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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Monday, 9 January 2017

La La Land Review

12A, 128 mins.

It’s very telling that the first opening title of La La Land reads: ‘Presented in Cinemascope’ in narrowed, letterbox black-and white, before expanding into glorious Technicolour. This is the balancing act the film itself expertly juxtaposes: throwing back to a sense of old-fashioned romanticism from Hollywood’s Golden Age, while also being utterly fresh. It manages to feel both fuzzily nostalgic, and strikingly original, simultainiously.
  It does this, by casting two of our most recognisable contemporary stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who seem every bit as polished as Fred and Ginger themselves; it’s no overstatement to call them our equivalent. Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress, who continually runs into Seb, a struggling jazz musician. Stone’s wonderfully expressive, emotive and endearing, while Gosling’s self-deprecating, sardonic and subtle - with fantastic piano skills.
 It’s a love story - as much a glossy, bitter-sweet ode to LA - as it is a conventional romance for the central couple - structured unconventionally. It triumphs over the stumbling-block so many musicals are faced with, as to why characters spontaneously burst into song (it hits the ground running, and takes a little getting used to), by so cleverly framing the musical sequences in a dreamy, heightened, stylised realism, before returning to their more mundane realities. The song-and-dance moments are a total delight: especially a tap number beneath LA’s twilit skyline, and a floating waltz around the stars of an observatory. Director Damian Chazelle, the thirty-one year-old Oscar-winner of Whiplash, has crafted a joyous treat that’s fizzing with optimistic effervescence. It’s a studied milieu of a setting that dichotomises both a celebration, and a display of its own iconography and shallow artifice (frequently adorned with painterly backdrops of palm-trees, back-lots and A-Listers): ‘They worship everything, but value nothing’, observes Seb.
  For the first new movie-musical in years, there are some very memorable tunes and lyrics: ‘She was freezing, she spent a month sneezing / Maybe this appeals, to someone not in heels’. The opening bars of ‘Someone In The Crowd’ stick with you, and there’s a great supporting, first acting role for John Legend, who has his own new song.
  It’s certainly the favourite to scoop the most at awards season, and similarly to An American In Paris or Singin’ In The Rain, feels like the next classic!

Rating: * * *


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Monday, 19 December 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One Review

After the furor of 2015’s release of The Force Awakens - solidly enjoyable, if wildly over-hyped, frequently playing for borderline-parody laughs, too self-assured that it was far better than it actually was, expectations were decidedly middling for this standalone spin-off, especially with reports of an absence of light-sabres, Jedi, and several re-shoots late into production.
With the recent release of Potter’s own new incarnation Fantastic Beasts, Hollywood’s current tent-pole model - after sequel, prequel, cinematic-universe crossover and origin fairy-tale revisionism - seems to allude to the continuation of existing franchises.
  Those fearing a bout of superhero-sequelitus however, are in for an exuberant, elaborate, daring, gleefully rewarding chapter in the saga. In fact, to bill it so overtly as ‘standalone’ or a ‘spin-off’, is doing it a major disservice. Giving absolutely nothing away, it makes a plethora of choices both visual and narratological, that slot perfectly into the main series. It’s far better than Force Awakens; darker, busier, but also far more fun, grounded within a much more traditional Star Wars tone and linear, avuncular structure, while also being strikingly original, too.
  British director Gareth Edwards has assembled an eclectic cast, a clutch of our very finest of character actors, particularly Ben Mendelsohn as a terrifically grasping villain, Diego Luna as a morally duplicitous new Han-Solo figure, and an underused Mads Mikkleson who’s always brilliant.
 Felicity Jones suffers slightly as Daisy Ridley did before her, from wooden dialogue delivered in a flat monotone that seems entirely unique to Star Wars. In terms of pure fan-boy adrenaline though, this is a return to rich, event-cinema. There are genuinely awe-inducing shocks and surprises, as well as moments of expertly maneuvered cameo trickery, with several important returning characters making startlingly modified appearances.
  Aesthetically too, this is visual-effects eye-candy, with stunning aerial  space-fights - never looking sharper - especially in 3D!
  Composer Micheal Giacchino crafts a fantastic original score, while also riffing off John William’s iconic themes - if you listen carefully!

Rating: * * * *

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