Archive for May, 2015

San Andreas

Posted: May 31, 2015 in Film reviews

Directed by Brad Peyton. Starring Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino.

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Ray Gaines (Johnson) is a search and rescue pilot working in California. He’s on the verge of getting a divorce from Emma (Gugino) who’s moving in with her new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). The Gaines’ marriage broke up in the aftermath of the death of their youngest daughter. Their older daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) is about to go to college, but a last camping trip with her dad is cancelled when an earthquake ruptures the Hoover dam and Ray is called in to help.

Present at the dam is seismologist Lawrence Hayes (a woefully underused Paul Giamatti) who realises that the Hoover quake is just the precursor to an even bigger earthquake that will shatter the San Andreas Fault.

When the big quake hits Emma is in LA having lunch with Daniel’s sister (only Kylie flipping Minogue!) whilst Blake is in San Francisco with Daniel. With his wife and daughter in danger, Ray takes a helicopter and heads to LA for to save Emma, and then the two of them head for San Francisco to try and rescue Blake, but can the Gaines’ family be reunited in the face of the awesome power of mother nature?

There’s a bit in Die Hard when the redoubtable Sgt Al Powell advises John McClane that the FBI have “…got the terrorist playbook and they’re running it step by step.” San Andreas is a bit like that, only with the disaster movie playbook obviously. Natural disaster; check, estranged family in peril; check, the expert who’s the only one who knows what’s coming; check, cowardly bloke who’ll get his comeuppance; check, youngsters in love; check…I thought we’d escaped the family pet survives, but a flipping dog shows up at the end! In fact the only thing San Andreas doesn’t do is have the courage of his disastrous convictions, Pompeii may have been equally ropey, but at least you could give it props for seeing things through.

This isn’t to say that San Andreas is terrible. It’s just very incredibly average. The core cast is good, where the film falls down is in a wider cast of characters we can root for/rail against/cheer when they survive/mourn when they die. There’s nothing wrong with focusing on how a small group of people respond to a disaster, but if you don’t widen things out then all the people dying in the background might as well be computer generated characters (and probably are) for all it matters. For all the stick it gets there’s a reason Titanic is so good, it might be a touch oversentimental in places, its emotions painted in broad swathes, but by focusing, at times, on melodrama, Cameron makes you care about the secondary characters, so when they die/are saved, you feel it. San Andreas has none of this, so whilst we might care about Ray and his family, nobody else really matters.

The artist formally (and occasionally still) known as The Rock is always eminently watchable, and Gugino provides ample support as his estranged wife Emma, selling every scene she’s in with gusto. We do get to see more of Gugino and Daddario’s cleavages than is strictly speaking necessary, but as things go they’re decent enough female characters who have a lot of agency, and if in the end they’re there for Johnson to save, Daddario at least gets to save the two English brothers she’s meets up with (Hugo Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson in decent if clichéd roles) on several occasions.

Gruffudd deserves more to get his teeth into, but this isn’t a film that deals in shades of grey, that considers that when faced by Armageddon people will react in all sorts of ways they wouldn’t have imagined beforehand. When the earthquake strikes in this film people are either heroes or cowards—there’s no in-between.

The effects are decent enough, but it’s hard to feel for the thousands of people being crushed by falling buildings, and each successive set piece feels increasingly like a level in a computer game.

It’s not a bad film, but nor is it a good film, it plays it too safe and too old-school, and as a result this earthquake centred film causes barely a tremor.

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Connery Schmonnery

Posted: May 29, 2015 in James Bond

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And so as the title of the latest official Bond novel is released (Trigger Mortis, part of me is amused at the pun, part of me is groaning) it seems like a good time for the latest in my irregular series about Bond.

I’d going to give my opinion of each of the actors to have played 007. And who better to start with than Sean Connery, the first cinematic Bond, the man who defined the role and the man prevailing wisdom suggests is the best Bond we’ve ever had (or probably ever will have.)

Sean Connery is my least favourite Bond.

There, I’ve said it, you can stop reading now, maybe even stop following this blog, you might even decide to track me down and set up a picket outside my house brandishing placards suggesting I don’t know what I’m talking about. I know it’s a controversial stance, but the world would be boring if we all liked the same thing.

I’d start by pointing out that it isn’t that I don’t like Connery’s Bond, as I’ve said many times, I never met a Bond I didn’t like, but someone has to come bottom of the list and I’m afraid for me it’s the Edinburgh born former milkman.

So what is it about Connery that puts me off? I’ll be honest, his views on hitting women, his nationalism and his disdain for the role that made him do rub me up the wrong way, but the personal habits of a lot of actors and actresses vex me, yet I can still appreciate their art, and I still think he’s awesome in The Rock, Highlander etc., so my feelings for him as Bond are born out of the films he made and the character he played.

I think the quintessential failing of the character is that I can’t empathise with him. Yes he has that prowling tiger physicality, he’s unabashedly masculine, he’s brutal, sadistic, deadly and also has a neat line in humorous putdowns, but he’s never vulnerable, and never seems to really care about anyone else. Men and women die around him all the time and he never seems especially bothered, or if he is it lasts for about ten seconds, and this more than anything is why Lazenby trumps him, Connery is by far the superior actor, but by God I’m glad Connery chose to quit before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, because I can’t imagine that final scene would have had anywhere near the power it does under poor derided George, in fact I imagine it might have played more like the start of Austin Powers: The Spy Who shagged Me; “Hang on, this means I’m single again!”

Even when Connery returned for Diamonds of Forever it was as if the events of the previous film had never happened, though clearly they must have, why else is he hunting Blofeld at the start? Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe it’s the way he was directed, but Christ, Sean, you’re hunting the man who killed your wife (ok technically you’re hunting the man who drove the car carrying the woman who killed your wife but still…) you could at least look vaguely vengeful.

He was a good 007, but when it comes right down to it, Dalton and Craig are far better actors, Moore and Brosnan are far more fun, and Lazenby had the good fortune to star in my favourite Bond film, which I’m afraid leaves Sean at number 6—tune in sooner or later when I continue my countdown. Be warned though, I may not do them in order…

Bond #001 TBA
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Bond #006 Sean Connery

Mad Max: Fury Road

Posted: May 24, 2015 in Film reviews

Directed by George Miller. Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult.

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The world has been devastated by nuclear war. In the post-apocalyptic wasteland that remains a lone drifter, Max (Hardy) is captured by scavengers and taken to a bizarre settlement called the Citadel run by the tyrannical Immortan Joe and his army of fanatical War Boys. Designated a universal blood donor Max is earmarked to provide a transfusion for sick a war boy named Nux (Hoult).

Meanwhile one of Joe’s most trusted warriors— Imperator Furiosa (Theron)— is driving a heavily armoured war rig to the nearby Gas Town to collect fuel. Instead she veers into the desert and Immortan Joe realises why when he discovers that his wives, five beautiful women, are missing.

Joe sends his entire army after Furiosa, including Nux who straps his human blood bag Max to the front of his car. In the initial confrontation Furiosa eludes Joe’s forces, but not before Max manages to escape and join her.

Locked into an uneasy alliance, can the one armed Furiosa and the monosyllabic Max fight off the continued attacks of the War Boys, and the other savage denizens of the wasteland, and will they be able to find sanctuary in the mythical “Green Place”?

Though really very different animals, Mad Max: Fury Road and Fast and Furious 7 do have something in common (beyond fast cars and wanton destruction) in that both franchises began life as low budget exploitation films, yet both have morphed into big budget action blockbusters.

Of course the Fast and Furious franchise has had a pretty consistent run with a new film coming along no later than about three years after the last one. With Mad Max however we’ve had something of a gap given that Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was thirty years ago (now I feel old) and this long interlude, coupled with Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson as Max, makes this film hard to quantify in relation to the original trilogy, is this a sequel, is it a reboot, or is it a “reimagining” (I’m never quite sure what the difference is between reboot and reimagining other than the latter being seen as a softer description of the same thing, less likely to enrage fans of the original). Although Max has flashbacks to his daughter, I’m inclined to go with reboot, if only for the recasting.

I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan of the first three films, but I am a fan. For a long time my view would have gone something like this. I wasn’t keen on the first one, I really liked the second film, and had fond memories of the third, even going as far as to own Tina Turner’s single! A few years ago I got the DVD box set cheap and watched all three again. The second one remains my favourite, and in hindsight the first is actually rather good, however time hadn’t been as kind to Thunderdome, so it was probably my least favourite film before I saw Fury Road…

…and I think I can safely say it remains my least favourite because Fury Road is good, maybe not quite great, and certainly not ‘teh greatest action movie evah!!’ that some are touting it to be but it’s good.

It’s also, in the hands of George Miller, most assuredly a Mad Max film. It’s utterly mad, utterly bonkers. Miller has always worked on the premise that if civilisation fell the only ones able to survive would be the people who, to some extent, go insane, and the denizens of Immortan Joe’s kingdom, and Joe himself, certainly fall into that category. From humans used as blood banks to women kept inside vaults, from the Viking inspired loony-ness of the War Boys to the utter preposterousness of the vehicles on display, each of them an insane modification of one or more existing vehicles in a way that would void any manufacturer’s warranty.

The cars are a wonder to behold (and it’s so nice to know they’re real rather than computer generated) and it’s just as well because we do see a lot of them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a two hour chase movie…but the action is quite unrelenting at times and though quieter moments exist they are mere interludes between bouts of carnage.

It took me a while to get into the film, the first action scene is undoubtedly good, but by this point we have no real sense of any characters given Max and Furiosa don’t say much. Only Nux seems fully formed, and then only as a crazy fanatic, and my view has always been that action works best when we have a sense of the characters involved, when we can empathise, or at least understand them. That’s what makes something like Die Hard such a great action film, because we’re able to get a handle on who John McClane is before the shooting starts.

Once the first clash is out of the way though, things get better. Theron is able to flesh Furiosa out and once Max removes his muzzle and pulls his leather jacket back on Hardy looks and feels more like Mad Max.

Much has been made of the fact that Theron has more lines than Hardy, but it isn’t like Gibson’s version of Max was exactly garrulous. Max has always been taciturn, and while you could make an argument for Theron being the true star of the film, I think it would be fairer to call it a two hander, and both are good. Theron manages to make Furiosa tough yet also vulnerable, a woman who’s been forced by circumstance to do terrible things yet who hasn’t quite lost every bit of her soul (and on a side note I have to say I loved the effects work on her arm, it’s easy to just cgi half an arm and leave the rest of the arm working perfectly, but even her stump is limp and useless, it’s a really nice touch).

Hardy doesn’t quite have the same presence of Gibson, but then Gibson wasn’t following anyone else in the role. His accent is a little strange as well, and at times when he’s got a muzzle on Max manages to be even less coherent than Bane! But where Hardy and Theron excel is in the nonverbal communication, every glance between them seems heavy with meaning, from initial wariness through grudging respect and into something approaching trust and they make for a very effective pairing, even when they’re not talking (and often they’re at their best when they’re not trying to engage in deep and meaningful conversations.)

This leaves Hoult as the touching, yet manic Nux. He perhaps goes through a little too much of a journey in terms of how fanatical he seems at the start, but Hoult’s a good enough actor that he pulls it off—still amazing to think he’s the boy from About a Boy (I imagine he’s tired of the comparisons by now as well.)

The plot is pretty basic, and there’s nothing here that’s really that new for the franchise. Immortan Joe and his army are just a riff on Lord Humongous and his followers from Mad Max 2, and the Citadel is just a more extreme version on Bartertown from Beyond Thunderdome. In fact the start of Fury Road seems very similar to BT, although I imagine a lot of the similarities were intentional homages, it’s nice to see Max’s police interceptor, the non-functional double barrelled shotgun is a nice touch too, and I wonder if Furiosa’s kill switch deactivation code is the same one Max had on his interceptor? Miller’s presence makes this sort of unique as reboots go, and it works both for and against the film. On the one hand this isn’t a 30 years later retooling that urinates on the original, but it also doesn’t do anything that’s new, unless you count the scale, because this is far grander than even Beyond Thunderdome was.
It’s too long for what it is, the plot’s simple A-B stuff, and Immortan Joe’s supermodel wives stretch credulity a trifle, but it looks spectacular, with Namibia standing in for the outback (which was ironically too lush at the time of filming) and the sweeping desert vistas, giant sandstorms and murky marshland at times look like another planet. It may be derivative of the other Maxes but it still looks very different to a lot of modern blockbusters, and Theron, Hardy and Hoult are on good form.

It’s probably not great, but it’s definitely good, and it’s most assuredly MAD!

Directed by Bharat Nalluri. Starring Peter Firth and Kit Harington.

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During a handover to the CIA, the MI5 convoy transporting terrorist Adem Qasim is ambushed, and Qasim escapes. It’s a huge embarrassment for MI5, and adds weight to the belief that the CIA plan to cut back on their cooperation with the British Security Services, which will prove catastrophic.

Before he can take the fall for the loss of Qasim Sir Harry Pearce (Firth), the head of MI5 Counter Terrorism, disappears. Concerned about what Harry plans to do a group of senior officials recruit Will Holloway (Harington) a former MI5 agent who was decommissioned by Harry, to track him down.

Harry makes contact with Will and explains that Qasim’s escape was sanctioned by someone at a high level in order to facilitate the CIA takeover of MI5, Harry doesn’t know who the traitor is but the suspects include the very people who’ve sent Will after him, namely Oliver Mace, the chairman of the joint intelligence committee, a politician named Warrender, and Dame Geraldine Maltby, deputy director of MI5.

As Holloway struggles to know who to trust, Harry uses increasingly dangerous methods in uncovering the traitor, meanwhile Qasim’s terrorist cell are preparing an attack at the very heart of London…
Spooks the series ran from 2002 to 2011, and it’s fair to say I was a big fan. Arriving not long after 9/11 it proved a hit thanks to exciting writing, slick production values, great actors and the gleeful propensity to horribly murder its main cast years before The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones made this cool. The show ended after 10 series (some better than others it has to be said) and I thought that was that, until I heard the first whispers of a Spooks film a year or two ago.

Initially I was excited, but then I started to get wary. When Kit Harington (Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow) was signed on and started featuring very prominently in the advertising for the film, I thought this was going to be one of those situations where a series is transferred to the big screen and the franchise is handed over to a new (usually much younger and prettier) generation, and I feared we might get five or ten minutes of Harry briefing/debriefing Will in between Harington running jumping and shooting for the remainder of the run time.

I’m delighted to report that this is not the case. Yes Harington does do a lot of running jumping and shooting, but in terms of screen time Firth gets as much meat, if not more, than the young newcomer to MI5. This is a film that doesn’t feel the need to jettison the past, and several familiar faces pop up (which can’t have been that easy given how many members of Harry’s team were dead by the end of the show). For starters there’s Tim McInnerny as Oliver Mace, he may not have been seen in the show since series 5 but it’s still a nice nod to continuity, and however good the man is at playing the fool (see Blackadder for further details) he proves yet again that he’s equally adept at playing it straight, and he’s ably supported by David Harewood as Warrender and Jennifer Ehle as Maltby, and the triumvirate bring a strong dose of gravitas to their pivotal roles. Similarly, despite only having featured in the last series, Lara Pulver is back as Erin, and even Callum makes a reappearance, and though Nicola Walker is (for very obvious reasons) absent the ghost of Ruth casts a long shadow over Harry. Such nods to the show’s continuity could have risked putting new viewers off, but the references are handled deftly and I’m guessing to a newcomer Erin’s backstory is no different to Will’s or young MI5 agent June (played well by the wonderfully named Tuppence Middleton)

After playing Harry for so long, Firth appears effortless. Harry Pearce is at once the most ruthless bastard imaginable, whilst also being one of the noblest characters you could ever hope to encounter, and it’s a fine line that many an actor might have fallen either side of. His pain over Ruth is palpable, and when he talks about making decisions that mean the deaths of innocents to save many more, you can tell they’re not just words. Harry believes it, and he almost convinces you he’s right. He’s George Smiley and M rolled into one.

As Holloway Harington is equally good, there’s plenty of action, but also ample opportunity for him to actually act, and whilst Holloway might share the decent everyman character traits of Jon Snow, he’s clearly his own man and Harington puts in a good shift as an agent at once in control of his situation, yet also completely out of his depth, and the interplay between he and Firth is top drawer and their relationship utterly convinces, despite Holloway being a brand new character.

The film took a while to get going, but once it was I found myself enjoying it more with every passing minute. How successful it will be is hard to judge because its biggest strengths are also its greatest flaws. On the one side it should appeal to a wide audience, it’s more grounded in reality than the average Bond/Bourne spy thriller, but has a lot more action than something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Of course the flipside of this is that those who like their le Carré might find the twists and turns in this simplistic, whilst those who like their Bond may find it lacking in the action department.

Personally I enjoyed the mix, it’s what made the show so good and they’ve carried it over into the film admirably. Yes the ‘terrorists want to blow up London’ plot was done many times during the show’s run, and despite trying to humanise him, Elyes Gabel’s Qasim is pretty much stock Islamic terrorist #3, but though some of the plot is predictable, it managed to surprise me on more than one occasion which is rare enough to ratchet this film up a few notches in my estimation.

A solid spy thriller that brings back a much loved character and introduces a new one who I’d like to see more of, I’m really hoping this does well enough to prompt Spooks 2

By Lewis Dartnell

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It’s the end of the world; a giant meteor’s just slammed into the Pacific, nations are throwing nukes at one another, and that nasty cough everyone seems to have turns out to be a lot more serious than anyone thought, but it’s ok, people have survived, so civilisation will rise again, won’t it?

This is the intriguing premise behind The Knowledge, written by academic Lewis Dartnell. Surviving the apocalypse is easy, rebooting civilisation on the other hand will be a lot trickier, especially for modern humans who’ve become increasingly disconnected from the traditions and technology that led them to the 21st Century. Sure we can change a lightbulb, and install new apps on our smart phone, but would we be able to undertake large scale farming, to forge steel or build a hydroelectric power plant from scratch? Dartnell argues that, despite all our supposed cleverness, and despite all the technological marvels that will be left behind after the apocalypse, if we’re not careful humanity will slide back into the dark ages and it might be centuries before we even come close to another industrial revolution, let alone jet planes and computers.

In many ways the post-apocalyptic conceit is an excuse to examine the technology that underpins our modern day civilisation and how it developed, and it’s amazing to realise that much of what we think of as advanced is rather a compilation of centuries old technology combined together in new ways; take the ubiquitous car engine which, as Dartnell points out, doesn’t contain much that’s particularly new, for example crankshafts were being used by the Romans, and camshafts have been around almost as long.

As a crash course in the details behind farming, mechanics, electronics and chemistry there’s good stuff here, and I learned quite a few things I never knew before, most especially I learned that after the apocalypse I’d probably be screwed, because rebooting society sounds like really hard work! Just synthesising ink and making paper sounds tricky, let alone building your own printing press. So maybe I’ll just loot a Ferrari and take over an abandoned supermarket instead.

A lot of the most intriguing stuff is in the opening chapters specifically talking about various apocalypses and their initial aftermaths, It’s a bit of a slow read in places, and at times Dartnell’s explanations went a little over my head, but on the whole this is an interesting book that’s pretty much pitched spot on for the layperson and so I’ll be keeping this in my bookcase…just in case!

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted: May 6, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Joss Whedon. Starring Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner.

When the Avengers attack a Hydra base in the Eastern European nation of Sokovia in search of Loki’s staff, they come up against stiff resistance in the form of two enhanced humans working for Baron Von Strucker, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, also known as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen). Although the team succeed in their mission, they suffer debilitating visions caused by the Scarlet Witch’s powers. In the aftermath, and driven by what he saw in his vision Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downy Jr) convinces Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Rufffalo) to utilise Loki’s sceptre to kickstart a project they were working on to create a true Artificial Intelligence who could defend the Earth. The project works, however Ultron (voiced by the wonderful James Spader) isn’t quite the defender of the Earth they expected him to be, instead his goals include destroying the Avengers, and brining about global peace by destroying the human race into the bargain.

Facing an enemy who is potentially omnipotent, and beset by doubts and conflicts within the team, can the Avengers pull together to save the day?

When the first Avengers came out I think it’s fair to say it was my favourite film of the year, a high octane mix of super heroics, snappy one-liners and actors and a director at the top of their game, so Age of Ultron had a lot to live up to. Given that most of the people behind what made the first one so great are back again it’s perhaps no surprise that it does live up to its predecessor, but it’s also not a huge surprise that it doesn’t quite have the pizzazz of the first film either, all things considered.

I could talk about the effects, which seemed quite ropey in places, or the plot, which, let’s be honest, was fairly by the numbers stuff, but the reality is that what makes this film work are the actors and the snarky banter that bounces between them.

As usual Downey Jr delivers a sublime Tony Stark, there are few actors who could take a character so arrogant and downright unlikable and actually make us root for him, and of all the Marvel characters his casting was the most inspired, raising a character, who on the face of it you wouldn’t imagine being a big hit, and making him indispensable. Equally adept is Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, an actor who imbued a character who could have been a one note super patriot with genuine nobility and decency, never letting you forget that this is a man who came from a very different time, and the disagreements between Stark and Rogers continue to bode well for Captain America: Civil War.

Hemsworth has his Asgardian God down to a tee, and has fun with being the ultimate straight man. It’s shame he isn’t given more to do, but he does at least have is own film series unlike certain other Avengers. With Hulk I understand there are contractual barriers to a standalone Hulk film, and despite his lack of overall screen time Mark Ruffalo still manages to show us a multifaceted Banner, intelligent and driven, yet also gentle and afraid of “the other guy”.

As far as I’m aware I don’t think there’s any contractual barrier to a Black Widow film, so one can only assume that Marvel don’t think people would watch a female led superhero film, which is a shame given how much backstory Natasha Romanoff has, and how much Johansson brings to the table. Ah well, one can but dream.

Of the core Avengers that just leaves Renner’s Hawkeye, who I’m afraid to say is the weak link for the second film running. I can see the point of having a member of the team who’s pretty much a regular guy, and Hawkeye does get a much better crack of the whip than he did in the first Avengers film, but all things being equal I hope we don’t get a Hawkeye standalone film any time soon.

The cast’s way too big to go into everyone else, but Spader does a good job as Ultron, even if you can’t help wishing we’d seen more of him, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson make for appealing super powered twins and finally Paul Bettany’s Vision may look a trifle silly, but he plays the role so straight and with such gravitas that he just about pulls it off.

Mucho credit has to be given to Joss Whedon as writer/director in juggling quite so many super powered balls. Creating a film this good when you have to ensure every super hero—or egotistical actor? 😉 — gets his or her chance to shine, whilst setting up things that won’t pay off until future films and satisfying the corporate Marvel behemoth’s desire for a huge blockbuster into the bargain, can’t be an easy task. That he injects emotion and humour into this as well is just icing on the cake.

It’s long but it doesn’t feel too long, though they could have lost ‘Thor takes a bath’ quite easily (then again perhaps that scene wasn’t designed for me!) There are too many characters and subplots, it lacks a “Puny God” moment (though there are a couple of contenders), and Ultron isn’t as much fun as Loki. Finally, and despite the change in locale, the final battle does feel like a re-tread of New York, with the heroes battling an army of computer generated metal things. These minor annoyances don’t detract from what is a great film though. Exhilarating and funny, it might not quite have the wow factor of the first film, but by golly it comes gosh darn close…