Sunday, 30 June 2019

Vox Lux

Distributor: Curzon

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Stacy Martin, Micheal Richardson & Christopher Abbott.

Running Time: 114 Mins

Seen At: HOME, Manchester, Wednesday, 8th May, 2019.

Brady Corbet, today’s American equivalent of the British ‘angry young men’ of the sixties, frequently played troubled, broken souls as an actor. None more so than the best friend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s conflicted hustler in Gregg Araki’s uncompromisingly punishing Mysterious Skin. After turning director with 2015’s Childhood Of A Leader, there’s a synchronised irony to the fact that his terrific, absorbing follow-up, Vox Lux, could’ve not only so easily been quite literally dubbed that ‘difficult second album’ directorially, but is a deceptively profound piece, plunged headlong into the strangest and most instantaneous of zeitgeists: that of celebrity. It brilliantly and very topically foregrounds our current preoccupations with fame, validation and the distortion of truth at any cost. Infinitely timely, without hammering its politic stance home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, as filmmakers such as Harmony Korine or enfante terrible Xavier Dolan could’ve done - it’s a chilly, expertly framed, gloriously uncompromising expose, as understated as it is unapologetically exaggerated - caught in the beautifully constructed, hyperbolic whirligig of consumerist pressure.

There’s a bold, Herrmann-esque, lyrically hallucinogenic score, the last from the late Scott Walker, who’s Vertigo-inducing, pounding, swooningly romanticised strings don’t feel a bit out of place, even in today’s aural landscape.

Opening in an act of stark, shocking style, when a 1999 high school is subjected to a horrendous shooting, with hauntingly indirect echoes of Columbine, which injures the shy Celeste (brilliantly played in teenage form by Raffey Cassidy, so striking in Tomorrowland and Killing Of A Sacred Deer). At the community’s candlelit vigil, she channels the collective mourning into an Adele-style pop-anthem, Wrapped Up, which unexpectedly goes global, turning her into an overnight star.

Taken begrudgingly under the wing of Jude Law’s washed-up music producer (Law’s best performance since 2012’s Anna Karenina), Cassidy’s fantastically assured, yet glassy-eyed demeanour, illustrates Celeste’s descension into someone already slightly jaded by a meteoric rise to fame. There’s a brilliant scene where she’s drawn into a vacuous evening liaison with a disinterested rock-band frontman (Micheal Richardson, grandson to Vanessa Redgrave) while they listen to her self-penned singles in the background.

 Fast-forward twenty years to the present, and Celeste (who’s own daughter is also played by Cassidy), has now transfigured into a Bolan-like, unstable pre-millennial, courted by somewhat inevitable controversy. A glam-rock, quasi-Gaga figure, all peroxide purple quiff and temper tantrum, now played with barnstorming fearlessness by a career-best Natalie Portman, giving an absolute powerhouse performance of self-disillusionment. Her adult Celeste has lost that innocuous sheen of innocence, and Portman’s portrayal is deliciously mannered: twitchy, inflected and drug-addled. It’s the type of no-holds-barred, glorious star-turn, you so rarely see now, one which Academy votes should plump for in next year’s awards season - but probably won’t. She hides behind the high-street celebrity’s customarily eponymous dark sunglasses, to escape the perpetual scrum of press intrusion, and faces off mercilessly in a milkshake bar, against a fan who asks for a selfie, during a fractured attempt at mother/daughter bonding.

There’s a refreshingly minimalist approach to today’s wholly distracting spin-cycle of technology. Corbet doesn’t resort to citing mention of apps, filters or dreaded tweets that all-too often pop up on-screen - dating it immediately. Lol Crawley’s voyeuristic, constantly ominous cinematography, is almost reminiscent of Kubrick at times: static, singular shots, choosing to focus - in faux pop-documentary style - on one perspective, namely Celeste’s – always resisting rebelliously to cut to wide, never revealing the full picture.

Its thematic daring, in tackling an eclectic playlist of terrorism, pop, fame and politics, is handled every bit as delicately as Celeste’s fragile psyche. She holds the ISIS-like, publicity-seeking organisation to account at a press conference, and is in the grip of an electrically charged interview with a journalist (a cameo from the wonderfully unassuming Christopher Abbott, currently wowing as Yoyo, the lead in Catch-22).

She’s also in the frenzied midst of an exhaustive live tour of insistent ‘rebirth’. While approaching meltdown in her dressing room, condemning (punctuated between banshee wails) at being: ‘Treated like she’s not a person’ – you realize just how accurately acute the film must be in chronicling the transient, ever-fluctuating trajectory of celebrity. The tour’s grand-standing crowd-pleasers are written by a similarly unconventional iconoclast - Sia.

 As the astonishing final scenes inside a huge arena arrive, with Portman decked-out in glitter and sequins, still tinged with that ever-present hollow strive for adoration, at too high a price, Corbet’s propulsive vision and verve plays out in the metronome of memory rather like the ultra-digitised career its anti-protagonist longs for: streamed on an endless loop, polarising, a deliberately acquired taste, but one you just can’t stop watching.

Rating: * * * * *

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok, 12A, 130 mins. Marvel.

Thor, the chiselled, hammer-welding God Of Thunder of Avengers fame, has now had three standalone films (I use the term ‘standalone’ loosely - it’s now  beyond expected that several ‘Easter Eggs’ - hidden clues occur, both throughout and after the end credits, including appearances by characters crossing-over both films and cinematic universes).

Thanks largely to another of these, namely the Guardians Of The Galaxy, not only do the characters venture into the stratosphere of the intergalactic, but the tone of this particular Thor film is as smartly cynical and quick-witted as anything in the Marvel canon.

This tongue-in-cheek direction starts immediately, and it’s clearly a deliberate change not just because of Guardians’ colossal commercial success, but also one which Chris Hemsworth clearly enjoys. Thor, as with Captain America alongside him, has previously been a rather intentionally stolid, monotone, straight-laced figure of patriarchal honour and order. Here, he exercises previously untapped comedic potential. He’s kidnapped and taken to a planet which transports him to a kaleidoscope-esque planet via an ode to the opening chimes of Pure Imagination.

That’s not the only unusual musical choice employed by antipodean director Taika Watiti, highly regarded for smaller, independent projects. The opening track, heard repeatedly during epic, slow-mo staged battles, is Robert Plant’s Immigrant Song.

However, it’s in the supporting performances that this one really shows its strengths. Cate Blanchett stars as the gleefully slinky Hela sister (yes, sister) to Thor and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. ‘I’m not a queen, or a monster - I’m the Goddess Of Death! What were you the God of again?’. Next to Catwoman, she’s posited as one of the first principal female franchise villains - and has great fun. Mark Ruffalo is terrific as the green, not so mean Hulk, and Jeff Goldblum laconically plays The Grandmaster as only he can.

All these retro pop-references and back-and-forth banter is all well and good, but I wonder whether these lighter group of Marvel rag-tag high-jinks are simply becoming extremely entertaining, by now very well-worn parodies of themselves - so much so that Saturday Night Live may soon be saved the trouble.

Rating * * *

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

12A, 164 mins, Columbia Pictures.

Thirty-five years after the master of dazzling scale Ridley Scott genuinely redefined the sci-fi genre forever with the original Blade Runner in 1982, we’re still wondering if Harrison Ford’s despondent detective Deckard is one of the robots he hunts down.

Now, directorial control that couldn’t be more sacred to the devoted fandom, is handed to Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve’s status as the master of constructing tense, sparse, simple, ominously-built atmosphere - is fast becoming unparalleled.

Whether it’s the desolate isolation of the mist in the landscape where Hugh Jackman’s child is abducted in Prisoners, the relentless shredding of Emily Blunt’s adrenaline powering through the war-on-drugs on the unforgiving Mexican boarder in Sicario, or the indeterminable drones of an alien species deciphered by Amy Adams’s linguist in Arrival. No immersive nerve is left untested - whatever kind of environment we’re inhabiting.

The visuals here couldn’t be any more sumptuously poetic: epic, panoramic cityscape vistas of monolithic proportion - and stunningly realised ambition. Instead of perpetual rainstorms and dry-ice, this one takes sleek, threat-laden futurism into the absorbing stratosphere.

Production designer Dennis Gassner’s (Into The Woods, Skyfall) sets are shot with pin-sharp, crisp skill by prolific cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Coen Bros. and Revolutionary Road). From the chill of clouds to the searingly vivid, orange burn of a white-hot wasteland.

It’s spoiling nothing to say that Ryan Gosling’s Agent K might also be a robot, but why is he, as always, so utterly, blankly vacuous? I found it impossible to connect emotionally. Harrison Ford’s much-awaited reprisal is reliable, in that crumpled, grumpy look of permanent incredulity he does so well.

Jared Leto’s illusive, if underused new villain, Niander Wallace, is very subtly ruthless, and Sylvia Hoeks completely steals the apocalyptic show, as his ruthlessly relentless, icily lethal assistant.

There’s also more of that revolutionary CGI resurrection - used so well in TRON and bringing Peter Cushing back to life in Rogue One. Hans Zimmer and one of his rising contempories, Benjamin Wallfisch, ramp up the now customarily propulsive score, which lacerates us even further, I just wanted more shock, surprise, underpinned by some much-needed emotive heart and substance, beneath the aesthetic awe. A punishingly audacious, at times exhaustingly overwhelming assault on the senses...

Rating: * * * *

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

12A, 152 Mins, Disney/Lucasfilm.

Since 2015, the as-of-then Disney-owned reboot of Star Wars has become a Christmas tradition. This latest, eighth instalment, The Last Jedi, marks the fortieth anniversary since George Lucas made an entirely different sort of sci-fi movie, with the ground-breaking original, back in 1977. In 1999, the much derided politic-heavy prequels began - then after a decade-long gap, the franchise was brought back to box-office-busting, somewhat over-hyped life, two years ago, with lifelong fan J.J. Abrams, directing the decidedly middling The Force Awakens.

Now, after last year’s surprising, fantastically impressive standalone chapter Rogue One, the main series resumes, with new director Rian Johnson. A real rising-star in filmmaking, he’s best known for the brain-teasingly clever mould-breakers, such as the exceptional neo-noir Brick and mind-blowing time-traveller Looper, both starring his long-time collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who actually has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it voice-over cameo here, as an alien in a fun casino-planet sequence. Why not have him as a fresh main live-action character?).

Johnson hits the ground running with a stunning aerial space battle (even more spectacular in 3D).

However, I just can’t get used to this new clutch of protagonists. Seemingly, both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are a huge hit with the critics, but I just can’t connect with them emotionally. Ridley’s portrayal of Rey, the mysterious scavenger-turned-heroine, remains extremely stilted and frustratingly wooden, and Boyega similarly fails to either engage or convince as Finn.

The lack of substantial back-story doesn’t help, in an increasingly tonally uneven screenplay which often can’t decide if it’s a fairly broad comedy or deep existential drama. I understand that Rey’s supposed to be an enigmatic character whose origins are unknown, but she surely needs further explanation as to why she’s there in the first place?

Oscar Isaac remains the charismatic highlight as pilot Poe, and particularly impressive once again is Adam Driver as that most conflicted of villains, Kylo Ren. Driver brings out many layers of moral complexity.

There aren't nearly enough real shocks, genuine emotion or revelatory surprises - apart from the very underused, cameo return of one favourite character. I wish the twists and turns had been pushed far further...

The late Carrie Fisher has a fitting tribute as Leia. The tonal changes, poor attempts at occasional humour and, as before, often very wooden acting delivery does jar though, with this being even less impressive, less impactful and even less memorable, than the already dumbed-down Force Awakens. Even with the extravagant but very distracting induction of seat-shaking, dry-ice spurting 4DX.

Rating: * * *

Loving Vincent (2017)

PG, BreakThru Productions, 94 mins.

The first ever hand-painted film, this tells the largely uncharted story of the infamously reclusive painter Vincent Van Gogh - through using the medium he became synonymous with.

  Constructed entirely out of oil paint, a team of thousands of animators from all over the world painstakingly create a world of trains, sun-dappled landscapes and many - quite literally - colourful characters.

 Not a lot is known about this enigmatic figure, even less about the events which occurred directly after his death. How much is dramatised is an open question, but it makes for an interesting, if not always gripping, narrative device nonetheless.

 Boyish detective Armand (Douglas Booth) meets a varied array of individuals to try and deduce exactly how a troubled and often volatile Van Gogh, died under suspicious (or perhaps not so suspicious) circumstances.

  Booth has had a phenomenal slate of roles to his name over the last few years. From playing Boy George, to privileged party boys Harry (The Riot Club) and Anthony (Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) and a flamboyant Vaudevillian impresario in this autumn’s criminally underrated serial-killer chiller The Limehouse Golem, he’s a versatile, polished and incredibly focused actor - and Armand is no exception. Relatable, subtle and unassuming, it’s another performance which absolutely anchors the film.

  There is also a Poldark reunion, with Aidan Turner and a particularly brilliant, very natural Eleanor Tomlinson as the daughter of the owner of a provincial cafĂ©.

‘You want to know so much about his death, but what do know of his life?’ inquires an aloof maid.

  There may not always be a great deal of substance or new information about our deliberately elusive titular character.

However, it’s executed in such a genuinely state-of-the-art way, that the mechanisms of the plot somehow become incidental to the artistry. The dazzling images are always alive with movement too: faces change expression, looking temporarily perplexed with incredulity. The actors are filmed using revolutionary motion-capture technology: photographed as normal, with the computer matching their every mannerism. But, as this great achievement demonstrates, innovation coupled with traditional methods work the best…

Rating: * * *

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Coco (2018)

PG, 105 Mins, Pixar.

The latest from animation powerhouse Pixar, there’s a wonderfully old-fashioned, moral, Disney feel to Coco - yet it feels simultaneously fresh. Young Mexican boy Miguel has a unrequited passion for music - his family dismiss his artistic talent ever since a family descendent abandoned them years ago to pursue his own dreams of being a musician.

When the guitar inside the statue of his local celebrity idol magically comes to life, Miguel is transported to the phantasmagorical irreverence of The Land Of The Dead, where he must get back to the living, and discover the true meaning of how family lasts forever…

The animation is technically extremely rich, full of little moments of slapstick, particularly in the world of the afterlife - eye-sockets retract and jaws fall off.

But it’s the emotional, human touches of affection which really resonate. For example, the title itself refers to the oldest living member of Miguel’s family - Grandma Coco. Well into her hundreds, the lines and wrinkles on her face are rendered with such minutia of detail and texture, that there were moments - as so often happens with computer-animations, where my disbelief was so suspended that I believed that these characters were really people - and was completely emotionally captivated.

It’s also thankfully very telling in its timing and themes. Along with tackling quite difficult, universal thematic material for children: life, death, forgiveness etc, it’s also somewhat of a much-publicised statement against the separation-politics which presently loom over us. With diversity currently such a hot-button topic, this is one of the first mainstream animations ever to have an almost entirely Latino cast. There are nods to making a stance against both Trump and Brexit, even a reference to immigration control, but all treated subtly enough as to not be too heavily ladled-on. It’s so refreshing to see a Hollywood studio make such a celebratory film about embracing another culture so fully.

This joyousness is evident in the glorious songs, from the Frozen lyricists, notably Remember Me, which will have many parents misty-eyed by the end. A delight - bound for Oscar glory.

Rating: * * * *

Murder On The Orient Express (2017)

114 Mins, 12A, 20th Century Fox.

Just as the poster for the famous 1974 version of what is arguably Christie’s most famous mystery, showcased its stars faces like a Cluedo-esque comic-strip cartoon, this one has had equally starry publicity, for a cast that contains some of our finest actors of all time.

 Sir Kenneth Branagh directs, co-writes, and also stars as Poirot, that fastidious perfectionist of a Belgian detective. Twelve strangers meet, and become stranded on the famous train, then one of them is brutally murdered…

Johnny Depp plays Edward Ratchett, a notoriously nasty gangster, absolutely terrifically - surly, slimy and relentless, but in such a subtle way. Depp dosen’t actually have that much screen-time, or that many lines, but actually has a couple more scenes than Richard Widmark did in the original.

One is a very interesting, lust-strewn exchange between himself and Michelle Pfeiffer, also extremely good, but again, as with Depp, underused, as the domineering, serial divorcee - Mrs Hubbard, previously played by Lauren Bacall.

The other key scene for Depp, is his famous confrontation with Poirot, when he asks unsuccessfully for his help. It’s discussed over what looks like a caramel pastry dessert, which Ratchett demolishes with frustration…

There are some fantastic sequences, namely a central set-piece where the train itself derails completely, with everybody falling out of their beds, as a lightening storm releases a giant avalanche…

Not everyone is well cast. Mary Debenham, the governess brilliantly  played by Vanessa Redgrave before, is now played by Star Wars’s Daisy Ridley, - far too young to convince in the the role. Josh Gad, as Ratchett’s assistant McQueen, fails to capture that nervous energy that Psycho’s Norman Bates himself - Anthony Perkins, brought to the role.

The biggest miscast is Branagh himself, majorly over-egging the accent and mannerisms as Poirot - his performance is pure caricature. 

Character names and professions have been changed. Sean Connery’s Colonel Arbuthnot from the original, is now a doctor. The car salesman, who was called Foscarelli, has now become the Spanish Mr. Marquez, played with fantastic, gregarious benevolence by Manuel Garcia-Rufo.

Stylish, and very entertaining. 

Rating: * * * *

Kingsman 2: The Golden Circle (2017)

15, 141 Mins, Twentieth Century Fox. 

In 2015, director Matthew Vaughn made the first Kingsman film: it was gloriously unapologetic in the irreverence of its own subversiveness. It knows, as Vaughn does, exactly which elements it’s sending up. So much so that there’s even a scene in the original between Colin Firth’s dapper gentlemen spy and Samuel L. Jackman’s lisping, baseball-capped megalomaniac, where they discuss the many iterations of the spy genre itself. ‘Nowadays they’re all a little serious for my taste…give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day’.

Now, all the on-the-button self-referentiality coupled with a knowingly nostalgic whip-smart screenplay gets a sequel.

The second chapter in a proposed trilogy, is even more over-the-top, flashier, brasher, and gratuitous than the first one. The only element that’s given a comic-book tone-down this time, is the speed-ramped violence: there’s no equivalent of the infamous church massacre from the original.

 We’re back in spy extravagance from the opening scene: an spectacularly staged sequence in a London taxi.

Eggsy, our charismatic young spy, must tackle everything from deadly bionic arms, to American rivals and lethal cable-cars, all with sharp orange tuxedos, acerbic one-liners and its tongue firmly inside its cheek.

Taron Egerton as Eggsy, is so confident and funny delivering all of the above, that he really could be a Bond of the future, effortlessly having much more personality than Daniel Craig. These movies wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without him at the centre.

Starry new recruits are given nothing to do: Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges are both frustratingly stuck behind desks. While this film definitely works significantly less well than the original in terms of sheer surprise, shock or invention - it has an even better villain - another terrific performance from Julianne Moore as Poppy, the deceptively sunny proprietor of a fifties-style diner with a ruthlessness behind her veneers. In her words: ‘Kingsman is crumpets!’. Why ruin it with a gimmicky cameo from Elton John, and lewdness which makes it impossible to determine who it’s aimed at. It’s far too jammed with expletives for younger children, and also too much off an obviously mainstream comic-book spectacular to appeal to more mature adults. Not as streamlined, self-referential or as strikingly original as the first one. Can’t wait for the next two though!

Rating: * * * *

Monday, 4 March 2019

The Greatest Showman (2017)

2017, PG, 20th Century Fox, 105 Mins.

Casting Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the very first man of show-business, is a perfect match. Jackman started his career in Oklahoma! at London’s National Theatre before becoming synonymous as the clawed superhero Wolverine in nine X-Men movies. 
 The most recent of those, Logan, decidedly became very gritty, but The Greatest Showman is thankfully much happier fare: lighter, brighter, much more fun. 
In fact, I would argue it’s even a grand return to the more classical, traditional MGM Gene Kelly-style musicals of the fifties, ones which we haven’t really seen on screen for a while, such as Singin' In The Rain or An American In Paris. The fantastic score and joyous musical numbers have such an expert sense of glossy spectacle - so much so, that afterwards, even though it’s a deeply cinematic experience - because it’s also unashamedly theatrical, you feel as if you’ve just been to the theatre. Seamus McGarvey’s panoramically swirling cinematography, captures everything from trapeziums, to elephants and CGI lions, all encompassed within Nathan Crowley’s effortless production design. This theatricality, hits the audience like a shot of adrenaline from the dramatic opening shots - drum beats, Barnum in silhouette, directly addressing the audience, singing: ‘Ladies and gents, this is the moment you’ve waited for’. Those unaccustomed to the stumbling block musicals have, of characters suddenly bursting into song and not stopping, may take a while to acclimatise. 
The score itself, is written by the same lyricists of last award-season’s crowd-pleaser, La La Land, however I think this is a far more captivating film. 
It’s a score studded with rich textures of emotional resonance, showcasing fantastically assured performances, not just from a deservedly Golden Globe-nominated Jackman, but also a terrific Michelle Williams as his wife Charity, who’s been hiding this astounding voice, for her numbers A Million Dreams and Tightrope. My favourite, is Never Enough, the profoundly moving centrepiece for opera starlet Jenny Lind, portrayed brilliantly by Rebecca Ferguson.
  One of the very best films of 2017.

Rating: * * * *

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald (2018)

Not only do blockbuster franchises have sequels, prequels and reboots, but luckily for the colossal fandom, the latest emerging trend, is the extended universe or spin-off. Marvel, DC and Star Wars have all ventured into continued iterations of their expansive milieu, and now comes the second instalment in JK Rowling’s evolution of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World. 
After the events of the first Fantastic Beasts in 2016, proceedings inevitably take not only a much darker, but also far more complex turn. It’s even more elaborate, magical, ambitious and visually dazzling than its predecessor. Rowling’s imagination is as boundless as ever, with a whole bundle of new characters, intersecting plotlines and idiosyncratic creatures.
  This descent into the aforementioned far darker territory, is thankfully due to the much bigger role taken by Johnny Depp, returning as the grandiose arch antagonist of the title, Gellert Grindelwald. Depp is absolutely terrific - oozing relentless malevolence, but still retaining this incredibly persuasive capacity to manipulate. Still sporting a shock of blonde hair and haunting eyes that change colour, the film opens in spectacular style, as he engineers a high-octane escape from prison, then plans to eradicate the world of ‘No-Maj’s’ (muggle, or ‘non-magical’ souls)…
 Meanwhile, it’s up to gifted but awkward wizard Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne (once again a rather bumbling, one-note performance) to stop him. He believes the key may be in ascertaining the whereabouts of troubled orphan Credence (a very empathetic Ezra Miller) who’s desperate to discover the truth about his identity…
Narratively, this chapter strikes the perfect balance between originality and nostalgia. It feels simultaneously utterly fresh, with entirely new echelons of danger, and a tone which hits doomily dramatic heights at times. But also, there are extremely clever references strewn throughout to the beloved, tangibly familiar Potter canon. These include the much-anticipated return to Hogwarts – during which a gleefully exciting portion of John Williams’s signature theme is reprised. As well as a wonderous new score, prolific composer James Newton-Howard subtly intertwines these classic motifs throughout (listen as the 3D Warner Bros. logo floats towards you!)
There’s a young Dumbledore, portrayed by Jude Law – unlikely casting, but he does capture an enigmatic, mercurial quality. 
  The swirling, panoramic cinematography by Philippe Rousselot, immerse the viewer firmly into the action. Stuart Craig’s richly detailed production design – statues move, champagne pops, several artefacts from previous films appear – and Colleen Atwood’s sumptuous costumes, only add to the magic. 
 Giving nothing away, the final scene contains an unbelievably audacious revelation – which sets up tantalisingly for what’s to come next!...

Rating: * * * *

The House With The Clock In Its Walls

It’s interesting to think, that a genre once so fertile in the eighties and nineties – the mainstream family fantasy that wasn’t necessarily a sequel or franchise – has now, all but disappeared. The likes of The Addams Family, The Borrowers and Mousehunt, ended with Nanny McPhee, and has since been foreshadowed by animation, or live-action remakes of known quantities.Now, extreme horror director Eli Roth (Hostel), is looking to revive it, with a film that is now a Hollywood rarity: a family horror-fantasy, squarely aimed at the pre-teen, ‘tween-age’ audience. Based on the 1973 novel of the same, rather perplexing name by John Bellairs (more of a bestseller in the US than the UK, it tells the rather well-worn story of Lewis (Owen Vaccaro – endlessly irritating and over-acting horribly throughout), an orphaned outsider who goes to stay in a mysterious, ancient mansion containing a lifetime of secrets, under the stewardship of a wizard, his uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) and his eccentric next door neighbour, Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett – wonderful, and poised-in-purple, but given so little to do).The film itself is a decidedly mixed Halloween-themed bag of too few tricks and not enough treats either, but what I admire about its ambition at least, is Roth’s desire to recapture that aforementioned lost genre: a mainstream effects-laden family fantasy.Tellingly, it’s distributed by Spielberg’s company, Amblin (watch out for the nice touch of its E.T.-inspired logo in its original eighties form. That inimitable Amblin spirit of funny-and-scary-but-not-too-frightening essence of Goonies meets Gremlins, is exactly what this film admirably strives to recalibrate. Many critics have cited Harry Potter, but I think it far more closely resembles the undeterminable strangeness and ambiguity of Lemony Snicket, Dark Shadows, Monster House or Goosebumps – in which Black also stars.Really, it only partly succeeds. It’s fun, but as with so many films trying to balance laughs and scares – it’s not funny nor scary enough. It’s purely personal, but I’ve never found Jack Black remotely funny. Johnny Depp or James Franco would’ve been far better – but would’ve needed far sharper dialogue. The script should zing and sparkle, but it’s nowhere near as polished as it should be. There’s something so airlessly hollow about the whole atmosphere; the pacing should float - it often feels plodding and all so inconsequential.There’s plenty of effects magic which could’ve been pushed further, but there are some great moments, including a brilliantly ghoulish Kyle MacLauchlan, and a fantastically staged attack, reminding us: never to trust pumpkins…

Rating: * * * 

Mamma Mia 2

The first Mamma Mia film became the not-so unexpected highest-grossing film of 2008, now a decade on the star-studded cast are back for a prospect I never thought was possible: more unashamedly silly supposed ‘fun’ that’s even worse than the first one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a talented ensemble cast in such an overblown embarrassment of riches. For totally unnecessary reasons that become clear all too soon, Meryl Streep – brilliant in the first film even though that was still a mess – is hardly ever in it, a crucial detail which was never made clear in the much over-egged publicity juggernaut beforehand. This is one of those structurally problematic sequel-prequels, with periodical flashbacks which show how Donna built that ramshackle hotel in Greece (Croatia this time around).One of the few saving graces is actually Lily James in the role of young Donna. She has the appropriate amount of spontaneous, impulsive effervescence that make her empathetic. She steals the sorry state of affairs completely, and with this, as well as Churchill and The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, both earlier this year, the Cinderella star is unassumingly proving again and again her versatility across many genres – and has a lovely singing voice.All other proceedings sadly go wrong right from the start. The tone is, how to put this, – borderline spoof most of the time – and needlessly so. Why for instance, did the fantastic Celia Imrie need to pop up with a completely unnecessary Scottish accent – spinning down the aisles of a graduation in a feather-boa in the endlessly irritating opening number When I Kissed The Teacher?Two of the best actors of their generation, the exceptionally identifiable Julie Walters and the brilliantly quixotic Christine Baranski, do add warmth and one-liners, but bar one tiny scene, Walters in particular is reduced to a series of slapstick pratfalls when she could’ve again been the movie’s ace, foregrounding the infectious Angel Eyes.Apart from some clever panoramic editing of sun, sombreros, suspect singing (Brosnan, briefly) and sentimentality – things go from bad to worse when Cher flies in by helicopter, looking frozen to the point of being deceased, murdering Fernando. Horribly cynical. I’m not holding out for instalment 76.

Rating: * * 
Image result for mamma mia 2 poster