Cage” draws you into the shady world of gang warfare and real estate manipulation. There are hints of a larger agenda, tying into the wider Netflix MCU but they’re not as obvious or leaden as they were in “Daredevil” Season 2. It’s also much more of a straightforward ‘origin’ story as we see through flashbacks how Cage got his powers (including a delicious nod to the character’s seventies comic book outfit) only to see him have to struggle as his powers are neutralised by the introduction of a weaponry fueled by alien technology. The ties to the wider MCU are also stronger than other series, with the experimentation on Cage linked to yet another attempt to recreate the super soldier formula and the weaponry which causes him such trouble derives from Chitauri technology.

The action scenes are also well thought out, especially as – given Cage’s power set – it would have been all too easy to rely on cheesy “The Incredible Hulk” or “The A-Team” throwing of people. Instead, it’s a studied combat style, reflecting Cage’s reluctance to use his full strength lest he inadvertently kills his opponents.

The pacing, it has to be said, is a little sluggish in the middle of the series and it spends a little too much time as Cage and Temple struggle to find a cure for the bullet wound which has managed to penetrate his impregnable skin. It’s also a shame that the series disposes of one of its better villains quite early on but there are more than enough left to provide a thrilling finale spread across the last three episodes as Cage forms an uneasy alliance with the Police to defend the neighbourhood and thwart the ambitions of the crooked councilwoman.

As much an urban thriller as a superhero yarn, “Luke Cage” brings gravitas and grit to the MCU without needing to resort to the kind of violence seen in the second season of “Daredevil”. It may have the worst mid-season slump so far, but its highs far outweigh those lows.

8/10 

Daredevil – Season 2 Review

When I reviewed Season 1 of Daredevil, I dared to hope that the characters from Marvel’s Netflix MCU offshoot would make the leap to the big screen to join in the “Infinity Wars”. While it seems that’s increasingly unlikely, the disappointment is somewhat mitigated by the depth and breadth being brought to life in Marvel’s seedy underbelly.

With Wilson Fisk behind bars and the Russian, Chinese and Japanese gangs having apparently vanished, other gangs, start to vie for control of Hell’s Kitchen.  When a faction of the Irish mob is all but wiped out, the sole survivor seeks protection from Nelson & Murdock. This leads Murdock, in his Daredevil guise, to hunt down a ruthless vigilante known as The Punisher. But as Daredevil and The Punisher face off, larger forces are at work and the return of Murdock’s old flame Electra Natchios brings the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen up against an army of ninjas controlled by a shadowy organisation called The Hand.

The triumph of the first season of “Daredevil” was in proving that Marvel could operate in the shadows, with grit and realism within the confines of the MCU. Unfortunately, season two brings with it another hallmark of the MCU: too much setting up for later. In the early episodes, which are so focused on Frank Castle/ The Punisher (Jon Bernthal) that Daredevil almost feels like a supporting character in his own series, the show also seems too keen to show how dark and gritty it is, quickly escalating from bruising fight scenes to bloodthirsty gunplay and gratuitously gory torture scenes involving electric drills. It’s certainly not shy in playing up The Punisher’s anti-hero status. It’s hardly a surprise given the time devoted to him that he’s getting his own Netflix series but with the violent nihilism he brings to Daredevil’s opening episodes, I won’t be hurrying through my queue to watch it when it does.

What Daredevil’s second season really lacks is a central villain around which the thirteen episodes can revolve. When Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) does finally make a reappearance, it handily helps avoids the usual Marvel/ Netflix mid-season slump but also throws into sharp relief how unfocused the rest of the series is. Electra’s return does provide something of a shot in the arm but her arc, and the introduction of The Hand, serve as much to lay the groundwork for “Iron Fist” and set up “The Defenders” they do to give Daredevil something to do.

It’s a slightly over-egged confection but it’s still eminently watchable TV thanks to the performances of the cast and some well-choreographed action, but it does suggest that for real longevity, these Marvel TV shows are going to have to start considering shorter arcs and self-contained episodes to balance themselves rather than oscillating between stretched too thin and overstuffed.

7/10 

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature (2017) Review

Yet another in the bafflingly long list of animated films which didn’t deserve a sequel, the follow-up to 2014’s “The Nut Job” is now in UK cinemas. Here’s the surprising bit: it’s not that bad.

When the Nut Shop is suddenly destroyed, Surly the squirrel (Will Arnett) is faced with the prospect of returning to foraging in nature for food. But when even that existence is threatened by a crooked real estate developer, Surly and his woodland pals must take up arms against a sea of bulldozers and save their park.

Where the first film was bogged down by a convoluted plot involving some human robbers and a power struggle between rival woodland factions, the sequel is refreshingly straightforward: the animal’s park is under threat from the machinations of the corrupt and greedy Mayor (Bobby Moynihan). The simplicity of the plot leaves plenty of time for slapstick battles between builders, exterminators and the forest dwellers, boosted by an army of ninja warrior mice led by Mr Feng (Jackie Chan).

It’s not terribly original but it’s fuss-free knockabout stuff, with plenty of pratfalls and silliness to keep the kids entertained. It kept both Cragglings (11 & 4) happy for its 90-minute run time and while there are better animated offerings out there at the moment, there are also a lot worse.

5/10 

Colossal (2017) Review

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS*

It’s been a long time since a movie surprised me as much as “Colossal” did. Won over by the quirky trailer and a crazy but fascinating premise, I was expecting a quirky exploration of the characters exploring their ‘inner demons’ in a very external manner. Instead, Nacho Vigalondo’s dark sci-fi fantasy delivered something much darker: an ambiguous exploration of what a real monster can do.

Unemployed, alcoholic and dumped by her boyfriend, Gloria (Anne Hathaway) returns to her family’s vacant rental home. There she meets Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), an old school friend and local bar owner who helps her get back on her feet. But when a monster attacks Seoul, Gloria finds she has a startling connection to the creature.

There’s a lightness of tone, despite the downward spiralling direction of Gloria’s life, in the early stages of the movie, a gentleness which lulls you into a false sense of security and familiarity. Vigalondo wants you to feel comfortable and reassured because it makes what comes later much more effective and potent. Hathaway is superb in the role of Gloria, imbuing her with a self-absorbed self-destructiveness coupled with a vulnerability that leaves her open to being exploited, especially by the men in her life who, throughout the film reveal themselves to be a twisted version of Greek mythology: the three Furies of toxic masculinity. Tim (Dan Stevens), Gloria’s ex-boyfriend sets parameters of behaviour and decorum he expects her to adhere to, Joel (Austin Stowell) is a craven frat boy who, having had his way with Gloria, turns his back on her in the most cowardly way while Oscar himself emerges as the most toxic of them all, a hateful, narcissistic and violent man who becomes the second most notorious man to threaten and terrorise the population of Korea from the safety of US soil; his discovery that he too can manifest a monstrous avatar changes the dynamic of everything.

“Colossal” is a low-key fable of a woman, victimised and controlled by the men in her life, discovering her own strength to stand up to and reject the control, overcoming her own demons as she deals with the city-stomping monsters.

Despite its intriguing through-line and an over abundance of imagination and ideas, “Colossal” never feels fully formed, almost like it’s juggling a little too much and can’t give everything the time and focus it deserves. The ending may feel controversial to some, depending on where they stand on the philosophy that ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one’ or whether they believe omelettes can be made without breaking any eggs but it still feels like there’s more to be explored, from the competing unreliable narrators of Gloria and Oscar to the metaphysical origins of the giant Kaiju terrorising the South Korean capital.

It has all the hallmarks of a cult favourite of the future and it may yet grow on me after repeated viewings but on first experience, it feels slightly off target; a miss to be sure, but a very close one.

6/10 

Shin Godzilla (2017) Review

The first ever Japanese production to completely reboot the venerable monster’s movie series, “Shin Godzilla” is so called because it’s deliberately ambiguous (written in katakana instead of kanji) and can be interpreted as ‘new’, ‘god’ or ‘evolved’ and not, disappointingly, because the makers made the gutsy decision to stick with the ordinary Japanese citizen’s perspective and only ever show the creature from below its knees.

When a monstrous sea creature emerges from Tokyo Bay and starts shambling through the city, the Japanese Government struggles to coordinate its response to this unprecedented event. Although the creature eventually withdraws, it’s only a matter of time before it returns and the race is on to find a way to destroy the creature.

There’s an odd, quasi-documentary feel to “Shin Godzilla” as it sets out to retell Japan’s most therapeutic and cathartic cultural myth as it would happen in the present day. Originally Gojira was born out of the need to allegorically examine the nation’s traumatic nuclear history but this Kaiju disaster movie has a different catastrophic touchstone in its sights: the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami which in turn caused the Fukushima Nuclear disaster.

There’s a surprisingly cutting satirical edge to the many, many, many scenes of meetings, darkly lampooning the Japanese Government’s inaction in the face of the 2011 disasters and the labyrinthine complexities of bureaucracy which must be navigated in order to take any action.

There’s also an undercurrent of generational resentment as the characters of the film chafe under the self-imposed legal and regulatory constraints placed on the Japanese Defence Forces and speculate as to just how long the ‘post-war’ period of contrition and acquiescence to the United States of America lasts.

Domestic and international political satire aside, “Shin Godzilla” is, eventually, still a monster mash and the initial landfall, preceded by some superbly effective but all too brief ‘warning signs’ of damage to undersea tunnels and bridges etc., deliberately evokes the imagery of the tsunami aftermath. Although the creature’s initial appearance is somewhat awkward and goofy, it still manages to thanks to a tendency to belch gouts of blood from its gills. This new ‘Zilla has the ability to spontaneously mutate and once it does so, it assumes a much more familiar shape.

Although entirely CGI, the creature design celebrates the long history of Godzilla. The skin texture is deliberately evocative of the rubber-suited Gojira of old while the creature’s movements were drawn from motion capture performance, retaining that man-in-suit vibe. When Godzilla finally strikes back against the encroaching armed forces in a night time battle on the streets of Tokyo, it’s absolutely spectacular, especially when he unleashes his fire breath.

Quintessentially Japanese in its sensibilities and execution, “Shin Godzilla” is an edgy and modern retelling of the story, with a deliciously satirical and occasionally surprisingly intimate feel, thanks to the use of the camera to place us face to face when the characters are talking, even with screeds of subtitles in both English and Japanese. There’s plenty of humour, both deliberate and accidental (my favourite being a tracking shot which follows a conversation however when the characters stop to continue their discussion the camera merrily trundles on oblivious) and the action is tremendously entertaining.

At the very least, it’s much better than the 1998 Matthew Broderick movie.

6/10 

Atomic Blonde (2017) Review

Edgy, brutal and achingly stylish, Charlize Theron’s “Atomic Blonde” should be enough to scare the living daylights out of the Bond producers as they continue to pull together the follow-up to SPECTRE.

In cold war 1989 Berlin, in the days leading up to the fall of the wall, a British agent is killed after retrieving a microfilm containing details of every deep cover agent within the Soviet Union. Top MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Theron) is dispatched to Berlin to make contact with the local station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) and track down the microfilm. But Berlin is a geopolitical powder keg and as rival factions attempt to get hold of the list, the Cold War is heating up.

John Wick” is an obvious comparison, thanks to the glossy and stylised production and hyper kinetic action sequences but there’s a strong le Carré influence at work as much as there is a “Bond” vibe. Not the Bond of the movies, but the character of Fleming’s  originals, especially the Berlin-set short story “The Living Daylights”. It’s a story of deception and counter deception punctuated by sensationally brutal and bruising action sequences which, more than any other spy movie to date, is unafraid to show the physical consequences of every kick, punch and slam.

Theron, now surely the indisputable queen of action after “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “Fast & Furious 8” and this, commits fully to the role as the hard-as-nails Broughton, a hard-drinking, callous and ruthlessly efficient secret agent. Sex, violence, guns and death, this film has it all and everything revolves around Theron’s performance. McAvoy’s David Percival would be the lead character in pretty much any other film but here, he’s effectively Agent Triple-X or Dr Holly Goodhead to Theron’s Bond. Theron’s Broughton may be as close to Fleming’s original creation as we’ve ever had on screen and it’s both thrilling and chilling to watch her manipulate, outfight and seduce whoever is around her, including the naïve French Secret Service Agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), as she single-mindedly keeps her mind on the mission.

Steeped in a darkly romanticised Cold War nostalgia, “Atomic Blonde” suffers a little from an awkward and occasionally intrusive narrative structure as the Berlin mission is relayed as part of a debriefing session at MI6 but it’s in its dazzling set pieces that “Atomic Blonde” will convince you to overlook such shortcomings, especially a stairwell fight scene that pushes Bond, Bourne and even Wick into a scuffle for second place cinematic badassness.

“Atomic Blonde” brilliantly demonstrates the reductive unnecessariness of a ‘female James Bond’. After this, I’m ambivalent about the next Bond movie, but I definitely want more Lorraine Broughton.

8/10 

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017) Review

As I hope #SharkWeak has proved, I’m a  huge fan of Shark movies, be they the prime cuts like “Jaws”, the gourmet burgers such as “Deep Blue Sea” or the dirty kebab van sustenance of SyFy original movies. I can tolerate wooden acting and look past the occasionally shoddy special effects (I grew up watching classic “Doctor Who” and “Blake’s 7” so I know a thing or two about using my own imagination to close the SFX gap) as long as there’s a hint of imagination and wit in the writing. “Sharknado” and “Sharknado 2: The Second One” were passable and “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” actually managed to be halfquarter-way knowingly funny. By “Sharknado 4: The Fourth Awakens”, however, the one-joke franchise had worn out its tolerance. It bored me. “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming” didn’t bore me.

It infuriated me.

As America reels from the effects of the devastating effects of the polynados of the last movie, Finn Shepherd (Ian Ziering) brings his family to London to attend a United Nations conference on Sharknados. Meanwhile, Nova (Cassandra Scerbo) is back, spelunking in the vast caverns under Stonehenge (presumably left there after all the “Transformers: The Last Knight” argy bargy) where she finds an ancient artefact and some cave paintings. It’s been a big week for ancient cave painters what with “Game Of Thrones” and now this. Wouldn’t you know it, the removal of the artefact creates a giant sharknado above Stonehenge, sucking up all the shark life from the seas around Salisbury <sarcasm />.

Of course, this Wiltshire-based weather phenomenon immediately threatens London and eventually the world after it snatches away Finn’s son and arbitrarily develops teleportation abilities. Can Finn and April (Tara Reid) rescue Gil (Billy Barratt) and prevent the devastation of a global but tightly budgeted sharknado-geddon? You know what, who cares?

This franchise has disappeared so far up its own cloaca that it’s basically peering out at the world through pointy CGI teeth. After the lazy “Star Wars” gags of the previous instalment, here we have a title card and opening which riffs weakly off “Indiana Jones”. It’s nothing compared to a crass attempt at a 007 reference once they reach London that comes off more as Lames Bond than anything else. Literally no British institution is left unsoiled by this grotesquely ignorant movie and its attempts to appeal to the basest instincts of its base.

There’s an egregious, almost savant level to the lack of awareness of London’s geography but then in a film which merrily switches bridges during a sequence it’s hard to know where lack of local knowledge ends and filmmaking ineptitude begins. Of course, ineptitude implies that the makers actually cared about what they were doing but their reach exceeded their grasp. The truth of “Sharknado 5” is they’re all too aware that they can put any old shit on screen and it won’t matter.

The script is a barely coherent parade of weak, throwaway moments so desperate it even borrows a joke from “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace”, designed to facilitate a parade of awkward, often z-list cameos that it reads like it was written by the casting director. Oh wait, it was. In a crowded field, it’s probably GMB’s Laura Tobin who delivers the worst performance, besting no-talent favourites like Katie Price and Louis Spence to the worst of the worst title thanks to her achingly self-conscious yet lifeless delivery of her lines.

The weirdest thing is the sharks of the sharknado have almost become incidental by this point. There are no amusing or imaginative kills and they seem more of a threat by falling and crushing people than in the chomping (which is, admittedly, an unexpected element of realism). The CGI is par for the course but the practical effects look cheaper and tackier than ever. During a Buckingham Palace-based action sequence where Finn retrieves the Queen’s crown and hands it to what looks like Gary Oldman’s character from “Hannibal” (although a quick IMDB check reveals it’s actually Charo, presumably cast as the Queen because Helen Mirren was unavailable), the teeth of the shark bend as he reaches into its mouth. It’s kind of astonishing that a film this cheap went to the expense of actually filming on location in London but it also results in numerous scenes of relaxed tourists ambling around during what is meant to be the ruination of the capital.

It’s a film informed by a Trumpian level of international awareness, and Finn Sherpherd’s unironic invocation of making America great again strikes a bum note in a film which already can’t seem to tell its arse from its elbow. Switzerland gets off comparatively lightly compared the UK but Australia and Japan aren’t quite so lucky and if cultural sensitivity takes a beating, it’s nothing compared to the treatment meted out to Newtonian physics and pretty much every other branch of science.

Sprinkled in amongst the cavalcade of cameos by bad cosmetic surgery recipients and excruciatingly awful performances (Chris Kattan’s ‘British’ Prime Minister is punch-the-TV irritating) there are a few names (Nichelle Nicholls, Olivia Newton-John) which just make you sad that they’ve been reduced to this. Of the main cast, Ian Ziering plays this straighter than he’s ever done before, with a sincerity that implies he thinks he’s part of something groundbreaking and important while Tara Reid gamely tries to look like she knows what’s going on, especially after a character makeover which leaves her looking like ‘Bubblegum Hooker Barbie’.

A never ending procession of Dumbass Ex Machina ‘twists’ brings us to a Zemeckis-inspired ending which signposts where this now post-apocalyptic clusterfuck of a franchise intends to go next. At this point, I’d rather feed myself to the sharks than watch any more of this garbage.

0/10 

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (2017) Review

Luc Besson’s Space Oddity opens with a suitably inspirational opening as the story of Alpha (the eponymous City Of A Thousand Planets) is told through an evolutionary montage which nods to both Kubrick and Zemeckis.

En route to Alpha to begin his next mission, Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) experiences a vision of the destruction of the idyllic planet Mül. Shaking off the vision, he and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) embark on a mission to recover a rare creature which has been stolen by some interdimensional gangsters. Meanwhile, back on Alpha, a danger is growing, a malignant and mysterious presence at the heart of the station which threatens the peace and stability of the thousands of races which use the station to trade and share their knowledge.

Luc Besson has clearly found all the optimism, hopefulness and wonder JJ Abrams decided his version of “Star Trek” didn’t need and has crammed three films’ worth of it into “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”. It begins with a beautiful and gloriously affirmative timeline of human space exploration, emphasising its important role in breaking down international and, eventually, interstellar enmity and there’s an abundance of imagination on display as we’re shown dizzyingly different parts of this colourful cosmos. From interdimensional tourist traps to amusingly weaponised motion-capture devices, the ideas pile up thick and fast as one fascinating concept breathlessly follows another. Action packed and often funny, it retains the energy of Besson’s other seminal sci-fi work, “The Fifth Element”, but strikes a slightly less comedic and surreal tone, as befits a sci-fi action adventure centred around a conspiracy to conceal a historic act of genocide.

That the film can tackle such a dark subject matter without sacrificing the wonder and lightness is a testament to the way its crafted. As a visual and kinetic experience, “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” beats just about anything else 2017 has offered us.

It’s a shame, then, that the leads are slightly miscast and lack a real chemistry. Dane DeHaan is a fine actor but he struggles to convince as a dashing outer space secret agent and although Cara Delevingne gives one of her best performances that I’ve seen, it’s still not quite enough to really sell the dynamic between Laureline and Valerian, especially with a script this clunky. There’s a refreshingly Rodenberry-esque approach to the wondrous technology on display in that rarely do people stop to explain why they’re using things which would be everyday items to them, but there is an achingly clumsy exposition dump from Valerian’s onboard computer as they approach Alpha for the (audience’s) first time. The costumes for this movie are great: Clive Owen is resplendent in his blinged-up M Bison cosplay as the shady Commander who has something to hide and if you’ve ever had a fantasy involving Rihanna, chances are she wears that very outfit in this movie.

Breathtaking sci-fi vistas, innovative action scenes, spectacular special effects and pseudo-mystical alien shenanigans, “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets” is everything the “Star Wars” prequels could have and should have been: thrilling, kinetic, driven by a dark conspiracy but never dull and helmed by a director who doesn’t struggle to get a good performance out of Natalie Portman.

Sadly, this movie – much like “Jupiter Ascending” before it – has been summarily rejected at the American Box Office, lending to screeds and screeds of articles decrying it as a ‘flop’, a ‘bomb’ and a failure. Given its overall influence has been waning for years, it’s becoming more and more absurd that we lend so much critical credence to the box office tastes of a nation which elected a bloviating hatemonger as its commander in chief, embraced Lucas’ execrable prequels to the tune of over $1billion and continues to routinely embrace Michael Bay’s “Transformers” and Pixar’s “Cars” with little or no compunction. Even the very welcome success of “Wonder Woman” has become weighted down by a totemic fetishisation which is now seeing it hagiographically extolled as a ‘Best Picture’ contender. In a country culturally at war with itself, what hope is there for a fluffy piece of sci-fi fantasy like “Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets”?

Hopefully, the international box office will be more receptive to this thoughtful but fun sci-fi extravaganza because cinema needs the explosive imagination of the Bessons and the Wachowskis as much as it needs the earnestness of the likes of Christopher Nolan. Escapist, upbeat pulpy sci-fi is a rarity these days and despite (or maybe because of) its flaws, Mertmas and I utterly adored it.

8/10 

That Was The #SharkWeak That Was

Hello cupfishcakes! 😃🦈

It’s the UK premiere of “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming” tonight on SyFy UK (9:00pm if you’re wondering) and we’ve had a lot of fun over the past seven days here at What The Craggus Saw with Shark Weak but amidst all the man-eating monstrous nonsense, there’s a lot of things these presumably well-researched and meticulously fact-checked movies leave out. So, in the interests of balance (and, you know, the planet’s future), here’s the science bit:

It’s not news to you, I’m sure, that sharks in the real world are in big trouble. SyFy Cinema might show them as vicious, relentlessly voracious killing machines but in real life, they are very vulnerable creatures (okay, vulnerable creatures with a set of endless serrated knives for teeth but remember, for every human killed by a shark attack, humans have killed nine million sharks[1]).

Peter Benchley, the author of “Jaws”, has been particularly vocal about his guilt over the role he played in giving sharks their gruesome reputation and contributing to the global attitudes towards sharks and their utterly misrepresented threat to humans.  With Hollywood embracing this remorseless killer of the sea image and humans encroaching more and more into their habitat either for leisure or commerce it’s gotten us to the point where some species of sharks are at severe risk of extinction and many more are suffering serious population depletion. The reduction and potential loss of sharks could prove to be catastrophic to the marine environment and subsequently to humanity and our relationship with the oceans.

Sharks are fish, ranging in size from the 10m-15m Whale Shark – the largest non-cetacean creature alive on the Earth today – to the 20-50cm small varieties such as the Cookie Shark. In amongst the range, you have the renowned predators such as the Great White, the Bull Shark and the Tiger Shark, unusual species and variations such as the Hammerhead Sharks and Wobbegongs (Carpet Sharks). They range all over the planet’s oceans from the Oceanic White Tip who prefers deep, open water to the Bull Shark which can happily live in both fresh and salt water areas. We have sharks in UK waters too. For example, the huge but harmless filter feeding Basking Shark (notable for its tendency to swim with its fin above water, “Jaws”-like, as it scoops up the microscopic nourishment floating under the surface of the water often visits in summer. Blue Sharks, Thresher Sharks, even the occasional smooth Hammerhead Shark can pop in around the south coast of the UK and, of course, we have permanent residents like dog fish, cat sharks and smooth hounds in our waters all year round. And don’t forget the shark family also includes the Rays too, from the small skates found in UK waters to the enormous Manta rays found in warmer climes.

My point is that Sharks are spectacularly more varied and diverse than the Great White Shark that Hollywood has adopted as the poster child for fear of the ocean and even then, the Great White itself is not what it is portrayed as on screen.  As varied and diverse as they are, they all have one thing in common: they are all under threat from Humans.  We have the biggest impact on them in so many ways: overfishing, commercial fishing techniques and by-catch all have a direct and immediate impact by reducing numbers by taking them out of the water to start with, not to mention the abhorrent ‘finning’ of sharks for soup and health supplements which sees otherwise healthy animals caught, mutilated and then dumped back into the ocean to sink, drown or bleed to death.

Climate change is also taking its toll as CO2 changes the acidity of the oceans and temperatures start to rise. Similarly to CO2 changes, long term temperature changes in the ocean can be devastating, even a degree or two’s warming is damaging coral reefs and when the coral goes, so do the fish which live and feed off them and suddenly the sharks’ food sources have also vanished. Sharks may sit at the top of the food chain, performing a hugely undervalued function of keeping the oceanic populations healthy and in balance by removing the sick and weak through predation, but they are vulnerable to any large scale disruption to those populations. And, as if all that weren’t enough, we’re also filling the deep ocean with plastic garbage. It’s not just about target efforts to protect the sharks themselves, when we move to protect and restore the environment, we save the sharks and, ultimately, ourselves.

No, sharks do not have a murderous vendetta against humans but, when you think of everything we’re doing passively and actively to harm them, could you really blame them if they did? Sharks need our help, and we can do this is so many ways…

🦈 If you eat fish, make sure that it is caught in a sustainable manner – don’t just accept “sustainably caught” on the packaging, I would encourage everyone to only purchase fish that is certified by an appropriate board like the Marine Stewardship Council. Also know that some fish is shark meat marketed under a different name. That Rock or Rock Salmon in your fish ‘n’ chip shop is actually Dog Fish, and it’s not usually sustainably caught either.

🦈 There are many organisations and charities out there who study and advocate for Sharks, providing information and education who would welcome your support (click on the logos to find out more):

🦈 Why not adopt a shark?

🦈 Marvel at how far Sharks travel the world, pick a favourite and follow them!

🦈 Say no to single use plastic. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish (tonne for tonne).

🦈 Reduce, Reuse, Refill, Repurpose, Recycle

🦈 Pick up your litter. And organise or participate in your own local beach clean.

🦈 Don’t buy shark teeth necklaces or other shark items on holiday – by buying these items you provide a demand and this drives supply. Don’t buy it and they won’t be killed to provide it. You might want to think twice about cage diving with sharks or participating in organised shark feeding activities too. It encourages unnatural behaviours and puts people at risk, thereby putting sharks at risk if/when incidents happen.

🦈 Check out the late Rob Stewart’s world-changing documentary Sharkwater, which helped raise awareness of the plight of sharks worldwide and usher in a worldwide ban on shark-finning.

Sharks are great fun as movie monsters but I hope this has given you a bit of inspiration for what you can do to help protect and conserve them so that in years to come, future generations won’t be thinking of these magnificent animals the way we do the dinsosaurs when we’re watching “Jurassic World”.

Thanks for reading and feel free to share your ideas on how we can help protect the environment and sharks.

XXX

The Last Shark (1981) #SharkWeak Review

“Jaws” was a huge box office success, one of – if not the first – bona fide summer blockbusters and in its wake came many, many crappy cash-ins, like remoras swimming after a real shark. “The Last Shark” is one of the most blatant – and most entertainingly laughable – remoran rip-offs out there. Produced in Italy, this spaghetti shark movie opens with a windsurfing montage that will have you willing the title character to show up and devour, if not the windsurfer, then the person in charge of selecting the soundtrack. Much of the special effects budget must have been spent on simply keeping the windsurfing going on what seems to be an utterly calm day.

Director Enzo G Castellari, eschewing “Jaws”’ masterpiece of using music to build tension, prefers to pad out “The Last Shark” with stock underwater footage with no contextual clues whatsoever. For the first half hour or so, whenever anything remotely interesting or exciting does happen, the film cuts to a scene of a car driving sensibly in traffic. In fact, for a long time the sensibly driven car seems to be the real star of the movie and I briefly considered the film’s twist would be the car is the shark. That’s how good this movie is: you’ll start daydreaming more interesting things. Where it does succeed in building tension is in the anticipation of the shark. The rest of the film is so parsimoniously inept, you just can’t wait to see how much shark they could afford.

Character-wise, the film quickly ticks off the required boxes: a conveniently resident marine biologist, a crooked businessman running for Governor and, of course, low-rent Quint knock off (Vic Morrow playing grizzled sea captain Ron Hamer, a mix of drunk Robert Shaw, grumpy Ernest Borgnine and an accent which oscillates wildly between Scotland and Italy).

Things don’t start well, with the first stock footage of a sea creature looking like a porpoise rather than a shark – it’s a new low in lame stock footage use. The character’s first shark sighting is actually a pretty good visual gag using a chewed surfboard but still, no actual sign of the shark. Because of the impending regatta (of course), they decide to build an underwater wall (and presumably get the sharks to pay for it), which is a lot of effort given nobody has actually seen a shark yet.

After another tease where the camera’s zoomed in on a photo of a shark, about twenty-five minutes in, we finally get sight of the movie’s ‘star’ – sort of. Stock footage of the very tip of a very small dorsal fin or a very not Great White shark is spliced into a beach party montage just as a bikini clad girl announces she’s going for a swim. I think this is the film’s idea of foreshadowing. We’re treated to intercut footage of (clearly several different) sharks bumping against shark cages, suggesting it’s our shark trying to get through the shark wall. As cheap tricks go, it’s a decent one. Unfortunately Conveniently, the otherwise metal shark wall has a section made of flimsy netting for some reason and the shark swims easily through.

Oh buoy, credit where credit’s due – the film actually shows some creativity to avoid having to show a shark by having it get tangled in a marker buoy which it then tows through the regatta. The shark merrily uses its new found accessory to knock windsurfers off their boards, suggesting a level of tactical nous unusual in a [non-psychic] shark and, 37 minutes in, we finally get a good look at it. It’s a static plastic model but not too terrible I suppose. It loses much of its menace when it bubbles spectacularly as it fills with water as it re-submerges.

The regatta scene just kind of stops, although it does suggest the buoy has become detached from the sharks tail both visually and thematically, echoing the detachment of the last scene from this next one. We jump from the ‘spectacular action’ of the regatta where just one person died (the Last Shark is also, apparently, a picky eater) to the clichéd scene of an official mission to hunt the shark and a group of kids who think they can do it themselves.

Bafflingly, one of the missions decides the best way to track down the shark is to hunt for it in underwater caves, caves which are obviously too small for the shark to fit in no less. But the joke’s on me apparently, as the shark is also checking out the caves, perhaps hunting those pesky humans. Brilliantly, the shark gets his own back by building a wall of his own across the cave entrance using boulders. The shark model may be terrible but there’s no faulting his tactics and strategy. My admiration for the tactical genius of this shark is short-lived however as his next move is to disable a pleasure cruiser from escaping by jamming the propeller with his back. Perhaps the shark is part of that corporal mortification cult from “The DaVinci Code”?

One of the rookie kids who headed out to try and catch the shark ends up losing a leg in the most bloodless shark attack ever but surprisingly, the whole movie still looks better than the modern day low budget creature features because it’s shot on film rather than digital or videotape. Even film stock can’t help the model work though and an inspired idea to fish for the great white from a helicopter ends up making Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation look like Industrial Light & Magic. A curious thing about “The Last Shark” is that in “Jaws”, most of the people die because they’re unaware the shark is there but in this, nearly every kill is the result of people deliberately setting out to find the shark. The final finale (for there are several false ‘fin’s) is an inspired siege on a detached floating platform and sees the film beat “Jaws: The Revenge” to pioneer the shark roar by some six years although it’s frittered away in the most drama free shark killing in Shark Weak history.

“The Last Shark” is a vintage treat for devotees of bad shark movies because it really goes all in on the ‘bad’. But that’s about the only audience who could appreciate this. Well, them and film students who want a cautionary example of why editing and scene structure are important.

2/10 

Dinoshark (2010) #SharkWeak Review

The film opens with a baby Dinoshark swimming away from a broken chunk of Arctic glacier that calved due to global warming. Three apparently uneventful years later, the Dinoshark is a ferocious predatory adult and starts killing tourists and locals off the shores of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Our hero, Trace, is the first to notice the creature, witnessing his friend get eaten, but – as is always the way – he has trouble convincing anybody that a monster of such prehistory is still alive let alone snacking on the local populace.

Roger Corman’s (yes, him again) “Dinoshark” has a far better claim to the title “Jurassic Shark” than the ‘film’ which took the title and clearly a greater budget than whatever loose change was found down the back of a sofa plus a camcorder that was used for that travesty. I mean, this film has Eric “Skyline” Balfour in it!

Aside from the micro-budget nonsense like “Raiders Of The Lost Shark” and “Jurassic Shark”, there’s a something of a tradition for sharksploitation flicks to be thinly veiled excuses for the cast and crew to enjoy a few weeks on an exotic South American getaway. I bet the poor guys who slave away on the bargain basement CGI effects barely even get to go outside at all, let alone hit the beaches.

The film’s kind of lazily formulaic (or maybe I’ve just watched too many of these things in quick succession). In any event, it’s easy to see why director Kevin O’Neill got the nod to direct the two “Sharktopus” sequels. It was originally pitched as a sequel to “Dinocroc” but SyFy wanted a more sharky flavour so out with the crocs and in the with the sharkskin and away we go as Corman recycles much of the plot from his 1979 “Jaws” cash-in creature feature “Up from the Depths”.

It’s a little bit bloodier than usual with these films – we actually see the water turn red when people fall into the water at the slightest bump to a boat and there’s a hilariously staged half-eaten corpse which is clearly the actress half buried in sand and dressed with some offal. Digital effects wise, the film gets its money’s worth from two specific shots of the Dinoshark swimming through the water and it actually pulls off a pretty mean helicopter snatch ‘n’ munch, one of the best I’ve seen in these films.

Of course, there’s a regatta running and Trace’s warnings go unheeded until the very last second. People usually seem completely oblivious to the ineffectiveness of firing bullets into water in these movies, and here there’s the added problem that the creature is heavily armoured, foreshadowing the toothy tunnellers of “Sand Sharks”. We get a selection of the usual water sports fun kills as a paraglider and a jet skier get munched among others. The action-packed final kill is also up there – literally – as Eric Balfour attempts to takes out the Dinoshark with a mid-air grenade toss. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough and, from the way it’s filmed, our hero ends up appearing to use a small child as a human shield against the advancing monster. Thankfully, our leading lady (Iva Hasperger) is on hand to take way more time than strictly necessary to set up a cheesy one-liner before skewering Dinoshark in the eye with a harpoon.

If you were rooting for the monster in this one – and who could blame you if you were – don’t worry too much because before the movie’s done, we revisit the still thawing glacier in time to see the release of another Dinoshark baby.

So cheesy you could top a pizza with it, “Dinoshark” really isn’t a shark movie at all, but it helped define the tropes and clichés of the bad shark movie genre so gleefully, earning it a place in Shark Weak’s line-up.

3/10 

Sharktopus vs Whalewolf (2015) #SharkWeak Review

Unreleased and, so far, unbroadcast in the UK, “Sharktopus vs Whalewolf” sees the return of the sharp toothed tentacled menace, this time getting tangled up in genetic experimentation and voodoo as he does battle with the fearsome Whalewolf. Oh yeah, SPOILER ALERT: Sharktopus survives the events of “Sharktopus vs Pteracuda”.

Shark Weak veteran Casper Van Dien is back, along with his then wife Catherin Oxenberg. Before you assume the couple simply fancied a tropical holiday in the Dominican Republic, think again. They filed for divorce the same year this movie was made and share no scenes together, so perhaps it wasn’t the happiest of shoots.

The film opens with Ray (Caspar Van Dien), a burned out alcoholic boat captain hosting a charter for a burial at sea. We know it’s a funeral straight away because the deceased is apparently being laid to rest by simply dropping a polished mahogany coffin with all the trimmings straight into the crystal clear Caribbean waters. Take that, tourists! Thankfully it only takes a minute of this movie for Sharktopus to show up, in all his cartoony glory, swiftly turning the funeral into a ‘die one, get to flee’ bloodbath. Ray and his sidekick Pablo (Jorge Eduardo De Los Santos) survive only to find that their debt to local voodoo priest Tiny (Tiny) has fallen due and the only thing he’ll accept to settle the debt is the heart of the Sharktopus.

Meanwhile, Oxenberg is having a ball as Teutonic-accented genetic scientist Dr Reinhart whose clinical menu of genetic therapies makes the ones in Die Another Day look like the pharmacy counter in Boots. To help a would-be athlete, she whips up a DNA Daiquiri, one part killer whale, one part wolf and accidentally garnished with moonlight, creating a lunar-driven man/ monster hybrid. We’re soaring into “Gremlins 2”-level high concept science madness here and it’s glorious.

Sharktopus actually looks pretty good in the underwater scenes, it’s in the daylight setting with real people the FX shortcomings are apparent. The first fight between Whalewolf and Sharktopus has all the dramatic heft of a cynical Discovery Channel cryptozoology ‘documentary’, while our game cast does their best to keep their sight-lines reasonably consistent.

Lest we forget, for the eponymous anti-hero of the franchise, Sharktopus is still a voracious and indiscriminate killer and his body count far exceeds the guest villain. At least the hokey voodoo subplot brings a fresh way to bring the creature under some form of control after the ubiquitous control implants of the previous two movies.

The film eventually boils down to an extended rumble between the two monsters, throughout the island including what you assume is two rival dance troupes engaging in an elegantly choreographed and surprisingly acrobatic ‘gang fight’ followed by a laughably executed parkour scene which is cut short as Sharktopus and Whalewolf turn up to execute them for real.

Caspar Van Dien turns in a pretty good comedic performance and a too-short sequence of Sharktopus rampaging through a shopping mall shows real glimpses of wit in the writing and direction but it’s soon back to business as usual. Unusually for a shark monster movie, much of the action takes place on land and the finale is set in a baseball stadium where, oddly, it’s our star, Sharktopus, who’s killed first, after being flung into an electrified net and fried up like a jumbo portion of sharkalamari before Whalewolf is finished off by a barrage of missiles from some conveniently passing fighter jets.

It’s more of a stop than an ending, and beyond ‘let them fight’ the film doesn’t have too much else to offer us. Given the landlocked and flash-fried nature of the title creature’s demise, it does appear to be the end of the franchise, but a pre-credits coda provides a voodoo-inspired resurrection, should the need arise for another teeth and tentacles team-up in the future.

Breezier and slightly more cohesive than the previous instalment, it’s still high concept low brow rubbish but it’s a little more knowingly tongue-in-cheek this time and the creature design and animation is actually quite impressive, albeit grossly cartoony. Where will the combine-a-creature wheel stop next? Only Roger Corman knows for sure!

4/10 

Sharktopus vs Pteracuda (2014) #SharkWeak Review

SyFy movie! Some fun, all gimmicks

Two creature ideas go round having fights
Round having fights, round having fights
Two creature ideas go round having fights
Round having fights, round having fights

Guess who’s back? Back again?
Sharktopus! Tell a friend
Guess who’s back? guess who’s back?
Guess who’s back? guess who’s back?

They created a monster, ‘cause nobody wants ta
See just sharks no more, they want monsters and chummed liver
Well, if you want monsters, this is what I’ll give ya
A little bit of fish mixed with a fossil flyer
Some blood squibs that’ll jump start your heart quicker
Than the sharktopus egg sac escaping from the first movie
And drifting out and hatching in the open sea
And ending up in a theme park – captivity (heyyy!)
You waited this long, now stop debating
‘Cause the Navy’s back, and they’ve been creating
I know that they used a barracuda
But the ‘dactyl DNA’s complicating
So the control implant won’t let him be
Or let him be free, so let me see
They try to shut it down but he breaks free
And flies off on a killing spree
So, eat peeps on the beach and some in the surf
Fuck that! Conan dies, causing much mirth
And get ready, ‘cause this shit’s about to get heavy
It’s Sharktopus v Pteracuda, for king of the sea!

Now this is a Shark Weak movie
And if you’ve been following me
You’ll know we need a little controversy
‘Cause it goes so well with gore and cheese
But this movie is a little bit twee
I said this is just a fair movie
Kind of sets up for movie three!
But it lacks a bit of creativity

Little hellions, monsters feeling rebellious
Embarrassing special effects undermine this
The cast feeling like prisoners helpless
‘Til someone comes along on a mission and yells, “Cut!!!”
Roger Corman, his vision is scary
Won’t start a revolution, or be ruling the airwaves
It’s silly, so just let me revel and bask
In the fact that I got to watch all these back to back
Movie disasters, such a catastrophe
For you to read so damn much of my thoughts on these?
We’re not done, no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no
Fix your wifi connection log it in, and then I’m gonna
Fill it in, and up your browser like a splinter
Making you afraid to get back in the water
It’s interesting, the best thing since wrestling
Infesting in your news feed and nesting
Testing, attention, pause
Feel the tension, soon as someone mentions “Jaws”
That’s my ten cents, Shark Weak is free
Sharktopus vs Pteracuda look cartoony.

Now this is a Shark Weak movie
And if you’ve been following me
You’ll know how many I’ve had to see
‘Cause I will suffer to keep you free
But this movie isn’t all it could be
Production values are a little shoddy
Casting lacks a starring name or three
And, at least for now, that’s all from me.

3/10 

Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002) #SharkWeak Review

Make no mistake, this is the movie Jason Statham’s forthcoming “Meg” needs to beat. “Shark Attack 3” completely ignores the previous two films (returning cast member Jenny McShane plays a completely different character) and moves the action from South Africa to Mexico. Ariba! This time out our biggest ‘name’ is John Barrowman. Ay ay ay, dios mio!

When a colossal shark’s tooth is discovered off the Mexican coast by lifeguard Ben (Barrowman) during the maintenance on an important new pipeline, it confirms the worst fears of marine biologist and shark expert Cat Stone (McShane) – the most menacing predator in the history of the oceans is still alive, and feeding on anything that crosses its path.

“Shark Attack 3” contains all the ingredients we’ve come to depend on: callous corporations focussed on profits, tourist chiefs reluctant to close the beaches and an old sea dog who’ll catch the shark for ye. That John Barrowman is the least hammy and wooden actor in the film tells you everything you need to know about the rest of the cast and the quality of performances on offer. Even Barrowman’s performance is so tongue-in-cheek, it’s as if he faced a constant struggle to keep a straight face during all this nonsense. Luckily, the same cannot be said for Jenny McShane, who manages to remain impassive even in the face of one of the all-time great lines of cinema dialogue: “You know I’m really wired. What do you say I take you home and eat your pussy?”

In case that doesn’t give you a clue, “Shark Attack 3” is much raunchier than its predecessor, favouring the viewer with actual tits and ass as the director wisely recognises that if he can minimise the amount of dialogue his cast have to deliver, so much the better.

What really sets it apart, though, is its special effects. The use of stock footage is ludicrously haphazard; sometimes brilliant but often profoundly stupid. Although never addressed in dialogue, the unexplained Megalodon is remarkably Protean, changing size, sex and occasionally species with alarming frequency and some decent model work early on is ruined by a spectacularly hilarious dice and splice digital editing in the finale.

I say ruined, but it’s not really true. This is bad shark movie elevated to a high art form, the Platonic ideal of Shark Weak. Thanks to Barrowman (at his most Barrowmany) and his fellow actors, this prehistoric predator pantomime is never boring and never makes a lick of sense either. It’s so bad, it smashes right through the bottom of the scoring, circumnavigates the globe and ends up back somewhere at the middle. The existence of “Shark Attack 3: Megalodon” is a blessing, a curse and a miracle. It needs to be seen to be disbelieved.

5/10 

Shark Attack 2 (2000) #SharkWeak Review

“Shark Attack 2”, the imaginatively named follow-up to 1999’s “Shark Attack” opens, as is traditional, with an unexpected shark attack. This time it’s a pair of scuba diving sisters and only one of them makes it back alive, albeit after managing to injure her attacker. For a brief moment, I wondered if we were in for a sharky spin on “The Fugitive” as Samantha is accused of her sister’s murder and she spends the film trying to convince people it was not her, it was the one-eyed shark! Sadly no, but it does at least keep a tenuous link to the first film as it turns out the sharks now terrorising the coastline of Cape Town are the same genetically modified ones from Port Amanzi.

Dr. Nick Harris (Thorsten Kaye), a marine biologist is brought in to deal with the mutated shark menace and succeeds in capturing the shark, housing it in local theme park Water World but due to the greed of the aquarium owner, the shark manages to escape. Nick is forced to team up with Samantha (Nikita Ager) to hunt it down.

This no-name sequel immediately lowers the acting bar and although it’s still primarily relying on model work for special effects, you can see that the money they saved on casting has been spent on some rudimentary CGI. There’s still some smart use of stock footage, though.

Plot-wise, we all know since “Jaws 3” that attempting to keep a Great White in captivity never ends well and it’s “Jaws 3” that this movie is riffing on so hard and so cheaply. The script is laughably workmanlike, staggering from plot point to plot point with little time for logic or consistency. Everyone seems super-chill about people getting eaten by the shark at Water World. When an employee falls into the shark’s tank while trying to feed it, the most anybody – even the park visitors – can muster is mild concern. After the employee has been devoured, our hero Nick then decides to radio the control room to advise there’s an emergency. Lightning reflexes, buddy but unless the shark requires a toothpick, I doubt there’s much urgency left. Of course, this is just a story development to allow Michael Francisco (Danny Keough), the shady owner of Water World to scapegoat Nick and fire him.

He may be fired from Water World, but he’s still employed by the film as its hero, so he decides to go after the shark, teaming up with the vengeful sister of the movie’s first victim on her saucily monikered charter boat, the Wet Dream. But Water World’s Francisco wants his star attraction back too so he hires Discovery Channel Crocodile Hunter knock-off Roy Bishop (Dan Metcalf) to pursue them.

Thanks to an electronic tag, our hero and heroine quickly track down the errant shark, which turns and attacks the boat. Of cours, the shark roars, so if you had that on your Shark Weak bingo card, cross it off now. After tangling with the shark again the Wet Dream finds itself adrift  – evidently, the shark wasn’t told that only the human cast members get to chew the scenery – and the crew has to be recused by the bigger, better Discovery Channel boat.

Unfortunately TV’s Roy Bishop is more of an IrLoser than an Irwin and manages to catch a shark but can’t confirm if it’s the same shark due it letting it get decapitated by the propeller. Our hero Nick is convinced the danger remains and goes diving at night to see if he can find the real shark (risk assessment isn’t his strong point). To his horror, he discovers an underwater cave full of mutant Great Whites – it’s a shark gang and they’re not practising jazz tap routines to take on the Jets this time.

Thanks to this gang of sharks, the local surf competition bites the big one as the mutant sharks cruise the shore like a surf ‘n’ turf buffet, causing the Mayor to lash out at Francisco who takes out his guilty rage on Roy Bishop while Dr Nick shares tales of a tiger shark attack he survived years before. No mention is made of whether he ever tangled with Mary Ellen Moffat, but he does get busy with Samantha in a brief, steamy super-softcore sexy scene.

If it sounds like the movie manages to pack a lot into its 90 minute run time, it does – even if it’s the kind of packing which means you arrive at your destination with your clothes all wrinkled and your sun tan lotion having leaked all over your books. A frenetic underwater showdown with the shark gang ends with IrLoser Roy staging the most improbable survival since Mario van Peebles bobbed to the surface in “Jaws: The Revenge”.

Despite the wooden cast and rip off plotting, “Shark Attack 2” actually ends up being kind of a better movie than its predecessor. It’s still hammy and incredibly dumb but it’s also pretty good fun.

4/10 

Shark Attack (1999) #SharkWeak Review

If you’re worried that we’ve moved beyond the era of movie star led shark shenanigans, never fear: “Shark Attack” (kudos on the effort in titling this one, guys) brings us none other than Casper Van Dien and Ernie Hudson. Yes, the stars of “Starship Troopers”, “Ghostbusters” and “Congo” are giving up bugs and spooks and apes to take on the ocean’s apex predator. Sort of.

In a quiet South African fishing village of Port Amanzi, something is lurking in the water. The local fishermen can find no fish to catch and the town’s economy is collapsing. When a marine biologist friend of his mysteriously vanishes, Steven McKray (van Dien) arrives to investigate. He quickly discovers that something fishy is going on at the local marine research institute.

The film opens with a surprise attack, only this time it’s by some crooked (or at least overly zealous) cops. Made in the days before cheap and cheerful CGI, this 1999 movie starts building the tension from the very first scene as we watch a 16kb modem upload a vital email to our soon-to-arrive hero. Alas, its transmission is interrupted by the corrupt cops and, after slashing him with a machete they throw him overboard to be devoured by some stock footage.

The film’s first shark attack itself is curiously bloodless; all Dutch angles and stock footage but where the shark effects are pretty lame, the physical props are actually pretty good. So good, in fact, that I’m not sure if they actually used a real dead shark in the autopsy scene.  The stock footage used isn’t too bad – if a little repetitive – and at least they’ve made a bit of an effort to grade the footage to the colour of the water of the filming locations so it’s not too intrusive.

Plot wise, it’s a bit of a mishmash between the character beats of “Jaws” (consider Van Dien’s McKray a hybrid of Chief Brody and Matt Hooper) and the plot of its big screen contemporary “Deep Blue Sea”, as the reason for the shark’s unusually aggressive behaviour is revealed to be due to genetic experimentation in the pursuit of a cure for cancer. However, if you were looking forward to seeing Johnny Rico and Winston Zedmore teaming up to take on the bad guys (and fish) you’re in for a disappointment, because Hudson is the shady businessman whose taking advantage of the shark attacks to drive the seafront businesses into the ground and buy up the beachfront property. Apart from some of the ‘South African’ accents being hilariously off, it’s decidedly average fare, never living up to its script’s crowning glory revealing that Hudson is intent on selling the village to ‘the oil company who have just struck gold’. While it’s disappointing that “Shark Attack” isn’t terrible – nor terribly good either – it’s really much more of a dull thriller with sharks than a monster shark movie. All is not lost, though: this is one franchise which would end up giving so much more to the bad shark genre…

4/10 

Wakefield (2017) Review

Available now on VOD and DVD, “Wakefield” provides a compelling account of a man who finds his nervous breakdown may actually offer him the opportunity to break free.

Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston) is a successful businessman with a wife, two daughters and a lovely home in the suburbs. But arriving home one day, the daily grind of working life, the stagnation of his marriage and the ingratitude of his family wear him down. Retreating to the attic of his garage, he finds he has a perfect vantage point from which to watch his wife and daughters live their life and decides to teach them a lesson by spending the night there without telling them. But the taste of freedom is intoxicating and Howard realises that to be free from all the burdens and tribulations of his life, all he needs to do is stay hidden.

It’s a quirky premise, helped enormously by the layout of the Wakefields’ house but there’s only one point where it stretches credibility that he could remain undiscovered all that time and that’s when Howard is reported as missing and the police become involved. Despite the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance, the police never once search the property. That aside, what “Wakefield” gives us, through a superb performance from Cranston, is a monologue examining and deconstructing modern day middle aged life. As Howard watches his family react and then adapt to his absence, he begins to re-examine everything he valued in life as one by one the trappings and status symbols of everyday suburban existence and his assumptions and interpretations of his wife and children are revealed to him anew.

Writer/ Director Robin Swicord fashions the story into a fascinating insight into the human condition as she sympathetically keeps us with  Howard’s perspective as he goes through his nervous breakdown and thankfully in Bryan Cranston finds an actor whose presence and emotional range make the journey worthwhile. From the frenetic farce of “Malcolm In The Middle” to the brooding menace of “Breaking Bad”, Cranston has proved himself to be one of the most versatile actors working today and in “Wakefield” he finds a vehicle worthy of his talents and delivers a mesmerising performance. Although by definition distant, there’s also a fine supporting performance by Jennifer Garner as Howard’s wife, whom we only really get to know through his anecdotes and remembrances yet she brings enough to the role that we can’t help but wonder if Howard might be something of an unreliable narrator when it comes to his spouse.

Poignant, raw and utterly captivating, this is a thought-provoking and tender examination of the pressures of modern life and the toll it can take. It may be a little indie film, shot in twenty days, but it’s got enough drama, heart and inspired performances that it puts many mainstream pictures to shame.

8/10 

Planet Of The Sharks (2016) #SharkWeak Review

“Planet Of The Sharks” is the selachian sequel to “Waterworld” that nobody needed or even asked for. This is as high concept as SyFy movies come and, surprisingly, it’s actually pretty good fun.

In the future, climate change has completely melted the polar ice caps and the entire world is under water. Humanity survives in scatted floating cities, at the mercy of the sharks which now roam the earth. But there is hope, as the survivors have a plan to reactivate a satellite and scrub the CO2 from the atmosphere to bring about a global cooldown and reclaim the planet.

The poster for this Asylum movie promises a toothy spin on “Planet Of The Apes” but unfortunately, there’s no ‘damn dirty shark’ being told to keep their fins off here. We’re still some way away from getting talking sharks in these movies, roaring and texting being the closest we’ve got so far.

As the film opens, we’re treated to an attack by the sharks on a floating commune called Junk City. These CGI monsters of the deep aren’t averse to leaping out of the water for their supper so there’s plenty of kills in the early stages. The effects are actually pretty decent and the “Waterworld” aesthetic is successfully recreated on a micro budget which must have the still-smarting investors in Kevin Costner’s egocentric epic weeping bitter tears.

The main visual faux pas is an inability to match the colour of the water between the long shots and the close-up action and it’s clear some of the deepwater scenes have been filmed in a shallow coastal lagoon but it’s pretty much par for the course in these films. There are no star names whatsoever in this but we do get a cast who are willing to give it their best shot no matter how silly or nonsensical things get.

The film keeps things pacy, which is a good thing because if you stop to think – even for a second – the whole concept of the film starts to fall apart like the shark model in “Jaws: The Revenge”. If the survivors’ intent is to provoke a ‘big freeze’ to restore the Earth, how do they intend to survive it given their wardrobes are pretty much exclusively tropical rag chic? And speaking of survival, how are the humans surviving given the reason the sharks are now attacking surface dwelling humans is the complete collapse of the oceanic food chain.

But then we don’t watch these films for scientific realism, do we? And a good thing too because if global inundation and ravenous sharks aren’t enough, “Planet Of The Sharks” is happy to throw in laser beams and under water volcanos too. Awfully brilliant and brilliantly awful!

4/10 

The Big Sick (2017) Review

Sweet, funny and poignantly insightful, “The Big Sick” is a perfectly pitched romantic comedy semi-autobiographical memoir of how star Kumail Nanjiani met his real life wife.

Kumail is making a living as an Uber driver as he tries to get his big break in stand up comedy. After a gig, he meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) and although both of them are adamant it’s just a one night thing, neither of them seems keen to stop seeing the other. But when Kumail’s reluctance to meet her parents or introduce her to his causes trouble, it seems like their relationship is over. At least, that is, until one night when Kumail receives a call from Emily’s friend telling him she’s been taken to hospital.

Usually you’d expect a film which juggles romance, comedy, religion, immigration, family conflict and career aspirations to be an overcrowded and jumbled but there’s such a beautifully judged authenticity to everything that unfolds that nothing feels rushed or incomplete. The performances of the cast are superb, from the innate likability of Nanjiani and Kazan to the down home wisdom of Emily’s parents played with a heartfelt world-weariness by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.

A real-life twist on the “While You Were Sleeping” premise, it may make several references to “The X-Files” but it’s the TV series “House, MD” which it homages as Emily’s illness defies the Doctors, deftly giving Kumail time to bond with Emily’s parents and reflect on his own situation and choices.

Unshowy, tender and sublimely well observed, “The Big Sick” is the perfect antidote to the summer blockbuster box office overload and proves that the romantic comedy formula can be completely revitalised by gaining a fresh perspective.

10/10 

Dark Tide (2012) #SharkWeak Review

With Michael Caine added to our rogue’s gallery, we’re on a roll now. Next up, we’ve got none other than the star of “Catwoman” herself, Halle Berry as Kate, a freediving shark expert whose business is struggling to stay afloat after a tragic accident in which one of her crew died. Once dubbed a ‘shark whisperer’, one year later Kate is haunted by the memory of the attack and unable to get back in the water. As the debts mount up and the bank prepares to foreclose on her boat, he ex-husband Jeff (Olivier Martinez) introduces her to a thrill-seeking millionaire who, along with his teenage son, is looking for the ultimate adrenaline high: diving with great white sharks. Against her better judgement, Kate agrees to take the job.

I will admit my first thought on seeing this was that Berry fancied a South African holiday with her new squeeze Martinez and it turns out I was half right: this was the film on which the pair met. Aside from the tabloid tittle-tattle, though, this has little to recommend it.

Throughout all the Shark Weak films so far, there’s been one constant: no matter how shoddy, amateurish or downright stupid the films have been, there’s always been a modicum of fun to be found but that’s exactly the element missing in this dull and dreary thrill-less thriller. It’s a slick and glossy production, probably the best so far in this slog through the cinematic shark-based slurry, but even the decent effects work (blended with some skill with the usual stock footage) can’t seem to inject any life into proceedings.

It may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the chum given this is a this a film where producers outnumber the speaking cast. It shouldn’t be possible to make a film about sharks this boring but “Dark Tide” somehow manages it.

2/10 

The Emoji Movie (2017) Review

😡

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, sorry – did you want more than that? Okay. This is a lazy, cynical exercise in filmmaking driven by executive hubris and utter contempt for the audience. Ill-conceived, muddled and creatively bankrupt, Sony have shattered the rock bottom for animated fare in 2017, letting crap like “Monster Island” and “The Boss Baby” off the hook.

When Gene (T J Miller) finds himself unable to limit his range of emotions to his assigned role, he ends up on a quest to get himself reprogrammed, with the help of his best friend Hi-5 (James Corden) and Jailbreak (Anna Faris).

“The Emoji Movie” even challenges Pixar’s “Cars” for how ill-thought out its fictional world is, but then this is a shallow, sneering concoction of corporate synergy and nauseating product placement in which SpotifyTM and Dropbox® save the ‘world’. The parade of celebrity paycheque-cashing cameos may include the likes of Patrick Stewart, Sofia Vergara and Sean Hayes but their performances – along with those of the leads are – possibly literally and with no pun intended – phoned in. Worst of the worst is James Corden – the likeable man’s Ricky Gervais – whose one-note acting range has thus far been masked by his endearing laddish TV presenter schtick but is cruelly exposed by the demands of lead voice role.

The script is a litany of worn out gags about mobile phones and apps patched together with muddled messages about being yourself, or maybe fitting in and that mobile devices are bad for you (except they’re also good for you and save the day in the achingly patronising and out of touch ‘real life’ sub plot of the film).

This is a misfire of egregious proportions on every level, failing to wring even one iota of insight from its unworkable premise. The ancient Egyptians used a language of symbols for communication and they even had a specific symbol for bodily discharge. Now, thanks to Sony, so do cinema goers.

0/10

Jaws: The Revenge (1987) #SharkWeak Review

Among this movie’s few achievements is the coining of the instantly cliché tag line ‘This time it’s personal’. It also, like many “Jaws” fans, pretty much ignores “Jaws 3” completely, although not – it has to be said – to deliver a higher quality and more fitting end to the “Jaws” saga.

When Sean Brody is killed by an apparent shark attack, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) is convinced a great white shark has launched a personal vendetta against her family. After she fails to convince him to stay out of the water, she travels back to the Bahamas with her remaining son Michael, now a marine biologist, in the hope of escaping the shark.

It can’t be a good sign when the opening title sequence begins to dissolve into the movie only to abruptly reverse to allow the ‘produced and directed by’ credit to appear on screen. The fourth instalment of the “Jaws” franchise completes the exponential deterioration in quality from the first film but somehow, it plunges so far into the depths of stupidity and ineptitude that it becomes almost endearing. I certainly enjoy it more than “Jaws 3” and have probably watched it more often too. The eventual end of the opening titles and the dissolve into the eye of the frying fish is one of my strongest memories of this film, which I saw in the cinema at least twice when it was released (there wasn’t much else out at the time, it was a slow summer and “The Lost Boys” – its fellow tricennial celebrant – had already left cinemas). It’s so laughably mundane and at the same time trying to be clever that it just comes across as adorably precocious. It’s an almost neat idea to bait and switch with the shot of a close-up eye but as will become almost routine with this film, it raises more questions than answers. It also implies, given everything else that happens, that Ellen Brody routinely fries whole fish as part of her balanced breakfast.

The director, Joseph Sargent, seems completely out of his depth (ahem) here which comes as a surprise given his long and distinguished television career (he’s the man who brought us “The Corbomite Manoeuvre” in “Star Trek” for example) but he’s utterly hamstrung by the preposterous and nonsensical script and no matter how lush the visuals, you’ll only really remember the stupidity of the plotting and the execrable special effects.

In a way, the most remarkable thing about this movie is that it managed to get any of the original “Jaws” cast back, even though they couldn’t lure the cast of the preceding one to return. Roy Scheider, who famously rejected this movie by saying, “Satan himself could not get me to do Jaws part 4” (thus ending Satan’s nascent career as a talent agent), is roped in for a cameo of sorts thanks to a portrait in Amity’s police station. If he had agreed to come back, as well as earning Satan his 10%, he would have been killed off in the opening scene, a fate which in the ‘finished’ article, falls instead to Sean Brody (Mitchell Anderson), which for a massive Great White Shark, takes forever to actually kill the Amity County deputy.

Michael Brody (Lance Guest) eventually convinces his mother to come back with him and his family to the Bahamas and spend Christmas with them. That’s right folks, “Jaws: The Revenge” is a Christmas movie, as per the legal precedent of Twitter vs Twitter (2013, ad infinitum). But when the shark follows them to the tropical paradise, the scene is set for a final, fishy showdown.

The cast is actually pretty good; far, far better than the film deserves. Lorraine Gary, in her final film (she retired after making this, who can blame her?) – and despite the sheer mind-numbing absurdity of the plot – gives it her all in portraying an Ellen Brody pushed beyond the limits of endurance or common sense. Lance Guest, the fourth actor to play the role of Michael Brody, does what he can with a script that partners him up with Mario Van Peebles and his multinational accent in some of the best worst shark scenes ever committed to film. It’s bittersweet to see young Judith Barsi as Ellen’s granddaughter in her final on screen movie performance before her tragic death only two years after the film was released. One of the movie’s few highlights is a genuinely sweet callback to the original film’s cute dinner table scene, this time featuring Guest and Barsi, watched fondly by Lorraine Gary’s Ellen. Of course, though, it’s Michael Caine who steals this movie. He’s tremendous fun and great value in one of his notorious paycheck roles of the eighties. Given the dearth of anything else compelling going on in the movie, it’s a real shame that the filmed subplot of Hoagie smuggling drugs was almost completely cut out of the finished film.

Ultimately, the film’s pseudo-supernatural hokum just doesn’t make sense, mainly because the film doesn’t really acknowledge just how far-out the premise is and so doesn;’t explore or justify it in any way. Why is this particular shark after the Brody family? All the other sharks in the previous films died without – at least on screen – having the chance to catch up with their friends and let them know what’s going on. Are we supposed to believe that all Great White sharks have a shared collective consciousness, a hive mind? Come to think of it, that would have made a better film than this! Added to this is Ellen Brody’s apparent sixth sense about when the shark is around/ approaching/ about to attack. It’s one of the film’s weirdest conceits, which is saying something about a film which first gave us sharks that can roar.

The shark itself is the worst the franchise has seen. Shoddily constructed, enough wiring and mechanisms can be seen to suggest that this psychic shark assassin might actually be a cyborg (again, a better movie than the one we’re presented with) and the ending (theatrical or re-edited version) is a horrific botch job of poor editing and worse science.

Michael Caine has said he enjoyed making the film, as he’d always wanted a holiday to film in Hawaii and, notoriously, has never seen the film although he has ‘seen the house that it built and it is terrific’. The cast does seem to be having fun at least although it’s hard not to imagine the scene where Michael Brody abruptly sprints off in the middle of a conversation was actually Lance Guest trying to escape the production only to be rounded up, returned to the set and forced to complete his scenes.

I still have an inexplicable soft spot for this movie but even nostalgia can’t polish a turd of this magnitude. There is, however, a path to redemption for this film: the last line of the movie has Michel Caine’s Hoagie saying, “When I get back, remind me to tell you what happened when I flew a hundred nuns to Nairobi…”. If Christopher Nolan is looking around for a follow-up to “Dunkirk”, might I suggest that getting his good friend Michael Caine to reprise the role of Hoagie Carmichael in “Holy Nairobi” is the way to go.

4/10 

Bait (2013) #SharkWeak Review

Well, this is unexpected. Often found lurking in bargain bins or the same ‘you may like’ suggestions as “Sharknado” and “Sharktopus”, “Bait” is actually a pretty decent film. The opening scenes feature a beach that actually looks like a beach (and not a scrubby waterfront). There’s actual cinematography and decent acting. I’m all in on this one.

A year after a shark attack brought his lifeguarding career to a tragic end, Josh (Xavier Samuel) finds himself working in a supermarket when a freak tsunami inundates the building and floods the aisles. But the water has brought with it a shark and Josh must help the survivors of the disaster evade the predator while trying to find a way out.

Probably costing the same as “Jurassic Shark” and “Raiders Of The Lost Shark” in the first ten minutes, “Bait” manages to use its disaster movie set-up quite effectively and makes the flooded supermarket under threat from a shark concept seem, at the very least, credible. In addition to the disaster and the threat of the shark, there’s also a subplot about a robbery gone wrong which adds some tension thanks to Julian McMahon’s menacing turn as the crook with nothing to lose. An impressively water tight BMW provides some additional drama in a completely flooded basement car park. Supermarket thrillers aren’t a popular genre but, like “The Mist”, after the story has placed everyone where they need to be and reminded you of everyone’s key attributes, the tension builds as you wait for the first shark attack to start thinning the herd.

Director Kimble Rendall makes impressive use of floating detritus to build tension and there are some effective shots and cleverness in the reveals as the death mounts up. The model work is better than the CGI and the film is wise enough to borrow from the “Jaws” playbook, only showing the shark fleetingly and when necessary.

Most of the acting is decent which unfortunately that makes Dan Wylie’s awkward turn as one of the thieves conspicuously awful but it’s not enough to spoil the party. The actions pretty good too and although one character’s sacrifice is the most unnecessary since papa Kent shook his head in “Man Of Steel”, there’s a sequence involving a makeshift shark cage suit that strikes a fine balance between brilliance and insanity.

“Bait” has been the surprise package of Shark Weak. Perhaps the previous films have beaten my expectations to such a low point that I couldn’t possibly be disappointed but this is a smart, solid disaster movie with a shark twist that’s far better than the company it’s forced to keep would suggest.

6/10 

Roboshark (2015) #SharkWeak Review

“Roboshark” is everything you expect it to be. Everything.

An alien vessel approaches Earth, launching probes to study the planet but when one of the probes lands in the ocean and is swallowed by a shark, it promptly becomes Roboshark! It’s basically “Bananaman” but with sharks and robots.

The special effects are very cartoony but the end result is kind of endearing and there’s at least an effort to try and make the shark have an interaction with its environment, effects wise. Roboshark isn’t one to be confined to water, he’s quite happy to swim through pipes or the ground or whatever. It’s not like a great deal of effort has gone into the continuity of how big Roboshark is. When the shark attacks a sewage treatment plant, the film almost becomes a meta-commentary on itself. Maybe it should have been called Roboshart? In any event, I could suddenly relate to the film: I, too, feel like I’m swimming through a river of shit watching all these shark movies…and there’s no Shawshank redemption waiting for me on the other side.

The acting is as wooden as you’d expect, including some truly dreadful earthquake acting where the cast and camera never manage to shake at the same time, never mind in synch with each other. Although making ‘self-aware’ references to bad shark movies has become the new bad shark movie trope, there’s a streak of sly satire running through “Roboshark” which sets it apart from its many, many brethren. It gleefully skewers the online world of social media (Roboshark actually texts one of the characters at one point) and its reactions to anything while also taking pot shots at Starbucks and Microsoft. Guess which city much of the action is based in?

There are references to “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, “THX1138” and, bizarrely, “Dr Strangelove” and a – hopefully deliberate – Pythonesque overdubbing of scenes of soldiers trooping through a shopping mall.

With Roboshark seemingly more intent on causing property damage than munching actual people, this is the first Shark Weak movie which would probably be suitable for family viewing. I mean, it’s still terrible and badly made, but if you know an eight- or nine-year-old they might think this is the best movie ever.

4/10 

Sharktopus (2010) #SharkWeak Review

Leaving behind the shark + topographical feature formula, “Sharktopus” takes the opposite tack and raises the concept to dizzying new heights by splicing our predatory protagonist with the DNA of another famous movie monster.

Commissioned by the US Navy, Dr Nathan Sands (Eric Roberts) creates a genetic hybrid between a great white shark and an octopus, controlled by a cybernetic implant. During a combat demonstration, the creature is attack by drug traffickers who destroy the control mechanism and unleashing the uncontrollable monster on an unsuspecting Mexican coastline.

We’re still firmly in TV B-movie territory here but in Eric Roberts we’ve got our biggest star name thus far and this one is produced by none other than Roger Corman, a man who knows a thing or two about wringing every last bit of entertainment out of a hokey premise and a meagre budget.

“Sharktopus” is certainly proud of its title character and doesn’t take long at all to show us what it’s got, a likeably cheap and cheerful CGI creation with just enough character and personality to make you overlook some of its dodgier moments. Character and personality amongst the human cast is in shorter supply and Eric Roberts demonstrates his skills as an actor by maintaining a decent performance up against such wooden cast mates, especially Commander Cox (Peter Nelson). The movie functions pretty well as a travelogue for Mexico’s Riviera Maya (albeit one which discourages you from going in the water) and you’ll be left with a lingering suspicion that Roberts only accepted the role for the holiday in Mexico. In fact, once his character is safely on the yacht, he’s literally able to phone his performance in.

It has a charming mix of old school practical effects and cheesy CGI and unlike, say, “Jurassic Shark” or “Raiders Of The Lost Shark”, there is some skill behind and in front of the camera. It helps that the whole thing doesn’t take itself too seriously, with just enough wit to carry it off. There’s a likeability to it that’s no doubt due to Corman’s lowest common denominator sensibilities.

After the sparse kills of “Avalanche Sharks”, refreshingly nobody is safe from the Sharktopus and it munches its way through the cast of colourful archetypes with gleeful abandon. It gets a little unnecessarily gory in the closing stages and the blood/ water splatters on the camera lens are an oddly distracting fourth-wall breaking touch.

Overall, a frivolous and fun ‘shark’ movie, worth at least a single watch. Definitely the best of the bunch so far.

4/10 

Avalanche Sharks (2014) #SharkWeak Review

“Avalanche Sharks” offers us a grab bag of plot elements as native American supernatural snow shark spirits come back to haunt the residents and visitors of a ski resort. The film does actually provide an avalanche but it’s not really that integral to the plot.

Originally planned as a sequel to “Sand Sharks”, it’s another link in the chain of taking the word shark and placing a random word in front of it (or, in the case of “Sharknado”, after it) but beyond a cast member or two it actually has zero links to that movie.

Ultimately it’s an excuse for people to get eaten by CGI sharks in a snowy setting which, against all logic, still includes a bikini modelling competition. It’s almost like an old fashioned ski school sex comedy, just without either of those important ingredients. Despite the unsuccessful effort put in to explain the McGuffin of the curse which has roused these phantasmagorical shark ghosts (repeatedly, to diminishing returns each time), less imagination has been put into making the kills interesting or fun. In fact, there’s a disappointing lack of exploiting the barmy premise’s potential at all.

The CGI is generally disappointing and inconsistent, there are a number of non-shark related subplots which add nothing and go nowhere and a disturbing amount of time is spent by characters talking at each other with little benefit to any of the storylines as if, were you at a ski resort where guests and locals alike were being devoured by phantom sharks, there’d be anything else you’d be talking about. There are some unintentional laughs provided by some of the ideas the characters come up with to avoid being eaten but in the end, things are resolved by in a really unsatisfying tourist ex machina way. “Avalanche Sharks” is a high concept but low achievement, making things worse by not having the wit or wisdom to follow through on its potential. Its only redeeming feature is that the cinematography is actually quite good for a film like this. It’s a pretty film to watch even though it’s a chore to sit through.

2/10 

Sand Sharks (2012) #SharkWeak Review

Well would you look at this, a faint vestige of production values and technical ability! We even have a star name attached (Corin Nemec, “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose”, “Stargate: SG-1”). Now, there is actually a species of shark named sand shark but this film has little use for them. Instead, we’re still stuck with the unleashing of a prehistoric predator onto an unsuspecting world.

When an underwater earthquake cracks open a crater deep beneath the ocean’s surface, it unleashes a pre historic armoured predator, capable of ‘swimming’ through sand and rock. On the sleepy nearby island of White Sands, local teens drink and party beside a beach bonfire and everyone is getting ready for the music festival which will save the islands ailing tourism trade.

With the extra professionalism and technical polish, we’re into prime SyFy movie territory here. The acting is actually okay and the special effects, for the most part, are passable, with the bonus of some genuinely effective practical gore. Sure, the premise itself is as dumb as the rocks the titular creatures swim through (point of order: if they can swim through soil and rock, how were they ever trapped underground?) and the limitations of the budget become apparent when the music festival kicks off and the audience struggles to number in the tens. Seriously, there are so few people around they could probably have just starved the sand sharks to death by letting them eat the festival attendees. There’s a half-hearted attempt at a business/ shark metaphor and there are a fair few jokes and references to Roger Corman and bad shark movies in a good natured attempt at self-aware irony so “Sand Sharks” gets points for trying at least.

The film seems to use many of the same locations as “Dracano” so either Nemec doesn’t like to travel or he signed up for a two-for-one deal with the producers. Whatever else you say, Nemec brings his A-game to the B-movie nonsense but after a while the constant puns wear thin and the dragged-out ending just will not quit. It’s harmless, goofy fun and while it’s still nowhere near a good movie, it’s at least not an abysmal one.

3/10 

Jurassic Shark (2011) #SharkWeak Review

Another shark movie, another Spielberg pun and it turns out that I didn’t judge “Raiders Of The Lost Shark” harshly enough, because one of its writers should have known better given they directed this errant nonsense some three years earlier. Welcome…to “Jurassic Shark”.

When an oil company unwittingly unleashes a prehistoric shark from its icy prison, the lurking predator improbably maroons a group of art thieves and a handful of young female college students on – would you believe it? – an island in the middle of a lake. The two groups of strangers must put aside their differences and work together to fight off the monster and escape.

“Jurassic Shark” may infer the eponymous creature is a Megaladon (a favourite option for bad shark movies) but the mismatched and over-repeated stock footage is mainly of mismatched Great Whites. The lake setting, drilling and subterranean frozen fish give me pause to wonder if I’m still watching “Raiders Of The Lost Shark” but no, apparently this is a different movie.

You can often judge a shark film on the first appearance of the shark and this one is guilty as hell. Once upon a time this was famously the worst rated film on IMDB (it now languishes at no. 19), astonishingly this is Brett Kelly’s 22nd directorial credit and yet he still has developed no discernible skill in composing a shot, telling a story or eliciting any kind of performance from his cast.

The acting is laughably abysmal, from the improbably brotastic art thieves to the college students who come across as unlikely to even have managed a high school diploma but it’s in the sheer ineptitude of the writing and production that this film actually manages to drill down further than any subterranean Megaladon storage, hitting rock bottom and punching through on its way towards a molten core of base stupidity.

The reawoken Megaladopopsicle doesn’t seem to like boats in his freshwater lake, but it’s hardly surprising as it must be quite cramped in the obviously shallow water. Not that the film spends a great deal of time in the ‘depths’ preferring to pad its run time with endless montages of characters walking through forests. Even more technically inept than “Raiders Of The Lost Shark” – if such a thing is possible – there are so many goofs it almost becomes entertaining to spot them. If you could bear to watch this more than once, there may even be a drinking game in it. My personal favourite is two of the art thief bros gloating that they have radios while the third goon doesn’t only to follow it up by showing them having a conversation with each other across the island, two of them using their radios and the other one…I guess speaking to himself?

If you do decide to subject yourself to this cinematic atrocity, your reward will be precious little save, perhaps, for a priceless moment which evokes “Free Willy” and a laboriously set up stinger gag that’s not worth waiting through the nearly 12 minutes of credits for.

It’s a rare zero score for this movie, and if Shark Weak continues at this level, I might just throw myself overboard.

0/10 

Raiders Of The Lost Shark (2015) #SharkWeak Review

Sharks are fascinating creatures, worthy of protection and study, their place in the oceanic food chain more complex and precious than we realised. But we’re not here for a nature documentary. No, no no. We’re here to revel in the myth of the shark as nature’s soulless, remorseless, evil, killing machine and sensationalist budget movies’ bogeyman of choice. Sharks have a long history of being movie bad guys, often henchmen until Spielberg’s 1978 masterpiece put them firmly into the top billing bracket. Unfortunately, since “Jaws” – with a few exceptions – those starring roles have not been kind to our fishy friends. Welcome…to Craggus’ Shark Weak.

Given Spielberg put shark movies firmly on the map, it’s only appropriate that we open things with this trashy low-budget offering which riffs off another Spielberg classic. It opens with a tongue in cheek warning tht the following is a true story only to cap off the warning with ‘Just messing with you’. It’s the closest you’ll get to genuine wit for the next hour and eleven minutes.

The film’s promise of a tale of toothy terror as four friends set out by boat for an idyllic vacation on a private, remote island where, unbeknownst to them (but knownst to us), a weaponized shark has escaped from a top secret military lab nearby. For reasons best known to the surprisingly plentiful ichthyologists who specialise in dicking around with sharks, this shark has been genetically engineered with hate in its blood, programmed to hunt any human within range. There’s not even a hint of the ‘whoops, we were trying to do something good and accidentally created a monster’ trope here. No, siree, this fish was bred to fuck shit up.

Unfortunately, what’s mostly fucked up is basic filmmaking in this short, cheap and profoundly dumb pseudo home movie. It’s hard to discard the idea that they came up with the title pun and then figured out a story they could afford to make which even vaguely connected to it. Nothing is raided as far as I can see and the only thing lost is seventy-one minutes of your life you’ll never get back and possibly some of your will to live.

There’s zero logic to the script which set the lake on an island which can apparently only be reached by specifically chartering a boat yet innumerable people seem to wander onto the scrubby shore of this supposedly forbidden and heavily guarded island but its hardly a surprise seeing as the lake itself seems to be less than 50m across. Mind you, this is also a research lab where going into the water is specifically prohibited but everybody, including the security guards, wears swimming costumes under their clothes. The script is sub-first draft quality, with dialogue written like the makers had never heard real people talk to each other ever and the acting is cheesy porn quality at best, without the payoff (although the film does include crusty old seamen).

The ‘special effects’ are even worse;  blink and you’ll miss ’em shots of the CGI shark which never even remotely interacts with the environment around it mixed with mismatched stock footage. Things certainly don’t improve when the shark abruptly develops the ability to fly for some reason.

The kills are entirely bloodless as the shark merrily chomps its way through the surprisingly large cast (the credits take a full 15% of the already brief running time) without building any drama whatsoever.

It lacks the wit and invention that can sometimes make micro-budget features work although you have to respect the frugality and creativity with which some shots were put together. It’s certainly a ballsy move to script a scene of a shark destroying a plane when you can’t possibly afford to show even the merest hint of it.

Poorly edited and badly plotted; staring at the egregiously misleading poster for the whole of the running time would probably provide more entertainment. As a bunch of friends goofing about and making a gag movie for themselves, it’s barely passable although I’m sure they had a good laugh making it. As a feature film intended for an audience, though, it’s borderline insulting. There are, here and there, vague hints that it might be knowingly bad but if it is a joke, the joke falls completely flat.

1/10 

The Lost Boys (1987) Review

For a film that prides itself on a promise that you’ll ‘never grow old’, “The Lost Boys” has betrayed us all and turns 30 this year, released on this date all the way back in 1987. I watched it recently for the first time in maybe ten years and it still holds up pretty well although my overriding impression of it this time around was that Director Joel Schumacher paid for helicopter hire and by God, he was going to get his money’s worth.  I’m marking this event by, somewhat appropriately, giving blood (if you’re not a donor already, why not use this as an excuse to get started?) so I thought it only appropriate to hand the task of celebrating the film’s tricennial to WTCS occasional columnist and “Lost Boys” super fan, Sweetie G [for whom a deadline is apparently as effective as garlic and crucifixes are to vampires].  – The Craggus

Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire. Thirty? How the fuck did this happen??  I did not approve this! Much as I did not approve of either sequel (neither of which exist or shall be mentioned again from this point on).

It was something of a rude awakening when I was told that “The Lost Boys” would turn thirty this year.  The film that I watched pretty much every half term and school holiday for most of my school life.  My honest answer to the question ‘What’s your favourite film?’. Okay, it was never going to win any Oscars® but to an eleven-year-old emerging horror film fan, it was perfection.  With its sexy young cast, exciting action, soft-core horror/ gore, and slick, hip script, coupled with a killer (ahem) rock & roll soundtrack, it was always going to be a winner.  A hit at the time of release, its reputation has grown into cult status since.

It was the film that introduced me to both Kiefer Sutherland and Corey Haim, the loves of my life for a large portion of my formative years, and of course Nanook (played by a beautiful Alaskan Malamute called Cody), although that was less of a crush and more genuine puppy love.  From “The Lost Boys”, I followed Sutherland to the terrible “Renegades”, the awesome “Young Guns” and the eerie and jumpy “Flatliners” (the remake of which is out this year).  Haim I stalked to “License To Drive”, “Watchers”, “Dream Machine” and “Prayer Of The Rollerboys” before going back to discover “Lucas” and “Silver Bullet”. You know, when you list them out like that it’s pretty easy to see whose career went better.

But enough about my first crushes and back to the film in question.  Now, I should point out that this is not a high brow film, brains are NOT required to enjoy this film and it fails the Bechdel Test badly since the only two female characters are only there to provide context or motivation for the male leads. They’re firmly pigeonholed as the archetype ‘mother’ and ‘maiden’ and rarely get to discuss anything but Michael (Jason Patric) and/ or David (Sutherland), so you can forget any feminist subtext in the film whatsoever. Perhaps that would have come to the fore in the oft-touted but never produced sequel “The Lost Girls” which would have seen David’s vampire survive the events of this film (remember: he doesn’t explode or dissolve like all the other) but despite the film’s popularity, Joel Schumacher just couldn’t make it happen in the 1990s. What you can expect is comedic daytime capers with Corey Haim’s Sam as he teams up with local comic book nerds and would-be vampire hunters Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan (Jamison Newlander), the Po(e)-faced Frog brothers and sexy night time vampire action as Michael mixes with David and his gang of eponymous lost boys. And helicopter shots. Lots and lots of helicopter tracking shots.

Set in the fictional borough of Santa Carla, California (the murder capital of the world), Lucy (Dianne Wiest) and her two boys Michael and Sam move back in with her eccentric father (Barnard Hughes) following a divorce. It’s established early on that this isn’t the boys’ first choice and probably not Lucy’s either but she’s determined to make the best of it and make a fresh start. Wiest may be used more as a plot device than a character but she wrings every bit of pathos and personality out of her underwritten role and provides a deceptively important bedrock for the film’s main plot to build on.

The already- and soon-to-be- lost boys ‘meet’ for the first time at the boardwalk, as Michael’s attention is captured by the bait that is Star (Jami Gertz), while Sam is seduced by the nerd-friendly ambience of the comic book store. When the brothers meet up again, Star climbs onto the back of David’s bike as Sam laughs at Michael commenting that “she stiffed ya”.  David’s gang are all beautiful young men in leather jackets, with long, expertly coiffured hair and riding motorbikes; basically bad boy heaven for girls of the ‘80s. The bait is part of an elaborate plan to draw Michael into the gang and the motorbike chase – to the pulsing rock of Lou Gramm’s “Lost In The Shadows (The Lost Boys)” – brings us to the lighthouse overlooking the bluff where we discover the gang’s ‘home’ and Michael’s imitation begins.

Because they have become so iconic, it’s easy to dismiss some of the vampire scenes in “The Lost Boys” as cliché; the red wine/ blood switcheroo, the hypnotic tricks which made an entire generation wary of Chinese food but “The Lost Boys” actually reset and redefined popular vampire lore quite significantly, paving the way for everything from “Interview With A Vampire” to “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”. Given it’s riffing on the theme of peer pressure, there’s a devilish satirical touch as Michael literally lives out the well-worn parental axiom, ‘If your friends all jumped off a bridge, does that mean you have to as well?’

As an older sibling, I can attest to Sam is very much a normal annoying younger sibling, but it’s in his interactions with Michael that the film slowly reveals the weird shit he’s been getting into.  As a character in his own right, Sam primarily provides the comic relief, leaving the brooding heroism to Jason Patric’s Michael. He gets the bulk of the scenes with Grandpa and the banter between them regarding the Widow Johnson is well worth a giggle. It’s also through Grandpa’s reluctance to go near town that further fuels Sam’s belief that there’s something very weird going on in Santa Carla.  Sam’s comedy is used to emphasise rather than undermine the horror elements, as shown in the bath scene where, as he’s rocking out to “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry (conspicuously missing from the too-cool-for-school soundtrack) and Michael is beginning to succumb to the first stirrings of bloodlust. Thankfully Nanook is there to save the day, a quick bite – although not the kind Michael was planning on – snapping Michael out of his trance. From this point on, both Sam and Michael know there are Vampires in Santa Carla.

While all this action is going on Lucy is quietly getting on with trying to rebuild her life and is working in town.  Like most mums of teenagers, she’s picking up after them, and it’s in this act of everydayness when she picks up the milk that Michael had dropped on the floor that we see the youngest member of the lost boys, Laddie, is listed as missing, calling back to  the opening montage of missing person posters around town when they first arrived, underlining that the vampires have been active for a long time.

The film’s exposition comes mainly from the Frog brothers, whose dedication to vampire hunting tends towards the sociopathic, like when Sam calls them for help and their response to his protests about not being able to kill his brother, is “You’d better get yourself a garlic vest or it’s your funeral”, consolidating their inability to empathise. I dread to think what the Frog brothers would make of “Twilight”.

Most of the horror in “The Lost Boys” is suggestive rather than directly shown although the scene of David and his gang tearing through the rival ‘Surf Nazis’ biker gang is pretty violent and gory as heads get ripped open and bodies get tossed on the bonfire.

There’s a frenetic pace to the finale as Sam, Michael and the Frog Brothers take the fight to the vampires, rescuing Star and Laddie and killing one of the vamps (Marco, played by Alex Winter of “Bill And Ted” fame). Abruptly, David’s motivation changes from drawing Michael into Lost Boys’ family to killing him and his. The final battle and the prep beforehand is classic eighties action with pithy one-liners and clever twists on vampire lore such as garlic baths, holy water pistols and, of course, ‘death by stereo’. Even then, the film isn’t done delivering the final twist when we discover that despite him passing the ‘tests’, Lucy has been dating the head vampire the all along in a bid to build a “bloodsucking Brady Bunch”. Thankfully Grandpa arrives to save the day for them all with his hobby coming in very handy indeed. He also gets the film’s killer closing line about “…all the damn vampires”.

A successful blend of horror, comedy and cool, perhaps “The Lost Boys” actually does manage to keep its promise. After all, even thirty years on, it holds up really well.

10/10  

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) Review

There’s clearly a lot of love for the source material in DreamWorks’ adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” children’s book series. Bright, breezy and unashamedly childish, it’s potty humour fashioned into fantastic family entertainment.

George Beard and Harold Hutchins are a pair of imaginative elementary school best friends who like nothing better than pulling pranks and creating comic books about the amazing Captain Underpants but when their mean-spirited principal, Mr Krupp decides to split them into different classes, the boys accidentally hypnotise him into thinking he is Captain Underpants. As the boys struggle to keep Captain Underpants under control, the new science teacher, Professor P, has plans to eliminate fun altogether.

The animation design is fantastic, the deceptively simple characters absolutely brimming with life against backdrops crammed with detail. The voice performances are terrific, especially Ed Helms’ Mr Krupp/ Captain Underpants and it’s the Captain himself who nearly steals the show. The film isn’t afraid to get pretty weird either, and the jokes come thick and fast, catering to every member of the family. There’s more than enough to keep parents happy in “Captain Underpants” but it saves its best material for its target audience, kids (of all ages). Farts have rarely been funnier and it’s more than willing to plumb the depths of toilet humour in search of fun. Both Mertmas and his little sister haven’t stopped talking about it since we saw it for the first time (I’m pretty sure there’ll be a second and third before it leaves cinemas) and even the soundtrack has made it into the drive time playlist.

This is classily silly, wonderfully whacky family entertainment and in a summer plagued with so-so cartoon sequels and animated abominations, it’s your best bet for holiday fun.

8/10 

47 Metres Down (2017) Review

“47 Metres Down” might have the alluring lustre of a cinema release, but under the surface lurks the silent, gliding cliché of just another dumb shark movie. I gave serious consideration to folding this review into #SharkWeak but I’m feeling generous and although “47 Metres Down” makes some mistakes, it’s nowhere near “Sharknado” bad.

Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are holidaying in Mexico after Lisa’s boyfriend breaks up with her because she’s not exciting enough. It’s with this in mind that after a night of drinking and dancing, Kate convinces Lisa to try cage diving after hearing about it from some local men. At first, everything seems fine but when the boat’s winch breaks, the cage is sent plunging to the sea floor while great white sharks circle above.

The premise of “47 Metres Down” has a lot of promise but, like “The Shallows” before it, it throws away the genuine survival horror in favour of crassly unrealistic shark behaviour and jump scares.

Writer/ Director Johannes Roberts is much enamoured of his own creation, as the title card reads “Johannes Roberts’ 47 Metres Down” lest you confuse it with other, inferior, 47 Metres Down offerings. The film starts well enough, with the script giving Moore and Holt enough to flesh out both Lisa and Kate as real, likeable characters but once the real action begins, the film’s respect for realism all but vanishes in favour of monster movie moments, leading to a third act which is mishandled mess of badly executed ideas.

Visually and effects-wise, this is a cut above the usual schlocky shark movie fare and you’d never guess it was filmed in a tank filled with finely chopped broccoli in Basildon, Essex. Some of the shots – especially a scene where the characters light a flare underwater after a moment of darkness – are quite impressive but there’s just too much for anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about sharks, scuba diving or both to ignore for it to all hang together. In the end, it’s an indecision between the realism of a diving accident and the fantasy of inexplicably bloodthirsty and murderous wildlife that puts too much strain on the film’s narrative cable, causing it to snap and sink without a trace.

5/10 

Deepwater Horizon (2016) Review

If there were such a thing as a ‘True Story’ shared cinematic universe (okay, I guess technically there is), the authorities of that universe would no doubt be monitoring Mark Wahlberg very closely indeed. His presence at the sites of natural disasters or terrorist attacks is becoming so common, he’s almost the Stan Lee of real life drama.

Retelling the story of the Deepwater Horizon disaster which cost eleven lives and resulted in the largest marine oil spill in history is a sensitive task, given the recency of the events and the controversy surrounding the aftermath but Director Peter Berg, no stranger to directing real life drama – or Mark Wahlberg for that matter – skilfully avoids sensationalising the drama by adopting a quasi-documentary tone.

While this does much to remove the potential sting of the real life tragedy, it does somewhat leave the audience adrift in a script heavy with technical jargon. Thanks to the skills of the cast and their performances, you catch much of the drift of what’s going on but it feels a little lazy to rely on the audience’s foreknowledge rather than finding an organic way to provide the exposition which would be supplied by a narrator were this really a documentary.

While the film does an excellent job of showing the run up to the disaster and the explosion and chaos itself, overall “Deepwater Horizon” feels like a movie missing its third act. After all the pyrotechnic savagery of the accident itself, most of the meaty drama of the event took place in the weeks and months afterwards. Aside from appropriately memorialising the individuals who died in the explosion, the film doesn’t show us much of anything to do with the catastrophic environmental damage which occurred, the struggles to finally cap off the well or the grubby corporate and legal manoeuvrings which followed.

Technically proficient and tastefully handled, “Deepwater Horizon” nevertheless feels unfinished and underwhelming. In delivering a glossy but sincere disaster movie, it misses the chance to create a powerful indictment on not only the incident itself, but everything that followed.

7/10 

Monster Island (2017) Review

Exclusive to Cineworld Cinemas in the UK (although I suspect the bidding wasn’t particularly fierce), “Monster Island” is running in their Movies For Juniors range as a school holiday time waster.

When young Lucas transforms into a monster in front of his entire class at the coolest party of the year, he suddenly has a lot more on his mind than girls and his grades. Angry at his father for hiding the truth from him, Lucas steals a secret map and sets off to find his roots on Monster Island.

‘From The Producers Of Top Cat Begins’ may not give you much confidence but it does adequately prepare your expectations for this cheap and occasionally cheerful Mexican animated production. It’s a Ratatwang-esque knock off of “Monsters, Inc.” and “Monsters University” mashed together with a bit of “Teen Wolf” although it has to be said, the animation design goes a little bit darker than Pixar ever did and some of the imagery may be unsettling for very young children. The story itself isn’t too bad either, dealing with the issues of growing up different but it’s told in such a muddled and half-hearted way that nothing really sticks. There are one or two mildly amusing moments (mostly provided by a pair of Monster Island’s police force) but it kind of drifts from one plot point to the next with no real narrative flow. It feels like the first draft script is what they went with and just cut out anything which didn’t work. It’s the kind of film kids under 8 will enjoy well enough while they’re watching it and then instantly forget as soon as the lights come up. For anyone over the age of 8, it really is a horror movie.

With tickets only costing around £2.50 each, it’s probably still a little overpriced for something which is surely destined to end up in a dusty corner of Netflix or Amazon Prime but if you’re absolutely at a loose end during the holidays and you’ve already seen everything else on offer for kids as many times as you can stomach and it’s raining and the TV is broken, then sure, why not give this a go?

2/10 

Once Bitten (1985) Review

Available right now on Netflix, “Once Bitten” is a decidedly anaemic sex comedy that’s been consigned to the crypt of forgotten Eighties comedies. But is it time for it to rise from the tomb once more?

The Countess (Lauren Hutton) must feed on the blood of a young male virgin three times before Halloween each year to maintain her immortal youth and beauty. Unfortunately, this being the go-go eighties, young male virgins are in very short supply. Meanwhile, Mark (Jim Carrey) is desperate to go all the way with his girlfriend Robin (Karen Kopins) but she’s making him wait. One night, Mark and his friends venture into downtown Hollywood to try their luck only to cross path with The Countess who’s doing the very same thing.

Unfortunately this high concept low wattage horror comedy isn’t anywhere near as timeless as its vampiric antagonist is aiming to be. Despite Carrey showing glimpses of the manic energy which would soon propel him to mega stardom, the film itself is pretty limp, saddled with witless sex comedy clichés and some truly appalling performances from cinema’s least threatening vampire henchmen.

There are a few bright spots, including a surprisingly effective ‘dance off’ in the middle of the movie but for every sequence which works, there are countless others which don’t, including a bizarre launderette pick-up ‘sketch’ and some horrifically misjudged shower based homophobic humour.

Lauren Hutton is laughably camp as the sensual and seductive Countess whose powers seem to come primarily from her ability to appear in soft focus and while her version of Igor, Sebastian (Cleavon Little) provides a counterpoint for the film’s homophobia, the film desperately needs some of the high intensity energy Meshach Taylor’s Hollywood would bring to “Mannequin” rather than the salty Niles Crane we get here.

Resolved through the crassest, sexist plot developments, “Once Bitten” is another nail in the coffin of my eighties comedy nostalgia. Consider me twice shy.

2/10 

Dunkirk (2017) Review

Insistent, cacophonous and unrelenting, the pre-release clamour around “Dunkirk” has been enough to give even the most hype-hardened cinema veteran combat fatigue. When it comes to the list of prerequisites, conditions and riders demanded before you even have the temerity to consider buying a ticket, never before in the field of cinema history has so much been demanded from so many for the satisfaction of so few.

Late May 1940 and the British Expeditionary Force and the remains of the French First Army, Belgian and Dutch forces find themselves forced onto the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by the German army. All in all nearly half a million soldiers are trapped on the shore. What followed was an unprecedented, chaotic and desperate operation to evacuate the beaches and bring the soldiers home.

Lean, kinetic and ruthlessly focussed, with “Dunkirk”, Christopher Nolan forges his sharpest cinematic weapon yet. Honed to a bleeding edge, Nolan takes the heady, sea-foamed cocktail of desperation, courage, cowardice, duty and sacrifice and blends it with an intricate non-linear narrative flourish to deliver an absorbing and impressionistic movie watching experience. Deceptively sparse, much of the stories of the film are told with minimal dialogue or exposition, relying on the performances of the cast to envelop the viewer in the trauma and turmoil of the action on the beaches, the unforgiving seas and the skies above.

Nolan brings back some of his familiar favourites in the form of Cilian Murphy, Tom Hardy and a sneaky cameo from, of course, Michael Caine but it’s in his casting of relative unknowns that the film draws its verisimilitude from. Fionn Whitehead is sensational as Tommy, the first person the film introduces us to and our ongoing audience touchstone, even once he joins up with a gang of soldiers – including Harry Styles – who have only one direction on their mind: home. Styles delivers a credibly understated and natural performance, allowing nothing of the furore around his casting and celebrity status to bleed through. Whatever his musical career may hold, “Dunkirk” suggests he has a bright acting future ahead of him. It’s Mark Rylance, though, who brings a real sense of humanity and emotional tenderness often lacking in Nolan’s preferred repertory company.

As you’d expect from such a surgically precise filmmaker, “Dunkirk” is a magnificent, technically dazzling achievement and every single frame could be identified in a line-up as a Nolan shot, suffused in his favoured café-au-lait palette and precise, exquisite framing (whichever ratio you watch it in). But in amongst all the self-defeating sanctimony around the visual imperatives, this film has been saddled with, it is not in the imagery that the film’s power lies. “Dunkirk” is as much Hans Zimmer’s triumph as it is Nolan’s and without his brooding, malevolently urgent score and the fantastic sound design, this wouldn’t be half the pulse-pounding, nerve-shredding experience it is. If you’re going to obsess over one aspect of how best to watch the movie, go for the venue with the very best sound quality, not necessarily the biggest screen.

Stunningly realised, brutally immersive and worthy of most of the praise it’s received, “Dunkirk” sees Nolan pare down some of the indulgences which have marred his recent outings in favour of a muscularly sensory storytelling approach. One to be savoured in the cinema, whichever one you choose.

10/10 

Assassin’s Creed (2017) Review

The last collaboration between Director Justin Kurzel and Michael Fassbender left me feeling cheated that they’d cut too much out of the Scottish Play, rushing through it for the film adaptation, so it’s with not a little irony that I had the exact opposite experience with this polished but ponderously dull video game adaptation.

For centuries, The Knights Templar have waged war on the Brotherhood of Assassins, determined to gain control of the Apple of Eden which the Assassins have sworn to protect. Whoever controls the Apple of Eden will gain access to the genetic code for Free Will and be able to rule the world.

Opening in late 15th century Granada, we see Aguilar de Nerha (Michael Fassbender) being inducted into the Brotherhood and being told that their ‘lives are meaningless. The Apple is everything’ in a scene that feels like a crass fourth-wall breaking reference to “Steve Jobs”. There’s an unintentionally hilarious moment as the title sequence begins when ‘Entrance Song’ by The Black Angels crashes in and it looks like it disturbs the meeting of Assassins but the titles themselves are brief and suddenly we find ourselves flashing forward to 1986 and Aguilar’s descendant, Cal Lynch witnessing his father murder his mother before fleeing as Templar troops arrive. Yet another flash forward brings us to the present day where Cal (Michael Fassbender) is sentenced to death for a murder. But his execution places him in the hands of the Abstergo Foundation, the modern day front for the Knights Templar.

With nothing less than mankind’s Free Will at stake, it’s disappointing that this glacially paced movie offers so few reasons to choose to watch it. The historical scenes are handsomely staged but the action is marred by muddy bronze-hued CGI and terrible lighting consigning much of the best of the action to the shadows of the screen. The constant (if skilfully executed) cutting back and forth from the present day Animus (a weirdly kinetic genetic memory “Matrix”) robs any of the action of its drama because you’re constantly reminded it’s a simulation. The present day scenes are saddled with an excess of exposition as the movie tries to accommodate all those cut scenes without providing the audience the option to skip them.

Having never played any of the games, I can only look at “Assassin’s Creed” as a movie and as such, it’s a sluggish, convoluted and boring waste of two hours. Genetic memory or no, I’m pretty sure my ancestors disapprove of how I spent this particular two hours of my life. The tangled plot and its improbable MacGuffin feel lifted directly from an early Dan Brown draft before even he dismissed it and while Fassbender gives it his brooding best, nobody else around him seems remotely invested in the sub-“Inferno” conspiracy theory and Renaissance Free Running shenanigans on offer. Marion Cottilard, in particular, seems half asleep throughout the movie, at least providing the audience someone they can identify with.

I have to assume the games are more fun to play than this movie is to watch. The curse of video game adaptations is still very much alive, it seems, and is no respecter of the quality of the cast thrown at it. Production design does not a movie make, and Assassin’s Creed has little to offer beyond its looks.

4/10 

Cars 3 (2017) Review

“Cars 3” begins by doing what most right-thinking people do, which is pretending “Cars 2” simply doesn’t exist. It then moves on to hoping you don’t really remember “Cars” particularly well as it sets out to tell the same story once again, only this time it’s Lightning McQueen who’s the reigning champion raging at the dying of the light as young, technologically superior rookies leave him in the dust.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the seven times Piston Cup winning racing legend finds his latest season disrupted by the emergence of Jackson Storm, an arrogant rookie race car, part of a new generation of cutting edge technology. Threatened by this young upstart, Lightning pushes himself too hard and suffers a catastrophic crash. As he recuperates, he’s forced to contemplate the possible end of his racing career although hope rears its head as his sponsors sell out to a corporation with greater resources to help Lightning regain his crown.

Any interest in having the characters experience the first story but from the other side of the narrative is undermined by the fact it only serves to emphasise just how little Lightning McQueen has grown as a character. As he goes through more training montages and sequences than you can shake a stick at, he’s still the arrogant, selfish and stubborn racer he was in the first film. He refuses to listen to anyone, ditches his friends and ignores the sage wisdom of others despite having two films under his belt where he’s meant to have learned these lessons. There’s a posthumous appearance from Doc (Paul Newman) thanks to some unused recorded dialogue from the first film but his present day absence just raises more questions in the exhaustingly long list of questions about the films’ fictional world. How does mortality work in the “Cars” universe? What happened to Doc to make him die as opposed to just needing significant repairs. It’s made more obvious when we discover that Doc’s mentor and racing coach is still alive, as are the cars to whom Doc was the young upstart. Similarly, when McQueen starts to get outclassed, there’s no mention of upgrading or replacing his parts or improving/ replacing his engine and parts – is that a dreadful taboo in the “Cars” world?

Pretty much the rest of the cast, including Mater, are sidelined as McQueen goes off on his self-pitying quest accompanied by his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), whose youthful dreams of racing herself were thwarted. Had “Cars 3” had the courage to make Ramirez the focus of the movie, it may have offered something genuinely new and even a little bit different.

The poster suggests an intense rivalry between McQueen and Storm but they barely spend any screen time together and most

of the stoking of the feud comes from the bitter commentary swipes of one-time Piston Cup winner Chick Hicks (no longer voiced by Michael Keaton). Instead, it’s the same plot the first film wore down to the rims as Lightning seeks answers he’s already been given twice until, in the last fifteen minutes of the movie, there’s a horrendous crunching of narrative gears as it performs a clumsy switcheroo to deliver an unearned and forced happy ending which strains both the audience’s patience and credulity.

“Cars” continues to be the sugar in Pixar’s gas tank, forcing into cinemas movies of a quality which only merits direct-to-video ignominy but then “Cars” has never been about selling tickets, it’s been about merchandise.

4/10 

Cars 2 (2011) Review

After the box office bonanza driven by “Cars”, notoriously sequel averse studio Pixar wasted no time in greenlighting a sequel to the metaphorically muddled racing movie. And much like “Toy Story 2” started out as a direct-to-video sequel which was promoted to the big screen, “Cars 2” starts out with the mentality of a cash-grab spin-off and heads downhill from there.

Lightning McQueen, now a multi-Piston Cup winning racer, is invited to participate in a World Grand Prix sponsored by the manufacturer of a new non-fossil fuel. But the race is merely a cover for a dastardly plot by a secret society of fossil fuel companies and only one vehicle stands in their way: secret agent Mater, Tow Mater.

With the racing tacked on almost as an afterthought, “Cars 2” takes all the problematic issues with the world building of “Cars” and doubles down on them to a ludicrous degree. The overarching spy plot is kind of fun, for about five minutes, until the film ties itself in knots trying to make the world work. The level of necessary adaptations and handwaving to enable much of the spy action to occur magnifies the logical discrepancies of this mishmash of a universe to an unavoidable degree. The international settings are pretty – and beautifully animated – but in a world where the dominant life forms are planes, trains and automobiles (and boats too), there’s no reason for picturesque Mediterranean coastal cities to look like that.

The nature of the cars themselves is similarly confusing. Oil seems to be interchangeably used as both blood and/or urine, which makes the oil slick used by Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) unhygienic at best and super gross at worst. Furthermore, Mater’s ‘amusing’ encounter with wasabi suggests that the cars’ tongues are organic in nature which just raises more questions. Arguably the most disturbing aspect, though, are the scenes at the airports. There are baggage cars with human size suitcases on them in a world where nobody would need luggage but that’s as nothing compared to the scenes featuring car-based TSA agents, heavily implying there was a Cars universe 9/11. Just let that sink in for a moment. And if you’re looking for more implied historical horrors, there’s also a literal Pope-mobile so there’s a lot of problematic Cars history to unpack.

There are a few oblique references to Doc having ‘died’ and certainly the spies and bad guys of the surprisingly violent story full of weaponry, shooting and torture are trying to kill each other but mortality is another problematic area for the movie. Do cars die? There’s a reference to certain makes/ models of cars being doomed because ‘they’ve stopped manufacturing them and making parts’, suggesting that genocide is an everyday occurrence in this twisted and sickening children’s fantasia. And who are ‘they’ while we’re at it? Cars are gendered, so how does reproduction work? Agh! This movie hurts my brain.

Everything about “Cars 2” is lazy and cynical. It’s the absolute nadir of Pixar’s output and the only surprise is that the original cast return for this cheap and ill-considered cash-in. The jumbled mess of racing antics, yet another lesson for Lightning McQueen about the true meaning of friendship, a garbled environmental subtext and dumb spy clichés is an egregious insult to the parents it’s boring to tears while simultaneously plundering their wallets with an expanding range of tie-in merchandise. That Pixar made one bad movie was a disappointment, that it went ahead and made an even worse sequel starts to look like carelessness.

2/10 

What if The Doctor had always been a woman?

With all the fuss and noise over the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor Who, it got me thinking about how it would have been if The Doctor had always been a Time Lady. So, for my 700th Blog Post I thought it would be fun to fan cast the history of Doctor Who using contemporary actresses of the time. Where possible, I’ve tried to go for an actress who had the same kind of background or personality as their real-world counterparts and selected performers who would have been willing or were doing television at the time, so no big-name movie stars (at least at the time they were The Doctor).

I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with the list and – more than anything else – this is definitely a show I’d have watched and kind of want to watch now. So, without further ado, fasten your scarves and set your coordinates as we take our TARDISes through a CVE and into a parallel universe where The Doctor has always been a she.

1st Doctor – Joyce Grenfell (1963-1966)

Veteran of the St Trinian’s Movies and famed one-woman shows and monologues, she brought the perfect mix of sternness and twinkly-eyed wisdom to the role of The Doctor, a wanderer in space and time accidentally stranded on Earth with her grandson Simon.

2nd Doctor – Maggie Smith (1966-1969)

When the time came for Grenfell to leave the programme, the wonderful conceit of regeneration saw Maggie Smith (British Institution in waiting) take on the role of the Doctor. A classically trained theatre actress, she brought a low cunning to the role as well as a keen sense of comic timing, lulling her enemies into a false sense of security with an affected ditziness.

3rd Doctor – Joan Sims (1970-1974)

Known primarily as a comedic actress, I can imagine Joan really relishing a more swashbuckling take with her Doctor. Earth-bound for much of her time, thanks to plentiful alien invasions and the arrival of her arch-nemesis The Mistress (Maureen Lipman), there was plenty of adventure for her to carry on with.

4th Doctor – Miriam Margoyles (1974-1981)

Wild-eyed, eccentric, outspoken and a force of nature who would one day have a memorable guest role on “Blackadder II”, who else could take on the legend of Tom Baker’s Doctor other than the equally legendary Miriam Margoyles? Brooding and bonkers by turn, Margoyles’ Doctor would be one of the most indelible of the entire series.

5th Doctor – Joanna Lumley (1981-1984)

After such a long serving Doctor, it was time for a fresh face, and producer Verity Lambert (because why wouldn’t she still be showrunner?) decided to go for a quintessentially English Doctor, calmer and more relaxed than her predecessor. Who else, then, but Joanna Lumley, bringing a bright, vivacious energy to the role as well as some of that ethereal otherness from her time on “Sapphire & Steel”. A high point was the celebration of the show’s 20th Anniversary which saw Lumley’s Doctor team up with all her predecessors.

6th Doctor – Judi Dench (1984-1986)

Striking out in a bold direction, the new Doctor was more aristocratic and aloof than her predecessors. Dench’s more prickly and stern Time Lord was a stark change from Lumley’s Edwardian elegance. Off-screen problems were the order of the day though and a prolonged hiatus after Dench refused to continue wearing the ridiculous costume didn’t help and the BBC was forced to make a change.

7th Doctor – Sandi Toksvig (1987-1989)

Fans were surprised and a little bit dubious when children’s TV presenter Sandi Toksvig was cast as the 7th Doctor but after a tonally uneven first series, Toksvig settled into the role and brought unexpected and welcome complexity and mystery to the gadabout Gallifreyan. Alas, it wasn’t enough to stave off cancellation and all was looking bleak Time’s Champion.

8th Doctor – Emma Thompson (1996)

In came American money and a slicker production, with Emma Thompson providing the necessary Britishness for this transatlantic production. Her Doctor turned out to be the best thing about an otherwise muddled and generic one-off outing, quickly making her a fan favourite even if she didn’t get a full series.

9th Doctor – Ruth Jones (2005)

For years, it looked like the Doctor and her travels would be consigned to the purgatory of reruns on UK Gold but, much like in “Star Trek IV”, Wales saved the day. Revived as a new, prestigious family viewing event series, Welsh actress Ruth Jones popped up in the TARDIS to save Ross Tyler (James Corden) from death at the hands of shop dummies and the rest is reboot history. Unfortunately, Jones had writing ambitions of her own and so stayed only for one series, leaving to work on other projects.

10th Doctor – Keeley Hawes (2005-2010)

With the show back on top, suddenly it was must-see TV and a jewel in the BBC crown. A cool and charismatic new Doctor was needed and Keeley Hawes stepped forward. Capable of balancing light and dark and still tortured by the Time War, the Doctor and the programme itself went from strength to strength, culminating in a celebratory run of TV specials and an epic two-part Christmas and New Year farewell extravaganza.

11th Doctor – Carey Mulligan (2010-2013)

Having appeared on the show previously, viewers were a little surprised when Carey Mulligan landed the role of The 11th Doctor but the coincidence was eventually explained in a throwaway piece of dialogue about reminding herself not to blink or some such. Mulligan embraced a zanier, more fun take on the Doctor, while conveying the pathos of a very old soul in a young body. Presiding over Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary celebrations allowed her to stage the perfect send-off.

War Doctor – Diana Rigg (2013)

When Ruth Jones was too busy to return to film the 50th Anniversary show “The Day Of The Doctor”, fans were astonished to learn of a long hidden regeneration, between the 8th and 9th Doctors. Who better to portray this battle-hardened warrior physician than the phenomenal Diana Rigg. Appearing with both Keeley Hawes and Carey Mulligan, Diana Rigg’s weary soldier undid the damage of the Time War and helped restore Gallifrey.

12th Doctor – Helen Mirren (2013-2017)

Having stayed young and trendy for some time, Helen Mirren’s 12th Doctor shook things up a bit by returning to the shows roots, bringing an edge of gravitas, grumpiness and not a little sass albeit with an undercurrent of bravery and kindness. People were surprised that such a well known and established actress would take the role but it turned out Mirren had been a fan when she was younger. Compassionate and regal, Mirren’s Doctor became known for stirring and emotive monologues as well as a cheeky pre-regeneration appearance in the 50th Anniversary special.

Which brings us up to date and the surprising announcement that the 13th Doctor will be played by a man for the first time. Kris Marshall, lately of “Death In Paradise” was revealed in a brief woodland walk video on Saturday after the Wimbledon Ladies Final – beating out Jodie Whittaker whom everyone had assume was a ‘lock’ for the role and so far, fan reaction has been pretty good apart from the usual vocal tiny minority who feel threatened by the change. But nobody ever said the Doctor has to be a woman, did they?

So there you go, that’s my fan casting of an all-female history of “Doctor Who”. What do you think? Who would you have cast? Did I miss a better 2nd Doctor? Was it fair for Dench to undergo “The Trial Of A Time Lord”? Let me know who you’d have cast instead in the comments below.

My Daughter’s Doctor

We are mere minutes away from finding out who will become the sixteenth actor to portray Doctor Who in the Time Lord’s fifteenth incarnation: The 13th Doctor is nigh (not Nighy, although that would be kind of awesome).
I’ve always held to the theory that “your” Doctor isn’t the one you first start watching, it’s the one you see arrive in a regeneration. For Mertmas, he got into Doctor Who during the David Tennant years but it was when Matt Smith arrived that he really took to it and, of course, he then welcomed Capaldi with equal enthusiasm but Smith remains his Doctor, cemented by four visits to the Doctor Who Experience (in London, then Cardiff) before it was revamped (and we visited a fifth time).

At four years old, the littlest Craggling has only a passing interest in “Doctor Who” but she likes to sit and watch an episode or two with her Dad and big brother, but I’m excited to see her see a Doctor’s arrival for herself and imprint on the programme properly.

Now you might be thinking or hoping this is where I firmly nail my colours to the mast and state that I want the Doctor to be a woman, this time, to really be my daughter’s Doctor but I’m kind of agnostic in the whole casting thing. I’m happy for it to be a woman, or somebody who isn’t white, I really don’t mind. I just want them to be great. I want them to bring the show a new energy and help the new showrunner deliver some of the greatest “Doctor Who” yet. For me, there’s no mandatory ethnicity or gender requirements for the Doctor, they just need to be…well…Doctorish. I’m excited to see who going to be given the chance to find a new spin on playing a curious, kind alien who’s thousands of years old, rattling around the universe in the TARDIS.

I say that I’m totally open to it being anyone, but that’s not strictly true. As long as it’s not Ricky Gervais or James Corden, though, the Craggus family will still be watching and willing the Doctor to win.

So it’s the old boys’ network which delivers the first female Doctor as Chibnall picks from his “Broadchurch” cast for the latest Doctor. As far as it goes, seems like a good pick. It’ll come down to the writing and the performance to really seal the deal but she was great in the sci-fi setting of “Attack The Block” and I’m excited to see what new energy this will bring to the show.

For the record, the littlest Craggling’s reaction was to wrinkle her nose and ask “why is the Doctor a lady?”

“Why not?” I asked. “It’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

She thought hard for a few moments, then emphatically nodded her head. “Yes.”

The imprinting has begun.

War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) Review

As a rule, I’m not a fan of prequels. But rules were made to be broken, and “War For The Planet Of The Apes” manages to thwart two of mine: it’s a superb prequel and it’s the third chapter of a trilogy which is the best of the three.

In the aftermath of Koba’s betrayal and attack on the humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of apes are hiding in the Californian forests, forced into a defensive war against the aggressive and confrontational tactics of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of a fanatical platoon dedicated to the extermination of the Apes. When the human forces brutally attack the Apes’ home, they are forced to flee and Caesar must embrace his own darkness in order to save his people.

For a franchise which – across nearly fifty years and eight movies – has told the story of humanity’s fall and the apes’ ascendancy, this is the first film I can recall which is told almost exclusively from the apes’ point of view, and the experience is all the richer for it. The motion capture performances by the entire cast are stunning. While the special effects awards are surely a lock for the unparalleled work done here by Weta Digital, surely this is the film which will finally demand the recognition of motion capture actors for their performance skills. Andy Serkis’ Caesar is as fully realised and nuanced a character as any other film this year and it’s his performance – along with those of Steve Zahn (Bad Ape) and Karin Konoval (Maurice) which give the movie its soul and the emotional gravitas to explore both the apes and humans with a sympathetic and satisfying complexity.

Co-Writer & Director Matt Reeves takes the foundations he laid out in “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” and uses them to build a magnificent, towering achievement of a movie. Tense and dramatic, poignant and emotional, this is a smart and serious allegorical sci-fi movie camouflaging itself as a summer blockbuster. There’s a mythical, epic quality to the cinematography, as the action moves from the lush verdancy of the forests through the snow covered landscapes of the mountains to the stark and slyly familiar desert regions, every single frame is beautiful. It’s a cinephile’s dream to parse through, picking out the influences and references Reeves peppers throughout and while there are obvious nods to “Apocalypse Now”, “The Bridge On The River Kwai” and “The Great Escape”, he finds time to have some fun with direct homages to the closing chapter of another trilogy.

Delivering on its title right from the opening, the initial forest-bound battle scene which opens the film is everything you wish the battle between the technologically advanced Imperial Troops and the ‘primitive’ Ewoks in “Return Of The Jedi” could have been. It’s very much the same battle, with similar existential stakes, but this time convincingly and powerfully evokes the allusion to the Vietnam war far more successfully than Lucas managed in 1983. The RotJ parallel is picked up later during a confrontation between Caesar and the Colonel where Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score brings in a choral element which is deeply reminiscent of the Emporer’s Throne Room as the Colonel uses Caesar’s attachment to his people to manipulate and provoke him. If you still doubt that “Star Wars” was the in Reeve’s thoughts, there’s the impossible to ignore homage to Luke Skywalker’s confrontation with a Tusken Raider while using his binoculars, re-enacted almost exactly here.

Effectively concluding Caesar’s hero’s journey, “War From The Planet Of The Apes” ends at a point where, although you could have more movies to join the events more directly to the 1968 classic, only the most unimaginative completist would really need them. Having avoided the pitfalls which usually befall prequels, Reeves has left the franchise in fine condition, providing the studio has the wit and wisdom to quit while it’s ahead. As for Reeves’ personal future, everything here should give us home for an astonishing “Batman” movie to come and given how artfully he balanced family, war, destiny and adventure, he must surely be at the top of Lucasfilm’s list for a future episode of the “Star Wars” saga. “War For The Planet Of The Apes” is my new favourite Apes movie and the benchmark by which I’ll be measuring the rest of 2017’s offerings.

10/10 

Cars (2006) Review

For a studio which prides itself on its dedication to story crafting and world building, “Cars” is a curious beast. The world it presents and the way it presents it simply doesn’t make sense. Reportedly a passion project for keen petrol head and Pixar chief John Lasseter, it comes across as more of a vanity project given how blatantly it flouts the studio’s usually peerless focus on storytelling and character.

When rookie sensation Lightning McQueen (Luke Wilson) manages a three-way tie for the coveted Piston Cup, a special run-off race is arranged for a weeks’ time in California. Brash, arrogant and self-centred, McQueen’s thoughtlessness ends up stranding him in the quiet backwater town of Radiator Springs after an accidental night-time rampage. With the make-or-break race only a few days away, McQueen must make amends to the townsfolk and get himself back into racing form.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that nothing about the world we are presented in “Cars” makes sense. Superficially, it’s super cute and the animation design is superb even if they make the baffling decision to make the windscreen the eyes instead of the headlights. The characters themselves are pretty good too although only Lightning himself, Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) and Doc (Paul Newman in his final acting role) get anything resembling development. It’s the world that surrounds them that just doesn’t make sense, undermining everything else. Is it our world but now devoid of human life? No, there are numerous indications that – apart from vegetable matter and, millions of years ago dinosaurs – this is a civilisation of vehicles. So why does the world they inhabit have no many odd and incompatible design features? It’s maddeningly frustrating because for every clever ‘adaptation’ the film makes to accommodate a world of cars, it drops the ball on half a dozen other things that simply wouldn’t exist in that form if humans had never existed.

But – I hear you say – it’s just a kids movie and you should just suspend your belief. Fine, the problem with doing that though it when you do that, and disregard the whole cars gimmick all you’re left with is a thinly written copy of “Doc Hollywood” drenched in the overpowering cologne of rose-tinted nostalgia for a bygone era of American motoring before freeways. Besides, for the review, I rewatched “Cars” with the littlest Craggling and even at four years old, her questions were more about how the world of Cars worked and why things were the way they were than about the plot or characters.

All that being said, the racing sequences are energetic and thrilling enough if motor sports are your thing but there’s no escaping this is one of the weakest Pixar offerings, although that still places it in pole position compared to most other animated fare.

5/10 

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Review

The previous “Amazing Spider-Man” movies showed us that Spider-Man’s most implacable foe was studio interference and while I personally enjoyed what Marc Webb and Andree Garfield were trying to do, there’s no denying “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was a convoluted and overstuffed mess of studio-mandated world building which makes “Iron Man 2” look streamlined and focussed. This time, Spidey’s brought some friends with him and with Marvel in his corner, things are looking up for our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.

Following his adventure with the Avengers in Germany, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) finds himself back in Queens, New York, balancing his school days with nights spent patrolling the neighbourhood as Spider-Man. Mentored by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), Peter’s reluctant to return to the small-scale crime fighting he’s confronted with in his own neck of the woods. When he interrupts a bank robbery by a gang using powerful, high-tech weaponry, it seems his big break may have presented itself, revealing a weapons dealing programme based on alien technology. But Peter still has a lot to learn, and school is definitely in session.

By coincidence I was watching “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in the morning before I went to see “Spider-Man: Homecoming” but I really should have been watching “Avengers Assemble” because it’s in the aftermath of that film that Homecoming’s story actually begins. It’s a smart move, seamlessly and retrospectively enshrining this version of ol’ web head into the MCU way before his show-stopping ‘debut’ in “Captain America: Civil War”. The film begins in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of New York, showing Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) and his salvage crew being muscled out of their city contracts by a new Stark-funded government ‘Damage Control’ agency. Concerned for the survival of his business and his employees who depend on him, he manages to hide some of the Chitauri technology, using it to start his black market operation. Toomes’ motivations are one of the film’s key strengths; the Vulture is no one-note MCU villain thanks to smart writing and a malevolent yet sympathetic performance from Michael Keaton. The Vulture is a very Trump-era bad guy, a blue-collar working man who feels trampled and forgotten by the elites in their shining Avengers towers.

Another strength is in how it handles Peter and Spider-Man: this is a film which is not afraid to let its hero fail – repeatedly. It’s more than content to show him as over-confident, clumsy and completely out of his depth. There’s a rich layering of the personal trials and tribulations of Peter Parker’s life that have always been at the heart of the character’s appeal. Raimi’s take on Spidey’s domestic struggles was a heavy handed though effective focus on Aunt May’s financial struggles whereas The Amazing Spider-Man movies preferred the tediously high concept story of Peter’s parents’ secret lives, but in Homecoming the problems are the everyday ones of a high school student. He worries about his schoolwork, a date for homecoming, building Lego with his friends and finding time to be Spider-Man. Holland’s Peter Parker has friends who aren’t love interests, classroom acquaintances, even frenemies. He’s the same loveable loser we’ve always rooted for but he has a rich web of connections to his world and surroundings in a way neither Maguire or Garfield did. The origin of his powers is deliberately left vague and there’ no mention of Uncle Ben, leaving room to explore who he is now. It’s a smart move, there’s no need to replay how Peter Parker became the hero he is yet again. He’s not Batman.

In filling out Peter’s wider life, there’s a confidently diverse approach to casting. It’s done without virtue signalling though, it simply provides a real life authenticity that helps sell this new middle-ground of the MCU: brighter and happier than the grimy, crime-ridden shades of Hell’s Kitchen but not quite the glass and chrome towers of the highfalutin’ end of the world domain of the Avengers.

The Avengers aren’t as prevalent as you might have suspected from the trailer and even Iron Man’s appearances are fairly light touch. Not that the film is afraid to tweak Tony Stark’s foibles, though and by the end, both Parker and Stark end up wiser for the events.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” easily achieves its primary goal of justifying another Spider-reboot so soon after the last one. The MCU connections strengthen rather than smother the story and it’s a more cohesive and courageous film than you might be expecting from a screenplay with six credited writers, even managing a couple of really good twists. It’s a fun, character-driven slice of super-hero action that gets closer to the source comic books than ever before, pulling off the big set-pieces with aplomb even though it’s in its smaller moments it really shines. Even when they’re having to carry the burden of another studio, Marvel have managed to pull it off and the MCU’s run continues. Coming out of “Captain: America: Civil War”, Mertmas’ favourite character was Spider-Man. “Homecoming” has cemented that position, at least until Hulk resurfaces in “Thor: Ragnarok”.

8/10 

The Circle (2017) Review

Available right now on Netflix, this 2017 techno-thriller seems to have a lot going for it: a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, John Boyega and Bill Paxton in his final role and a plot focussed on subject matter lifted directly from news headlines. So it’s something of a surprise that it all falls so horribly, clumsily flat.

When Mae Holland (Emma Watson) manages to get a job at tech giant The Circle thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), she can’t believe her luck. As she acclimatises to the company’s way of life, she begins to share more and more of her life with the firm’s social media tools. After the company’s technology is instrumental in saving her life during a foolish kayaking incident, Mae agrees to go ‘completely transparent’, living her life in the open, online, much to the delight of the leaders of the company, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). But The Circle has an agenda, and it doesn’t have Mae’s best interests at heart.

Adapted from his own novel by Dave Eggers, “The Circle” clearly has its critical focus set on the Googles and Facebooks of the world and Mae’s initial introduction into the corporation has more in common with “The Internship” than “The Social Network” although both are clearly present in director James Ponsoldt’s mind as he brings the script to life. It’s in the script the film’s flaws lie, though, and its muddled and incoherent plotting prevents the characters or the narrative from achieving any semblance of momentum and consistency. Ultimately, “The Circle” wants to be a debate on the fundamental principles of privacy versus transparency and while it clearly favours the latter, it offers nothing but logical fallacies in support of it.

It’s Watson’s character who bears the brunt of being mangled in the mismatched cogs of character development and she’s simply not up to the task of making Mae’s seduction by The Circle’s agenda at all convincing, let alone lending any credibility to her position by the end of the movie given everything she’s experienced. None of the expository speeches by any of the characters who deliver them (of which there are more than a few) in defence of a universal surveillance state monopolised by a single corporation would stand up to even the slightest critical cross-examination and, as a result, our heroine comes across as guileless, gullible and utterly lacking in the charisma necessary for her to fulfil the role the story requires. Other characters are simply slapped around arbitrarily by a screenplay which is content to make them do what it needs them to do without investing any time or effort on logical character development or consistency.

Karen Gillan is one of the few cast members to actually try to bring her role to life but her character’s sudden turn for the worse seems to come out of nowhere and has no real impact. Hanks and Oswalt seem unwilling or unable to take their roles as the de facto ‘bad guys’ seriously but then again, the film never really establishes specifically (or generally) whether they are evil, and if they are what they may have done. The late Bill Paxton (in his final screen role) and Glenne Headly (in her penultimate screen appearance) find themselves trapped in a tagged-on Lifetime Movie of The Week subplot which also ensnares “Boyhood”’s Ellar Coltrane but it’s John Boyega who is most wasted in a near pointless role as an off-the-grid co-founder of The Circle who has misgivings about the company’s direction yet allies himself willingly with its profoundly naïve poster child.

There is clearly scope for an intelligent and incisive thriller based around the potential dark side of social media, the intrusive potential of biometric technology and how far we as a society are willing to trade independence and privacy for security and convenience but “The Circle” is not that movie. It’s a slapdash, incompetent waste of two hours of your life which doesn’t just insult your intelligence, it trolls it.

2/10 

Despicable Me 3 (2017) Review

With the high point of “Minions” being Gru’s brief cameo at the end, “Despicable Me 3” offers the franchise a chance to get back to what works best: the adventures of the formerly despicable Gru. Then again, this is the third instalment of a trilogy, so, you know…

When Gru (Steve Carrell) and Lucy (Kirsten Wiig) are fired from the Anti-Villain League for allowing 80s-obsessed Benjamin Bratt (Trey Parker) escape once again, they find themselves at a loose end until out of the blue, they receive an invitation from Gru long-lost twin brother Dru, who wants to revive the family’s traditional business: villainy.

Directed by the same team which helmed the “Minions” movie, there’s a noticeable shift away from the gentle but sly satire of the first two “Despicable” films in favour of the scattergun slapstick comedy of the Minions. Lowering the comedy bar makes it a little easier for the film to trundle along merrily but in truth, it feels like it’s having to work really, really hard to keep just ahead of the point where it runs out of ideas. This is most obvious in its lack of a central plot and it suffers that most common of issues for threequels; finding things for all the returning characters to do. As often happens, they’re divided up and given their own plots which – while they don’t really intertwine – at least complement each other. The main action of Gru discovering his brother and flirting with going back to villainy gets itself tangled up in also needing to defeat Benjamin Bratt who is easily the most gimmicky and least interesting of Gru’s foes to date (nobody in the franchise has come close to matching the original’s Vector) while Lucy’s quest to be a ‘good mom’ is too underdeveloped to matter and ends up sidelining and wasting Kirsten Wiig. Agnes’ quest to hunt a unicorn feels like a supporting short which has been added into the movie to bolster the run time, as does the Minions’ completely pointless subplot which is easily the most disconnected from the rest.

The movie still has its charms, though, and Carrell’s voice work as Gru (and Dru) continues to delight. Wiig, unfortunately, isn’t given much to work with but the kids fill in the adorability gap created by the Minion’s detachment. The comedy’s a bit hit and miss, with a surprisingly mean-spirited dig at “Finding Nemo” and a weird visual swipe at Donald Trump among the earlier misses before it settles into its groove of cutesy slapstick and silliness. There’s entertainment enough to keep the family occupied for an hour and a half; anyone under twelve should find it hits the spot nicely. The MAD Magazine ‘Spy vs Spy’-inspired end credits suggest a possible route for a “Despicable Me 4” but there’d be no shame in wrapping up this franchise before they flog it to death. After all, nobody wants another “Shrek Forever After”, do they?

6/10 

Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (S10E12) Review

*SPOILERS*

Oh, of course we don’t address the cliffhanger immediately. Instead, we’re treated to a healthy dose of bucolic nightmare fuel as would-be Cybermen scarecrows come to shambling life and attack an isolated farm homestead somewhere halfway up the ship. Admittedly, the annoyance of this discontinuity is ameliorated by the instantly iconic sight of a Mondasian Cyberman holding the (unconscious?) Doctor in its arms.

After the opening credits, its right back to business as usual with the Doctor being gloated over by Missy and the Master with a quick black and white flashback to connect us to the last moments of “World Enough And Time” although there’s something incongruously thuggish and undignified in the Master and Missy simply duffing the Doctor up. The teasing scene does contain a throwaway devastating revelation as the Master reveals the Doctor wasted ten years chatting on the top deck only to miss rescuing Bill by two hours. Thankfully, the Doctor’s cleverness, an ambiguously aligned Missy and a defiant unconverted Bill turn the tide and with Nardole’s help escape in a shuttlecraft, crashing into the farming level of the pre-credits sequence. Did I mention Missy’s umbrella is sonic? Glorious!

From that point on, this is a series finale which deliberately plots a different course from the bombast and grand scale of previous series finales. Although there is spectacle and legions of Cybermen blown to kingdom come, it’s on quiet character moments that the story focuses on, specifically Bill coming to terms with what’s happened to her while the Doctor plots and schemes to do what he always does: save as many people as he can. His failure to save Bill seems to have taken a heavy toll on our long-lived Time Lord. There’s a melancholy, morbid determination to him. He’s already holding off his regeneration and, as the episode unfolds, we see he intends to hold it off permanently. The loss of Bill wasn’t brought about by a tragic turn of events this time, or last minute heroism or Matrix deceptions, it was the Doctor’s own cockiness which got her killed. Coupled with Clara’s death (the Doctor does finally remember her briefly before the end of the episode), the Doctor seems to have determined that he must atone for those deaths with his own. No wonder he’s been so focused on trying to save Missy: he desperately needs his friend to carry on his work after he has gone.

Bill’s (inevitable) restoration appears to occur somewhat suddenly and early in the episode but after last week when I was embarrassingly late in figuring out Mr Razor was really John Simm’s Master, I wasn’t going to be fooled again so easily and quickly (and correctly) surmised that Bill’s perception is at odds with her actual appearance. It’s beautifully played throughout the episode as Director Rachel Talalay swaps back and forth between Bill and her Cyber-form giving the audience a poignant and affecting Doctor Who spin on “Shallow Hal”. I do hope this episode wasn’t a sly dig by Moffat at his successor by showing him how “Cyberwoman” should have been done.

Thanks to the timey-wimey effects of the black hole’s time dilation, when the invasion comes it’s not the Mondasian Cybermen but their more recent incarnation but all it does is serve to underscore the fact the Cybermen have become less scary as the years have gone on. I also feel a bit cheated that we don’t even get a glimpse of modern spins on the 70s and 80s iterations of the Cybermen as the accelerated evolution works its magic.

Less successful is the Master/ Missy storyline. The Master is utterly superfluous to the story and ultimately Simm’s return is a hollow gimmick of stunt casting. I’ve never been a big fan of his interpretation of the Doctor’s nemesis and this story’s denouement does little to endear him to me. There’s a fittingness to Missy provoking her own creation that I can understand but the Master’s response, no matter how he tries to justify it, is wildly out of character. The idea that an individual so obsessively focussed on his own survival that he literally survived as a rotting corpse for years before stealing other people’s bodies would decide to shoot ‘himself’ in the back and condemn himself to death is a huge betrayal of the character and seemed put in place just to have a point to Simm being there in the first place.

Of course, this is Moffat’s Doctor Who swansong so there’s no way Bill will remain abandoned, encased in cyber armour which will, eventually, wear down her mental defences and take over. Instead, like all of his iconic companions, she receives a death but not death. As River Song, Amelia Pond and Clara Oswald did before her, Bill finds there’s much more to life after death. It’s curiously satisfying that an alien as powerful as the one from “The Pilot” comes back to put the deus into Bill’s ex machina but it can’t quite make up for the fact that we won’t be seeing Bill help the new Doctor settle in.

Even after he’s saved and placed in the TARDIS, the Twelfth Doctor seems determined to be the last of that Time Lord, holding off his regeneration again and again, threatening to take the Fifth Doctor’s record and easily overtaking the Tenth Doctor’s self-aggrandising going away tour. I wonder what his progenitor will have to say about that at Christmas?

So there we have it, Moffat’s era draws to a close with an appropriately idea-crammed, sentimental, occasionally brilliant, sometimes flawed and very messy finale. Truly nothing in his show running became him like the leaving of it. I hope the Doctors get to have some fun at Christmas. Perhaps the Nativity will afford them an opportunity to change their minds on the subject of resurrection?

8/10 

Churchill (2017) Review

While it no doubt provides a sensational showcase for Brian Cox’s performance as Britain’s most famous Prime Minister, this 90-minute movie covering the 96 hours before the D-Day landings makes you feel the passing of every single hour.

In many ways, the film sets out to dismantle the myth of Churchill the great, respected wartime leader and instead show him as an ageing, curmudgeonly old sod, stubbornly resisting the forces he himself had helped assemble and pushed into the ascendance.

Cox powerfully conveys Winston’s sense of irritation and outrage with those around him and the way he is being treated and the audience can empathise given most of them will have been raised in reverence of him as a quasi-mythic heroic figure.

Churchill’s opposition to the D-Day landing plans is evident if unexplored by a leaden and repetitive screenplay which simply had Churchill and Eisenhower (John Slattery) shout at each other in different locations. If Churchill isn’t shouting at Eisenhower, then he’s shouting at his loyal chargé d’affaires Jan Smuts (Richard Durden) or his long-suffering wife Clementine (Miranda Richardson). If nothing else, it’s one of the shoutiest movies ever made as Winston shouts at them on the beaches, in the hills, and at the conference tables.

There are, of course, some marvellous moments, particularly a mercifully quiet and reflective conversation between Churchill and King George VI (James Purefoy) where the two of them face up to the obligations of their duty to their country.

It’s a missed opportunity to explore a fascinating and pivotal moment of real life history and while it doesn’t feel obliged to flatter Churchill, it spends little time exploring his inner demons or providing a more forensic examination of the D-Day plans themselves and Churchill’s apparently controversial alternative.

6/10