Doctor Who: Extremis (S10E06) Review

*SPOILERS*

After playing a blinder last week, what did “Doctor Who” have in store for us this time? Well, after the refreshingly straightforward run of episodes, it opened a can of vintage convoluted timey-wimey whoop-ass which has become the trademark of Moffat’s triumphs/ hallmark of his follies (delete as applicable).

Opening with a flashback of The Doctor visiting what appears to be the ‘Hogwarts of Death’, we learn that Missy is due to be executed for her [unspecified] crimes. Given the Master was executed by the Daleks on Skaro for the same thing some aeons back, either these are fresh charges or there’s no such thing as double jeopardy in trans-temporal intergalactic jurisprudence. Meanwhile, the Doctor – still paying the price for his lack of vision – receives a very unexpected visitor: the Pope. There is a forbidden book, sealed away deep in the Vatican library; a book which compels anyone who reads it to commit suicide. The Pope has one request: will the Doctor read the book and solve the mystery of the Veritas?

“Extremis” brings us the most ambitious and most complex “Doctor Who” arc since the whole of Season Six’s “Impossible Astronaut” saga and, as is often the case with Moffat writing in his pomp, there are so many ideas jostling for position here, it could come across as a bit of a muddle. Often one for riffing on other genre fare, we’re treated to a very Dan Brown-esque first half hour before veering unexpectedly deep into Wachowski territory. With Capaldi’s era being notable for call-backs to the past, the recipe this week is: two parts “The Da Vinci Code”, one part “The Matrix” and garnish with 1975’s “The Android Invasion”.

The villains of the piece once revealed are a group of creepily decaying, slapdash but committed Mumm-Ra The Ever-Living cosplayers who don’t – as yet – have a name and are simply referred to as monks. The way they talk, by simply opening their mouths while the words are articulated, lend them a chillingly eldritch, almost Lovecraftian air. The Doctor doesn’t seem to recognise them, although they could easily be a[nother] splinter group of The Silence, but he quickly wises up to their scheme and finds a typically Doctor-y way to, well, not to win per se, but to kick the can down the road a bit and maybe pull a victory from the jaws of defeat by delegating the task to the one person he trusts above all: himself. In what may be the most divisive part of a complex and wildly inventive episode, it transpires that as well as a flashback, the episode was also ‘only a dream’. The first of an apparent three-parter (six-parter in old money), it feels much more like a deliciously rich prequel to an epic story yet to come. This is a definite change from the old “Doctor Who” six-parters which used to often jam a barely connected two-parter on to the end of a conventional four-part story; this time, the two-parter comes first.

The use of the Catholic church and the Pope himself is a fun nod but doesn’t necessarily bear too close scrutiny. The Cardinal’s unsubtle entreaty for the Doctor’s confession brings the episode skirting perilously close to considering the uneasy question of how much credence the Doctor would lend to Earth religions given he could easily validate/ debunk any of their many tenets and how well-disposed the Doctor would be to the Catholic church itself given its ancient and modern history is a topic for another day. Luckily, the episode sticks to a fluffier, more comedic take on the Church by having the Pope interrupt Bill’s date with a rapidly delivered admonishment in Italian – although given the Pope had by this point travelled in the TARDIS, shouldn’t he have been able to ‘speak’ English and shouldn’t Bill have understood him anyway courtesy of the TARDIS? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Aside from the playful Papal bull, while the episode underuses Missy (Michelle Gomez), Nardole (Matt Lucas) is in self-declared ass-kicking mode and it’s glorious. There’s just something about Matt Lucas’ performance in this episode that absolutely nails the cuddly, mundanity of Nardole while still imbuing him with a credible hint of a dark side.

Doctor Who has always tried to give us – even in the darkest of stories – some hope and so it is when Bill finds herself in the Oval Office where a decidedly non-orange President (there are limits to the evil which can be shown in a family show) has taken his own life after reading the Veritas. Bill’s suspicions are confirmed as it’s revealed that the whole world is a simulation but as the Monks close in, the simulated Doctor reveals he’s figured out a way to contact his real-world self.

If you hadn’t already guessed, I loved this episode and can’t wait to see how it plays out. I did wonder – à la “The Rebel Flesh”/ “The Almost People” – how long we’ve been watching the ersatz Doctor, Bill and Nardole. Could the blindness be handwaved away by having happened to the simulant and not the real Doctor, but the Doctor’s line about being in the dark at the end makes that thankfully unlikely. At least the sonic sunglasses are far less objectionable and inexplicable this time out but I’m intrigued to see how it will be before the Doctor regains his sight (and super intrigued to find out if the Doctor’s ‘borrowing’ from his own future for temporary sight restoration will pay off in this season’s coming ‘totally different’ regeneration). In any event, I’d like some explanation of why The Doctor is apparently a better pilot of the TARDIS blind than any of his sighted incarnations have been.

“Extremis” is top-drawer stuff and marks the high point – but hopefully not the peak – of the season so far.

10/10 

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017) Review

Guy Richie wears his influences on his sleeve in Galfridian geezer romp “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword”. He’s clearly seen “The Lord Of The Rings”, kept up to date with “Game Of Thrones” and avidly watched BBC TV’s “Merlin”. He’s even found time to take in Queen’s classic “Radio Ga Ga” video. All of these properties are ground up in the mockney mill of Richie’s signature style to produce an ersatz mythical mash-up that plays fast and loose with the legends of King Arthur and the Knights Of The Round Table.

When Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) is betrayed and murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law), his young son escapes down river, growing up on the streets of Londinium oblivious to his true heritage. But as Vortigern’s power grows, so too does the whispered legend of the born King and Arthur (Charlie Hunnan) finds himself forced to embrace his destiny when he pulls Excalibur from the stone.

There’s been an unfair pre-emptive backlash against this film and while it’s far from great, it’s also quite a lot of fun. Yes, your tolerance for shifting much of Arthur’s story away from Camelot in favour of ‘Lahndinium’ will factor in how much you enjoy this cheesy slice of pulp chivalry and the same ironic modernist twist which worked well for Sherlock Holmes’ 19th century setting are a little more awkward here but it’s still all very amusing in a blokey sort of way.

Hunnan is perfectly serviceable as the would-be born king but it’s Jude Law who’s clearly having the most fun, chewing the scenery with gleeful abandon as the dark sorcerer king. Clearly leaving room for a sequel we’re very unlikely to get, few of the ‘big name’ knights turn up in this instalment although we do get Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and Percival (Craig McGinlay) while Aiden Gillan pops up as former courtier turned renegade ‘Goosefat’ Bill and enjoys a long overdue figurative “Queer As Folk” reunion with Hunnan. Disappointingly, there’s barely a hint of Merlin (and no sign of Tim the Sorcerer) but there’s magical mumbo jumbo aplenty thanks to the Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) who helps Arthur to embrace his fate. David Beckham’s much-publicised cameo isn’t terrible but it isn’t very good either, too long to be just an amusing nod to the audience, too short to be of any real point.

Visually, Richie manages to bring a suitably epic grandeur to everything but thanks to the muddy grey and brown palate and a shoddy post-production conversion, it’s a must-not-see-in-3D. Although there’s clearly an ambition for a family friendly franchise, the film may have worked better with a higher certification, allowing the action scenes to be more brutal and bloody. There may even be a harder director’s cut lurking in the background, but surely a studio as venerable as Warner Brothers wouldn’t stoop to releasing a harder, more violent version of a movie which failed to live up to box office expectations, would it?

6/10 

Alien: Covenant (2017) Review

Do you think that somewhere, there’s a Twentieth Century Fox Executive kicking himself for not just giving Ridley Scott the money he wanted to make a sci-fi movie about the origin of intelligent life and the concept of meeting one’s creator? Maybe then we wouldn’t be here now, watching him tank the “Alien” franchise into the ground as he tries to keep the franchise-focussed suits happy while exploring his own philosophical vanity project.

Ten years after the Prometheus expedition was lost, the colony ship USCSS Covenant, carrying 2,000 passengers and some 1,000 embryos is bound for Origae-6. When the ship is hit by a powerful neutrino burst, damaging the ship and killing some of the cryogenically frozen passengers, the android caretaker Walter (Michael Fassbender) is compelled to revive the crew. Once repairs are completed, the crew detect a faint transmission from a nearby planet, a planet which will take mere days to reach and which offers the prospect of a new home much sooner than the still years away Origae-6. But, unbeknownst to the would-be colonists, the planet is already inhabited.

There’s a conflicted feeling to “Alien: Covenant”, an almost petulant defiance from director Ridley Scott as he determinedly hits his cherished metaphysical and ideological beats whilst at the same time – clearly stung by some of the criticism meted out to “Prometheus”, an eagerness to placate the fans by returning to some of the Alien franchise’s hallmarks. At times, “Alien: Covenant” feels a lot like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in its shameless borrowing and remixing of the greatest hits of the entire series. Each of the first five “Alien” movies gets a nod and a reimagining here, some more successfully than others but disappointingly it’s once the xenomorph finally rears its head (nearly an hour into the film) that “Covenant” stops being interesting and becomes predictable and – most shocking of all – occasionally laughable.

There’s an extended sequence on the landing shuttle where the team encounter their first alien creature as it makes its way (through the spine this time) into the world which is clearly meant to be visceral and gory and terrifying but there’s just so much stupidity and clumsiness on show that you’re fighting the temptation to mentally rescore events with ‘Yakety Sax’ and call the whole thing “Carry On Xenomorph”. I’ve watched a few of the “Alien” films in the cinema and this is the only one where the audience laughed out loud not once but at least three times (although one of those times was when David (Michael Fassbender) told Walter (also Michael Fassbender) to hold his flute in a particular way while he teaches him to finger it properly).

Fassbender’s double duty as both androids is, expectedly, one of the film’s strengths. Of the rest of the cast, Danny McBride impresses but Katherine Waterston is a disappointingly pale imitation of Ripley, her grit and courage alternating with wobbly-lipped, dewy-eyed mopiness in an arbitrary and often contradictory manner. The rest of the crew are basically cannon fodder; along for the ride and almost comically willing to be killed off.

It would seem that the key lesson the USCS took from the disappearance of the Prometheus was safety. Clearly there was too much safety. So now, we have a landing on an uncharted planet with no thought for spacesuits or environmental testing for contaminants or contagions before going wandering around. Even when one or two of the landing party starts to feel a bit peaky, nobody seems too concerned. There’s a moment when David declares that humanity is a doomed species but I think that humanity back on Earth is doing just fine because they’re clearly rounding up all the stupid people and sending them off into space.

Admittedly, “Alien: Covenant” looks spectacular, because Ridley Scott, but there’s an hollowness to the whole thing which a portentous and pretentious script flatters to deceive. The set up for the sequel/ third prequel is so archly obvious that it’s likely to provoke eye rolls instead of gasps when our dim-witted heroes figure it out and because the film has little originality to offer beyond a brief and underwhelming xenomorph POV sequence, the only reason you’ll be on the edge of your seat come the end is because you’re eager to get on your way home.

4/10 

I.T. (2017) Review

If you thought lacklustre 2006 Harrison Ford cyber-thriller “Firewall” was just too action-packed, then have I got a movie for you.

As self-made aviation millionaire Mike Regan (Pierce Brosnan) prepares to launch a new App (Uber for private jet billionaires) and take his company public, he asks an IT intern to come to his home and sort the wifi out. Unfortunately, the intern takes this familiarity as a sign of friendship and when his advances to Regan’s daughter are rebuffed, things turn nasty.

It should be evident by now that, in general, I.T. and hacking and inherently uncinematic and the convoluted story does little to make them so. The aviation connection means nothing to the plot, and the App itself is irrelevant beyond trying to give the whole thing a veneer of topicality. Worse still, the plot requires Mike Regan, the avionics CEO, to be both a technological dunce and simultaneously live in the world’s most high-tech, connected ‘Smart’ house which neither he nor his family seem to like very much.

Brosnan seems tired and firmly disinterested in the material, reluctantly rousing himself to “Taffin” levels of ham when the script requires him to emote. Anna Friel is utterly wasted in a thanklessly underwritten role as Regan’s wife and the fact that Brosnan having improbable difficulty with Lego (I am not kidding) forms the foundation of the film’s tensest scene tells you everything else you need to know.

“I.T.” wants to be a topical, cautionary tale about the dangers of technology and the risks of the ‘internet of things’ to privacy and security but due to a disinterested cast, anaemic direction and a leadenly plotted script it ends up being a whiny rich people’s first world problems snoozefest.

4/10 

Doctor Who: Oxygen (S10E05) Review

*SPOILERS*

I’m always a little conflicted about voiceover narration in “Doctor Who” but it’s hard to complain here when it’s used to such cheeky effect, having Capaldi solemnly intone ‘Space: the final frontier…’.

The Doctor’s feeling space sick, you see. Not in a nauseous way, but in a longing to sway amongst the stars once again, no matter how sternly Nardole (Matt Lucas) reminds him of his vow to protect the vault. But after a bit of fluid link flimflam, Nardole finds himself overruled and onboard for a trip to a space station to investigate a distress call.

First off, this is dark “Doctor Who”. In fact, this may be the darkest the series has ever dared to get and it really pushes the boundaries of what’s permissible for a Saturday evening family show. Not just in the terrifyingly realised spacesuit ‘zombies’ (the cold open is as horrifying as anything “Event Horizon” has to offer), but in its willingness to put the Doctor and Bill through the wringer, with real consequences.

The story of “Oxygen” is one in the grand tradition of Whovian capitalist critique as the mystery unravels to reveal a heartless corporation has been balancing the profitability of mining operations, oxygen and human resources in a dispassionately pragmatic and callous manner. But there’s a nihilism running through the episode which creates an oppressively doom-laden atmosphere. As heavy-handed as the capitalist-bashing is, it’s nothing compared to what the story has in store for our noble Time Lord and his plucky protégé. Even the brief moments of levity have an edge, such as Bill’s role reversal experience with accidental racism.

The spacesuit zombies are a deliciously macabre addition to the Doctor’s rogue’s gallery, all the more gruesome thanks to their HAL-like indifference to the consequences of following their programming. It’s quite a shock, therefore, when events force the Doctor, Nardole (who’s much more fun along for the ride than he is when bookending the story) and Bill to put their faith in the spacesuits to survive. Everything is made tenser by the early disposal of the sonic screwdriver, which shows just how ubiquitous it’s become and how much we the audience have come to rely on it to get our heroes out of trouble.

While the zombie suits are creepy as hell, it’s the very real effects of exposure to the vacuum of space which first signals that this is no ordinary episode of “Doctor Who”. Bill’s apparent death at the hands of the suits is also breathtakingly effective and even the fact it’s revealed to be a sort of deception does little to lessen the impact, thanks to the sensational and cinematic direction by Charles Palmer and another cracking story from one of the best writers currently working on “Doctor Who”, Jamie Mathieson.

In the resolution of the main story, it feels like a bit of a cheat for the Doctor to simply drop the miners off at ‘Head Office’ to pursue justice rather than seeing it through himself (a la “The Sunmakers”) but then as we learn in a devastating cliffhanger, ‘seeing’ things through is going to be a problem for the Doctor going forward. This season of “Doctor Who” shows that even after ten seasons, (and fifty-odd years), the programme still has the power to surprise and shock. Next Saturday can’t come quickly enough.

9/10 

Doctor Who: Knock Knock (S10E04) Review

*SPOILERS*

The past looms large in “Knock Knock” as “Doctor Who” plunders horror tropes for an uneven but effective and emotional episode.

When Bill and her friends are offered the rental property of their dreams, they sign up as quickly as they can. The Doctor’s happy to help her move in but once he sets foot in the house, he realises that something is very, very wrong.

Very much an episode of two halves, the first half barrels along with a breezy, gleeful energy as it ramps up the foreboding and creepiness of the house and its secrets, again relying on the greatest of Who’s tricks: taking something mundane and everyday – creaking floorboards – and giving them a terrifying provenance. Once the sources of the house’s eerie noises are revealed, it’s only a pivot to a potently emotional finale which saves the story from being a profound anti-climax.

Once again, performances are key in elevating the material. Of course, Capaldi and Mackie are firing on all cylinders now but it’s in David Suchet that “Knock Knock” finds load bearing timber. Suchet provides the creepy landlord with an abundance of complexity and pathos, overcoming the characters somewhat sketchy motivations and actions. Even Bill’s new would-be flatmates, picked off one by one in true haunted house style, are immediately more likeable and real than the tick box characterisations which undermined the lacklustre spin-off “Class” and the episode definitely loses much of its momentum and atmosphere once the last of them has been disposed of.Ironically for a season which has so far delighted in allowing stories time to breathe and grow, the pacing is a real issue here and it might have worked much better as a two-parter (four episodes in old money), with there being more time between disappearances to build a sense of dread and get to know the characters in more depth so their demises would have more impact. The fast pacing of the disappearances and other spooky shenanigans also makes it seem really out of character for Bill to be so resistant to the Doctor’s suspicions that something strange is going on. As it is, it rushes through the good stuff in about thirty minutes and spends the remaining time on a slow but emotionally charged exposition of the ‘monster’. The ultimate resolution is at least satisfying, even if the egregious deus ex machina ‘everybody lives’ outcome feels like cheating.

Ironically for a season which has so far delighted in allowing stories time to breathe and grow, the pacing is a real issue here and it might have worked much better as a two-parter (four episodes in old money), with there being more time between disappearances to build a sense of dread and get to know the characters in more depth so their demises would have more impact. The fast pacing of the disappearances and other spooky shenanigans also makes it seem really out of character for Bill to be so resistant to the Doctor’s suspicions that something strange is going on. As it is, it rushes through the good stuff in about thirty minutes and spends the remaining time on a slow but emotionally charged exposition of the ‘monster’. The ultimate resolution is at least satisfying, even if the egregious deus ex machina ‘everybody lives’ outcome feels like cheating.

Among the fun touches such as using the TARDIS as a removal van, there’s a tonne of foreshadowing delivered here, from mentions of Time Lords in big robes and collars to the Doctor’s casual and then suddenly dismissive mentioning of ‘regeneration’ to Bill, not to mention how often the Doctor is referred to as a ‘Grandfather’.

Overall, “Knock Knock” is another strong episode in a strong season so far (“Smile” excepted) and even if I would have preferred far longer to be spent on the haunted aspect of the haunted house, I can’t begrudge the episode shaping itself around Suchet’s tremendous performance too much. And as for the teases of the vault – enough already. Show us what’s in there!

7/10 

Doctor Who: Thin Ice (S10E03) Review

Bill’s real world nous and sci-fi savvy is proving to be a real asset to the current season of Doctor Who. After last week’s detour into whimsical fairy tale storytelling, “Thin ice” brings us solidly back to a more grounded Who, and adds a dash of realism that has often been lacking in the series’ fifty-four year history.

Having landed in 1814 London during the last frost fair, the Doctor and Bill quickly discover that everything is not as it seems. Something is lurking beneath the ice and as people continue to disappear mysteriously, the Doctor begins to suspect that the real monster isn’t under the frozen Thames at all…

Returning writer Sarah Dollard (“Face The Raven”) once again brings bags of atmosphere and ideas into play in this curious hybrid which almost qualifies as that rarest of Whovian delights, the pure historical. Any period longings for the Paternoster Gang are quickly snuffed out thanks to the serious tone of the adventure and, especially, the conversations between Bill and the Doctor. Bill’s willingness to confront the Doctor with the difficult questions not only about time travel mechanics (hello, butterfly effect) but the sociological implications of the historical past and how it could prove problematic at best provides the series with a powerful new way to continue Moffat’s ongoing efforts to deconstruct the series’ mythology, all the while carefully rebuilding and strengthening it as he does so.

The Doctor’s blunt and pithy denunciation of humanity’s whitewashed history is quite a momentous moment, casually but indelibly delivered. It was an issue which was largely ducked during Martha’s time with The Doctor so it’s gratifying to have it explicitly acknowledged even if it may potentially complicate adventures in Earth’s past for a future non-white Doctor. There’s no denying that the real villain of “Thin Ice”, once they are revealed, is all the more monstrous because of their vicious prejudice.

Although there are significant echoes of Season Five’s “The Beast Below”, this is a very different creation, with a very different outcome. The Twelfth Doctor and Bill are shaping up to be one of the very best TARDIS crews in the series’ history, especially when they’ve got material as good as this to work with. The tagged on scenes at the end with Nardole were an unwelcome intrusion even though they at least hinted at developments behind the vault door. Next week’s preview, however, looks like it’s going to reset the limits of what “Doctor Who” can get away with in an early evening family TV slot once again.

9/10 

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) Review

The weight of expectation resting on the follow-up to 2014’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is a testament to just how spectacularly Marvel’s big gamble paid off. But like “Avengers Assemble” before it, the challenge of following up a nearly flawless success is a daunting one.

After a spot of mischievous larceny by Rocket angers their most recent client, Ayesha, High Priestess of The Sovereign People, the Guardians find themselves fleeing from the Sovereign fleet and crash-land on a nearby planet thanks to Star-Lord and Rocket’s squabbling. But their argument is interrupted by the arrival of another ship, piloted by Ego (Kurt Russell), a being who claims to be Star Lord’s father.

Much of the trailer footage is taken from the opening twenty or so minutes of the film, which gives you an idea of just how packed “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” is. It starts off at an almost breakneck pace and the desperation to entertain, delight and amuse as much as its predecessor did is palpable. In fact, the chaotic, frenetically eager to please opening teeters on the brink of irritating before it calms itself down and begins to tell its story. Essentially, this is a textbook follow-up to an ‘assemble the team’, scattering the team once more in order to show the genuine strength of their bonds as they come back together, just through the off-beat and zanily creative lens of writer/ director James Gunn.

Retaining all the brash, confident swagger of the original, Volume 2 looks to fill in some of the backstories hinted at in the first movie and ends up providing more than we might have expected. Yes, we get a lot more information on Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill’s history but along the way, we’re treated to poignant and rewarding glimpses into the other Guardians and their families – even Yondu and the Ravagers. Given the franchise’s cosmic setting, broadening the scope of the story is a moot point so instead, Gunn goes deeper into the relationships, ultimately revealing a surprisingly poignant and emotional core to the irreverent and often superficially juvenile antics. It’s that very juxtaposition, though, that may prove grating to some of the audience because the film is Quill. It’s got his compulsion to deflect any sincere emotional moment with a joke and you’ll find it either annoying or endearing or maybe even both in equal measure, especially when it comes to some of the cameos.

The core cast is well served by the script and despite his connection to the central plot, Chris Pratt’s only-very-slightly-less-charming-this-time-round Peter Quill doesn’t dominate. Despite fears of Baby Groot being overused, it’s the goofy and blunt Drax (Dave Bautista) who almost wears out his welcome. In Ego, the Guardians have a suitably grand antagonist whose ultimate plan – and connection to both Peter and Yondu – provides the film with its emotional sucker punch as well as the galactic stakes required for the Guardians to risk everything once again.

This is the 15th movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and while there have been flaws and follies, there are no signs yet of the oft-prophesied decline. In fact, what “Guardians Of The Galaxy  Vol. 2” really does is reveal the extent of Marvel’s ultimate ambition. There are cameos, Easter Eggs and groundwork being laid which would suggest that the Cosmic Marvel Cinematic Universe is not simply a tributary offshoot of main Marvel Cinematic Universe but may yet become its own, independent but parallel franchise. It would be typical of Marvel to launch a second, fully functioning cinematic universe while their rivals continue to struggle to pull together a single one. If nothing else, it’ll keep Stan Lee very busy for years to come.

“Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2” is, much like new addition Mantis (Pom Klementieff), something of an empathic mirror and if you love it, it will love you in return but if you’re minded to dislike it, it will give you a lot of ammunition to do so. For me it was a dazzling and full-blooded, if slightly too hardworking, follow-up to the original, in many ways successfully achieving the ‘more personal, not bigger’ stakes “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” reached for but fell just short of. The soundtrack’s pretty damn good too, as you’d expect. And while its five – yes, five – mid- and post-credits stingers may seem excessive and indulgent, what else would you expect from the Guardians Of The Frickin’ Galaxy?

9/10 

The Belko Experiment (2017) Review

There’s a refreshingly straightforward brutality to “The Belko Experiment”, a darkly comic beat-‘em-up from writer James Gunn (“Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2”) and director Greg McLean (“Wolf Creek”).

In an isolated American office building in rural Bogota, Colombia, the working day starts much like any other for the ex-pat employees, even if security seems suddenly very tight. However, when the building is abruptly sealed off and the Tannoy crackles into life, the loyal workers of Belko Industries discover they have been selected for a social experiment and the dog eat dog world of office politics is about to become very, very real.

There’s nothing terribly original in the premise here, drawing as it does from everything from “Lord Of The Flies” to “Battle Royale” to that one daydream you had during that one, incredibly dull, seemingly never-ending meeting on a dull Wednesday afternoon but there’s an undeniable frisson to seeing office politics subsumed by the realpolitik of kill or be killed.

Where Gunn’s script and his eponymous corporation succeed is in allowing the experiment to proceed with a fairly light touch. Sure, there are some forceful nudges to get things rolling but once the Belko employee morale is past the tipping point, it’s the characters who drive the story forward to its grisly conclusion. Where it struggles, though, is in satirising much beyond its initial comparison of corporate career progression being a fight to the death. Beyond that, it has little of substance or insight to offer on working life or corporate exploitation through its metaphor but it seems to hope by that point you’re having so much fun watching these people slash, burn and shoot each other you won’t mind.

The cast is likeable and packed full of great character actors like Michael Rooker, John C McGinley and the apparently ageless Tony Goldwyn who provides a focal point for the fear and hostility of the staff as the man-of-the-people-my-door-is-always-open-COO-gone-bad while our moral ‘hero’ John Gallagher Jr channels his best Jim from “The Office: An American Workplace” pushed beyond breaking point.

There’s a twist in the tale at the very end which points both to a direction for a sequel and a fascinating intriguing of the idea behind the film as well as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inference that Dunder Miflin itself may have been a subsidiary of Belko Industries but taken as a standalone movie, “The Belko Experiment” will find a comfortable place as a post-pub movie, perfect for unwinding on a Friday night after another killer week at work.

6/10 

Doctor Who: Smile (S10E02) Review

Our second outing of Season 10 opens in media res, or at least feels like it and I’ll admit I rewound the live TV just in case I’d blinked and missed a few vital seconds. I hadn’t. After a brief and pointed reminder from Nardole regarding the Doctor’s ‘Oath’ to protect whatever’s in that vault, we’re off on the customary companion’s first trip episode.

In the distant future, at the edge of the galaxy, the Doctor and Bill land near a gleaming white city surrounded by wheat fields, apparently abandoned except for robots. The Doctor and Bill are, at least, happier to find wheat on an alien world than the people in the “Alien: Covenant” trailer. But the happiness is short lived as they discover the macabre secret of the city: anyone who isn’t happy is killed by the Vardy (microbots who control the – for want of a better term – Emoji-Loompas). Resolving to destroy the city before more human colonists arrive, the Doctor sets out to blow up its power source, just as Bill discovers the humans aren’t due to arrive: they’re already there.

Much like Cottrell-Boyce’s previous episode “In The Forest Of The Night”, there’s an abundance of ambition and imagination at work here and, just like that episode, it’s not particularly well thought out and the ending is another massive cop out.

The visuals are lifted straight from “Tomorrowland”, thanks to some exotic location shooting in Valencia but the lush location aside, there’s a cheapness to the episode driven by the general lack of a supporting cast except for the very beginning and very end. Was it really worth flying Mina Anwar and Ralph Little out to Valencia for half a day’s work? Seems a bit of a waste, really.

It’s all a bit dull, really. Thankfully, Capaldi can make even the most ludicrous dialogue sound credible so he easily deals with leaden turns of phrase such as ‘grief as plague’ while he figures out why the Vardy have turned on their human creators.

It’s a shame the story – a clumsy mishmash of previous Who outings “The Happiness Patrol” and “The Ark In Space” with dashes of “Big Hero 6” and the aforementioned “Tomorrowland”  – bogs the whole thing down because the quality of the visuals, and some of the dialogue nearly manage to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. There are some marvellous moments of banter between Bill and the Doctor, notably about Scots in Space and there’s a sly shout out to David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’ too but thanks to the sparse cast, there’s just too much tell and not enough show for the episodes ideas to really flourish and grow. The ending is perhaps one of the most narratively insulting “Doctor Who” has ever provided as this most derivative of episodes takes its final inspiration from “The IT Crowd”.

Capaldi and Pearl Mackie continue to knock it out of the park, though and Bill is proving herself to be the perfect companion for this Doctor. Hopefully we can chalk this up to an early stumble and the rest of the season will live up to the promise of “The Pilot”. Next week’s looking encouraging. Frost fairs and sinister Victoriana seems like fertile ground for a classic Who-dunnit. But this week, for an episode called “Smile” which dealt with the fatal consequences of unhappiness, its ultimate effect on this viewer was deeply ironic.

4/10 

Doctor Who: The Pilot (S10E01) Review

After an absence so long it almost qualifies for the sobriquet the Fourth Great Doctor Who Hiatus (especially if one understandably overlooks the forgettable “Return of Doctor Mysterio”), proper “Doctor Who” is back on telly for a tenth [thirty-sixth] season. So what does mischievous showrunner Steven Moffat call this overdue return? “The Pilot”, obviously.

The Doctor is working undercover as a University professor, all the while guarding a mysterious doorway in the basement of the faculty buildings. When a regular attendee at his lectures catches his eye, it draws him into an adventure of starry-eyed romance and a peculiarly puzzling puddle.

There’s a trademark Moffat sly cleverness to the episode title, as it figuratively and literally relaunches the programme after a prolonged absence and works perfectly as a jumping-on point for viewers who’ve never watched “Doctor Who” before – if such people still exist.

However, for people who have seen “Doctor Who” before, there are – appropriately – Easter Eggs aplenty, from the word go. As well as a pen pot full of sonic screwdrivers from days of yore, there are also a couple of sentimental photos on the Doctor’s professorial desk, including what will surely turn out to be a Chekhov’s Picture of his granddaughter Susan, last seen spraining her ankle in the Death Zone on Gallifrey in 1983’s “The Five Doctors”.

For a (re)launching point, it certainly embraces the rich history of the series so far, albeit in a subtle way and its most consistent homage is to the late, great Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor. The entire set-up of the curiously long-serving university professor will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the unfinished Tom Baker story “Shada” or read Adams’ “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and the cameo appearance from the silver dreadlocked Movellans from “Destiny Of The Daleks” cements the Adams-esque feel.

Thankfully, against this reverential and self-referential backdrop of teases, portents and promises, there’s a nifty little monster-of-the-week plot and a sparky introduction to our new companion, Bill. The monster – unnamed – is a classic Whovian creation of taking something ordinary and every day – a puddle – and giving it a sinister twist. For a while, I was wondering if we’d get a link back to “The Waters Of Mars” but ultimately, despite its phenomenal powers to pursue and track the TARDIS across millions of years and billions of miles it’s dismissed as a sentient oil leak from a passing alien shuttlecraft.

Bill is instantly charming, offering the same wide-eyed exuberance as Billie Piper did in “Rose”, combined with an inquisitive and irreverent attitude. There’s an instant chemistry with Capaldi’s Doctor, a portrayal which continues to grow and develop in a way that makes it bittersweet that now he’s back, this is to be his last series. I’m still undecided about Nardole – who apparently is partly robotic now – although he’s better here than he was in the Christmas special, probably due to the lack of attempts to retcon his presence after “The Husbands Of River Song”.

The whole episode is a treat and while there are some plot threads left dangling – some deliberately and a few in a typically Moffat way – it’s a giddy mix of adventure, fun and some genuinely creepy moments which riff on classic horror tropes. While he may be a divisive figure to a vocal set of fans, it’s hard to deny that when Moffat gets Who right, he really gets it right. “The Pilot” is among his best work, aware and affectionate of the series’ rich history and traditions but acutely aware of the need for it to remain vibrant, alive and relevant to the wider, non-Whovian audience. It’s a bold and energetic beginning for a series entering its 54th year. I can’t wait to see what the Doctor and Bill get up to next.

8/10 

Fast & Furious 8 (2017) Review

The Fast & Furious franchise continues to surprise and delight in equal measure as it resumes its metamorphosis into a Saturday morning cartoon brought to lavish live-action life.

When his honeymoon is interrupted by the appearance of the notorious cybercriminal Cypher (Charlize Theron), Dominic Torreto (Vin Diesel) finds himself blackmailed into betraying his team and turning his back on his family. But his family won’t give him up without a fight and so begins a globetrotting race against time to stop Cypher from carrying out her evil plan.

As the Box Office receipts can evidence, the “Fast & Furious” movies have established themselves as the pre-eminent action franchise in cinema today. In the same way that Jason Bourne reshaped action capers in the early 2000s, so this car racing turned action adventure series has done now and as the Bond producers mull which direction to turn after the lacklustre “SPECTRE”, they could do worse than inject some of the fun and ferocity of the adventures of Dom, Hobbs and the gang.

While the trailer itself gives away many of the key vehicular set pieces, there’s plenty of action to enjoy, including an inspired sequence as Jason Statham escapes from a plane. Not content with revitalising the action spy game, “Fast & Furious 8” also manages to do its very own spin on the played out zombie genre and the results are both terrifying and terrific.

The absence of Paul Walker is felt but “Fast & Furious 8” offers a few potential replacements to see which one sticks. First off is the return of Jason Statham’s Deckard, the principle antagonist of “Fast & Furious 7”, pressganged by Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) into working with Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to track down Dom. Although Statham has fantastic screen chemistry with Johnson, there’s the lingering issue of his killing of one of Dom’s crew. Kylo Ren can only dream that his killing of Han will be as swiftly forgotten. The other potential Brian Walker replacement is Scott Eastwood as ‘Little Nobody’, an Agent working for Mr Nobody but there’s such a lack of personality to his character, he could easily be replaced by a self-driving car in most of the action scenes. Theron’s villain, on the other hand, is easily the most formidable of the series so far and it’s to be hoped she does what nearly every other villain has done and return at some point in the future.

“Fast & Furious 8” is a near perfect popcorn action flick, the kind of film multiplexes were made for. Superheroes may come to dominate and “Star Wars” will no doubt cap the year off but make no mistake, 2017’s blockbuster season started fast and furiously in April.

8/10 

My Life In Movies (#ThisIsYourFilm)

So…with it being my birthday, I figured why not do a post around the Twitter hashtag #ThisIsYourFilm where you choose your favourite movie from every year you’ve been alive. Piece of piss, right? Won’t take that long. Oh boy, was I wrong. Even now, as I’m writing this opening preamble, I’m still second-guessing some of my choices, especially for the decade from 1984 to 1994. At least it’s favourite movies and not ‘best’ movies otherwise this would have taken forever. So, without further ado, for better or worse, This Is My Film [Life]:

1974 Blazing Saddles

One of Mel Brooks’ earliest efforts is still one of his very best. Generationally amusing, it rewards repeated viewings as you get older as more and more jokes reveal themselves to you. Start with the cowboy bean feast and go from there.

1975 Jaws

Responsible, to this day, for my reluctance to swim in the sea.

1976 Logan’s Run

Weirdly timeless and yet hopelessly dated, Michael York seems an odd choice for a leading man but this is smart sci-fi that only resonates more as you get older. Also, Peter Ustinov.

1977 Star Wars

As if I could pretend there would be any other choice for 1977. I was too young to see it when it first came out but it would shape cinema for the rest of my childhood.

1978 Grease

This was a close run choice between “Grease” and “Superman: The Movie” but given Randal Kleiser’s 1978 musical forms the basis of my earliest memory of going to the cinema, the man of steel will have to sit this one out.

1979 Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

I may only have discovered it in my teenage years but that doesn’t stop Life Of Brian from being my favourite 1979 movie. He may not be the messiah, but this was a very easy choice.

1980 Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

This is the first year that really gave me a tough choice. It could easily have been “Airplane!” or “Superman II” and when I say “Superman II” I mean the theatrical Richard Lester version. [Blasphemy!]

1981 Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Not even the trenchant observations of the writers of “The Big Bang Theory” can diminish the fact that this is peerless swashbuckling adventure cinema. One of the few films which, when you happen upon it regardless of how much you’ve missed, you’ll want to watch the rest.

1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

My favourite movie of all time. Yes, it’s Star Trek, which for some seems to prohibit it from being considered great but it’s a masterclass of screenwriting, the epitome of how to successfully bring an old TV series back to big screen life and features career best performances from the entire cast.

1983 Trading Places

Hilarious, still relevant and archly satirical, Aykroyd and Murphy are on top form, Jamie Lee Curtis is on mischievously topless form and veterans Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche class up the joint. Director John Landis gets the best from his top drawer cast.

 

They say that it’s around the age of 12 that you start to firm up your personal cultural touchstones, the things you watch, listen to and do at the cusp of your teenage years forms the benchmarks against which you judge everything from then onwards, especially anything which attempts to riff on your childhood favourite. That may go some way to explaining why I found 1984-1994 trickier than almost every other year. Were there just many more great movies in that decade or is it the rosy glow of nostalgia?

1984 Amadeus

For the longest time, this is the film I claimed was my all-time favourite movie but then I grew old enough not to care if people got sniffy about The Wrath Of Khan. Still, I do adore the sumptuousness of Milos Forman’s lavish adaptation. It’s legitimately my second favourite movie and it made me a fan of F Murray Abraham forever. 1984 could easily, though, have gone to “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom”, “Ghostbusters”, “Gremlins”, “The Last Starfighter” or “Police Academy”.

1985 The Goonies

Indiana Jones junior shenanigans, its appeal is reputedly based more in nostalgia than quality as it doesn’t play anywhere near as well with kids these days but it’s just so much fun I find it irresistible. Sorry, “Back To The Future”, “Rocky IV” and “Teenwolf”

1986 Aliens

Actually a better benchmark for ‘superior sequels’ than “The Empire Strikes Back”, Cameron’s follow-up to Scott’s original monster movie ramps up the actions and the aliens while underpinning it with themes of motherhood and corporate greed. Just the right amount of cartoonish tropery means you care about each and every grunt who meets their heroic or deservedly grisly death. Whether you’re watching the original or Director’s Cut, there’s simply too much here for “Big Trouble In Little China”, “Labyrinth”, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and “Poltergeist II” to overcome.

1987 Robocop

What about “The Lost Boys”? you may howl but for me, “Robocop” is the movie of 1987, just edging out “Predator”. It wasn’t an easy win, though, as I had “Spaceballs” pencilled in here for a while too. Peter Weller’s far too sincere performance in Verhoeven’s schlocky and gratuitous satire, though, gives this a rewatchability which sets it above its contemporaries.

1988 The Naked Gun: From The Files Of Police Squad!

My overriding memory of seeing this in the cinema is my sides literally aching from having laughed so much only to nearly fall out of my seat at that last visual gag of Nordberg (O J Simpson) in his wheelchair careering down the bleachers and pin wheeling over the railing onto the baseball field right at the very end. And that’s my justification for choosing it for 1988 over “Die Hard”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Coming To America”, “Beetlejuice”, “Crocodile Dundee II” (my favourite of the Crocodile Dundee movies or even one of my guiltiest pleasures: “My Stepmother Is An Alien”

1989 The Little Mermaid

The beginning of the Disney Renaissance and my personal favourite of Disney spectacular 1989 – 1994 run. ‘Under The Sea’ remains my showstopper benchmark for every subsequent Disney musical. Sorry, “Batman”, “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade”, “The Abyss”, “Back To The Future Part II”, “Lethal Weapon 2” and “Parenthood”.

1990 The Hunt For Red October

The first Tom Clancy Jack Ryan adaptation remains the best (the last one the worst) and it’s a shame Alec Baldwin didn’t continue in the role rather than the effective but workmanlike turn by Harrison Ford. 1990 was one of the toughest years to choose, too, and Red October may have squeaked through due to the crowded field: “Total Recall”, “Die Hard 2: Die Harder”, “Arachnophobia”, “Kindergarten Cop” and “Gremlins 2: The New Batch” would all have been good choices too.

1991 Beauty And The Beast

Robbed of the Best Picture Oscar (up yours, “Silence Of The Lambs”), my favourite movie of 1991 is a tale as old as time, which may go some way to explaining why the recent remake left me cold. If Belle and the Beast hadn’t got this year in the bag it could easily have gone to “The Addams Family”, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”, “Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves”, “Hot Shots”, “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” or “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”. And maybe “Silence Of The Lambs”…begrudgingly.

1992 The Muppet Christmas Carol

Sorry, Prince Ali Ababwa, but Kermit & Co’s note perfect Dickens adaptation is the only film I could have chosen for favourite of 1992. Nothing else even came close.

1993 Jurassic Park

An adventure 65 million years in the making and my current record holder for ‘most times seen in the cinema’, 1993 belongs to the Spielberg/ Crichton collaboration, despite “Mrs Doubtfire”, “Addams Family Values”, “Demolition Man”, “Cliffhanger” and the vastly underrated “Last Action Hero”.

1994 The Shawshank Redemption

Who couldn’t choose Shawshank in this year? Well, nearly me thanks to “The Lion King”, “True Lies”, “Stargate”, “The Mask” and “The Santa Clause

1995 Apollo 13

Free of the golden decade, the choices become easier again. Houston, we have no problem in choosing Ron Howard’s gripping true life drama as my favourite film of 1995.

1996 Scream

It may not be my favourite scary movie, but it’s my favourite movie of 1996 and catapulted Neve Campbell into my affections.

1997 Devil’s Advocate

I’ve got a real soft spot for this satanic legal satire; there’s deliciousness to the acting prowess imbalance of Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino sharing the screen which adds to the fun. In the current age of remaking movies as TV series, this is one I’m genuinely surprised hasn’t been plundered for a new series. “Hell-A Law” anyone?

1998 The Wedding Singer

Yeah, an Adam Sandler film. Don’t @ me. I’m only joking; of course you can @ me. In fact, I’d love to hear what your favourite movie of 1998 is!

1999 Fight Club

Fincher’s, Pitt’s and Norton’s finest. This nihilistic masterpiece of self-congratulatory masculinity may have a queasy edge of toxic machismo nearly twenty years later and its twist, like “The Sixth Sense” loses its impact after the first viewing, but there’s still so much to enjoy.

2000 Pitch Black

Gravel-voiced action megastar Vin Diesel gets his big break in this gritty, imaginative indie sci-fi horror which spawned two sequels of varying insanity and quality.

2001 Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

Arguably the best of the trilogy (or sextology if you include “The Hobbit” films), it’s everything that was great about Peter Jackson’s trilogy and like nothing we had seen before at this stage.

2002 Blade II

Another superior sequel, better in every conceivable way than its predecessor even despite the slightly awkward need to retcon Whistler’s ‘death’ in the first movie. Marvel has never been darker or as badass as this again.

2003 Big Fish

It was a close run thing, with “Kill Bill Vol. 1”, “X2” or “Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World” all vying for attention but there’s something about Tim Burton’s kooky and sentimentally sunny biography of tall tale teller Edward Bloom. Seeing as I couldn’t choose “The World According To Garp” for 1982, this is the next best thing.

2004 The Incredibles

Simply the finest version of “The Fantastic Four” ever brought to cinematic life. Not just a perfect animated family movie, but a perfect comic book/ superhero movie too. How Brad Bird has not yet been snapped up by either Marvel or DC simply beggars belief. He’s the one man I would trust to rehabilitate Superman within the current DCEU.

 

2005 Batman Begins

Speaking of the DCEU, here’s the film which started (and potentially ruined) it all. A breathtaking and necessary retooling reboot after the hideous excess of “Batman & Robin”, Christopher Nolan stripped the caped crusader back to grounded basics and finally made Bruce Wayne/ Batman the most important character in his own movie.

2006 The Devil Wears Prada

Bitchy with performances to die for, Streep is magnificent while Tucci, Hathaway and Blunt give as good as they get. I’ve watched this multiple times and love it every single viewing.

2007 Hot Fuzz

The definite high point of The Cornetto Trilogy, Edgar Wright’s sharply observed and affectionate spoof of overly macho action movie tropes is perfectly realised in the idyllic English countryside, magnifying the comic potential.

2008 Iron Man

Yeah, I chose “Iron Man” above “The Dark Knight”. Both are great movies in their own right, both were followed by sequels which failed to live up to them but only one launched an unparalleled cinematic franchise while the other arguably crippled an attempt to create another. This is probably also a good time to reiterate that this is a list of my favourite movies from each year, not my list of the objective best movies of each year.

2009 Watchmen

There is nobody finer than Zack Snyder when it comes to bringing the panels and imagery of a comic book to painstakingly recreated life on the big screen. Where he’s working from an established text and therefore doesn’t need to take responsibility for story and character, he’s phenomenal. For me, “Watchmen” remains his benchmark.

2010 Inception

Hello again, Christopher Nolan. Three movies in one, this sci-fi thriller out-Bonds Bond and manages to deliver both kick-ass action and philosophical food for thought in equal measure.

2011 Arthur Christmas

Aardman brings their magic to bear on Christmas with a twinkly and imaginative spin on the legend of Santa Claus, providing a satisfying explanation for almost every aspect of the myth.

2012 Avengers Assemble

It seems so obvious now, but it’s worth remembering just how huge it was that not only did this film work, it worked brilliantly. Still one of the best cinema experiences of my life, the theatre was buzzing from start to finish and I came out of seeing it on a high I don’t think I’ve ever really come all the way down from.

2013 The Wolf Of Wall Street

Gratuitous, foul-mouthed and gob-smackingly true, this is the film Leo should have won the Oscar for. Absolutely flies by despite its three hour run time, and packed with great performances from the entire cast.

2014 The Grand Budapest Hotel

Like a cardboard theatre brought to live, it’s simply exquisite to look at and listen to. Sublime.

2015 Tomorrowland: A World Beyond

Ironically this movie failed to find an audience with its message that negativity and nihilism breeds its own self-fulfilling prophecy but I adored its pro-science, pro-intelligence optimism. Little wonder the world which rejected this movie and its moral ended up voting for Brexit and Trump.

2016 The Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Packed with character and sly humour, Taika Waititi beautifully realised, quirky adaptation of the story of a kid and his foster uncle going on the run in the bush deals with weighty themes whilst keeping everything light and frothy.

2017 Kong: Skull Island (so far*)

It’s just so silly and fun. It fully embraces its utter nonsensicality and is all the stronger for it. A good, old-fashioned creature feature adventure.

*Up to April 10, 2017.

 

So there you have it. 44 years’ worth of favourite movies. Boy, that took way longer than I expected and threw up some interesting choices. Which years do you agree with? Which don’t you? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to see your lists.

The Boss Baby (2017) Review

Not since Disney/ Pixar’s “Cars” has an animated movie presented such an incoherent and illogical fictional world as “The Boss Baby” does.

Facing an existential threat, Baby Corp sends an undercover operative (Alec Baldwin) to live with the Templeton family to find out what the Templeton parents know about Puppy Co’s plan to launch a new breed of puppy. But when the Templeton’s son Timothy (Tobey Maguire) rumbles Boss Baby’s cover the two are forced to work together.

It’s hard to encapsulate the many, many ways that “The Boss Baby” just doesn’t make sense. Loosely adapted from a picture book, the final product screams of a concept handed to a writer’s room to make the best of. It’s a shame, too, as the vocal performance are pretty good, especially Alec Baldwin and the animation design is beautiful to look at. It’s just that nothing else makes a lick of sense. “Storks” struggled to reconcile its cutesy plot with the basics of where babies come from but “The Boss Baby” makes it look like a biology masterclass. Even if you can overlook the shakiness of the basic premise, the plot doesn’t work either and the film stumbles from one ‘hey, wouldn’t it be funny if…?’ set piece to the next, connected by the thinnest of coherent narrative threads long after the mild amusement of a ‘helpless’ baby spouting corporate buzzwords wears thin.

Instantly forgettable, Dreamworks needs to stop churning out this kind of rubbish and get on with making a follow-up to “How To Train Your Dragon 2”.

2/10 

Ghost In The Shell (2017) Review

If it wasn’t for the overblown ‘controversy’ over casting, the live-action remake of “Ghost In The Shell” might have struggled to generate much attention at all.

In the not too distant future, cybernetic enhancements are almost universal, blurring the lines between humanity and robots. Major (Scarlett Johansson), a human mind inside an entirely robotic body, leads a squad in Section 9, the anti-terrorist bureau. Her mission is intensely personal to her given she is the sole survivor (of sorts) of a terrorist attack which killed her parents. However, while investigating recent attacks on senior personnel of Hanka Robotics, she begins to experience hallucinatory glitches which seem to be connected to the cyber terrorist known as Kuze.

Given the original anime has been ruthlessly strip-mined for imagery and ideas since it was released to worldwide acclaim (particularly by “The Matrix” trilogy and all the “Matrix” imitators which followed) it seems somewhat disingenuous to be so outraged at the casting of Johansson in the lead role. Yes, the original was set in Japan – as is this one – but the 1995 anime featured a fairly diverse cast of characters including plenty of Caucasians and the character of Major was animated in what looks a lot like an ethnically neutral way. I don’t really buy into the argument that it’s whitewashing or cultural appropriation given the one area the film really succeeds (apart from Johansson’s committed performance) is in its visual recreation of many of the original animation’s signature Japanese visuals. Shouldn’t we be as comfortable with casting Scarlett Johansson as Major as we are with Michael B Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm in “Fantastic Four” (and maybe focus more on why the stories aren’t being told well rather than who’s playing what part)?

For all the outrage, though, “Ghost In The Shell” just doesn’t do anything very interesting with the ideas it’s playing with. It rearranges some of the plot points from the original but to little effect and therefore ends up being very pretty to look at, but lacking any real substance.

5/10 

Smurfs: The Lost Village (2017) Review

Ditching the hybrid live action of the previous instalment for a purely animated outing, the Smurfs are back, and this time they’re still obsessing over Smurfette.

While the Smurfs live happily in their topless blue utopia of nominative determinism, Smurfette frets that she doesn’t have a purpose like her brethren. But a chance encounter with a mysterious Smurf-like creature sets her off on a journey of discovery and a race to find a lost village of Smurfs before the evil wizard Gargamel does.

The arrival of a new Smurfs film, if nothing else, at least solves the mystery of why James Cameron has been delaying the “Avatar” sequels: he was waiting for new source material to adapt. I’m calling it now, “Avatar 2” will deal with the discovery of a ‘lost’ tribe of Na’avi. Turnaround is fair play, I guess because there’s more than a hint of Pandora in the forbidden forest the Smurfs must explore to find their lost people.

The decision to step back from bringing the Smurfs into the real world frees the franchise up from having to maintain an ironic, self-aware edge and the resultant adventure is all the better for it. Without the real world, the oddities of the Smurf society are less obvious and their charm can shine through. The Lost Village is a frothy, fun adventure that skips along singing a happy tune. It’s bright, colourful and pretty funny to boot, even if the idea of a lost tribe of female Smurfs raises far more questions than it answers.

The littlest Craggling (aged 4) sagely pronounced this film as ‘better than “Trolls”’ and while I wouldn’t go that far, it’s certainly the best modern Smurfs movie to date.

6/10 

Free Fire (2017) Review

Released tomorrow, Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to his adaptation of “High Rise” is a quirky slice of lowlife set in the gun running ganglands of 1970s Boston. With its tongue firmly in cheek and a bullet in the chamber, it’s a breezy and bonkers film which owes a great deal to the works of Quentin Tarantino.

In an abandoned Boston factory, a group of Irish terrorists arrange to buy some guns from a weapons dealer. But thanks to a bar fight from the night before, insults and bullets start flying.

There’s an undeniable eagerness to the movie and straight out of the gate it tries too hard. It’s almost too quirky, too quippy; every line of dialogue aiming for that Tarantino-esque gnomic quality that achieves quotable immortality. Unfortunately, they come so thick and so fast that few of them have time to linger long in the memory before the next witty aphorism barges it out of the way.

Much like “The Hateful Eight”, once the characters are gathered together, the film has an almost theatrical quality as events play out in a single location. Although largely confined to the one set, Wheatley keeps things visually interesting and the fantastic sound design provides plenty of atmosphere for the almost Pythonesque goings on.

Despite the action orientated setting, it’s largely a character driven piece and the performances of the cast are strong enough to compensate for the relative thinness of the plot. It’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is and while everyone in the cast is good value, Brie Larson, in particular, feels underused and only there to keep things from being a total sausage fest. The film does sag in the middle somewhat as the constant exchange of gunfire and banter begins to run out of steam but manages to pick up momentum again for an entertainingly bonkers finale, even if the final outcome is a little bit disappointing.

Blatantly gunning for cult status, “Free Fire” has plenty of violent fun and silliness to offer, but it falls just short of greatness by choosing style over substance at every turn.

6/10 

Life (2017) Review

If there’s one thing you can say about the movie “Life”, is that it answers the question ‘Is there life on Mars?’ fairly quickly. In fact, it answers it in the trailer so there’s little time wasted in getting to the ‘good’ stuff.

When a returning probe from Mars returns with a sample of a single-celled organism, the joy of discovery quickly turns to terror for the five-person crew of the International Space Station as they learn the life form has an agenda of its own.

Blessed with a suitably starry cast, “Life” benefits from some smartly portrayed space science which takes centre stage in the early portion of the film, admittedly at the expense of character development but the film’s biggest mistake is in its rush to get to its own spin on the claustrophobic tension and terror of “Alien” it stumbles into repeating the worst of Ridley Scott’s other xenomorphic outing, “Prometheus”. In order to move its story along, “Life” consistently requires very smart people to make very stupid choices. There are odd gaps in the consistency of scenes and dialogue, hinting at a choppy editing process which sought to salvage something from a different, possibly longer movie. While it’s moderately successful in generating some suspense, there’s never enough depth to the characters to feel fully invested so the grisly developments fail to have the necessary impact. The cast do their best but the superficial script is too in love with its own premise to devote the time and effort needed to create the emotional stakes needed to really ratchet up the terror.

The special effects work, however, is mightily impressive, not just in the alien creation itself but also the portrayal of life aboard the ISS, rivalling “Gravity” for its seamless portrayal of life in orbit. But as glossy and slick as the visuals are, there’s just too much inconsistency and stupidity for the film to work and by the time it tries something really brave and different, it’s too late and you’ll see it coming a mile off. For all its promise and possibilities, “Life” is dead on arrival.

5/10 

Mother’s Day (2016) Review

A limp and saccharine end to a great career, “Mother’s Day” forms the third and final part of Gary Marshall’s ensemble holiday-themed dramedy trilogy and, despite how bad “Valentine’s Day” was, “Mother’s Day” still finds enough depths to plumb to ensure it adheres to the law of trilogies.

In the build-up to Mother’s Day – which is apparently a huge deal for the purposes of this film – a diverse and eclectic mix of friends and families love, laugh and learn the true meaning of motherhood.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Mother’s Day the day. The film, yes, but not the day itself. As usual, Marshall manages to corral a glittering array of big screen talent – and Jack Whitehall – to populate his candyfloss melodrama but ultimately it all feels arbitrary and inconsequential despite setting its sights on such weighty topics as divorce, bereavement, racism and homophobia. It wastes the talents of the likes of Jason Sudeikis and allows many of its biggest names to stay lazily in their comfort zones all in service to a cosily twee resolution. Deeply unpleasant lifelong homophobia and racial prejudices are resolved in the twinkling of an eye thanks to some awkwardly forced hijinks while the absence of a mother is essayed by underlining how inept men are in caring for children, typified by a ‘humorous’ scene where a man who’s apparently been married for over a decade has somehow never had to buy tampons before. It’s okay because then he makes up for his late wife’s absence by showering his children with material goods. Bless.

Despite the film’s frequent and clumsy shout-outs to Julia Roberts’ back catalogue, she also features in the movie’s only vaguely worthwhile scene (unless you count the gag reel which plays over the end credits which is, honestly, much more fun than the film itself) as Julia Roberts and Jennifer Anniston share the screen together in a pivotal encounter. It’s the rom-com equivalent of the iconic cinematic meeting of DeNiro and Pacino in “Heat”.

Trite, pointless and sentimentally uninvolving, not even a mother could love this tedious schlockfest.

3/10 

Power Rangers (2017) Review

I was about ten years too old to really get into the Power Rangers during their 1990s heydey. My formative Japanese super-team of enhanced teenagers came in the animated form of “Battle Of The Planets”. In many ways, “Battle Of The Planets” set the template for “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers“, in being appropriated from a Japanese original, re-edited to insert additional scenes and deliver a story of five teenage heroes tasked with fighting off ‘alien galaxies from beyond space’ (yep, it even trail blazed the Rangers’ sketchy grasp of astrophysics) guided by a quirky robot helper against an relentlessly repetitive alien threat. They even had specialised vehicles that combined to form a more powerful vessel. But by the time a live-action variation on the same themes came along, I’d grown out of it. It seemed a little too childish thanks to its spandex and men in rubber suits fighting styles.

So it was with very little emotional investment and even less expectation that I approached the new, big budget, big screen reboot of earth’s mightiest morphinest heroes.

When a group of misfit teens uncover five alien power discs buried in the mountains near Angel Grove for thousands of years, they find themselves caught in the midst of an alien war that has raged for millennia. Together they must learn to master their new powers and come together as a team to defend the existence of life on Earth.

This is not your rose-tinted nostalgic memories of Power Rangers by any stretch (although there is a fun blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameo from Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnston). The fundamental building blocks (borrowed from earlier Japanese TV fare) are still there of course, but this is a film that embraces the current fashion for moody teenage angst and desperation to distance itself from its dated and embarrassing parent. So it borrows from “Chronicle” and “The Breakfast Club” to give it some teen-edginess. The tone fluctuates wildly between family friendly superhero shenanigans and darker/ crasser stuff. Surely nobody was expecting the new “Power Rangers” movie to open with a joke about jerking off a bull but that’s what you get. There are also a few moments where Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks delivering a performance a universe away from Carla Pérez’ high camp pantomime) goes to some very dark places in her attempts to conquer the world.

Of course, teens these days can’t just be untroubled youths so everybody’s got their signature issue, from rebel-without-a-cause (and Zac Efron-alike) Dacre Montgomery’s proto-Red Ranger Jason through remorseful sexting cyberbully Kimberley (Naomi Scott). There’s an unshowy nod to the LGBT community in Becky G’s Yellow Ranger Trini and teen carers get representation too through the Black Ranger’s back story which shows Zack (Ludi Lin) caring for his sick mother. It’s in Blue Ranger Billy (R J Cyler), though, that the film gets it most right, showing a positive and relatively unclichéd view of a young man living with autism. As clumsily implemented as the diversity agenda is, though, the cast are eminently likeable and make it work. Equally clumsy but much less successful is the vulgar product placement which blights the movie, especially in the Angel Grove showdown.

But, as muddled and manipulative as it might be, the end result is damn good fun. I’ve never enjoyed a “Power Rangers” movie or TV show as much as I did this one and, judging by how much Mertmas enjoyed it, it scored a direct hit on its target 10-year-old audience. It may play out more like a lavish pilot episode for a new TV series than a standalone movie and there’s nothing here that’ll have the current superhero movie titans of Marvel and DC looking nervously over their shoulder but in terms of rebooting a cheesy 90s TV show as a viable 21st century franchise, it’s a solid gold(ar) effort.

7/10 

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie (1995) Review

At the height of their TV popularity, it was a no-brainer to bring the brightly coloured chop socky antics of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to the big screen.

Tiring of Rita Repulsa’s continued failures to eliminate the Rangers, Lord Zed revives Ivan Ooze from his six millennia imprisonment. Ooze quickly destroys Zordon’s base, robbing the Rangers of their power. While Zordon lies dying on what looks like a bed salvaged from a Kryptonian jumble sale, Alpha 5 uses his remaining energy to send the Rangers to the planet Phaedos in search of a Great Power which may save Zordon. Meanwhile, Ivan Ooze enslaves the parents of Angel Grove and, usurping Zed and Rita Repulsa, sets himself up as absolute ruler.

The original TV series, adapted as it was from the Japanese original, always had a cheap and cheerful feel to it and director Brian Spicer does a fine job in making sure that the increased feature film budget doesn’t make it to the screen in terms of production values, performances or screenwriting.

After a prologue aimed at bringing non-TV viewers up to speed and emphasising how important it apparently is that the Rangers protect their secret identities, we’re treated to an opening skydiving sequence where each of the teens wears a jumpsuit colour-coded to their Ranger colours. It’s that kind of non-sequitur that ensures the movie retains much of the camp charm of the TV series. The main cast’s performances are as flat as you’d expect and while Rita and Lord Zed ham it up with all the subtlety and nuance of a regional pantomime, it’s in Paul Freeman’s Ivan Ooze that the film gets its biggest and best performance. It’s hard to believe that underneath that purple make-up is the elegant and coolly villainous René Belloq from “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” but he chews the scenery with such gusto that he nearly makes the whole thing irresistible.

Most of the stuff set on the planet Phaedos feels like padding and an excuse to change up the Rangers’ outfits as they’re given new spirit animals (no matter how you rationalise it, a frog will never be a cool creature) and cheap looking ninja-inspired costumes. With some lacklustre and shoddy fight choreography and some narrative handwaving about ‘the great power’, the Rangers eventually find their way back to earth and we discover what the director decided to do with the extra feature film money: spend it on some of the worst CGI ever to grace a movie screen. The Zord fight – which should be the movie’s crowning glory – is, instead, an atrociously bad, cheaply animated CGI slam down that makes you long for men in suits lumbering around a scale model sound stage.

It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming modern reboot can retain the charm of the original as it tries to give the franchise a modern edge. Its appeal lies in its cheesiness and for the under-teen market there’s plenty to enjoy in this bright and breezy, endearingly wholesome adventure. Mertmas loved it, and can’t wait for the forthcoming reboot. In the meantime, he’s been devouring the TV series but although the film has its share of fun moments, it’ll try the patience of anyone older than 12 and parents may find themselves envying their mindless onscreen counterparts.

5/10 

Get Out (2017) Review

Tense, gripping and deliciously, darkly oppressive, “Get Out” is a sensational directorial debut from Jordan Peele, one half of comedy duo Key and Peele.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is heading away for the weekend with his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams). Chris is worried how Rose’s parents will react to him being black, but when he arrives he gets a warm welcome. But the warmth of his reception masks something sinister. All is not what it seems at Rose’s family home and Chris may be powerless to do anything about it.

There’s a sharp, political edge to “Get Out”, enabled by a whip-smart script and a beautifully layered performance from Kaluuya. The underlying racial tension gives the movie a topical frisson but it’s in its excoriation of white liberal hypocrisy that the film makes its boldest and most successful points. Peele’s real triumph as writer/ director is to weave his trenchant social commentary seamlessly into a perfectly balanced horror thriller, embroidering genuine wit and humour into the tapestry. His background in comedy means his mastery of the technical skills of horror movie making may come as a surprise, but a very welcome one, setting up and then delivering on or subverting the expected punchlines.

Classy, cheekily seditious and deeply satisfying, “Get Out” – like “You’re Next” before it – twists the conventions to rich effect and sets a high bar for 2017 horror movies.

9/10 

Beauty And The Beast (2017) Review

Did you ever watch Disney’s 1991 animated classic “Beauty And The Beast” and think, ‘wow, that script was really missing something’? The original, animated, Best Picture Oscar-nominated “Beauty And The Beast” had a running time of 84 minutes. This new live-action adaptation clocks in at 129 minutes and adds little but padding with the extra 45 minutes.

The tale may be as old as time, but after a quarter of a century, Disney has decided to revisit the quiet provincial French village once again. Seemingly self-conscious of its need for a reason to exist, its in many of its deliberate attempts to differentiate itself from its illustrious predecessor that it suffers. Emma Watson makes for an appealing Belle and Luke Evans is note perfect as the boorish, brainless Gaston, albeit he’s allowed to assay a much darker edge to the character than previously shown. Unfortunately, Josh Gad’s LeFou is never anything less than hammy Josh Gad and his much-vaunted ‘exclusively gay moment’ is overshadowed by his consistently lame moments. A last minute change of heart and allegiance by Gaston’s willing accomplice and facilitator feels not only forced but unearned and undeserved, betraying both the point and identity of the character. Dan Stevens, even under CGI, is a credible Beast but unfortunately, the script is tweaked in such a way as to remove any agency whatsoever from the Beast. There is no inherent, deeply buried goodness in him rather everything is taught to him and he’s responsible for very little. He’s not the one who makes the first move over Belle’s castle accommodations or the one who makes an attempt to eat soup with a spoon before Belle compromises by raising the bowl to her lips. They’re only little changes but they add up to a sizeable character distortion.

Maybe it’s unfair to blame Belle for being so keen to wolf down the broth. After all, she conspicuously gets absolutely nothing to eat during the empty and soulless CGI rendition of ‘Be Our Guest’ as the dishes implore Belle to help herself only to whip away any foodstuffs which even go near her mouth. Ewan McGregor is a lacklustre Lumiere and the horrible character design doesn’t help him or Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth.

Shunning ‘Human Again’, the song added back in to the stage musical and restored to the animated feature on home release (despite it fitting perfectly with the live action film’s more supporting cast focused approach), the film instead adds a handful of new songs with lyrics by Tim Rice which only serve to show just how great a lyricist the late Howard Ashman was.

The narrative flow also suffers from the decision to cede some of the romantic impetus to the servants of the Beast’s castle and the script itself is saddled with too much unnecessary explanatory dialogue and exchanges between characters designed to make sure the studio gets its money’s worth from the star names. The egregiously forced side trip to a plague-ravaged Paris is just unpleasant and adds nothing of substance to the story.

Where “The Jungle Book” took the classic animated original and breathed new life into it, “Beauty And The Beast” falls into the trap of trying to both replicate the original and then bolting on some extra stuff to give the illusion of something new. Perhaps it would have been better if there were nothing there that wasn’t there before.

6/10 

Kong: Skull Island (2017) Review

In an age of shared blockbuster universes which take themselves terribly seriously, “Kong: Skull Island” is a breezy and brazen breath of fresh air. Preposterous in its premise, it’s not afraid to embrace its silliness and, as a result, is more fun than any of its Hollywood kaiju predecessors.

In the early 1970’s, an expedition to map an undiscovered island in the Pacific makes a startling discovery: a lost world of megafauna ruled over by the mighty Kong. But is he a tyrant or a protector?

Although set in the same fictional universe as 2014’s “Godzilla”, there’s a lightness of touch here that keeps things playful without sacrificing the spectacle or adventure. The cast are clearly having great fun, with Samuel L Jackson and John Goodman particularly enjoying themselves. There’s a sly knowingness to the script which, while relishing its seventies setting, isn’t above peppering in some pop culture references and modern day political satire. Even John C Reilly’s character – who felt a bit awkward and out of place in the trailers – fits in perfectly with the film’s mix of camp comedy and outrageous action. Hiddleston doesn’t do his leading man credentials any harm as dashing jungle tracker James Conrad although he’s more convincing in his swarthy introduction scene than later once he’s had a shave and smartened himself up a bit.

Despite the star-studded cast, it’s the creatures and effects which are the real draw here. Kong himself – performed by Terry Notary – is magnificent and the action sequences and creature designs are spectacular.

With a post-credits scene which hints at the presence of other Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, “Kong: Skull Island” isn’t just the most fun I’ve had in the cinema so far this year, it’s a promise for more Monster mash-ups to come.

8/10 

Patriot’s Day (2017) Review

It’s been less than four years since the Boston Marathon Bombings and I went into “Patriot’s Day” wondering what the film, made so soon after the saturation news coverage, hoped to achieve. Director Peter Berg, of course, is no stranger when it comes to adapting true life events and, after an awkward opening, he manages to deliver once again in retelling the events and aftermath of April 15th, 2013.

The opening twenty minutes or so of “Patriot’s Day” find themselves mired in disaster movie cliché as the various groups of characters are introduced going about their daily lives, oblivious to the impending doom which hangs over them. Once the attack takes place, however, the film grips you and doesn’t let go throughout. The ensemble cast bring their real life characters to life and the film does a superb job of illuminating the nail-biting tension and drama of the city-wide manhunt to catch the bombers before they could flee or strike again.

The only aspect of the film which doesn’t work is producer/ star Mark Walbergh’s improbably omnipresent Sergeant Tommy Saunders whose unnecessary back story weighs down the opening of the film and then distorts the rest of the narrative by seemingly being present – if not instrumental – in nearly every stage of the investigation and subsequent manhunt.

It’s a minor grumble though and despite my misgivings, I found it to be a gripping, edge-of-the-seat thriller, all the more astonishing for the true events it depicts.

8/10 

Moonlight (2017) Review

Beautifully structured and elegantly restrained, Barry Jenkins’ deceptively simple three act coming of age drama packs a powerful emotional punch as we follow Chiron, a disaffected young black man growing up and struggling with his identity and sexuality in suburban Miami.

Throughout each of the acts, assaying a different period of Chiron’s life, we’re treated to the raw cruelty of a life blighted by drugs and gang violence counterpointed poignantly with unexpected moments of tenderness such as the entirely unexpected kindness of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who finds young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) hiding from a gang of school bullies in an abandoned apartment. We see the gross injustice of a life spent fleeing the animalistic pack hunting of his bullying classmates turns to his own punishment for finally marshalling the courage to strike back.

Heart-breaking and affecting, this is artful and personal filmmaking, a dignified exploration of masculinity, society and sexuality.

Simultaneously dreamy and earthy, the cinematography and use of light, both natural and harsh neon hues, lend the film a distinctive palette, helping to define and connect the three stages of Chiron’s life.

While Mahershala Ali may have taken all the plaudits (and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) for his first act turn as drug dealer turned mentor Juan, it’s Naomie Harris who impressed for me, her performance nothing short of transformative. The three actors who bring Chiron to life (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) are fantastic, each bringing their own interpretation and yet recognisably the same person, still the damaged young man despite having grown hard and focussed, sculpted in his physique and adorned with gleaming gold grills.

“Moonlight” is a timely and vital film, a meditation on the brutality and tenderness of life. It may not be the most entertaining or easy watching of the Best Picture nominees, but it’s easy to see why it’s worthy of being crowned the best.

8/10 

Logan (2017) Review

Much has been made of “Logan” being a hard-R superhero movie and it’s certainly in a hurry to prove its adult credentials, opening with a sequence which is almost custom designed to make a certain class of comic fans jizz their pants. There’s even an unnecessary shot of breasts within the first fifteen minutes. For a movie straining to be grown up, it certainly feels like the opening quarter hour was written by a fourteen-year-old fanboy.

Thankfully more mature heads prevail and once the movie stops trying so hard, it succeeds in spectacular fashion. Returning director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman take their inspiration from the “Old Man Logan” comic story and turn it into a melancholy and moving road movie that’s actually more effective when it’s not using its R rating for graphic (and eventually repetitive) violence or excessive swearing.

Although the action is tremendous – and it’s gratifying to finally see a realistic portrayal of what Wolverine’s claws would actually do during a melee – it’s in the film’s quieter moments that you really appreciate the craft and passion Jackman brings to the role. He’s matched by a fantastically vulnerable performance from Patrick Stewart as an ageing and fading Charles Xavier while Stephen Merchant is a revelation as Caliban, bring an unexpected pathos and humanity to his melanin-challenged role.

The X-men continuity of the movie is actually pretty good but it’s peppered through the background in such a subtle manner it’s easy to overlook. The government’s approach to eradicating the mutant menace through genetically engineered crops and foodstuffs makes sense within the fictional world of the X-men but it also uncomfortably evokes the tinfoil hatted conspiracy theorising of the anti-GMO, anti-vaxxer brigade. There’s a subtlety, too, in the various background details which gently place the film in the not too distant future without ever being intrusively sci-fi.

Similarly, the bad guys, while effective, are fairly anodyne because the real purpose here is to let the characters shine and drive the story forward. And as good as franchise veterans Jackman and Stewart are, it would be unfair not to recognise Dafne Keen’s Laura/X-23 contribution, especially given much of her role is without dialogue.

It may at times be a little too nasty, a little too bloodthirsty and a little too keen to show you again and again what it looks like when a skull is shish-kebabed by adamantium claws but it’s all just gratuitous window dressing to a gripping and fascinating character study of a reluctant hero’s last journey.

8/10 

A Cure For Wellness (2017) Review

There’s no denying Gore Verbinski’s “A Cure For Wellness” oozes forebodingly Gothic style. It starts conventionally enough, picking out the theme of the callous emptiness of the rat race and a mysterious Swiss ‘wellness’ clinic which offers respite and rejuvenation in its secretive mountain retreat.

When amoral and ambitious young executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to the clinic to bring back the errant CEO of the financial services company he works for. Once there, though, he learns that Mr Pembroke does not want to leave. Thwarted at every turn by the enigmatic head of the institute, Dr Heinreich Volmer (Jason Isaacs), Lockhart finds that he too will struggle to leave the clinic, especially after receiving treatment for a broken leg. Intrigued by another patient, a young girl called Hannah (Mia Goth), Lockhart finds that the secret of the institute is far darker and deeper than anyone would believe.

For the most part, “A Cure For Wellness” delivers a fascinating mystery backed up by a fantastically unnerving atmosphere and a lavish visual aesthetic. While it retains its sense of inscrutability, it’s tremendously entertaining. Once it starts to reveal its ultimate secrets, though, it all gets a bit silly. DeHaan’s strong performance anchors the growing fear and paranoia as he is sucked further into Dr Volmer’s machinations and while everything is steeped in ambiguity, Isaacs is an effective foil. Unfortunately, Isaac’s character is both the chief architect and victim of the film’s descent into kitschy Hammer Horror melodrama meaning by the time it’s all pitchforks and shouting, the film’s potential and credibility have gone up in flames too.

6/10 

The 4th Annual Craggus Movie Awards

4th-annual-craggus-awards-banne-r

For a year which will surely go down in history for its polarisation, as far as movies went there was a concerted effort to stay centred in an unremarkable consensus of mediocrity, with the average score of the 95 films I watched in the cinema a paltry 6.5/10. 2016 saw 409 movies watched (and rewatched) and 146 blog posts, it brought Superhero smack downs – and Superhero let-downs; high drama and low comedy and a whole bunch of titles which failed to make much of a lasting impact at all.

Once again, it’s Oscars Eve here in the UK, so it’s time once again for the Annual Craggus Movie Awards. For this, the awards’ 4th year, the rules have – for the first time ever – remained unchanged from past ceremonies. All nominees and winners are chosen from films which had their UK theatrical release in the relevant year and only titles Mertmas and/ or I have seen are eligible. Weirdly this means I’ll still be talking about movies like “Room” and “The Big Short” but will be ignoring films like “Spotlight” – which I still haven’t seen – and 2017 UK releases such as “A Monster Calls” or “Hacksaw Ridge”; well, at least until next year! The other thing that hasn’t changed is that exactly like the Oscars, the nominees and winners have been chosen on the basis of personal preference and may bear no similarity to technical or artistic achievement, real or imagined.

So, without further ado…on with the show! And what would a show be without an opening musical number?

Best Song

best-song2016 wasn’t blessed with many a memorable movie song and by and large, it’s a two-horse race between “Moana” and “Trolls”. “Kubo And The Two Strings” gets a nod for Regina Spektor’s haunting cover version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Rihanna’s unexpectedly geek-friendly music video for “Sledgehammer” also merits a look. Eschewing the Oscar’s pick of Auli’i Cravalho’s “How Far I’ll Go” in favour of the show-stopping razzamatazz of Dwayne Johnson as Maui crooning “You’re Welcome”, the final two nomination slots go to “Trolls” with Justin Timberlake’s irresistible “Can’t Stop The Feeling” kept company by Anna Kendrick’s peppy and hilariously frantic “Get Back Up Again”.

WINNER: “Get Back Up Again”Statuette


Best Soundtrackbest-soundtrack

Both “Moana” and “Trolls” also feature in the Soundtrack category, as you’d expect. They’re joined by Dario Marianelli’s masterful score for “Kubo And The Two Strings” and Ennio Morricone’s “The Hateful Eight”. The final nomination falls to Michael Giacchino, for his “Trek” efforts rather than his “Wars”. The Craggus Award, though – decided by sheer frequency of being played – goes to “Trolls”.

WINNER: “Trolls”Statuette


 Best Visual Effectsbest-visual-effects

With the singing and dancing out of the way, it’s time to bring on the old razzle dazzle. Ahem. Movies in 2016 may have lacked many things but spectacle wasn’t one of them. Although it missed out on a nomination, there’s no denying that one of the things Zack Snyder got very right in his otherwise moribund and dismal “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” was in bringing iconic comic book imagery to slavishly accurate life. From the emotionally unearned but nonetheless spectacular destruction of the USS Enterprise in “Star Trek: Beyond” to the Ikea poster aesthetic of “Arrival”, visual effects mastery was everywhere to be seen. Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” pick up the baton from “Inception” and twisted it through all five dimensions to trippy and transcendental effect while “Passengers” made up for its narrative ethical shortfalls with some breathtakingly beautiful astrophysical phenomena. But in the end, the award goes to a film which sought not to recreate the futuristic or fantastical but the natural and historic. “The Jungle Book” defied all scepticism in presenting a thrilling, old-fashioned adventure which channelled the spirit of the 1960s Disney animation while making it fresh, vibrant and alive, despite the near total use of digital effects.

WINNER: “The Jungle Book”Statuette


Best Supporting Actressbest-supporting-actress

An eclectic quintet of roles makes up the Craggus Awards 2016’s Best Supporting Actress nominees. I’m sure Aubrey Plaza’s inclusion will raise an eyebrow or two, as will an awards feature outside The Razzies even deigning to mentionDirty Grandpa” but they’re my awards and I’ll do what I like. I enjoyed “Dirty Grandpa” for what it was but it’s hard to look past Plaza’s subversive, sleepy-eyed oddball performance when it comes from preventing the whole thing collapsing under the weight of its own desperation to disgust. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s acknowledgement for her role in “The Hateful Eight” is a more orthodox nomination, given the depth of character she brings to the role and the film as a whole. A relative newcomer, Angourie Rice deserves her place here thanks to her winning performance in “The Nice Guys”, not least of all for holding her own as Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling skilfully ham it up for yuks. Morena Baccarin’s quintessential ‘tart with a heart’ gives “Deadpool” a sincere emotional core which amplifies the freewheeling nonsense and lets Ryan Reynolds’ merc with a mouth really fly and in Sarita Choudhury, “A Hologram For The King” benefits from an unshowy but almost mesmerically sensual performance, both respectful and revelatory in its realisation of a Muslim woman in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The film itself may have left audiences unimpressed but it’s Choudhury who picks up the Best Supporting Actress award this year.

WINNER: Sarita Choudhury (“A Hologram For The King”)Statuette


Best Supporting Actorbest-supporting-actor

If you were taken aback by the Best Supporting Actress nominations, then brace yourself for the first of my Best Supporting Actor nominations: Mark Strong for “Grimsby”. Strong delivers an incredibly committed – you might even say seminal – performance as a suave super spy despite the increasingly grotesque and puerile demands of the script. Alan Tudyk, on the other hand, gets his nomination without ever really appearing on screen. His K-2SO managed to be the standout character of a film written with the seeming intent to only involve stand-out characters and I’ve never believed that motion capture should act as a barrier to performances being recognised. Sylvester Stallone, on the other hand, manages to give a powerful and emotional performance of an iconic role without becoming the stand-out character of next generation boxing movie “Creed”, a more difficult balancing act than it may first sound. Sam Neill’s curmudgeonly woodsman earns him a nomination too, providing the perfect foil for the cynical city kid in the delightful “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” and Alexander Black’s role as Yousef in “A Hologram For The King” playfully tweaks some more of the cultural assumptions the movie’s location provokes. In the end, though, there’s only one veteran performer who can take this trophy this year.

WINNER: Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”)Statuette


 Best Actressbest-actress

When it comes to lead performances of 2016, it goes right back to the beginning and “The Danish Girl” where Alicia Vikander was unfairly overlooked thanks in large part to a trite and affected performance by her co-star Eddie Redmayne which is only a degree or so shy of David Walliams’ “Little Britain” ‘I’m a Lady’ sketches. Vikander’s performance is by far the best of the film and I’ve no hesitation in giving her a nomination here. Likewise, both Brie Larson and Anya-Taylor Joy deliver powerhouse performances in their respective roles at the heart of “Room” and “The Witch”, carrying the emotional weight of the story to two very different conclusions. Amy Adams’ more reflective turn in “Arrival” dials down the emotionalism in favour of a cool sentimentality but is no less effective for it and rounding out our group of nominees is Mary Elizabeth Winstead who does a fantastic job in really selling the claustrophobic fear of her character’s stay at “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But good things come to those who wait, so the Best Actress Craggus Award for 2016 goes to Alicia Vikander.

WINNER: Alicia VikanderStatuette


 Best Actorbest-actor

Another motion capture performance kicks off the run down of Best Actor nominees. Mark Rylance manages to infuse the Big Friendly Giant with such warmth and mischievous wit that he’s often the most human and authentic thing on the screen. Daniel Radcliffe brings the exact opposite to the screen in “Swiss Army Man”, turning in a cadaverous performance of extraordinary physicality. Ryan Reynolds may have found his artistic soulmate in the role of Wade Wilson/ Deadpool and John Goodman might have been the terrifying antithesis of his cuddly TV sitcom dad in “10 Cloverfield Lane” but this category was only ever heading in one direction, and that was to young Jacob Tremblay whose performance in “Room” is nothing short of phenomenal.

WINNER: Jacob Tremblay (“Room”)Statuette


 Best Animated Moviebest-animated-film

Lighter fare now and, away from Illumination Studio’s output, it was an impressive year for animated movies. “Kung Fu Panda 3” continued the franchise’s ability to avoid the diminishing quality of sequels which tend to plague other franchises *cough* “Ice Age” *cough* and Dreamworks had another hit with far-better-than-it-could-have-been animated musical “Trolls”. Disney also had a great year with both “Zootropolis” and “Moana” and while Illumination studios may have put profitability ahead of artistic merit, it’s Laika studios which fully deserves this award for the spellbindingly original “Kubo And The Two Strings”.

WINNER: “Kubo And The Two Strings”Statuette


 Best Screenplaybest-screenplay

‘There were script problems from day one’ may be a familiar refrain in the DCEU but it’s not a problem which affected any of the nominees in this category. “Kubo And The Two Strings”, “Swiss Army Man”, “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” and “Deadpool” all demonstrate innovative and slyly witty and unorthodox approaches to storytelling while “The BFG” is simply a masterpiece of adapting a beloved children’s book into a feature film but only one of these so perfectly captures the tone, irreverence and metatextual soul of its source material to a degree that until you’ve seen it done scarcely seems possible.

WINNER: “Deadpool”Statuette


 Best Directorbest-director

So we’re into the final stretch, with the two big Craggus awards up for grabs. The five names in the frame for Best Director are distinctly different and yet each one is a master storyteller in their own way. Dennis Villeneuve continues to impress and after “Sicario” and “Arrival” all eyes will be on his venture into the dystopian future of “Blade Runner 2049”. Jon Favreau continues to cement his reputation as one of Disney’s best directors and at this point, Quentin Tarantino has no need of hagiography to justify his presence on this list. Tim Miller’s triumphant use of the modest “Deadpool” budget is an achievement worthy of recognition but its Taika Waititi and his unique filmmaking voice which enables him to walk away with the Best Director award of 2016 for the quirky and heart-warming “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”.

WINNER: Taika WaititiStatuette


 Best Filmbest-film

A Venn diagram of ‘Best Director’ nominations and ‘Best Film’ nominations would show a substantial but not complete overlap this year. But the winner was a film I saw quite late in the year but as soon as I saw it, I knew the benchmark had been set and that it would be very hard for any other movie to topple it from its perch. I could happily give “Deadpool”, “Room”, “The Jungle Book” or even “Arrival” the nod as my best picture of 2016 were it not for the enchanting, delightful and offbeat wonder that is “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”. Its whimsical yet deceptively incisive sassiness may not be to everybody’s taste but for me, it eclipsed everything I’ve seen in 2016. Congratulations, then, to “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”, the 2016 Craggus Movie of the Year.

WINNER: “Hunt For The Wilderpeople”Statuette


Mertie Award

The final movie award of the night – as far as The Craggus is concerned, I believe the Academy have a few tokens to hand out later – is The Mertie Award for Best Film of 2016. I asked Mertmas to make a list of his five favourite movies of the year and after a lot of deliberation he narrowed it down to:

Ghostbusters

Goosebumps

Captain America: Civil War

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Swallows And Amazons

He was much quicker to narrow the five down to the eventual winner, though, and that was “Goosebumps”. Jack Black’s family friendly effects-laden adventure managed to mix just the right amount of spooky shenanigans and colourful antics to snag the 2016 Mertie.

WINNER: “Goosebumps”Mertie Award


So, there we have it. The 2016 Craggus Movie Awards. Good decisions? Travesties? Who did I snub? Who did I over-praise? Let me know in the comments! And enjoy the Oscars!

Hidden Figures (2017) Review

Set at a time when humanity looked to the stars with hope rather than around the world with fear, “Hidden Figures” is an uplifting true-life drama set during the space race at the height of the cold war.

It’s 1961 and NASA is lagging behind the Russians in the race to get a man into space. The complicated calculations required for spaceflight are carried out by ‘human computers’. Behind the scenes, a trio of African-American women find themselves pushing against the institutionalised racism and sexism of 1960s America in order to fulfil their potential and help win the space race.

As inspirational and heartening as the stories of Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P Henson) are, there’s a distasteful irony to the fact the themes and issues raised by the film remain shamefully resonant some half a century later.

There’s something encouraging about a film which unabashedly celebrates intelligence and expertise and while the film takes a few liberties with the actual events and individuals, the changes are modest to support the narrative flow of the film. The lead performances are sensational, helping to bring the social realism to life to match the lovingly recreated period details in the production design and costumes. The supporting cast, particularly Kevin Costner and Kirsten Dunst, are on form too, helping deliver an informative and entertaining biopic that stays with you long after the credits have rolled. If America is ever to rediscover its pioneer spirit and revive the American dream the world used to envy, it needs more stories like this and needs to make sure more hidden figures remain hidden no longer.

8/10 

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) Review

The second chapter in the saga of “John Wick” is a curious beast. In many ways, it feels like the third part of a trilogy rather than the sequel to a surprise break-out hit and it’s in trying to make the leap from one hit wonder to franchise that the film loses its way.

Having avenged himself for the theft of his car and the death of his dog, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has settled back into retirement. At least, that’s his plan but when fellow assassin Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a favour, Wick finds himself trapped between dishonouring the debt and placing himself in the crosshairs of every assassin in the business.

Randy Meeks from the “Scream” movies would have a field day pointing out all the ways “John Wick: Chapter 2” follows the rules for threequels: it echoes the structure of the first movie but goes back and brings new information about known events. It provides Wick with a near superhuman foe which he can’t conquer unless he breaks his fundamental principles.

Returning director Chad Stahelski brings bags of style to proceedings but its in the substance that Chapter 2 struggles. The world building is more obvious this time around, slightly overcomplicating and convoluting things by explaining too much where the first film succeeded through hints and inferences. The action is as slick as ever but there’s a repetitiveness to it this time that quickly makes it feel stale. As adversaries go, Common is disappointingly lightweight and Ruby Rose – not for the first time – promises much but delivers very little. Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburn at least lend some gravitas to the movie but there’s a lot of effort expended to build a complicated underworld only to disassemble the infrastructure and cut Wick loose at the end.

Glossy, kinetic and stylish, it’s still a quality action movie boasting some genuinely impressive sequences (the opening action is breathtaking) but it’s hard to shake the feeling it was so busy setting up the forthcoming Chapter 3 to deliver the focus this film needed.

7/10 

The Great Wall (2017) Review

the-great-wall“The Great Wall” is an epic Chinese fantasy adventure film unfortunately compromised by the token addition of a pair of western actors in an attempt to increase its box office potential.

Set in the time of the Song Dynasty, the Great Wall Of China is one of the wonders of the world, but its true purpose is to protect the Empire from an extraterrestrial and monstrous threat, the Tao Tei. Manned by the nameless order, the Wall is home to five colour coded brigades, the melee-specialist Bear troop, the acrobatic Crane troop, the archery focussed Eagle troop, the siege specialist Tiger troops, and the Deer troop cavalry. Into this unknown conflict wander two western mercenaries, hunting for the fabled black powder used by the Chinese weaponsmiths.

As you’d expect from epic Chinese cinema, the visuals here are remarkable. While the CGI itself is decent enough, the sets and costumes and lavish fight choreography are the real stars, giving life to the ultimate big screen “Power Rangers” fantasy as colourful warriors acrobatically fight their way through wave after wave of alien menaces.

Unfortunately, the need to include an unnecessary subplot to account for the present of Matt Damon’s Irish? mercenary and his sidekick Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) forces the film to contort itself so much that nothing gets the exploration and exposition it deserves to develop the story to the levels of richness on offer in the production design. It’s a counter-intuitive decision to pander so much to western audiences in the casting and yet use subtitles so frequently, adding to the disjointed qualities of the finished product but, saying that, Mertmas enjoyed the movie a lot and the subtitles didn’t phase that 10 year old movie fan as he thrilled to the action and monster mashing on screen.

“The Great Wall” has to go down as a missed opportunity because away from the awkward culture clash, there was an impressive, epic fantasy film here trying to break out and the money spent of getting Matt Damon in front of the camera could have been invested in the skills of director Zhang Yimou, allowing him to bring it to the screen with the sharpness and elegance of his previous work.

6/10 Score 6

Fifty Shades Darker (2017) Review

50-shades-darkerSoulless, mechanical and delivered with a sense of resigned obligation second only to the “Divergent” franchise, “Fifty Shades Darker” skulks into cinemas with all the romance and fantasy of a discarded Mills & Boon paperback fished out of a sewer.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is living her life when Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) returns to control and manipulate it in a series of creepy yet bafflingly successful seduction stunts.

With the axing of the previous director and screenwriter, ‘author’ E L James cements her control over the film franchise and is finally able to let her full talent shine, in the same way a turd does after it’s been polished.

The screenplay, ‘written’ by James’ husband, is excruciatingly bad, indicating his scope for adapting or changing the source material was severely curtailed by his matrimonial obligations. E L James’ ineptitude infuses every single frame and every single word uttered in this movie. The direction is ugly and sluggishly static except for a bizarre sequence where James Foley decides to homage Duran Duran’s “Rio” music video.

Jamie Dornan does his best to smoulder but finds himself mostly guttering thanks to the wet blanket effect of Dakota Johnson’s insipid and obtuse Anastasia Steele, giving the arbitrary and disjointed scenes on screen the erotic frisson of cleaning out a diarrhetic cat’s litter tray.

The first “Fifty Shades” film may have disappointed in its blandness but the only darkness on offer here in its ‘edgier’ sequel is the inevitable tarnishing of your soul for having watched it.

2/10 Score 2

Bad Moms (2016) Review

bad-momsFinally, a bawdy comedy for women, breaking that final glass ceiling and proving that arrested development and irresponsible self-indulgence isn’t just for men anymore, “Bad Moms” is slow to find its footing but eventually settles into a surprisingly familiar comic groove.

Harassed mum Amy (Mila Kunis) is at her wits’ end, trying to have it all; being the perfect wife, the perfect mother and have a career. When the domineering head of the PTA, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) goes too far in enforcing her vision of the forthcoming bake sale, Amy quits and heads off to live the life she wants to rather than the one expected of her.

Riffing on a sequence immortalised in “The Simpsons” episode “Homer Alone”, the film opens by leaning hard into the ‘motherhood as martyrdom’ schtick and comes pretty close to defaulting to ‘Mum Blogging: The Movie’ which is probably in no small part due to the fact this comedy about women, ostensibly for women, is written and directed by men. Therefore, Amy’s own version of ‘Rancho Relaxo’ becomes a descent into irresponsibility, drink, drugs and debauchery because what women really want is their own “Hangover”, right? From casting to execution, there’s an inescapable feeling of the male gaze being firmly in control. Literally every character is a stereotype from the neglectful husband and ungrateful kids, to the shiftless and ignorant millennials, it’s only through the lead cast that the whole thing sparks into life.

Mila Kunis definitely has the comic chops to pull off this kind of zany comedy but she’s never allowed to look anything less than stunning even when she’s meant to be the very epitome of the scraggy exhausted mum. Styling aside, she delivers a likeable lead performance and has great support from Kirsten Bell as a timid stay-at-home mum and Kathryn Hahn as the exact opposite. After flirting with edginess, the film cops out and goes instead for a lazy re-tread of a high school popularity movie but it gets away with it thanks to Applegate giving a deliciously stand out bitchy performance, an achievement all the more impressive given she’s usually standing beside Jada Pinkett Smith so, you know, praise from Caesar.

In the end, it gets just enough right to be a fun movie but there’s no escaping the fact that it wastes the talents at its disposal by forcing them to embrace cliché. If it can find a more authentic voice for the forthcoming sequel, this is a slight misfire which could be bang on target next time.

5/10 Score 5

The Lego Batman Movie (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

The Space Between Us (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

50 Shades Of Black (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

1/10 Score 1

Kill Command (2016) Review

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

T2 Trainspotting (2017) Review

t2-trainspottingChoose a sequel.

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

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

And choose watching history repeat itself.

Choose looking to the past instead of embracing a future.

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

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

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

And then… take a deep breath.

Spud’s great, so enjoy Spud

Just watch it for Spud’s journey

Choose the nostalgia the film sneers at so much.

Choose a film worth rewatching

Choose “Trainspotting

6/10 Score 6

Trainspotting (1996) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Introducing #Ten Tag Reviews

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

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

Craggus. Concise. For the TL;DR crowd.

Split (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Lion (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Hacksaw Ridge (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10 Score 8

Sing (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Underworld: Blood Wars (2017) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5/10 Score 5

Underworld: Awakening (2012) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Underworld: Rise Of The Lycans (2009) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/10 Score 4

Underworld: Evolution (2006) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6

Underworld (2003) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

6/10 Score 6