Thursday, 22 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel

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

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

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

Rating: * * *

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Wonder Woman Review

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

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

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

Rating: * * *
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Friday, 2 June 2017

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

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

  Rating: * * * *
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Saturday, 20 May 2017

Miss Sloane

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

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

Guardians Of The Galaxy: Vol. 2

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

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

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Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby Review

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

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

Rating: * * *

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Saturday, 8 April 2017

Power Rangers

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

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

Rating: * * *

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