X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) Review

Dr Terrors House Of HorrorsI’ve been wading through a lot of horror dross recently (for reasons which will become clear later in the year) so thankfully the forthcoming Blu Ray release of the digitally remastered “Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors” gave me a perfect chance to clear my movie palate.

From legendary British Horror Studio Amicus (often unfairly overshadowed by the more strident Hammer Studios), “Doctor Terror’s House Of Horrors” is a colourful, classy and richly indulgent slice of sixties horror and it’s never looked better thanks to a terrific digital remastering and Blu Ray’s high definition standard.

Five strangers board a train, joined at the last minute by Dr Schreck (Peter Cushing), an inscrutable fortune teller who, to while away the journey, uses his pack of Tarot cards – his ‘House Of Horrors’ – to tell his fellow passengers fortunes. Thus we are treated to an anthology of horror stories ranging from the gothic to the sci-fi as we encounter werewolves, murderous vegetation, voodoo curses, revenge from beyond the grave and, of course, vampires.

A quintessentially British production, there’s so much to enjoy here from the performances to the superb art direction and production design from Bill Constable. The sets are fantastic, making the most of the largely studio-bound stories. The film boasts an amazing cast with genre legend Christopher Lee joining Cushing, Neil McCallum, Donald Sutherland, Roy Castle and, bizarrely, famous radio DJ Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman. Familiar faces pop up in the individual stories too, with Bond movie veteran Bernard Lee helping to see off an attack of the creeping vines and four-time Batman butler Michael Gough lending snooty art critic Christopher Lee a helping hand. Director Freddie Francis and writer Milton Subotsky keep the movie moving along with energy and invention, creating an elegant and macabre sense of fun.

A product of its time, the five segments vary in quality and success but all of them have bags of charm and wit. The first tale, that of a predatory werewolf is rich in atmosphere as an architect (Neil McCallum) returns to his ancestral home at the request of the new owner who seeks to make alterations to the building while something ancient lurks in a bricked off tomb.  The second story, starring a slightly miscast Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman features an ordinary family under siege in their home by a predatory vine. With practical effects which will be familiar to fans of Sixties and Seventies “Doctor Who”, it never quite gels despite a much needed dose of gravitas from Bernard Lee.

Most problematic of the quintet is the third story, a tale of Voodoo magic and cursed music. Making his feature film debut, Roy Castle (a last minute replacement for the originally cast Acker Bilk) gives a somewhat self-conscious performance and ensures the tone of the piece errs on the comedic rather than creepy side. It’s also the segment which has dated the most thanks to the clichéd attitudes of casual racism on show and a truly spectacularly bad attempt at a Caribbean accent by Castle. One bright point, though, is the unusually metatextual touch of a poster for the film “Doctor Terrible’s House Of Horrors” appearing on screen in the background.

Things get firmly back on track with the fourth story, a tale of hubris and revenge featuring Michael Gough as a well-known artist and Christopher Lee as snide and callous art critic. A cruel trick escalates out of control and even when events take a tragic turn, the terror is not over. As well as great performances from both leads in the story, this segment really benefits from some terrific practical effects work, especially in the form of the disembodied hand which plagues the critic’s every waking moment.

The final story is a little rushed and odd, telling of a young doctor (Donald Sutherland) returning to his American home with his new French bride. When a case of severe anaemia presents itself, he begins to suspect a vampire may be to blame, but who could it be? The answer may not surprise you, but the ease with which people are convinced certainly will!

But the film still has treats in store even after its five stories have been told and there’s a delightfully ghoulish sting in the tail as the passengers of the railway compartment reach their final destination.

The Blu Ray release itself also comes with a great documentary looking back on the production itself, filled with observations and amusing anecdotes (such as Bernard ‘M’ Lee being extremely ‘refreshed’ during filming) and is well worth watching, as is the accompanying documentary on Christopher Lee’s legendary career.

“Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors” is an iconic and wonderfully nostalgic slice of classic cinema and the perfect starting point for someone wanting to explore the rich tradition of British Horror of the sixties and seventies. Due for release on 27th June 2016, you can preorder your copy here.

7/10 Score 7

Bad Neighbours 2 (2016) Review

Bad Neighbours 2I love “Bad Neighbours”, even though it represented a watershed moment for me personally: it was the first time I’d found myself siding with the ‘boring’ old folk in a war of the generations comedy. I’m not getting any younger so sure, sign me up for another tour of duty and let the second park war begin!

Two years after they emerged victorious over neighbouring fraternity house, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) have another baby on the way and are looking forward to moving home. Committed to buying their dream home, the sale of their current house is at the mercy of the buyers during a 30 day escrow period and their move is jeopardised when a sorority move in next door. Cue another round of escalating shenanigans as the Radners try to shut the party down one more time.

There’s a little bit of a disconnect from the first film here as some of the neatness of the ending is unpicked to allow for the sequel to be woven in, although there’s a completely out of the blue retconning of one of the first movie’s main characters for no real reason apart from to conform to the movie’s newly minted diversity credentials.

Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) is inspired to set up her Kappa Nu sorority after being disappointed by the inequality of the treatment of Fraternities and Sororities and the film ends up tying itself in knots trying to both promote and satirise the rising social justice culture of tolerance and empowerment. It ridicules misogynist attitudes and the patriarchal bias then peppers the film with the laziest feminist stereotypes available. Ultimately it flatters to deceive and has nothing pertinent to say about the subject, using it instead as a Trojan horse for the same old affable mixture of bad taste, shock tactics and scatological shenanigans. The film has little time for subtleties and almost immediately the pranks and stunts are dialled up to eleven but shorn of the gradual escalation, it undermines the fragile authenticity of the situation. The girls’ first strike is too big and would easily have been resolved by calling the police straight away. A later master plan by the sorority to raise funds by cornering the weed market could have been thwarted by deploying their own ratting out tactics against them but of course our ‘heroes’ don’t do that. Essentially, “Bad Neighbours 2” works hardest at finding reasons for the story not to end too quickly, while the audience may find itself seeking the exact opposite. The Radners seem stupider than before (two years of raising a toddler can do that to you , though), wilfully enabling the pranks played against them and even Zac Efron’s hard partying Frat boy Peter Pan seems egregiously dumber than last time (although his abs are still sick), all in the name of keeping the flimsy narrative going. Rogen is, of course, still loveable and charming but the film is relying much more heavily on his charisma this time round.  Chloë Grace Moretz struggles with a role which is frequently unevenly written, veering between sympathetic feminist champion and narcissistic petty vindictiveness with little reason.  She’s not helped by the fact she’s surrounded by an assortment of sorority sisters who are pale facsimiles of the “Pitch Perfect” gang with Beanie Feldstein in particular trying and failing to emulate Rebel Wilson.

It’s still a pretty funny film but compared to the first one it feels lazy and unoriginal. Lacking a compelling story, its messy mixture of messages and merriment push it firmly into sequel by the numbers territory and it’s only by virtue of the quality and energy of the cast that it succeeds at all.

5/10 Score 5

The Angry Birds Movie (2016) Review

Angry BirdsSince it was launched in 2009, the Angry Birds game has been downloaded over a billion times. It’s had numerous spin-offs and tie-in merchandise and now it’s got its own movie. If you’ve ever played the game, you’ll know the feeling when you’ve got your shot lined up (or so you think) only for your finger to slip and the white bird (the one which lays the exploding egg) launches on the wrong trajectory. In a desperate attempt to salvage the turn, you end up tapping the screen too late and the egg explodes way off the mark, leaving your target completely unmoved. And if that’s not a tortuously wrought metaphor for “The Angry Birds Movie” then I don’t know what is.

When an island populated by happy, flightless birds is suddenly visited by an armada of green pigs, the visitors are welcomed with open wings. Except by Red who, with his friends Chuck and Bomb, sets out to discover what the pigs are really up to.

For a franchise with a reputation for wit and invention, there’s precious little of it on show in its own movie. Instead, its sensibilities seem rooted in the 1990s, almost as if the writers binge watched “Seinfeld” before penning this. As a result, we get a movie with a bunch of jokes about anger management therapy and allusions to the little annoyances and frustrations of everyday life. The tone is all over the place, flailing wildly as it reaches for the multi-layered storytelling humour that Pixar and others have mastered but instead it just stumbles back and forth between risqué throwaway lines and goofy slapstick.

It takes forever for the actual story to get going – it’s already given away all its ‘best’ gags in the trailers – and in its desperation to contextualise everything from the game, it fails to revel in and celebrate its own absurdity, almost feeling like its apologising for or explaining away the strangeness of the original premise at times. It finds ever more tenuous rationalisations until, finally, it just gives up and announces that one of the characters can now – for no real reason – shoot fireballs from their butt.

Whichever way you look at it, “The Angry Birds Movie” is a unfortunate misfire that doesn’t seem to understand its own legacy. The games are great fun: clever, challenging and amusing – everything the movie isn’t. Even the animated five minute “Angry Birds Toons” shorts captured the spirit of the games way better than this disappointingly generic movie. I can’t remember another film which so badly missed it’s ‘moment’ as “The Angry Birds Movie”. It’s bright and colourful enough to amuse the kids for an hour and a half but it’s about two years too late and a few good ideas short to entertain anyone else.

4/10 Score 4

Robinson Crusoe (2016) Review

Robinson CrusoeThe latest Euro-animation project, following the likes of “Justin And The Knights Of Valour” and “Capture The Flag”, “Robinson Crusoe” is a French/ Belgian co-production based very (very) loosely on the famous novel by Daniel Defoe. In fact, so loose is the adaptation that the likely reason it was called “Robinson Crusoe” at all was simply for the free public domain brand recognition it would give (it was released as “The Wild Life” in the United States).

On an uncharted island, Mak the parrot and his animal friends live an idyllic and untroubled existence. Mak, however, dreams of exploring and is convinced that there are places other than the island and his suspicions are proved correct when a human is shipwrecked along with his faithful dog and a pair of near feral cats who were kept aboard to hunt and kill mice.

The animation is pretty solid although the dialogue and story are only soso, a possible victim of a lack of finesse in the translation of the original. The story is not without charm although for anyone but the youngest viewers, the island’s ecosystem raises more questions than the story answers but it’s so bland it’s hard to summon up the will to care about the plot holes.

In the end, it’s a cute castaway story, undemanding in every way and although it may struggle to keep older children interested, it’s fine for little ones. Be warned, though: there is one scene in particular which will be upsetting for very young children – and the more sensitive adults out there – as the story reminds us that our Gallic cousins may not be as sentimental about man’s best friend as we are.

4/10 Score 4

Unfriended (2015) Review

UnfriendedI have to say, I honestly thought the first real foray into ‘social networking’ horror movie would be some form of Snapchat exchange movie, where the plot unfolds in a series of 10 second vignettes building up to some shocking twist. [Actually, that’s not a bad idea for a cheap and terrible horror movie. Hollywood, give me a call.]

Instead, “Unfriended” – originally titled ‘Cybernatural’, ugh – looks to Skype as its foundation as a group of video chatting friends are terrorised by what seems to be the spirit of a girl who committed suicide a year before.

Its high-concept approach to storytelling brings with it advantages and disadvantages as we’re locked into the viewpoint of our heroine Blaire’s MacBook screen. We see what she sees through the webcams of her friends but when she checks out to go browse a website or open a chat window, we’re cut off from the other players as well. It’s moderately successful in generating horror but it too often relies on shrill teenage shouting and screaming to punctuate the terror and it’s very, very coy when it comes to showing much actual gore or violence and most kills take place off screen or are very quickly cut away from. Where it succeeds tremendously, however, is in capturing the fear, paranoia and frustration of seeing those three ‘someone is typing’ dots only to be followed by no message.

Even though the whole film plays out as something of a software commercial, there’s still room for even more product placement: the tabs open at the top of Blaire’s browser plug Forever 21 and even actress Shelley Hennig’s own MTV series “Teen Wolf” amongst others.

The film is more interesting as the gang are trying to figure out what’s going on rather than once it degenerates into a more formulaic variation on truth or dare. By and large, the revelations that are forced from the group are fairly mundane as befits the characters who, including the vengeful spirit of Laura, are a collection of unremarkable clichés, down to the fat kid who’s a whiz at IT. They’re so generic and remote; it’s hard to feel anything for them as they start to get picked off one by one.

That emotional distance is a key factor in the movie’s critique of bullying: the cloak of anonymity the internet grants a would-be bully when terrorising their victim but where the film scores its strongest thematic points is in underlining that your online past will eventually find you out and come back to haunt you.

“Unfriended” is a fairly tame, standard issue terrorised teen slasher movie but, thanks to its understanding of social media and the risks it presents and a dogged commitment to its twist on the found footage gimmick it manages to be a little bit more interesting.

5/10 Score 5

 

 

Ratchet & Clank (2016) Review

Ratchet And ClankVeterans of more than a dozen video games, Ratchet and Clank are the latest pixelated characters to find the leap from platform pleaser to popcorn powerhouse is more than any double jump or button mashing can easily manage.

When the galaxy is threatened by Chairman Drek and his fearsome Deplanetizer, it’s up to a plucky young Lombax called Ratchet and his newfound robot friend Clank to warn the Galactic Rangers and save the day.

Bright and colourful, “Ratchet & Clank” will likely delight younger viewers but it will struggle to keep their older siblings’ and parents’ attention. Without the interactive gameplay element, the trademark humour and quirky world building of the game series can only do so much. It’s not that “Ratchet & Clank” is a bad film, far from it. It’s just completely forgettable. The character design is good, the voice cast (which includes the likes of John Goodman, Paul Giamatti and Sylvester Stallone) do their jobs well and the story barrels along at a breakneck pace even if it doesn’t always feel like it’s actually going anywhere but the overall effect lacks a spark of life to bring it all together. It’s a huge step up from dross like “Norm Of The North” but it’s an impossible leap away from the likes of DreamWorks, Pixar and Disney.

For fans of the series, it’ll be a pleasant diversion but it’s a shame that more of the wit, energy and inventiveness of the games didn’t manage to translate to the big screen.

5/10 Score 5

The Forest (2016) Review

The ForestSweetie G Grey Background scoreHello cupcakes, long time no speak – sorry about that! Let me break the silence by helping you see the wood for the trees when it comes to spooky mystery “The Forest”…

The talented Natalie Dormer – who has been busy of late in “The Hunger Games” as well as TV’s “Games of Thrones” and “Elementary” – stars as Jess Price (and to a lesser extent) her twin sister Sara. Sara has gone missing while hiking in a remote Japanese forest and not just any forest: the Aokigahara forest, at the foot of Mount Fuji, known as the suicide forest – where people go to die. Jess refuses to believe her sister is dead and, through the connection she has to her identical twin feels that Sara is alive and needs her help so sets off to Japan to bring her sister home.

The supernatural tone of the film is established from the get-go with the ‘psychic’ twin connection and continues and grows are we reach Japan and the true nature of the forest is revealed.  Underpinning this preternatural creepiness of the story are the cultural differences, especially the rituals, customs and beliefs associated with death.  Add to this the local authorities’ refusal to collude or engage with anyone wishing to enter the forest and the scene is set for the scares to begin.

The portrayal of women in this film really interested me.  Dormer is well known for portraying strong women and there is no doubt that the women she plays here have strength, but once again Hollywood can’t seem to allow the creation of a strong woman character without portraying her as damaged.  To that end, we’re provided with a socially acceptable backstory of childhood trauma resulting in one twin – Jess – having it all together while Sara is mentally unstable (and off her meds) as a result.  I can’t help but wonder how different the film would have been if it remained the exact same premise but switched to male twins as the protagonists?

As Jess undertakes her search for Sara, there are some good spooky moments and jumps along the way while the spectral paranormal presences of the forest builds up some good tension and suspense.  There are some disappointing stereotypes used which undermine the film a little – a clichéd creepy Japanese school girl appears more than once both before and after Jess heads into the woods. A little more originality would have gone a long way and helped avoid the stereotypical perception of Japanese culture’s morbid obsession with phantasmagorical school girls in tartan skirts! Along the way Jess does manage to recruit assistance in her search, albeit somewhat reluctantly at times, and the confusion and paranoia that her choices bring is well done and provides a lot of fun.

All in all a solid 7/10 from me. The decent budget means good special effects and despite its shortcomings it’s a solid, entertainingly eerie horror/ thriller.

Did you explore “The Forest”? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

7/10 Sweetie G7

Criminal (2016) Review

CriminalBetween this and last year’s “Self/Less”, you have to hope Ryan Reynolds has learned to never a borrower or a lender be, at least when it comes to his brain.

When a CIA operative is killed in London, the agency brings in an experimental neuroscientist to try and recover their dead agent’s memories in the hope it will lead them to the location of a hacker who has his digital finger on the button of America’s arsenal. When the procedure seemingly fails, the agency moves to dispose of the test subject, death row inmate Jericho Stewart. But Jericho has plans of his own and, on the loose, finds himself being hunted by not only the CIA but also a ruthless terrorist who wants control of the weaponry for himself.

There’s the bones of a half decent James Bond movie in “Criminal” but the execution is a hot mess of bad ideas and bemused actors. There’s nothing  new in the idea of creating an anti-hero, a no-nonsense, takes-no-shit-off-nobody anti-establishment outsider who does what they think is right but in Jericho Stewart, “Criminal” takes the bold step of making their anti-hero anti-likeable. It’s never really explained adequately in the film why it’s a good idea to give a brain-damaged sociopath a whole life’s worth of CIA secrets and skillsets and even in the scene where’s he’s introduced through the clichéd reading of his file, the result sounds more like the CV of a would be Bond villain henchman. Ultimately your hero can get away with a great deal and still keep the audience onside but if one of his first acts is to murder an innocent bystander in cold blood then…well, good luck with that.

The film proceeds to waste a stellar cast on a dull run-around ‘adventure’ in the grubbier parts of the nation’s capital. London has rarely looked shittier on film, especially in recent years; “Criminal” does for London what “Bastille Day” did for Paris. Ryan Reynolds is actually pretty good in this but has the good luck to die early on, escaping the rubbish that follows. Gary Oldman phones in a performance comprised entirely of deleted Jim Gordon scenes from the Dark Knight trilogy (apparently its not just Paris’ CIA office that’s staffed by Brits), Tommy Lee Jones just looks lost and Kevin Costner grunts and mumbles his way through the film in a way he hasn’t since “Waterworld” – and those are just the good guys. Jordi Mollà’s villainous mastermind Xavier Heimdahl is so anemic and ineffective he makes every Marvel bad guy to date look robustly developed and invested with emoitional heft and motivation. The threat remains nebulous and distant because – like much else in this film – things aren’t explained well.

In a year where “London Has Fallen” and “Bastille Day” have already set the bar so very, very low, it takes something special to sink even further. “Criminal” is that special.

4/10 Score 4

Captain America: Civil War (2016) Review

Captain America Civil WarThe collateral damage caused by Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and other sins of the past weigh heavily on “Captain America: Civil War”, the thirteenth – thirteenth! – film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Threads from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and “Ant-Man” are woven together into the ever richer tapestry; there are even strands which go back all the way to “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man”. Oh, what a tangled web they weave. Good job, then, that one of the new Marvel recruits just might be able to help them with that.

In the wake of the destruction in Sokovia and a pitched battle against Crossbones in Nigeria, the governments of the world come together in an attempt to curtail and control the Avengers’ activities under a UN council. As the prospect of political control splits the Avengers down the middle, the sudden re-emergence of The Winter Soldier escalates the conflict, pitting hero against hero and threatening to destroy the Avengers from within.

Along with Iron Man, Captain America has had the most cohesive character arc of any Marvel character on the big screen with his journey from true-blue star-spangled loyal soldier to a man who finds the ideals he fought and froze for in increasingly short supply in the world he finds himself in carrying through to its ultimate end game in “Civil War”. Having seen the institutions and authorities he believed in revealed one after another to be flawed or corrupt, his reluctance to accept the oversight of an organisation driven by a political agenda which could change over time makes sense. When you hear Rogers spell it out, you’ll be ready to declare for #TeamCap.

Although it seems counter-intuitive that Tony Stark would somehow be in favour of being subservient to ‘the man’, his position has its roots all the way back in his Tora Bora-piphany in “Iron Man”, realising that he had ‘become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability. Accountability weighs heavily on Stark’s mind as his every attempt to make things better seems somehow to make things worse. Despite his best efforts, he finds himself back in that position and the Accords offer him a way out, effectively take the burden of responsibility off his shoulders so he can get back to doing what he likes best: building suits and being Iron Man (it’s a welcome – and long overdue – change to MCU convention that Stark does not sign off this movie by quitting again). Perhaps I’m #TeamIronMan after all.

That’s the triumph of “Captain America: Civil War”: the conflict feels authentic. The motivations make sense in terms of the characters’ journeys to this point. Not only that but the film manages to move every character’s journey along, shake up the status quo and introduce big new characters.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have delivered a thrilling, spectacular and even thought-provoking summer blockbuster that delivers some of the best super hero action seen on screen yet. Along with this there are some wonderful character moments, both quiet and in combat, scenes from iconic comics spring to new life on screen and the dialogue snaps, crackles and pops like Whedon never put down his pen and walked off into the sunset. The lucrative merchandising opportunities aren’t overlooked either and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the kids start clamouring for Vision’s new range of business casual menswear.

In amongst all the hurly-burly and servicing of existing characters (without making any of them feel short-changed save perhaps Hawkeye who makes a disappointing return to being the dullest Avenger after his show-stealing turn in “Age Of Ultron”) it manages to successfully introduce two new heroes to the MCU: Black Panther and Spider-Man without getting bogged down in exploring their origin stories.

Thematically, the film shares a great deal in common with its would-be rival movie, dominated by the consequences of past deeds and the destructive power of all-consuming vengeance. It also depends on heroes being manipulated by a third party agenda however the manipulation is cleverer here and has a clearer objective in mind. In Daniel Brühl’s Zemo, “Civil War” risks being accused of exacerbating the Marvel Villain ‘problem’ and while his comic namesake is more grandiose and perhaps formidable, there’s a quiet intensity and intimacy to his motivation that actually provides an acutely human counterpoint to the clash of the titans playing out as a result of his machinations.

Effects-wise, the film is faultless. Super powered combat has never looked this good on screen and while the show-stopping Airport fight scene sets the bar for every comic book movie to come, every other skirmish is worthy of praise in its own right. Perhaps the single most impressive moment, though, is a flashback to the early nineties where we get to see a very young Tony Stark say an unknowingly final goodbye to his parents. The digital de-aging is phenomenal, even more so than Michael Douglas’ brief return to his eighties heyday in “Ant-Man”. It’s so perfectly done that it’s tempting to suspect that given Marvel’s demonstrable ability to plan for the long-term that they actually filmed a scene back in the 1990s ‘just in case’.

While Marvel’s in-movie villain problem may not be causing them too many issues yet, there are a couple of real-world adversaries who may begin to pose more of a threat. There’s a tangential threat from the recent lacklustre reception to other Superhero franchises – a healthy, vibrant and successful rival provokes ambition, risk taking and a creative ‘arms race’ but financial and critical failures within the genre, even at other studios, will create a climate of caution and playing it safe. It’s a small threat right now, but things can quickly change.

The other nemesis is – as is the current convention in comic book movies – one of Marvel’s own making. They’ve produced a run of consistently entertaining, fun and spectacular movies (you can quibble about which order they go in but even the least admired – usually a toss-up between “Iron Man 2” and “Thor: The Dark World” – are still quite a bit better than most other genre fare) and they’re starting to face a problem which would be very familiar to Professor Noriaki Kano. Put simply, Marvel’s ‘wow factor’ is quickly becoming the audience’s base expectation. It’s harder for them to impress because of the level of quality and spectacle the audience has come to expect. This was particularly evident in the reactions to “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” and, in “Civil War”, were it not for Spider-Man and Black Panther I think we’d see the same kind of vague sense of being ever so slightly underwhelmed. Again, it’s not a huge issue just now but it needs attention otherwise the grumbles about being ‘formulaic’ will only grow louder.

At this stage, it’s impressive that the Marvel Cinematic Universe holds together as well as it does but there are cracks showing here and there. Odd character absences beg an explanation but none is given. The absence of Tony Stark or Clint Barton’s during “The Winter Soldier” was problematic but not insurmountably so given the relatively tight timeframe of the movie’s story, whereas Nick Fury’s absence from “Civil War” is as awkward as it is narratively essential (after all, does anybody really believe he would have let the situation spiral out of control to the point of internecine conflict between the Avengers?). Other ancillary characters such as Maria Hill simply don’t turn up and bigger figures such as Thor and Hulk are merely name checked in passing but the biggest miss of the whole thing is the failure to even acknowledge the TV side of the MCU. There’s no need for complicated and gimmicky cameos but surely the drawing up of the Sokovia accords merits a mention of the many ‘enhanced’ individuals popping up across the globe thanks to the release of the Terrigen crystals in “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”? Or a passing reference to persons of interest in New York? Surely Tony Stark took a quick look at Hell’s Kitchen while he was stalking Spidey in Queens?

These are the kind of minor gripes that will only continue to get louder as the MCU goes on unless they continue to find new ways to impress and amaze. For the moment, though, “Captain America: Civil War” is easily amongst the best of the Marvel movies, if not the best; an action-packed blockbuster not afraid to show its heroes in both joy and sorrow and even broad daylight. Whether you’re #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan, there’s plenty for you in this well balanced movie. Of course, if you simply don’t buy into the central conflict the whole thing will ring hollow for you, as it did for Mrs Craggus, prompting a brief domestic civil war as Mertmas (who went bananas for Spider-Man) and I rallied to its cause. Heroes fighting heroes has always been a mainstay of comics and it’s only natural that it would come to the big screen too, even though I get her preference for team-ups rather than face-offs. She also thought it was a little too long. On that front, I concede she may have a point.

“Captain America: Civil War” leaves things nicely poised for the forthcoming Infinity Wars (whatever they end up being called) and offers us not one but two credits scenes, although there’s nothing Strange about either of them if you catch my drift. “Civil War” succeeds both as a Marvel movie in its own right and not just as a riposte to a rival studio’s pretender to the throne, which is why I’ve managed to make it through this entire review without mentioning “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice”.

Damn.

9/10 Score 9

Unlimited v Limitless: Dawn Of Subscription Wars

Unlimited v Limitless BannerIn March of this year, Odeon Cinemas launched a new ticketing option, a direct competitor to the long established Cineworld Unlimited Card scheme. Is this a brave new era of subscription services or the opening of a new front in the battle for bums in seats? Odeon have recently been widely criticised for adding ‘blockbuster’ premiums to the ticket prices for showings of the latest big releases (for example, at the moment you’ll pay around £1.50 extra per ticket to see “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” at Odeon compared to other movies they are showing) so there’s an obvious appeal in being able to ‘fix’ their ticket prices through a monthly subscription fee.

Survey after survey has shown that the number one driver in cinema choice is the films on offer followed by proximity. If you only have one local cinema, your choice of whether or not to buy into one of these subscription services will be easier. However if, like me, you have a choice between nine cinemas (and four chains) all within a reasonable half hour’s travel, which scheme offers you the best value and best options?

THE MONEY PIT

moneyFirst, let’s compare the cost. Odeon comes in slightly more expensive here, at £17.99 per month (£19.99 if you want the central London cinemas included) which gives you ‘Limitless’ access to their screens across the country. Cineworld Unlimited will cost you £16.90 (£19.90 including London West End). So, apart from seeing as many movies as you want/ have the time for, what else do you get for your money?

THE PERKS OF BEING A CARDHOLDER

Having newly launched, Limitless is a bit Spartan when it comes to additional benefits. You’ll have to pay an uplift fee for Premier Seats, 3D films and IMAX/ D-Box etc. You won’t be subject to the blockbuster price hike though. The card doesn’t offer any further discounts in the cinema and there are no discounts through partner organisations at the moment.

bat credit cardCineworld’s Unlimited, being the more mature scheme, brings quite a few benefits and even offers a second tier of membership after a year (Premium Unlimited, a free and automatic upgrade). From the moment you join, you can get 10% off all food and drink purchased in the cinema as well as 25% off food from Pizza Hut, Chiquito and Frankie & Benny’s. You’ll stay pay an uplift fee for 3D glasses, luxury seats and IMAX. After a year, your food & drink discount in cinema jumps to 25% too and you’ll no longer pay an uplift for 3D films.

CINEMA PARADISO

FilmProjectorAnother big benefit of Cineworld’s membership scheme is its frequent Cineworld Unlimited Screenings – exclusive advance screenings of movies for Cineworld Unlimited cardholders only. Occasionally they also throw in a mystery screening where the title is withheld until the lights go down but usually they’re advertised well in advance and at the moment are averaging about two a month, sometimes more frequently.

By contrast, Odeon offers its celebrated Odeon Screen Unseen showings for the bargain price of £5 a ticket. These are open to the general public but you can use your Limitless card to cover the cost of your ticket. To date, there have been no exclusive Limitless Cardholder screenings but this may change in future.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

cinemaCineworld are extremely flexible when it comes to using the Unlimited card as part of a multi-ticket booking. Both the website and at the box office, you can use your card in conjunction with 2 for 1 offers such as Meerkat Movies so you and a friend can go and see a movie for ‘free’.

With a standard Unlimited membership you can book up to two Unlimited tickets in advance and after a year, Premium Unlimited members can book three films in advance. Special Unlimited screenings don’t count towards this allocation, so you can book them in advance as soon as they are available. There’s no limit to buying tickets on the day in cinema, provided the film times don’t overlap!

aloneBy contrast, Odeon Limitless is somewhat antisocial in that your only option to book tickets alongside the Limitless card (in the same transaction) is to pay for the other tickets. At the moment, you cannot use your Limitless Card and Odeon Premiere Club points in the same transaction and you cannot use Limitless with Meerkat Movies or other 2 for 1 deals. You can’t even book other Limitless tickets if your friends are cardholders on the same booking, so you’ll have to coordinate seats across multiple bookings and hope somebody else doesn’t book the seat(s) in between you while you’re hopping from booking to booking. As far as advance booking for the lone wolf Limitless cardholder goes, you’re limited to two advance bookings at a time, but you can buy as many as you like on the day.

Both cinemas allow the use of a CEA Card with their membership schemes though.

TRADING PLACES

Genie ProvisosSo, just how Limitless is Limitless? Well, possibly not quite as limitless as you might expect. At the launch, and when you get your card, there is the promise of ‘more to come’ and it may be that as the scheme gains traction it will start to build out its offering to provide the same kind of value as the Cineworld Unlimited scheme does but there remains a pretty sizeable gap to fill.

It’s an easy decision to make if you go to the cinema a lot and there’s only a Cineworld or only an Odeon nearby but when you’ve got both, it’s hard to deny Cineworld offers better value for money at the moment. Another factor may be the cinema itself. If one is a brand spanking new multiplex and the other’s old or a bit tatty that can make a huge difference.

I’ve always preferred my local(ish) Odeon over the Cineworld cinemas near me but Unlimited made too much sense to ignore. My choice was also made easier by the fact the Odeon near me simply shows a greater variety of films than my two closest Cineworlds so there’s a good chance something I want to see won’t be accessible with just my Unlimited card so I took up Limitless too.

THE NET

One other point worth noting is, since recent updates and ‘improvements’, the Cineworld website is awful, nearly to the point of unusable (thankfully you can still access the previous iteration here) and their iOS App has recently followed suit. The booking process on Odeon’s website and App is, by contrast, much better especially if you’re browsing for something to see (which you’ll do more of as an Unlimited/ Limitless customer) rather than booking a specific film. It’s worth noting too that Cineworld charge a booking fee for normal tickets whereas Odeon do not.

THE THIRD MAN

And where does this leave Vue, the UK’s third largest cinema chain? The number of people who go to the cinema often enough that a subscription service makes financial sense is likely to be a relatively modest proportion of the overall cinema going population. The subset of them for whom it makes sense to hold two subscriptions (such as, me) will be even smaller. The proportion of them who would then be willing to fork out for a third subscription must be vanishingly small and apart from their immediate catchment areas it’s hard to see them being able to make any inroads to the loyal subscription market if Limitless manages to establish itself as a credible alternative to Unlimited.

CLASH OF THE TITANS

Will Limitless manage to establish a foothold in the shadow of Unlimited and will it make inroads into Cineworld’s subscription dominance? With the UK’s two biggest cinema chains offering subscription memberships, does it signal a shift in the market and what impact will that have going forward? With the number of ‘must see’ films seemingly growing year on year there’s going to be no shortage of demand for money saving options when it comes to going to the cinema. Are you a member? Are you thinking about joining a second scheme or ‘defecting’ from one to the other? Do you think these membership subscriptions are a bargain or a waste of money? Let me know in the comments section below!

You can find out more about Cineworld Unlimited by clicking here and Odeon Limitless by clicking here.

They Live! (1988) Review

They LiveOne question springs immediately to mind when watching John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action B-movie “They Live!”: why aren’t they remaking this right now!? Don’t get me wrong, Carpenter’s original is a great movie in its own right, but the themes of the story – its very core conceit – is so on point now, nearly thirty years later, that it almost pushes the film from satire to documentary.

When unemployed drifter John Nada (Roddy Piper) encounters an underground movement which is swiftly crushed by local authorities, all he is left with is a box of sunglasses. But these are no ordinary shades, revealing to Nada a sinister, hidden world controlled by a ruling elite who keep the masses mentally and physically sedated while they enjoy the finest luxuries and indulgences. Determined to destroy the status quo, Nada resolves to ‘chew bubblegum and kick ass’ only to find out he’s all out of gum.

Nada brings us another classic Carpenter hero in the swaggering mould of Snake Plissken or Jack Burton and while Piper brings a stiff and goofy charm to the role, his Rowdy wrestling persona just isn’t a match for the screen presence of Kurt Russell. His delivery of the iconic – and awesome – bubblegum/ ass line carries with it an air of ‘we did seventeen takes and that was the best one’ despite the fact he came up with it himself. To paraphrase Jack Burton, ‘it’s all in the delivery’ and Piper’s delivery has all the unfulfilled disappointment of a ‘we called but you were out’ card. Piper’s wrestling background at least stands him in good stead during the film’s standout fight scene between Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David) which starts out spectacularly, carries on to amusing and unfortunately drags out to an interminable 5-plus minutes of trading blows, grunting and demands to ‘put on the glasses’. A fight scene that long in any film is an indulgence, but in an already short 90 minute movie it’s a waste of precious time.

It’s only due to Carpenter’s sly wit and his flair for storytelling that the film works as well as it does. The script is a bit of a cut ‘n’ shunt affair, shortcutting various plot threads and only ever examining the implications and possibilities inherent in the film’s premise at a frustratingly superficial level.

Hampered by performances which border on wooden – especially from the unfeasibly blue-eyed Meg Foster and a budget which provided special effects which barely even match TV’s “V”, the film just can’t make the most of the narrative goldmine it sits atop of, especially at the too quick hour and a half runtime.

“They Live!” is a fun slice of eighties hokum, elevated by Carpenter’s style and a cult classic in its own right but it’s absolutely ripe for a remake. Its story of the 1% and the opiation of the masses is scandalously overdue for a reimagining and you can only wonder at what we could have if this story was put in the hands of David Fincher, or Christopher Nolan or even Edgar Wright. “They Live!” is the story of our present reality and, as entertaining as the original is, it needs to be told again.

6/10 Score 6

Eye In The Sky (2016) Review

Eye In The SkyHaving explored the politics and morality of warfare in 2013’s “Ender’s Game”, director Gavin Hood returns to the subject with a tense and much more topical take. This time, however, we’re not granted the vicarious safety of far-future sci-fi because this remotely controlled war is very present day and very, very real.

A joint mission between British, Kenyan and US forces to capture a pair of wanted terrorists abruptly changes when an opportunity presents itself to not only prevent an impending terrorist attack but also take out several high priority targets. Commander Powell (Helen Mirren) presses for the authority to strike with deadly force however she must wrestle with the moral implications of the action and convince the chain of command that deadly force is necessary before the window of opportunity closes.

“Eye In The Sky” does several clever things and it does them so well and so subtly you’re not really aware of them during that first, tension-filled viewing. Firstly, it unfolds in almost real time so the increasing risk of failure is palpable as the political and military authorities prevaricate and pontificate on the legal, ethical and strategic ramifications of the mission. There are, of course, subtle cinematic sleights of hand to keep things dramatically on track but generally we’re there with everyone through the course of the mission. The other thing it does is allow us to see the domestic mundanity that surrounds these critical geopolitical situations. There is, of course, the ever-present reality of innocent collateral damage at the proposed site of the strike which is heavily emphasised throughout the film but, more unusually, we also get glimpses into the lives of the major decision makers and action takers of the drama. Scenes which border on whimsy, showing Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) agonising over which toy doll to choose for his granddaughter or a hubristic Foreign Secretary being inconvenienced by a bout of food poisoning may seem superfluous to the narrative but are every bit as vital and relevant as an innocent young girl playing with her hoop in a dusty Kenyan backyard next to the terrorist compound. It’s the even-handedness in portraying the humanity and fallibility on both sides of the Reaper Drone’s camera that gives “Eye In The Sky” its potency.

The film is packed with terrific performances. Mirren captivates as the determined, hard-nosed commander with her eyes firmly on the military objective while the late Alan Rickman charms and impresses as the military liaison to the Government, resolute, diplomatic but not to be trifled with as he calmly rebuts the more emotive and sentimental of the government ministers present. Barkhad Abdi (“Captain Phillips”) also impresses as a Kenyan field agent tasked with infiltrating the terrorist held territory to gather vital intelligence for the strike.

“Eye In The Sky” is a film which offers no easy answers but presents the situation of the modern War On Terror as it is. Whichever route you come to the hard choices on offer here, this is a film that will make you think and at least cause your moral certainties to feel a little less certain. Even Spock himself would be hesitant to glibly invoke ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one’ after watching this. A window to the interconnected global military reach and a profound moral dilemma to ponder on, “Eye In The Sky” is a powerful and timely reminder of the cost of warfare and the price of ‘freedom’.

8/10 Score 8

Follow The Money – Season 1 #Review

FollowTheMoneyIt begins, as Nordic dramas are wont to do, with the discovery of a body. This time, though, it’s not murder most foul – at least not directly. Mads Justesen (Thomas Bo Larsen), the detective assigned to investigate the death, determines that the death was an accident, driven by the working practices of an offshore windfarm company, part of the Danish energy conglomerate Energreen. But everything is not as it seems at Energreen and as the company accelerates towards its impending stock market listing, a complex web of deception will entangle more than just the company’s executives and employees.

“Follow The Money” is a slick, well-made corporate thriller; a tale of greed, innocence corrupted and calculated commercial malfeasance. The financial chicanery, though, lacks the visceral hook of homicide and the series isn’t quite as successful at making the complex shell company shell game as clear and understandable as, say, “The Big Short” was and you’ll often have to rely on the characters’ word when it comes to why what Energreen is doing is wrong and how they’re doing it. The pacing is also a little bit off thanks to a need to spin the yarn out to the required ten episode series length. It ends up too convoluted for its own good and there are side plots which – while not uninteresting – really add nothing to the core story and a leaner six episode series could really have ramped up the tension by dispensing with distractions such as mechanics, gangland feuds and that rustiest of clichés: the troubled personal life of the detective.

Thankfully, the cast breathe life into the story, preventing the slow burn from sputtering out. Claudia, the young and ambitious new CFO of Energreen makes for a compelling protagonist – or potential antagonist, as one thing the series does very well is make your moral compass spin. Played with a winning combination of steely cool and vulnerability by Natalie Madueño, she’s by far the most interesting character in the story even if too much of the story happens around her or without her present. Despite her reputation for brilliance she’s almost wilfully and frustratingly blind to the conspiracies around her until her son forces her to see her employers in a different light. There are also fine performances from Esben Smed Jensen and Lucas Hansen as Nicky and Bimse, a couple of young mechanics who find themselves in way over their heads as a result of an opportunistic theft and Claes Ljungmark almost steals the show as P, a stoic and ruthless enforcer for the Energreen masterminds.

Not quite able to make the most of its cast and potential, “Follow The Money” is still good television and well worth watching – the gorgeous opening titles are worth the price of admission alone. It will be interesting to see where this series goes if it is recommissioned for a second season as the most interesting characters were tied directly to the Energreen story and while Mads isn’t the worst TV detective to have graced the screen, he and his fraud squad pals aren’t really enough of a draw to bring you back for another go round.

6/10 Score 6

 

Follow The Money is released on DVD & Blu-Ray Monday 25th April
through Arrow Films and Nordic Noir & Beyond

Bastille Day (2016) Review

Bastille DayEver since Daniel Craig’s less than effusive publicity tour for “SPECTRE”, speculation has been rife as to who the next Bond will be. The pretenders to the throne have likewise wasted no time in setting out their stalls with ‘auditions’ of their own. Runner up to the role last time Henry Cavill gave us a look at his ‘cool spy’ shtick in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” while Tom Hiddleston stated his claim with a languid but effective six part pitch in the BBC’s “The Night Manager”. And now it’s Elba’s turn to show he can deliver the 007 goods with “Bastille Day”. Unfortunately, as far as being a vehicle for his talents, it’s about as effective as a clapped out Citroën.

When a pickpocket inadvertently steals and discards a bag containing a bomb, the resultant detonation puts him in the frame for an act of terrorism. When the terrorists threaten further bombings, the race is on between the French authorities and – for some reason – the CIA to track down the bomber. However, the bomb was just the first part in a sinister false flag operation which may go all the way to the top of the French Government.

Were no actual Americans available for this movie? The Paris branch of the CIA seems to be entirely staffed by British actors affecting accents of variable success for no real reason. Even the token American civilian involved is played by a British actor so why not just make it the British Secret Service instead of the CIA?

The story has the feel of something which started out life as a gritty and down to earth drama about racial and religious tension being manipulated for a dark agenda in the City Of Lights before being retooled for a shot at ‘international appeal’. For a few precious minutes the film actually seems to be something a bit different, a bit edgier than your usual action fare until it’s brutally gunned down in a barrage of cliché and poorly edited action. Instead of going directly for the cultural jugular and examining the raw divides of a city struggling with cultural and political tensions against a backdrop of Machiavellian terror and manipulation, the whole sorry mess dissolves into a cheap Eurotrash knock-off of “Die Hard With A Vengeance” where every single twist is predictable. The bad guys, led by Thierry Goddard (who seems to be channelling a grumpy Noel Edmonds) are so inept that they would have Hans and Simon Gruber summarily executing their recruitment consultant, that is if they weren’t already on the phone to their copyright lawyers.

Some of the sequences (which have been expertly cut to look cool in the trailer) are the dullest we have seen in an action movie in some time. The rooftop chase is – for the most part – slow and desperately pedestrian while the scene in the van where our heroes have been captured features the longest and least subtle scene of characters exchanging meaningful glances since Luke and Lando took an age to get things going above the Sarlaac Pit in “Return Of The Jedi”.

Most of the British cast looked reluctant to be there – Kelly Reilly looks exhausted and may have actually just flown in to Paris on the red eye to film her scenes in one day before getting back home as quickly as possible. Richard Madden mopes his way through film without every really finding the right chemistry with Idris Elba to make it work as a buddy movie and Elba ends up being the only thing that makes this the least bit watchable. You can’t help but feel that some of his earnest thousand-yard stares were him actually contemplating sacking his agent. Put simply, he has far too much screen presence and gravitas for a role and movie which needed more of a Statham-phoning-it-in level of performance.

A dull, derivative and uninspired action misfire, shot by Director James Watkins in a way which manages to make Paris look like the ugliest city in the world, “Bastille Day” had the opportunity to be a searingly topical, hard-hitting thriller cutting right to the heart of the current geopolitical zeitgeist but instead manages to aim right for the heart of the straight-to-DVD bargain bin. London may have fallen, but Paris landed in the garbage.

5/10 Score 5

Jessica Jones – Season 1 Review

Jessica JonesAs “Daredevil” season 2 continues to burn up the Netflix bandwidth across the globe, I take a look back at “Jessica Jones”, Marvel’s most recent new addition to its expanding MCU TV empire.

While “Daredevil” felt edgy, dark and different to the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’d had to that point, it still adhered to many of the usual tropes and traditions of super hero origin stories. Of course, it was incredibly well made with great performances and a real grittiness in its portrayal of a street level hero. For Marvel – and televised super heroics – it broke new ground but was still comfortably familiar. “Jessica Jones” takes what “Daredevil” started and takes it to the next level.

Damaged and suffering from her last encounter with Kilgrave, Jones is immediately a fascinating character and such is Krysten Ritter’s performance that there’s never the nagging impatience to see the hero ‘suit up’ as there tends to be (good job too, as she never does although there is a sneaky shout out to her costume during a flashback). Unlike the current incarnations of another famous superhero detective, Jones actually does quite a bit of actual detective work during the series, pursuing a handful of cases whilst trying to discover whether Kilgrave has really returned and if so, what his end game is.

In Kilgrave, “Jessica Jones” has something quite different, and it’s he that shapes and enables the show to be something very different from its stablemates. As different in feel to “Daredevil” as “Daredevil” is to “The Avengers”, “Jessica Jones” delivers a genuinely adult take on comic book superheroes, without ever needing to delve into posturing broodiness, grim/dark aesthetics or gratuitous violence.

The Kingpin provided a recognisable and formidable foe for Daredevil but he was also a clear indication of the reduction in scale from the cinematic spectaculars of Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers. This Kingpin, shorn of much of the fantastical elements of his comic book counterpart would have struggled to occupy any of the cinematic heroes for a single movie, let alone 13 hours’ worth of compelling drama. But Kilgrave is a villain who would trouble any of the Avengers, who – as two movies have shown – have a real problem when it comes to susceptibility to mind control. David Tenant is superb as the elegant villain, playfully trading on your goodwill for his past roles and lulling you into a false sense of security while simultaneously peeling away layer after layer of Kilgrave’s civility to reveal the vindictive, wounded ruthlessness that lies within.

The power and gravity of “Jessica Jones” doesn’t really become apparent until you’re about six episodes in, and for me it was around the episodes “AKA Top Shelf Perverts” (S1E07) and “AKA WWJD?” (S1E08) that the whole story shifted into high gear – and elevated it to being Marvel’s most adult and accomplished series to date. Some episodes are almost too tense to watch, “AKA 1,000 Cuts” being a prime example of how far the series is willing to go to show the vicious cruelty of its villain.

There are a few missteps along the way, of course. The whole super pill subplot feels more like world building than integral to the story being told but here, unlike in the movies, Marvel has the room to manoeuvre so the setting foundations for future events doesn’t get to clutter and overwhelm the narrative like it does on occasion in “Iron Man 2” or “Avengers: Age Of Ultron”. There are a couple of episodes, especially as we head to the finale, where things feel artificially slowed down and you feel the series might have benefitted from an episode or two of standalone cases near the beginning to allow for an irresistible momentum to build up to the finale but these are minor quibbles.

Although action isn’t the series’ primary focus, there’s still a good amount of superheroic acts going on. It’s true that some of the fights scenes tend towards the Mr T school of ‘throwing fools around’ but these aren’t meant to be slick, well trained warriors and anyway Jessica’s powers are better demonstrated in little moments rather than the knock down brawls, especially in early episodes.

“Jessica Jones” is the concentrated essence of long-form storytelling TV, the deliciously rich core that you’re left with if you were to discard all the case-of-the-week episodes which could have padded this out to the traditional twenty-six episode seasons of broadcast television. This is quality stuff and the Netflix corner of the MCU seems to be – currently – where the best Marvel work is being done.

9/10 Score 9

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

The Jungle BookA reimagining of a beloved classic film. An all-CGI environment. An all CGI cast except for one role to be played by a child actor making his acting debut. It’s not a recipe which inspires confidence, is it? All the more credit, then, to Director Jon Favreau, Cinematographer Bill Pope and the rest of the team at Disney for not only honouring the original movie but also delivering a magical, spellbinding and triumphantly new family classic.

Taking equal inspiration from the 1967 animated version and Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, the tale of Mowgli the man cub, raised by wolves comes to breathtaking life in this new adaptation. When Shere Khan the tiger returns to the jungle, he vows to kill Mowgli if he remains in the jungle so Bagheera the panther agrees to escort him to the nearest man village.

The CGI wizardry on show is truly impressive, recreating the varied terrain of the Indian jungle and its many inhabitants flawlessly. While everything is created with a sense of realism, there’s just enough of a sprinkling of movie magic to give every one of Kipling’s characters an abundance of personality. The voice cast is note perfect, from Idris Elba’s malevolently manipulative Shere Khan to Scarlett Johansson’s sultry and seductive Kaa. Helping Mowgli on his journey, Ben Kingsley is the perfect voice for the elegant and wise Bagheera and Bill Murray is so good as Baloo that he manages to escape the shadow of the late, great Phil Harris’ turn. Even relatively minor roles are given real impact by great vocals from Lupita Nyong’o and Giancarlo Esposito and Garry Shandling in his last acting role but it’s Christopher Walken who nearly breaks the movie with a wonderfully sly and knowing, Mafioso-inspired turn as King Louie. Against this starry backdrop, Neel Sethi’s debut is remarkably assured. Despite having little to work with save sock puppets and bluescreen, he manages to make everything believable and it’s through him that you’re transported to the ancient majesty and mystery of the jungle.

Although a darker, more mature interpretation of the story, this is still great family entertainment and although not a musical, it still finds time for three of the iconic animated version’s biggest numbers. There are those who strongly object to the work of Kipling, seemingly appalled that attitudes and social mores of more than a hundred years ago are at odds with their present day sensibilities (and, no doubt, blind to the fact that in another hundred years or so their steadfast moral certainty will likely be viewed with similar disdain or horror) but there’s little obvious colonial or jingoistic subtext in this “Jungle Book” (although I’m sure you’ll find it if you really, really want to). Rather it focusses on the importance of family, community and the effects of man’s technological progress on the natural world. Wherever you stand on the view of the author of the original work, there’s no doubt “The Jungle Book” has raised the bar once again in terms of cinema’s visual storytelling abilities. I rarely endorse 3D showings but this is definitely one to see in 3D and, if you can, on an IMAX screen. It’s an intoxicating and enchanting old fashioned adventure, one you’ll want to immerse yourself in.

10/10 Score 10

Hardcore Henry (2016) Review

A more intensely intimate version of ‘found footage’,Hardcore Henry POV is a camera perspective which has struggled to gain traction outside of two niches: video games and porn. There’s barely a hint of the latter, but “Hardcore Henry” owes a great deal to first person shooters.

Waking up in a laboratory, Henry finds himself resurrected with no memory and some cybernetic enhancements. As well as recovering his memory and identity, he must find a way to save his wife from the clutches of a crazed telekinetic warlord who plans to take over the world with an army of bioengineered super soldiers.

Owing a lot of its energy and humour to the “Crank” movies, there’s little set up to the story as you crash right into it along with Henry himself – after all you share his point of view (this film is definitely not for you if you’re not a fan of shakycam) so there’s no way you’re going to get any more information than he does. The film tends, therefore, to feel a bit disjointed at the start as it leaps (often literally) from non-sequitur to non-sequitur. Eventually you piece together the plot but it’s very much like watching video games without the helpful expository cut scenes.

The technical skill on display in bringing the film to life is impressive and there’s no denying the stunt team deserve heaps of credit for bringing the frenetic action to coherent life while simultaneously filming the only footage to be used. Thanks to the first person nature of the movie though, our ‘leading man’ is unfairly anonymous, only fleetingly appearing on camera once.

The supporting cast is as crazy and bizarre as the film itself. Hayley Bennett (“The Equalizer”) is suitably alluring as Henry’s wife and romantic motivation while Danila Kozlovsky (“Vampire Academy”) plays super powered villain Akon like he’s channelling Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor by way of The Venture Bros’ Pete White. It’s Sharlto Copley who steals the show with a performance that’s constantly oscillating between delightful and WTF? He’s also responsible for the film’s single most outstanding scene, a surreal and profoundly Python-esque song and dance number that feels like it was lifted directly from discarded footage from “The Meaning Of Life”.

Ultimately, though, the story is too chaotic and disjointed and the characters too thinly drawn to engage with and sustain the gimmick for the full 90-odd minutes. It simply can’t sustain the energy and wit of the director’s inventive and kinetic first person music videos for the band Biting Elbows which served as dry runs for this feature length attempt. Visually striking, frantically ambitious, knowingly humourous but absolutely not cinematic, this is the rare movie which may actually be better the smaller the screen it’s viewed on is. Cult status surely awaits, and you can expect it to shift a lot more copies once VR headsets hit the market.

 5/10 Score 5

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016) Review

Huntsman Winters WarSo, is “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” a prequel or a sequel? In truth, it’s a bit of both, forming a wraparound tale which actually turns the original film into the dull middle chapter of a decent fantasy trilogy.

“Winter’s War” takes us back to the beginnings of the Evil Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and we see her power and kingdom grow while her little sister Freya (Emily Blunt) yearns for a normal life of a loving family. But when Freya has a child tragedy strikes, awakening Freya’s magic and turning her into the Ice Queen. Fleeing to the north, Freya begins abducting children to save them from a life of love and turn them into her army of Huntsmen to conquer further territories. Flash forward to the ‘present day’, set after the events of “Snow White And The Huntsman” and Snow White has fallen ill, affected by the presence of Ravenna’s mirror. Sensing her chance to gain even more power, Freya sends her forces to recover the mirror and the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is dispatched to find it before she does.

There are a few narrative kinks in this pre/sequel which are difficult to overlook. Kristen Stewart’s absence causes the film a few moments of awkwardness but the benefits of her exclusion far outweigh the drawbacks so you can forgive them that. Less comfortable is the absence of mention or acknowledgement of Ravenna’s brother who was such a prominent part of “Snow White And The Huntsman”. It makes you wonder how many other members of this misbegotten family may be lurking out there.

However, if you can let go of the moody, po-faced portentousness of the original (as this film works very, very hard to do), there’s a lot of fun to be had with this breezy sword and sorcery road trip that has far more in common with the likes of “Krull” and “Willow” than current Fantasy flavour of the month “Game Of Thrones” – and I mean that as a compliment.

The production design by Dominic Watkins is beautiful, especially in the Ice Queen’s palace. There’s even a smirking nod to the “Game Of Thrones” opening titles (albeit via 1978 Superman’s Kryptonian technology) as the Queen plots her next conquest and the sets, both physical and digital are beautiful to look at. They’re complimented at all times by fantastic costume design from Colleen Atwood who provides villain and hero alike with stunning costumes. Everything is captured beautifully by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and former visual effects supervisor and debut feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan meaning whatever failings the film may have, it’s never not fun to look at.

The cast are excellent value too with Hemsworth charisma unhindered by Stewart’s drag factor this time round and instead bouncing off the left-of-centre casting of Jessica Chastain. It may seem an odd role for Chastain and – despite it being quite publically a ‘contractual obligation’ – she never phones it in, even if her accent does wander the Celtic landscape somewhat (it’s probably just trying to keep up with Hemsworth ScottIrish brogue). Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach are good fun as new dwarfs alongside returning Nick Frost and Rob Brydon gives a typically Rob Brydon-esque performance as Dwarf Rob Brydon but they’re good company for the Huntsman on his quest. It’s Blunt and Theron who steal the show, though. Blunt’s icy vulnerability and frozen affections are tremendous but there’s probably nobody around at the moment who can do Evil Queen quite as well as Theron. She injects the character with such ruthless malevolence topped off with a complex and fluid physicality that she’s impossible to ignore when she’s on the screen.

A lightweight “Lord Of The Rings” – there are plentiful Peter Jackson-esque ‘hiking’ scenes – featuring a cut price Fellowship of the Mirror, this is still a pretty good fantasy adventure in its own right, better than the film which spawned it with enough pulpy adventure to keep the whole family amused.

7/10 Score 7

Trapped – Season 1 #Review

trappedIceland has, in recent years, become something of a perennial favourite for TV and film productions, from HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” to “Prometheus”, “Interstellar” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to name but a few so its high time its native productions got their share of the limelight, and “Trapped” – the ten part murder mystery – is an excellent place to start.

As a winter storm closes in on the small Icelandic port of Seyðisfjörður, the arrival of a Danish ferry coincides with the discovery of a dismembered torso dumped at sea. Cut off from outside help, it’s up to local Police Chief Andri and his two deputies to solve a case. Facing an uncooperative Ferry Captain, the ambitious local politicians who hope to secure Chinese investment to develop the town into a world-class port and the elements themselves and battling the elements themselves, Andri and his team must unravel the mystery before the town’s isolation allows the guilty to escape.

Conceived by Icelandic feature film director Baltasar Kormákur (“2 Guns”, “Everest”) – who also directed the opening and closing episodes  – this tense, multi-layered thriller is a superb addition to the burgeoning ‘Nordic Noir’ genre.

The Icelandic scenery provides a stunning and atmospheric backdrop to proceedings, with the looming threat of avalanche adding to the simmering tension. The environment and the drama are both enhanced by an evocative and melancholy score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (“Sicario”) but it’s in the performances that the real power of the drama lies.

Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) provides a gruff yet refreshingly vice free (his tipple of choice a glass of milk) leading man, a rumpled and rotund Icelandic everyman detective doggedly pursuing the truth the despite the blizzards and local politics which swirl around him. Of course, he has a complicated home life and an ex-wife who is visiting with her new boyfriend because there are some tropes you simply can’t shake off when it comes to thrillers. And while many of the basic ingredients of “Trapped” are staples of the detective genre and Nordic Noir in particular, there’s a gripping freshness to the recipe here thanks in part to the bleak and icy spin on the closed circle of suspects plot.

Being subtitled (although there are occasional snatches of English), this is a series which requires your full attention – there’s no scope for idly surfing the internet, or checking Facebook or Twitter. Thankfully, it amply rewards your attention with a compelling series of twists and turns as it builds to its riveting conclusion. You may have missed it on BBC4, but do yourself a favour and ward off the lighter Spring evenings with a prime slice of wintry darkness on DVD.

8/10Score 8

TRAPPED is released on DVD & Blu-Ray Monday 11th April
through Arrow Films and Nordic Noir & Beyond

Midnight Special (2016) Review

Midnight SpecialThere’s a vaguely timeless quality to Jeff Nichols’ first studio film, a sincere and almost reverent call-back to the spiritual sci-fi of the 1970s.

When a determined father takes his son and goes on the run from the sequestered compound of the religious sect they live in, they find themselves not only hunted by his church but by the FBI and NSA as well. The key is Alton, a young boy who seems to have powers he can’t control, powers which may be dangerous or divine in nature.

“Midnight Special” is a clever and intriguing sci-fi road trip which gives up its mysteries slowly and cryptically as we accompany Alton and his father Roy on their flight across the country while the cult plots his recapture and the authorities try to anticipate what their plan is. There are strong echoes of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” throughout the film, most strongly in the character of Roy whose compulsion to help his son reach an unknown destiny on little more than faith echoing the obsessive quest of Roy Neary in “Close Encounters” but thanks to a superb performance from Michael Shannon it manages to escape the shadow of its predecessor. “Midnight Special” is the kind of story and storytelling I was hoping for from the recent revival of “The X-Files” but was left wanting and its intriguing mix of church versus state against a lone family gives it a real emotional edge to go with the suspense and drama.

Although there’s really not a wasted minute in its runtime thanks to the cast and the slowly ratcheting tension, a little too much is left unexplored and there’s a lot more you’re left wanting to know about both the cult, its members and the various government agencies’ agendas as you follow the film to a finale which offers an alternative take on the themes explored by Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland”.

Creatively ambitious, soulful and filled with tremendous performances, “Midnight Special” is high-concept lo-fi sci-fi that brings an old-fashioned sensibility to a thoroughly modern story.

7/10 Score 7

Mud (2013) Review

MudComing midway through Matthew McConaughey’s Acting RenaissanceTM, “Mud” lovingly creates a nostalgic view of the American South, drenched in golden sunset hues. It’s a gently paced coming-of-age drama telling the story of two young teenagers, Ellis and Neckbone, from DeWitt, Arkansas who have found a derelict boat stuck halfway up a tree on a small Mississippi River island. Intending to claim it, they instead discover that the boat is being used as a home by a strange man who calls himself Mud. Mud strikes a deal with the youngsters: he will give them the boat if they help him while he stays on the island. Meanwhile, Ellis’ parents are heading for divorce and with it, the destruction of Ellis’ home, an old houseboat which will be demolished by the town council once it is no longer occupied. Despite discovering Mud is a fugitive from the law, the boys help him to restore the boat and try to reunite him with his ex-girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and find themselves caught up in an old fashioned family feud between Mud and the man he killed.

With a similar feel to “Stand By Me”, “Mud” also owes a great deal to Mark Twain’s tales of Huckleberry Finn, with Ellis & Neckbone taking the roles of Huck and Tom Sawyer while McConaughey’s fugitive Mud fulfils the role of Jim. Writer/ Director Jeff Nichols lovingly layers details and subplots around Mud’s central quest to reunite with Juniper and gives Ellis (Tye Sheridan) a richly detailed emotional journey as he deals with the disintegration of his family, unrequited love and the complexities of his relationship with Mud driving the story forward.

In “Mud”, Nichols has created something of a love letter to his home state of Arkansas, fondly capturing a slightly rose-tinted view of the culture and people who populate the region. The use of a steadicam for filming helps create a sense of intimacy and immediacy, allowing us to follow the characters into the cramped locations and remote areas of the shores of the Mississippi. Blessed with a strong cast, it’s an absorbing, sweet and rewarding character-driven drama which deftly manages to avoid becoming sappy or sentimental.

7/10 Score 7

“Of cabbages and kings”: a deleted scene* from my #BatmanvSuperman Review

“The time has come,” the blogger said,
“To talk of silly things:
Of critics and their film reviews,
Of cabbages and kings
And why fans’ rage is boiling hot,
And we can’t have nice things.”

*This originally started as a section of my “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” review before I realised it was kind of becoming its own thing and if Warner Bros can release a deleted scene so soon after the movie debuts, I thought why not?

Much has been made of the poor critical reaction to “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice”. It’s fair to say it hasn’t received the rapturous reception the studio and the fans were hoping – and expecting. What’s been more unpleasant is how it’s played out in the tedious tribalism which seems to have developed around the emergent DCEU and the more established MCU. Accusations of vast conspiracies have surfaced; a ferocious and largely pre-emptive defence of the movie, using any and all means to prove that it’s better than the critics have said and that anyway the critics don’t matter anyway was launched, largely by people who hadn’t yet seen the movie and were operating on blind faith. The power of Snyder’s pseudo-Christ compelled them.

The thing is, if you love a movie, love it. Love it with everything you’ve got, but there’s no point in raging against those who don’t. All the snarky memes in the world won’t help turn the tide; ranting and raving like an old testament prophet won’t convert the heathens and heretics who haven’t idolised and idolatrised the same selection of source comics; you will not miraculously provoke epiphanies in those who disagree with you. And finally, box office figures – the last refuge of the damned – will no more prove that “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” is a good movie any more than they did for the “Star Wars” prequels or any of the “Transformers” movies.

The truth is, the brouhaha about the professional critics’ reaction has created a thick smokescreen masking the unpleasant truth that the fan reaction has been less than effusive. I’ve not seen a great deal of flat out hate for the movie, but I’ve seen a lot of disappointment in what Snyder has presented us with. Ultimately, that’s got to hurt and WB will still be scratching their heads as to how they too can enjoy the critical and financial success their Marvel rivals do.

superman-jpg

But as tempting as it may be to compare the Marvel and DC movies, it doesn’t really make sense, at least not right now. With “Iron Man” and the launch of their shared universe, Marvel delivered a real game changer and ushered in the current golden age of super hero movies. Of course, they couldn’t have done it without the growing momentum created by the films which had come before but what they were attempted and achieved with “Avengers Assemble” had never been done before. But Marvel are now 12 movies into their venture (lucky number 13 arrives at the end of April) and their success is unprecedented. Judging WB/ DC’s first real attempt at a shared movie universe seems unfair at best. You can’t really judge the DCEU because we haven’t really seen it yet. After “Suicide Squad”, “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League Part 1” we’ll have a much better idea and there’ll have been more than one artistic vision at play which could change everything.

DC’s problem may lie in the fact that they haven’t really got to grips with the difference between comic books and movies. Snyder certainly hasn’t, especially given his recent lukewarm defence of his movie: “I’m a comic book guy and I made the movie based as much as I could on that aesthetic. And so I don’t know how else to do it 100%, so it is what it is.” In a way, aesthetics is at the heart of DC’s dilemma. Yes, it looks amazing and there a beutiful moments where Snyder absolutely captures the page as live action perfectly but film is a different medium and has different storytelling needs which aren’t Snyder’s strongest suit. There’s a lot of talk that the film wasn’t made for the critics but for the fans. That’s certainly true. Unfortunately it seems to have been made for a very specific, narrow section of the fan base: one that’s vociferously vocal and deeply committed to its specific denominational interpretation of the source material. It’s the voices which laud the ‘dark and gritty’ approach, demand the sombre tone and bay for more blood, more violence because it makes them feel grown-up and serious and in turn they deride Marvel for its lighter touch, dismissing it as childish and toothless. That’s funny, though, because if you watch the opening half hour of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, Cap kills at least half a dozen soldiers with his bare hands and nobody bats an eyelid. Contrast that to Batman branding bad guys with hot iron or Superman snapping a single neck and everybody loses their minds.

captain america meme

It may be because the narrowness of the fan base being pandered to has started to compromise the ability of the filmmakers to tell a story with true crossover appeal – the crossover appeal they need: to non-comic book fans. Marvel’s family friendly approach is also smart from a long-term strategy point of view. Get the kids in early and get them into your characters and you’ll have a fan for life. Aim your tent pole blockbusters at the late teen/ mid-twenties older comic book – sorry, graphic novel – fans and you risk alienating or excluding the next generation of would-be Bat and Superfans. The DC Animated Universe understood this, so it’s a real puzzle the movie versions are struggling so. It’s easy to blame Snyder (and somewhat appropriate) but Christopher Nolan bears some responsibility here too. He set the current Batman zeitgeist, going out of his way to remove the superheroic elements from his super hero trilogy. He’s even said repeatedly he doesn’t think Batman and Superman can work in a shared universe because of the disparity between their power sets but he was happy enough to cash the Executive Producer cheque for “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” all the same.

Even ‘it’s made for the fans’ doesn’t really get the movie off the hook anyway. I’m a fan and although I kinda liked “Batman v Superman”, there’s a lot in it which didn’t work for me (on a storytelling, character and plot level) and I struggle to see it as anything other than a misfire. But so what? That shouldn’t mean anything to anybody but me. If you’re interested, I’d be delighted to discuss what I felt worked and didn’t, and the reasons why and listen to your take on it too. You probably saw something I didn’t or picked up on nuances that I missed and if nothing else it would be fun to geek out over the whole ‘Apokolip-tic’ vision Batman has. And really, that’s kind of the point. Whether you enjoy a film is surely a personal, subjective thing, and someone else’s opinion – whether a professional critic, a hobbyist movie blogger or some random person on Twitter – shouldn’t matter to you and certainly shouldn’t be able to diminish your enjoyment of a film you love. No matter how many facts, figures or condescending canonical points you make, it’s very unlikely you can evangelise someone to love a film they’ve seen and disliked; and the more hostile and vitriolic the discussion, the less chance there is to persuade. It can happen, of course, and that’s where film reviews, critics and bloggers have a role to play.

It’s useless to try to exist in an echo chamber and there are plenty of bloggers and reviewers I read regularly who often have different takes on all kinds of subjects which interest me. Sometimes they’ve opened my eyes to alternative possibilities and interpretations. Occasionally they’ve even made me appreciate a film or book in a way I hadn’t previously. The best example that springs to mind is Hamish Calvert of HC Movie Reviews. He writes a blog I read regularly, but the key thing is – more than any other blogger I follow – he and I rarely agree on movies. In fact, more often than not we’ll each like or dislike a movie for the exact same aspects. It’s uncannily consistent and if I’m ever pressed for time and have to choose which movies to watch, a quick check of Hamish’s score can give me a pretty reliable guide as to whether or not I’ll like it. Regardless of whether we agree or not, though, it’s always interesting to read a different perspective and it’s why good writers (of reviews or stories or anything) read as much as they write, to broaden their perspectives.

This whole “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” opening weekend has brought out the worst fanboy tendencies, proving – if nothing else – that Snyder’s power to divide is undiminished. Your favourite movies are yours, forever, and nobody should be able to take that away from you. Look, I’m a huge fan of “Tomorrowland” and really loved “Jupiter Ascending”, so I know how it feels to adore something on the receiving end of a critical drubbing. But stop worrying about what other people think and love what you love. Have fun discussing and debating the films, the comics and the characters, enjoy the memes and photoshops and jokes but accept that not everyone will agree with you just like you aren’t compelled to agree with everyone. The ironic thing is, of course, that the more threatened and defensive you feel because somebody somewhere either disagrees with you, doesn’t like the thing you liked or perhaps is even remaking or reimagining something you love (*cough* “Ghostbusters” *cough*), the more that actually says about your own insecurities and fragility of belief than it says about the other person.

None of this should matter enough to get upset or angry about, and no movie is worth getting abusive or hostile over. Can’t we all just get along?

 

Eddie The Eagle (2016) Review

Eddie The EagleBilled as a heart-warming underdog feel-good picture, “Eddie The Eagle” is so trite and twee that it ends up falling well short of even its modest ambitions.

The film tells the sort of true life story of Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards, from a young boy inspired by Olympic dreams to a young man determined, against all odds and obstacles, to compete at the Winter Olympics. Ignored and thwarted by officialdom and his fellow competitors, only Eddie’s dogged spirit and refusal to quit can power him through to achieve his ultimate ambition.

It’s true that the British public love an underdog and only the snobbiest elite would deny that there’s something truly remarkable in the sheer determination and courage the real life Eddie showed to pursue his dreams. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really delve into this side of his character or his motivations, instead preferring an easy and lazy option of gentle hagiography. Eddie is portrayed as unequivocally pure and good while everyone else is cruel, callous or indifferent, making the whole thing feel superficial and lacking in authenticity. There’s little drama as the ‘setbacks’ are immediately overcome with little or no effort, every time undercutting the heroism inherent in the myth of Eddie’s ‘heroic failure’.

The casting of Taron Egerton as Eddie is extremely flattering, to a degree that would make the producers of trashy TV show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” blush (seriously, check out the show to see the actors they get to play the real life people – it’s the most entertaining part). Egerton does his best to portray the mannerisms and physicality of Eddie but he simply can’t capture the inherent derpiness of the man himself. Jackman’s Bronson Peary is little more than a heavily diluted and declawed rerun of his Wolverine and the rest of the cast act like they’re in a TV Sitcom. Coupled with Dexter Fletcher’s disappointingly sluggish and overly reliant of slow Mo direction, the film never really sparks to life. Without more of an insight into the real wannabe athlete at the heart of the story and the lack of anything approaching substance or pathos, “Eddie The Eagle” feels more like a lame duck (which is, I guess, aptly ironic).

6/10 Score 6

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) Review

Batman v SupermanOkay, before we get down to business, let’s set the record straight. Full disclosure: I’ve never been keen on this iteration is Superman. I didn’t care for “Man Of Steel” and have only grown to dislike it more over the years. On the other hand, I never really had any serious doubts regarding Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/ Batman so there we go.

Finally, I should probably also confess a significant financial relationship with the Disney Corporation. But, as it exclusively involves money leaving my wallet to fill their coffers, I trust that won’t compromise the perceived integrity of this review.

Following the events of “Man Of Steel”, Superman has become a polarising, controversial figure. Increasingly concerned at the threat he poses, Bruce Wayne contemplates the need to take pre-emptive action. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor has also begun to plot the downfall of Superman and it involves pitting the last son of Krypton against Batman.

The film opens with a recap of the end of “Man Of Steel”, only from Bruce Wayne’s point of view. This alternative perspective actually does a decent job of showing that much of the devastation wasn’t actually Superman’s fault and works as an effective introduction to our new Bruce Wayne. But just as you’re beginning to feel optimistic, starting to believe that WB/ DC are actually going to pull this off, the film drops its first clanger. We’re shown the Wayne Financial building, mere blocks away from the world engine and, as Bruce Wayne races through the crowded streets, he calls the office manager to tell him to evacuate the building. Unfortunately it just seem ludicrous that the order to evacuate needed to wait for Wayne himself to call and suggest it given the danger is so, so close. The resultant loss of life seems more unnecessary than tragic. It’s symptomatic of a script and an approach which desperately wants to be seen as grave and serious at virtually all costs. There are no motivations except tragic, dark ones. There’s a saying that it’s always darkest before the dawn, but Zack Snyder and David Goyer are really pushing it here. There’s a despondent nihilism infused into every scene that robs everything of even the faintest hint of joy or optimism. While it may be a comfortable fit for the character of Batman, it still doesn’t suit Superman. But that’s okay, because this isn’t a Superman movie.

When “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” was announced, I felt very sorry for Henry Cavill’s Superman, being crowded out of his own sequel as Warner Bros panicked at the lacklustre box office returns of Man Of Steel and brought in The Dark Knight to shore things up. My sympathy has dwindled however in the face of how good Affleck is as Batman but mainly due to how unlikeable Cavill seems determined to make his Superman. In his first outing, I thought he was actually one of the better things about “Man Of Steel”, hampered by a mistaken tone and a script which seemed to undermine his heroism at every turn but the actor himself has changed my mind. Cavill’s clearly a willing accomplice to the cynical deconstruction of Superman. After all, by his own admission he’s in it [acting] for the money so he has no vested interest in standing up for the character against studio and director. From the moment he appears in this film, he’s even further removed from the character I’ve come to know. He’s profoundly detached from humanity with one specific selfish exception: Lois Lane. In the space of 18 months, Supes has apparently become almost Pavlovian in his response to Lane being in danger, although he’s noticeably less quick to respond (if he responds at all) when people immediately around her are in mortal peril. When the film bothers to show Superman doing actual heroic things, he does them in a sedentary, disinterested fashion – the scene from the trailer of him hovering above flood victims’ houses is a great example. Stop posing and get saving! There’s a dark egotism to his presence which would feel more appropriate were this to be the “Dawn of Injustice”.

Batman, on the other hand, is served much better. More naturally at home in the tone of the piece anyway, Affleck really commits to this world-weary, embittered version of the Dark Knight. Supported by a sterling turn as Alfred from Jeremy Irons, Batman takes centre stage as thanks to being slightly closer to likeable than Superman on a very generous grading curve. We’re shown a Batman who has abandoned most of his lifelong ‘codes’ and become deeply pessimistic when it comes to the achievability of justice.

Thus Snyder brings us a heavyweight bout of psychopath versus sociopath to usher in the DC Expanded Universe. When it comes to creating cinematic versions of comic book panels, there’s no finer director to turn to. He has visual flair to spare; his ability to combine slavish reproduction and slow motion to bring a comic book frame to life is second to none and even when bringing his own imagery to the screen it’s never less than striking. Colourful, no, but definitely striking (although the Superman suit is actually a little brighter this time round).

Snyder brings the definitive version of the Wayne’s murder to the screen by mashing together Burton’s and Nolan’s versions, finally eradicating any remaining ambiguity around how a young Bruce Wayne became Batman. It may seem redundant but it pays off later when it provides the source for Batman and Superman’s ‘safe word’ in a way that you just know the writers thought was clever. But there’s nothing clever in the writing of this movie. It’s structure is messy and incoherent, stumbling from one CGI set piece to another, occasionally pausing for dull expositionary dialogue scenes (which mainly seem to exist to either give the supporting cast of “Man Of Steel” some reason to be in the movie or crowbar in the underdeveloped and ultimately discarded political subplot of Senator Elastigirl questioning Superman’s actions). At the heart of the muddled plot are the machinations of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). I actually enjoyed his high energy millennial take on Superman’s arch nemesis but no matter how you judge his performance, the plan is needlessly convoluted and, in the end, unnecessary because he resorts to simply blackmailing one of the world’s finest to kill the other. When Batman is on the screen, the film works but when he’s not it flounders noticeably and it’s due in large part to Affleck’s performance. In fact, he’s so good as Batman that you almost miss just how insulting this film is to the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’ (Lois Lane pursues an investigation that feels like it should be firmly in Batman’s wheelhouse). I’m not a die-hard Batman fan, but even I find it unlikely that Batman would be taken in so thoroughly by even Lex Luthor to the point where he’s little more than a puppet for Luthor’s scheme. I kept expecting Batman to be one step ahead but no – between brains and brawn, Snyder goes for the beatings every time.

Speaking of the violence and brutal destruction, despite the bullish defiance and defence of the finale of “Man Of Steel” in interviews since, there are some particularly clumsy attempts to atone for that film’s faux pas. Instead of the mindless destruction and huge civilian casualties, this time around characters – both main and background – make frequent references to the destruction (still largely mindless) taking place in abandoned or unpopulated areas (my personal favourite is a newsreader helpfully pointing out that it’s a good job the rampaging Doomsday emerged after the end of the working day so the business district is pretty much empty).

There’s a real dichotomy at work in the film’s attitude towards its predecessor which is particularly curious as it’s pretty much a virtual remake of the first film, just this time with Superman in the ‘villain’ role. Summing up the film’s problems is the moment when – after an interminable wait of about nearly two hours – we are finally set up for the literal title fight. There is a moment where the heroes stand opposite each other that lasts about four or five seconds (an eternity in dialogue terms) where Superman could easily explain to Batman that Lex is forcing him to fight but he doesn’t. Why? Because the movie’s title made a promise, and it’s going to deliver on it whether it makes narrative sense or not.

Now oddly, despite all these flaws – and the other ones I haven’t mentioned – I actually enjoyed this movie more than I thought I would, and I prefer it to “Man Of Steel”. I think it’s a bad movie overall, but it has its good points and even manages a few moments of awesome. Generally, anything with Affleck/ Batman is pretty good, and despite her laughably small role, Gal Gadot makes a great impression as Wonder Woman. It ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it’s one which gives hope that even the character of Superman can be redeemed in this burgeoning DC Expanded Universe.

There’s a line near the end of the movie where Bruce Wayne says to Diana Prince, ‘We can do better. We will. We have to.’ and I want to believe he’s actually breaking the fourth wall and talking to the fans. It may fail as a cohesive, satisfying movie in its own right, but where it does succeed – despite occasionally hilariously obvious and heavy-handed methods – is making me excited for the future movies. Solo Batfleck film? Shut up and take my money! Wonder Woman movie? Damn straight! Justice League? Yes! Cyborg…eh, come on – there are limits.

Overlong, overly reliant on visual style and – bizarrely – dream sequences, it’s still a great debut for a new Batman and a tantalising glimpse at our new Wonder Woman which boasts a brilliant score from Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL but it’s ham-fistedly plotted and saddled with an unpleasant tone, a misanthropic world view and a deeply unlikeable Superman, robbing it of its power as effectively as kryptonite.

6/10 Score 6

 

Zootropolis (2016) Review

ZootropolisThe House of Mouse is on something of a roll at the moment, enjoying yet another ‘Golden Age’. It’s not just through its recent acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm that Disney are riding high, their core Animation studio continues to go from strength to strength.

Coming hot on the heels of “Wreck It Ralph”, “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6”, “Zootropolis” takes its [UK] title from the city at the heart of a world where animals – both predators and prey – live side by side in harmony. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), an idealistic young rabbit, fulfils her dream of becoming a police officer but upon arrival in the city is assigned to traffic duty by cynical Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). On her traffic round, Hopps encounters grifter Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who, it turns out, may just hold the key to solving a series of missing persons cases.

There’s such a colourful, joyous energy to “Zootropolis” that it hooks you in right from the start. The film is bursting at the seams with clever puns, visual gags and witty observations on everyday life that practically mandate repeated watchings, realised through the medium of its multi-cultural, multi-species world. There may not be any song and dance numbers in this one but there’s no shortage of fun and the plot zips along with humour and invention. While it’s breezy enough for the younger members of the family, it’s still a satisfying and intriguing mystery in its own right and the character designs across the board are inspired. The jokes aren’t just within the film’s world either and there are numerous Easter eggs and nods to Disney’s past, present and even future (“Moana” makes a brief appearance as a bootleg “Meowana” DVD) and there’s even a “Breaking Bad” reference which may mark both the zenith and the beginning of the end for “Breaking Bad” references being cool.

With a timeliness and topicality that beggars belief, above all else “Zootropolis” is a story about the important of acceptance, tolerance and diversity without ever being overtly preachy or heavy-handed and its focus on a female protagonist who is capable, courageous and fully realised is a welcome continuation on the trajectory of last year’s cinematic output.

If superhero smack downs aren’t your thing – and even if they are – you’re unlikely to find a family-friendly film as flat-out entertaining, philosophically uplifting and amusing as “Zootropolis” this Easter.

10/10 Score 10

High-Rise (2016) Review

High-RiseReportedly a passion project for producer Jeremy Thomas since he purchased the film rights back in 1975, J G Ballard’s “High-Rise” finally makes it to the big screen and it’s as if not a single day has passed since Thomas first conceived the film.

In a parallel London of the 1970s, Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) rents an apartment in a prestigious and futuristic new high-rise development, the brainchild of renowned architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Moving in to the 25th floor, he meets his new neighbours, some from the same floor, some from above and many from the lower floors while enjoying the buildings many amenities. But when resources such as power, heat and light become scarce, the tower quickly descends into tribal anarchy.

There’s nothing particularly subtle in Ballard’s novel’s original metaphorical conceits and this heavy-handedness makes it to the screen almost entirely unmolested. Director Wheatley has masterfully recreated the aesthetic of the British dystopian sci-fi films of the 1970s. The set design, the hair, the costumes, the casually Alex Comfort-esque approach to sex and even the palette and tone of the cinematography are reproduced to such a successful degree that were it not for conspicuously anachronistic current stars such as Hiddleston, you could completely believe this was a ‘lost’ 1970s film restored and shown for the first time today. You literally expect Gareth Hunt to pop up in a cameo at any moment.

There’s a disconnected, slightly disjointed flow to the narrative and many of the important plot developments are told through artful montage or skipped over entirely and merely implied by their effects. It’s impossible to keep track of the timeline in the film, making it entirely possible for the events to have taken place over the course of days, weeks or months. Like its source novel, the film is more taken with its idea than narrative logic and it bears the same provocative and maddeningly unanswered question as the book: when everything goes awry, why do the residents not simply leave the tower?

Long considered unfilmable, “High-Rise” has certainly now been filmed. Whether or not that’s a good thing is harder to judge. The performances are strong – if slightly affected- and the production values are superb but there’s a flaw in the architecture of the movie and it’s the lack of coherent plot. You’ll have to do a lot of thinking and reflecting to fill in the gaps yourself and even decide whether or not it’s a happy ending after all which means the marketing for this one runs the risk of mis-selling it. It suggests it’s a classier version of the block war from “Dredd” but this is no action thriller. It’s a contemplative, archly arty (there’s a literal shot of paint drying) and blackly comic exploration of the class system; a simultaneously fascinating and repellent spectacle that will likely be as divisive as it is sociologically insightful.

6/10 Score 6

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) Review

10 Cloverfield LaneGiven the tricksy reputation of producer JJ Abrams and the cryptic description of the film as a ‘blood relative’ of 2008’s breakout monster movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane”’s greatest asset also actively works against it while you’re watching it, at least for the first time. You spend a considerable amount of time trying to second guess the movie, running the risk of missing out on a pair of terrific performances from John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Injured in a car crash, Michelle (Winstead) wakes to find herself in an underground fallout shelter owned by Howard (Goodman). At first fearful she has been abducted, Howard explains that there has been ‘an attack’ and the outside world is now contaminated. With them in the bunker is Emmett, a local man who had helped Howard build the bunker, but can Howard be trusted?

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is a film of many parts, some of which merge seamlessly together and others which feel – for better or worse – held together with duct tape and good intentions. For a good 75-80% of its 103 minute run time, it’s an unbelievably tense and riveting thriller, with shades of “Room” and “Misery”. Debut feature director Dan Trachtenberg makes the most of the claustrophobic setting and malevolently playful script to keep you guessing what the truth might be. Refreshingly free of manufactured jump scares and gratuitous shock moments, he allows a real visceral tension to inexorably build, ebbing and flowing but always creeping upwards. He’s helped by a pair of intensely gripping performances from Winstead and especially John Goodman. Although usually known for playing affable, likeable characters, there’s no denying that psycho Goodman is good, man. In fact, it’s Goodman’s inherent likeability which gives his character such chilling power as he is by turns solicitous and sinister.

Of course, there is a third act ‘twist’ which will ask you to make one Hell of a narrative leap and while it’s not entirely unearned, it’s unlikely to take everybody with it. Having mulled it over, I liked it. It’s a blackly comic punchline to what has come before it and it helped me understand what Abrams was talking about when it came to being a ‘blood relative’. There are all sorts of connective threads that link this film to the first “Cloverfield”: numerous Easter egg references to the world of the first movie and even peppered throughout the dialogue there’s a clear path to how the makers could firmly join the films together narratively if they chose to. Thankfully, there’s no aggravating shaky-cam found footage in this instalment but if the “Cloverfield” franchise grows to become simply an anthology of innovatively creepy, tense, sci-fi/ horror movies they will hopefully still share the same fundamental DNA: movies about cataclysmic world-changing events seen exclusively – and sometimes frustratingly – from the perspective of the little guy. There are no situation rooms, no strategic overviews and no assembled alliance of armed forces, just the ordinary person trying desperately to stay alive and it’s all the scarier for it.

8/10 Score 8

Norm Of The North (2016) Review

Norm Of The NorthJust in time for “Zootropolis” to crush it under-hoof, “Norm Of The North” lands in cinemas to give us a timely reminder of just how bad animated movies can be.

When the arctic (the “North” in this case refers to northern Canada) comes under threat from an unscrupulous developer, Norm – a Polar Bear who can inexplicably speak human – must venture to New York to save his home.

With an ill-deserved confidence and an excruciating line in weak puns (‘Caribou-yah!’) “Norm Of The North” feels exactly like someone having watched “Happy Feet” or “Frozen” and reckoned it’s an easy way to make a quick buck. Aimed squarely at the less discerning end of the under-fives market, it still misses its audience by quite some way. The approach is muddled and confusing in terms of the nature of the cutesy anthropomorphic animals, the plot is a barely coherent, jumbled together mess and beyond a deplorable tendency to fall back on Polar Bear twerking whenever the film loses its way (frequently), it has literally no good ideas at all.

The writing is a lazy, clichéd collection of buzz phrases and wannabe catchphrases while the pretty good voice cast are so uninvested in the piece that you can almost hear the cheques being torn out of the book at the end of each line delivery.

You’ll find more arctic wit, wisdom and warmth in a single episode of “Pingu” than this not-good-enough-for-direct-to-DVD-so-how-did-it-get-into-cinemas travesty, and you’ll have a much better time watching that single episode 18 times in a row than spend 90 minutes on this.

3/10 Score 3

The Witch (2016) Review

The WitchThere’s little actual horror in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut – at least not in the sense the genre has come to rely on in recent years. There are no jump scares, manufactured shock moments, gratuitous gore or sadistic violence. Instead, Eggers has woven a compellingly chilling dark New England fable from actual transcripts, reports and documents of the time.

In the early 17th Century, William and his family are exiled from their New England Puritan community, settling on the edge of a forest more than a day’s travel from the nearest settlement. But something is lurking in the forest, something malign which may already have taken a foothold in the struggling family’s failing farm.

Sumptuously shot, Eggers and Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke make the most of natural light to imbue the landscape (Ontario standing in for New Hampshire) with a sinister majesty and ethereal atmosphere, supported by an excellent score by Mark Korven. The performances from the small cast are impressive too, each of them bringing authenticity and passion to dialogue lifted directly from contemporary accounts. Only Kate Dickie feels like obvious casting; her performance is fine but echoes some of her previous work so strongly that it renders her character’s arc predictable.

Bleak, dark and foreboding, what the film lacks in contemporary horror tropes it makes up for in rich period detail and a creeping sense of doom-laden tension. It’s unlikely to give you nightmares, but it will stick with you long after the lights have come back up and you’ve left the cinema. The real horror of the situation comes more from the fear and superstitions harnessed by the puritanical theocratic society of 17th century colonial America which sows suspicion, paranoia and judgement into an already troubled farmland. In a modern-day America wrestling with a resurgent neo-puritan religious right, “The Witch” works as a timely allegorical warning to today as well as a terrifying glimpse into the savage and brutal Colonial past.

Thought-provoking, visually striking and expertly crafted, “The Witch” is an accomplished debut from Eggers; chilling, mature and clever. I can’t wait to see what he does next…

7/10 Score 7

The Divergent Series: Allegiant (2016) Review

AllegiantThere’s no other franchise quite like “The Divergent Series”. The arrival of “Allegiant”, the third part of the now customary four-film adaptation of a trilogy of young adult books carries with it a sense of tedious inevitability and little else. If that sense of sunk cost is present in the audience, it’s nothing compared to what the cast are clearly feeling as they trudge wearily through the motions of the increasingly convoluted and stupid saga. Never has regret at signing a multi-picture deal been so eloquently and movingly portrayed on screen.

Having brought down the faction system, Tris (Shailene Woodley) and Four (Theo James) set out to explore beyond the wall which encircles Chicago. While they and their friends seek out the rest of humanity, encountering the Bureau Of Genetic Welfare, within the city walls a brutal civil war threatens to engulf the factionless population.

Returning director Robert Schwenke brings nothing new to the table as he struggles to inject momentum into the moribund story. Hampering things further, there’s a real cheapness to the whole film this time around which suggests that, like we all are, Lionsgate are keen to get this over and done with without unduly adding to their already sunk costs. The special effects are noticably poor, at times rivalling “London Has Fallen” for general shoddiness. Larger scenes are terribly staged, with an obvious and obnoxious sound mixing that gives inadvertently hilarious prominence to a number of ‘whispering’ or baying extras. The story itself manages to find new ways to be stupid, repetitive and redundant, further compromising the pacing which is already suffering from stretching out too stupid a story across too many hours solely to provide the necessary box office boost of a two film finale. There’s a revelation late in the film from the main villain which is so profoundly wrongheaded that it literally undermines everything that’s gone before and renders much of the events of “Allegiant” completely pointless. There are, of course, sequences which work well but when one of the highlights of your movie is the militarisation of the Child Catcher from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, you take your pleasures where you can.

Characters arbitrarily change their allegiance (heh) and change back in a way which would make even C Montgomery Burns and his trademark changes of heart blush. With little thought for consistency or authenticity, the betrayals and defections are, for the most part, obvious and predictable. There’s one character in particular whose continued survival despite a shameless revolving door attitude to loyalty simply beggars belief. Tris continues to be a heroine/ leader whose sole purpose seems to be to make Katniss Everdeen look shrewd and authoritative but for the first time in the saga, she’s completely overshadowed by Four who gets the lion’s share of the action and heroics this time out. Now that the story has dismissed with the sub-“Matrix” style virtual reality battles, the story seems content to revert to a more traditional roles for leading man and leading lady.

“Allegiant” maintains the series’ plodding, dull and derivative teen dystopian tropes but this time out they’re particularly threadbare. The visuals are lacklustre and the dialogue risible however thanks to Four’s stronger arc and a few good action sequences – at the expense of every other character – this is ever so slightly more entertaining than the other “Divergent” movies. There’s no denying it’s the best “Divergent” movie so far, but in this case, context is everything.

6/10 Score 6

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) Review

Kung Fu Panda 3Arriving nearly five years after the last instalment, “Kung Fu Panda 3” may not be part of the fastest moving animated franchise but it’s still one of the best. Like its predecessor, it again manages to blend kung fu movie tropes and winning animation to deliver not only a great family-orientated action adventure but a pretty good martial arts movie in its own right.

Having mastered inner peace and defeated Lord Shen, Po is once again living his dream as the Dragon Warrior, defending the valley with the help of the Furious Five. However, just as Master Shifu informs Po that he must now become the Furious Five’s teacher, an ancient enemy finds a way to return from the spirit realm, intent on wreaking a terrible revenge against Grand Master Oogway’s Jade Palace.

This third chapter in the saga delves much more into the mythological and spiritual sides of kung fu lore, which allows for a welcome return from Randall Duk Kim’s wise and playful Oogway, at least in everlasting Force-ghost style. The perfectly cast main players are all back but this time around, the Furious Five have much less to do, with only Angelina Jolie’s Tigress getting more than a token few lines. Instead, it focusses on Po’s reconnection with his biological father Li Shan (Bryan Cranston) and the villainous Kai (J K Simmons) who intends to gain mastery over both the mortal and spirit realms by harvesting Chi.

Although it’s not quite a tight as the middle chapter (a few running gags fail to get going), “Kung Fu Panda 3” is one of the strongest trilogy closers you’ll ever see in cinema. Picking up and completing threads reaching all the way back to the first film while giving Po a classic journey from student to warrior to master, it packs a warm and fuzzy emotional punch alongside all the chopsocky action and is all the richer for it. As perfect a closure as it is, it leaves me really conflicted. Part of me doesn’t want another “Kung Fu Panda” movie because the story is so well rounded as it stands now but another part of me says bring on “Kung Fu Panda 4” because they are, as Po would no doubt say, ‘awesome’. Given DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg has previously hinted at a second trilogy, I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed that they’ll be able to keep up this level of quality.

8/10 Score 8

London Has Fallen (2016) Review

London Has FallenI went into “London Has Fallen” looking for a big, dumb action movie. I like big, dumb action movies. What I don’t like are stupid action movies, and “London Has Fallen” right into that bargain bin.

Three years after the end of “Olympus Has Fallen”, the UK Prime Minister dies suddenly and President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) travels to London for the funeral along with other world leaders. But it is an elaborate trap laid by international arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul) who holds the President responsible for a drone strike which killed his daughter. Only Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) stands between the President of the United States and public execution at the hands of the terrorists who have seized London.

Now if that sounds like the intro cut scene for a video game, that’s probably not a coincidence. The film is very definitely not a ‘video game brought to life’ but it does feel like it was written by a nihilistic thirteen-year-old hopped up on energy drinks and “Call of Duty”. The abysmal script is crammed with nonsensical, testosterone-driven bombast that would be looking at a hefty rewrite to even reach the lofty heights of cliché.

When director Babak Najafi isn’t busy intercutting appallingly mismatched low resolution stock footage of London to support the film’s laughable understanding of the real geography of London, he’s applying really poor special effects to the rest of the footage to inject some sense of threat to this noisy and pointless runaround. From digital blood spatters galore to the big, Emmerich-esque set piece moments of landmark destruction, the effects work is desperately poor as are many of the crowd scenes where terrified onlookers are often outnumbered by nonchalant passers-by.

Deficient in logic, spectacle and artistry, “London Has Fallen” is at its worst when it comes to characterisation. Butler’s Mike Bannon has apparently in the intervening years become something of a psychopath. There’s a disquieting gleeful ferocity and savagery to our square-jawed hero’s killing that should give even the most hawkish among us pause for thought. Reflecting the film’s flimsy ethical stance, Butler’s bloodlust often makes it difficult to know who you should really be rooting for. This time, Eckhart’s President is in on the action from the very beginning but then he plays a Leader of the Free World so seemingly indestructible that you start to wonder why he even needs a protection detail in the first place. Morgan Freeman is also in this and should just be ashamed.

Aggressively stupid, willfully ignorant, deeply racist and driven by a corrupted, rotten sense of false moral superiority, “London Has Fallen” may feel like a straight-to-video sequel to a popular movie – like we used to get in the 1990’s – but it’s much more unpleasant than that.

4/10 Score 4

Hail, Caesar! (2016) Review

Hail CaesarCrammed with A-list talent, “Hail, Caesar!” is a delightfully light and frothy love letter to a Golden Age of Hollywood which was much more gold-plated than 24-carat memories might suggest. Although not quite the madcap laugh-a-minute romp the expertly edited trailer might suggest – this is not “The Last Ten Minutes Of ‘Blazing Saddles’: The Movie” – it’s a jolly and warm movie simultaneously lionising and lampooning the Hollywood of old at twilight of the studio system and the dawn of the Red Menace.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the head of production at Capitol Pictures and also acts as the studio’s ‘Fixer’ making sure its stars stay out of trouble and out of the papers, unless its for the right reason. When the star of the studio’s upcoming prestige picture “Hail, Caesar!”, matinee idol Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped, Mannix must add finding his erstwhile leading man to his crowded to do list while fending off the enquiries of the gossip columnists, hungry for salacious studio tittle tattle.

The rosy nostalgic filter through which the Coen brothers show us 1950s Hollywood doesn’t prevent them from layering on the satire, albeit gently. Wonderful turns from Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton and…er…Tilda Swinton are interspersed with amusingly realised pastiches of Hollywood’s output of the 1950s.

The cast are clearly having a tremendous time and its joyous to see such great actors pretending to be bad actors. While the lightness of tone prevents the mystery aspects of the film from ever really developing momentum, there’s enough in the personal journey of Eddie Mannix as he contemplates a life outside the hurly burly circus of movie production to hold the movie together.

Awash with charm, “Hail, Caesar!” is subime and ridiculous; a treat for movie fans and lovers of film alike. Under the bright and breezy direction of the Coens, the top notch cast bring the sparklingly witty script to vibrant, technicolour life.

8/10  Score 8

Layla (2016) Short Film Review

LaylaDark, brooding and suffused with a languid malevolence, “Layla” – the debut short film from the JumpCutUK crew is a fascinating foray into film making.

While the official synopsis is slightly coy (‘Trapped and mistreated by her oppressive captor, Layla longs to escape and enjoy the freedom of the outside world. Will the mysterious woman in red offer Layla everything she wants?’), the film itself embraces a decidedly non-linear, languid, dreamlike approach to storytelling, eschewing dialogue in favour of richly textured visuals and an evocative score by Martin Gratton.

Heavy with imagery, “Layla” rewards repeated viewings and revels in a melancholy ambiguity that challenges the viewer to knit together its narrative threads. Is it all a metaphor for the loss of innocence? An allegorical tone poem on the emotional damage of child or sexual abuse? Layla’s white dress of the opening scene has become incarnadine by the end and the thematic touchstones of innocence and its loss resonate through the piece, mostly overtly when an apple is violently cut from a tree in a twisted Brothers Grimm reimagining of the Biblical story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Foreboding and fantastical, at times it feels like a Satanic reimaging of “Inside Out” while at others – thanks to the melancholy strings and piano and dense symbolism – it’s vaguely evocative of the work of Peter Greenaway.

There’s a real darkness to the piece, and an undeniable power although often that power isn’t quite fully harnessed or under control. Filmed using an iPhone6 and a budget of £200 (most of which I assume went on the props which are destroyed or damaged), the modesty of the production only shows on occasion. While you can fault the ambition or artistic intention, the framing and movement of certain shots sometimes lets it down, obfuscating rather than illuminating but these are minor quibbles for an otherwise impressive and intriguing debut film.

6/10  Score 6

 

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) Review

Pride Prejudice ZombiesIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that an oversaturated genre in possession of a loyal fan base must be in want of a fresh gimmick. However little known the feelings or views of such an audience may be on their first entering a new mash-up, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the studio executives, that they will consider licensing any property offering even the faintest hope of a prosperous match.

“Pride And Prejudice And Zombies” may have been the first of author Seth Graeme-Smith’s literary cross-breeds to be published but it’s the second to make it to the screen after 2012’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”. While it’s far more successful than the Civil War action adventure but it still suffers from the nagging doubt that instead of having one great movie to watch, you’re missing out on two better movies: a pretty good adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel and a really interesting zombie apocalypse film set in the Regency.

The added complication of the zombie invasion is added into the existing structure of the story with some care and so you can actually enjoy this as Jane Austen story but it’s in the zombie story that the movie really intrigues but also fails to deliver on its promise. The idea of a zombie apocalypse occurring within a historic setting is rich with possibilities and potential, especially in the way such a class-driven and rigidly structured society would view and respond to such an outbreak but as the two stories progress, the film starts to become constrained…corseted, if you will, by the necessities of “Pride and Prejudice” and it’s the zombie aspect which suffers. Fascinating ideas are left half explored, especially around those who are resisting full zombification, leading to an effective class structure evolving amongst the undead to mirror that of the living.

The cast are decent enough, although Sam Riley is an underwhelming and uncharismatic Mr Darcy and would struggle to command a straight adaptation of the novel, let alone one which requires Darcy to be a formidable slayer of the undead. Ex-“Doctor Who” Matt Smith is a scene stealing hoot as Parson Collins while Lily James makes a sparky and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”-esque Elizabeth Bennett and Douglas Booth brings his top cheekbone game to Mr Bingley. Charles Dance adds some much needed grit and gravitas to the otherwise pretty young cast although his “Game Of Thrones” co-star Lena Headey is wasted and quite wooden as the lifelessly piratical Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

There’s still fun to be had but it’s likely to leave both Austen fans and devotees of the undead unsatisfied at the comedy horror’s lack of bite.

6/10 Score 6

The 3rd Annual Craggus Movie Awards

Craggus Awards 3It’s Oscars Eve here in the UK, and that means it must be time for the Annual Craggus Movie Awards. For this, the awards’ 3rd year, I’ve changed the rules a bit. Instead of being linked to the Oscar nominations with some additions like in previous years, all the nominees and winners are now chosen from films which had their UK theatrical release in the relevant year and Mertmas and I have seen. So, this year’s awards will include some films honoured in last year’s Oscars, such as “Whiplash” while other standouts like “Room”, “The Big Short” and “Zoolander 2” will have to wait until next year’s awards to see how they fare. It also means there’s a one-off overlap with last year’s Craggus Awards which is good news for J K Simmons if nothing else. I’ve trimmed down the categories this year instead of just aping the Academy’s ones and as time goes on I may add in new categories and awards. However, exactly like the Oscars, winners are chosen on the basis of personal preference and may bear no similarity to technical or artistic achievement, real or imagined.

So, without further ado…on with the show!

Best Supporting Actress

Rebecca FergusonCassidy and Leboeuf deserve recognition for bringing quirky and convincing performances as synthetic beings, especially Cassidy whose performance as Athena is enhanced by some tremendously subtle physicality. Streep’s turn in “Into The Woods” was good enough to snag an Oscar nom so it needs little explanation for its presence here and while Olivia Cooke provided the tender emotional core for “Me And Earl And The Dying Girl”, the award goes to Rebecca Ferguson for her ass-kicking role in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, managing to steal the limelight from noted egotist and hogger of the action, star Tom Cruise.

StatuetteWinner: Rebecca Ferguson

 

Best Supporting Actor

JksimmonsColin Firth amuses and impresses in equal measure as super suave gentleman spy in “Kingsman” while both Rylance and Parker provide important support and chemistry for their respective leading men. And while I wish I could give this award to LeBron James for his sensationally self-deprecating turn in “Trainwreck”, the truth is J K Simmons won this last year under the old system and his performance is so good that he can’t help but win it again under the new rules. That’s your lot though, J K. If you want another award, you’ll need to make another film.

StatuetteWinner: J K Simmons

 

Best Actress

Alicia VikanderTheron was the undoubted star of “Fury Road”, all but eclipsing its eponymous hero while Carey Mulligan and Maggie Smith both dominated and elevated in their nominated roles. Daisy Ridley exploded on to the screen a fully-fledged movie star in 2015’s triumphant return to a galaxy far, far away but its Vikander’s incredible performance in “Ex Machina” which takes the prize this year.

StatuetteWinner: Alicia Vikander

 

Best Actor

Matt DamonI like Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor very much but thanks to my change in rules, I don’t have to deal with not caring for “The Revenant” until next year’s awards. Turning back to 2015, while he had genetics on his side, O’Shea Jackson Jr’s performance as his real life father is still a remarkable achievement, as is David Oyelowo’s recreation of the legendary Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in “Selma”. Sticking with the true life theme, Tom Hardy’s double performance as Reggie and Ronnie Kray is worthy of recognition, much better than the film built around it and Ian McKellen breathed new life and insight into a quasi-historical figure who feels like he was real in “Mr Holmes” but it’s Matt Damon’s enormously likeable performance in “The Martian” which takes the prize. Damon near carries the entire film with wit, charm and charisma.

StatuetteWinner: Matt Damon

 

Best Animated Movie

Once again, Pixar walk away with this and while “The Good Dinosaur” may have been a high quality misfire, there’s no doubting “Inside Out” deserves the prize, despite tough competition from Baymax and Snoopy.

Inside Out Characters

StatuetteWinner: “Inside Out”

Best Director

Now at least two of the names on this list are bound to raise a few eyebrows but I’m including Trevorrow and Abrams on the basis that they so successfully recaptured the essence of the respective franchises they resurrected that they deserve acclaim for the skill and energy they deployed. Both Spielberg and Scott showed yet again their mastery of the craft but it’s to George Miller the Best Director Craggus Award must go for his blisteringly kinetic action movie, the culmination of his personal passion and determination to bring the project to fruition.

StatuetteWinner: George Miller

 

Best Film

Looking at the list, they’re all great films but it’s a two horse race between “Mad Max” and “The Martian” and in a photo finish for the dusty red desert sweepstakes, “The Martian” takes the Best Film prize for 2015.

The Martian

StatuetteWinner: “The Martian”

 

 

Mertie Award

The final movie award of the night – as far as The Craggus is concerned, I believe the Academy have a few tokens to hand out later – is The Mertie Award for Best Film of 2015. I asked Mertmas to provide his five favourite movies of the year and his nominations were:

While Pitch Perfect 2 would easily win a Best Soundtrack award, the runaway best movie of 2015 in this nine year old’s view, eclipsing “Star Wars”, “The Avengers” and “Jurassic World” was “Tomorrowland: A World Beyond”. Congratulations, Brad Bird! Someone embraced your uncynical, hopeful vision of the future!

Tomorrowland

Mertie AwardWinner: “Tomorrowland: A World Beyond”

Grimsby (2016) Review

GrimsbyIf you want some kind of context to understand the tone of Sasha Baron Cohen’s seminal (at least as far as elephants are concerned) new movie “Grimsby”, then know this: Rebel Wilson is an island of subdued subtlety amid the crass, lowbrow and profoundly tasteless shenanigans.

When Norman ‘Nobby’ Butcher, proud resident of Grimsby finally tracks down his long lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong), he finds himself sucked in to a deadly world of international espionage and terrorism. Can the scum of the Earth save the world?

Ever the provocateur, Sasha Baron Cohen sets out to amuse and disgust in equal measure. He knows where the boundaries lie and he pushes past them. No, further…further. No, much, much further than that. And he knows exactly what he’s doing. There are nods to his influences (“South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” plays on the TV as a Cbeebies substitute for one of Nobby’s kids) throughout but, as usual with Baron Cohen, there’s a fiendishly sharp satire under the smut, sniggering homophobia and puerile, scatological humour. As with many of his other characters, Nobby’s world exists to lull the audience into revealing their prejudices and judgements only to ramp them up to an insanely offensive degree and feed them back to the audience. This time it’s the lazy, cruel stereotype of the benefits-dependant underclass which is skewered, twisted and spat back defiantly into the audience’s face.

There are parts of “Grimsby” which are more squirm-inducingly uncomfortable than amusing and there’s a lot in this film which will disgust and outrage instead of entertain (a running gag which involved Daniel Radcliffe and Donald Trump never really clicks) but make no mistake, there are many, many parts of this film which are side-splittingly, guiltily hilarious.

More than any other cast member – and the film has attracted an impressively diverse group of guest stars: Ian McShane, Penélope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, DavidHarewood (the likes of Johnny Vegas, Ricky Tomlinson and John Thompson are less of a shock) – Mark Strong is the MVP here. An unfeasibly good sport, he’s game for whatever Baron Cohen’s ridiculous, childish, ambitiously filthy script throws at him. He’s a bona fide action bad ass, giving the film a surprisingly strong action movie underpinning, helped enormously by experienced action/ adventure director Louis Leterrier, who shoots the whole thing totally seriously.

“Grimsby” will not sit well with everyone; ‘acquired taste’ really doesn’t cover it. It’s gross, stupid, vulgar and ridiculous but it’s also very, very funny. Definitely one for his fans, its cinematic future may be bleak but this will easily find its true home as a cult favourite and post-pub movie to eat your takeaway burger in front of. Just, you know, hold the mayo.

6/10 Score 6

Capture The Flag (2016) Review

Capture The FlagBright, cheerful and energetic, Spanish 3D animated movie “Capture The Flag” surprises and delights in equal measure and while it’s nowhere near troubling the giants of animation, it’s a welcome alternative to the other family fare on offer at the moment.

When billionaire Richard Carson casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Moon landings and declares an intention to mount an expedition of his own, NASA are forced to return to the Moon to prevent the evidence being erased and Carson claiming the Moon’s resources as his own.

While much of the story is fanciful sci-fi fare, “Capture The Flag” at least makes a token effort to get some real scientific principles in play and its pro-NASA leaning allows it to revel in just how much of an achievement it really was to land on the moon in 1969. There’s a curiously anti-private enterprise tone to the whole movie though, which may bely its European origin and Carson is a thinly veiled caricature of figures like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, albeit grossly magnified to cartoonish supervillainy. His two sidekicks – Steve Gigs and Bill Gags – are proxies for Jobs and Gates respectively, completing the odd bias against the American technocracy. Aside from that undercurrent, the movie is a lot of fun. Sure, there’s more use of the word ‘fart’ than you’d probably get from a production based in an English speaking country and it may even be that the film was initially aimed unsuccessfully at a slightly older crowd before being retooled for a younger audience, such as happened with Korean/ French animation “Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir” but it’s entertaining enough for what it tries to achieve, despite the hyperactive Diablo Cody-lite dialogue spouted by the three main characters.

Alongside the space mission, there’s a gentle family reconciliation side story to pad out the running time and even a few sly gags (more subtle than the Gigs/ Jobs one) such as the director of the faked moon landings bearing a remarkable resemblance to the late Stanley Kubrick.

Fun and fast paced, it’s a likeable sci-fi fantasy with enough nuggets oif real science to hopefully pique the interest of the young audience it will appeal to.

6/10 Score 6

Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip (2016) Review

Alvin And The Chipmunks The Road ChipClearly Jason Lee is comfortable subordinating to selfish, arrogant, bossy and manipulative pipsqueaks with trademark conspicuously central dental arrangements. Scientology will have taught him that. I guess those dianetics courses aren’t cheap, though, hence why Lee continues to subject himself to the indignity of these increasingly slapdash and lazy sequels.

When a series of misunderstandings convince Alvin, Simon and Theodore that Dave (Jason Lee) plans to propose to his new girlfriend Samantha (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), the three Chipmunks form a reluctant alliance with Samantha’s son Miles (Josh Green) and set out on a cross-country trip to prevent the proposal from taking place.

There’s a degree of stupid you accept when buying a ticket for a movie about three singing chipmunks but there’s a cynical laziness to “The Road Chip” which offends far more than the lacklustre shenanigans and desperately manic mugging of Tony Hale.

The cast do their best but there’s no effort here on the part of the filmmakers to produce anything even approaching a decent story. The story lacks any kind of energy, ambling from set piece to set piece with little energy or invention. Very little of it actually involves a road trip. Four movies in, the antics are tired and repetitive, insulting the intelligence of the audiences who’ve paid to see it. It trudges through its weary repertoire of poop and pee jokes, lifeless musical numbers and trite pop culture laden dialogue.

“Alvin And The Chipmunks: The Road Chip” is rubbish. A lazy, cynical cash grab, wringing the last, joyless dollars from the fading franchise.

2/10 Score 2

Triple 9 (2016) Review

Triple 9Director John Hillcoat’s latest offering, “Triple 9”, is yet another attempt to bring the “Grand Theft Auto” video game aesthetic to life on the big screen. Boasting an impressive and diverse cast, many playing against type, it presents us with a grim, relentlessly gritty and bleakly nihilistic view of the murky underworld of Atlanta, Georgia.

When a gang comprised of crooked cops and criminals pull off a heist at the request of a Russian mafia boss, they’re hoping for a quick and easy payday. But they’re merely players in a larger game and when the mafia demand one more job before payday, it sets up an explosive confrontation between the gang, the mafia and a dogged Police Detective investigating the heist.

Down and dirty, “Triple 9” doesn’t hold back from putting the mean into mean streets as it presents us with an array of shady characters, few of whom are heroes in any conventional sense. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie play very much against type as the leader of the robbery gang and a dirty cop respectively but its Kate Winslet who is the real revelation here, initially unrecognisable as the crassly glamourous and utterly ruthless Russian mob wife Irina Vlaslov, running her husband’s criminal empire while he’s stuck in a Russian gulag. Ultimately, it’s the introduction of good-guy cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) which destabilises the delicate balance of trust and terror, bringing events to a brutally violent crescendo.

The story’s commitment to its uncompromisingly harsh tone initially pays dividends but ultimately starts to undermine the film, as it starts to fall into repeating and rehashing the clichéd tropes of gritty crime dramas such as “Training Day” or “End Of Wacth”. It desperately wants to shock and surprise with clever twists and double-crosses but makes the fatal mistake of doing so time and again until it risks turning into a near farcical Pyrrhic bloodbath.

Betrayal can make for great drama; double crosses and even triple cross can transform a story from mediocre to magnificent but “Triple 9” pumps round after round from the chamber of that narrative weapon into the bloody and beaten body of the story until it loses all meaning. Gifted with some great performances, it’s suspenseful in parts, but tedious rather than tense when it really matters. I give “Triple 9” a solitary 6.

6/10 Score 6

Making A Murderer (2015) Review

Making A MurdererHave you watched Netflix’s “Making A Murderer”? Sure you have, or you’re about to, or you’re part of the way through. No, wait – scratch that. Nobody’s ‘part of the way through’ “Making A Murderer”. You’re either binge watching it, or you’ve finished it and are still trying to pick your jaw up off the floor.

Netflix have struck original programming gold again, and this time it’s fact, not fiction that has subscribers promising themselves ‘just one more episode’ before they sleep/ work/ eat/ bathe/ interact with another human being.

The ten part documentary series tells the true story of Steven Avery, a native of Manitowoc, Wisconsin who was imprisoned for eighteen years for a crime he did not commit only to be eventually released and almost immediately implicated, charged and tried for murder while continually maintaining his innocence.

Filmed over the course of ten years, as events unfolded, “Making A Murderer” benefits from the same sense of authenticity that the long-form filming imbued “Boyhood” with but this is no gentle coming of age drama. It’s a unremittingly gripping, endlessly fascinating and masterfully curated story of the prosecution of a crime riddled with inconsistencies, allegations of corruption and crooked practices and some breath-taking twists, turns and outcomes.

Until you’ve started watching it, it’s hard to really understand just how utterly compelling the story is. It has everything you could want from a courtroom drama – a terrible crime, a questionable accused, family loyalty, betrayals, noble lawyers, slimy prosecutors, crooked cops, shady investigators, red herrings, overlooked potential suspects, contradictory evidence and utterly contemptible villains. Oh, and the victim, who – tellingly – doesn’t occupy much of the documentary because she, Teresa Halbach, didn’t seem to concern the prosecution anywhere near as much as nailing Steven Avery for the crime did.

Responsible for creating a legion of armchair detectives and couch-based criminal justice experts, the very nature of the events being presented remind you that the perception of the facts can easily be manipulated by skilful and wilful selectivity. Do I believe Steven Avery is guilty? Whether I do or not (I’m not declaring for fear of spoilers), the opinion I formed was based on the evidence I was presented with. And even while watching and – occasionally – yelling at the TV, I was aware that what I was being presented with was selected for me by the documentary makers, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi. Both in subject and in execution, “Making A Murderer” demonstrates just how powerfully facts and opinions can be manipulated and manufactured. Absolute truth is an impossibility as we’re allowed to see a broken system through a fractured lens.

A quick Google search of the case (absolutely forbidden while we were watching!) brings up a few aspects which were omitted from the documentary, throwing additional light on some facets of the case but I understand the need to do that. The documentary is ten hours long, covering a trial which ran for weeks and events which covered years. In saying that, even after reading up on the available details of the case, there doesn’t seem to be too much that was left out, and nothing I’ve heard or read since watching it has swayed my own verdict, suggesting the documentary filmmakers got the balance just about right.

“Making A Murderer” is fantastic, engrossing entertainment – and it is first and foremost an entertainment product – but like the best entertainment, it raises important issues in a thought-provoking and fascinating way. It’s unique intensity comes from the fact it not only deals with a true story but one that is still going on to this day and the dangers of the abuse of power and procedure by the authorities and institutions involved have ramifications far beyond the limits of this one fascinating case.

9/10 Score 9

Love (2015) Review

LoveThere’s a point near the half way mark in Gaspar Noé’s provocatively explicit romantic drama “Love” where its raison d’être is revealed and the movie sheds any remaining inhibitions of being anything other than a pseudo-autobiographical sublimation of Noé himself. It happens when our protagonist Murphy (Karl Glusman) tells Electra (Aomi Muyuck) that he has a dream to ‘make a movie that truly depicts sentimental sexuality’ and that’s certainly what Noé has done here.

When Murphy receives a call from the mother of his ex-girlfriend Electra to ask if he’s heard from her, it draws him into a maudlin and self-indulgent reminiscence of the defining love affair of his life, sharply contrasting it with the mundane domesticity of his current relationship.

There’s no getting away from sex in “Love”, the scenes are graphic, explicit, frequent and often prolonged. In presenting the pleasures of the flesh so relentlessly, Noé does actually manage to achieve a level of intimacy between the cast and the audience. There is passion, of course, but the uninhibited sex is presented entirely within the context of a loving, committed relationship in a way that is actually quite rare in cinema and entirely absent in pornography, which this film has been unfairly and ignorantly accused of being. Indeed, after the first few times, the overt sexuality of the film ceases to push boundaries and becomes almost routine. Unfortunately, once the salacious, shock value abates, the film struggles to do much else thanks to poor characterisation and flat performances.

Sex isn’t the only thing the film is ‘sentimental’ about, though. It also romanticises drug taking and fidelity and ultimately it’s a toxic blend of hypocrisy and hedonism which leads to the gradual dissolution of the almost impossibly decadent relationship between Murphy and Elektra, irrespective of the introduction of Omi (Klara Kristin). While we become intimately familiar with aspects of the lead characters’ lives, it’s a very myopic intimacy driven by the petulant, whiny man-child reminiscences of Murphy as he laments the loss of passion, spontaneity and freedom that fatherhood has forced on him.

The film is suffused with Noé’s trademark trippy, blissed-out camerawork and there’s no denying the film is gorgeous to look at, whether your interest is voyeuristic or aesthetic. There’s a playfully wicked use of  the ultimately unnecessary 3D which crosses over into the gratuitous a couple of times, notably when Noé presents his own erect penis straight to the camera. Whatever you may think of his art, you can’t argue he lacks confidence.

Driven by an unlikeable autobiographical proxy character, “Love” is a thematic one-eyed monster, its decidedly male gaze focussed firmly on the carnal, hedonistic ‘ideal’ it presents. The lack of any real depth of character to supplement and contextualise the more lascivious material really undermines the philosophical and dramatic points the movie wants to get across and while it has echoes of “Enter The Void”, it’s not quite as successful. It’s undeniably, indulgently Gaspar Noé’s vision on show though, and if you’re a fan of his work, there’s a feast for the senses in this ambitiously sensual but deeply flawed romance.

6/10 Score 6

Zoolander 2 (2016) Review

Zoolander 2“Zoolander 2” may be the first movie in history to have more celebrity cameos than it has actual actors playing parts and the overabundance of gimmicky walk-ons is symptomatic of a film desperately in search of a story worth telling. This isn’t the sharp-edged, expertly curated haute couture collection of screwball satire we didn’t fully appreciate back in 2001 – this is more like the cheap knock-off, fake designer gear which may superficially look like the real thing but falls apart thanks to lazy manufacturing and shoddy stitching. With the overlap of vacuous celebrity and fashion having grown exponentially in the past fifteen years, there’s ample fodder for “Zoolander 2” to take a swipe at, so it’s particularly disappointing that it feels blunter than before, ignoring the ludicrous excesses of vanity couture in favour of recycling nearly everything from the first movie and passing it off as new again.

While content to plunder its own legacy for jokes to make threadbare, it’s no respecter of the story, unpicking the happy ending of the first movie in a montage staged over the opening credits. Having effectively rewound the narrative clock to the point where Derek has quit the fashion world, “Zoolander 2” then reveals its tired, lazy ‘big idea’. You see, “Zoolander 2” is to “Zoolander” what “Cars 2” was to “Cars”. There’s a bizarre, uninspired and stupid (but not in a funny way) spy/ crime concept driving the plot along, clumsily shoehorned alongside all the gags from the first film reshuffled into a slightly different order.

Stiller and Wilson feel like they’re phoning it in and – forgive me Carrie Fisher – have aged noticeably in the decade and a half since the first film yet this is barely acknowledged in the film nor mined for amusement or commentary on the fashion world’s obsession with youth. There’s mild amusement provided by new cast members such as Kristen Wiig (although her accent goes beyond a joke) and Will Ferrell injects much needed energy once he makes his shouty reappearance but it’s not enough to save this misfire.

Lazy, uninspired and ultimately unnecessary, this sequel is as poorly constructed as The Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too apparently was and has nothing new to say, whilst lacking the ability to freshen up the old. While the original “Zoolander” will remain a cult classic, this second collection of the same material fails to make it off the runway.

5/10 Score 5

Deadpool (2016) Review

DeadpoolI am so, so happy for Ryan Reynolds. Seriously, the guy has earned it. He’s tried so hard, so many times and after “Blade: Trinity” [for the record, I quite liked his turn as Hannibal King], “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “R.I.P.D.” and – shudder – “Green Lantern”, it’s an absolute delight to see him finally crack the genre he’s endured so much for over the years.

“Deadpool” is, quite simply, the perfect anti-hero movie. It would be a brilliant superhero action movie without the added touches which make it quintessentially Deadpool but once you add in the sardonic, fourth-wall busting, recursively metatextual nature of the character, it becomes a thing of unholy, foul-mouthed, violent beauty. Simultaneously fitting perfectly beside the existing Marvel Cinematic Universes (take your pick, Deadpool is clearly aware of all of them) and yet unlike anything Marvel have brought to the screen before, “Deadpool” gives the superhero genre a shot in the arm and a kick in the balls for good measure.

When Wade Wilson, a smart mouthed mercenary with a heart of tarnished gold is diagnosed with late stage terminal cancer just after proposing to his girlfriend, he reluctantly undergoes a procedure for a shadowy corporation who promise to cure him and release his genetic mutant potential. Brutalised and betrayed, Wade dons a mask, adopts the name Deadpool and heads out for revenge.

There’s no doubt “Deadpool” fits in to the “X-Men” universe, the question is – which one? It’s a question that Wade himself asks during the film, when told he’s going to see Professor X he asks whether its Stewart or McAvoy, complaining the timelines are impossible to keep track of. You can see his point. He’s also clearly aware of the other, larger MCU as well. There are numerous references to Reynolds’ previous comic book roles, and he’s not the only character who seems to have a snarky, ironic awareness that they’re in a movie.

Reynolds is simply perfect as the Merc with a Mouth – the role he was born to play [twice: once terribly and, this time, sublimely] and the rest of the casting, keying off his loveably unhinged performance is pretty damn good. Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) are great realisations of the characters in their own right and while they’re the only representatives of the X-Men to make an appearance [a fact which doesn’t go unnoticed by Deadpool] they successfully yet flexibly connect him to the wider superhero universe whilst retaining a necessary plausible deniability. “Firefly” fans will get to see more of Morena Baccarin than they ever dreamed they would as the film pushes the boundary of sex and nudity further than any other comic book movie has save, perhaps, “Sin City” [Mertmas won’t be allowed to watch this one for a good few years!]. It’s through Wade’s relationship with Vanessa that the movie delivers its most unexpected success: it has a real emotional core. Underpinning all the sass, sarcasm, blood, gore, violence, nudity and profanity, there genuinely is an unconventionally sweet and authentic romance.

Like nearly all superhero movies, though – especially but not exclusively Marvel ones – the film’s villain isn’t particularly well defined. Ed Skrein’s Ajax is another interchangeably generic foe there to hand out and take the beatings, which are usually delivered by Angel Dust, played by former MMA fighter Gina Carano who is perfectly serviceable in a role which requires little more than glowering and clobbering. The difference here is that there’s such an abundance of character in our hero that his persona spreads out to fill up any gaps, nooks and crannies of characterisation elsewhere.

Ironic to a degree that would make even Alanis Morissette reach for the dictionary, “Deadpool” is an early strong contender for best superhero movie of the year, despite the impressive roster of movies still to come. How the studio which made “Fantastic Four” managed to make this is little short of a miracle. Laugh out loud funny, sexy, romantic, violent, profane and insane, “Deadpool” is everything we hoped it would be and quite a few things we never even dared dream it could be. You thought Spider-Man’s MCU debut was going to be the biggest Marvel event this year? Think again.

Spiderman Deadpool

10/10 Score 10

Ripper (2016) Review

RipperIf the term ‘fan film’ conjures up images of camcorders and cosplay, rest assured that “Ripper”, written and directed by James Campbell will change your mind. Brooding, handsomely staged and imbued with a creeping sense of dread, “Ripper” is a fascinating slice of historical fiction, imagining Gotham’s dark knight as the dogged protector of a Victorian London terrorised by Jack The Ripper.

Filmed on Teesside, which makes an excellent stand-in for Whitechapel, the recreation of Victoriana is so well accomplished it wouldn’t look out of place in “Ripper Street”. The Ripper’s murders are grisly and gruesome without veering into gratuitous goriness and the real-life character of Inspector Abberline proves an effective surrogate for the usually beleaguered Commissioner Gordon, acting as a thematic structural device to bring in the Batman.

The influence of Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman mythology is keenly felt, partially in the taciturn, shadowy steampunk figure of Batman himself but mostly in the restyling of Jack The Ripper as this Dark Knight’s personal nemesis, his Joker. Light on action but heavy on atmosphere, the short builds to an effectively ambiguous conclusion which teases the possibility that the reason Jack’s crimes stopped so abruptly is because Batman, this Batman, chose to violate his own moral code.

There are some minor technical flaws which detract from the productions success, notably in the sound mixing where the score – which may not be to everybody’s taste but I enjoyed its John Carpenter-esque qualities – compromises the clarity of the dialogue but it’s a minor complaint given how well the short as a whole delivers on its promise.

While the partial adherence to real historical events precludes a return for Batman’s opponent in any potential sequel, it’s hard to ignore the potential for this property to expand its fictional roster and give us a team up between Batman and Sherlock Holmes for a showdown between the two contenders for the title of ‘World’s Greatest Detective’. In the hands of the team behind this short film, that would be something to relish.

“Ripper” is free to watch, and you can see it below.

8/10 Score 8

Craggus’ Quincentennial Post

500 Quincentennial

So, here we are: Post 500. How time flies when you’re having fun!

After five hundred posts (and somewhere north of 420,000 words), it’s pretty clear I’m in this movie blogging for the long haul. That being the case, it’s high time then that I addressed some of the scandalous gaps in my film viewing history.

I’ve seen a lot of movies over the years, but there are still gaps in my back catalogue. Gaps that no self-respecting film buff should tolerate; significant or renowned films I haven’t seen yet. So, before this year is out, I’m going to take care of 26 of these ‘blind spots’ and tackle an A to Z of movies I missed. 2016 will be my ‘gap year’.

For some of the letters, it was a tough choice narrowing it down to just one (and as you’ll see on ‘G’ I cheated a bit) – for others (*cough* ‘X’ *cough*) it was a bit of a stretch to find something but overall, I’m satisfied with the list. But if you can think of a more important film that I really should have seen for a particular letter, let me know in the comments. If I’ve already seen it, no worries but if not, and it’s better than the one I was planning to watch, then I’ll update the list.

Craggus A to Z logo small

Apocalypse Now

Bridge On The River Kwai

Chinatown

Deliverance

Eraserhead

Frankenstein

Godfather Trilogy*

Heaven’s Gate

Ishtar

Judgement At Nuremberg

Kes

Lawrence Of Arabia

Metropolis

Nosferatu

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Patton

Quadrophenia

Rashomon

The Seventh Seal

Taxi Driver

Unforgiven

Videodrome

The Warriors

X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes

Young Frankenstein

Zero Hour!

My plan is to start posting the blogs – one a week – from around June time, so there’s plenty of time for you to suggest alternatives (Q and X options most welcome!)

* I’m cheating twice here. I’m waiving through the whole trilogy instead of just one film and technically I have seen two of them but they were edited together into chronological order.

12 To The Moon (1960) Review

12 To The Moon*SPOILERS*

“12 To The Moon” is a bad movie. Like, really bad. As if someone set out to make the worst movie they possibly could and really excelled themselves bad.

This 1960 Z-grade sci-fi thriller tells the story of the first multi-national manned mission to the Moon. Crewed by representatives from twelve nations plus two monkeys, two cats and a dog, our intrepid explorers set out for the moon, encountering strange magnetic fields, meteorite showers and geopolitical tensions en route. But these challenges are nothing compared to what awaits them on the lunar surface.

Clearly screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen is immensely proud of the research he has done given that he pads out the dialogue with snippets of real scientific facts and figures (which are liberally mixed with utter nonsense, conjecture and just plan scientific ignorance) as the disparate crew discuss their mission in a leadenly expository fashion. The actual journey doesn’t take that long, yet there’s repeated use of the same stock footage of the rocket flying through space in a fashion that wouldn’t look out of place in a Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” serial. When the crew aren’t busy airing their old grievances – a brief confrontation between the German crewmember and the Israeli crewman regarding the actions of the Nazis is particularly awkward – they spend their time exploring the set of the Moon’s surface, skillfully filmed by director David Bradley so as to show the soundstage rigging in several shots. The cost cutting isn’t just limited to the sets, props are cheap, cheerful and occasionally downright cheeky, such as when the open face space helmets have their ‘invisible electromagnetic ray screen’ activated to allow them to breathe on the Moon.

So why am I even bothering to blog about this film, let alone try to convince you to watch it? It’s because, despite the frugal and ham-fisted execution, there’s a lot elements of this film that would become the core values and tropes of a TV series which would debut 5 to 6 years later: “Star Trek”. An internationally and ethnically diverse crew of men and women aboard a spaceship travelling to a planet where they encounter a mysterious, powerful (and bizarrely cat loving) life form who, using them as examples of the human race, pronounce judgement on our barbaric and primitive ways. Through ingenuity, compassion and self-sacrifice, the humans manage to demonstrate that we are not beyond redemption and it all ends on a hopeful note.

If 1956’s “Forbidden Planet” can be argued to be a direct ancestor of Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking sci-fi opus, then there’s definitely a place for “12 To The Moon” in that family tree too. Given the boneheaded actions of the scientists during their exploration, it may also have a place in the ancestry of “Prometheus” too.

Easily qualifying as a ‘so bad it’s good’ movie, if you can’t stomach the thought of watching it in its original format, you could always watch it with the guys from “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” who featured it in a 1993 episode. A mostly forgotten diamond cubic zirconia in the rough, it’s fun enough to check out just to see the genesis of some of the core values that “Star Trek” would later develop and expand on to genre-changing effect.

2/10 Score 2

Jekyll & Hyde – Season 1 Review

Jekyll & HydeCharlie Higson’s excitable take on the Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” has lasted all of ten episodes before being cancelled by ITV. It’s a real shame too because while the show had its flaws, it also had tremendous potential which will now go unrealised thanks to ITV’s inability to understand or support anything apart from prestige detective dramas, vacuous game shows and onanistic reality shows featuring their latest crop of seedling ‘celebs’ from their ITV2 talent battery farm. Oh, and “Downton Abbey”.

Chief amongst the show’s flaws was that it was deeply derivative. Our Dr Jekyll, the grandson of the novel’s original split personality, may as well have been called Bruce Banner given his condition’s parallels to “The Incredible Hulk” while the larger arc concerning the rising of a demon and warring factions of order and chaos is pretty much lifted directly from “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”. Jekyll even assembles his own ‘Scooby Gang’ over the course of the first few episodes.

Despite its obvious borrowed foundations, what Higson builds has enough intrigue and innovation of its own to merit watching. The mythology he creates around the Jekyll/ Hyde legend provides some good bones to support the meat of the story and the updated setting to the 1930s works really well, giving it a very British period charm. The creation of an occult government department –  MIO – is a stroke of genius and while they and Jekyll work separately for much of the early episodes, their appealingly contentious relationship would have been good to watch develop over the course of further adventures. We’ll never know if Tenebrae were to be the big bad for a season or two or would turn out to be a more ubiquitous adversary like SPECTRE but the point is, I wanted to find out.

Sure, some of the acting could best (and most charitably) be described as broad with Tom Bateman himself struggling to imbue his Hyde with anything but the goofiest of menace while Richard E Grant chews the scenery with such ferocity that I’m surprised any of the sets were left after ten episodes. Many of the other cast members are a little stiff and forced but no worse than many other series’ first seasons *cough* “Star Trek: The Next Generation” *cough*. I’m not sure the actors are entirely to blame as it’s clear that subtlety was not a priority for directors Colin Teague, Joss Agnew, Steward Svaasand and Robert Quinn and while the period details are realised well, the special effects and action sequences are somewhat clumsy and basic.

And yet, despite all these problems, the series has real appeal. Many of the problems could easily be ironed out in further seasons and the longer it develops and expands its own mythology, the less its derivative aspects would be so apparent. Like series 9 of “Doctor Who”, “Jekyll & Hyde” was placed in the wrong time slot and, ironically, each would have done better with the other’s schedule. Probably the most frustratingly damaging event for the series was the ‘record’ level of complaints it received about the level of violence in an early evening programming, lovejoymany of these no doubt from Helen Lovejoy wannabes who were desperate for someone to ‘please think of the children’ (of which they probably had none). ITV chose not to blink and move the show later (maybe assuming all publicity was good publicity) and after they were forced to postpone episode four in the wake of the Paris attacks, simply gave up promoting and supporting the show.

In retrospect it was never a good fit for show and network. For all its desperation to find its own enduring answer to “Doctor Who”, ITV just hasn’t got the patience or understanding to nurture and develop a genre TV show. I can only hope that Sky, Netflix, Amazon or even the BBC can be persuaded to do a deal with ITV Studios to pick up further episodes of the show or buy it out altogether.

In the meantime, the best way to encourage the production of more episodes is not by creating well-intentioned petitions (and certainly not petitions to OFCOM who have no power or influence to order more episodes or commission productions) but by watching the ten episodes we were given. Buy or rent the DVDs or BluRays, stream the episodes (legally, of course – they’re currently available on Amazon Video in the UK) and make sure you watch them if they’re repeated on any of the ITV or repeat channels like Dave, Gold etc. If you haven’t watched it yet, give it a go. Its goofy and occasionally clumsy but it boast a pretty impressive cast (Donald Sumpter, Sinéad Cusack, the aforementioned Richard E Grant) and some pretty nifty ideas that deserve to be developed further.

7/10 Score 7

Tinker Bell And The Secret Of The Wings (2012) Review

Tinker Bell And The Secret Of The WingsI wasn’t particularly generous the first time I encountered one of Disney’s straight-to-video (although released theatrically in the UK) “Tinker Bell” movies. No, I wasn’t enamoured of “Tinker Bell And The Pirate Fairy” at all. My main complaint was how shoddily Zarina (the titular pirate fairy) was treated because she was so fascinated with science, technology and experimentation.  Fast forward a couple of years and one increasingly fairy-enamoured three year old daughter and I have to admit, my opinion has changed quite a lot. I’ve watched several of the “Tinker Bell” films now, many, many, many times and – even though it may be the Stockholm Syndrome talking – I’m actually starting to appreciate them more.

“Tinker Bell And The Secret Of The Wings” is actually the fairy’s fourth adventure (and the one which preceded “Tinker Bell And The Pirate Fairy”), telling the story of the winter fairies, one of whom has a very special connection to Tink herself. When Tinker Bell’s curiosity leads her to stray across the winter border of Pixie Hollow, just before she is rescued, she notices her wings are sparkling in an unusual and magical way. Determined to find out why, she manages to smuggle herself into the frosty domain of Lord Milori but the rule preventing fairies from crossing the frontier is there for a reason and all of Pixie Hollow may be in danger.

Perhaps it’s my familiarity with the society of Pixie Hollow or perhaps I’m just not reading too much into it this time or maybe it’s the sentimental side of me seeing it through my little one’s eyes but I really quite enjoyed this. The story zips along with a breezy and charming lightness. There’s still that recurring theme of rebelling against the status quo but its gentler this time and – maybe because its Tinker Bell herself bending the rules – it’s not shut down quite so harshly by the Pixie Hollow authorities.

The voice talents involved in these films are unusually strong, with Mae Whitman’s Tinker Bell being ably supported by Timothy Dalton, Lucy Lui and Anjelica Huston amongst others and they all do good work. The actual ‘secret’ of the wings is a delightful idea (although it kind of retcons some established events from “Tinker Bell”) and much of the movie spends its time exploring the differences between Pixie Hollow and the Winter Woods rather than any looming plot driven threat. When peril does finally arrive, it’s handled in reassuringly plucky and cooperative fashion, with a neat little deus ex machina right at the finish to end on a high note.

Cute, lightweight and mercifully rewatchable, “Tinker Bell And The Secret Of The Wings” – or more accurately my daughter’s embracing of it – has opened my eyes to the magic of Pixie Hollow. So to anyone offended by my curmudgeonly dismissal of Tinker Bell’s adventures, I apologise. I guess I do believe in fairies after all.

8/10 Score 8