Meet Neil. He does our short film reviews. Neil is a film geek from the UK and will be reviewing new movies as they emerge, blinking into the cold English winter. It may not actually be winter there yet (we don’t have winter in Las Vegas), but you get the idea.
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE – February 5, 2017
I felt a satisfying little switcheroo when watching The LEGO Batman Movie. Sat on my shelf, weeks before I watched the movie, are a few of the latest set of Batman Minifigures lifted directly from it. Each time a character I own appeared onscreen, I felt that childish little glow of recognition you get from having bought into the whole movie/merchandising machine. Except while TLBM serves, on the surface, as a giant toy commercial it was the toys themselves that sold me the movie. I’m a long-term Batman fan, an even longer-term LEGO fan and the chance to see these two great pillars of nostalgic glee come together both physically and onscreen gave me a great deal of pleasure. What’s more, this may well be my new favourite Batman movie.
It sounds pretentious of me to say that this movie works on a number of levels, but it does. There’s nothing here as emotionally powerful as the live-action sequences from 2014’s The LEGO Movie, but its pitch-perfect understanding of LEGO’s cross-generational appeal is alive and well. So too is its understanding of Batman. The almost insanely frenetic opening sequence (which gifts us with one of Batman’s best ever entrances, along with a list of villains so long and obscure that the movie even dares us to Google them for authenticity) is followed by a quiet, contemplative (and very funny) introspection on Bats’ loneliness. This is a movie that shares the same madcap pace of its franchise predecessor, but also a willingness to explore the colourful madness of the comics’ past alongside all the darkness and isolation. LEGO recreations of some of Batman’s past onscreen adventures are also a hoot, crying out to become your next screengrabbed desktop wallpaper.
The voice cast is strong, almost challenging the audience to identify the often inspired and sometimes bizarre choices in the smallest of roles (Mariah Carey?!). To explain just how well conceived some of the choices are would be to spoil a few of the movie’s many surprises and treats, but decisions such as the oft-discussed Billy Dee Williams Two-Face tip the hat to Batman aficionados of an older-than-strictly-target-audience persuasion. Bane is comically inspired by Tom Hardy’s take, Garfunkle and Oates feature as a pair of villains (Kate Micucci is Clayface?!) and Zack Galifianakis gives an unexpectedly understated performance as The Joker. He’s fine, the dynamic between him and Batman is amusing and different. It’s certainly the best interpretation of the character I’ve seen in the past year.
Another rare achievement in a Batman movie is that the countless roster of villainy never overshadows the good guys. Will Arnett’s return as Bats is just as great as before while Ralph Fiennes makes for a brilliant Alfred. Michael Cera’s squeeing Dick Grayson is fantastic and Rosario Dawson hops from the grittier side of Marvel to a vibrant, kick-ass Barbara Gordon.
Even rarer than that is the movie’s marketing. With the exception of the “one butt” joke, I think every gag from the trailers plays out slightly differently, and more amusingly, in the actual movie. Nothing is spoilt, none of the movie’s big moments are given away. Bravo.
I’m a diehard fan of LEGO and a big fan of both its movie offerings thus far. TLBM wrings every drop of fun from the DC back catalogue, whilst feeling almost like an inventive reconfiguration of LEGO Dimensions, turning its exceptional breadth of multi-property interaction from game into one hugely entertaining movie.
I’m going to need some more spending money.
ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY – December 15, 2016
What exactly is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? Well, it’s the first proper standalone Star Wars movie since those dodgy Ewok ones, for starters! Except it isn’t. It isn’t really standalone at all.
It doesn’t even really feel all that Star Wars-y at first, either. There’s no fanfare, there’s no opening crawl (thank goodness, I’ve skipped The Force Awakens’ crawl more times than I’ve watched it). Even its simple “Rogue One” title card teases the opening notes of the familiar theme music before pulling back, something the movie that follows very seldom does.
Our opening seems recognisable enough, giving us an introduction to yet another tortured father only this time he’s taking steps to hide his kin first hand. We’re introduced to primary villain Orson Krennic, a slimy Imperial Director given life by the excellent Ben Mendelsohn, with line delivery that reminded me of Christopher Guest’s Count Rugen in The Princess Bride. I neglected to count his fingers.
From here, years pass and characters close to our surviving youngster are introduced. Alan Tudyk’s charmingly offensive K-2SO steals many an early scene as an older Jyn Erso is brought to the screen by Felicity Jones. Treated to dense, Mos Eisley inspired cities alongside the remnants of grand Jedi monuments, the audience is reintroduced to a time when the Force lived on through faith, if not in practice.
It’s here that I feel I should lay out what I’m trying to do with this review. Part of me wants to write about Rogue One as a standalone movie, but I can’t for two reasons. Firstly, its story sits so neatly between existing movies that it simply doesn’t feel like one. Finally, it’s the second New Star Wars Movie in as many years, which compels me to talk about how it compares to The Force Awakens.
In some respects, where last year’s The Force Awakens excelled, Rogue One is slightly less successful. There are no characters here with the instant charm and likeability of Finn. For all her impressive range and onscreen depth (no unsolved mysteries here) Jones’ Jyn has a less straight forward arc which, for my sins, didn’t give me quite the same chills in its big moments when compared to Rey.
If The Force Awakens was a loose (not loose enough for many) remake of A New Hope, then Rogue One feels a lot like Return of the Jedi. The key difference here though (other than 33 years of technological advancement), is tone. Rogue One is not only darker but repeatedly excels in smaller, two-character scenes. Jones nails key moments of emotion, especially when reunited with characters from her past. She has the skill to sell silence equally as well as she does action.
Alongside her are some memorable characters, but their abundance seems to dilute their impact. Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, Donnie Yen’s blind monk Chirrut Îmwe and more develop into characters we can care about but for each featured player there’s two more nameless grunts. It’s a cast of key characters surrounded by one-dimensional bit-parts in the same was Aliens was. Star Wars, however, has always maximised the mileage of these supporting players outside of the movies they appear in, even if it has simply been by entrusting an action figure to the hands of an imaginative child.
It is, however, testament to the writing here that a handful of characters have at least enough of a hook to make their fates mean something, and to allow their deeds to stick in the mind.
Where The Force Awakens strove to update key moments or feelings from past adventure, Rogue One seeks to recreate a setting or expand upon characters in ways that are both new but recognisably true to what we’ve seen before. While small, familiar moments from long ago are repeated for little more than fan service (a couple of tiny pieces of old footage are reused, and stand out like a sore thumb) there are also opportunities taken that build key characters in unexpected ways.
In particular, a gripe I’d had with post-prequel Vader is, at least for me, pretty satisfactorily dealt with. I’ll offer no spoilers other than to say that his introduction here, or rather the manner in which he’s seen “living” fills gaps in his character that go some way towards explaining just how and why the flames of fury and hate inside Vader were fuelled for so long, prior to the events of Jedi. It’s efficient, striking visual storytelling with a great deal of thought and understanding behind it. Vader is also given one of his own greatest moments to date. What makes the power of his presence all the more impressive is that Vader appears in, perhaps, no more than three scenes.
Rogue One has a strong story, centred on a more concise tale of fractured family. Its structure isn’t about simply flying into the Big Base and hoping the guys on the ground give the pilots the means to blow it up on time. There is, of course, some of that but this is where the movie feels more like a cleverly expanded Return of the Jedi. The space battles and interplanetary geography offer both familiarity and at least one locale we’ve never seen in Star Wars before. AT-ATs are reinvigorated with a sense of scale and terror that reminded me of Return of the King‘s Oliphaunts.
This story also manages to present connective tissue that works in both directions, up and down the timeline. Subtle strands from Episode III feel welcome (such as a mix of both New Zealand and American Stormtrooper accents) while the ways in which the final act set up Episode IV feel entirely organic, super slick and very rewarding.
I’ve grown to love The Force Awakens like a Greatest Hits album, over the past year. It provides a simpler, faster way of revisiting so many emotions whilst cultivating new ones along with a new set of characters with more to tell. Rogue One feels like an impeccable recreation of a universe we’ve already visited, told through new eyes.
If The Force Awakens’ characters were unpretentious and immediately ingratiating, Rogue One‘s subtlety and shades of grey take time to sink in. If last year’s high points were more obvious and on-the- nose, 2017’s Star Wars feels more sophisticated and more retro all at once. What’s been created here is less Jumping-Off Point and more the saga’s most expertly crafted prequel. Disney have, in their first attempt, proved that there are “standalone” Star Wars Stories worth telling onscreen. More than that though, Rogue One is a movie that entertains in its own right whilst ably managing to expand upon the larger story we’ve loved for generations.
DOCTOR STRANGE – October 30, 2016
Strange. The mighty Cumberbatch joins the MCU in a movie, having opened a few days ago in the UK, that elevates the stakes to multiverse-spanning, mystical heights whilst simultaneously presenting comic book storytelling at it most talky.
Realities are bent, battered and stretched to breaking point before very wise people stand on balconies and talk a great deal about their wisdom.
While the movie feels like the result a team of inventive filmmakers who have been given free rein to play out their wildest visual ideas onscreen, it also feels as though the story has been squeezed onto the side-lines. Everything boils down to an intriguing new set of magical rules for the MCU, and a trio of terrific, different, memorable set pieces.
Much has already been said about Stephen Strange’s trip through the Astral Plane and indeed, it’s visually fascinating and I wish it’d gone on a little longer. The scene most obviously compared to Inception begins with some familiar trickery but grows into something that plays out more akin to Time and Space throwing up their hands and letting Escher and Cyriak design an amazing new Bayonetta boss fight.
There are sprinkles of 60s Prog and even Raiders of the Lost Ark in the score, which matches the insane visuals and twinkly sense of fun perfectly.
The two standout performances, for me, come from a pair of Benedicts. Mr Cumberbatch has proved before, most notably in Star Trek Into Darkness, that he can effortlessly take charge of a blockbuster with a confidence and charm perhaps rivalled only by Starlord and Iron Man. His Strange has, in the space of one movie, become a character I look forward to seeing more of in the future. Especially if he takes charge of the Avengers.
Given far less screen time, but delivering no less memorable a performance is Benedict Wong. A terrific, stern, hilarious straight man to Strange’s repeated attempts at disarming humour. Chiwetel Ejiofor give his reliably smooth, deceptively deep take on an underwritten character who has the advantage of feeling very much set up for more after this initial appearance. Equally underused is the menace and power of Mads Mikkelsen, who struggles to round out yet another weak MCU movie villain. Tilda Swinton makes for a terrifically affable Ancient One, while Rachel McAdams shines as an “ordinary” person finding herself at the centre of some very abnormal goings on.
While feeling very standalone in its own right, this is a movie that benefits greatly from the groundwork laid by what has come before. Guardians of the Galaxy in particular has paved the way for this kind of surprisingly funny quirk, as well as a lurking evil of Celestial scale. It’s exactly this kind of universe- sorry, multiverse building that prevents “wackier”, “sillier” tales such as this from falling flat in the way DC’s out of nowhere Suicide Squad felt like an odd sequel to The Mummy in its third act.
Whoever made the decision to shoot much of the mind-bendingly complex visuals on handheld camera could be forgiven for adding something approaching realism, but the action sometimes loses coherence. Worse are the fights in the Astral Plane that led me to make bizarre and entirely unfortunate comparisons to Ghost Dad. Still, when a filmmaker takes risks there may always be missteps along the way. Doctor Strange remains a solid, entertaining introduction to a new character that stands alongside the first Iron Man for likeability and a tantalising sense of what could follow. It is, perhaps, just a little strange that this latest offering feels so much like where things took off eight years ago.
STAR TREK BEYOND – July 27, 2016
Star Trek Beyond feels as though it’s been written by fans. That works both in the movie’s favour and to its detriment. On the one hand, here’s a Trek outing that feels genuinely affectionate. It manages to pull off not one, not two but three overt nods to the original incarnation of this crew that pay off brilliantly. References to the late Leonard Nimoy tug meaningfully at the heartstrings while bringing greater depth to this, now solitary, version of Spock.
On the flipside however, the movie often appears to be a string of fulfilled wishes and ideas that often don’t make for a satisfying story.
For every moment of large scale action and scope, director Justin Lin fumbles a slice of sub-Greengrass shaky cam fisticuffs. Neat, ambitious ideas on paper often fail to add up to much onscreen while the movie lacks the sense of pace JJ Abrams seems to deliver effortlessly.
Idris Elba makes for a reliably powerful baddie, whilst the remainder of this perfectly chosen cast continue to bicker and blend just as successfully third time around.
If the score seems a little overblown in places, I must admit to feeling goosebumps with the reprise of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. There’s also something reliable about a Trek audience; the OTT laughter at small in-jokes, the gasps as bad things happen to beloved characters. It’s the kind of nerdy behaviour many find easy to mock, but also the kind of enthusiasm and loyalty I believe we should celebrate.
A movie of this scale has proved perhaps a little too much for the skills of Simon Pegg and his co-writer Doug Yung, I can’t help but praise anything that speaks of unity and family in the same way as David Lynch’s masterpiece The Straight Story. A simple truth underlines these characters and it’s displayed beautifully here. Bonus points for including a single line of dialogue that nods to both Spaced and The Princess Bride.
This particular series of Trek movies is yet to produce an outright bad instalment. Though for me, if Abram’s brilliant, confident reboot was a 5/5, Into Darkness’ less successful but still immensely enjoyable offering was a 4, Beyond falls short of both. The writing has been all too open to criticism in all three movies so far, especially here.
Nothing in this story feels hard-fought, the characters leap from easy achievement to simple solution. Warmth and an enduring rapport however, still manage to carry this uneven, action oriented slice of Star Trek-Lite.
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE – June 24, 2016
I love Independence Day. Almost twenty years ago, my best friend and I walked miles to our local, freshly-built Multiplex to witness spectacle that’d blow our tiny, teenage minds.
Years later, I grew to appreciate just how bonkers the movie was.
Bill Pullman’s POTUS delivering a rousing speech before hopping into his own fighter jet and joining the Air Force in battle? Hilarious.
Will Smith bemoaning his missed barbeque before punching an unconscious alien in the face? Strangely charming.
Jeff Goldblum saving mankind with a mix of geeky likeability and the most miraculous laptop-to-interstellar-mothership wireless transfer protocol ever imagined? Ludicrous, laughable and enduringly satisfying.
Amongst all the deliberate silliness of the original was a sense of genuine scale, expert pacing and fun that is sadly lacking from Resurgence.
Liam “the least expensive” Hemsworth, Jessie T. Usher and Maika Monroe play our three lead humans who move around and deliver lines. Notice how I’ve avoided referring to them as characters. Other humans appear as fellow actors dressed as pilots, government officials, warlords and generic experts.
Only Brent Spiner in a dramatically increased role looks like he’s having much fun, while Vivica A. Fox and Judd Hirsch merely tick two more boxes as returning characters who we cared a great deal more for in the 90s.
Bill Pullman’s ex-President has morphed into the tortured soul Randy Quaid gave us in the original (even sporting the same on, then off facial hair). Jeff Goldblum’s shtick is a welcome return, even if Levinson‘s past demons and lack of self-belief have dulled into bland authority.
There are some attractive set pieces, watching the Burj Khalifa land on London Bridge is a hoot but these scenes frequently end too soon. The introduction of an ever increasingly huge threat is delivered with a lack of visual reference, neutering its scale and our awe.
A handful of arguably intended jokes made me laugh, while Pullman’s Inspirational Speech falls flat and the reliable William Fichtner’s talk of global unity raises, at most, a wry smile.
Pretty, slick yet soulless and lacking the moviemaking craft Emmerich once possessed, ID:R is an amusing timed but instantly forgettable release.
THE NICE GUYS – June 4, 2016
Opening with the kind of guitar licks you wouldn’t want playing as your mother walks passed your bedroom door, The Nice Guys’ 1970s setting is established immediately as we peek behind the ruined backside of the old Hollywood sign. It’s this seedy, backstreet view of LA that serves as home for a fun, funny tale of dead porn stars, government cover-up and two very different, very likeable Private Investigators.
Treating us to an entertaining opening narration, Russell Crowe is Jackson Healy; an imposing, violent man desperately trying to live life by a code of professionalism and respect. In his heart he’s a man whose greatest skills lie in his fists, finding an uncomfortable amount of pleasure in dishing out pain.
Ryan Gosling’s Holland March is a meeker, less confident man who has some skills as an investigator but is undermined by his love of drink, women and swiftness to emit high-pitched shrieks and throw up.
Angourie Rice plays perhaps the closest this movie comes to an adult character, March’s thirteen year old daughter Holly. Almost all of the trio’s smartest, bravest moves are conducted by her.
In an sweetly (if horrendously irresponsible and almost certainly damaging) reversed parental relationship, Holly subtly nudges her father towards acts of intelligence and independence, wryly smiling to herself each time as she feels proud of what he can achieve when he puts his mind to it.
While everyone has their moment to shine, this is undoubtedly Gosling’s movie. Having perfected the uber-stoicism of Drive, proved equally adept at charming comedy in Crazy, Stupid, Love; here he shows huge skill at physical comedy. His character’s pained, or just plain terrified squeals never fail to raise a laugh. His timing, especially when playing against Crowe’s assured straight-man, is impeccable.
Perhaps not as sharp as Shane Black’s most similar previous work; Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys is more endearing and better characterised. These are cartoonish people we can care about, more than slick vehicles for Black’s and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s excellent dialogue.
Perhaps not the twistiest of plots, this story is still entertaining and amusingly madcap. Crowe and Gosling make an easy pair to watch, cutting through this sleazy world with lightness and an affable charm.
Heck, it even has Keith David in it!
WARCRAFT: THE BEGINNING – May 30, 2016
Freshly opened here in the UK, I suspect (with some sadness) this franchise’s beginning, at this scale at least, may also be its end.
I’m one of those lapsed Warcraft devotees, having not picked up a keyboard and mouse to enter the world of Azeroth in years. My head and heart contain many fond memories of the custom maps my friends and I would build in Warcraft 2, linking two or more PCs together in our friend’s humming fire hazard of a bedroom and battling into the night.
I recall racing on wolf-back with strangers to take on a raid in WoW as if it really happened (I know it didn’t, I’m not delusional). Such memories are amongst the best I have from years of gaming.
Not least of all, Warcraft 3‘s scale and peerlessly dramatic cutscenes made the prospect of a live action movie always seem a little pointless. Nothing could match the rose-tinted images in my mind, and nothing here has.
The movie, from Duncan Jones (a director I once had high hopes for, after his tremendous debut with Moon. That potential now long faded.) is often handsome and imaginative but just as often ugly and half-baked.
The grand cities and memorable locations are visited only fleetingly. While rendered in greater detail than ever before, these brief glimpses are perhaps a wise choice given that simply viewing them onscreen could potentially never match the feeling of exploring them in-game.
None of the central humans have the charisma to hold a movie like this together, nor to inspire audiences to invest and come back for more. Paula Patton lacks depth, while Dominic Cooper completely fails to give a King any sense of power. Travis Fimmel also falters achieving little more than Aragorn-Lite as Lothar. Ben Schnetzer, so good in 2009’s Pride, is miscast here as Khadgar. Aah, my old WoW server, sigh.
Jones‘ Orcs are better characterised, through excellent visual design and detailed motion capture. Tony Kebbell and Robert Kazinsky bring gruffness and gravitas beneath the pixels.
Seeing Richard Taylor’s name in the credits, heading Weta‘s wonderful work on armour and weaponry makes perfect since given they’re the most accomplished elements within this verison of the world.
There are plenty of geeky nods to the games (few minutes pass before the screams of “For the Horde!” cry out) but many in my screening’s audience seemed unhappy with changes to a rich lore that dates back to at least 1994.
Perhaps fittingly for a project once linked to Sam Raimi, villains morph into humorously monstrous versions of themselves, actors hidden deep inside dodgy prosthetics. Raimi, at least, would have given the movie a more consistently unhinged tone in order to pull such silly transformations off. Fitfully amusing, unevenly serious, this Warcraft is a mess of poor editing and weak writing. A world so full of scope, reduced to limp characters and blurry battles.
For those eager to delve into this longstanding and detailed universe, I suspect you’d have a better time giving Warcraft 3 a play. Old as it is, it’s still this story’s high point.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – April 30, 2016
A year ago, I happily gave Avengers: Age of Ultron a four star review. Upon repeated viewings, while still enjoyable, I’d be lying if I said my affections hadn’t waned. It’s a three outta five kinda movie. A few months after that, post the disappointment of Edgar Wright’s departure as director, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ant-Man. Months later on bluray, you might twist my arm into dropping my initial score a little but it’s certainly a solid four outta five.
Here in the UK, in 2016, I’m asking myself whether Captain America: Civil War is the best Marvel movie to date? I guess I’ll have to answer that once I’ve watched it as many times as I have Guardians of the Galaxy, but right now I think it might just be.
I’m happy to report that, for me at least, Civil War is a lot more “Winter Soldier 2” than it is “Avengers 2.5”. Bucky Barnes opens the movie, and it’s his relationship with Steve “Captain America” Rogers that drives almost every beat this time around. The returning Russo bros juggle their equally large cast (minus Thor and Banner but introducing a certain cat and web-slinger) with greater skill than Whedon, with a great deal of credit due to a terrific script by Marvel’s go-to-guys Markus and McFeely.
Everything that makes this story work so well comes down to character. Genuine, earnt, deepened character. The impetus behind the conflict between Stark and Rogers is fuelled by believable, understandable reasoning. Take that BvS.
This Captain America sequel proves, with a degree of success not yet seen in the MCU, that by this point in its thirteen movie timeline these tales have become a source of great joy. There’s something wonderful here in the way smaller fights grow into larger ones with the injection of a pre-established character or two. The way this world can simply drop in Rhodes or Clint as and when required not only taps into the huge potential the character set has, but also makes us imagine how that potential could continue to grow.
Which brings me to a certain Peter Parker (and his “unusually attractive aunt”). Every moment of Tom Holland’s ample screentime is eye-moisteningly, grin-inducingly brilliant. He’s young, bright and instantly likeable. I really appreciated the way he’s been introduced, and how he flat-out didn’t want to talk about his origin story.
Chadwick Boseman makes for an interesting, charismatic Black Panther. I’m not entirely sure he warrants his own movie just yet, but he too is introduced with skill and plays an important role in events that lead to the titular Civil War.
Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is afforded his own, intelligently handled motivation as primary villain.
“The Airport Fight”, oft teased in promotional material, is a true classic. Inventive, surprising and above all FUN. It also gives Spidey an opportunity to think like the audience, displaying a geek shorthand that makes him instantly endearing to us. Refreshingly, even if you’ve seen all the trailers and clips, you haven’t seen all this fight has to offer.
After the excellent but somewhat anonymously directed Winter Soldier in 2014, I was unsure if these little known writers and directors had what it takes to shape a remarkable enough future for the MCU’s big movies like Avengers: Infinity War. I no longer have those doubts and look forward to 2018 with entirely renewed enthusiasm. Civil War is, for perhaps the first time since 2012’s Avengers, everything Comic Book Movies can and should be.
EDDIE THE EAGLE – March 28, 2016
Some months ago now, I remember sitting down to watch the latest batch of trailers for upcoming movies. Most of them were huge, big studio affairs and all but one of them did absolutely nothing for me. The single, tiny, well-meaning little trailer that made me actually want to watch the movie was for this one; Eddie The Eagle.
It reminded me of some vague memories I have from when I was a child, sat in front of the TV watching a strange little man competing in the Winter Olympics, in an event Great Britain had not attempted for decades. He became, for a while, something of an Underdog Hero.
All those years, and months, later I sat before the heavily fictionalised biopic of Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards’ achievements and was, I suspect, just as charmed as people were back in the late 80s. Comic book superheroes can wait a few more days.
Many people of my age, here in Britain, grew up watching Dexter Fletcher as a young actor and TV presenter. With three movies now under his belt as director (following the underrated Wild Bill and the likeable but slightly amateurish Sunshine on Leith), Fletcher seems increasingly assured behind the camera. While Eddie The Eagle really doesn’t do anything new, features some dodgy (but very brief) CGI and one cringingly obvious soundtrack choice it’s sweetness, central performances and message more than make up for it.
One can imagine Fletcher being overwhelmed by this chance to work with the likes of Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken in only his third, defiantly small movie but he never lets stardom get the better of the material. Taron Egerton cements his skill and charisma in his first lead role since the excellent Kingsman in 2014.
Sure, attempting to pay off a movie about Ski Jumping with Van Halen may be the least original idea in cinemas this year but it fits perfectly inside a movie whose heart pulses so rousingly with 80s-inspired synth.
I went into the screening expecting to feel my heartstrings tugged at a little more forcefully than they were. Though, as a few tears rolled down my cheeks at the movie’s end, I realised that perhaps this tale of the Underdog achieving a modest level of greatness had in fact been quite deliberately underplayed all along. I could pour scorn on a movie so indebted to the clichés of its genre but I’d rather be grateful for something that reminds us that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the familiarity of bravery, aspiration and heart.
Yes, there’s a Cool Runnings reference in there too.
HAIL, CAESAR! – March 5, 2016
I’ve always enjoyed the Coens most with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, delivering a wryly comic view on the world that falls somewhere between the stalls of affectionate pastiche and David Lynch.
In Hail, Caesar! their target is the grand old Hollywood of the 1940s and 50s. Josh Brolin growls his way through his working days defusing the potentially costly mistakes of compromisingly photographed starlets, massaging the egos of his talent before and behind the camera while calmly attending to the kidnapping of his biggest Box Office draw.
Enter George Clooney, never out of Roman costume, skin the colour of mahogany, effortlessly sending himself up whilst perfectly encapsulating the screen presence both his character and actual self possess in abundance.
His starring role in the titular movie-within-a-movie affords us many an opportunity to both lampoon and respect Ben-Hur and its like. A terrific Scarlett Johansson gives us her best Esther Williams in the pool, shifting to a course, far from innocent handful of an actor once the cameras cease to roll. Alden Ehrenreich, previously unknown to me, frequently steals the movie (when he isn’t sparring with a superb Ralph Fiennes) as the talented, but limited star of several Great American Westerns (cue a myriad nods to that grand old genre) finding his comfortable image being given a shake-up he is less than suited to. A scene between Ehrenreich and the similarly fresh-faced Veronica Osorio injects the movie with a huge amount of heart, sweetness and both actors show an impressive lightness of touch with some lovely material.
Amongst the biblical epics and westerns of old, the Coens are clearly having a wonderful time playing in a sandbox of warm nostalgia. The highlight, perhaps, being Sir Channing of Tatum wowing (once again) in a song and dance number deliberately reminiscent of On The Town. Proceedings turn, as they almost always do in a Coen Bros movie, more feistily satirical as we delve deeper into this fictionalised but still recognisably factual world of Big Business Movie Making.
Maybe not quite as sharp as we’ve seen them before, but still landing somewhere near the top of the Coens’ comedic game; Hail, Caesar! is a rare treat. Witty, subversive, handsome and fun.
Where else could we find Roger Deakins bathing everything in a gorgeous, faux-Technicolor glow while Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, both The Highlander and The Kurgan cameo alongside Frank Pickle from The Vicar of Dibley?
Hail Caesar, indeed.
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS – December 17, 2015
I’m grinning. As I write notes for this review, I’m remembering things I simply must not spoil and the smile grows.
This is Star Wars forging a new path but also leaning, perhaps too heavily, on past glories. There’s a very familiar structure at work here, a slew of references to the original trilogy (and one to the prequels) but there are also new characters with their own story to tell.
J.J. Abrams reportedly spoke recently of his regret that Star Trek into Darkness made too many references to its past. He, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt risk the same here but, for me, they get away with it. Just.
There were three moments, in this first viewing, where I felt my eyes welling up. They’re all small, quiet, beautifully scored and nostalgic. Other moments made my heart race. Like every Star Wars movie before it, some sequences drag, some play things a little too goofy. John Williams’ score is wonderful, throughout.
Something I’ve never found myself thinking of this saga before is that this is a movie often beautifully acted. Attack The Block’s John Boyega is fantastic as the brave, ill-prepared defecting Stormtrooper Finn. While Daisy Ridley’s Rey is out-nuanced early on by the charming (and expertly remote controlled) BB-8, this character grows into someone truly special. Frequently terrified, yet always extremely capable she’s a lead actress I look forward to seeing more of. There’s more energy in a single scene between Ridley and Boyega than can be found in the entire prequel trilogy.
Oscar Isaac continues to impress with yet another different, charismatic role. Speaking of charisma, Harrison Ford is still Han Solo. Chewie coddlingly handing him a warm coat is as close as the movie comes to referring to Han as the old man he now is. Carrie Fisher is used just enough, to believable effect.
Then we come to, arguably, Star Wars’ most interesting villain to date; Kylo Ren. Is he as iconic or as downright awesome as OT Darth Vader? No. What Adam Driver brings, however, is a human, conflicted, unpredictable foe, fearsomely to the screen.
By the movie’s end, we’ve seen several very familiar story elements amid the new. A lot has been said about the “correct order” in which to watch these seven episodes. To my mind, it should be the order in which they’ve been made. The repeated (perhaps lazy?) parts of this saga on display here sit best as a cozy, satisfying return to what the first trilogy did so well, after having sat through the trials of the, generously put, patchy prequels. A reward, as well as a return to form.
There’s much more I’d love to discuss, worthy of both criticism and praise but I cannot do so without spoilers. Big spoilers.
While The Force Awakens does re-tread a little too much ground, lacking sophistication in the same way these movies always have, it also feels right and did not disappoint. Episode VII will, I think, sit proudly amongst my favourite trips to a galaxy far, far away for quite some time.
SPECTRE – October 31, 2015
We meet again, Mr Bond. Nine years into Daniel Craig’s tenure, Spectre marks his fourth outing as the oft-shaken, frequently stirred super spy.
An exceptionally exciting opening treats us to a mini Bond movie all of its own, as we find James hot on the trail of a certain assassin in the midst of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. A confident, single-take (kinda) intro mirrors our protagonist’s swagger before buildings fall and a helicopter performs heart-stoppingly death-defying feats of aerial acrobatics!
Alas this is where, for me at least, the movie peaked. A subsequent bout of mid-air hijinks felt flat in the same way a similar skyward assault left me cold in 2008’s Quantum of Solace (a movie I prefer to refer by a less complimentary name). While Spectre is peppered with terrific car chases and some brilliant hand-to-hand combat, much of its quieter moments are plagued with limp dialogue from a script that can’t quite decide how to balance the bad one-liners with serious romantic intent.
Visually, there’s nothing here quite as beautiful as Roger Deakins’ Skyfall aesthetic, though Tangier, Rome and beyond are all flatteringly shot.
Thankfully, after a saggy middle section, things do pick up once Christoph Waltz takes centre stage. Sadly, he isn’t given a single monologue to rival the riveting rant delivered by Javier Bardem’s Silva. You remember the scene, trapped in a glass cage, eager to show off his dental work. Waltz’s Oberhauser is a subtler performance, dialling down the actor’s usual mannerisms into something menacing but not altogether memorable.
Elsewhere, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Dave Bautista makes a great entrance but utters only a single word throughout. Léa Seydoux makes for a truly alluring, more complex than the norm “Bond Girl” but isn’t developed quite well enough to anchor this movie’s romantic centre believably.
Spectre, too often, felt like a movie attempting to harken back to Bond of old in the same way Skyfall did, except this time it feels less natural, more crowbarred in. Craig is still terrific, most of the set pieces still enthral but overall this is a little Bond-By-Numbers. A fun movie, better than a great many that have come before it in Bond’s fifty-three year history, but far from Daniel’s best.
THE MARTIAN – October 2, 2015
Oh Ridley, just look what you can achieve when you’re armed with a decent script.
The Martian tells the riveting story of Mark Watney, left for dead alone on Mars after a fierce storm injures him and gives his crew no choice but to flee. Quickly introduced to the beautiful, desolate scenery of Mars, Scott’s movie wastes no time before delving into Watney’s plight and the many ways in which he fights to survive.
The script, by the brilliant Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, Daredevil) based on the book by Adam Weir, never forgets to make its character interesting, witty and relatable. It’s matched by a modern, emotive and often amusing score.
I think it would be fair to say that The Martian scienced the shit out of me. While I’m unable to vouch for how much of the physics and engineering on show rings true, the movie does a terrific job of selling its concepts to the audience. While the drama escalates to a point where plausibility starts to waver, I remained hooked, rooting for characters I’d grown to care for over the previous two hours.
There are some interesting feats of casting to be found in The Martian. Small roles flesh out well thanks to efficient writing, while the larger roles of Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and more are boosted by great performances from reliable acting talent. Sean Bean plays things subtly low-key, even managing to keep a straight face during a terrific Lord of the Rings reference that will not be lost on anybody who appreciates one does not simply walk onto Mars.
Matt Damon has rarely been better than he is here. Watney is a challenging role, spouting lines almost exclusively to the audience (via video messages, or externalised thought processes) that continually explain what’s going on in a way that might have been corny were it not for his in-built likeability and Goddard’s skill with human dialogue.
One of my favourite movies of 2015, filled with great performances, wit and moviemaking skill this is Ridley Scott at the top of his game for the first time, in my opinion, since Matchstick Men in 2003.
The Martian is a testament to the power of human endeavour, intelligence, scientific discovery and compassion.
LEGEND – September 15, 2015
I thoroughly enjoyed Legend, even if I am about to list the issues I had with it. Frequently told from the perspective of Reggie’s long-suffering wife Frances, this well-trodden tale of The Brothers Kray is held together by a narration that, to me, aimed for downplayed authenticity but landed somewhere flat. Whenever onscreen Emily Browning makes for an engaging female lead we can care about, even if the script saddles her character with some of the movie’s slowest scenes.
While the visuals are often exceptionally pleasing to the eye, Brian Helgeland remains a more adept director of actors than he does movies. He’s gifted with an exceptional cast who raise his unremarkable script into something inconsistent but repeatedly gripping, tense and impossible to look away from.
Reliable supporting players the likes of David Thewlis, Paul Bettany and Kingman’s increasingly impressive Taron Egerton give smaller roles a great deal of life and depth. It is however, perhaps with some irony for a movie featuring an actual Time Lord that its two giant, beating hearts should be those of Tom Hardy and Tom Hardy.
His Reggie and Ronnie are fully-rounded, enthralling creations full of charm, good humour and formidable menace.
Ronnie with his padded cheeks, half-prosthetic nose, false teeth and guttural tones provides laughs, pathos and a feeling of dread whenever onscreen. He’s unhinged and uncontrollable in a way his twin is not.
Reggie however, struck me as by far the more dangerous sibling. Almost always calm, charming and in control, when his front falters the movie is at its most terrifying.
The trailer for Legend had me a little concerned. Was this simply a rose-tinted, ill-judged love letter presenting a time and a pair of criminals that never truly existed? Thankfully no, for the glamour and allure of London’s past self does give way to a view, however accurate or inaccurate, of its unpredictable darkness.
Legend is deeply flawed but, I suspect, enduringly fascinating.
AMERICAN ULTRA – September 8, 2015
So, Tim Bisley is the Machurian Candidate? Who knew?!
OK, I’m playing a little loose with my references but then so does American Ultra, frequently. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a stoner who draws his own comicbook and could have been lifted from Spaced were it not for his complete lack of charm. Promisingly paired with Kristen Stewart as his long-term girlfriend, I was hoping for a reprisal of the pair’s touching chemistry in Adventureland but instead we’re given only fleeting glances at the strength of their relationship before all hell breaks loose and people get killed with spoons.
A handful of genuinely genre subverting moments towards the end had me wondering if a second viewing might reveal a hidden depth that I’d missed this time around. Given the flat, poorly shot, sub-sub-A Scanner Darkly drug-addled pretension of what had come before however, I doubt I’ll bother to find out.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION – August 6, 2015
At around 1 hour and 15 minutes into Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, I caught a glimpse of my friend’s watch. I couldn’t believe the movie had only been going for that short a time.
The truth of the matter is, for one of 2015’s mainstream action blockbusters, there isn’t a single set piece to rival anything Brad Bird gave us in Ghost Protocol.
The movie’s trump cards are a hugely engaging turn by The White Queen’s Rebecca Ferguson, accompanied by an on-form Cruise and Pegg. Ving Rhames’ charisma is, not for the first time, criminally underused however and Jeremy Renner also has very little to do.
A couple of poorly edited sequences (sadly, the opening being one of them) are cut short and robbed of their potential impact. While the first half of the movie is, at least, completely entertaining too much of the action is slow-paced and far too many scenes feel talky and inconsequential. The script keeps things admirably light but also feels pleased with itself, while at the same time lacking anything approaching surprise.
Slick production, a pleasing score, an appealing female lead and excellent comic relief do lift this fifth outing above some entries in the franchise, and many movies of its type. But after its surprisingly entertaining predecessor, keeping the standard high seems to have proved an impossible mission in itself.
INSIDE OUT – July 28, 2015
Who’d have thought, twenty years ago when Pixar burst onto the scene with Toy Story and its Hawaiian-shirted spokesperson that relatively quiet Pete Doctor would, decades later, emerge as the studio’s most accomplished director.
There’s so much praise I’m itching to steep upon Inside Out, it’s difficult to know where to start. This is a movie that begins with a couple of concepts that really impressed me. The idea that, shortly before a child opens its eyes for the very first time, their first emotion is joy. How beautiful is that?
Until now, perhaps my favourite idea from any Pixar movie has been a tiny one. Brad Bird and his team, in Ratatouille, managed to represent how food tastes with a series of unique explosions of animation. That small flourish of visual imagination captured the essence of what it was trying to express so perfectly, I was blown away. Early on during Inside Out, the workings of our lead character’s mind are expressed so clearly as a series of mechanics the audience is immediately informed of how this world functions before things open up to all manner of possibilities. In my book, that’s some damn fine moviemaking.
This is the story of Riley, the eleven year old daughter in a family moving town. A single shot within the road-trip montage, spanning from Minnesota to San Francisco, reminded me of Spirited Away. This planted a seed that grew as the movie progressed until I came to the conclusion that, without ever being anything other than the work of Pixar, I think the studio might have made their first Miyazaki movie. For almost as long as Pixar have been in the public eye, they have made it clear that the work of Studio Ghibli has been a huge influence and inspiration. Until now Pixar’s output has, for me, shown much greater skill at storytelling and structure but never scaled the heights of pure imagination shown in the likes of Spirited Away, Howl’s Movie Castle, Laputa and the rest.
Inside out shares a looser grasp on story, but a wildly inventive set of ideas. Sequences soar in terms of emotional impact, originality, even wisdom. A skit centring on the formation of abstract thought is witty, unique and above all an extremely impressive piece of animation.
Inside Out instilled in me all the clichés; I laughed, I cried (I wanted to buy the print) and I left the cinema having shared an understanding of what it is that forms us as human beings with a team of movie makers who may have faltered in recent years but return in 2015 with an uneven yet bold, powerfully accomplished movie.
>ANT-MAN – July 17, 2015
A couple of things surprised me as a left the cinema, having watched Ant-Man. With this movie’s troubled production never far from my mind, I was pleasantly taken aback by how much fun the final product is. Secondly, I never expected Ant-Man to be my favourite Marvel movie of 2015.
The Edgar Wright-sized elephant in the room caused a few mixed feelings throughout this cinema-going experience, for me. His sense of humour is frequently present, even his editing style makes a few appearances but this never makes for anything other than a good time. There are visual gags, lines of dialogue or even the way scenes play out that made me a little sad they weren’t handled by Wright in the style he’s finessed since the days of Spaced all the way to the magnificent Scott Pilgrim. Nevertheless, elements of the screenplay that feel indelibly his (and Joe Cornish’s) are well handled by Peyton Reed, who directs with pace, skill and genuine visual flair. This is a slicker product than perhaps Wright would have given us, lacking Edgar’s controlled but charmingly homemade feel.
Things start strong, though the story perhaps could have benefited from slightly more thrust. What it does, however, is introduce the hugely likeable thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and his partners in crime, alongside the loftier Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), his daughter (Evangeline Lilly) and their world of regret and scientific discovery.
This largely self-contained story still has its links to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, but makes the most out of being a tale of two Dads seeking to get closer to their daughters. Every so often, the action swaps to a world of tiny proportions, filled with inspired sight gags and terrific effects work. Anyone who responded emotionally to Anty from Honey I Shrunk the Kids will do so again here, as Hank and Scott’s team of helpful insects provide much of the movie’s humour. An exciting action scene set entirely inside a briefcase borders on genius.
Rudd works his charm with every bit as much success as Chris Pratt did in Guardians of the Galaxy, anchoring this new sub-franchise on his relatable charisma and frequent belly laughs. The stakes are high enough that I cared, the characters are funny enough that I want to see them again, there’s an abundance of heart and a real flair for the absurd that bring a quirky script alive in ways I hadn’t quite expected to see. Mid and post-credit sequences only add to the potential for more, even if some of the wider MCU integration feels slightly unnecessary.
Ant-Man is, above all things, a great deal of fun and perhaps the surprise of the summer.
TERMINATOR GENISYS – July 9, 2015
Terminator Genisys doesn’t deserve the time I’m spending on writing this review. It sure as hell doesn’t deserve the time you may spend watching it.
By the point at which all of the movie’s attempts at logic have settled into place, there’s little of the Terminator backstory left to cling onto. This, the worst kind of reboot, spends so much of its latter half talking fate, destiny and the inevitable that not a single syllable of it counts for anything. The series roots been torn up and burnt so messily that any new attempts at drama feel like worthless padding. The swathes of dialogue driven, would-be exposition are also extremely boring.
There’s some truly brilliant effects work up close, furthering the always magnificent job of mangling Arnie’s face down to its cold, metal endoskeleton. The chief villain is a great looking metal musculature with a dash of Guyver thrown in for good measure. So why, then, are the larger-scale set pieces hampered by a rushed, blurry, unfinished look? Jonathan Mostow’s T3 had more impressive vehicular action.
Arnie does Arnie with all the warm fuzziness you’d expect, serving to remind us how badly his absence hurt Terminator Salvation. His younger self is realised superbly this time around, too. Sadly, attempts to rekindle the pathos of T2 fall universally flat.
Emilia Clarke struck me as poor casting for an already hardened Sarah Connor. She fails to look the part, never reproducing the initial brightness yet implied world-weariness of Linda Hamilton in The Terminator.
Matt Smith’s brief (with a capital BRIEF) role is well-acted and an intriguing setup for what may be to come should this movie make enough money.
All that said, though, since Genisys is an uninspired, reference-heavy mess, I sincerely hope it won’t be back.
JURASSIC WORLD – June 18, 2015
While Jurassic World was beating US Box Office records at the weekend, British TV showed Jurassic Park for the millionth time. Naturally, I sat down to watch it once again.
A few days later, with it fresh in my mind here’s how I think the franchise’s fourth outing stacks up against its predecessors.
While not the disaster I’d feared, I can’t honestly say this World did much for me. While the original is something of a pedant’s paradise, filled with continuity errors, leaps of logic and one grating reference to UNIX, it is still a hugely effective ride from a master movie maker. The Jeeps vs the T-Rex and the Raptors in the Kitchen still remain taught, impeccable set pieces.
The Lost World is remembered considerably less fondly, with only it’s Monster on the Mainland final act lodged in my memory. Hey, I was seventeen and it was pretty funny.
For me, Jurassic Park III fared better. Too silly for its own good in places, but very effective in others. I’ve always had a soft spot for Joe Johnson.
Here we are in 2015, some twenty-two years after we first entered the Park, and Starlord rides through the forest with a pack of trained Velociraptors. What’s not to like? Alas, for my money, quite a bit.
Every attempt at characterisation is built on 100% cliché. Is that a problem in a Blockbuster? Not necessarily, but in a summer that has spoilt us with Fury Road’s subtle (perhaps too subtle), beautiful character development this kind of on-the-nose writing feels, all of a sudden, dated.
While Spielberg was skilfully masking the limitations of 1992 effects work with rain, smoke and foliage too many of the shots here are bathed in light showing every flaw in the CG and (seemingly less sophisticated than they were two decades ago) animatronics.
While placing a pair of kids front and centre is nothing new to the Jurassic series, World’s brothers are far less engaging than the original’s siblings.
Even JPIII managed to create something genuinely horrific out of its gloomy aviary, introducing the Pterodactyl as an imposing, terrifying airborne menace. Here, they reminded me of the Vampire Bat Things from Van Helsing. Not good.
My final gripe (Bryce Dallas Howard’s miraculous skill when running in heels aside, an observation made by four of my female friends) is a real lack of imagination realised in the movie’s few genetically engineered beasties.
Still, this is a movie that gets more entertaining as it progresses. The kids grow less tiresome, the dino’s become more varied and the stakes get higher. There’s nothing to hate here but also nothing to love. Massively successful, middle of the road.
PITCH PERFECT 2 – May 27, 2015
I guess this is just what I deserve. I don’t review anything for weeks, greedily basking in the warm, orange glow of Fury Road only to have an opportunity present itself to see Pitch Perfect 2. Don’t get me wrong, the first movie sits in my bluray collection and is an enjoyable piece of fluff I’ve watched many times. The sequel however, isn’t in the same league.
If you’re a pop fan like me, you’ll probably enjoy a lot of the music. It’s often pretty great, even rousing, maybe even a little moving. And there ends my praise for this movie.
Flatly, if not downright badly, directed by Elizabeth Banks it simply isn’t funny enough. Not even the clearly talented Rebel Wilson’s ad-libs hit home this time around. No-one here feels like an actual human being anymore; replaced by bullet points masquerading as character traits, broad racial stereotypes and re-treads of jokes that worked better the first time.
This is a limp, timid attempt to recapture the modest successes of its predecessor. Members of the audience I was in, including myself, became restless as the movie plodded along towards its so-so climax. Box office success and a likely second sequel doth not a good movie make.
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON – April 23, 2015
So here we are, three years on. The Avengers have assembled once again and the Age of Ultron is upon us here in the UK. Does it live up to Joss Whedon’s first foray into the MCU? No. Is it still a damn good time at the cinema? I thought so.
There are many wonderful things to be found beneath Ultron’s mechanical exterior. The high quality quippage is still there. The movie opens with the kind of fast, interconnected action complexity last seen when a big ol’ space hole opened up above New York. Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye in particular is given a great deal more to do here, somewhat surprisingly tugging at heartstrings to greater effect than those of his trusty bow. His expansion gives the story a huge injection of heart and humour. While the finale doesn’t quite engage with as much success as its predecessor, the movie is punctuated by great ideas and well, even if you’ve watched the online clips of the Hulkbuster, Tony vs the Hulk is a joy.
Ultron himself is a wonderful creation but still manages to suffer from a lack of development in the same way all but Loki have before now in the MCU’s roster of villains. He’s great fun, often brilliantly written as something of a (shiny metal) mirror to Stark’s human flaws. Still essentially a special effect though, he can’t quite hold the screen in the same way as Tom Hiddleston seemed to do so effortlessly.
Speaking of Loki, his brother doesn’t seem to have an awful lot to do here. Few of the other Avengers have standout moments either, though their characters deepen thanks to the tricks a certain Scarlet Witch plays on them. It’s here that the movie feels darkest and also furthest from the colourful, silly appeal of its previous ensemble. That purity and crisp, clean storytelling feels lost amongst the angst at times and, had it gone on a little longer, may even have derailed this bigger yet slightly less satisfying chapter. Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver is fine, even though he isn’t afforded anything like the moment to shine Days of Future Past gave the same (very different) character.
Will some leave the cinema disappointed? As early reviews have already stated before me, yes. Even if it is a less joyous, less consistent affair than its direct forebear, Age of Ultron still knows how to impress, entertain and shows great Vision for the future. Wink.
CHAPPIE – March 3, 2015
I’m not entirely sure what Chappie is but Neill Blomkamp is still yet to make a movie I haven’t enjoyed. It’s hardly news that District 9 remains his best work to date, by far. The casting of Ninja and Jolandi Visser of South African hip-hop act Die Antwoord, has me suspecting the movie may be some kind of extended music video. They play yet another version of themselves, wear clothes from their previous music videos while much of the soundtrack features their music.
Alternatively, is this Blomkamp’s attempt to directly recapture something of the success of District 9? Itself a further developed version of his short Alive In Joburg, Chappie is also a reworking of his first short Tetra Vaal. The director repeats many of the same beats from D9 here; the documentary opening, the gangs (in a smaller role, one leader played by a returning cast member) and a third act dominated by a giant robot and a similarly two-dimensional antagonist.
Perhaps it is all simply a pastiche of movies close to Blomkamp’s heart such as Robocop, Ghost in the Shell with a few nods to his own best work thrown in.
Chappie himself is a brilliantly realised special effect but, for me, a fairly annoying character. His brief innocence struck me as squeaky and repetitive while his transformation into robotic Thug failed to charm or amuse. While the script clips along at a swift pace, it takes a few too many leaps of logic and Hugh Jackman’s bad guy seems to snap with an underdeveloped ease. Much of the sci-fi to be found within Elysium felt smart and believably/satirically futuristic. Here it feels largely half-baked.
All that said however, Chappie is yet another great looking movie. While it feels somewhat familiar, it’s also confident enough to have me wondering if it is pretentious nonsense or admirably bold and bonkers. In a way though, things have the feeling of an above average anime; big ideas without perhaps the time or writing talent to do them justice.
In brief (in what’s turned out to be my longest “short” review yet!), I was never bored, rarely less than entertained but sadly often frustrated watching Chappie. A skilful mess but far from a bad movie.
IT FOLLOWS – February 28, 2015
Horror as sexually transmitted disease is nothing new, and so It Follows begins with a street and a score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s Halloween. From its 70s roots, through to the likes of Ginger Snaps in 2000, the teenage experience has been mixed with the horrific in American movies to great effect many times before now. Here, we’re presented with a curse passed from victim to victim through sexual encounter, a nameless evil that stalks its prey appearing as a random member of a crowd or perhaps a loved one. As the movie progresses, the threat could literally come from anywhere be that the corners of the screen to the seemingly innocent person walking just a little too purposefully towards the camera. Few horrors, particularly in recent years, create such a controlled, unrelenting feeling of dread and uncertainty.
Were I to pick out the movie’s few flaws, a couple of re-used elements from the FEZ soundtrack may stand out to geekier ears in amongst Disasterpeace’s otherwise fantastic score. Also, while its abruptness may cement the movie’s subtext of teenage regret and guilt amongst shared experience, the ending is perhaps not as satisfying as it could be.
But for those small issues this is a tremendously shot, brilliantly acted exercise in terror. It feels modern but equally likely to date in precisely the way classic teen horror of the 70s has; feeling of-its-time in a very deliberate way. The atmosphere is foul, the scares escalate, unnerve and a few references to the likes of Halloween, Elm Street and Let The Right One In convince us that we’re in skilful, well-versed hands. It Follows, given the discussion I feel it deserves will stay with you outside of the cinema. That’s usually the mark of horror a cut above the norm.
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE – February 7, 2015
Bear with me a moment, if you will, while I pull this movie to pieces before explaining why none of that matters and how much I enjoyed it.
Kingsman, a return to the world of Mark Millar by director Matthew Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman, starts with a crass interrogation scene that might have been lifted from a live-action amalgam of Saints Row and Team America. This lack of subtlety continues with the sort of overly on-the-nose speech about the lead character’s youthful dissatisfaction with authority that we’ve seen many times before, falling well short of Attack The Block’s similarly rooted but far more believable sense of arguably misguided yet relatable honour. These characters never quite rise above their distastefully criminal beginnings.
In amongst the teenage wish-fulfilment, we find a couple of references to Kubrick which feel almost insultingly out of place. The trashiness feels hell-bent on rekindling the controversy rightly or wrongly stirred up by Kick-Ass’ Hit Girl introduction, set to the Banana Splits. One of this movie’s own trio of incongruously sound-tracked scenes of extreme violence was, for me, a serious misstep that left a nasty taste in my mouth.
All that said however, the two remaining sides of this triangle of carnage had me grinning from ear to ear. Perfectly pairing familiar cartoon aggro with well-worn pop hits. I’m no great fan of Colin Firth, but he’s clearly having the time of his life playing this elder James Bond/M pastiche. The references don’t end there with extremely knowing nods to the heyday of You Only Live Twice and the late 70s cheese of Moonraker. While the script’s more generic self-referencing feels dated, there are plenty more successful tips of the hat to be found in the set design and henchmen costuming.
While Kingsman’s London-set pub brawls might not quite share the quality of amiable social comment as say Shaun of the Dead, its tongue is almost always firmly, entertainingly planted in its cheek. The visuals are rich, the pace is perfectly pitched and I was for the most part, having a blast in this silly, nasty, immature world of spies, girls and lisping supervillains.
WHIPLASH – January 16, 2015
Whiplash finally makes it to the UK. Whether your appreciation of Jazz stops at tapping along to “Tank!” as Cowboy Bebop starts, or sours beyond simply recognising the numerous nods to Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich; there is an abundance of beautiful music to enjoy throughout this movie.
J.K. Simmons excels as Fletcher the monstrous, possibly righteous band leader who torments Miles Teller’s Andrew, a hugely gifted drum student.
Their sparring fuels all of the movie’s musical highlights. It’s a shame, then, that too much of the parallel drama feels contrived and predictable, proving to be a not wholly successful expansion of the story’s short-form roots. Frustrating too, is how many of the little, meaningful moments are heavy-handedly delivered and overly sign-posted.
Still, at the heart of Whiplash beats two exceptional performances, rich visuals to match the enthralling, exciting music and a gripping finale. Not quite a classic jazz standard, but still a fascinating jam session.
BIRDMAN – January 2, 2015
Birdman struck me as an admirable attempt to step inside the mind of an actor. The problem is, it’s more about tricks than substance. Its core idea is to shoot the movie as if it is one, continuous shot. For a story centred on the staging of a play, I guess this was, in part, an attempt to feel more theatrical. The issue is that, every now and then, the transition shots are too obvious between filming sessions. With the trick plain to see, it feels less impressive than actual theatre and therefore sort of pointless.
For a story about, for some of its runtime, a show’s star (Keaton) being undermined by his co-star (Norton) it feels like a bit of a shame (though, I’m sure intentionally so) that Ed Norton does actually steal so much of the movie away from Michael Keaton. Let’s be clear however, Keaton is on amazing form and seems to effortlessly hold our attention while delivering cutting dialogue that is, on occasion, painfully close to his own career.
Despite my gripes and the feeling that there’s less to what this movie is trying to say than it would have you believe, I was entertained. Some scenes, though always well-acted, feature limp dialogue while others feel full of wit, pace and bite. Criticism of critics themselves is presented scathingly, though considerably less eloquently than in Ratatouille (which I rewatched recently). Flights of self-referentially cinematic fancy are handsomely staged but have less impact than the final act of Adaptation. But then, maybe this review could be torn to shreds in exactly the way Riggan Thomson does shortly before his life climactically imitates his own art. 2015 has started with something fascinating, uneven and ever so slightly disappointing.
PADDINGTON – December 19, 2014
Set for an early 2015 US release is Paddington, the Peruvian bear who arrives in London and onto our screens almost fifty-seven years after British writer Michael Bond first wrote about him. Not since Stuart Little 2 has there been such a pure, innocent slice of CG-enhanced, live-action family entertainment.
After some kafuffle with Colin Firth’s voice, Ben Whishaw provides a perfectly sweet, youthful tone for Paddington the little lost bear with a penchant for marmalade sandwiches.
A terrific cast headed by Hugh Bonneville (proving, not for the first time, to be hugely adept at comedy) and a brilliantly heartfelt Sally Hawkins is fleshed out by a few familiar Brits and an on-form Nicole Kidman at possibly her most watchable for years!
This lovely tale is gifted more than its fair share of wit and visual flair by Paul King of The Mighty Boosh/Bunny and the Bull fame. There are brief, amusing nods to the bureaucracy of Gilliam’s Brazil, Ghost Protocol and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as one fantastic touch that almost brought a tear to my eye.
Family entertainment with this much genuine, skilful charm is rare and I for one believe it should be celebrated.
THE IMITATION GAME – November 26, 2014
Here’s a movie that, kind of, tells the story of Alan Turing whose work during World War II was so secret it took over 50 years to be declassified. Tragically, unjust UK law saw him mistreated horrendously for his efforts, while his legacy paved the way for the computers you’re reading my review on right now. It’s a shame that such a tale is so glaringly simplified that even before I did any research, parts of it felt like nonsense. In particular, the great cryptanalyst Joan Clarke’s life is twisted into a series of plot devices that never quite ring true while her actual story should have been more than interesting enough. Sadly, it’s in the shaping of Turing that the screenplay also falters, portraying him as perhaps a less complex (and therefore less fascinating) man than he was.
This is, however, a beautiful looking film, well structured, with some terrific performances. Predictably, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch that excels most in a brilliantly pitched leading role. He plays Turing as a sort of combination between quiz team uber-geek Patrick (in the underrated Starter For Ten) and the BBC’s Sherlock. In other words, a character both cripplingly introverted also hampered by his uncontrolled hubris, but always run through with a vein of intelligence. Matthew Goode also stands out, displaying his usual charm and skill with dialogue.
In short The Imitation Game is a movie that perhaps should have achieved more, but still contains some fantastic moments, great performances and tells a tale of true power.
NIGHTCRAWLER – November 11, 2014
While the UK has only a handful of TV news stations, instead of the vast networks of the US, here is a film that rings every bit as true to the darker side of the media here in merry old England. I have to tip my hat to our own Chase Gifford, his review struck me as spot on. Jake Gyllenhaal continues to pick fascinating roles that he ably gives himself over to onscreen.
Louis Bloom grows from determined, desperate guy in search of a job to skilled, ruthless, self-serving monster in sight of success. I was uneasily entertained by how his horrific character grew more and more capable in pursuit of this goals, while descending ever deeper into self-destruction as a human being. James Newton Howard’s excellent score plays like the theme music inside the character’s head, aggrandising personal depravity as “heroism” in Bloom’s strained, piercing eyes while the audience watches in revulsion. Dark, efficient character studies that play out with this level skill are few and far between.
INTERSTELLAR – November 7, 2014
It’s all relative. This weekend saw the release of Christopher Nolan’s latest, loftiest but also most human story in the UK. This tale of our species reaching out for a new home beyond the stars is grounded in the relationship between fathers and their children. There’s also just enough real-world scientific theory to keep the adventure, for the most part vaguely plausible. It’s in some of the human side-story that the pace, and impact, feels less successful. For me, where the film frequently excels is in its visual interpretation of science not-quite-fiction. A wormhole is impressively and beautifully conceived, while moments of unique visual imagination left me awe inspired and a few, boxy robots provide perhaps the most humour there has ever been in a Nolan flick. Interstellar doesn’t seem quite so consistently inventive as earlier efforts such as Inception. For all its flaws however; the subplots that could be removed and the occasionally jarring cuts back to less interesting strands of the story, I was entertained and fulfilled by this brave, often powerful piece of cinema.
THE BABADOOK – October 31, 2014
Released on Halloween in the UK, The Babadook is an impressively bold debut by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent. Taken too literally, its low budget and occasionally inconsistent (though overall, impressive) child-acting could illicit more sniggers than scares. Watched with an eye for the less than conventional however this is a fascinating, often terrifying tale of how very real trauma can test (and twist) a person’s mind.
Set predominantly inside a house resembling something designed by Rick Heinrichs and Bo Welch after a shared nightmare, some may find the movie overly stylised and nonsensical on the surface while others will relish its grim atmosphere and the way it conveys the lasting extremes of grief. After all, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.
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