Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sing Street

"Rock and Roll is a risk ... you risk being ridiculed."

Coming of age films hold a special place in my heart. Through no purposeful intent whenever I think back to some of the films that are closest to my heart I think of classics like ‘Dazed and Confused’, ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Almost Famous’. Another interesting thing they have in common is that they are all period pieces, transporting the viewer to a specific place in time through emotional power. ‘Sing Street’ follows a similar, wonderful pattern.

Dublin, 1985. Conor ‘Cosmo’ Lalor (Ferdia Walsh Peelo) and his friends assemble a band in order to catch the attention of a girl called Raphina (Lucy Boynton).

Out of all the comparisons I made earlier the one to ‘Almost Famous’ may be the one that holds the most resonance. Like Cameron Crowe’s own coming of age masterpiece ‘Sing Street’ and its director/writer John Carney’s film uses music as a means to revive memories of specific times in one’s life, evoke forgotten emotions, hopes, dreams, aspirations and the wide eyed excitement that is youth. Throughout the 20th century Ireland was seen as a turbulent and troubled location (depicted most recently in other excellent films like ‘71’) but here the streets of Dublin are used as a backdrop for a world where anything is possible and everything is probable.

Despite the fact that on the surface ‘Sing Street’ sounds like a fairly standard story but Carney’s script is able to avoid any obvious and glaring clichés, and even if it relies primarily on the most conventional of storytelling methods it is executed with such humour and heart that one will find it hard not to beam for the entirety of the movie. It just has a beautiful and undeniable charm in its small details like wearing makeup despite being a boy or the fact that the characters have started a band without even knowing how to play an instrument. There is also a great amount of dark comedy peppered throughout that gives the film a slight edge and distinct style.
Carney’s direction is also superb in its own subtle way. He is one of the few people working today who fully understands and appreciates the cinematic power of music both as a narrative device, tonal establisher and emotional drive. Not only that but is occupies what was once referred to as Kitchen Sink realism within British cinema, as part of the British New Wave. That emerged during the early 1960s. It depicts troubled home lives and rough neighbourhoods and for that reason when the allure and glamour of music and the rock and roll lifestyle is shown to us it acts as an even sweeter and more enticing escape. Here music is not just a pastime it is an escape to better places both literally and metaphorically.

But a quick and poignant lesson within the film is that dreams rarely line up with reality. Not to say the film is depressing as it is in fact wonderfully uplifting, but those uplifting moments are earned not through cheap gimmicks but by showing the hardships each character has to navigate on a daily basis just to live their lives, let alone achieve their far reaching dreams. The central plot of the film also runs beautifully with the development of the characters. As the band attempts to find its own style and identity so do the teenagers that assemble it, they are young and indecisive, still struggling to decide what they want to be in life.

At the end of the day the best way to describe it is as a beautiful balancing act of both tone and character. The film is never exclusively a comedy nor exclusively a drama, and when the music does arrive it is never just a form of escapism as it drives the characters and the narrative forward in wondrous new directions. This is also helped by the superb cast, many of which are in their first major roles. Walsh Peelo is almost infuriatingly good considering this is his debut, fully conveying expressions of doubt, fear, hope and desire throughout. The supporting cast are able to display a great variation of distinct identities each with their own eccentricities. At the same time it’s easy to see them as a working group, having enough in common to identify with one another but being unique enough to stand out from the crows, even this very eccentric one.

‘Sing Street’ is a wonderful crowd pleaser, as humorous as it is heartfelt.

Result: 8/10   

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Star Trek Beyond

"My dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it, I joined on a dare."

I said a while ago that with 2016 being the 50th anniversary of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise ‘Star Trek Beyond’ needed to be to its own franchise what ‘Skyfall’ was to James Bond. The trailers sank those expectations and Justin Lin’s name plastered over them for a while we were all fearful that this was simply a realisation of ‘Fast and Furious’ in space. But having seen the finished product I am delighted to report that ‘Star Trek Beyond’ is absolutely fantastic.

Three years into its five year voyage the U.S.S Enterprise is suddenly and violently ripped apart by a mysterious swarm led by the ruthless warlord Krall (Idris Elba), leaving the crew stranded on a wasteland planet under his jurisdiction. Now Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock, (Zachary Quinto) McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Chekov (Anthon Yelchin), Sulu (John Cho) and the rest of the crew must reunite to prevent the tyrant destroying the Federation.

It is nice when a movie surprises you. Not in its narrative but in terms of its quality and entertainment value because ‘Star Trek Beyond’ is a complete blast from start to finish. Not only is it possibly the best blockbuster we’ve seen this summer season (which admittedly isn’t difficult right now) but it is also a very worthy entry into the franchise, standing as one of the best in the series’ history. It is to the reboot cast what ‘Wrath of Kahn’ and ‘First Contact’ were to their respective casts, a glorious summation of everything we love about ‘Star Trek’ from the awe inspiring visions of the future, the great character dynamics and brilliant action set pieces.

In an era where so many blockbusters serve to be part of a collective franchise it is wonderfully refreshing to see one that stands on its own so well. Everything that takes place within ‘Star Trek Beyond’ is established within the parameters of its own runtime and fully realised by the time the credits roll. There are a few nods and references to previous instalments but frankly I can’t imagine anyone being lost when it comes to establishing where the characters are and why they are motivated to act the way they do.

As well as starring in the movie Simon Pegg is of course lending his talents to the script and he has done a fantastic job here. His script is able to amalgamate several aspects of previous Trek entries and a fulfilment of that huge, adventurous, imaginative, action packed, intelligent, unified, intergalactic, optimistic and wondrous promise that the series has always offered. It harkens back to the original series more than the previous movies of the franchise and it’s all the better for it. Whereas the movies (for better or worse) were always portraying the aftermath of their respective TV  Series (be it Original or Next Generation) ‘Star Trek Beyond’ is the first film to genuinely feel like a feature length, large scale version of an episode of the original Star Trek series.

Even on an aesthetic level it manages to convey that atmosphere. From the colour palette to the set design everything just has the texture and look of ‘Star Trek’. Another great aspect of Pegg’s script is how he plays with the character dynamics and for the first time in a very long time, has crafted a ‘Star Trek’ movie that has a real ensemble feel to it. Everyone has a meaningful role and are able to stretch their characters to new realms. The only downside is that as far as the overall narrative goes this is very much back to basics, but it seems to be a necessary step back to accommodate the themes and characters so it is easily forgivable.

All of this is executed perfectly by Justin Lyn’s directing. From behind the camera you can tell there is a deep rooted passion for this franchise and a desire to nail it on both a tonal and atmospheric level. Not only that by as Lyn proved with his ‘Fast and Furious’ entries he has a gift for using big action set pieces as a backdrop for character interaction and development. He brings that gift to the forefront here and the result is a vibrant and extremely entertaining science fiction blockbuster that is driven mainly by its characters.

The cast are all excellent, with Sofia Boutella being a welcome addition and despite being unrecognisable under layers of heavy prosthetic make up Idris Elba is an intimidating and meaningful antagonist. The returning players like Pine, Quinto, Saldana, Cho, Urban and of course Yelchin are also superb once again. The film is dedicated to his memory as well as that of Leonard Nimoy and while it is bittersweet to be reminded of his Spock’s passing it is outright tragic for Yelchin, not least because this is the last time this brilliant ensemble will be together especially when they have finally been given a film worthy of their collective talent. But nonetheless it’s a great way to end a career tragically cut short.

‘Beyond’ is a great reminder of why we love ‘Star Trek’.

Result: 8/10

Friday, 15 July 2016

Star Trek: The Franchise So Far....

‘Star Trek Beyond’ is hitting theatres soon-ish and of course it’s a momentous occasion for ‘Star Trek’ as 2016 marks the franchise’s 50th anniversary. Now I hope you know how this goes because there are so many movies in this franchise that I have to skip the obligatory intro and go straight into the reviews, all twelve of them. Ready…..go.

By 1979 it had been a decade since ‘Star Trek’ had been cancelled but with a growing desire for more science fiction franchises (for which you can thank 1977’s ‘Star Wars’) as well as its growing popularity of the series it was revived for a feature length film. The original cast were all returning to their roles, series creator Gene Roddenberry was returning to helm the project and it would be directed by two time Academy Award winning director Robert Wise and….it was a complete and utter disaster. Well maybe not on a financial level, in fact until ‘The Voyage Home’ this was the highest grossing of all the Trek films. But in terms of quality the film lacks any kind of structure or pacing. Which is odd because initially it seems to wield a strong narrative thrust but the premise soon wears thin and although it juggles some interesting and occasionally provocative ideas none of the characters undergo any development and are consistently overshadowed by the special effects. There are more effects shots in ‘The Motion Picture’ than there were in ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ but unlike those films the effects have no kinetic thrust or active role, we just get a steadily moving effect, a bland reaction and repeat for 132 minutes and believe me, it really feels it. You could liken the effects to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ but without the poetic symmetry or Stanley Kubrick’s direction and the existential awe of the ideas it is carrying. Ultimately a slow and boring film that’s overshadowed by every other science fiction movie of its era.

But it’s alright because we move straight into ‘The Wrath of Khan’, often regarded as the finest of all the Trek movies, and it is difficult to argue. This time Roddenberry was forced out of the creative process and it does show because in many ways this makes up for all of the mistakes made by ‘The Motion Picture’. Firstly the film definitely packs a punch with its pacing, setting up the stakes and drawing out a personal connection for every character to the situation. Having Kirk and the crew personally involved with their nemeses (who is a physical person this time and not some weird space cloud) creates a sense of enthrallment within both the action and the development of the characters. We get both of those aspects in plenitude as well, both on a personal level with Kirk’s son and Spock’s moving sacrifice to the intensity of the battle and the nice twist of it being a duel of wits between Kirk and Khan, each manoeuvring to try and gain the upper hand. Maybe the duel in question becomes repetitive occasionally and no offense to William Shatner but he noticeably struggles to sustain a dramatic performance of this level. It may relegate the rest of the crew but by focussing on that trinity of Kirk, Spock and Bones it evokes the true spirit of ‘Star Trek’ and what it represented. Throw in that thrilling score by the late, great James Horner and you have a real science fiction classic, which is hard to do when your movie comes out the same month as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘E.T’, and ‘The Thing’ (best month in the history of anything ever).

Onto ‘The Search for Spock’ and while being one of the odd numbered ‘Star Trek’ films it is often associated with being inferior when in my opinion, it’s rather good. Granted it lacks the thrilling action of its predecessor and the humour of its successor but I always like to think of it as a decent blending of the two. Granted that makes it somewhat uneven in tone, pacing and character but there is still some decent emotional weight to the film like the destruction of the Enterprise, the death of Kirk’s son and that wonderful moment in which the resurrected Spock first recognises his old friend with the words “Jim…your name is Jim”. The only issue is that none of these moments feel as heavy as they should be, granted they do have some significant weight behind them but I can’t help but think that various factors and emotional arcs were pushed aside in favour of moving the already crowded narrative forward.   

I’ve always been somewhat conflicted over ‘The Voyage Home’, while I understand that the filmmakers were aiming for a more comedic tone and it was the intention of director and star Leonard Nimoy to go that route it sometimes feels like an odd match. Whereas the previous two films had done a commendable job at establishing a tone that harkened back to the true spirit of ‘Star Trek’ this one deviates almost disconcertingly. Then you have the strong environmental message and while putting such a theme in a blockbuster is certainly a good thing, it is not exactly what you call subtle, with the crew travelling back in time to save the whales (I guess if the charities fail than we can rest easy that Spock and the gang will be on their way any day now). With a contrived romantic sub plot as well it feels less like a science fiction film and more like a fish out of water romantic comedy. But audiences ate it up and ‘The Voyage Home’ became the highest grossing film of the franchise.

Its success meant that production was rushed forward with the next instalment and in no way does that come across at all apart from in every conceivable way. Hey, if Nimoy can write and direct one why can’t Shatner? ‘The Final Frontier’ is a laughably bad film, from the acting to the narrative and even the usually strong visual effects are all absolutely terrible. In the usual logical and rational franchise the plot revolves around a literal search for God. Now to be fair that premise could have potential if handled in the correct way but it’s so lacking in any cohesive structure and almost incomprehensible. The attempts at comedy are almost as painful as the rare attempts at action and there are so many plot holes that it isn’t even worth mentioning, you just have to accept them as they go.

Luckily though the original cast got to end on the high note that was ‘The Undiscovered Country’. It balances the humour and the action much better than its predecessor and is also able to tread in territory we’ve never thoroughly touched upon before. To see Kirk confronted with his own prejudices and reluctance to accept peace with a lifelong enemy is an intriguing one and provides some substantial emotional weight. In general the film’s production design and visual effects are back to their former glory as well and Christopher Plummer is on hand as one of the franchise’s strongest villains. Again it’s far from perfect with tonal consistency being a continuous problem and the cast themselves are mixed to average, with their age really starting to show at this point. But nonetheless it’s a dignified and subtly poignant way to wave goodbye to the complete original crew one final time.

I say complete because Shatner is immediately back for ‘Star Trek Generations’. With the original cast now gone a new series of movies were established to tie into the revamped Trek TV series ‘The Next Generation’ (which is better than the original, come at me internet). However that is not reflected in the new crew’s first film. Despite having homed the characters on TV for a good few years now the film was an unbalanced, unfocussed, nonsensical and sadly unsatisfactory entry. There are also so many strange subplots that go nowhere like Mr Data’s emotion chip and it deviates too often from the plot with trips to the holodeck and hanging out with Kirk in the nexus. None of it adds to the character development, plot or themes. I felt as if I had to remind myself of the main plot every ten minutes. Also I’m sorry, but Captain Kirk cannot die by falling off a bridge, I refuse to accept that is how an icon of science fiction dies and his final words are not “Oh my”, that’s wrong original cast member.

But it’s okay because we now reach ‘First Contact’, widely regarded as the best ‘Next Generation’ film and my personal favourite of all the Trek films (I know it’s not subjectively the best, but it’s my favourite so what can you do). I love how it feels genuinely cinematic for the first time in a while for the franchise, I love how it takes what we already know about each character from the series and manages to expand upon it one way or another. True, some get more attention than others but everyone feels as if they have at least one moment in which to shine. The cast themselves are utilized to their best potential here as well, with Patrick Stewart finally looking as if he gets to stretch his acting muscles aboard the Enterprise. By taking the story back to mankind’s first contact with alien life it reconnects with the human ambition and imagination that led to the creation of ‘Star Trek’ in the first place. The action genuinely feels enthralling and exhilarating as well as inventive, making good use of the improved special effects as well as their excellently realised practical sets. As well as that the Borg prove to be just as menacing and as intimidating as they were on the show. No it still isn’t perfect but in my nostalgic mind it is.  

Sadly, like the cruellest of addictions the high didn’t last long. We were back on that confused and tedious track with ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’. Far from the cinematic feel of ‘First Contact’ this instalment feels drastically scaled down which is remarkable with Jonathon Frakes returning to direct this one. Though to his credit he gives the film a slick and polished feel despite its shortcomings. But then again maybe that is what kills it, as instead of having any particular flair or style to compensate for the lack of development and painfully slow pacing. On top of that the film just has a general sense of being bland, from the action scenes to the visual effects and even the pseudo philosophical jargon. It is difficult to even find anything to write about due to how little it accomplishes, it’s not bad enough to marvel at but also not good enough to appreciate.

Sadly unlike the original crew ‘The Next Generation’ could not end on a high note. To be fair I would say this instalment is more entertaining and inventive than ‘Insurrection’ it fails to tread any new ground and hardly advances the ‘Star Trek’ mythology in any way. Not only that but we are not discovering new about any of the characters or introducing any new concepts. It is hard to watch ‘Nemesis’ and not feel as if the franchise has run out of steam. Also I don’t care if B-4 is supposed to be a clone or a digital copy or a brother or whatever relation to Mr Data, killing Mr Data and leaving B-4 to take his place is not how you end the movie. The original series had the cast united around a stirring speech from Kirk, The Next Generation had someone that looks like but isn’t Mr Data singing Blue Skies. Still, nice early role for Tom Hardy.

So with all the series cancelled and the movies long gone it appeared ‘Star Trek’ had reached its end. But along came JJ Abrams to bring new life into the franchise and he did just that fantastically. Like the best ‘Star Trek’ films it has a seamless blend of humour, action and development and while there is a noticeable push towards a more action oriented interpretation this is by no means a dumbing down of the franchise. It still retains that intellectualism and big thinking ideas the fuelled ‘Star Trek’ for so any years. On a technical level the film is superb, from the visuals to the sound editing and production design. The new cast may be the films strongest aspect, with each new addition being a unique interpretation of the characters we loved but also one that remains reminiscent to the core values of said characters. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho and of course the late, great Anthon Yelchin are all on hand to lift the film beyond your standard summer blockbuster. Having Nimoy return (as well as some inventive narrative choices) gives the reboot a real connection to the original series that maintains a grasp on the world we have spent so many years growing to love but simultaneously opening up a world of possibilities.

That only makes it more baffling why they felt the need to remake ‘Wrath of Khan’ for the next instalment. Technically this film is also well made with Abrams direction being just as superb as well as all of the other aesthetic elements being consistent to the previous film and excellently made. However I still don’t know why this newly established timeline felt the need to revert back to a storyline we have all already seen. At the very least they could have made it more ambiguous as to how one film influenced the other, I know we have a new incarnation of the character but does he really have to announce “My name is Khan”? A twist like that only alienates everyone, old fans are outraged that they have revised the series’ most iconic storyline and new fans are confused as to why the name is significant. It’s also a shame because along with the rest of the cast who do are still just as brilliant as their previous outing, Benedict Cumberbatch’s colder antagonist is played very convincingly and menacingly. When he says “Because I am better” you really believe him. I also quite enjoyed the role reversal between Kirk and Spock as it felt natural to where their character arcs were going, Kirk needing to accept the consequences of his own confidence, making the personal sacrifice for his ship and Spock realising the value of his emotional connection to others. Sadly the third act around them is so jumbled that any potential weight is minimal (though still present). I found the first two acts both riveting, well made and tonally consistent (something that many Trek films seem to struggle with). So while it’s undoubtedly a flawed film I can still find a lot of enjoyment from it.

That’s it, I made it through all twelve ‘Star Trek’ films. It’s been quite a voyage, one of great highs and terrible lows. With ‘Star Trek Beyond’ getting a positive buzz here’s hoping it can take the franchise to new heights and honour its 50th anniversary. Can it boldly go where no one has gone before?

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

"We have devoted our whole lives to studying the paranormal, now there's sightings all over the city."

So, the film that you are either a deranged feminist if you like or a sexist pig if you hate. This is the movie every critic dreams of writing a review for. So with the most disliked movie trailer in YouTube history as well as any video or article that even dares to say “Maybe it won’t be that bad” earning the maker of said video of article death threats, hate comments and an all-round bad day there is obviously no pressure of any kind when writing a review of ‘Ghostbusters’. Here goes nothing.

A group of scientists intent upon investigating and combating various supernatural entities that are haunting New York City set up an institution to put their theories into practice. Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones band together to become the Ghostbusters.

I can immediately say that ‘Ghostbusters’ is not worthy of the mass hate heading it’s way, but before you leave I also have to say that such a statement does not mean I think it is an exceptional movie. I find it hard to believe that in an era where we are seeing terrible remakes/reboots of ‘Total Recall’, ‘Robocop’, ‘Clash of the Titans’, ‘Terminator’, ‘Red Dawn’, ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, ‘Halloween’, ‘Oldboy’ ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, ‘Transformers’ and ‘Ben Hur’ (yeah remember that, they’re remaking ‘Ben Hur’ later this year) that ‘Ghostbusters’ is the one that everyone thinks is ruining a classic movie (they’ve already remade ‘Psycho’ with Vince Vaughn as the lead, what could be worse than that?).

Even though I love the first ‘Ghostbusters’ I despise the sequel, so I like to think I’m not so blinded by nostalgia for the original cast that I could not go into this one with an open mind. At the end of the day I think this effort sits neatly in between the two, it is nowhere near as great as the original but it is an improvement on ‘Ghostbusters 2’. The best way to describe it is that it’s just another Paul Feig movie, an enjoyable summer comedy that you probably won’t remember by the time his next effort rolls out in 2017.

In many ways the biggest detriment to this reboot of ‘Ghostbusters’ is the fact that it is called ‘Ghostbusters’. It invites comparison to the original and however hard it tries it can’t live up to it. This film doesn’t improve upon the original, nor does it further the concept and nor does it look at the concept from a new perspective. The sad truth is that it has no real reason to exist. Not only that but it fails to hit the same comedic heights as the original, instead of the seamless blend of cynicism, dry faced wit, hilarious banter, physical comedy and straight up silliness of the original we are treated to the usual Feig style of comedy. Again that is not necessarily bad, it’s the same vein as ‘Spy’ or ‘Bridesmaids’ just more tailored towards families. Frankly I’m sure families would enjoy this movie and if it inspires any younger viewers to visit the original then that would be even better.

On a technical level the film is very well made, the sound design, production design and action sequences are all competently constructed. The only thing that worries me are the ghosts themselves who simply look too cartoonish to be menacing or comedic, they don’t look properly integrated with the actors around them and whether it be the composition or the texture but something just seems off, meaning that there automatically feels as if there is a disconnect between the real world and the CGI creations that consistently took me out of the movie.

The four Ghostbusters themselves are serviceable. They lack the finesse and gleeful chemistry of the original foursome but are definitely worth a laugh or two. Wiig, Jones and McCarthy are all fine in their roles, however McKinnon’s character suffered from a few inconsistencies that were too distracting to overlook. I blame that more on the writing than her performance though. However even putting that aside all four women have done better work elsewhere, not to say they are bad here but they don’t quite fulfil their comedic potential in my opinion.

Chris Hemsworth is a great addition at first. His character is fuelled by a one note joke and while it risks wearing thin from a narrative standpoint it is consistently funny. However his character alludes to something that becomes more apparent as the film progresses, namely this. I couldn’t help but notice that every male character in this film is either an idiot, an asshole or a coward. Now I’m sure male centric films have portrayed women in worse ways but I’d criticise it there if I saw it fit so I feel obliged to do the same here. It is not a massive problem nor is it something I would condemn them for but I would have preferred some more variety in the kinds of characters being portrayed as well as bit of depth to them and that goes for both male and female characters.

Not nearly as entertaining as the inevitable internet fall out is will cause.

Result: 5/10

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Purge: Election Year

"We're being hunted, we're on our own."

‘The Purge’ Trilogy stands as potentially the worst whole trilogy in the history of cinema. I know that sounds flippant right off the bat but I have to get it out of the way now because the fact that the first and equally terrible 2013 film ‘The Purge’ spawned two sequels that instead of advancing the movies central theme or doing anything mildly interesting with it (like explaining how the hell it is even supposed to work) chose to pander to the same, uninspired audience base that it inexplicably tapped into with the first one.

Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), an up and coming Senator who is campaigning to bring an end to the annual purge (finally someone with common sense) is placed under the protection of Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) who must fend off attacks from pro-purge supporters as crime is once again made legal for one night only.

Okay, first order of business, crime is mainly motivated by personal gain. It is not something committed by millions of people just for the hell of it, or just because they “want to watch the world burn”. Secondly and more importantly, who can even relate to this movie? The premise is so outlandishly impossible and would so obvious never happen but the film itself keeps trying to present itself as a cautionary tale and we should not allow laws like this to happen because apparently we are all too stupid to realise this is a bad idea.

That being said, if America ever does adopt a Purge-like law, it will be films like ‘Election Year’ that have sent it there (well either that or Donald Trump as president). It feels as if it’s almost relishing in each murder that is on screen not just for the bad guys but for the innocent bystanders, the heroes and anyone on the different side of the political argument. It goads audiences into cheering for its own moral decay and that’s not to say that other films have focussed specifically on reprehensible characters but even they seem to have a more objective view or proceedings than ‘The Purge: Election Year’.

I honestly feel like this movie’s ideal audience would have cheered even if the female senator was gunned down at the end (spoiler, for which you should thank me). I mean I usually try to keep politics out of reviews but with so many recent tragedies involving violence not to mention to current political turmoil being felt across the world it is hard to draw your attention away from it. It’s made even harder due to the sloppy and shallow attempts to make the film feel politically relevant.

Does that make it challenging? Not in the slightest with its shoehorned political message, terrible dialogue and characters that are either poorly written or suffering from schizophrenia, then again these are the same characters who turn out in droves to murder people as soon as they get the go ahead so that is also a possibility. The violence is never raw or visceral but actually somewhat tame and crowd pleasing with its shaky cam, hand held digital camera approach to filming it. It’s almost as if they knew the real implications of this idea would turn their own audiences off the film so they watered it down to an idealised yet wildly inconsistent world.

The inconsistency doesn’t stop there, the senator who is being targeted will protest the purge itself but doesn’t seem as bothered when Frank Grillo comes to the rescue by gunning down her attackers, after all the purge itself is what lets them get away with those murders so should she not be at least a bit upset? It’s fine to murder people as long as you’re the hero. Again ‘Election Year’ is not the only film to do this but what stops James Bond and Indiana Jones falling into this dilemma is that they don’t have any clumsily placed political agenda within their films, nor are they as wildly inconsistent when it comes to dealing with each character.

Having social commentary is a bold move to take with a summer blockbuster. However it is somewhat undermined when the film uses a characters race as a cheap punchline, when they feature dialogue and performances so cringe worthy that you wonder what cheap porn set they were lifted from and villains that are evil on such a cartoonish level I was half expecting the Saturday morning commercials to pop up and tell me what was coming up next.  

There is nothing emotionally involving, nothing intellectually challenging and nothing cathartically thrilling to be found here.

Result: 2/10

Sunday, 10 July 2016


"I hears your lonely heart and all the secret whisperings of the world."

So it looks as if Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story is going to be the directors first major box office bomb since ‘Empire of the Sun’ in 1987 which is a starling revelation. The words box office bomb and Steven Spielberg are not words that have a lot in common and it is somewhat baffling, because while this is by no means a great Spielberg film it is far from the worst of the director’s extensive filmography.

An orphan girl named Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) befriends a benevolent giant known as the BFG (Big Friendly Giant, which is kind of weird because giant and big are essentially synonyms, so in actuality the title is Giant Friendly Giant, but then again this is Dhal, moving on) played by Mark Rylance who takes her to giant country where they attempt to stop man eating giants that are invading the human world.

Filmmakers have always found it difficult to capture the magic of Roald Dhal on the big screen, the wonder of his writing comes mainly through his beautiful use of language and alliteration, his various writing techniques, the rhythm and rhyme with which he describes the world and the nature in which each character speaks as well as the sheer eccentricity of it all. His play on words is ever present and wonderful to behold, unfolding almost as a miniature riddle (a personal favourite being from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ with “The square sweets that look round”).

But that’s enough hero worship, my point it Dahl’s sensibilities are difficult to recreate as a visual medium for this very reason. Try as he might I fear Spielberg has also fallen short of the mark when it comes to replicating it, there is an undeniable charm to ‘The BFG’ that’s assisted by some truly amazing CGI work and some wonderfully hilarious moments that would have anyone laughing out loud. Never let it be said that Spielberg can’t make a fart joke work.

That being said Spielberg seems to be so good at crafting excellent family entertainment that even his lesser efforts are very commendable. He retains that brilliant ability to invoke awe from any audience member regardless of their age, we feel the size and scale of the world around them as well as the sheer wonder of how fanciful these varying elements are. This is also assisted by some truly incredible motion capture work and a terrific performance from Mark Rylance as the titular character (I'm glad that he’ll be teaming up with Spielberg a third time for their next project ‘Ready Player One’). There is a gentle nature to his performance but also one of intimacy that focusses on pure emotion.

This attitude is matched by Spielberg’s direction that has an appreciation for the little things in life, a theme that works perfectly in a setting like giant country. The film is one of dreams and meaning, worlds beyond ours and acceptance from others. It is quite thin on plot but I feel as if that only brings forward the brilliant characters and being a fan of the original book to this day I can tell you that the film is an accurate adaptation. However at times the film does struggle to compensate for that lack of plot, Dahl did so through those brilliant writing techniques I described earlier, but Spielberg cannot simply put written words on the screen for half an hour until the action picks up again. He has to represent that sense of wonder visually and it doesn’t always work, becoming dull or repetitive at times.

Then again this is a children’s film, there is no doubt about that. Of course I don’t say that in an insulting manner, after all ‘E.T’ is a children’s film. However whereas ‘E.T’ was able to transcend any categorisation with its universal themes and messages ‘The BFG’ struggles to do the same. I would like to think that adults could find some appeal in the film as it moves along and for the most part it avoids drifting into a sense of boredom by evoking a childlike sense of wonder, but as ‘The BFG’ struggles to sustain that feeling it also struggles to keep me invigorated for the entirety of its runtime. A substantial amount of that childlike wonder is also brought forward by Ruby Barnhill whose performance is one of the best child performances of any Spielberg film. There’s also another beautiful score by John Williams (would you expect anything less from the man).

In many ways ‘The BFG’ is this generation’s ‘Hook’, by no means the best Spielberg film but so full of charm and merriment that it is likely to be adored by both children and parents.

An imperfect but charming and wondrous entry from Spielberg.

Result: 6/10

Friday, 8 July 2016

The Legend of Tarzan

"You may not like who you were, you may have enemies there, but you need to go home."

Since the first Tarzan movie was made 98 years ago there have been 52 other incarnations of the character. That must be disheartening for anyone attempting to create a definitive version becauase clearly 53 versions have come and gone and none of them have been successful enough to warrant a gap of more than two years between the story being reimagined or reinvented for the silver screen yet again. So is there anything that David Yates can bring to the story that the other 53 haven’t?

Since his days of swinging around on vines in the jungle, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) has since become civilised, living within the human world with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). However he is drawn back to the jungle when a scheme by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) forces him to reconnect with his primal instincts to save the jungle.

So as I said, when making a new Tarzan film you have to be sure that there is something worth making here, something new to show people, a new side of the myth to bring to life, a radically different interpretation or something even more inventive. ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ doesn’t really do any of those things. Instead what we get is a very conventional if not competently constructed recital of everything we associate with the character, again.

The titular ape man himself is handled fairly well be Skarsgard. There is some variation in his development and progression with this film compared to others, as where Tarzan is usually centred on discovering his own humanity this one is more focussed on reconnecting with his animalistic temperament. The 6.4 foot actor has no trouble embodying the physicality of Tarzan, when he swings through vines and climbs trees I believe in it, but it’s not as if he is treading any unexplored territory here and nor do we really have any emotional depth to this incarnation. Normally one could accept these kind of flaws or at the very least be slightly more lenient, but like I said we have had 53 versions of this story, maybe there simply is not room for anything new at this point.

In fact the rest of the cast are on a very similar level to Skarsgard. Their performances are comfortably decent and far from awful, I also would never accuse them of acting in a half-hearted manner as everyone is making a concerted effort. But as I said before, nothing here is really new or surprising. Christoph Waltz is playing what feels like a watered down version of Hans Landa which is fine but it’s not nearly as menacing, charming or sadistic as that character. His character also lacks clear motivation and a significant amount of depth that could have made proceedings much more interesting.

Margot Robbie is her usual sexy and spirited self (she’s going to be so great as Harley Quinn) that ultimately falls into the classic damsel in distress role, even the movie itself points this out at one point but does nothing to rectify it. Samuel L Jackson is also highly entertaining in his usual way, by this point the best description of his character is that he is Samuel L Jackson. None of the characters really invoked any kind of connection or empathy from me, possibly because any potentially emotional moments that might actually provide some much needed weight and development to the film are brushed over in favour of its grander thematic ambitions.

‘The Legend of Tarzan’ juggles some heavy concepts and questions in its narrative like when does exploration become exploitation? What is man’s place in nature? Are trousers more practical than loincloths? However sometimes its own grandeur prevents it from establishing a real connection with its own characters. And with multiple sub plots around the destruction of nature, slave trades and a revenge plot only for the whole thing to degenerate into a race to save Jane it can feel needlessly complicated.

Furthermore when John Favreau brought a jungle to life earlier this year with the power of digital animation it looked absolutely spectacular, fully realised and almost indistinguishable from the one physical actor in the film. Yates’ attempt isn’t nearly as polished or as impressive, it just goes to show how Favreau upped the ante for everyone in this department. However that being said, ‘The Legend of Tarzan’ is watchable and decent summer entertainment. Just don’t expect this version of Tarzan to be the one that defines the character in the silver screen, chances are high that in two years’ time we’ll be looking forward to another one.

A light-hearted and enjoyable but somewhat empty adventure.

Result: 5/10

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Shallows

"I am not dying here."

The scale of shark movies is a skewed one. At one end you have ‘Jaws’, Steven Spielberg’s thrilling masterpiece that still stands as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Then on the other side you have everything else. From ‘Deep Blue Sea’ to ‘Sharknado’ they do vary in their awfulness but let’s face it, nothing beats ‘Jaws’ and after watching ‘The Shallows’ I’m only further convinced that nothing ever will.

A young surfer (Blake Lively) becomes stranded in the shallows on a rock and is injured by a great white shark in the process. She’s 200 yards away from the shore and could easily reach it by swimming however the shark’s persistent and formidable attacks force her to fight for her life against the monster.

At the very least ‘The Shallows’ is a sign that maybe Hollywood are finally ready to take shark movies seriously again. As opposed to the cheap, so bad they’re good, B-Movies that have come to define the genre (thank you for that Asylum productions, I guess you have to do something while you’re not ripping everyone else off) ‘The Shallows’ does not have any tongue in cheek, self-referential nods and nor does it reduce itself to being a guilty pleasure, it aims high. It aims to be taken as a claustrophobic and contained thriller, and does it work? Well……sort of, not really.

‘The Shallows’ is a simple and sometimes fun action flick that has its moments of tension and terror but it lacks any dramatic heft and cannot sustain those adrenaline fuelled moments for the entirety of the film, or even for a good portion of the film. In fact even though I derided other movies for doing this ‘The Shallows’ could have used a bit of humour because to be fair even ‘Jaws’ had its moments of humour and I know that it can be viewed as highly unfair to compare ‘The Shallows’ to ‘Jaws’ but as I said, it’s a skewed scale.

The problem is that ‘The Shallows’ seems to think it’s much more dramatic than it really is. It assumes its audience is so invested in the main character and her dilemma that we are riveted by flashbacks of her recent familial tragedies and while I appreciate the effort to try and flesh out the character most of it falls somewhat flat, descending into a mess of clichés and contrived emotional hooks. Not only that but I can’t help but wonder if it is somewhat unnecessary, after all we are being chased by a murderous oceanic predator, as Hooper put it “an eating machine”, do we really need any sappy cancer related back story to support that?

In all fairness though I probably would have been even less compelled towards the main character were it not for Blake Lively’s performance as she does a decent job of remaining in such a high state of terror as well as the more intimate emotional moments. But when I say she is decent I mean that she can carry the material in a decent manner and make it sound mostly believable, she brings a good physicality to the role but as for any genuine emotional weight then sadly we are left slightly unsatisfied.

Lively is also the only consistent thing within the film as both its plot, tone and pacing jump around repeatedly, unsure where to settle. As opposed to throwing you right into the action it starts off at a painfully slow pace, set against a rather disconcerting and somewhat comedic tone (with an even more bizarre choice of music for the soundtrack). Certain plot threads are hinted at only to be dropped and never referred to again and  the direction itself is far from the showcase a contained thriller like this should be for a talented director. Jaume Collet-Serra never thoroughly utilises the space around our main character and does not take full advantage of how to use it to create a heightened state of terror. Collet-Serra occasionally tries to display a sense of directorial flair by framing a shot at a weird angle or throwing in a slow motion shot but none of them really serve any purpose other than to remind you that the film even has a director. Moments of tension are only marked out by events within in the plot, never through the score, direction or performances.

Even the limited plot unfolds through clunky expositional dialogue and ham fisted flashbacks. What is even more insulting is just how forgettable it is. Not even in comparison to anything else, just as it is it’s a bland, uninspired and unmemorable film.

Jumbled yet also oddly uneventful.

Result: 4/10

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Swiss Army Man

"There's seven billion people in the world and you might be lucky enough to bump into the one person you want to spend the rest of your life with."

Otherwise known as ‘that farting corpse movie’, ‘Swiss Army Man’ is a film that will undoubtedly inspire a lot of discussion. From its premier at the Sundance Film Festival is prompted both walkouts and standing ovations. By the end of the festival it had taken home the coveted Directing Award for Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan who also wrote the film and are credited as simply ‘Daniels’. That credit alone should give you a small taste of what you are in for.

Stranded on a desert island a young man named Hank (Paul Dano) has his attempted suicide interrupted when a corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) is washed ashore. There is however something quite remarkable about this corpse, it can still talk.

‘Swiss Army Man’ is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Beyond all else it’s a gleeful example of what can happen when creative minds with no limitations, no boundaries and no perceived expectations are allowed to do exactly what they want. What The Daniels have created is an amalgamation of so many wondrous, bizarre and often poignant ideas that it is near impossible to summarise them in a written review. It can be seen simply as an exercise in eccentricity or a much deeper product that concerns itself with everything from the most mundane aspects of life to the broadest and most complex human emotions.

Indeed the heart of this film centres around a farting corpse but as The Daniels said in a recent interview “The first fart will make you laugh, the last one will make you cry”. I believe them, as the film is able to create a world of wonderful immaturity and existential beauty that I can’t help but be awe struck by it. The movie fluctuates in its emotional impact, levels of maturity and its tonal value yet still retains a brilliant sense of unison. Somehow with all these moving parts and varying aspects of imagination ‘Swiss Army Man’ is able to remain cohesive and structurally sound. That is partly due to how it is never trying to be anything else other than itself.

But that sense of unison is also due to the chemistry of its two leads that underpins the movie. The bond they form is one of intimacy, comedy and raw emotion that is established within their own little world that only they share. Both performances are fantastic but for very different reasons. Dano can not only project a great amount of emotional exposition either through his physical movements and discussions with the corpse but he is able to maintain a sense of sympathetic and unstable sensibilities throughout the course of the movie. It never makes you forget the more disturbing implications of hanging around with a talking corpse but nor does it let that shroud their unique friendship.

Radcliffe’s performance is of course a very different one but he is equally fantastic (if not even better) as the corpse nicknamed Manny. Firstly I think it’s brilliant that Radcliffe has chosen such an experimental and unique role off the back of his turn as the leading man of a mega franchise like ‘Harry Potter’. But secondly, I’m equally pleased at just how good he is here. There is a wonderful, flat curiosity to Manny as he tried to grasp how the world works, how human nature works and how the living work. But then there is the physicality of the role, with the subtlest of expressions and complete lack of independent movement that make his emotional turns even more infectious.

But the performances are only as strong as the script and the direction. The Daniels are able to use their striking and often surreal images and plot points with the emotion behind their script. Multiple scenes are highly stylised but as I have said before when your style works in perfect synchronicity with your substance then it can elevate it to unprecedented levels. The visuals are so innovative and stunning that it is hard to believe it was made for just $3 million.

What is even more incredible is that despite being so bizarre and dissimilar the everything else in cinemas before, now and until the end of time, is how ‘Swiss Army Man’ never feels pretentious or self-important. It is content to be what it is and as a result it can be as intelligent and as stupid as it wants to be, as poignant and as immature as it wishes, as stylised and as truthful as a movie can be. It is a movie that has such a brilliant clarity of vision behind it yet also leaves itself open to multiple interpretations, you take from it what you bring to it.

Love it or hate it, ‘Swiss Army Man’ is definitely unlike anything you have ever seen.

Result: 9/10