The Lego Batman Movie (2017) Review

the-lego-batman-movieAfter his scene-stealing turn in “The Lego Movie”, it was only natural that the first spin-off would feature the brick knight himself. While it’s not entirely clear if this is the exact same Lego Batman who appeared alongside Wildstyle and Emmet, there’s no doubting this is “The Lego Batman Movie”.

The town of Lego Gotham is rife with crime, and that’s just how Batman likes it as he busts heads and foils schemes from his extensive rogues’ gallery. But when the Joker and all his partners in crime unexpectedly surrender to the new Police Commissioner, Batman finds himself purposeless. But an accidental adoption and a nagging suspicion that The Joker is up to something means Batman will need to change his ways if he’s to come out on top.

Whereas “The Lego Movie” took individuality and imagination versus conformity as its theme, this movie has its sights set firmly on ‘family’, using Batman’s long and chequered past from both stage and screen to mine both humour and pathos. It plays out its central theme of the importance of relationships through the funniest sex metaphor in a kids’ movie since “Toy Story” characters bemoaned the last time they were played with as The Joker takes it personally when Batman refuses to reciprocate the ‘special’ nature of their relationship.

For the first hour or so, the film barrels along at a frenetic pace, cramming the screen with colour and spectacle while Will Arnett growls his way through the very best of the dialogue. There are nice shouts outs to the entire history of Batman but it’s interesting that when it comes to Superman, it’s the Donner version that’s heavily referenced, pointing to a lack of conviction and confidence at the heart of Warner Bros’ attitude to their current DC output.

The action is frequently hyperactive and the screen overstuffed with imagery to the point of overload; it’s often too cluttered to really follow what’s going on, marrying the visual discipline of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman Forever” unhappily to the aesthetic of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman And Robin”. There’s such a frantic pace over that first hour that it’s quite jarring as the film runs out of jokes (and steam), finding itself with nothing left to do but resolve the remaining plot.

It’s at this point that the film’s unpleasant aspect can’t be disguised any longer. It’s an obvious, extended commercial for the Lego Dimensions toy/ video game line hence the otherwise inexplicable inclusion of Lord Voldemort, Sauron, Gremlins and (ahem) some iconic ‘British robots’. But it’s a far bigger and more distastefully blatant advert for Apple iPhones, even going so far as to give Siri her first credited feature film role. I can’t really make up my mind whether the fact the ultimate danger is once again a big swirling vortex in the sky above the city is a sly bit of Meta commentary or just lazy screenwriting but by the time it manifests, the film has already lost much of its satirical edge.

The rest of the voice cast are pretty good, though and had Will Arnett been allowed to bring a little more of his Horseman to this Batman in the latter half of the movie, it probably would have helped even out the whole thing. Zach Galifianakis is a perfectly serviceable Joker but I found myself pining for Mark Hamill’s version, which Galifianakis leans on heavily. Michael Cera strikes just the right note as peppy orphan Dick Grayson, Ralph Fiennes is a great, long-sufferingly tolerant Alfred (although is bafflingly replaced by Eddie Izzard to voice Voldemort) and Rosario Dawson is fine as Barbara Gordon. Beyond them, the cast is packed with big name cameos but nobody really gets a chance to shine thanks to most of the characters being given blink-and-you’ll-miss-them screen time.

The tremendously entertaining first half is let down by a sluggish third act and it’s hard not to suspect a more judicious editing job could have trimmed this fairly hefty 105-minute film down to a trim and pacey 90-minute fun fest. It’s still 2017’s best animation so far and a step above the direct to DVD animated DC Lego adventures but in blunting its edge, it falls far short of the high brick mark set by “The Lego Movie”.

6/10 Score 6

The Space Between Us (2017) Review

the-space-between-usTaking the term literally, “The Space Between Us” gives a new spin on the star-crossed lovers trope in this amiably cheesy and uneven young adult romance.

In the near future, charismatic Genesis CEO Nathaniel Shepard (Gary Oldman) is sponsoring the first colonisation mission to Mars. A few weeks into the journey Sarah Elliot, the lead astronaut, discovers she is pregnant but Shepard decides to keep the pregnancy a secret and orders the mission to proceed. Shortly after landing, Elliot dies in childbirth leaving her son Gardner orphaned on the red planet. Shepard decides to keep events secret to avoid a PR disaster for his nascent colony but sixteen years later, a now-grown Gardner is determined to return to Earth to find his father.

The film is a little rushed and muddled in its first act as it rushes to dump the exposition and set-up on the audience and scramble to the ‘sixteen years later’ bit of the story where it finally slows down and starts to explore its characters, as well as introducing one of cinema’s crappiest ever robots.

Asa Butterfield makes for a likeable protagonist, intelligent but goofily naïve and struck by the wonder of the planet Earth after his arid and rust-hued upbringing. There’s a lightness of touch that helps to differentiate from his more serious and driven turn in “Ender’s Game” and he manages to keep things credible despite a script which requires the same character to be able to hack the electronic security lock of a NASA laboratory and yet be baffled how a bus’ automatic doors work.

The other half of the possibly doomed romance brings a welcome return to the screen of Britt Robertson (“Tomorrowland: A World Beyond“), whose character stops just shy of being a teen movie moody streetwise girl cliché thanks to her performance and chemistry with Butterfield. Her introduction may include a drunken, crop dusting foster father lifted directly from “Independence Day” but it does at least facilitate a cute nod to “North By North West” later on. The ‘adult’ cast aren’t quite so successful, with Oldman in particular guilty of hamming it up shamelessly, leaving Carla Gugino sort of trailing in his wake looking a little bewildered.

Unfortunately, the passable teen romance stuff is set against a bunch of subplots and world building which cry out for development and coherence. There’s a laziness to the screenwriting, leaving much out and assuming the audience will make the leaps in narrative assumption the story requires to work and forgive the many, many aspects which fall unexplored or underdeveloped by the wayside. A prime example is raison d’être for the Mars mission which cites climate change and environmental collapse as the imperative behind colonising Mars only for the subject to never be addressed again, particularly on the Earth of sixteen years later where everything seems absolutely peachy. But the most disturbing aspect of this otherwise passable teen sci-fi romance is the curiously patriarchal and pro-life subtext which is present through much of the story. The discovery of the pregnancy early in the space flight is discussed only in terms of the woman’s responsibility – and irresponsibility – for allowing the event. There are no choices discussed or even mooted beyond continuing the mission or turning back. There’s certainly no question that now the pregnancy has begun there’s an option which doesn’t include carrying it to term. The entire film is content with the implied sidelining of women as disposable baby incubators – note that both lead characters are either cared for by a father figure (however deadbeat they may be) or driven by a search for their father regardless of their current caregiver. Indeed, the only woman the film seems remotely prepared to suffer to live is Gugino’s safely childless spinster teacher/ guardian. It’s too much to be a coincidence and in the current charged political climate, such egregious and thoughtless narrative choices leave a bitter aftertaste to what is actually quite a sweet romance.

6/10 Score 6

50 Shades Of Black (2016) Review

50-shades-of-blackI love a good parody movie, I really do. I also like Marlon Wayans, I think he’s a talented and funny performer with great comic timing and physicality. That being said, “50 Shades Of Black” is so crassly, unforgivably unfunny that it just makes me sad.

These comedies usually have a hit and miss approach to humour and succeed when there are enough hits to make up for the misses. “50 Shades Of Black”, though, it just so grossly racist, obnoxiously misogynistic, tediously homophobic and just generally repugnant that the misses (and not even near misses either) overwhelm the one or two gags which manage to raise a wan smile.

In addition to its obvious “50 Shades Of Grey” target, there are bafflingly unfunny references to “Whiplash” and “The Graduate” which do nothing but debase the memory of American National TreasureTM Florence Henderson, although thanks to the currently in post-production “Grandmothers Murder Club” this debacle won’t be the bitter epitaph to her career. For her, at least, the suffering is over but Jane Seymour has to live every day with the shame of this film on her IMDb listing.

I’m embarrassed to have watched this and I’m embarrassed for everyone involved in making it. It’s so much worse than even the source material being parodied can account for.

1/10 Score 1

Kill Command (2016) Review

kill-commandIf you’re expecting another “Robot Overlords” then you’re in for a bit of a treat. “Kill Command”, the debut feature from writer/ director Steven Gomez avoids starry names in favour of impressive special effects and a tight, muscular narrative that keeps things lean and mean.

In the not too distant future, a group of Marines are disappointed to learn they’ve been selected for a training exercise. Accompanying them on the mission as an observer is a cybernetically enhanced officer of the Harbinger Corporation. But the observation is a cover for her to investigate a programming anomaly in the training facility’s AI units.

Plenty of recent films have explored the benign side of the technological singularity but “Kill Command” returns us firmly to the threat posed by artificial intelligence. Utilising his background as a visual effects supervisor, Gomez makes impressive use of CGI and special effects to get the most from his modest budget. While there’s nothing especially unique about the story elements, they’re brought together and explored in an efficient and skilful manner, using the island setting to provide a sense of isolation and urgency. The design of the self aware weaponry is one of the film’s real strengths as they look both realistically extrapolated from current technology and yet different enough to feel uneasily alien and alive.

The cast is pretty solid for this kind of low-budget independent sci-fi action movie and while a couple of the performances tend towards cliché, Vanessa Kirby provides complexity and ambiguity amidst the soldiers v robots bouts of flying bullets and crashing machinery.

Evocative of both “Predator” and “The Terminator”, “Kill Command” delivers the requisite action along with some intelligent ideas about where technology, the military and AI could take us.

6/10 Score 6

T2 Trainspotting (2017) Review

t2-trainspottingChoose a sequel.

Choose mounting a follow-up to an iconic 1996 film and hope that the audience cares.

Choose revisiting old favourite characters to see what new shenanigans they’re up to

And choose watching history repeat itself.

Choose looking to the past instead of embracing a future.

Choose Renton, Sickboy and Begbie unchanged but older – and kind of sadder.

Choose replicating the style of direction but this time in an aimless and arbitrary way.

And choose the same for the soundtrack, only worse, and smother the disappointment with an unknown dose of an unknown number of references, homages and ‘Easter eggs’ that probably seemed like a clever idea.

And then… take a deep breath.

Spud’s great, so enjoy Spud

Just watch it for Spud’s journey

Choose the nostalgia the film sneers at so much.

Choose a film worth rewatching

Choose “Trainspotting

6/10 Score 6

Trainspotting (1996) Review

trainspottingShot on an indie budget, “Trainspotting” was a brash, foul-mouthed, grotty little movie with blockbuster sized ambition. Wilfully anarchic and wildly spirited, it proved to be a real shot in the arm for a British film industry pigeonholed by Merchant Ivory dramas and sickly sweet rom-coms.

The story of four junkies: Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) skulking around the Edinburgh underclass delivered a blisteringly candid, blackly humorous and deeply human look at the realities of drug addiction and social deprivation.

Like its source novel, “Trainspotting” defies conventional narrative structure, eschewing a cohesive plot in favour of an episodic, anecdotal approach. Director Danny Boyle mixes things up even further by adopting a non-linear approach to the vignettes and infusing the deprivation and desperation on show with an energetically colourful and aggressive shooting style more suited to music videos than gritty and unflinching social commentary. The result is a world of pure intoxication for the senses. “Trainspotting” is a film you plunge into, only occasionally managing to come up for breath as it pushes boundaries and tears down cosy illusions of everyday life to revel in the gutter.

Ironically for a film which sets out to be so determinedly iconoclastic, it’s almost effortlessly iconic itself. From its marketing to its blockbuster soundtrack, for many, the film defines 90s British cinema for many and made a bona fide superstar out of Ewan McGregor and cemented director Danny Boyle as a filmmaker of real note.

Simultaneously darkly glamorising and yet unflinchingly demystifying the hedonistic and parasitic lifestyle of the drug addicted underclass, it still retains much of its power even though it feels rooted in the 90s thanks to its profound impact at the time. Often uncomfortable yet occasionally laugh-out-loud hysterical, “Trainspotting” is one of the few films which really earns its place on the list of films you must have seen.

8/10 Score 8

Introducing #Ten Tag Reviews

2017 has seen What The Craggus Saw branching out to Instagram, with the [over] ambitious #AMovieADay2017 project, posting a photo each day that is inspired by or reminds me of a particular movie. So, if you’re not already following TheCraggus on Instagram, why not give it a look?

And there’ll never be a better time, as February introduces…tentagreviewsAlongside the normal blog, I’ll now be posting reviews to Instagram, but the [self-imposed] catch is: I’ll only have ten #tags to do it in. Sometimes it’ll be the same movies that get a lengthier review here on the blog, sometimes it’ll be something just for Instragram but hopefully, it’ll always be worth a look!

Craggus. Concise. For the TL;DR crowd.

Split (2017) Review

splitYet another director seemingly completing his comeback, “Split” sees M Night Shyamalan building on the momentum of “The Visit” and nearing a return to his best form as he once again explores the boundary between psychological fact and science fiction.

When three young girls are kidnapped, it’s just the beginning of their nightmare. Their kidnapper is Dennis, one of 23 distinct personalities who inhabit the mind of Kevin Wendell Crumb. But Dennis’ plans for the girls go beyond mere kidnapping. They are to be sacrificed, tributes to a soon-to-arrive 24th personality: ‘The Beast’.

Powered by a terrific set of performances from James McAvoy, the film manages to explore the fascinating dramatic potential of dissociative identity disorder without feeling sensational or exploitative. McAvoy finds ways beyond mere costume changes to make each personality a character in their own right, both through vocal versatility and tremendous physicality, aided by a vulnerable but determined turn from Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) as Casey, one of the kidnapped girls who hides a dark secret of her own. There’s also a great performance from Betty Buckley as Kevin’s psychotherapist Dr Karen Fletcher who manages to be interesting in her own right despite having to shoulder the lion’s share of the exposition to support the story.

Shyamalan successfully creates an increasing air of suspense and tension, even as his ultimate storytelling goals become clearer. “Split” sees him returning to the rich source material of superhero and supervillain tropes, exploring them from a very different angle than we usually see. Beyond the issues of mental health and kidnapping, there’s a potentially troubling subplot concerning the abusive past of one of the kidnapping victims which may make this uncomfortable viewing for some, especially as it’s left somewhat unresolved in a nailbiting finale.

A successful psychological thriller in its own right, the masterstroke of “Split” is what it casually reveals in a deceptively unassuming postscript before the credits roll. Whether it’s a fun throwback or an indication of the director’s next project, it’s definitely the ending that you’ll be talking about as you leave the cinema.

8/10 Score 8

Lion (2017) Review

lionA fascinating and compelling true story of survival and serendipity, “Lion” delivers the best cinematic advert for Google since “The Internship”.

Finding himself utterly lost after accidentally falling asleep on an out of service cross country train, five year old Saroo finds himself alone on the streets of 1980s Calcutta. Eventually he is taken in by an orphanage and, unable to identify his home, he is adopted by an Australian family and taken overseas. Once grown, however, Saroo is haunted by the memory of the family he left behind.

It’s become something of a cliché to point out how much of the modern technology we take for granted – especially the internet or smart phones – would render the plots of most of our favourite movies redundant so it’s refreshing to have a story where the presence of technology is not only a benefit to the story but integral to its success. Were it not true, the importance of Google Earth in helping Saroo find his childhood village would seem a little twee but Director Garth Davis keeps the drama sincere and grounded to counteract the lucky coincidences necessary to the tale. The stark, almost Dickensian contradictions of modern day India are brought into sharp relief as the film deftly intertwines Saroo’s present day search with his reminiscences of the months spent homeless and alone, although the script takes care to stay doggedly focused on the personal story and stakes, leaving the larger moral and social themes raised in the background.

Dev Patel delivers a fine performance, acutely realising Saroo’s increasingly toxic cocktail of survivor’s and liberal guilt as he pushes his adoptive family away and isolates himself with his laptop to continue his obsessive search. There are great supporting performances from the likes of Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara but the real revelation is Sunny Pawar, the young indian actor who plays young Saroo. With a performance which rivals that of Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing breakthrough in “Room”, Patel may give the film its drama but it’s through Pawar it gets its heart.

Moving, uplifting and powerfully bittersweet in its denouement, “Lion” succeeds as a biopic and a story of the importance and power of family.

8/10 Score 8

Hacksaw Ridge (2017) Review

hacksaw-ridgeApparently completing the rehabilitative arc of Mel Gibson’s Hollywood career, “Hacksaw Ridge” is a powerful, if uneven, examination of the horrors of war and the demands of true moral courage. The fact it’s based on a true story just makes it all the more incredible.

Desmond T. Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist, decides to enlist in the Army during World War II to help defend his country. But his personal beliefs prohibit him from using a weapon of any kind. Doss must fight for his right to join his fellow countrymen on the front line and service his country through faith and determination rather than violence and aggression.

There’s an unbalanced quality to the film, and Gibson seems initially uncertain handling the parochial everyday drama of Voss’ early life, veering from domestic melodrama to lighthearted comedy as if Gibson has chosen to mount “Hacksaw Ridge” as a reimagining of “Forrest Gump” with deep held religious convictions taking the place of learning disability as the characteristic which makes our hero ‘different’. Indeed, once the film reaches boot camp, it draws equal inspiration from the likes of “Full Metal Jacket” and “Private Benjamin”.

However, once the soldiers, including the vindicated Doss, reach the front lines, Gibson really comes into his own. Mel has always been a director, not just comfortable with, but determined to show in all its grisly, visceral glory the horrors of war and the damage caused by the weapons wielded in conflict. The action scenes are astonishing in their ferocity and power, occasionally straying into the gratuitous because Gibson can’t resist revelling in the carnage. He also can’t resist taking a very black and white view of the conflict and, like the English of Braveheart, he portrays the Japanese in “Hacksaw Ridge” as one-dimensionally brutal, relentless barbarians; monsters against whom the Americans valiantly rail.

However, there’s no denying the finished product is an incredibly gripping and deeply emotive war movie, bolstered by fine performances from Garfield (although he’s a little too goofy in some early scenes), Hugo Weaving and even Sam Worthington. Vince Vaughan also impresses in the role of Drill Sergeant Howell, taking to it so well that a remake of “Stripes” is surely a distinct possibility.

It’s thanks to a committed performance from Andrew Garfield, though, that the film manages to find the humanity amidst the horror and do justice to the real-life heroism of Desmond Doss who, in a poignant coda, appears along with some of his fellow soldiers in archive interview footage.

Powerful and poignant, this scarcely believable tale of bravery and pacifism in the Pacific War lingers long in the memory and forces us to consider once again not only the price of war in terms of lives lost but the cost to the soul of picking up a weapon in the first place.

8/10 Score 8

Sing (2017) Review

singThere are few animation studios which can cut a trailer together like Illumination Entertainment can. Unfortunately, outside of the “Despicable Me” movies, the finished products are increasingly failing to live up to the hype.

When Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) realises his theatre is in financial trouble, he comes up with a sure-fire scheme to save it: a talent contest. Unfortunately, Buster’s elderly assistant Ms Crawly (Garth Jennings) accidentally adds a couple of extra zeroes to the competition flyers and so the city’s inhabitants turn out in their droves for a chance to win the big cash prize.

Set in an anthropomorphised world which looks and feels like a bland suburb of “Zootropolis”, “Sing” certainly isn’t short of ambition. It sets up a veritable menagerie of allegorical animal-folk whose different backgrounds and stories briefly promise to overlap and intertwine in a rich and rewarding way before they…just sort of don’t. Instead, each storyline ambles through the film without much sign of inspiration or intent to deliver a satisfying narrative.

And it’s in its story that “Sing” is most out of tune. It has at its disposal, one of the starriest casts in the history of animation and in its selected target of singing competitions, a target ripe for satire and subversion. The problem is, “Sing” finds itself with nothing of note to say about singing competitions at all. In the era of “The X Factor”, “American Idol” and “The Voice”, “Sing” offers no critique, no sly lampoonery, no witty observations. It’s not even particularly adept at explaining just exactly how Buster’s idea of staging a singing contest was going to save his theatre in the first place.

The animation is solid and the character design cute and appealing but the characters themselves are largely tick-box exercises. Nobody learns, or grows, or changes organically. A few characters do have changes of heart or flip-of-a-light-switch epiphanies when narratively convenient but some of them remain obstinately unaffected by events, even when every storytelling fibre seems to scream of the need for some kind of redemptive arc. Seth MacFarlane’s odiously arrogant ‘rat pack’ mouse is a perfect example of the laziness of the writing. The soundtrack is overloaded with too many song choices, each one so achingly obvious that even the musical director for “Homes Under The Hammer” would roll their eyes.

If you’re content for your animated movies to simply keeping the kids quiet for an hour and a half then “Sing” will be perfectly adequate. But with the Pixar’s and Disney’s showing that animated movies can be fun and entertaining yet still be insightful, layered and inspirational, “Sing” starts to look very lightweight indeed. Unfortunately, thanks to their cunning counter-programming, “Sing” like “The Secret Life Of Pets” and “Minions” before it will rake in the box office receipts and all three have sequels announced for 2019-2020. Hopefully, by then, Illumination will have worked out how to create characters and stories which do their concepts justice.

4/10 Score 4

Underworld: Blood Wars (2017) Review

underworld-blood-warsOh my god, we’re Drac again.

Ding! Ding! Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to round 5 of the grand title bout. In the blue corner, the hairy biters, the silver dodging doggies, it’s their time of the month all month long…the werewolves Lycans! In the…er…other, slightly darker blue corner (because it’s an “Underworld” movie so there’s only one filter available), the mighty bitey, fangs for the memories, you can have any outfit as long as it’s black (and skimpy)…the vampires! Yes, we’re plunged back into the ongoing internecine conflict between the two divergent branches of the Corvinus dynasty. Families, eh?

With the war going badly for the vampires, Semira (Lara Pulver), a council member of the Eastern Coven manipulates Thomas (Charles Dance) into asking the council to grant Selene (Kate Beckinsale) clemency in return for her help in defeating the newly resurgent Lycans who have united under the leadership of the familiar sounding (but new) Marius (Tobias Menzies). But Semira has plans of her own and Selene will find out that enemy or ally, everybody is out for blood.

Although this is a direct sequel to 2012’s “Underworld: Awakening”, it unceremoniously exsanguinates much of the new blood that had transfused life into the franchise last time round. Selene’s daughter has left her, apparently wanting nothing to do with her and Selene has chosen to remain ignorant of her whereabouts to protect her. Also conspicuous by its total absence is the third warring faction: the humans who had become aware of the supernatural beasts in their midst. Clearly humans have not only forgotten but become oblivious because the vampires especially dress with zero subtlety – a pretentious hipster Goth aesthetic, light on the modesty – as they lounge around sipping their no doubt organic grande triple decaf soy blood with extra platelets.

Thankfully the film still retains the fundamental hallmarks of the “Underworld” franchise: stylised violence, spattery signature kills, tedious council deliberations, double triple and quadruple cross betrayals and a hidden secret from the past (yes, again). The past may be a foreign country, but in the “Underworld” universe, it’s an overpopulated one too. Because the vamps are a little monochromatic, there’s a new coven of vampires introduced too: a Nordic race all icy blonde and mystical. They may look like they’re cosplaying as Elves of Rivendell by way of the icy wastelands beyond Westeros’ Wall but there’s no denying their mumbo jumbo helps turn Selene into one bad ombrée.

Beckinsale can Selene in her sleep at this point (and occasionally seems to be doing so) and a returning Theo James seems more comfortable as the heroic vampire sidekick David. Lara Pulver practically devours the scenery, hamming it up to an almost Bill Nighy level while Bradley James provides her with a wooden surface to bounce her performance off. There’s fun still to be had with this OTT gothic soap opera, but it’s fully shifted over to a campy, ironic enjoyment rather than the genuine thrill of creatures of the night facing off, red in tooth and claw.

Stylish but stale, “Underworld: Blood Wars” suffers badly from seen-it-all-before syndrome and while it’s a perfectly serviceable entry for the franchise, it doesn’t offer anything worth getting excited about. Even its big dramatic moments are more likely to elicit giggles rather than gasps. The mystical Nordic Vampires aren’t different enough to revive the series and the franchise’s rigidly distinctive look means debut feature director Anna Foerster has no room to bring anything else new to the table. Preparations for a sixth instalment are apparently already underway, but it really feels like we’re flogging an undead horse already.

5/10 Score 5

Underworld: Awakening (2012) Review

underworld-awakeningAfter the slightly tedious and unnecessary detour to the dim(ly lit) and distant past that was “Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans”, normal service is resumed as Beckinsale squeezes back into the corset and catsuit for “Underworld: Awakening”.

The world has woken up to the presence of Vampires and Lycans and the humans are hell-bent on wiping out both species. Selene and Michael are captured and, thanks to their unique physiognomies, placed in cryogenic suspension. Twelve years later, Selene awakens to discover her species has almost been hunted to extinction by the humans. But her escape is complicated by the discovery that she had been carrying Michael’s child when originally captured and that their daughter is not only still alive, but a vital part of the Lycan’s plan for total domination.

If the previous instalment was short on new ideas, this fourth outing certainly makes up for it. With the underworld now ‘overworld’ and wombling free, the human factor gives the franchise a much-needed shake-up. Admittedly, it takes a little while to get going thanks to a lengthy previous three movie footage driven comprehensive catch-up which leads straight into the paradigm changing expository monologue. Once we’re clear of that, however, the film gets going once again. The action is slicker than ever and the violence ramps up another level, especially as it’s now humans in the firing line.

To aid Beckinsale in the fight, the franchise continues to draw in the best of Britain’s serious thespians with Charles Dance and Stephen Rea joining in the fun. While he remains a plot driver for a while, Scott Speedman’s Michael Corvin appears only fleetingly in previous footage and is unceremoniously dropped from the narrative very early on so in his stead, we are given Theo James as David, a vampire who offers Selene assistance.

Thanks, I suspect, to the involvement of J Michael Straczynski in polishing the screenplay, the film actually manages to deliver a decent and clever twist in the ongoing Vampire/ Lycan war, using the introduction of the humans to deliver a few genuine surprises. There’s also a neat subversion of Selene’s role as the Death Dealer becomes a life giver, both figuratively and literally. Speaking of giving life, the subplot concerning Selene’s daughter and her many abductions is a little patchy but eventually plays into one of the better final battles of the whole franchise. If you’re making a list of people whose daughters you’d be wise not to kidnap, Selene’s is pretty much the second name on the list, right after Bryan Mills.

As slick and stylised as ever, “Underworld: Awakening” does exactly what it promises, shaking the series free of the soporific prequel and giving it a new lease of life.

6/10 Score 6

Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009) Review

underworld-rise-of-the-lycansCommissioned at the same time as the sequel “Underworld: Evolution” – before the original “Underworld” had even been released – “Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans” takes us back into the history of the Vampire/ Lycan conflict to explore a moment which had been fully and satisfyingly explained in two minutes of flashbacks in the first movie.

Hundreds of years before Selene took the war to a new level, Viktor (Bill Nighy) finds Lucian (Michael Sheen), the first werewolf born capable of taking human form and takes him in, raising him with the intention of creating a race of Lycan slaves who can guard the vampires during daylight hours. But when Sonja (Rhona Mitra), Viktor’s daughter, falls in love with Lucian, their love affair ignites a conflict which burns through the centuries.

Prequels are often problematic and “Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans” suffers terribly from the inevitability problem thanks to the first movie being very explicit about how their romance turned out. The casting of Rhona Mitra in the role of Sonja is something of a cynical marketing ploy as she looks and is styled so much like Kate Beckinsale that unwary audiences were probably fooled into thinking this was a continuation rather than a step backwards.

And a step backwards it is, not just narratively but also in worth. Sure it’s great to see a cadaverous Bill Nighy stomping around devouring the scenery with a side of ham but the script is so repetitive and dull and the cod-medieval setting so bland that it feels kind of boring. Michael Sheen – always so courteous and enthusiastic in interviews asking him why on Earth he agreed to do this follow-up – likewise does his best but it’s literally a thankless role as he goes through the seemingly endless cycle of battle, deliberation, battle, deliberation, treading water until the film reaches the required point to dovetail to “Underworld”.

It’s a nice touch that they bring back Kevin Grevioux as Lucian’s henchman Raze. If nothing else, “Rise Of The Lycans” manages to add a much needed depth and history to a relationship only hinted at in the first movie.

Director Patrick Tatopoulos adheres so closely to the limited and gloomy colour palate of the “Underworld” franchise that it drains the whole production of any kind of life or vitality. The rigidly nocturnal setting means the action is often poorly lit and hard to follow and when you’re faced with a choice between muddled action scenes and plodding council deliberations, the only thing that rises is the awareness that without Beckinsale’s Selene, the “Underworld” franchise hasn’t got a lot to offer.

4/10 Score 4

Underworld: Evolution (2006) Review

underworld-evolutionOl’ blue filter’s back! That’s right, we’re back running with the night as we pick up with Selene (Kate Beckinsale), Michael (Scott Speedman) and all our other toothsome chums as we plunge back into the ongoing war between the Vampires and the Lycans.

Picking up directly where “Underworld” left off, Death Dealer Selene and vampire/ werewolf hybrid Michael are on the run from both the Vampires and the Lycans while searching for the truth behind Michael’s unprecedented abilities.

Freed from the need to establish everything, “Underworld: Evolution” wastes no time in making the most of the rich potential of its complex backstory. Maintaining its allegiance to the aesthetics of “Blade” and “The Matrix”, this sequel assimilates another strand of cinematic DNA as it presents us with a very “Lord Of The Rings”-inspired flashback opening to show us the three great vampire elders (Markus (Tony Curran), Viktor (Bill Nighy) and Amelia) arriving to hunt and capture Markus’ twin brother William, the first Lycan. Confidently, almost gleefully, the film depends and entangles the mythology even more by adding in historical double-crosses and adding in even more texture to Selene’s backstory to give her a more prominent and vital role in vampire affairs.

Everything’s stepped up in this sequel as it builds confidently on the commercial, if not critical, success of the first movie. The sex and nudity quotient is notably increased, as is the violence and gore, none more so than when Markus is introduced as the new big bad by literally tearing his way through poor old Kraven (Shane Brolly), villain of the first movie. It even has time for a bit of fun spoofing the ‘Brides of Dracula’ trope as Selene visits her old friend Tanis while on the run.

Although it’s still needlessly convoluted, it’s more linear than its predecessor and less prone to seemingly endless exposition, keeping the action flowing nicely. When it does need to dump some expository knowledge on you, it at least has the decency to have it delivered in the rich, rounded dulcet tones of Sir Derek Jacobi, topping up his pension pot as the first true immortal Alexander Corvinus.

Elevating the Lycan/ Vampire conflict to a cod-Shakespearian tragedy is actually surprisingly effective and while William, the original werewolf is something of a wild and hairy disappointment, there’s no getting around the fact that Tony Curran’s Markus is a formidable villain. Ruthless and brutal, he gives this film the edge it needs to avoid sequel fatigue. “Underworld: Evolution” sees the franchise loosen up a bit and start to have some fun. It’s still slick, glossy, hollow nonsense of course, but it positively revels in it.

6/10 Score 6

Underworld (2003) Review

underworldIt’s ironically appropriate that a film so concerned with the purity of various bloodlines is itself a shameless hybrid of “Blade” and “The Matrix”. There’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of a war between the eldritch creatures of the night but the film is so taken with the cleverness of its idea that it gets carried away with filling in the corners and forgets to make sure the film lives up to it great premise.

Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, one of the elite Vampire soldiers tasked with hunting and killing Lycans, their sworn lupine enemies. When she falls in love with Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), a human whom the Lycan leader Lucian (Michael Sheen) is desperately searching for, she finds herself drawn into a dark conspiracy which reaches all the way to the top of Vampire society.

Suffused in a relentless blue colour palate, the film manages to have a curiously Hammer House of Horror feel to it, thanks largely to the many scenes set in the grand vampire mansion. As will go on to become a hallmark of the series, there’s no shortage of British acting talent on show, with Bill Nighy on spectacularly unhinged and scenery chewing form as the grand fromage (or at least the grandest fromage currently awake) of the vampires, Viktor. Unfortunately (for now) we’re not treated to an extended ham-off between Nighy and Sheen as the story seems reluctant to focus on the werewolves at all, preferring to focus the bulk of its attention on vampire politics. As a result, the film is wildly uneven: either leadenly expository or explosively, kinetically wordless. The action is a slick blend of wire-fu and gratuitous blood spatters but there’s just too much insanely complex and duplicitous politics and power plays to cover to allow the action to really take over.

“Underworld” is yet another sci-fi/ fantasy epic to fall victim to the fallacy that what the cool kids really want in their movies is interminable council deliberations and political manoeuvring. After all, it’s what made the “Star Wars” prequels and the “Matrix” sequels so cool, right?

It has to be said, though, that Beckinsale makes for a very fetching vampire huntress and acquits herself admirably in both the acting and action stakes. While it may frequently get bogged down in its (under)world building, the fictional world it creates is interesting one, rich in possibilities to explore in future instalments. As a standalone film, the finale comes as a little bit of an anti-climax but viewed as a precursor to the sequel, it’s actually a pretty decent cliff-hanger.

“Underworld” is a reasonably even mix of style and substance and the fact you can tell the cast and crew are having an absolute ball with the gothic grandeur and broadness of it all puts it over the top. If only it had a little more bite, it could have been spectacular.

6/10 Score 6

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage (2017) Review

xxx-return-of-xander-cageWe may be marking the return of Xander Cage, but did anyone really notice he was away? 2002’s “xXx” was a dumb but fun extreme action adventure, a 90’s ‘attitude’ hangover given a last millennial hurrah. Cage never felt as iconic as the film believed him to be, hence his easy replacement by Ice T’s Darius Stone in 2005’s “xXx2: The Next Level”. But he clearly means something to Vin Diesel who, with his rejuvenated “Fast And Furious” clout behind him, muscled his way into the producer’s chair to resurrect the franchise some 11 years later.

When NSA Agent Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson) is killed by a satellite toppling weapon which has been stolen a team of extreme action agents, CIA Chief Jane Marke (Toni Collette) brings a reluctant Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) out of retirement to retrieve the weapon before it falls into the wrong hands. But why do the enemy agents have xXx training? And who is really after the weapon?

Directed in frenetic fashion by D J Caruso (hey D J, spin that camera), “xXx: Return Of Xander Cage” is a hot mess the likes of which I thought we’d never see again after “Suicide Squad”. In common with that creative misfire, the return of Xander Cage is accompanied by the assembling of a motley and morally suspect crew of skilled ne’er-do-wells who are manipulated into teaming up to solve one problem only to discover a worse one in the dumbest, most convoluted, most mindlessly violent way possible .

There’s a distastefully misogynistic streak running through the film, most of it in support of a concerted effort to flatter Cage’s (or possibly Diesel’s) ego. There’s a definite effort to put a diverse and talented cast at the forefront of the action but some of the line readings are so terrible the only explanation is a script learned phonetically and a production that didn’t think performance was important as long as things go boom a lot. Not everything is so over-caffeinated and under-rehearsed though. Toni Collette, for example, seems to be under heavy sedation for the duration of the action, possibly for her pain relief but certainly not ours.

Nonsensically plotted, lazily structured and featuring some of the worst CGI action since “Die Another Day”, the only return Xander Cage warrants is one for a full refund. Keep your ticket stub, you’ll need it.

3/10 Score 3

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) Review

the-manchurian-candidateA remake of the 1962 Frank Sinatra/ Laurence Harvey classic thriller, Jonathan Demme’s version may substitute The Gulf War for The Korean War and the contentious villainy of a foreign power for the relative safety of pointing the finger at the more anodyne target of a mysterious multinational corporation (after all, in 2017 who would believe the idea of a Russian plot to subvert the will of the American people and install a puppet president?)  but the central concept behind “The Manchurian Candidate” remains as potently chilling as ever.

When Major Bennett Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a respected Gulf War veteran, begins to suspect his post-traumatic stress disorder is, in fact, a sign that his memories have been interfered with, it puts him on a collision course with the ambitions of his fellow veteran, Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) who supposedly rescued all but two members in his unit and was awarded the Medal of Honour, launching his political career.

There’s a disquieting ease and credibility to the ease with which a malignant organisation manages to place its cuckoo in the democratic nest and while some of the brainwashing and technobabble unapologetically crosses over into science fiction, you replace science and serums with money and leverage and the whole thing becomes frighteningly possible, a caustic indictment of just how easily manipulated and compromised a party desperate for power can be.

The film treads a fine line and, in addition to avoiding offending a foreign power (and therefore presumably alienating that nation’s audience) it also carefully avoids committing itself to which party is being infiltrated and controlled. In fact, depending on which lines you connect with which bit of string on your conspiracy mood board of photos maps and news cuttings, you could easily transpose the characters to either the Republicans or the Democrats.

The (not at all overrated) Meryl Streep is fiendishly fantastic as the ruthlessly ambitious Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw, mother of war hero Raymond and the way she expertly manipulates and schools the posturing backroom deal making of her party feels achingly topical as she bends them to her will with spin, polls, focus groups and ultimata.

Schreiber gives an excellent performance as the man, unknowingly compromised but beginning to suspect that all is not well while Denzel does Denzel. There’s nothing remarkable or outstanding about Washington here but he’s a solid and dependable lead in a story where the audience need someone they can believe in as the conspiracy unravels around the characters.

A conspiracy theory thriller which feels less theoretical with every passing day, I suppose the ultimate achievement of “The Manchurian Candidate” is to pose the question: is it still paranoia if it’s actually, really happening?

Goodnight, and good luck America.

7/10 Score 7

The American President (1995) Review

the-american-presidentBefore the dignity and prestige of the office was befouled and irreversibly tarnished by a bloviating titian demagogue, there was a time when America had fallen madly back in love with their Commander In Chief and Hollywood was falling over itself to ingratiate itself with the occupant of The White House.

1990s films such as “Dave“, “Deep Impact”, “Independence Day” and “Air Force One” cast the office in a flatteringly wise and often overtly heroic light but none looked at the ‘leader of the free world’ with such rose tinted glasses as Rob Reiner’s “The American President”.

As the widowed occupant of The White House, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is struggling to push a watered down crime bill through a reluctant Congress while being lobbied to push for a bold climate change target by an environmental pressure group. When the group hire experienced political lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), sparks fly. But as the romance comes under scrutiny and opportunistic political pressure, President Shepherd must decide how to juggle his political and personal life without compromising his principles or his integrity.

Written by Aaron Sorkin in a (with hindsight) dry run for “The West Wing”, “The American President” brings wit, wisdom and warmth to the screen, showing the very best of the American political system and making the most of its to-die-for cast. Alongside Douglas and Bening, who quickly develop an irresistible romantic chemistry, you have Martin Sheen (“The West Wing” president-in-waiting), Michael J Fox, Samantha Mathis, David Paymer, Richard Dreyfuss and John Mahoney to name but a few, each of them making the most of the expertly crafted script at their disposal.

Unlike “Dave”, the political McGuffins at the heart of the romantic-comedy-drama are the all too credible and real world concerns of gun control and climate change, as is the gerrymandering and manoeuvring to build a willing coalition of votes to pass the legislation.

Michael Douglas is superb as President Shepherd, the perfect mix of confident authority and playful humanity while Bening is delightful as the hard-boiled lobbyist being unexpectedly swept off her feet.

Where the film now scores extra points for stunning prescience is in its depiction of the opportunistic actions of Senator and would-be Presidential candidate Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), who sees the President’s burgeoning relationship with Sydney Ellen Wade as his chance to character-assassinate his way to power. The way Rumson’s self-aggrandizing, desperate and viciously shallow GOP candidate starts spreading rumours before cultivating them into ‘facts’ is eerily, depressingly topical. Sorkin’s choice of language and exquisitely crafted dialogue is so on point, it could easily have been lifted from Buzzfeed’s ‘Top 20 Trump Tweets’ (if, you know, they weren’t a ‘failing pile of garbage’).

In fact, the spectre of Trump lurks in many of the pithy exchanges between the White House staffers as they seek to support the President and fend off the increasingly personal attacks of Senator Rumson.

It’s no mean feat to craft a film which works equally well as a comedy, a romance and a political drama but Reiner, Sorkin and the stellar cast pull it off. Glossy, uplifting and warmly rewarding, this is another film to have on stand-by for the next four years.

8/10 Score 8

Dave (1993) Review

daveA sly and sparky twist on the age old tale of ‘The Prince And The Pauper’, “Dave” delivers a delightfully upbeat moral fable as a corrupt and callous leader is replaced by ‘an ordinary joe’.

When President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) arranges for a duplicate to make a public appearance to cover up for an affair he’s having with a White House staffer, the White House Chief Of Staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) recruits Dave Kovik (also Kevin Kline), a local employment consultant who has a side-line as a presidential lookalike. Unfortunately, Mitchell suffers a serious stroke while on the job so to speak so Dave is compelled to take over the role of President full time while Bob Alexander plans his assent to power. But once he meets the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver), Dave starts to set out a Presidential agenda of his own.

The idea at the core of this movie is, of course, absurd – no matter how appealing it may seem in the next few days and weeks. The idea of the most powerful man in the world being replaced by a doppelgänger may strain credibility but thanks to Ivan Reitman’s deft comic sensibilities, a witty script from Gary Ross and a sublime performance from Kevin Kline, the whole thing works fantastically well.

Kline is tremendous fun in a triple role of sleazy President Mitchell, good guy Dave and Dave-as-Mitchell, all three of them distinct yet similar enough to sell the film’s central conceit. Langella is all brooding menace and mendacity as the scheming Chief Of Staff (his growling delivery of the line ‘He’s not the president, he’s an ordinary person. I could kill an ordinary person’ is worth the price of admission alone), balanced by the amiability of Kevin Dunn as White House Communications Director Alan Reed who is railroaded into going along with the charade for the sake of the Presidency. Also in on the scam is a very young Ving Rhames as Secret Service Agent Duane Stevenson. Kept out of the loop are the President’s estranged wife Ellen Mitchell and the Vice President played by Ben Kingsley. Although Kingsley’s role is almost incidental, he always classes up the joint.

Kline and Weaver quickly establish a great comic chemistry and as Ellen opens Dave’s eyes to the injustices and influences of the presidency, it’s her compassion and his inherent decency and niceness which become the most powerful levers of government in a frothy, fantasy wish fulfilment agenda which nevertheless manages to make some serious and salient points about government and society as a whole.

Adding to the general jollity is the parade of real-life political figures and celebrities playing themselves in the movie, crowned by an appearance by noted conspiracy enthusiast Oliver Stone trying to convince Larry King that the President has been replaced by a duplicate.

The film’s ultimate rallying cry of full employment lacks a little narrative development and feels a little arbitrary given the rest of the film’s antics and although it feels loosely connected to Dave’s previous job as an employment officer, it strays a little too close to socialist dogma for it to seem credible as a new American Dream.

Nevertheless, “Dave” is a wonderfully light and witty look at White House politics, a neat metatextual parable for Hollywood mentally adjusting itself to the end of the Bush presidency and the promise of the Clinton administration and a perfect pick-me-up if the days ahead have you filled with foreboding.

7/10 Score 7

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