Thursday, 13 July 2017

Spider-Man 6: Homecoming

Spider-Man Homecoming, 12A, 133 mins. Marvel Studios.

Starring: Tom Holland, Micheal Keaton, Robert Downey Jr, Marisa Tomei, Donald Glover, Logan Marshall-Green, John Favreau, Chris Evans, Tony Revolli & Gwyneth Paltrow.

The sixth movie, third reboot in 15 years, and third casting change (after intentionally meek Tobey Maguire with Sam Raimi (2000-2008) and the nervy, captivating Andrew Garfield (2010-2015 with the aptly named Marc Webb (500) Days Of Summer).
  Garfield still remains my favourite actor in the role, but crucially I think the original Raimi Trilogy (2002-2007) are far better films than any that have followed subsequently. This has very little to do with Maguire’s performance ironically enough, and has far more to to do with his always excellent, conflicted, soulful foil - James Franco as Harry Osbourne, who worked with Raimi again, playing the titular magician in 2013’s outstanding revisionist origin-reboot Oz: The Great And Powerful. Not to mention a maniacally-cackling Willem Dafoe as his father in that trilogy - the fantastic, gleefully vengeful father and junior of Green Goblins!
  Now, with Sony’s studio-head Amy Pascal and producers Matt Tolmach & Avi Arad to change up that iconic red-and-blue web-slinger who’s adorned many a bedroom wall, billboard or bus the world over, it’s 21 year-old Tom Holland (19 when he was cast).
  Holland is very strong in the role; performatively, emotionally and physically, without ever feeling nervous or phased at all by being the webbed figurehead, and not only playing the messy duality of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, but also joining as Marvel’s property for the first time, owing to Disney and Marvel not wanting their most iconoclastic character to lose his spun strand of comic-book credentials.
  As much as I love the universe crossover with the Avengers, post-credit Easter-egg cameos (Downey Jr - tired, and Paltrow - underused, Chris Evans - funny), Jon Watts’s film doesn't retain the grandiose potency of Raimi’s trilogy, which the character had tenfold when he was on his own. Its ratio of grand-scale set pieces to zippy comedy is frustratingly unbalanced. There’s too much high-school angst, not enough origin development or chance for Holland to show nearly enough pathos.
  Micheal Keaton is effortlessly terrific as the villainous Vulture, channeling his inner Buffalo Bill. My favourite scene has a huge, yet small-scale, domesticated twist with moody cinematography and tense revelation during a deceptively convivial exchange at traffic-lights.
  There’s a well-staged van-heist, a highlight scaled up Washington monument with Micheal Giacchino’s trademark tinkly, perpetual score. Slight, but very entertaining.

Rating: * * * 

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Monday, 3 July 2017

Despicable Me 3

Certificate: U, 90 mins. Approx - Illumination Entertainment.

Starring: Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Jenny Slate, Steve Coogan and Julie Andrews.

In 2010, two ostensibly similar computer-animations were released, less than six months apart. One was Despicable Me, a colourful, family-freindly, bubblegum-plastic, synergy-tied confection of super-villainy turned good.
  The other was DreamWorks’s Megamind, a florescence-filled delight of heroics, colour, and super-villainy turned…well, you get the very cynicism-orientated idea by now, I’m sure…
  But my cynicism is well-placed - never more so than here - in this heavy, languid, broadly-bogged-down third installment. The first song used lazily here - Micheal Jackson’s Bad - is in fact the last one used in Megamind, and to much the same effect - though it’s not nearly as charming.
  From here on in the narrative and stylistic similarity is so shamelessly staggering - I’m surprised DreamWorks don’t sue - I’m sure they’d have a good case. The main difference being of course, that where  Megamind was funny, inventive and light as the frothiest soufflé, this feels increasingly tired and lumpen, a formula cooked up in those perpetually endless metallic corridors these characters are forever running down.
  This is a polarising opinion, but I just don’t find those awful yellow minions the slightest bit funny. Like the worst kind of hyperactive offspring, they never shut up! Not that this bothered the many delighted faces in my screening. Never before have I seen so many children so easily and simultainiously pleased, with every flatulence-gun fired or raspberry blown. I suppose the intention was to hark back to a cross between The Marx Bros. and Bananas in Pajarmas - if so, the filmmakers missed the mark widely.
  What works far better is the much needed lightness-of-touch from Pharrell Williams. Making everybody ‘Happy’ back in 2013, and ‘Frozen-out’ to an Oscar - (maybe he’s Let It Go) - he’s back here, with songs that cleverly help reference a slew of other films. His infectious anthem ‘Freedom’ is a great ode to The Shawshank Redemption - as well as an America’s Got Talent style sing-off of The Periodic Table Song. (It’s same studio that made Sing - infinitely better). Good performances from Kristen Wiig, Jenny Slate and Julie Andrews, can’t save it from its own gloopy brand of unoriginality.

Rating: * *

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Thursday, 22 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel, 12A, 106 mins, BBC Films.

Starring: Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Vikki Pepperdine.

Director Roger Michell, whose eclectic output ranges from culture-clash rom-com classic Notting Hill, to two sets of circumstances where strangers meeting turns deadly, in both Changing Lanes and Ian McEwan’s terrific chimera Enduring Love - the only role for me, that Daniel Craig ever suited - controversial I know! But true, I assure you.
 Strangers seemingly exuding a deceptive benevolence, is a thematic strand which carries through to this latest adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic. An author who revels in suggested and suggestive subtext, the phrase: ‘reading between the lines’ has never been more vitally important. This also applies particularly here, as the dialogue is far too modern for whenever the elusive period may be. Would sniping retorts of ‘God knows’ really have been repeated as both readily and casually as they are here?
  What is kept intact, is the continuous motif of sickness, poisoning, secret rendezvous by shadowy candlelight - and all-important pathetic fallacy.
  Rachel Weisz plays the morally capricious Mrs. Danvers figure, the titular Rachel - under suspicion, and soon a - severely underpowered - seduction from young Philip - played stoically by Sam Claflin.
Claflin’s having a huge year thanks to being excellent here, stealing the privileged show in the Posh adaptation, the exceptional The Riot Club in 2014, and receiving rave reviews for the redeemed reporter in Their Finest - surely a nomination for the only public-voted catagory of the EE Rising Star award in February 2018 is long-overdue?
  Speaking of nominations, Weisz is surely one of the earliest predictions for a statuette in awards season next year. She’s one of the most poised, precise, brilliant actresses of her generation - very underrated, a personal favourite of mine, also fantastic and similarly ‘wicked as they come’ as Evanora in 2013’s Oz, and Denial as holocaust Professor Deborah Lipschadt.
  She calibrates the camera to her changing gaze magnificently here. She is by turns obliging, nervy and keen-to-please, but as soon as Michell’s frame pans ominously around staircases or dimly lit rooms where endlessly suspicions cups of something horrible are sipped and served, she switches on a sixpence to conniving and coldly manipulative. But even the increasingly desperate Rachel couldn’t stoop to murdering her husband - could she…?

Rating: * * *

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wonder Woman Review

Wonder Woman, 12A, 141 mins, DC/Warner Bros.

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Lucy Davis.

Wonder Woman, immortalized by a spinning Lynda Carter in the seventies kitsch TV series, has now become the talk of Hollywood, after a much protracted, golden-lassoed quantum leap, into the twenty-first century.
  Director Patty Jenkins has already made history by being the first female director ever to oversee a multi-million dollar production.
  It’s a confident, rich, twisty, stylish, highly enjoyable addition to the superhero canon. Forget gods vs. humans, DC Vs. Marvel has been waging its own needless war for a couple of years now, thanks to DC’s latest incarnation, with the terrific Batman Vs. Superman - much maligned for its doomy posturing, but I thought it was hugely accomplished.
The reception wasn’t much better for Suicide Squad, perfectly enjoyable, but all over the place structurally. But I liked the riskier, edgier take both of these (reboots of sorts) took; albeit never hoping to reach the stirringly crescendoed heights of Nolan and Bale - or original multiplex-charm of Reeve.
  This structural meandering is jettisoned - but in creating a more streamlined screenplay - convention mostly - but doesn’t always, favour customary thrills.  
  Gal Gadot is a very strong choice for the role, but so much was made of the fact that its the first female superhero, that the more her back-story is revealed, the more earnest & rightfully empowering she becomes. The humour doesn't always work - with cliche not meaning irony. (Jasper Carrott’s daughter, Lucy Davis, is given the completely thankless comic relief).
  What works far better is the villainy. Danny Huston (brother of Angelica, uncle to Jack (Ben-Hur, American Hustle), son of John and grandson of Walter), is consistently convincing - from Hitchcock to Magic City and Origins: Wolverine. Here, he’s a gleefully maniacal antagonist, working with the disfigured, aptly named Dr. Poison - a genuinely unnerving, extraordinary performance from Elena Anaya - the Joker equivalent of WWI.
David Thewlis steals the show, playing moral ambiguity to the hilt, again (Lupin in Harry Potter, (Earthworm in James And The Giant Peach, Dragonheart).
The speed-ramped action and effects are very impressive, particularly in the first third - set on the Amazonian idyll.
Chris Pine always makes smart choices, and the incomparable Lindy Hemming’s costumes are a delight - similarly to the film - they’re a master-class in intricacy.

Rating: * * *
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Friday, 2 June 2017

Pirates Of The Caribbean 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales (US) / Salazar's Revenge (UK)

The recent critical reception of the box-office swashbuckling Pirates franchise has, in the majority, gone somewhat from a miscreant’s trove of riches, to being run aground by rags.
After the powerhouse back-lot grandiosity and sharp script of director Gore Verbinski’s and writers Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio’s original trilogy (2003-2007), Rob Marshall’s (Chicago, Into The Woods, the upcoming Mary Poppins Returns), On Stranger Tides in 2011, felt enjoyable, albeit expositionally heavy, and the absence of the vital coupling of Orlando Bloom and Keria Knightley was especially keenly felt. I wonder…
  Here, with its absolutely terrific fifth installment blasting surprises out of multiple canons, it’s put absolutely back on top of the parchment roster of one of the very best blockbuster-franchises in mainstream, twenty-first century cinema.
  It simultainiously feels absolutely inimitably set within the Pirates atmosphere of studio-lead scale, a glorious reprise of both high-spirited golden-age romanticism and humour; and the main themes of Hans Zimmer’s unmistakably rousing orchestral score, the very slickest of visual effects, and the threatening, plotting chimera of danger around every doomy, crescendoed turn.
  At the same time it feels utterly new, thanks to the injection of brilliant new talent inhabiting brand new characters. Brenton Thwaites is just as fresh-faced and resourceful as both Bloom and Knightley were, starring as Henry Turner, son to their characters; Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Kaya Scodelario is also equally impessive as astrologer Karina, allowing for a particularly inventive sub-plot involving blood-moons and star trajectories.
 Of course, tottering fantastically upfront and centre, is Johnny Depp’s infamous Captain Jack Sparrow, whose facial expressions, agitprop physicality and slurred delivery, are as joyous as ever. It’s also a series thriving on the surprise of its villainy and set-pieces, possibly never more so than here, as Javier Bardem (Skyfall) continues his litany of gleeful malevenlence as Salazar, who in his ghostly, genuinely unnerving, deliciously unpredictable wake (similarly to Ralph Fiennes’s Voldermort), leaves lots of options for both peerless cinematography, and 3D to complement each other with aplomb. Sea-birds quark and swoop into camera, sharks circle and jump in speed-ramped editing, armies of undead charge on-mass, and waterfall tombs nearly leave you drenched!
  To reveal more of the many twists would spoil. Stay after the credits!

  Rating: * * * *
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Saturday, 20 May 2017

Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane, Cert: 15, 132 mins approx, Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, John Lithgow. Entertainment One.

The ever-unpredictable subject of American politics makes for a fascinating, twisty thriller set in the glossy arena of senate hearings, campaigns, constitutional questioning, boardrooms and backstabbing. The eclectic versatility of director John Madden has brought us the literary romanticism of Shakespeare In Love, the horror of the holocaust in The Debt - (also starring Chastain) and the gentle warmth as well as lucrative success of two stays, at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
  This, is another change of tactic, with a fantastic screenplay of corporate, rhymical dialogue that hits the polished, governmental ground running, like Damages, or the rat-a-tat vernacular Aaron Sorkin might have written - his stylistic hallmark of The West Wing, and The Newsroom, (which Allison Pill also starred in, playing a similar role both there and here, a young protage to whom there’s more than meets the eye). It’s an examination of how the setting of broadcasting operates. That’s also evident here, with frequent and forensic motifs of live television, media outlets, and the distortion of truth through sensationalism and the changing balances of power. The complex legal rhetoric won’t suit everyone, but enriched the darkly tangled web of corruption, deceit, plotting and secrecy for me.
  These are all framed by the hot-button issue of legislative gun control. Given the cataclysmic events of the current U.S. climate politically - (a certain polariser was elected two days after its U.S. premiere) - it may have been decidedly different in its rather neutral approach. Although, however much these comparisons are made with the emphasis on current events and topicality, these are often either exaggerated (never here) or coincidental (more likely) in cinema, depending on timing and public opinion, - ironically - also central themes.
  Jessica Chastain’s never shy of tackling either serious subjects, or true-life material (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help). Her deservedly golden-globe nominated performance, is a powerhouse of intensity, an unreadable exercise in restraint, as the titular lobbyist, Madeline Sloane, with the laser-focus of her eyes or click of her stilettos. She has an amazing ensemble cast around her, including John Lithgow, Jake Lacy, Mark Strong, Sam Waterston and Christine Baranski. Max Richter’s score, like the film’s structure, flips between cat-and-mouse scheming and tense consequence. Gripping. 
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Friday, 5 May 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy: Vol. 2

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol: 2, 12A, 136 mins, Marvel Studios.

When Guardians Of The Galaxy burst irreverently onto every cinema screen on our planet in the summer of 2014, its pop-art aesthetic and zany cultural self-referentiality - made a previously widely obscure entry into Marvel’s leviathan of a canon - a dizzying, left-field delight.
 Now, the rag-tag bunch of misfits are back, in all their neon-lit, wise-cracking though not quite as subversive blockbusting glory.
Director James Gunn (the writer of the fantastic big-screen adaptations of Scooby-Doo (criminally underrated, personal favourites of mine), returns to amp up the florescent, psychedelic phantasmagoria.  
 Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) teams up again with the lime green-skinned, short-tempered warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the gigantic, teal muscle-bound convict Drax (Dave Bautista), Baby ‘I am’ Groot (voiced once again, although unrecognisably), by Vin Diesel. Best of all though, is the deliberately facetious raccoon (don’t call him that - ‘triangular-faced monkey’ or ‘trash-panda’ are apparently better! Yes, Bradley Cooper, (also entirely unrecognisably, channeling Bruce Willis again), lends his grouchily self-deprecating, sarcastic barbs to Rocket, the miniature mercenary.
 Rocket may have all the best jokes (his and Drax’s sarcasm, as well as total lack of irony, make for some uproariously crowd-pleasing moments), but, as was the case last time, it’s the terrific Pratt who steals the exuberant show. His Star-Lord is a magnificent creation - one of the best, and identifiably grounded superhero figures of recent years. Wonderfully knowing and retro, his character personifies the entirely unique tone of the series; energetic, smart (subtle when needed) and surprisingly heartfelt. This time, Peter discovers more about the ambiguity of his quasi-heritage, leading him to the aptly-named Ego - (another resurgence for Kurt Russell)…
 As with all franchise-films, to say any more would mean spoilers, but what ensues is an excellently entertaining romp with plenty of exciting set-pieces, hugely ambitious visual-effects, and a galaxy of tunes and cameos. The dialogue is filled with 80’s pastiche (Pac-Man, Cheers, and Hasselhoff are all unapologetically usurped!).
 But it lacks the novelty, surprise, edge and twists of the original. Glenn Close, rumored to be reprising her pivotal role as the marvelous ice-cream-cone haired Nova Prime, is also mysteriously absent. Here’s hoping she’s back for number three!
Rating: * * * *

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Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby Review

The Boss Baby - Certificate PG, 97 mins, Dreamworks Animation.

Moana, Trolls, Zootropolis, Kubo and The Two Strings, The Secret Life Of Pets - 2016 was the crème-da-la-creme year for inventive animation (with the exception of Finding Dory, a middling retread, sucked down into its own current of over-hyped mediocrity). 2017 had an excellent start too, with Sing!, a zany, astutely allegorical take on the saturation of talent/reality television.
  The Boss Baby is another, less overtly political satire of sorts (the much-publicised similarity between the appearance of the titular toddler and a certain extreme political polariser is notable, but most likely coincidental). Many reviews have also rightly made immediate comparisons with the recent Storks, the animated feature from Warner Bros. last autumn. However, whereas that had its cheery cherubs delivered by carrier-pigeon, here it’s via the prolific mode of multiplicity: automated, factory-line infancy through means of corporate manufacture. This is amusingly rendered in an early sequence, where each is customarily equipped with dummy (sorry, pacifier) and a liberal sprinkling of talcum powder, before being categorised into either: ‘Family’ or ‘Business’ - fondly reminiscent of the same studio’s soldier/worker scenario in 1998’s Antz. When a mix-up sends the slick ‘bundle of ploy’ to the apparent normality of the Templeton’s dappled suburbia, his cutesy act fools everyone but his older brother Tim, especially as his most secret is rumbled: he can talk! He’s a ruthless dolly-dictator, with the dulcet tones of Alec Baldwin, in the midst of a career resurgence, again playing a character who revels in moral ambivalence; it’s a gleefully sarcastic performance. Also very strong and funny are Lisa Kudrow (Friends’ Phoebe, also making a comeback of interesting supporting choices - this and Girl On The Train), and this year’s fated Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel, as Tim’s parents, by turns oblivious and flustered. The script is strewn with clever in-jokes of self-referentiality, spoofing everything from Fellowship Of The Ring to Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with an aesthetic which, at its most fantastical is straight out of The Incredibles. It’s a Dreamworks animation - those trademark, expressive, inimitably plastic faces. The film it reminded me the most of theirs, was 2010’s far better superhero-centric Megamind. But, this is light, bright fun, with powerhouse Hans Zimmer’s heartfelt arrangement of Lennon and McCartney’s Blackbird.

Rating: * * *

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Saturday, 8 April 2017

Power Rangers

Power Rangers, 12A, 124 mins. Approx, Lionsgate.

Blockbusters either based on, or as a result of the synergy of toy merchandising are a prolific, if not always lucrative, cinematic staple. Transformers, G.I. Joe, not to mention Disney characters and Marvel and DC’s innumerable gaggle of superheros. Is it the factory-production of money-spinning cynicism, or simply the desire of filmmakers to re-imagine established franchises in a new way for each generation?
  For this latest entry into the canonical pantheon, Power Rangers, popular consensus seems to favour the former. The vast majority of reviews have been terrible, dismissing it as a shallow, cookie-cutter cash-in. But the reason the notion of these remakes appeals to me so much, is to see how they’re interpreted and refreshed in terms of tone, stylistic choices, ideas and invention - how different are they from previous versions - if possible, even original?
  I thought this was a fun, bright revisionist update of one of my favourite TV series as a nineties child. These reboots always work best when they encapsulate an evocation of childhood. So for reasons of nostalgic posterity, it worked for me - I had a figurine of the Blue Ranger years ago!
 It takes a long time (almost three-quarters of the film) for the characters to become those florescent, publicity-adorned heroes, and actually put the suits on. Up until then, it’s mainly the U.S. high-school teen mixture of camaraderie and angst, (but, this happens to be one of my favourite sub-genres, particularly in nineties comedies). Also, the flip-side of this is that several relevant, contemporary issues for the characters are allowed to be raised liberally, without being treated as too heavy-handed.
The young cast are promising, if a little soapy (Dacre Montgomery as Jason, The Red Ranger, is a doppelganger for a young Zac Efron). There are some great supporting performances - Elizabeth Banks is wonderfully evil as the aptly named megalomaniac space-villain, Rita Repulsa, and a digitally enhanced Bryan Cranston lends his inspirationally dulcet tones. The climactic action and effects are well-staged (with an occasional burst of the original theme-tune), but it does descend into a rather overblown Transformers battle towards the end. Enjoyable, and left open for a sequel…

Rating: * * *

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Beauty And The Beast

Beauty And The Beast, Cert: PG, 129 mins, Walt Disney Pictures.

Disney continues its prolific slate of live-action remakes. There was Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella, Maleficent and Oz: The Great And Powerful (my favourite by a yellow-brick mile). It’s a strategy with no sign of slowing down, with Mulan, Peter Pan and The Lion King all in the works, along with The Nutcracker and a Mary Poppins sequel currently being made.
  Its latest re-envisioning, is of Beauty And The Beast, the 1991 classic which made history for being the first animated-feature ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. An unbelievable twenty-six years later, the decidedly dark tale of unlikely love, cursed spells, red roses and talking household objects, returns to enchant a new generation.
  It’s an exuberant, bells and whistles experience: rich, glossy, dappled to within an inch of its blockbusting, GCI-sprinkled life. So much so, that all the hype generated by trailers and Twitter-spheres, can’t help but leave you feeling delighted, warm, and yet oddly hollow. The problem with being so faithful to a beloved original, is that this adaptation can feel like its set-pieces (and occasionally over-long songs) are highlights, engaged in a box-ticking exercise.
 That said, it is visually absolutely stunning. The sets and costumes (by powerhouse designers Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran - Pride And Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina), are phenomenal, whether it’s the bustling re-creation of a so-called ‘provincial’ town, or an austere rendering of the incandescent castle. The effects are wonderful; all the more immersive in 3D: plates are whizzing, snowballs are thrown and candles flicker.
 Some performances work better than others. Emma Watson’s good, but for me, just looks too young to play Belle. The maturity of Keira Knightley or Gemma Arterton would’ve been better. Dan Stevens’ Beast, is covered under so much computerised motion-capture, that his performance disappears. Kevin Kline adds pathos, Luke Evans is terrific as a malevolently vain Gaston, and the voice-work is particularly strong. Ian McKellen has fun as the curmudgeonly cynical clock Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson’s absolutely perfect as sweet Mrs. Potts, but I’d have preferred to see them in human form for longer. The extraordinarily star-studded cast, yearning score and aesthetic flourishes, make it enduringly magical.

Rating: * * * *

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Thursday, 9 March 2017

Logan

Logan, Cert: 15, 137 mins approx, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios.

It’s easy to forget that with today’s veritable menu of superhero or franchise blockbusters (my favourite genre) and their innumerable extrapolations of sequel, prequel, reboot and cinematic-universe crossover etc - it all began with X-Men. Since the early Superman films, they’d been lacking in popularity. That changed in 2000, when original X-Men director Bryan Singer, (helming four to date), made a surprise hit, reinvigorating audience anticipation. Its figurehead, was Hugh Jackman’s grouchy, adamantium-clawed Wolverine.
  Logan is the ninth installment, as well as the latest of three standalone chapters, which focus primarily on his character, with Jackman having long-stated this is his last appearance in the role.
 Critically lauded as the most impressive addition in recent years - it’s an almost radical departure: stripped-back, gritty, edgy and visceral. The saga’s tone has never gone this dark and daring before. While most audiences probably find this sudden change refreshing, with the cast saying: ‘It hardly felt like an X-Men movie at all’ - for me, that’s precisely the problem.
The regular X-Men films, canonically, not only feature all the mutants collaborating together, but also have spectacle, humour, action set-pieces laden with CGI, and consequently were so much more fun. I prefer them lighter and brighter, with more zip, pace, and that vital fantastical element foregrounded throughout.
Instead here, much of that is jettisoned, in favour of being so serious, paired-down, and extremely violent. Maybe not gratuitously so, but certainly unnecessary. Wolverine’s trademark slicing-and-dicing is still intact - but didn’t need quite so much blood - and occasional decapitation. It didn’t bother me personally, but the much publicised 15-rating is fully justified. Director James Mangold’s conscious choice to include both only intermittent action, and the briefest glimpse of super-powers, will suit some, and there are a few surprise twists. Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s shockingly frail Professor Xavier, hiding out in a Mexican dust-bowl, (a landscape aptly evoking the narrative’s themes of isolation), both give strong performances, as does Boyd Holbrook especially,  as a slimy new bionic villain. ‘You’re not the only one that’s been enhanced’ he drawls. As good as it is, X2 or Apocalypse are so much more satisfying.

Rating: * * *

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Friday, 24 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 - 15, 122 mins, Warner Bros Pictures.

When the original John Wick turned out to be a surprise hit in 2014, it was the left-field, indie-actioner, that brought Keanu Reeves back into prominence, after successes such as Speed and The Matrix Trilogy. Now, here’s the rather inevitable sequel - exactly the sort of undemanding, mindless fare that made similar projects such as the Transporter or Hitman series so popular, in a niche way, with their core audiences - namely teenage boys and video-gamers.
  There are plenty of slick action set-pieces that have lots of kinetic energy - super-charged car chases on twilit New York streets, and probably more screen-time given to fighting than actual dialogue scenes. But these seemingly endless, prolonged sequences; a gruelingly violent mixture of hand-to-hand combat and gun-fu (kung-fu with guns, imaginatively), become a little relentless after a while, even though they’re quite viscerally immersive - you do feel every punch.
  Keanu Reeves’s performance as the titular assassin, also known as the elusive ‘bogeyman’, reminded me slightly of Daniel Craig’s Bond: very accomplished physically, but so monotone, flat and lifeless when needing to inject any emotional range into the role. His register never changes from being distractingly one-note throughout.
 However, there’s a strong, eclectic supporting cast. John Leguizamo’s brief cameo adds much-needed humour to proceedings which otherwise frequently feel either far too serious, or intentionally deadpan. There’s an appealingly stoic, grounded turn from Ian McShane as a subtly authoritarian boss, and even a well-judged surprise for Matrix fans - a welcome reunion for Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, playing a similar mentor figure.
  There are some stylish choices: a moment of speed-ramped cinematography, a few nods to multi-cultural, pop-art iconography, and occasional retro, florescent subtitles. Also, there’s an effective, hall-of-mirrors style finale very reminiscent of Scaramanga’s fun-house at the end of The Man With The Golden Gun. All of these elements can’t quite make up for gratuitous shock-tactics and flimsy plotting. But those who don’t mind such shortcomings should enjoy it and of course, the open-ended structure definitely sets up a third chapter. For better or worse, I suspect we’ll be seeing Mr. Wick again soon…
  
 Rating: * *

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

Fifty Shades Darker, Cert: 18, 118 mins. Universal.

The literary phenomenon that proved to be unbelievably lucrative, resulted in an inevitable big-screen adaptation, with 2015’s Fifty Shades Of Grey. It was wooden, lifeless and yet oddly compulsive.
 Now, comes this cynical money-maker of a sequel, with equally waxwork performances and terrible dialogue. ‘I will have dinner with you…because I’m hungry’ is about as sophisticated as it gets. What could’ve been a interesting, darkly complex character study on human desire, instead just all feels so vacuous - another missed opportunity, favouring commercialisation over nuance.
It’s about as flat as one of those flutes of champagne these shamelessly ostentatious characters are forever drinking at endless receptions. Set within a decidedly deliberate milieu of functions, parties and skyscrapers, it never actually shows anybody doing any real work; it’s a mystery how they earn all this money - all very glossy but extremely implausible.
Even those supposedly ‘infamous scenes’ once again feel awkwardly stagy and mannered, without a modicum of the steam or spark generated by others in a similarly adult canon - such as Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction. The result, is that proceedings often feel unintentionally funny for all the wrong reasons.  What works marginally better, is the briefly explored cat-and-mouse thriller element: there’s an unstable ex, a helicopter crash, and a solid enough cameo from a spiky Kim Basinger, but all of these are rather brushed over, and could’ve been explored further.
Jamie Dornan can be a good actor (he was great in last year’s gripping World War II drama Anthropoid), but he’s utterly stilted here, totally wasted on dull material for a cardboard-cut-out, humourless character.
 Despite the odd stronger scene and a contemporary soundtrack, as with its predecessor, it’s all extremely uninvolving. So, the reason for its immense popularity, as well as the question of who exactly are the intended audience - are both conundrums which remain perplexing. I shall have to watch the third concluding chapter, if only to solve these mysteries, and understand its extraordinarily enduring appeal.

Rating: * *

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Monday, 23 January 2017

Sing! - Review

Sing - Certificate U, 108 mins, Illumination Animation Studios.

From Illumination, the studio that made the Despicable Me movies, and its own spin-off, those inescapable yellow Minions, comes a new animation with an instantly appealing premise. It’s essentially what would happen if a population of animals competed in the current glut of talent shows which dominate Saturday night schedules: The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent etc.
  A little koala-bear compère with big dreams, Buster Moon (voiced with great pep by the ever-charismatic Matthew McConaughey), chooses to save his struggling theatre by hosting a singing competition.
  So, every kind of animal imaginable takes part: A pig, Rosetta (Reese Witherspoon), an over-worked housewife with twenty-five piglets, Ash, (Scarlett Johansson) a rock-star hedgehog, a diminutive hustler-mouse, Mike, with big-band crooner tones (Ted’s Seth McFarlane) and Johnny, a conflicted young gorilla, born into family criminality (Taron Egerton).
  The trailers, draw heavily on the central conceit of these critters belting out some of today’s most recognisable pop-hits, such as a trio of OMG bunnies wiggling to Nicki Minaj. I wondered if the somewhat shoo-in selling-point of: ‘talking-animal jukebox karaoke’ could sustain at feature-length, or whether the novelty of seeing McConaughey perform a rendition of Call Me Maybe might wear off - but it works. Its set-up is so simple, and all the more joyous for it.
  It’s enriched further by a universally terrific voice cast. Stand-outs include the brilliant Egerton, my choice for 2016’s BAFTA Rising-Star, who had his breakthrough in the Kingsman franchise. Jennifer Saunders, is very funny as a prima-dona operatic sheep, in the reclusive Norma Desmond mould. But it’s completely stolen by Miss Crawley, the elderly reptilian secretary, replete with Badminton visor and a glass-eye that’s always falling out - voiced by the film’s director, Garth Jennings.
  Gloriously detailed animation, foregrounds everything: soap suds, hedgehog spikes, and a sensational flood, in a perfectly rendered metropolis that’s utterly believable.
  Its been an outstanding year for animation, from Pets, to Zootropolis, and Trolls to Kubo - so if Sing isn’t quite as stirring as Moana, it’s still a total delight.
  
Rating: * * * *

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Monday, 9 January 2017

La La Land Review

12A, 128 mins.

It’s very telling that the first opening title of La La Land reads: ‘Presented in Cinemascope’ in narrowed, letterbox black-and white, before expanding into glorious Technicolour. This is the balancing act the film itself expertly juxtaposes: throwing back to a sense of old-fashioned romanticism from Hollywood’s Golden Age, while also being utterly fresh. It manages to feel both fuzzily nostalgic, and strikingly original, simultainiously.
  It does this, by casting two of our most recognisable contemporary stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who seem every bit as polished as Fred and Ginger themselves; it’s no overstatement to call them our equivalent. Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress, who continually runs into Seb, a struggling jazz musician. Stone’s wonderfully expressive, emotive and endearing, while Gosling’s self-deprecating, sardonic and subtle - with fantastic piano skills.
 It’s a love story - as much a glossy, bitter-sweet ode to LA - as it is a conventional romance for the central couple - structured unconventionally. It triumphs over the stumbling-block so many musicals are faced with, as to why characters spontaneously burst into song (it hits the ground running, and takes a little getting used to), by so cleverly framing the musical sequences in a dreamy, heightened, stylised realism, before returning to their more mundane realities. The song-and-dance moments are a total delight: especially a tap number beneath LA’s twilit skyline, and a floating waltz around the stars of an observatory. Director Damian Chazelle, the thirty-one year-old Oscar-winner of Whiplash, has crafted a joyous treat that’s fizzing with optimistic effervescence. It’s a studied milieu of a setting that dichotomises both a celebration, and a display of its own iconography and shallow artifice (frequently adorned with painterly backdrops of palm-trees, back-lots and A-Listers): ‘They worship everything, but value nothing’, observes Seb.
  For the first new movie-musical in years, there are some very memorable tunes and lyrics: ‘She was freezing, she spent a month sneezing / Maybe this appeals, to someone not in heels’. The opening bars of ‘Someone In The Crowd’ stick with you, and there’s a great supporting, first acting role for John Legend, who has his own new song.
  It’s certainly the favourite to scoop the most at awards season, and similarly to An American In Paris or Singin’ In The Rain, feels like the next classic!

Rating: * * *


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