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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Friday, 9 December 2016

Snowden Review

Snowden, 15, 134 mins, Vertigo Films.

In his finest film in decades, Oliver Stone, a director at the very forefront of tackling cultural milestones, now chronicles that most decisive and polarising of figures; Edward Snowden.
 Snowden leaked thousands of the NSA’s classified documents to the press, claiming they flouted constitutional rights to privacy.
  So little of the inner-workings of what actually happened are known to the public, so Stone is set that most difficult of tasks, but crafts an utterly gripping, totally compelling cinematic exposĂ©, into just how contentious the issues surrounding our collective securities and individual identities really are.
 It so easily could’ve been ploddingly pedestrian, or get bogged down in being a hot-button subject of such recent history, too top-heavy with gaggles of smart-phones and social-media platforms.
 The fact that it didn’t, is so profoundly due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s terrific, transcendent performance. As with the entire execution of the film itself, his central performance is so expertly understated. He’s always been such an incredibly subtle, confident actor; it really can just be an empathetic move of the eyes or incline of the head - and you reach into his very soul. This is all the more revelatory despite him being too conventionally smooth to really look like Snowden, but he certainly sounds like him with those mannered, dulcetly flat monotones - awards recognition is so long overdue.
  Supporting turns are also strong: Shailene Woodley infuses human vitality to Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay. If I’ve a singular problem with the structural choices; foregrounding their fraught romance - over pulsing thrills - may become a little insouciant.
  That’s far from saying the film is devoid of tension: the sequence where the files in question are gradually uploaded to a USB-stick concealed in a rubics-cube to avoid detection is the film’s real pin-drop moment, as is Rhys Ifan’s capricious snake of a task-master, revealing private doubt in giant-screen form. Joely Richardson is icy as a spiky Guardian editor, and Craig Armstrong’s bubbling, synth-inspired score adds to the conspiratorial chill of paranoia - in a fascinating account of the ambiguity of freedom, authority, and morality. In my top two films of 2016.

Rating: * * * * *

Snowden

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Moana Review

Moana, PG, 103 mins, Disney Animation Studios.

A refreshing, stunningly realised and history-making parable - its heroine is the first in the studio’s history to originate from the Pacific Islands - of Polynesian descent.
  It’s comforting to know that in the current cultural landscape of unprecedented political change and diversity rows, Disney, as with Pocahontas and Lilo And Stitch before it, has made an embracing tale that displays its message with warming subtlety.
  It’s also not a traditional love-centric princess fairytale, instead decidedly a narrative of self-worth and ecological preservation. It’s directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, have helmed films with the calibre of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet - so they’re unparalleled masters of stirring, majestic resonance and visual sweep.
  With stunningly beautiful animation, there’s everything from parting turquoise waves, sunrises and tiny nuances in the character’s faces; in moments you look at them and believe they’re real people - even more immersive in 3D.
  The visuals are further complemented by a magnificently joyous soundtrack penned by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the visionary behind Broadway’s hottest ticket: Hamilton. Believe me, the main ballad, How Far I’ll Go, is Moana’s Let It Go, and will drive parents mad on repeat forever, just like its icy predecessor, though for my money, it has the emotional edge over the gargantuan success of Frozen.
 But not half as gargantuan as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s ultra-charismatic, film-stealing role as Maui, a muscle-bound, wisecracking demi-god - perfect casting! His number, ‘You’re Welcome’, cleverly plays on Johnson’s own perceived reputation as having an over-inflated ego and vanity - which couldn’t be further from the truth.
  Another favourite character of mine is Grandma Tala, perhaps the best-rendered grandparent ever in animation: Irascibly funny, Rachel House, who at just 45, brings an incredibly aged, very moving quality to her outstanding performance.
 2016’s best animation, Oscar-worthy and destined to be an instant classic!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 2 December 2016

Four Christmases Review

Season: Christmas 2008

Genre: Seasonal/ /Comedy/ Romantic/Slapstick.

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Jon Favreau, Kristen Chenoweth, Robert Duvall, and Mary Steenburgen. With: Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek.

Running Time/Duration: 88 Mins Approx.

Certificate/Classification:   12A (Contains moderate language and sex references).

Seen At: The Trafford Centre’s Odeon Cinemas, Manchester.

On: Saturday, 6th December, 2008.

Supremely talented Hollywood favourite Vince Vaughn is usually known for darker, more adult projects such as Domestic Disturbance, Jurassic Park 2, A Cool Dry Place and of course his own reinvention of the most famous of hotel serial killers: Norman Bates, in the unashamedly identical 1998 remake of Psycho.
   However, this time last year, he made the wise choice of lightening his tastes a little with the delightful Fred Claus. He toned-down on the unsubtle, gross-out, slap sticky banter-esque humour that made him a huge star overnight with his breakthrough role in 1996’s Swingers - followed by the immature, parodying  Stiller/Wilson/Farrell collaborations like Old School or Starsky and Hutch  –of which, 2004’s Dodgeball was my favourite.  
 As a result has gained yet another – this time, family-orientated fan base.   
  One year on, he continues with the Christmassy theme with his Academy-Award Winning cute-as-a-cupcake co-star Reese Witherspoon, in Four Christmases.
   As soon as the gold-coloured magical titles appear, the opulently glittering cinematography, digitally-created snowfall and appropriately-updated seasonal soundtrack set the definitive feel-good mood.  It’ll warm the cockles of your heart during these cold winter nights, whilst making you laugh your stockings off at the same time. The two leads star as Brad and Kate, a couple who are not mad to get married or have children.
  In fact, in the opening bar scene, they even pretend not to know each other, with the first lines of the screenplay being as bold as: ‘You sure can talk the talk – but can you deliver the goodies?’.
  Their idea of Christmas tradition is to be anywhere but with their families at Christmas, repeatedly making up fictitious, increasingly elaborate stories. This time its ‘we’re inoculating children in Burma’, before ending the phone call with ‘Hi-Hop-Hey-Ho-Bop’ – Merry Christmas in Burmese.
   So it poses somewhat of a dilemma when all flights are cancelled and they’re forced to visit each other’s parents for Christmas…
  First, it’s off to meet Brad’s grumpy Pop Robert Duvall, as well as his brother – trained RFC fighter (‘not seen that move in a while!’) John Favreau. Duvall doesn’t exactly warm to his son’s gift of a ‘satellite’ as he calls it. When Brad says that he’s sorted a guy to install it for him, he replies: ‘If you think I’m gonna allow a sex predator into my house, you’ve got another thought coming’. So, Brad attempts to fit it himself with hilarious consequences… His brother’s wife has a tot in toe and is heavily pregnant with her second – so hormonal in fact that she asks Kate in a side-splittingly broad Southern American accent: ‘Would you like to flick my booby?’
   Next it’s on to Kate Mom’s Marilyn’s house (the ageless Mary Steenburgen). This segment is completely upstaged by ninety year-old Gram-Gram, who, when asked what she wants for Christmas replies: ‘I’d like to increase the frequency of what I can do to Grandpa with my hand and with my mouth…’
  Whilst Kate is frantically trying to retrieve a secret ‘magic-marker’ pregnancy-test (shock) from hyperactive toddlers inside of her worst fear (the dreaded jump-jump bouncy castle, Marilyn decides to reminisce over an old photo album. Brad discovers that Kate went to Fat Camp and was in fact: ‘Not a boy named Bjorn who was a twin that got jealous and ate the other baby in the womb’. Talking of babies, Brad has a terrible aversion to projectile-vomiting – ‘I wanna do it too!’.
  Then we meet Carrie’s Sissy Spacek, who plays Brad’s kind-hearted Mom Paula, whom Duvall earlier refers to as: ‘A common street whore’ due to the fact that she ran off with Brad’s best friend from school. Brad’s only feelings towards him are: ‘Now you’re sleeping with my Mom and it’s a little bit weird for me’. During the electronic version of charades, as well as being far to eager with the bleeper, Paula lets Kate in on the rather embarrassing fact that Brad: ‘Breast fed until he was five’.
   These are only a few examples of the one-liners featured in the belly-laugh inevitable, razor-sharp screenplay.
  The chemistry between the two leads is pure Christmas magic as they just bounce off each other with immaculately confrontational comic-timing, similar to Ben Affleck and Christina Applegate in 2004’s Surviving Christmas. Surprising, both festive favourites received a distinctly frosty reception from the critics. This hilarious, pitch-perfect comic caper obviously didn’t warm their cold hearts, but certainly raised mine to near boiling-point with its festive cheer. Never before have I laughed so much in a cinema, definitely not the Christmas turkey most people say it is, but rather a comforting and delicious Christmas pudding!

  Rating:****
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