La La Land (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

The Bureau Season 1 Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Silence (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

A Monster Calls (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Why Him? (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Monster Trucks (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Doctor Who: The Return Of Doctor Mysterio (S10E00) Review

doctor-mysterio-graphicMuch like children (and *ahem* some adults) across the country, “Doctor Who” reached into its festive stocking and pulled out a whole bunch of superhero toys. Although it’s a little bit shoehorned in during a leadenly expository cold open, once the superhero McGuffin is installed, showrunner Steven Moffat gleefully, almost giddily, goes to town smashing the genres together.

Having accidentally bestowed superpowers on a young boy in early ‘90s New York, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) runs into him again years later while investigating the activities of the mysterious Harmony Shoals corporation.

Working as an indirect sequel to “The Husbands Of River Song”, “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” sees the return of Nardole (Matt Lucas) whose resurrection is hand waived away in a couple of lines of dialogue and whose main purpose this time out is to remind us the Doctor is sad. It’s a necessary reminder because the Doctor’s emotional thread through this story seems to be a bit of an afterthought. It also sees the return of the brain swapping aliens from last year’s Christmas special which makes me wonder if a busy with “Sherlock” Steven Moffat cobbled together this script from offcuts and discarded ideas from last year’s special. Both the story and the Doctor feel a little distracted, a little unfocussed and as a result the whole adventure is a little bit muddled. Essentially, “The Return Of Doctor Mysterio” is the overstuffed Boxing Day leftover sandwich to “The Husbands Of River Song”’s Christmas Dinner.

Oh, sure, there’s fun to be had homaging everything from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Richard Donner’s “Superman” but it’s an uneasy mix to have a proxy Superman in the same story as the Doctor and it never seems to find its balance. Hardly Christmassy at all, it’s a Christmas Special in the same way the 10th Doctor’s final year was made up of ‘Specials’, e.g. not that special and not that good. Individually each element is pretty good but it just doesn’t quite come together. The Ghost is a distraction rather than an asset in the Doctor’s foiling of the bad guys’ plan but stripped of the superhero tropes, this would be a thin story indeed.

It’s been a year since we last had some new “Doctor Who” so maybe my expectations for this were too high but when one of the best performances is from an inanimate squeaky toy, it’s probably a sign that something’s not quite working. Distinctly average, despite its huge ambitions, it just didn’t work for me and not even the not-quite-as-topical-as-when-the-script-was-written Pokémon Go joke can rescue it from mediocrity.

6/10 Score 6

Passengers (2016) Review

passengersA surprise contender for ‘Most Divisive Film of 2016’, “Passengers” may not be the sci-fi action thriller the trailers might have led us to expect but there’s still a lot to enjoy in this literal and figurative star vehicle which teams current hot ticket stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt.

Aboard the starship Avalon, a sleeper ship on autopilot transporting five thousand colonists on a 120 year journey to start a new life on the planet Homestead II, Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes unexpectedly, only thirty years into the voyage. Alone on the ship, he becomes infatuated with a fellow passenger but when mysterious malfunctions begin to plague the ship itself, he faces some difficult choices.

At the core of this film’s mixed reception is an ethical and moral conundrum. At the outset, it seems like the film is going to explore some interesting and complex themes but just at the point of no return, it scrambles back to the narrative safety of cliché. Here’s the thing, though: it does the clichés extremely well.

Director Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”) delivers on the big visuals required for this “Titanic”-lite in space drama which is less survival adventure and more ethically compromised love story. Visuals aside, a number of spectacular sci-fi ideas go begging for exploration and expansion but are ultimately neglected in favour of the burgeoning romance between Jim and Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) however, because said romance starts under the cloud of such a grotesque act of deception it never quite sits right, no matter how much you’re rooting for them as a couple.

Just how much you’re rooting for them as a couple may vary too. Individually, Pratt and Lawrence are likeable screen presences and its more an accumulation of their individual likeability than any genuine chemistry which keeps things on track. Performance-wise, neither is stretched by the script although Lawrence gets to do her hoarse-voiced angry despair act once more. Breaking up the potential monotony of two pretty people either getting it on or not getting on is Michael Sheen as android bartender Arthur, a character which – like the film itself – hints at being darker than he ends up being.

The ending too is frustratingly pat and very abrupt considering everything that’s come before but as a straight survival in space adventure, “Passengers” is pretty enjoyable even if it really can’t get past the moral failing of its main character, no matter how hard it tries to gloss over it. Despite all its flaws, though, I rather enjoyed it and I suspect it has a solid future as a Bank Holiday disaster movie mainstay; a 21st Century “Poseidon Adventure”.

7/10 Score 7

Moana (2016) Review

moanaDisney’s new golden age shows no signs of slowing down as they cap an amazing animated year with the breezy, tropical feel good musical “Moana”.

Drawing on Polynesian mythology, “Moana” tells the story of a young girl who longs to leave her island and explore the oceans. Encouraged by her maternal grandmother, Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) finds herself on a perilous quest to find the demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and with his help, restore the Heart of Te Fiti and turn back the darkness which threatens to engulf their island home.

In a year which has seen a continued shift in favour of strong female protagonists, Moana is headstrong, capable and compassionate; a welcome addition to the Disney princess pantheon. The film represents the first computer animated feature film for directors Ron Clements and John Musker (veterans of “The Great Mouse Detective”, “Aladdin” and “The Princess And The Frog” amongst others) but the move to CGI loses none of the magic and warmth of their previous works. Coupled with a tropically infused score and some catchy numbers (who knew Dwayne Johnson could carry off a showstopper?), “Moana” harks back to the pair’s other underwater triumph, “The Little Mermaid”.

In a world as divided and dominated by narrow opinions and prejudices, “Moana” is a visually spectacular and defiantly diverse piece of storytelling. Trapped in something of a no-win situation – accused of a lack of diversity when they do something like this they’re accused of cultural appropriation – Disney have delivered a rousing, inspirational and uplifting adventure that respects and honours Polynesian mythology, bringing it to a wider audience to appreciate. It’s become an instantly family favourite in the Craggus household and its soundtrack is vying for ‘soundtrack of the year’ with fellow colourful and optimistic animation “Trolls”. It may have been something of a mediocre year for movies in general, but animation’s had a pretty good 2016 and “Moana” is the perfect note to end on.

9/10 Score 9

Rogue One (2016) Review

rogue-oneA long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away a young moisture farmer was planning on wasting time with his friends, picking up some power converters from Tosche Station on Tatooine. But this isn’t his story…at least not yet.

“Rogue One” brings us a Star Wars story that’s more prologue than prequel as it reveals to us exactly how those stolen plans came to be in that R2 unit in the first place. When rebellious prisoner Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is freed from Imperial custody, she becomes key to the struggling Rebellion’s plans to get their hands on the schematics of the Empires dreaded new superweapon. But Jyn has her own agenda: to use the rebels to help her find her father (Mads Mikkelsen) who was taken from her as a child by Imperial forces.

Disney’s second foray into the Star Wars universe is an altogether much darker, grittier affair than the pomp and circumstances of “The Force Awakens”. The grimy, worn aesthetic of Episode IV is back and the universe feels shadier and more dangerous than it has in many a long movie. Again, like “The Force Awakens”, there’s a real benefit to the use of physical sets (proving once again that the Empire’s predilection for awkward ergonomics and precarious workstations is a galactic health and safety nightmare) and locations which CGI simply can’t yet match. CGI limitations are also evident in the recreations of two original trilogy characters, one rather fleeting, the other more frequent than you might be expecting. I’m not convinced by the arguments that there are ethical or moral quandaries in resurrecting deceased actors to reprise their roles but while we’re getting closer to photorealistic CGI people, we’re not quite there yet. A couple of scenes would have worked well but “Rogue One” insists on Tarkin it too far.

Away from the talkative avatar scenes, director Gareth Edwards brings a remarkable rich vision to the story and nearly every frame is packed with soon to be iconic visuals or innovative action, proving that the Death Star is far more terrifying at low power than it ever was when destroying Alderaan. Make no mistake, this is hard core dark “Star Wars” which never misses a chance to put some poor passers-by in the line of fire or send them and their limbs flying when there’s an explosion to be had.

Those who bridled at how much “The Force Awakens” ‘borrowed’ from the Original Trilogy will find much to grumble about here as Disney still seem reluctant to take the training wheels off its newly expanding universe and there are cameos, Easter eggs and references galore scattered throughout the film from the trite (blue milk) through the irritating (Dr Evazan and Ponda Baba) to the sublime (a welcome return for Angus McInnes and Drew Henley as Gold and Red Leader respectively). The film also borrows heavily from “Return Of The Jedi” for the structure of its undeniably spectacular finale but the constant need to hark back to previous films distracts more than it intertwines and the film would have been stronger without so many call-backs. Admittedly, the film’s borrowing of a key McGuffin from “Spaceballs” comes as much more of a surprise, but a welcome one.

Of course, the film’s most notable returnee is the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, Darth Vader. Thankfully, he’s used sparingly, focussed mainly on two major set pieces. The first, set on Mustafar, is prequel-level awful; awkward and saddled with dreadful dialogue it’s like Lucas snuck into the production and filmed a scene while no one was looking. Thankfully, Vader’s second appearance is better than anything the Sith Lord has done on screen before. For the first time ever, we see Vader in full, furious flow and it is both awesome and chilling.

Performance wise, Felicity Jones seems wide awake after snoozing her way through “Inferno” and manages to make Jyn a likeable heroine despite a script which does its best to make her irritating and petulant. There’s wonderful support from Diego Luna’s Captain Andor, Riz Ahmed’s Bohdi Rook and Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe amongst her ragtag band of rebels but it’s Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO who thoroughly steals the show thanks to getting pretty much all the best lines. Unfortunately, despite a story which meanders a little and visits perhaps one planet too many – we don’t really get to spend a lot of time getting to know the characters, including dashing villain Orson Crennic (Ben Mendelsohn) before we’re plunged into a frenetic finale which is slightly hampered by the unavoidable narrative need to explain why none of the main characters don’t appear in the original trilogy.

Giacchino’s score is an unfortunate and rare misstep often distractingly similar to Williams’ original themes only to go in a direction which feels more about ‘fair use’ than variation (kind of how the “How It should Have Ended” guys mimic movie scores).

Ultimately, though, “Rogue One” does everything it needs to do with style and visual flair. It’s a gritty, action-packed war story which brings one of the Galactic Civil War’s pivotal moments to the big screen. It even manages to provide an entirely satisfying explanation for the Death Star’s fundamental design flaw, which is no mean feat in itself.

8/10 Score 8

My Feral Heart (2016) Review

my-feral-heartFlying under the multiplex radar, “My Feral Heart” is an independent British film exploring the story of Luke, an independent young man with Down’s syndrome who is forced to move into care home after his elderly mother dies.

Director Jane Gull is a self-confessed fan of Ken Loach and his influence is strongly felt in this gently gritty, deeply sincere story. Favouring a hand-held camera, “My Feral Heart” benefits from a pseudo-documentary feel which counterpoints nicely with a subtle but potent dusting of dreamlike whimsy. As attention grabbing as the film’s central ‘label’ might be, it’s a delightful subverting of expectations that Luke’s Down Syndrome is an initial plot driver of the story but it’s not what the film is about.

Steven Brandon delivers a superb performance as Luke in his acting debut. There’s a wonderfully knowing slyness to his performance at times and he’s perfectly matched by a mischievous directorial approach that continually elicits and then gently rebukes your assumptions, especially in a terrifically intimate opening sequence featuring Luke preparing breakfast. He’s responsible for many of the film’s best moments, displaying impressive comic timing and a wry delivery. Jane Gull knows when to keep the focus tight for maximum impact. Scenes of the minutiae of everyday life are given a poignant grandeur by virtue of the close focus, from spreading butter on toast to the buttoning of a shirt. Tight shots of hands and fingers reveal the splendour and mundane intricacy of those little points of personal care which, often unnoticed, punctuate our daily lives.

Indeed, “My Feral Heart” is a film preoccupied with personal care, not just the details and flourishes of our daily ablutions, but in a more philosophical sense the care of the person. Luke’s journey in the film is his fiercely independent streak, a desire to be the carer, not the caree. It takes an odd alliance between a compassionate and insightful care home worker, Eve (Shana Swash) and Pete (Will Rastall), an upper middle-class rebel on community service to help Luke find his way, a way to escape the restrictive burdens of the low expectations of an indifferent bureaucracy. It’s through these new friendships Luke finds the opportunity and the self-confidence to do what he’s best at, but to say anymore would be to reveal one of the film’s cleverest and most ambiguous narrative threads so I’ll say no more. Making a virtue of economy, the screenplay feels like it has excised some of the back stories and side plots in favour of a leaner narrative but it doesn’t harm the film too much and even an ending which feels more like an abrupt ‘stop’ doesn’t tarnish what has come before.

The three central cast members quickly establish a fantastic onscreen chemistry which really anchors the film and makes it easy to gloss over the one or two clunky performances that often plague low budget indie movies. But there genuinely are only one or two in a film full of small but still important background characters lending texture and authenticity to Luke’s world. “My Feral Heart” is an absorbing character-driven drama which strains at the very limits of its resources and will inevitably leave you wanting more time with each of these characters to delve into not only their back stories that brought them to where they cross paths but also the futures you’ll hope and want for them.

The love and craft of the filmmakers involved shows through on screen and the film’s ongoing struggle to find a distributor for a proper release is a real shame as this is a real gem of a movie. It may be that the film’s vocal and passionate embracing by the Down Syndrome community has proved to be something of a double-edged sword in further – unfairly – labelling the film as a niche experience and a difficult sell to the general public. To paraphrase an oft quoted (and rightly so) refrain: “My Feral Heart” is not a Down Syndrome film, it is a film which has Down Syndrome [in it]. It offers an affecting, emotional and ultimately uplifting look at the human condition from three very different yet simpatico perspectives. Seek it out wherever you can. Check OurScreen for local showings because this is one independent film which deserves all the support it can get.

8/10 

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson (2016) Review

sullyThere’s an inherent challenge in creating films of real life events, especially when said real life events lasted for a total of just under four minutes. The trick becomes one of spinning out the story enough for a film without over padding it with filler. Thankfully, Eastwood’s economical 96 minute retelling of ‘The Miracle On The Hudson’ largely overcomes this thanks to a creatively non-linear story structure and an almost-to-the-exclusion-of-all-others focus on the story’s iconic figure: Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger.

As with Flight 1549, it’s in its leading man that the film finds its saviour, Hanks’ easy charisma and skill bringing the underpowered screenplay in for a successful landing. He manages to imbue Sully with the necessary professional nobility without ever making him seem more than just a good man doing the job he loves to the best of his abilities. The screenplay tries very hard to extort some supplementary drama from the subsequent crash investigation but in doing so just seems to unfairly portray the National Transportation Safety Board as vindictive, corrupt and incompetent.

Hanks is surrounded by a decent cast, but there’s little for them to do and almost all of them are upstaged by Aaron Eckhart’s (who’s clearly entered the method hairstyle era of his career *cough* “Bleed For This” *cough”) moustache.

Ultimately between them, Hanks and Eastwood do enough to elevate this above the Discovery Channel special it could so easily have become but it’s a strain to pull it out to 96 minutes and it shows, ironically enough, in a final, abrupt volte-face by the NTSB panel hearing which closes the movie.

6/10 Score 6

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

A United Kingdom (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Allied (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

 

 

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride (2015) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Arrival (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Halloween (1979) #MonthOfSpooks Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Doctor Strange (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Trolls (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

Inferno (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

3/10 Score 3

Harlequin (2016) Short Film Review

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Storks (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

My Scientology Movie (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

War On Everyone (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Swiss Army Man (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Hunt For The Wilderpeople (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Anthropoid (2016) Review

anthropoidOne of two films this year to cover the real life events of Operation Anthropoid, Sean Ellis’ film is a tough, bleak and uncompromising retelling of the WWII mission to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution and the Reich’s third in command after Hitler and Himmler.

Pulling no punches in terms of portraying life in occupied Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, the film plays out like a lavish reimagining of “The Secret Army” with a Tarantino sensibility. There’s no levity or respite in a film which starts tensely and continues to ratchet up the tension all the way to its stunning and brutal finale.

Cilian Murphy and Jamie Dornan give committed performances but the bleakness is so overwhelming and the tension so relentless that despite the period detail and the authentic historical locations on offer, it becomes something of a melancholy chore to power through. Perhaps that’s for the best, though, because there’s nothing glamorous or dashing about what actually happened and it’s perhaps for the best that dramatic licence is kept to a minimum.

It’s a harsh, sombre look at the realities of wartime resistance but it’s unlikely to be a film you’ll want to watch more than once.

6/10 Score 6

Kubo And The Two Strings (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

Don’t Breathe (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

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

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

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

10. S1E23 “A Taste of Armageddon”

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

9. S302 “The Enterprise Incident”

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

8. S2E03 “The Changeling”

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

7. S2E21 “Patterns of Force”

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

6. S2E13 “Obsession”

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

5. S2E06 “The Doomsday Machine”

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

4. S2E04 “Mirror, Mirror”

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

3. S1E22 “Space Seed”

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

2. S1E25 “The Devil in the Dark”

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

1. S2E15 “The Trouble with Tribbles”

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

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

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

Live long and prosper!

star-trek

The Border Season 1 Review

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

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

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

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

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

Score 77/10

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

To Paraphrase The Romulans…

The Neutral Zone

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

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

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Swallows And Amazons (2016) Review

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Sausage Party (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

Mechanic: Resurrection (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Nine Lives (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

2/10 Score 2

The Shallows (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Pete’s Dragon (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Mike And Dave Need Wedding Dates (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

Suicide Squad (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Pokémon Gone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pokemon Go

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

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

Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

2/10 Score 2