Archive for the ‘Film reviews’ Category

Dunkirk

Posted: August 3, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Fionn Whitehead.

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It is May of 1940, and after the invasion of France by Germany large numbers of allied soldiers have retreated to the seaside town of Dunkirk. With limited numbers of naval vessels available to transport the men back to England, and with only one pier, “The Mole”, that large ships can dock with it seems unlikely that Churchill’s hope of rescuing even a tenth of the 400,000+ men trapped by the advancing Germans, and under constant attack by the Luftwaffe, is possible.

But as the soldiers on the beach struggle to survive, and the RAF struggle to win the aerial battle, there may still be hope in the form of a flotilla of tiny pleasure boats, many crewed by civilians, who are making the dangerous crossing to France…

 

And so, decades after he first conceived the idea, Nolan’s desire to tell the Dunkirk story finally reaches our screens. There are many words that could be used to describe this film, but the first that springs to mind is magnificent.

Precious few films are perfect, and I’ll discuss a few tiny issues I had with Dunkirk later, but initially I think it’s important to laud what is a truly phenomenal piece of cinema. Short by Nolan’s standards, and with minimal dialogue, Dunkirk is a tour de force that marries exquisite cinematography with impeccable sound. This is a film that pretty much succeeds on every level.

Nolan’s decision to split the film into three parts, each of which has their own unique timeline, is at once complex yet also incredibly simplistic—certainly when compared with films like Memento, or Inception or Interstellar. Nolan has always seemed fascinated by time, but if you think about it the decision to focus on a triple narrative showing the evacuation from the perspective of land, air and sea, demanded some temporal dislocation to do the story justice. So for the men on the beach we experience a week, for those on the little boats it’s a day, but for the Spitfire pilots with limited fuel it’s just an hour.

Whether it’s in sweeping views of the beach itself, the unforgiving seas, or the bright blue skies where planes clash, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have produced visuals you cannot take your eyes off. Allied with the visuals though are the sounds. Hans Zimmer’s ticking clock of a soundtrack ratchets up the tension, but the sound effects that really drive home the terror. Unexpected gunshots ring out, each one devastatingly loud. Stuka dive bombers scream towards the ground, their deadly payload exploding on the beach. Torpedoes streak through the water, and rivets pop and metal screams as ships sink.

This is not a war film in the typical sense. We barely see any German soldiers, yet they loom over everything like an implacable force of nature, as if they were less an army than an out of control forest fire or a tsunami. This is a disaster film. This is a story of survival against all odds.

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Tom was getting a little paranoid that Nolan always seemed to want to make him wear a mask…

The cast are excellent. Wearing a mask for much of the film Tom Hardy is excellent as spitfire pilot Farrier, and if they gave out Oscars for eyes alone he deserves one, because he imbues every moment of indecision perfectly. Quite frankly if Nolan wants to make a Battle of Britain sequel and bring back Hardy I’d be all for it and I really had to fight the urge to cheer every time Tom shot down another German plane.

As Commander Bolton, Branagh is marvellously resolute, channelling the likes of John Mills to perfection. Similarly Rylance utterly convinces as Mr Dawson, owner of one of the little ships.

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Ever the gentleman Sir Ken even doffs his hat to German dive bombers

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, Harry Styles (who apparently Nolan didn’t realise was a huge music star, yeah right….) as Alex and Barnard as Gibson do well with less notable roles. Not that they aren’t important, in fact they’re the heart of the film, but as with something like Blackhawk Down there comes a point where soldiers tend to merge a little into one.

The rest of the cast are uniformly great, with Cillian Murphy turning in a fine performance as a shell shocked solider, and James D’Arcy giving it his best stiff upper lip as one of Commander Bolton’s fellow officers.

I did say I had a few issues. For one thing the beaches do look a little empty, and you never quite believe there are almost half a million men there. I can understand why Nolan did this, showing a great expanse of empty beach does enhance the sense of isolation for those men we do see, but it’s a shame the epic scale of the evacuation wasn’t just a bit more evident, and this is also true when it comes to the flotilla of pleasure boats. There were hundreds but the way they’re filmed it looks like just a handful. Again I understand, Nolan is showing a snapshot of the evacuation, not the whole thing, but again it would have been nice to get more of an idea of the scale of the evacuation.

There are some issues around the lack of non-white faces, we see the odd black face amongst the French but that’s about it and it’s historical fact that there were Indian troops serving in the British Expeditionary Forces. Of course you can argue since they numbered in the hundreds amongst hundreds of thousands, and since Nolan is only showing a fraction of the evacuation, that logically we wouldn’t have seen them, but it is a shame we don’t at least a glimpse.

Overall though, this is a fantastic film, and one that kept my heart racing and my eyes glued to the screen throughout its 106 minute run time. At once old fashioned but also bang up to date, this is one of my favourite films of the year so far and I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t get Oscar nominations aplenty.

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There’s only One Direction lads, back to Blighty!

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted: July 22, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Jon Watts. Starring Tom Holland, Michael Keaton and Robert Downy Jr.

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I’m sure Deadpool would have a witty remark about teenage boys and sticky fluid to mention here but thankfully I am more mature.

After helping one set of Avengers against the other, Peter Parker (Holland) is eager for Spider-Man to become a fully-fledged Avenger, but Tony Stark (Downy Jr) feels that he’s too young and inexperienced, and suggests that he concentrates on being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man for now.

Undeterred Peter neglects his studies and social activities to concentrate of crimefighting, included within this he quits his school’s academic decathlon team, despite having a major crush on one of his fellow students, Liz (Laura Harrier). His decision to leave opens up a space for Flash (Tony Revolori) a smug bully who has a dismissive opinion of Peter.

Whilst patrolling the streets of New York Spider-Man comes across a group of criminals selling high tech weapons retrieved from some of the Avengers’ major battles during the last eight years. The group is led by a man named Adrian Toomes (Keaton) a salvage expert who feels he was cheated out of a fortune when he wasn’t allowed to salvage alien technology after the Chitauri invasion of the first Avengers movie. Toomes has a high tech set of mechanical wings and an alter ego as The Vulture.

As Spider-Man tries to bring down the Vulture, he also has to contend with his best pal Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovering his secret identity, and has to confront the possibility that, as Stark says, he isn’t ready to be a fully-fledged hero.

 

The word Homecoming in the title has something of a dual meaning. Ostensibly it relates to the Homecoming dance at Peter Parkers high school, an event that resonates in the background throughout the film, but it also refers to Spidey coming home. The character is owned by Sony these days, and so until now hasn’t been able to play a part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now don’t get me wrong, I actually quite liked the last two Spider-Man films, and for me Andrew Garfield made for a better Peter than Tobey Maguire, but the absence of Spider-Man from the Avengers films has left a noticeable gap, and although the introduction of Spidey to the MCU seems a little complex (with Sony retaining some ownership and effectively loaning the character out) it is great to see him return.

Of course people wondered if we really needed a third version of Spider-Man in just fifteen years (and the second version in just the last five) but Homecoming answers that question very easily. Obviously we did, and I think most people understood that once we saw Spider-Man cameo in Captain America: Civil War.

The makers of Homecoming have delivered a film that is at once simplistic, yet also one that goes out of its way to differentiate itself from the previous two incarnations of the character. Sure, Holland is playing younger than his years, but the high school scenes feel more realistic than they did with either Maguire or Garfield, and it’s nice to see the character return to his roots as a very young man who winds up with a heck of a lot of responsibility on his shoulders.

The decision to play the film like a high school comedy means it is by necessity a touch lighter than many recent Marvel offerings, but this is no bad thing. This is Spider-Man if John Hughes had made it.

In a clever touch that does something new, whilst remaining faithful to the character, the film manages to ignore Peter’s angst over the loss of Uncle Ben, whilst retaining the idea at the core of the character that with great power comes great responsibility. This time rather that Peter wrestling with his failure to capture the criminal who would then go on to kill his uncle, he instead has to deal with the fact that he puts people’s lives at risk by getting ahead of himself and running before he can walk (or maybe that should be web swinging before he can walk?)

Holland is very good, both as the geeky high school student, and as the wise cracking superhero, managing to portray the weight on Peter’s shoulder without allowing the film to dip too deeply into angst, and Peter and Spidey are in safe hands. It’s especially encouraging that the young man can act toe to toe with heavy hitter like Downey Jr and Keaton without looking overwhelmed.

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“You wanna get nuts? Let’s get…oops wrong film.”

As the villain of the piece Keaton does a good job of imbuing the blue collar Vulture with a genuine sense of menace—there is a reason he remains my favourite Bruce Wayne because he’s the only actor to really hint that a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime might have a few screws loose, and though Vulture clearly isn’t mad, he lets enough of a hint of malevolence out to prove a worthy adversary, but pitting Spider-Man against Vulture is another canny move by the producers, because he isn’t one of Spidey’s more powerful foes, best to leave them for when Spider-Man is a bit more experienced (judging by the end credits sequence it’s easy to guess who his next enemy might be).

 

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“What do you mean you wish you’d been on Captain America’s side?”

Downey Jr has Tony Stark’s personality down to a tee now, and it continues to be impressive that he can make Stark so arrogantly snarky, whilst also making him empathetic and likeable, and he and Holland had a nice chemistry as mentor and mentee. I had feared that Stark and Iron Man might overshadow Spidey, but thankfully this isn’t the case. It’s also nice to see Paltrow back as Pepper and Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan.

There’s a nice sense of diversity about Peter’s peer group, and whilst Flash’s shift from jock lunkhead to smug rich kid takes a little getting used to, it’s a believable change. As Ned, Batalon is a genuine find as Peter’s wingman/man in a chair.

It is a shame that the female characters aren’t as well served as the boys in this, and it seems to be about Peter having multiple father-ish figures in his life in Stark, Happy and even Toomes, and as such Marisa Tomei as Aunt May feels short-changed, similarly Harrier barely gets to rise above the level of love interest. The only bright spot, although she doesn’t get much to do, is Zendaya as Michelle, another of Peter’s friends. She’s wonderfully sparky and owns every second of her limited screen time and one presumes/hopes she’ll have a bigger part to play in any sequel.

There are some nice set-pieces; the Staten Island ferry bit is good, but for me the Washington Monument set piece is the best. The final showdown between Vulture and Spidey is to be lauded for not going down the route of a city destroying conflagration (Marvel seem to have learned their lesson somewhat on this) but is let down by the night-time setting which swathes much of the fight in darkness and means you struggle at times to see what’s going on. I’m also not sold on Peter’s suit featuring an AI, although it does seem like the sort of thing Tony Stark would build in there.

A somewhat flawed but still hugely enjoyable outing for the character, and proof that Holland’s scene stealing cameo in Civil War wasn’t some flash in the pan. Hopefully this version of Spidey will be around for a long time to come because he’s great.

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Baby Driver

Posted: July 16, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx.

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Jamie Foxx was not happy when he discovered there were none of his albums on Baby’s iPod

Baby (Elgort) is a young man with preternatural driving skills. He also has a bad case of tinnitus courtesy of a car accident as a child which means he near constantly listens to music. In order to pay a debt to criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey) Baby has to use his skills behind the wheel as the ultimate getaway driver, much to the chagrin of his deaf foster father. When his debt to Doc appears to be paid off, and when he begins a tentative relationship with waitress Deborah (James) Baby thinks his life as a wheelman is over, but fate has other ideas.

 

And so, after walking away (being fired?) from Ant Man, British director Edgard Wright, the director of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World, plus Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy (not forgetting one of the greatest sitcoms of all time—Spaced) revisited an idea he first had more than twenty years ago, an idea that would become Baby Driver.

In some ways it’s an easy film to categorise, but in others it’s difficult to pigeonhole. First and foremost it’s a driving movie, and a heist movie, but Wright uses Baby’s near constant need to listen to music to provide a soundtrack that makes the film almost play like a musical, and with the central romance between Baby and Deborah more than one critic has highlighted similarities with La La Land.

So let’s get one thing out of the way straight away, Car Car Land this ain’t. Which doesn’t mean it’s not hugely enjoyable, it just maybe means it isn’t quite the work of genius some people are saying it is.

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Baby had the strangest feeling they were being followed…

A car chase film lives or dies by the choreography of its car chases, and every chase in the film is exceptionally well handled and, more to the point, appears to have been done with actual cars rather than with CGI imposters. There’s a balletic beauty to the carnage here, and it’s certainly one of the best car related films I’ve seen for quite some time (even if some of Baby’s tricks aren’t quite as subtle/clever as those employed by Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, on the plus side compared to Drive which felt like it didn’t have enough driving, Baby Driver never short changes you in this department.) Along with the driving the eclectic soundtrack complements the action perfectly.

As Baby, Elgort does a good job essaying a young man in way over his head. Despite allusions to it, he isn’t exactly James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause however, but though his strong silent savant genius shtick does get a little annoying at times, on the whole he’s a very effective lead.

Spacey puts in a good turn as Doc, even if it isn’t anything we haven’t seen him do before. As always he manages to be avuncular and slightly scary all at the same time. As Deborah, James gets little chance to shine until close to the end, and its shame she couldn’t be elevated to more than mere love interest.

Foxx over does it somewhat as Bats, one of several crazy criminals Doc employs. It’s possible this over egging was intentional but it never feels like anything other than Foxx playing a role. Far more effective as Buddy is Jon Hamm who really plays against type and manages to flit behind likable and terrifying, and he might well be the stand out of the cast. As his wife Darling, González gets a meatier role than James and handles the role well, again it’s just a shame the part never lifts much above cliché.

The film is exciting, at times hilarious and messes with your expectations on multiple occasions (though at other times characters behave exactly how you expect them to).

On the downside the films sags in the middle, and whilst Elgort and James have chemistry, it’s nothing like what we saw between Gosling and Stone. The first and third acts are fantastic though, although the ending does go on a bit.

Other than that I think my only slight issue with the film was one of tone. The film walks a fine line between frothy romantic teen action comedy, and something altogether darker. Of course, Wright has walked such lines before, but whereas with something like Hot Fuzz he was aided by the comedy being so broad, and the central plot so ridiculous, with Baby Driver being somewhat more grounded it means that on occasion the flit between violent crime thriller and light romantic comedy is a little jarring.

All in all though the positives of the film far outweigh the bad and I heartily recommend you head on over to your local drive in theatre.

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Groovy, Baby!

The Mummy

Posted: June 17, 2017 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis and Sofia Boutella.

 

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So that’s where I put my giant head!

In ancient Egypt Princess Ahmanet (Boutella) is first in line to succeed her father, the pharaoh Menehptre, or at least she was first in line. When Pharaoh has a son courtesy of his second wife Ahmanet slips down the pecking order. Not a woman to take disappointment lightly the princess sells her soul to the God Set and gains supernatural powers. She slaughters her family but, before she can claim the throne, her father’s priests capture her and mummify her alive, burying her in a sarcophagus where they think no one will find her.

In present day Iraq, solider (and part time treasure hunter) Nick Morton (Cruise) and his long-suffering partner in crime Chris (a nice turn from Jake Johnson) survive an encounter with IS militants as they search for lost artefacts to loot. In order to survive they have to call in the cavalry, but when the army arrive so does archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis).

When a cave-in reveals a hidden tomb Nick, Jennifer and Chris discover a sarcophagus. Jennifer insists it must be taken back to London, but en route things don’t go as planned. Soon the sarcophagus is lost and something monstrous stalks England.

Can the risen Ahmanet be stopped? What does this have to do with the uncovering of a Crusader tomb under London, and just what part does a mysterious Doctor played by Russell Crowe have to do with all this?

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Come with me if you want to live…forever!

Mummy films have a long history in Hollywood that began with Universal studies who, between 1932 and 1955, made six Mummy films. That these began as straight horror films with Boris Karloff as the Mummy and ended with the Mummy meeting Abbott and Costello speaks volumes about how the franchise went downhill. Just a few years later the franchise was resurrected (see what I did there) by Hammer, and between 1959 and 1971 they made four Mummy films.

Flash forward to 1999 and Stephen Sommers gave us an action adventure romp starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. More Indiana Jones than Boris Karloff the film was nevertheless a huge amount of fun and a huge success, spawning two sequels, plus a spin off (The Scorpion King) and a raft of straight to DVD sequels.

2017’s effort is clearly not the worst Mummy film of all time. What is clear is that it’s a long way short of the best Mummy film.

Its main problem is in what kind of film it’s trying to be? The 1999 version proved that turning the franchise into an action blockbuster could work, so the overall theme of the film isn’t the major problem. The trouble is that it tries too much to be all things to all people, without settling on a definitive tone. It’s not especially scary, but yet it does tread closer to horror than Sommers’ version did, and this is reflected in its 15 certificate, and whilst it’s action packed, it can’t compete with the kind of action franchises you get elsewhere. This leaves the film reliant on its performances and its script, and whilst the actors do ok, the script lets them down.

The film is incredibly derivative, not only of previous Mummy films, which you’d kind of expect, but also of other films—most notably other horror films. An American Werewolf in London is a wonderful film, and I wouldn’t decry any director who wanted to ape its glorious balance of horror and comedy, but lifting a recurring plot idea so shamelessly is so downright disgraceful that someone ought to sue. The other film , admittedly perhaps less well known and certainly less well lauded (though its truly wonderful in its own way) this riffs on is 1985’s Lifeforce; a film about a beautiful alien vampire who stalks England, sucking the lifeforce out of people by kissing them and turning them into desiccated zombies. Oh and she has a psychic link with the all-American hero who’s trying to stop her. Ahmanet’s mode of killing is so on the nose as a rip-off of Lifeforce (as is the look of the zombies she creates) that again I’m surprised legal action hasn’t ensued.

Throw in far too much exposition (hang on, it’s ten minutes since the last info-dump we’d better pause and regurgitate some more mythology) and lacklustre direction, and you’re left with a film that should be terrible. That it isn’t is down purely to some “so bad it’s great” moments and the performances.

Rumour has it that Tom Cruise had far too much creative control, and that’s part of the reason the film sucks, I can’t comment on this, all I can do is go with what’s on screen, and on-screen Tom almost saves the film through sheer force of personality. He’s engaging, funny, and proves yet again that he’s a good actor and an honest to goodness movie star.

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“I’m sorry, Tom, I can’t hide the truth any longer. I am the real monster of this film.”

If Cruise is the main reason to see the film, then Crowe’s performance is another. It’s fantastic. It’s just amazing for all the wrong reasons! I won’t go into why or how, suffice to say that there comes a point where his performance shifts and the film reaches such a level of preposterousness that you will either laugh or cry. I chose to laugh.

As the titular Mummy (or is she?) Sofia Boutella works very well. There’s a languid alien grace to her—no doubt born out of her dance training—and she’s probably a better villain than the film deserves. If anyone loses out it’s Wallis, who doesn’t get much to do other than explain what’s going on and fall in love with Nick improbably quickly.

The film will supposedly form the start of Universal’s Dark Universe, and one can only imagine that, having seen the riches Marvel/Disney have reaped in recent years, they’ve decided they want a piece of that, but the only property they own is all the old Universal monsters so, voila, let’s just reimagine the Mummy, Dracula and the Wolfman et al as superheroes/supervillains.

Based on how The Mummy has been received I wonder how many of the Dark Universe films will actually get made.

This is an unmemorable and derivative film that isn’t scary enough to be horror and isn’t action packed enough to be an action film, and yet I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It made me laugh (admittedly sometimes for the wrong reasons) and I was never bored at least so that’s something.

Ok then, I think that about wraps up this review…

 

Wonder Woman

Posted: June 13, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by Patty Jenkins. Starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine.

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It’s always nice to see a woman get to the top of the career ladder

Hidden from the world on the island of Themyscira live the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Gods to protect mankind from Ares, the God of War. There is only one child on Themyscira, Diana whose mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) is Queen of the Amazons. Hippolyta doesn’t want her daughter trained as a warrior, but Diana sneaks away to learn the art of fighting from her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) the general who commands the Amazon army.

Eventually Hippolyta permits Diana to learn the ways of war, and even reveals the existence of the Godkiller, a ceremonial sword forged by Zeus that can kill a god.

Eventually Diana grows into a woman (Gadot) and one day a plane penetrates the magical mist that shields the island and crashes into the sea. Diana rescues the pilot, who reveals himself to be an American spy named Steve Trevor (Pine). Unfortunately Steve is being pursued by the German navy who attack Themyscira.

In the aftermath of the battle Steve tells Diana about the Great War being fought beyond the mist. Diana believes the war must be the work of Ares and convinces Steve to take her to the battlefield, certain that with the help of the Godkiller she can defeat Ares and bring peace.

Steve isn’t sure that there’s a supernatural being behind the horrors of the first world war, but he takes Diana back to England and then into Belgium where the Amazonian will be faced by the horrors of war, and the horrors of sexism, but can even an Amazonian princess wielding Godkiller stand against the fury of a world embraced by chaos?

 

And so the latest film based on DC comic book characters arrives, and on its shoulders it carries a lot of baggage. There’s the fact that it’s the first female led superhero film in 12 years (and the last one didn’t do that well at the box-office), there’s the fact that it’s the most expensive film ever helmed by a woman, oh and there’s the little matter of it following on the heels of Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad from 2016, films that made money but faced critical derision (well-earned in my opinion, especially the abysmal Suicide Squad).

No pressure then.

Really in the 21st Century the fact that Wonder Woman is, well, a woman, shouldn’t make any difference, and neither should the presence of Jenkins at the helm. Sadly it does, and whilst the film hasn’t garnered the kind of irrational hatred before anyone’s even seen it that the Ghostbusters reboot did, still you couldn’t help feeling a lot of people would be quite happy if it failed.

Not that it will, because Wonder Woman is good. Very good. The best DC film by a country mile (which admittedly isn’t that difficult) but better than quite a few Marvel films as well, and most of the issues I have with the film had nowt to do with Jenkins or Gadot.

Good stuff first. Given how variable the plotting and scripts of last year’s DC films were, Wonder Woman is refreshingly coherent. It’s a proper film with a proper narrative. Sure some short cuts are taken, some contrivances made, but none more than the average blockbuster (probably less than the average blockbuster if I’m honest) and I certainly never felt myself going “Eh?” at the screen. The film also allows itself a sense of humour. After the grimdark BvS and the ‘should have been funny but really wasn’t’ Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman balances humour and pathos well, not an easy task given the WW1 setting.

In the title role Gadot is very good, and acting wise she’s better than I gave her credit for in Batman vs Superman last year (even though she was one of the better things about that film) she has nice comic timing, looks great, and has enough presence to own the screen and convince as a goddess.

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“It’s not what it looks like,” said Steve Trevor, caught dressed as a German flirting with another woman.

As Steve Trevor (worst name ever!) Pine makes a good foil, channelling his inner Kirk but toning down his inner Shatner, charming, world weary and heroic, and whilst at times he does mansplain a bit, on the whole he and Diana balance each other out nicely.

There are a few other good parts; Lucy Davis is fun as Steve’s secretary Etta Candy, though she doesn’t get enough to do.  Similarly the rag tag commando team Steve puts together are good, but none of them gets more than a thumbnail sketch, which is a shame as they’re engaging, and Ewen Bremner’s sniper clearly has some backstory we just never get explained.

The bad guys fare worse, especially near the end, but even so the likes of Danny Huston are incapable of giving a poor performance so they’re still a credible threat.

The period setting is both a strength and a hindrance. It makes the film feel different to most superhero flicks (aside from the first Captain America film) and gives the drama some heft, but I have to say that there was something a little jarring about the mix of World War One horrors and super heroics. The symmetry works better with World War 2, because for better or worse the Nazi’s are such comic book villains, and because the conflict is more of a black and white, good versus evil war, at least on paper. World War 1 though is a war it’s harder to see as heroic.

The film is well paced and the action scenes are, on the whole, nicely done.

On the downside, It has a few too many of Zach Snyder’s fingerprints on it in places; the same muted colour scheme, the reliance of slow motion and posed shots that look good but make the film feel a little static, but I guess it does have to fit in with the rest of the DC universe. Wonder Woman looks best when Gadot or her stunt double is actually fighting. Some of the cgi effects look a tad ropey and the final battle is a bit too effects heavy (but hey it’s not the only superhero film to be guilty of that.) Also for a film championing a female lead Diana’s naiveite does seem a trifle too naïve at times, and even I winced when she squealed “Baby!” in London.

On the whole though the positives outweigh the negatives by a wide margin. This is a well put together superhero film proving (if it even needed proving) that a woman can direct a blockbuster and a woman can headline a blockbuster and I don’t think any of us have to wonder whether this particular woman will be back.

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Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup.

 

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“I am NOT Groot!”

The colony ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6. It carries a crew of fifteen plus 2000 colonists and 1000 embryos in stasis. Acting as caretaker is a synthetic named Walter (Fassbender). Disaster strikes during a routine maintenance stop and Walter is forced to awaken the crew, with tragic consequence. In the aftermath the ship picks up a strange transmission coming from an unexplored planet nearby. Further investigation shows a planet with a lush, earth-like environment and the ship’s acting captain, Christopher Oram (Crudup), decides that the colony has a better chance of survival there than in continuing on to Origae-6. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert feels it isn’t worth the risk, but Oram overrules her.

Most of the crew take a shuttle to the surface and find that the planet is indeed inhabitable. All too quickly several crewmembers are exposed to alien spores that gestate inside them, eventually releasing vicious creatures that wreak havoc with the landing party. The survivors encounter another synthetic named David (Fassbender again) who arrived on this planet in the aftermath of the previous film with Dr Elizabeth Shaw. David can fend off the vicious neomorphs, but is there a deadlier monster still to make an appearance?

 

As anyone who’s read my review will know, I wasn’t enthusiastic about Prometheus, so I was initially hopeful about a new Alien film that promised to get back to basics. After I saw the trailer I started to worry again, and I’ll be honest I expected Covenant to be bad. The odd thing is whilst it is bad, it isn’t necessarily bad for the reasons I expected it to be bad.

Prometheus wasn’t enough like an Alien film (though that was hardly its sole flaw) and to be honest I thought Covenant would go too far the other way and be too much like an Alien film (I know, some people are never happy, right?) and whilst it is guilty of this, it’s Alien greatest hits medley is accompanied by a side order of “You know, Prometheus wasn’t that terrible, we should do some of that again” ensuring this is a film that’s never quite sure what it wants to be.

For all its failings at least Prometheus had a clear tone, whereas Covenant is just a messy mashup of B-movie monster flick and pretentious “thoughtful” sci-fi.

Ridley Scott provides fair warning of what’s to come in a 2001-A space Odyssey inspired flashback where Peter Wayland (Guy Pearce sans makeup this time) has a conversation with a newly online David. They talk about creators, the nature of God, and immorality and…the whole thing is about as subtle as a brick that has BRICK written on the side in neon green paint.

The film then segues into something more reminiscent of the older films, with a space ship and a crew in hibernation. And then there’s a mysterious signal from a nearby planet. If this all sounds familiar it’s clearly supposed to because the call-backs in this film are not subtle. Now don’t get me wrong, harking back to previous films in and of itself doesn’t make a film terrible. I’m a huge fan of The Force Awakens but I can see it’s blatantly riffing on A New Hope. Thing is with TFA it works because what’s new is so well done that you just enjoy the call-backs. Covenant fails so badly on its own merits that the call-backs just seem really jarring. And there are a lot of call-backs. Crew of grousing space jockeys? check; express elevator to hell, going down? Check. Fight in a cargo bay: Check…and I haven’t even listed them all because some would be blatant spoilers. And when the film isn’t harking back to Alien films, it seems intent on stealing from others. The opening space scenes feel like Sunshine, there are some echoes of Blade Runner here, and even Covenant flying through the clouds whilst a storm rages just made me think of Event Horizon. Pretty much everything in this film will make you think of something else. Probably something better.

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“Where we’re going we don’t need quarantine procedures.”

The script is flimsy, and whilst Scott is clearly still a great director (The Martian was just a few years ago) he seems incapable of being able to salvage a ropey script, and the pacing is off throughout. Using a Goldilocks metaphor, when it’s slow it’s too slow, and when it’s quick it’s too quick (seriously, if you thought AVP sped up the Alien Lifecyle you ain’t seen nothing yet!).

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“Don’t call me Ripley. You wouldn’t like me when I’m Ripley.”

Cast wise there are a lot of people in the ship and down on the planet, but most of them are cardboard cut-outs and they’re stupid in much the same way most everyone in Prometheus was stupid, and they’ll be dead soon so you don’t have to worry too much. Part of what made both Alien and Aliens good was a cast of easily identifiable characters, but here the cannon fodder just merge into the background. Initially Waterston is very good as Dany. She makes for an engaging protagonist. Until the midway point of the film where she’s shunted to one side so that Fassbender can have pretentious existential chats with himself about Shelley and Byron and talk about flute playing in a way that’ll make your adolescent-self snigger. Don’t worry, Ripley will come back to the fore in time for the finale. Sorry, I meant Dany. It’s shame as when she has something distinct to do she’s very good. Fassbender is always a joy to watch, and seeing David and Walter interact is nicely done, it’s just that their conversations are a trifle ponderous to say the least. Crudup’s acting captain is given a potentially interesting character trait as it’s awkwardly shoehorned in that he’s a man of faith. Once done this will barely be referenced again and certainly won’t seem to inform many of his actions. Of the rest only Danny McBride makes any impression as (do you) Tennessee (what they did there?) but this might be down to him wearing a cowboy hat.

One of the things I found so annoying about Prometheus was it’s need to explain where the Xenomorphs come from, completely missing the point that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re terrifying and unstoppable (mostly). They work best as creatures of mystery lurking in the shadows. Explaining their origins is like pulling the curtain away from the great and powerful Oz, and when you have them leaping around in broad daylight they’re just another CGI monster. Captain America could have turned up at the end and wouldn’t have seemed out of place.

If you found the Engineer origin of the Xenomorphs annoying, prepare for that annoyance to be dialled up to eleven as the franchise lurches in a new direction that makes little sense, and frankly I have no idea how they’ll get from this point to the beginning of Alien.

Oh, and if you don’t twig a certain plot point early on, well I envy you your cinematic naiveite!

After The Martian I thought Scott was back on form, but it seems he is only as good as the script. Covenant looks good, has a few nice ideas bubbling around, and features good performances from Waterston and Fassbender, but in the end it’s a dull mess, and whilst I was always slightly wary of the idea, I really want to see Neill Blomkamp do Alien 5 now, because it just has to be better than what we’re getting from Scott and co.

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I guess he didn’t like the cornbread either.

 

Directed by James Gunn. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Kurt Russell.

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Warning: no spoilers for Vol.2, but by necessity I will give away bits about vol.1 (if you’re one of the small number of people never to have seen it).

 

Its just a few months after the Guardians saved Xandar from the threat posed by Ronan, and the group of renegades have become famous. They’re hired by the golden hued Sovereign Race led by Ayesha (a wonderful turn by Elizabeth Debicki) to protect her planet’s precious batteries from an interdimensional beast. The team prevail and in return Ayesha turns Nebula (Karen Gillan) over to the team so they can take her back to Xandar to stand trial. Unfortunately Rocket (the genetically engineered racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) decides to pocket some of the precious batteries, leading to a Sovereign battle fleet hunting the group down.

In the short term they’re saved by a mysterious stranger named Ego (Kurt Russell) who explains he has a link to Peter Quill (Pratt) Whilst Quill returns to Ego’s planet, along with Gamora (Saldana) and Drax (Bautista), Rocket stays behind with Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Nebula while he repairs their ship.

With the group divided, threats come at them from multiple directions, and if they’re going to prevail they’ll need to work as a team, and possibly even co-opt the odd enemy into becoming an ally if they want to save the galaxy for a second time.

 

It’s fair to say that Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit back in 2014. It was heralded way in advance as the Marvel film that’d be the first to fail. It didn’t, quite the reverse, becoming one of the brand’s major successes. There’s no hint of surprise with volume 2, this film comes with a whole heap of preconceptions and expectations, which is a lot to live up to.

With this in mind I have to state an opinion that might go somewhat against the grain. You see I think I enjoyed volume 2 more than the original film, and I really like the original.

In an era of generic/interchangeable blockbusters there’s something very different about both Guardians films. It’s a perfect storm of talents, both in front of and behind the camera.

As writer and director James Gunn seems to understand the balance between action and character perfectly, and its testament to his skill that he juggles such a large cast so effortlessly, giving everyone their moment, and even elevating secondary characters from the first film into something approaching main cast members, with both Gillan and Michael Rooker (as ravager captain Yondu) getting a lot of meat to sink their teeth into, and Rooker in particular threatens to steal the show on occasion.

The thing is though, quite a few characters threaten to steal the show on occasion, testament to a wonderful cast. As Peter Quill/Star-Lord Pratt is effortless. I’d still like to see him add some strings to his bow, but there’s no denying he has the cocky pirate with a heart of gold shtick down pat, and he utterly convinces as the groups de-facto leader. Zoe Saldana has a tougher job as Gamora, and she gets less to do than the others, which isn’t to denigrate her skills, because she has the hard job of being the sensible straight woman surrounded by idiots, and much like a tough defensive midfielder who does the hard work so others can play pretty football, she’s more important than you realise, and the films would be lessened by her absence.

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Don’t rile the raccoon!

The partnership of a superb CGI realisation and Bradley Cooper’s snarky delivery again pays dividends in the form of Rocket, and not once do you ever doubt that he isn’t a real, fully formed character, hell I believe in Rocket more than I believe in most human characters in many films!

Almost the star of the show however is Bautista, and Drax gets the lion’s share of great lines, with Gunn supplying the ammo and Bautista hitting the bullseyes with practically every shot. It still annoys me that the Bond producers hired a guy with such great comic timing, then turned him into a mute, but here the ex-wrestler shows yet again that, given the right role, he has genuine star quality.

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“I am Groot?”

I say almost star of the show because we really need to talk about Baby Groot. The sapling, all that remained of Groot after he sacrificed himself last time out, has grown into a small child who, let’s be honest, doesn’t appear to be the sharpest tool in the box, but this naiveite, married to an adorable character design, makes Baby Groot incredibly loveable. Seriously, if you don’t instantly fall in love with Baby Groot then you need to seek professional help, and he provides many of the film’s funniest bits, from the opening titles through to that scene with the bomb you probably saw in the trailer. Once again Vin Diesel manages to imbue each recitation of ‘I am Groot’ with subtle differences in inflection so you know he’s saying something different every time.

And I haven’t even mentioned Kurt Frikken Russell yet, an actor who was doing the kind of effortless cool Pratt does when Pratt was in nappies. In the unlikely event that I ever meet Mr Russell, rest assured my reaction will be something akin to Wayne meeting Alice Cooper.

The only real bum note acting wise is probably Stallone, who feels oddly out of place, but he isn’t in it much so don’t worry.

If I had to pick a flaw with the film, then I’d say the retro soundtrack isn’t quite as instantly cool as vol.1’s, but that’s about it. Funny, exciting, heart-breaking, with a cast to die for and a an ethos of family that’s even better than the Fast & furious franchise, this is a damn fine follow up to a damn fine original and I can’t wait to see it again!

Final tip, stay right to the end of the credits. It’s worth it!

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“And then I had to go into New York to rescue the President…”