Thursday, 14 September 2017

A Midsummer Night's Dream - Theatre Review

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Review (Storyhouse, Chester) - 8th July 2017.

As part of its inaugural season of four plays, with the same cast and crew performing two each - Storyhouse’s brand-new theatre complex and its company, produces a completely new, fresh and vibrant version of Shakespeare’s beloved, romantic classic of magic, couples and comic misunderstanding!
  Director Alex Clifton’s production is a bold, brilliant, instantly accessible interpretation of this timeless fairytale. It strikes the perfect balance between retaining all the classical, traditional elements of original structure: The interlinking narrative strands of the two couples, the players, the fairy kingdom), whilst also subtly adding a contemporary edge.
 For example, the very smart, topical casting choice has been made, to make Lysander a female as oppossed to a male - without that change ever being too heavy-handed, or overwhelming the overall story.
 The effectiveness of the set-design lies in its simplicity: a canopy of fairground-style lightbulbs and several props, allow much of the other magic to exist in the imagination of the audience.
  The cast are universally excellent. In particular, Natalie Grady is hilarious as Quince, the director of: ‘the play within the play’. The character’s first name was Peter in Shakespeare’s original text, however another refreshing update means that she’s now called Petra - as Grady’s unforgettable characterisation repeatedly reminds us!
  Fred Lancaster is also brilliant as a sharp, sophisticated, protective Demetrius, pursuing his one true love, but falling under the notoriously convoluted magic spell of the kingdom. Anne Odeke is a jolly, joyous Titania who revels in extravagance. Emily Johnstone is appropriately exasperated as the disparaging Helena, and Vanessa Schofield brings a purity of spirit to the innocence of Hermia. The two couples increasingly complicated confrontations are masterful!
  The performance which the players (Nick Bottom the weaver etc) put on at the end, for the Duke Theseus’s engagement, is extremely funny, complete with Alex McGonagle’s Francis Flute raising his voice a few octaves to play Thisbe, and Petra Quince acting as a prompt, correcting her cast via a karaoke-style microphone!
  The use of music is also especially inventive, with Puck’s final soliloquy being turned into a song and dance, lending the finale a real sense of a party atmosphere - one to which the audience all feel invited!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 8 September 2017

The Limehouse Golem

The Limehouse Golem, Certificate 15, 109 mins, Lionsgate.

Set within the notoriously ominous world of Victorian-era London - cobbled moonlit back-streets rife with playwrights, ‘women of the town’ and a clutch of horrific serial-killings for good measure, this is a terrific, puzzle-solver of a very traditional murder-mystery - in the most thrillingly entertaining sense.
 A very classic, deliberately old fashioned who-dunnit rather than horror, its economical, gripping adaptation from the Peter Ackroyd novel, is given a subtly contemporary edge, by prolifically versatile screenwriter Jane Goldman: (Stardust, X-Men: First Class, and the fantastically inventive Kingsman and its forthcoming sequel).
  The opening shot is extremely bold and striking: The ghost-white face of famed compare Dan Lino (a terrific Douglas Booth), directly, simultaneously addressing both the unsuspectingly captivated audience inside the theatre - and us, the equally enthralled, almost complicit audience, safe within the confines of the cinema - declaring: ‘Let us begin, my friends - at the end…Whose is the name of fear on every Londoner’s lips?’… Cue the gloriously lacerating string crescendo, in a score every bit as doom-laden and tightly-wound as the never-gratuitous violence.
  That name is the infamous Limehouse Golem: a relentless, blade-wielding, seemingly arbitrary multiple-murderer, pre-dating Jack The Ripper.
  Drafted in to investigate is the straight-laced Inspector Kildare, a role originally planned for the absolutely seminal, much-missed Alan Rickman, played brilliantly by Bill Nighy, a more serious role for him - he still brings that trademark twinkle, charm and expert timing. (Similarly, with his unmistakable tones and slow, sinister delivery, I’m certain Rickman would’ve been perfect).
Booth steals the show as a charismatic and singing Lino, the ever-excellent Daniel Mays is soulful as the policeman, and Olivia Cooke has real integrity as Elizabeth.
  It has echoes of the Ripper chronicle From Hell, or Sleepy Hollow (both starring Johnny Depp), Agatha Christie, and Nolan’s The Prestige. The structure and cinematography, perfectly capture playing cleverly with flashback, perspective and identity - exploring notions of performance, theatricality and deception. ‘We all wear pantomime masks - do we not?’ The glow, vibrancy and excessive extravagance of the music-hall scene, is juxtaposed with the icy chill of murder outside. The final twist is shocking and ingenious - my jaw dropped to the floor!…

Rating: * * * * *

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Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower - 97 mins. Approx, Cert: 12A- Sony / Columbia / Imagine Entertainment.

After decades of being in the production doldrums, die-hard fans of Stephen King’s fabled chronicles have been building up to the first cinematic adaptation of The Dark Tower with white-hot levels of anticipation. King is his own king of the chiller: author of such seminal standalone classics as The Shining & Carrie as well as the equally hyped, forthcoming clown-chimera IT - (in cinemas Friday 8th September), he’s in the doomy midst of somewhat of a late-career reconnaissance.  
  Penning the adaptation is screenwriter Akiva Goldsman; a writer of striking visual aplomb: nineties Batman’s Forever & Robin, I Robot, I Am Legend, and more recently the much-misunderstood A New York Winter’s Tale.
  It’s also produced by Ron Howard’s company; another nineties powerhouse: Imagine Entertainment.
  It’s entertaining, and has stylish cinematographic touches of slow-motion, speed-ramped editing (my screening wasn’t in 3D - but I’m glad the motif of so-called ‘bullet-time’ makes a return, even if the impact of those techniques is far more muted than I was expected.
  Perfectly enjoyable it may be, but in a commercially inconsistent summer of a very hyped, well-publicised slate of blockbusters: (Baywatch, Ghost In The Shell, even Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky unexpectedly flopped in the U.S.) - Tower may suffer from the fact it could’ve been far more daring, sharper and scarier than it is - instead of a very muddled confection.
  It’s Taylor Hackford’s Devil’s Advocate, (nowhere near as gripping or edgy), mixed unevenly with more family-orientated versions of Jumanji or Zathura. King purists may be doubly disappointed, not only by vast liberties taken with the source material, but also by rushed pacing, easy plotting choices made for convenience, and safe sanitisation of shocks in favour of securing a 12A audience - as opposed to making it darker and riskier.
  Both Matthew McConaughey (terrific; stealing the show with a drawling malevolence as Walter - The Man In Black) and Idris Elba (dependably stoic), subtly and skilfully make the delivery of Goldsman’s often complex script look effortless. But the dialogue is so needlessly didactic: ‘He has the boy! We must save him / I know!’. But I hope to see more, and the effects are impressive.


Rating: * * *

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Family Day

‘Family Day’. - Becca Phillipson - James Burgess - 2.9.17.

This is a very sweet-natured, charming short-film from the multi-talented Becca Phillipson. A refreshing, earnest ‘dramedy’ - obtaining the correct balance of a mixture of drama and comedy, Family Day is set within the limiting confines of a prison.
  But what is all the more surprising is that aside from the dark and gritting tones that have become customary - particularly on television - in the ilk of Bad Girls or The Accused - this feels much lighter. It’s lighthearted, without ever feeling too frothy or insubstantial.
  These are people who - prisoner and visitor - both still strive for fulfilment and aspiration, and, without giving to much away - also don’t let authority prohibit a little liberated freedom…
  Exactly what that freedom entails is again executed very deftly, without ever seeming didactic or over-sentimentalized. This is achieved through such clever use of slow-motion (again, never too earnest or over-the-top) and a yearning score that’s understated - matching the action perfectly.
  These themes are well-observed and timely, but the camaraderie of the inmates is still very present, even in the face of obvious adversity.
  The performances are all appropriately conversational and natural, and on what must have been shoe-string money and resources - a crisp, deeply polished project has been made. I wish there were more short-films of this sheer quality that were both this original, as well as  fundamentally entertaining - whilst also being subtly undercut with offering an acute social comment.

Rating: * * * *

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Emoji Movie Review

The Emoji Movie, Certificate: U, 87 mins, Sony Pictures Animation.

The majority of 2017’s been a very dicey year for animation. Sing was absolutely excellent: Stunningly animated, stirringly plotted, and had universally well-judged performances and fantastic soundtrack choices.
  But alas, the real comedic purple-patch of smarts in Moana, Trolls and Zootropolis wasn’t to last.
  Despecible Me 3 was yet another noisy test of patience, Cars 3 trod more retread in narrative than any tread generated by those iconic red and black tyres - and I thought the current shameless endorsement of mega-hit Lego conversions (Lego Movie, Lego Batman, and forthcoming Ninjago) couldn’t descend into becoming any more cynical…
  However, it seems I’ve been franchising under a pixelated mis‘app’rehension. Deliberately arriving just in time for the summer holidays, is the trudging Emoji Movie. Those horribly addictive squares, faces and symbols of pointless vacuousness that occupy and manipulate our every single second, now it seems occupy and manipulate the multiplexes.
  Pixar made what was reportedly one of their in 2015: Inside Out, a Technicolour dreamscape of a little girl’s subconscious scene through the corporate prism of emotion. Personally I found it to be drawn-out and needlessly over-sentimentalised.
  At least this - tedious and product-placed to within a data-stream of its digitally collated life though it is - feels lighter in tone.
  Although never in its erratic pacing, as we dawdle with Gene (voiced with pep by TJ Miller), a ‘meh’ Emoji who feels he’s lost his identity. Though how he’ll find it in this not-at-all surprisingly unfunny mess which features a knight of the realm (Sir Patrick Stewart), voicing virtual excrement - I’ll luckily never know.
  Some performances however are fantastic. It’s completely stolen by the Bridesmaids character who had similar toileting emergencies of her own - Maya Rudolph - as a great villain. Smiler is a face with an unrelentingly eternal grin and a taste for metal instruments like the dentist in Marathon Man. She deletes futile emojis…
The vast range of their assortment, could’ve been pushed far more, with Ice-Cream on every poster; barely getting a line. The voice cast are great, including Christina Aguleria, doing a song too, but none of the young audience laughed! 

Rating: * * 

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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

England Is Mine

England Is Mine - Certificate 15, 94 mins, Entertainment One / Hanway Films.

Starring: Jack Lowden, Jessica Brown-Findley, Graeme Hawley, Adam Lawrence, Finney Cassidy, Simone Kirby and Laurie Kynaston.

When Control, the audacious, starkly black-and-white, uncompromisingly fragmented account of Joy Division front-man Ian Curtis; proved to be the refreshing British sleeper-hit of 2007, this was thanks largely to Sam Riley’s completely transcendent performance as Curtis.
  That film, not only firmly established Riley (Maleficent, the BBC’s brilliant SS-GB, and Jack Kerouac in Walter Sallis’s brilliantly observed On The Road) as one of the most excellent, unique screen-presences of any generation, but it was also produced by Orian Williams.
  Williams, also produces England Is Mine, a much-anticipated biopic of another similarly enigmatic and troubled iconoclast - the eponymous Morrisey.
  Jack Lowden stars as the drably disparaging teenager. Director Mark Gill firmly posits Morrisey as an outcast, an idiosyncratic misfit, longing silently to break free from seventies socialism and the omnipresent orange of kitchen wallpaper and menial domesticity.
  Stuck in a life unfulfilled by paper-pushing and a total lack of pro-active drive, the equally direction-less, somewhat meandering structure of the film (although maybe that was the meta-intention; of form mirroring content to reflect his conflicted state of mind), - is represented from Morrisey’s perspective - through which, we meet an array of characters who’re intermittant throughout his adolescence in seventies Manchester.
  These include some excellent performances from Coronation Street’s serial killing English teacher John Stape - Graeme Hawley - brilliant as Morrisey’s by-the-book but sympathetic and dryly funny boss.
  The film’s casting is also an excellent showcase for breakthrough talent: Finney Cassidy (brother of Tomorrowland’s Raffey) adds greatly effortless comic levity as one of Morrisey’s inescapably jeering co-workers. Adam Lawrence is superb as Billy - by turns mentor, then peer, then rival.
  Speaking of stars on the rise, it’s of great testament to Jack Lowden that he is in two of the years most eagerly awaited historical accounts - both released within a fortnight of each-other: this, as well as Collins, a courageous pilot in Christopher Nolan’s blistering Dunkirk - and he was also very impressive in a pivotal role in another of 2017’s very best and underrated of films and third true-life accounts: Denial - with Rachel Weisz as a holocaust professor. He’s obviously drawn to true-life projects; look out for him as Lord Darnley in the Donmar Warehouse theatre’s artistic director Josie Rourke’s film of Mary Queen Of Scots.
  The screenplay, never quite allows Lowden to really obtain the ambiguous, lost heart of the reluctant protagonist, but with a body of work as eclectic as that behind him, the film is surely in the running for the double BAFTA-nomination of the public-voted Rising Star for Lowden, as well as Best British film (just as Riley and Control did before it). Not all of the dialogue or pacing convinces, and oddly, all but two of Morrisey’s monotone songs are deliberately absent - but it’s a fascinating interpretation of an illusive talent.

Rating: * * *

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Monday, 31 July 2017

Dunkirk Review



Dunkirk - 12A, 106 Mins, Warner Bros/Syncopy.

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Tom Hardy, Jack Lowden, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Harry Styles, Billy Howle, Sir Micheal Caine, and Sir Mark Rylance.

Christopher Nolan’s use of minimal GCI, no green/blue-screen, 70mm film as opposed to digital, all on gargantuan IMAX cameras - always achieves an epic scale; glossy, crisp, striking authenticity which is now the hallmark of his work - and instantly recognisable.
  Even when he’s operating within the most elaborate narratological perametres: memory (Memento), murder (Insomnia), magic (The Prestige), seminal, heroic sagas (The Dark Knight Trilogy), the human subconscious (Inception), or Interstellar: Structure, tone, time, and perspective, are either foregrounded or subverted - without ever being overshadowed by the innovative techniques implemented.
  In many ways, Dunkirk, is his most avuncular work: stripped-down, back-to-basics, viscerally intense, extremely immersive and authentic - his most conventional, risky, and both utterly subjective and objective, simultainiously - without ever losing that customary quality of being superbly mounted and staged.
  As a writer, his polished screenplay remains as knowingly sparse and cut-to-the-quick as ever. Nolan’s stated his intention was to make a suspenseful survival story - not a war film.
  Instead, Nolan frames a stunningly realised technical achievement of placing the audience on those fateful dunes, in the frenetic cockpit, or on a submerging ship - with land, air and sea each being represented through their increasingly tense timelines - to absolutely stunning effect.
  All performances are excellent. Fionn Whitehead infuses integrity as the lead soldier, the much-hyped casting of a solid Harry Styles completes the trio; it’s Aneurin Barnard’s almost mute Gibson, who really stands out. Barnard, has such a depth of soulful intensity of pathos in his eyes - (ITV’s Cilla, and BBC’s brilliant SS-GB).
  Tom Glynn-Carney is especially gripping as Peter, the eldest son of the unassuming Mr. Dawson (subtly, exceptionally played by the king of humble humility in acting classicism: Mark Rylance). Rylance may end up fighting it out with a precise Kenneth Branagh, or conflicted PTSD soldier Cillian Murphy for Supporting Actor accolades.
  As should Hoyte Van Hoytema’s peerless cinematography. Blistering aerial set-pieces, mean real spitfires fill the screen, with Tom Hardy’s pilot adding gravitas as always.
Image result for dunkirk landscape poster  This is all enhanced tenfold, by Hans Zimmer’s inimitably propulsive, perpetual thrum of score; ratcheting up the tension even further. Fantastic, extremely slickly assured, profoundly emotionally prescient - a leviathan piece of bravura filmmaking. 


Rating: * * * * *







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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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