Star Trek Beyond (2016) Review

Star Trek BeyondWith JJ off in a galaxy far, far away and after more than a couple of false starts, “Star Trek” warps back into cinemas just in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the pop culture icon. But, after the “Into Darkness” debacle, what have Starfleet’s finest got in store for us?

Half way through its five year mission to explore strange, new worlds the USS Enterprise arrives at a remote Federation outpost. When a survivor of a doomed expedition pleads for Starfleet help in rescuing their crew from a nearby unexplored nebula, Kirk accepts the assignment. However, shortly after they emerge from the cloud of dust and rubble they are brutally attacked by a swarming fleet of small ships and marooned on the planet below, at the mercy of the ruthless and mysterious Krall.

It’s a sad state of affairs when we’ve reached the third movie of the recent “Star Trek” reboot series (and thirteenth movie overall) that instead of celebrating the creativity, originality and longevity of Gene Rodenberry’s ground breaking TV series, we have to talk about the egregious liberties the writers have taken with the identity, nature and canon of one of the franchise’s most beloved characters. I am of course talking about Chris Pine’s bro/moan-tic James T Kirk. The first five to ten minutes of “Star Trek Beyond” are an excruciating encapsulation of everything wrong with this realisation of Kirk as our whiny manchild captain records a captain’s log of how everything in space is boring and lonely interspersed with observations that make it sound like he runs his ship like a horny frat house. I don’t know whether it’s the writers, the directors or Pine himself but there’s something so unlikable about Kirk the way he’s played that it beggars belief that they’ve let it run on into a third film. Thankfully, “Star Trek Beyond” may be the film where we reach that promised land of Kirk’s journey finally bringing him much closer to the character we know and love.

Pegg and Jung’s script may tend towards the gnomic when it comes to dialogue but in terms of character beats, apart from the awful missteps in its opening preamble, it delivers in spades. Much more even handed than either of its predecessors, once the Enterprise has been ravaged by Krall’s swarm of attack ships, the crew is split up and up-till-now overlooked characters get a chance to shine. It’s in the mix-and-matching pairing up of characters that Pegg and Jung really succeed. Having been so dominant in the earlier films, Quinto’s Spock and Saldana’s Uhura are split up and paired with Karl Urban’s McCoy and Sulu (John Cho) respectively. Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, underlining just what a tragic loss his untimely death is to the franchise, gets more to do in “Beyond” than both previous films put together as he buddies up with Kirk, while Scotty gets the pick of the draw as he encounters the feisty and fascinating Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Of course, in amongst all the sci-fi shenanigans, Sulu also gets a headline grabbing backstory which – thankfully – ends up being more than a token single scene box ticking exercise and actually lends the resultant action and adventure some much needed real life stakes for our intrepid heroes.

The plot itself, and the villain of the piece, are generally less well developed but Idris Elba certainly pours as much menace and malevolence as he can into the roll and honestly once it get’s going and the Enterprise is gone, you’ll be having so much fun the plot holes (why would Starfleet build such a large and important strategic space station near a nebula which was and remains completely unexplored?) and oddly disjointed elements won’t really bother you too much.

Spock’s hair, on the other hand, might bother you just a little. Whether it’s a wig or not, Spock’s locks have never looked so shoddy and slapdash as they do here. Given Spock’s emotional journey through the film, especially the acknowledged-in-universe passing of Spock prime, I’m inclined to give the makers the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s a deliberate move: ever so slightly untidy hair being the Vulcan equivalent of sitting around in sweatpants crying and eating ice cream straight from the tub.

That’s the only thing that should upset you visually though, because its greatest triumph is in its looks. “Star Trek Beyond” is beautiful to behold and looks unlike any other “Star Trek” movie. There are giant sci-fi concepts on screen as background detail to the story from the multi-gravitational Yorktown star base to the drop dead gorgeous gravitational lensing at Warp speed, director Justin Lin brings a visual panache that rivals films like “Interstellar” or “Gravity” for ambition and awe.

Plot kicks in and once everyone is separated it’s a much better film. The destruction of the Enterprise is also stunningly realised and although some of the money shots have been given away in the trailers, the ships annihilation is so utterly, relentlessly comprehensive that there’s plenty left for you to see in the film itself. Gloriously not Earth-bound, some of the planetary locations look a little set-like. But the rocks spray painted gold feel like a homage to the studio-bound planet surfaces of the original series rather than cheapness on behalf of the makers of the film.

As befits a film released on the 50th anniversary, there are plenty of references to the origins of the franchise (an oblique shout-out to “Who Mourns For Adonis?” and a little bit of love for the oft unfairly maligned “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” being my favourites) although given that the reboot effectively wiped out all but the dullest Trek from canon *cough* “Star Trek: Enterprise” *cough* it trades heavily on that history, especially in its finale.

Easily the best of the reboot “Trek” films, “Star Trek Beyond” does what good “Star Trek” has always done: offer hope for the future. Oh, it still has some serious problems to overcome: Pine and Quinto have zero chemistry – unlike Sulu and his newly revealed family – so the Kirk/ Spock dynamic continues to trade solely on the work and rapport of Shatner and Nimoy and overall this brave, all-new timeline continues to lean too heavily on the audience’s prior knowledge of events and history rather than earning the emotional investments it seeks to cash in on. But the future at least feels bright again; maybe not bright enough that we gotta wear shades, but we’re certainly no longer plunging into Darkness.

7/10-A Trek 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now You See Me 2 (2016) Review

Now You See Me 2The four horsemen are back – at least three of them are – in this breezy and amiably clever follow-up to 2013’s surprise heist movie hit.

Having laid low since their takedown of TV Sceptic Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), the Horsemen find themselves growing restless. However, when they are activated by their mentor and sent on a mission they find themselves outmanoeuvred and exposed by a dangerous new opponent: Walter Mabry (Daniel Radcliffe) who seeks to use the Horsemen for his own ends.

“Now You See Me 2” is a welcome return to the world of high concept high illusion heist capers, complete with the usual bag of tricks, flourishes and not a little prestige. The high calibre cast seem to be having a great time as they twist and turn their way through the plot, with Daniel Radcliffe looking exceedingly pleased to be casting off his ‘teenage magical persona’.

With the origins of the group out of the way, the second film dives further into the world of the mysterious magical organisation ‘The Eye’ and in sending the Horsemen on assignments which involve meticulous planning, deception, dexterity and sophisticated tools of the trade, the whole package ends up embodying the spirit and fun of the “Mission: Impossible” TV series far more than the increasingly Tom Cruise ego-driven movies do. “Now You See Me” is one of those movie franchises I would 100% watch a TV spin-off of, as the whole premise begs for a ‘mission of the week underpinned by a series-long arc’ kind of approach.

Of course, to fit the tighter budgets of TV, we’d probably have to let the cast go which would be a shame as they’re all pretty great here, especially Lizzy Caplan who has the biggest job to do establishing herself as a new character in amongst all the references and callbacks to the first film. Thankfully, the breezy tone helps both the action and the characters from getting tangled up by the sheer fantasticality of it all, leaving a surprisingly focussed multi-layered thriller.

Of course, if you weren’t wowed by the first movie, you’ll find little here to change your mind although it’s more out and out fun than its predecessor. If, however, you were a fan of the first, you’ll enjoy the cleverness of the twists and turns and – like me – marvel at the film’s ability to trick you once again with the advice that the closer you look, the less you’ll see. In a summer of flaccid and underwhelming sequels, “Now You See Me 2” manages to deliver exactly what you want: all the fun and intrigue of the first one, with a neat twist or two.

7/10 Score 7

Ghostbusters (2016) Review

Ghostbusters 2016I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’ve remade “Ghostbusters” with an entirely new cast? It’s been pretty low-key and uncontroversial with almost no internet chatter around it so it might have slipped past you. Jokes. It’s been everywhere, dividing movie fandom in a way that makes the sectarian DC/ Marvel schism look like a little local difficulty.

When estranged friends and physicists Erin Gilbert (Kirsten Wiig) and Abbey Yates (Melissa McCarthy) are unexpectedly reunited thanks to a book they wrote and a local haunting, they quickly discover the world of the paranormal is far more real, and far closer to breaking through than they ever thought. Teaming up with eccentric engineer Jillian Holtzman (Kate McKinnon) and subway worker Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) they find themselves standing as New York’s last line of defence against an invasion by the spirit realm.

The film opens with a spooky set-piece which not only instantly invokes the eerie library scene of the very first movie but, by centring around a foreboding portrait and vast quantities of gloopy slime also homages the flawed and lacklustre sequel. It foreshadows an ongoing compulsion the film has to revisit the touchstones of the previous movies at the expense of creating a distinct identity of its own. After the promising opening, which manages to create an effective air of creepiness and tension, the film shifts down a gear and takes far too long to build up momentum once again as it introduces us not only to the central characters of this new iteration but also the seemingly unending parade of comical background characters, all of whom seem to get their ‘bit’ to do.

This film has had to deal with an incredible amount of pre-emptive flack prior to its release and it’s heartening that this seems to have provoked defiance in the filmmakers rather than a desire to appease. The downside of this defiance is that everyone in the movie is ‘on’. Maximum schtick, all the time, resulting in the undoubtedly talented and likeable cast tripping over each other in an attempt to ‘steal’ the scene or the whole movie (Kate McKinnon comes closest to actually doing it). The action sequences (sluggish and overly reliant on CGI as they are) end up being welcome respites from the relentless quirky cacophony of funny ‘bits’ being smashed together.

Wiig and McCarthy are actually a little subdued at the beginning of the movie but are forced to up their game once McKinnon, Jones and Hemsworth start to make their presence felt. Nobody’s helped by an unevenly paced script which is further distorted by accommodating a disruptive ego-driven super cameo from Bill Murray who clearly demanded more to do than the cute nods given to Aykroyd, Hudson, Potts and Weaver peppered throughout the film. The plot itself has some interesting twists to add to the Ghostbusters lore but it’s buried under all the performances and never gets enough room to breathe, largely thanks to an anaemic villain in Neil Casey who rarely feels like anything more than a henchman. It manages to have some effective horror moments scattered among the comedy but never manages to build up the sense of peril which both previous movies – yes, even “Ghostbusters II” – managed to. The effects are, as you’d expect, much better this time round but the action isn’t as engaging and it’s mostly due to the movie’s overt focus being comedy rather than adventure. There’s also some signs of a fairly brutal editing process with a central finale set-piece featuring a possessed Hemsworth leading the assembled police and troops in a song and dance number (a la “The Mask”) cut completely from the movie and exiled to the closing credits.

Ultimately, Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” is far better than the doomsayers (and worse) were predicting but it’s not the triumphant, feel-good summer blockbuster some of us were hoping for – if only to confound those very same vitriolic trolls. It’s good, but not great. All the ingredients are there, it just needs to be confident enough of its own validity to not try so hard next time around.

6/10 Score 6

Ghostbusters II (1989) #Rediscovered

“Ghostbusters II” is the sequel nobody wanted to make, and boy does it show. It betrays the ending of the first film in a worse way than “The Matrix Reloaded” does. If you’re currently girding your loins to decry and condemn the unnecessary remaking of the original 1984 classic “Ghostbusters”, you might want to start with the 1989 retread.

#Rediscovered Ghostbusters 2

When I was young, I was always a little impatient with the set-up origin parts of movies. Donner’s “Superman” takes its sweet time getting to the tights and flights stage and even “Star Wars” takes a little while to get to the good stuff which is why I tended to prefer “Superman II” and “The Empire Strikes Back” because the explanations were out of the way and you could get on with the action. “Ghostbusters II” throws this all out of the window and goes out of its way to put the characters and even the world they live in back to where they were before the original film started and straight away, Mertmas is disappointed. Like 10 year old me (who has, at least, since learned to appreciate the craftsmanship of Donner’s work and the visual splendour of the early scenes of “Star Wars”), he’s a bit thrown by the abrupt let-down, especially after the bright opening of the film with its clever foreshadowing of the slime’s psychic origins and the genuine creepiness of the runaway pram but it’s all for naught once we reach the kids party.

It paves the way for a cynical and lazy retelling of the first film’s story, complete with a stressed out mayor and a pushy city hall bureaucrat (Kurt Fuller filling in for William Atherton’s Walter Peck this time). Even if you can get past the fact that it simply doesn’t make sense for events to have unfolded in the way they would need to for the sequel’s opening premise to work (After the near-Armageddon of the original film, the Ghostbusters are sued into oblivion and all paranormal activity simply ceases? Nobody else enters the marketplace? The world over?). It’s outrageously stupid and insulting but still you could overlook it if the film had performances with the energy and chemistry of the first one. Unfortunately Peter MacNicol is just conspicuously weird and painfully unfunny from his first appearance. There’s none of the skilful comedy of Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully to the character which is a pity given he’s effectively an OTT version of the accountant who returns for this sequel only to be painfully underused in a role which looks like it ended up on the cutting room floor. MacNicol’s performance is, in fact, pretty much a dry run of his Renfield which he would deliver in Mel Brooks’ “Dracula: Dead And Loving It” six years later. If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, it’s not meant to. In Vigo (Wilhelm von Homburg), at least, the film has an imposing focal villain (thanks in large part to the dubbed voice by Max Von Sydow) but he’s constantly overlooked and side-lined in favour of anonymous rivers of slime. Just because it helps the Kids’ Choice Awards make a big splash doesn’t mean it makes a good movie villain.

Their parties and their choice awards aren’t the only way kids compromised “Ghostbusters II” – the successful Saturday morning cartoon takes a heavy toll on the movie too. There’s a toothlessness to the comedy and the horror elements which gave the original its edge are dialled way, way back this time. From the height of Harold Ramis’ quiff to the cutesier designs for the ghosts and ghouls, the aesthetic of “The Real Ghostbusters” cartoon series looms large throughout the film. If you don’t believe me, just ask poor Annie Potts who receives one of cinema’s worst makeovers just to look more like the cartoon. She’s not the worst treated original cast member, though. That accolade belongs once again to Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zedmore. Absent for huge chunks of the movie, when he is there he’s often treated shabbily, for example the courtroom scene (which clearly has scars from kid-friendly rewrites), he flees with the rest of the crowd instead of helping the guys battle the Scoleri brothers. There are hints here and there of a snarkier wit trying to get through, mostly in Egon’s dialogue – which I like to think was a small, deliberate rebellion by co-screenwriter Harold Ramis against the tonal shift which damages the film quite a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think for a moment that “Ghostbusters” is not for kids. Of course it is. The original movie was definitely aimed at the lucrative family market but it didn’t talk down to it audience, even when dropping in the odd sly joke for the adults (compare the phantom fellatio of Ray’s dream to the coy non-sequitur of Egon apparently ‘sleeping’ with the mood slime). “Ghostbusters II” patronises and panders instead of offering something new or different or better. Even the warmed over romance between Dana and Venkman feels forced and artificial because they’re so patently into each other right from the beginning that the idea they split up in the first place doesn’t make sense.

There are fun moments, of course, but they’re mostly pale imitations of sequences from the original. in Bobby Brown’s ‘On Our Own’, it delivers a song which will not the equal of Ray Parker Jr’s original is at least pretty good in its own right. In the end, there’s just about enough to mollify a desire for more adventures of Peter, Ray, Egon and Winston but there’s no escaping it’s a flat and lifeless affair. The clearest indication is that immediately after it’s finished, Mertmas wants to watch the original again and since we’ve watched them both, he’s only ever mentioned watching the original one again.

In my last #Rediscovered review, I described “Ghostbusters” as a lightning in a bottle film. The makers of that film weren’t able to recapture the spirit (pun intended) of the original so I’m open minded but not optimistic about a whole new cast and crew having a go. Perhaps if they do something new or different with it, there may be a way but as “Ghostbusters II” painfully shows, if you’re just setting out to try and retell the exact same story, it isn’t going to work. I ain’t afraid of no remakes, but I’m not all that keen on them either.

5/10 Rediscovered 5

Grease – The South Downe Musical Society Production #Review

2016 GreaseWhere the film musical famously pushed Danny and Sandy to the foreground arguably at the expense of many of the supporting characters, the South Downe Musical Society’s production of “Grease” delivers a much more ensemble approach to this cheeriest and cheesiest of musicals. Thankfully, alongside Danny (Perry Ralls) and Sandy (Hannah Ali), the cast packs the main characters with an abundance of energy and personality, broadening the story to encompass the senior year hijinks and entanglements of the rest of the Pink Ladies and T-Birds, especially the adorkable sweetness of Emily Rennick’s Jan and Matt Sackman’s Roger.

Director Helen Stoddart makes sure the show makes fantastic use of the Ferneham Hall space, bringing the audience right into the action and, if you’re lucky enough to have tickets for the flat surface area (as I did), you’ll have Danny, Sandy and even Eugene rocking and a-rolling all around you. The costumes are great and while I’d like to have seen a little more period authenticity when it came to hair styles, the music, choreography and vocals are absolutely on point. From Rizzo’s (Kimberley Harvey) powerful and heartfelt rendition of ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ to the fizzy ensemble fun of ‘We Go Together’ nearly all your favourite songs are here (‘Sandy’ being the only notable exception). Perhaps the crowning achievement (or should that be halo?) is Steve Reading’s interpretation of Teen Angel, bringing us a knowingly fabulous performance that’s half Greg Wise from ‘Walking On Sunshine’ and half Liberace.

Despite a few corners being cut here and there in terms of story, this is one of the best amateur productions I’ve seen and one of my favourite ever productions of “Grease” making up for what it lacks in lavish production values with joy and moxie. Vibrant, breezy and wackily immersive, it’s one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had in a theatre.

The production runs at Fareham’s Ferneham Hall until Saturday 9th July and there are still some tickets available.

8/10 Score 8

Central Intelligence (2016) Review

Central IntelligenceAre you a fan of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson? Sure you are. How could you not be? He’s cinema’s reigning charisma champion. Having helped to reinvigorate the “Fast And Furious” franchise, Journeyed ‘2’ The Mysterious Island and held the San Andreas Fault together with his bare hands, now he’s out to rock the world of buddy movies.

A forthcoming high school reunion is a source of dread for former big man on campus Calvin ‘The Golden Jet’ Joyner (Kevin Hart). In the intervening twenty years since being idolised and voted most likely to succeed, he’s ended up a moderately successful accountant. Deciding not to go, Calvin is contacted by someone called Bob Stone (Dwayne Johnson) who claims to be an old school friend. After a wild night out, it turns out that Bob is not only a CIA operative but that he needs Calvin’s help to save the world.

“Central Intelligence” is a spirited and good-natured attempt to channel the energy and attitude of eighties action comedies, albeit their more jovial sequels rather than the original edgier versions. It owes far more to Tony Scott’s higher octane “Beverly Hills Cop 2” than to Martin Brest’s original and likewise its overt comic edge is much more “Lethal Weapon 2” than Murtaugh and Riggs’ first outing. There’s actually not that much action in the movie – all the best bits are in the trailer – but the film succeeds mainly on the chemistry and charisma of its leads; Kevin Hart’s frenetic restlessness balancing out nicely against Johnson’s surprisingly sweet muscle-bound geek. It’s a good job the leads are so watchable because the plot is almost incidental to the high-jinks, poorly thought out, superficially explained and with a twist that you can almost see coming from the opening credits.

The film’s main stumble is actually in its anti-bullying message. Both the film and its trailer rely heavily on the image of an obese teenage Dwayne Johnson with a penchant for En Vogue growing up into ‘The Rock’ after humiliation at the hands of some vicious high school bullying. Instead of finding a better way to resolve that narrative thread (although Johnson brings interesting aspects of it to his entire performance), it falls back on the tired and counter-productive trope that the way to punish bullies is by becoming an even bigger, stronger bully. It’s exactly the same dumb decision Marvel made with their ‘Captain America’ anti-bullying cover variant a couple of years ago. Seriously? One of the character’s defining attributes is he carries a SHIELD and they really couldn’t think of a better way for him to protect the kid from being bullied than threatening worse violence?

Funny and sweet, if a little light on plot and big action, “Central Intelligence” has charm to spare but it’s all a bit forgettable although it does whet the appetite for further Hart/ Johnson collaborations in the future.

5/10 Score 5

Ice Age: Collision Course (2016) Review

Ice Age Collision CourseThere’s a tendency among long running movie series – especially those which have no business being there – to launch into outer space. And so, in its fifth and conspicuously tired outing, the “Ice Age” franchise looks to the heavens for salvation.

When Scrat (the spiritual descendant of Wile E Coyote) accidentally reactivates a buried alien spacecraft in his continuing quest to bury his nuts, he sets in motion a hilarious chain of events which threaten to bring asteroidal doom raining down on Sid, Diego, Manny and the gang unless Buck can figure out a way to save them.

To be fair, I don’t actually have much of a quarrel with the alien spaceship part of the plot – after all, it’s a nice call back to the very first “Ice Age” movie where the gang pass by one buried in the ice (and whatever happened to the humans from the first movie anyway? The franchise has completely forgotten about them).

Unfortunately, the reminder of the original movie (and it’s pretty darn good sequel) only serves to further emphasise how far this series has [continental] drifted from its roots. The characters have each arrived at the end point of their journeys so there’s nothing interesting for the original characters to do. Even Manny and Ellie’s angst over their daughter Peaches’ life choices is a rerun of the driving character arc from the previous film, 2012’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift”.

There’s a slapdash feel to the whole thing, like the principal cast each wrote and recorded their own dialogue separately and it was then mashed into one movie in the editing suite. Whenever the action starts to falter, another one-note character will be thrown into the mix or they’ll trot out some gophers to perform some sub-Minions shenanigans to distract the audience.

There’s an awful cameo from Twitter’s resident Grinchy movie science pedant Neil deGrasse Tyson to lend a veneer of technobabble scientific credibility to the utterly nonsensical McGuffin of magnets, crystals and a fountain of youth run by – wait for it – Shangri Llama [slow hand clap] but it’s Simon Pegg’s Buck who takes the prize for most non sequiturs in the service of simply moving the story along.

There’s little here for all but the littlest cinemagoers who’ll like the bright colours and may not yet be weary of the tired antics of Sid the Sloth. It all ends, of course, with the obligatory pop music singalong to complete the lazy tick box approach to animated sequels, “Ice Age: Collision Course” makes a good case for the franchise’s extinction even if it does feature more realistic dinosaurs (feathers!) than “Jurassic World”.

4/10 Score 4

Ghostbusters (1984) #Rediscovered

Nearly every Friday night, Mertmas and I settle down for ‘Movie Night’, one of the highlights of the week. Usually we’ll watch something I loved when I was his age or work our way through a recent franchise to get him up to speed for an upcoming new release. Recently, we managed to do both simultaneously…

#Rediscovered Ghostbusters

“Ghostbusters” is one of those ‘lightning in a bottle’ films where virtually every single ingredient works perfectly. The finished product is such a well-crafted comedy horror – without short-changing either genre – that I’d be tempted to say it’s the kind of film that just wouldn’t get made today if it weren’t for the fact that they have made one and it’s coming out in a couple of weeks. Whatever its merits, though, I doubt the remake/ reboot/ whatever will be able to tread the fine line between adult and family friendly as the original.

The cold open of the film, in the New York Public Library, is pure horror movie tropes, without a hint of the comedy to come. It’s only when Ray Parker Jr’s peerless theme song kicks in that we’re reassured we’re not watching a really scary movie. Brilliantly, the film then immediately brings us a scene of pure comedy as Peter Venkman (Murray) conducts a dubiously lecherous psychic experiment. Set up as a classic ‘origin’ tale, we’re introduced to our three heroes as they undertake their first proper adventure and it’s in the dialogue and performances that we quickly get to understand and know the sardonic Venkman, the bookish and intellectual Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) and the excitable Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd). The story unfolds pretty much as a straight action horror movie would, although anyone who protests it’s not a comedy film is just crazy. It’s through the performances of the cast (most of the film was not performed as scripted and much of the dialogue especially Murray’s was ad-libbed) and the skilful direction of Ivan Reitman that the tone stays light and the action is fun rather than frightening.

It’s not just the three leads who are perfectly cast, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver are spot on too and while Ernie Hudson might be short changed by the script (heavily rewritten after Eddie Murphy passed on the role), Winston Zedmore is still a lynchpin character, keeping the Ghostbusters team grounded and relatable in amongst all the scientific gobbledegook and technobabble. Even William Atherton adds to the fun as the odious and officious Walter Peck, five years before he’d reprise the characteristics as Richard Thornburg in “Die Hard” (alongside Reginald VelJohnson who also pops up briefly in “Ghostbusters”).

Watching it as a ten year old, the film was literally amazing – spooky, funny, silly and thrilling. Packed with amazing special effects (which still hold up pretty well today although the increasing resolution standards can be cruel to the spectacular matte work done in the 70s and 80s). Watching it now as an adult, it’s a different but equally great film (this time the most terrifying moment is the throwaway gag about one of the mortgages Ray takes out is at 19%). There are so many memories packed in the film, and not just the big set-pieces but in the small details too, like the way the rug crumples up against the base of the chair as Dana is dragged through her apartment towards the fridge (a moment which genuinely shocked Mertmas). Ad-libbed or not, the dialogue is consistently pithy and memorable and every single scene adds to the story; not a frame is wasted.

It’s actually a tough film to review because it’s so good in virtually every aspect, it’s tricky to find any purchase to hang a critique off of. For once, nostalgia is absolutely spot on – it’s as good now as it was then. It’s given us one of the best movie nights since we did the original “Star Wars” saga. “Ghostbusters” has instantly become one of Mertmas’ favourite movies and he’s excited for the new one coming out this year. Next up: “Ghostbusters II”…

10/10 Rediscovered 10

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) Review

Independence Day ResurgenceJust in time for the phrase to become politically loaded and potentially tarnished, “Independence Day” returns to cinemas with a sequel two decades in the making. As Earth prepares to celebrate 20 years since the last alien invasion, it falls to current President Lanford (Sela Ward) to reset the counter because – whoops, apocalypse – here they come again.

It’s become somewhat fashionable to dismiss and deride the original “Independence Day” but it’s a crowd-pleasing effects-driven movie that – for better or worse – redefined the summer blockbuster afresh in the mid-1990s in the way that “Jaws” and “Star Wars” did in the 1970s. One of the secrets of its success is that while it wraps itself in the trappings of a sci-fi war movie, it’s really a lavish disaster movie and is structured accordingly, introducing pockets of disparate characters who eventually cross paths and join forces to save the day. It’s a hokey, sentimental and unashamedly patriotic slice of prime American cheese. The cast’s performances lift the characters above the superficial writing and give it real heart, overcoming the story’s shortcomings and plot logic and huge debt to H G Wells. Basically, the whole thing’s so goofy and adorable that you can’t help but get swept up in all the feel-good fun.

“Independence Day: Resurgence”, on the other hand, clearly doesn’t understand what made the first film work and so tries to replicate everything it possibly can with little success. Emmerich has long been trying to self-style himself as the new Spielberg and here he makes one of the same fundamental mistakes as his idol. If Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” taught us anything, it’s that Jeff Goldblum’s quirky and brilliant scientist sidekick characters make terrible lead characters but in the absence of Will Smith (more on that in a minute) Goldblum’s David Levison steps up to take centre stage with the exact same result as when Ian Malcolm did the same on Isla Sorna. The invaluable Judd Hirsch is back too as David’s father but his entire sub plot is a leftover from the franchise disaster movie roots and feels clumsy and awkward, although nowhere near as awkward as the utterly unacknowledged and unexplained (on screen at least) absence of his wife Constance (Margaret Coin).

Someone, somewhere obviously made a note that the characters were one of the best things about the original because every some effort has been made to bring all most of them back. Smith famously passed on returning when “After Earth” soured his (and our) appetite for Big-Willy-Style space shenanigans. In truth the film must have been quite different when he was on board because it’s hard to see where he would have featured in the movie as presented, although it conceivably would have been about twenty minutes shorter because they could have removed all the scenes where someone talked about him, referenced him or looked meaningfully at a picture of him. Without even being in the movie, Will Smith became the franchise’s Poochie.

Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore is back too but seems decidedly fragile and an attempt to repeat his wondrously rousing speech stunt from the first film falls flat narratively and performance wise due to his oddly high pitch. There are returns for other supporting characters too – Vivica A Fox is brought back and basically given the role and scene that Boomer the dog had in the original, Maika Monroe takes over for Mae Whitman as President Whitmore’s daughter (not because she wasn’t asked, she declined to audition for the role) and they even wheel out a near unrecognisable Robert Loggia for a disturbing death’s door cameo. Finally, the zany Doctor Okun wakes from his 20 year coma in near-perfect physical health to deliver the film’s only real genuinely sweet moment as he’s reunited with his spouse.

The new cast members, Jessie T Usher (who plays a character who might as well have been called ‘Your father was a great man, son’), Liam Hemsworth and Angelababy all serve to fill the gap left by Smith’s departure and there’s not quite enough character to go around, leaving them blandly interchangeable. They’re all fighter pilots, you see, which brings us to another of the problems the film has. The original was a disaster movie. The sequel, on the other hand, is as generic a sci-fi action movie as it’s possible to conceive of, part satirically neutered “Starship Troopers”, part “Space: Above And Beyond – The Movie”. It wants to be something new and exciting but it still has the baggage of the original to sort through before it can do what it wants. At least there’s a more international flavour to the heroes this time as the producers seek to milk the lucrative Chinese box office.

The Empire Strikes Back” has often been described as having a middle, middle and a middle but it’s a paragon of contained storytelling compared to “Resurgence”. This film exists for one reason only, and that’s to take us from a story that’s already been told to the one Emmerich wants to tell us in “Independence Day 3” (If we get one. I hope we do, I think it’ll be bananas – in a good way). There’s retconning left, right and centre throughout “Resurgence” to carve out the narrative room for the heavily signposted third instalment and as Emmerich dutifully ticks off the list of things he thinks the audience expects to see from an “Independence Day” movie he completely misses re-establishing the palpable sense of dread and doom the first one managed. Although there are numerous moments of characters looking pensive or musing that they probably can’t win, nobody really seems to believe it and there are few if any ‘squeeky bum’ moments when the outcome hangs on a knife-edge. Even the aliens seem not to have learned from their last encounter with humanity and remain as bone headed as ever. In fact, for a race with a strong strategic goal in mind, they seem ridiculously prone to provocation and distraction for petty revenge.

Visually, the film’s a bit of a let-down too. Thanks to the improvements in effects technology, we also get better, longer looks at the aliens themselves but all that means is that their Geiger-influenced design is more transparent and obvious than before. Following the credo ‘bigger is better’, this time the actual mother ship (3,000 miles in diameter) lands on the surface of the Earth. You’ll have seen most of the money shots in the trailer when Goldblum gasps that ‘it has its own gravity’ before delivering his killer gag: ‘They like to get the landmarks’. Yeah, the vast alien ship has its own gravity – except when it doesn’t. The gravity has no effect on the ground or oceans when it lands (witness the tiny research vessel mere miles away from the mile-wide laser drilling into the Earth) and in fact is only seemingly active for the one scene where it drops Kuala Lumpur’s Petronus Towers onto central London to set up Goldblum’s line. It’s cynical trailer-driven filmmaking and atrociously filmed (described memorably and accurately by the great Sarah O’Connell as ‘a muddy CGI shitstorm’). It’s the tipping point where you realise that they can’t top the first film visually but they’re going to keep trying, instead of besting it in the areas where it was weakest. In theory the vastness of a near Moon-size ship squatting on the Earth’s surface sounds awesome. On a human scale, though, where movies need to be, it’s too big to be really relevant. Yes, the sky looks a bit grey and metally and it’s a bit shady but that’s about it. Still, if the ginormity of the mother ship isn’t doing it for you, how about we throw a kaiju into the mix too? Yeah, that moose knuckle you glimpse in the trailer is foot/hand of a great big alien, for some reason.

It still has its moments and – crucially – if you’re not really familiar with the first one it’s probably got some excitement and spectacle. I saw it with a group of 9-10 year olds for Mertmas’ birthday and they loved it. I hope it does well enough that Emmerich gets to make his intended third movie – it sounds pretty awesome and if it comes off could give us the kind of sci-fi action movie we haven’t had for a very long time. The posters for “Independence Day: Resurgence” dutifully warn us: ‘We Had Twenty Years To Prepare’. Well, so did the makers of this movie and it’s hard not to think they should have done a lot better than this.

5/10 Score 5

Gods Of Egypt (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

The Secret Life Of Pets (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

In & Out (1997) Review

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Competition: Win The Limited Edition Steelbook Of Deadpool

Sold out limited edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbook!

Sold out limited edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbook!

Sold out limited edition Zavvi Exclusive Deadpool BluRay Steelbook!

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

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

Deadpool Steelbook Exterior

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

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

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

Deadpool Steelbook Interior

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

Wordpress

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

I’d like to win a Deadpool Steelbook BluRay!

 

Twitter

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

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

 

Facebook

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

I’d like to win a Deadpool Steelbook BluRay!

 

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

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

Money Monster (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

The Nice Guys (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10  Score 8

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

trilogies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warcraft: The Beginning (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

A Hologram For The King (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Our Kind Of Traitor (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors (1965) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Bad Neighbours 2 (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

The Angry Birds Movie (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Robinson Crusoe (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Unfriended (2015) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

 

 

Ratchet & Clank (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

The Forest (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, thanks for reading!

7/10 Sweetie G7

Criminal (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Captain America: Civil War (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

9/10 Score 9

Unlimited v Limitless: Dawn Of Subscription Wars

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

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

THE MONEY PIT

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

THE PERKS OF BEING A CARDHOLDER

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

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

CINEMA PARADISO

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

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

THE SOCIAL NETWORK

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

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

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

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

TRADING PLACES

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

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

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

THE NET

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

THE THIRD MAN

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

CLASH OF THE TITANS

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

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

They Live! (1988) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Eye In The Sky (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Follow The Money – Season 1 #Review

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

 

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

Bastille Day (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

Jessica Jones – Season 1 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10 Score 9

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

Hardcore Henry (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

 5/10 Score 5

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Trapped – Season 1 #Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10Score 8

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

Midnight Special (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

Mud (2013) Review

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

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

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

7/10 Score 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

superman-jpg

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

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

captain america meme

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eddie The Eagle (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

 

Zootropolis (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

10/10 Score 10

High-Rise (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Norm Of The North (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

3/10 Score 3