Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby Review

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

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

Rating: * * *

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Saturday, 8 April 2017

Power Rangers

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

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

Rating: * * *

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Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Beauty And The Beast

Beauty And The Beast, Cert: PG, 129 mins, Walt Disney Pictures.

Disney continues its prolific slate of live-action remakes. There was Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella, Maleficent and Oz: The Great And Powerful (my favourite by a yellow-brick mile). It’s a strategy with no sign of slowing down, with Mulan, Peter Pan and The Lion King all in the works, along with The Nutcracker and a Mary Poppins sequel currently being made.
  Its latest re-envisioning, is of Beauty And The Beast, the 1991 classic which made history for being the first animated-feature ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. An unbelievable twenty-six years later, the decidedly dark tale of unlikely love, cursed spells, red roses and talking household objects, returns to enchant a new generation.
  It’s an exuberant, bells and whistles experience: rich, glossy, dappled to within an inch of its blockbusting, GCI-sprinkled life. So much so, that all the hype generated by trailers and Twitter-spheres, can’t help but leave you feeling delighted, warm, and yet oddly hollow. The problem with being so faithful to a beloved original, is that this adaptation can feel like its set-pieces (and occasionally over-long songs) are highlights, engaged in a box-ticking exercise.
 That said, it is visually absolutely stunning. The sets and costumes (by powerhouse designers Sarah Greenwood and Jacqueline Durran - Pride And Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina), are phenomenal, whether it’s the bustling re-creation of a so-called ‘provincial’ town, or an austere rendering of the incandescent castle. The effects are wonderful; all the more immersive in 3D: plates are whizzing, snowballs are thrown and candles flicker.
 Some performances work better than others. Emma Watson’s good, but for me, just looks too young to play Belle. The maturity of Keira Knightley or Gemma Arterton would’ve been better. Dan Stevens’ Beast, is covered under so much computerised motion-capture, that his performance disappears. Kevin Kline adds pathos, Luke Evans is terrific as a malevolently vain Gaston, and the voice-work is particularly strong. Ian McKellen has fun as the curmudgeonly cynical clock Cogsworth, and Emma Thompson’s absolutely perfect as sweet Mrs. Potts, but I’d have preferred to see them in human form for longer. The extraordinarily star-studded cast, yearning score and aesthetic flourishes, make it enduringly magical.

Rating: * * * *

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Thursday, 9 March 2017

Logan

Logan, Cert: 15, 137 mins approx, 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios.

It’s easy to forget that with today’s veritable menu of superhero or franchise blockbusters (my favourite genre) and their innumerable extrapolations of sequel, prequel, reboot and cinematic-universe crossover etc - it all began with X-Men. Since the early Superman films, they’d been lacking in popularity. That changed in 2000, when original X-Men director Bryan Singer, (helming four to date), made a surprise hit, reinvigorating audience anticipation. Its figurehead, was Hugh Jackman’s grouchy, adamantium-clawed Wolverine.
  Logan is the ninth installment, as well as the latest of three standalone chapters, which focus primarily on his character, with Jackman having long-stated this is his last appearance in the role.
 Critically lauded as the most impressive addition in recent years - it’s an almost radical departure: stripped-back, gritty, edgy and visceral. The saga’s tone has never gone this dark and daring before. While most audiences probably find this sudden change refreshing, with the cast saying: ‘It hardly felt like an X-Men movie at all’ - for me, that’s precisely the problem.
The regular X-Men films, canonically, not only feature all the mutants collaborating together, but also have spectacle, humour, action set-pieces laden with CGI, and consequently were so much more fun. I prefer them lighter and brighter, with more zip, pace, and that vital fantastical element foregrounded throughout.
Instead here, much of that is jettisoned, in favour of being so serious, paired-down, and extremely violent. Maybe not gratuitously so, but certainly unnecessary. Wolverine’s trademark slicing-and-dicing is still intact - but didn’t need quite so much blood - and occasional decapitation. It didn’t bother me personally, but the much publicised 15-rating is fully justified. Director James Mangold’s conscious choice to include both only intermittent action, and the briefest glimpse of super-powers, will suit some, and there are a few surprise twists. Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s shockingly frail Professor Xavier, hiding out in a Mexican dust-bowl, (a landscape aptly evoking the narrative’s themes of isolation), both give strong performances, as does Boyd Holbrook especially,  as a slimy new bionic villain. ‘You’re not the only one that’s been enhanced’ he drawls. As good as it is, X2 or Apocalypse are so much more satisfying.

Rating: * * *

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Friday, 24 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 - 15, 122 mins, Warner Bros Pictures.

When the original John Wick turned out to be a surprise hit in 2014, it was the left-field, indie-actioner, that brought Keanu Reeves back into prominence, after successes such as Speed and The Matrix Trilogy. Now, here’s the rather inevitable sequel - exactly the sort of undemanding, mindless fare that made similar projects such as the Transporter or Hitman series so popular, in a niche way, with their core audiences - namely teenage boys and video-gamers.
  There are plenty of slick action set-pieces that have lots of kinetic energy - super-charged car chases on twilit New York streets, and probably more screen-time given to fighting than actual dialogue scenes. But these seemingly endless, prolonged sequences; a gruelingly violent mixture of hand-to-hand combat and gun-fu (kung-fu with guns, imaginatively), become a little relentless after a while, even though they’re quite viscerally immersive - you do feel every punch.
  Keanu Reeves’s performance as the titular assassin, also known as the elusive ‘bogeyman’, reminded me slightly of Daniel Craig’s Bond: very accomplished physically, but so monotone, flat and lifeless when needing to inject any emotional range into the role. His register never changes from being distractingly one-note throughout.
 However, there’s a strong, eclectic supporting cast. John Leguizamo’s brief cameo adds much-needed humour to proceedings which otherwise frequently feel either far too serious, or intentionally deadpan. There’s an appealingly stoic, grounded turn from Ian McShane as a subtly authoritarian boss, and even a well-judged surprise for Matrix fans - a welcome reunion for Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, playing a similar mentor figure.
  There are some stylish choices: a moment of speed-ramped cinematography, a few nods to multi-cultural, pop-art iconography, and occasional retro, florescent subtitles. Also, there’s an effective, hall-of-mirrors style finale very reminiscent of Scaramanga’s fun-house at the end of The Man With The Golden Gun. All of these elements can’t quite make up for gratuitous shock-tactics and flimsy plotting. But those who don’t mind such shortcomings should enjoy it and of course, the open-ended structure definitely sets up a third chapter. For better or worse, I suspect we’ll be seeing Mr. Wick again soon…
  
 Rating: * *

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Fifty Shades Darker

Fifty Shades Darker, Cert: 18, 118 mins. Universal.

The literary phenomenon that proved to be unbelievably lucrative, resulted in an inevitable big-screen adaptation, with 2015’s Fifty Shades Of Grey. It was wooden, lifeless and yet oddly compulsive.
 Now, comes this cynical money-maker of a sequel, with equally waxwork performances and terrible dialogue. ‘I will have dinner with you…because I’m hungry’ is about as sophisticated as it gets. What could’ve been a interesting, darkly complex character study on human desire, instead just all feels so vacuous - another missed opportunity, favouring commercialisation over nuance.
It’s about as flat as one of those flutes of champagne these shamelessly ostentatious characters are forever drinking at endless receptions. Set within a decidedly deliberate milieu of functions, parties and skyscrapers, it never actually shows anybody doing any real work; it’s a mystery how they earn all this money - all very glossy but extremely implausible.
Even those supposedly ‘infamous scenes’ once again feel awkwardly stagy and mannered, without a modicum of the steam or spark generated by others in a similarly adult canon - such as Basic Instinct or Fatal Attraction. The result, is that proceedings often feel unintentionally funny for all the wrong reasons.  What works marginally better, is the briefly explored cat-and-mouse thriller element: there’s an unstable ex, a helicopter crash, and a solid enough cameo from a spiky Kim Basinger, but all of these are rather brushed over, and could’ve been explored further.
Jamie Dornan can be a good actor (he was great in last year’s gripping World War II drama Anthropoid), but he’s utterly stilted here, totally wasted on dull material for a cardboard-cut-out, humourless character.
 Despite the odd stronger scene and a contemporary soundtrack, as with its predecessor, it’s all extremely uninvolving. So, the reason for its immense popularity, as well as the question of who exactly are the intended audience - are both conundrums which remain perplexing. I shall have to watch the third concluding chapter, if only to solve these mysteries, and understand its extraordinarily enduring appeal.

Rating: * *

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Monday, 23 January 2017

Sing! - Review

Sing - Certificate U, 108 mins, Illumination Animation Studios.

From Illumination, the studio that made the Despicable Me movies, and its own spin-off, those inescapable yellow Minions, comes a new animation with an instantly appealing premise. It’s essentially what would happen if a population of animals competed in the current glut of talent shows which dominate Saturday night schedules: The X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent etc.
  A little koala-bear compère with big dreams, Buster Moon (voiced with great pep by the ever-charismatic Matthew McConaughey), chooses to save his struggling theatre by hosting a singing competition.
  So, every kind of animal imaginable takes part: A pig, Rosetta (Reese Witherspoon), an over-worked housewife with twenty-five piglets, Ash, (Scarlett Johansson) a rock-star hedgehog, a diminutive hustler-mouse, Mike, with big-band crooner tones (Ted’s Seth McFarlane) and Johnny, a conflicted young gorilla, born into family criminality (Taron Egerton).
  The trailers, draw heavily on the central conceit of these critters belting out some of today’s most recognisable pop-hits, such as a trio of OMG bunnies wiggling to Nicki Minaj. I wondered if the somewhat shoo-in selling-point of: ‘talking-animal jukebox karaoke’ could sustain at feature-length, or whether the novelty of seeing McConaughey perform a rendition of Call Me Maybe might wear off - but it works. Its set-up is so simple, and all the more joyous for it.
  It’s enriched further by a universally terrific voice cast. Stand-outs include the brilliant Egerton, my choice for 2016’s BAFTA Rising-Star, who had his breakthrough in the Kingsman franchise. Jennifer Saunders, is very funny as a prima-dona operatic sheep, in the reclusive Norma Desmond mould. But it’s completely stolen by Miss Crawley, the elderly reptilian secretary, replete with Badminton visor and a glass-eye that’s always falling out - voiced by the film’s director, Garth Jennings.
  Gloriously detailed animation, foregrounds everything: soap suds, hedgehog spikes, and a sensational flood, in a perfectly rendered metropolis that’s utterly believable.
  Its been an outstanding year for animation, from Pets, to Zootropolis, and Trolls to Kubo - so if Sing isn’t quite as stirring as Moana, it’s still a total delight.
  
Rating: * * * *

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