The long promised fourth entry in the Predator series is now a step nearer (after being delayed from its planned February 2018 opening). And what do we have in store come September? Well… alarm bells should be ringing like a campanologist’s convention at Notre-Dame Cathedral. A young boy just happens to receive – in the mail, no less – a beacon that attracts a Predator to Earth? Shane Black is a terrific writer, and there’s likely to be a perfectly plausible explanation for what appears to be one of the clumsiest set ups in sequel history, but right now, the jury has to be out. And the various action beats we can see don’t exactly augur well either. With most of said action apparently set in yet another small American township (that will be likely smashed and blown to smithereens in the process), this doesn’t look or feel as tense or as thrilling as the original. But who knows? This is meant to be a teaser trailer after all, and it does feature Boyd Holbrook (always a good thing), and it does bear witness to Black’s sardonic way with dialogue (or maybe co-writer Fred Dekker’s), so there may be more to the movie than meets the eye. Let’s hope so, because at a time when third sequels – let’s forget about those awful Alien/Predator movies – don’t elicit that much of a positive response, this could be one to buck the trend.
Original title: La decima vittima
D: Elio Petri / 89m
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Ursula Andress, Elsa Martinelli, Salvo Randone, Massimo Serato, Milo Quesada, Luce Bonifassy, George Wang
In the future, war has been eradicated thanks to The Big Hunt, a televised form of mass entertainment that involves people with violent tendencies taking it in turns to be Hunter or Hunted. The Hunter knows everything about their prey, while the Hunted has no idea who might be trying to kill them. There is a financial reward for the winner of each round, and if a contestant successfully despatches their tenth victim then they win a million dollars and can retire from the game. Caroline Meredith (Andress) is facing her tenth hunt; her intended victim is Marcello Poletti (Mastroianni), who has survived six hunts. With sponsorship allowing Caroline the chance to stage the grandest of all televised kills, she sets about luring Marcello to his death by pretending to be a journalist who wants to interview him about the sexual proclivities of Italian men. But Marcello becomes suspicious of her behaviour, and soon the pair are involved in an increasingly convoluted game of bluff and double-bluff, a game that will test the limits of the feelings they are starting to have for each other…
In many ways, Italian movies from the Sixties were startling creations, and unlike any others from around the world. Adapted from the short story, Seventh Victim (1953) by Robert Sheckley, The Tenth Victim fits neatly into that category, its tale of intrigue and romance bolstered by futuristic costume designs, a visual style that fuses images of old Rome with avant-garde projections of its future version, and a reckless approach to the narrative that serves the movie well for the most part, but which also undermines it completely at other times. It’s a sci-fi thriller with earnest romantic leanings that don’t quite gel into a convincing whole, but it’s also a movie that provides sights and sounds that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else (even in other, similar Italian movies of the period). Where else would you see a bra that fires bullets, or a mechanical toy animal that Marcello calls his only friend, or a seat that catapults an unlucky sitter into a nearby pool with a crocodile in it? Bizarre moments like these, where the script goes off on a creative tangent, help the movie overcome some of its more pedestrian passages, but there aren’t enough to overcome the feeling that the material is being stretched too thin in places, and to no obvious benefit.
That said, the game of bluff and double-bluff played out by Caroline and Marcello does have its moments, with each trying to manoeuvre the other into place so their kill can have the most impact. Andress is earnest and determined as Caroline, both in terms of her character’s growing love for Marcello, and her single-minded pursuit of the game’s ultimate prize. But while Andress – unexpectedly – proves to be very good indeed in her role, the same can’t be said of Mastroianni, who is let down by the script’s indecision in how to portray him. One minute he’s looking smug, the next he’s angry, the moment after that he’s as amorous as a typical Italian male… and so on. He’s not helped by Petri’s scattershot approach to directing, with the future director of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) unable to maintain a consistent pace or tone throughout. There are very definite highs in the movie, but there are also very damning lows, and it’s this inconsistency that stops the movie from being as carefree and as enjoyable as it could have been.
Rating: 7/10 – while there’s a lot going on visually – all of it captured by Gianni Di Venanzo’s exemplary cinematography – the story suffers somewhat, making The Tenth Victim both invigorating and disappointing at the same time; with the main storyline falling victim to a series of implausible built-in plot developments, the movie is as preposterous as many others of its kind from the Sixties, but thanks to a frothy sense of its own absurdity, overcomes many of its faults by sheer force of indomitable Italian will.
5 Headed Shark Attack, Action, Adventure, Airport, Al Capone, Alex Hannant, All the Money in the World, And Then Came Lola, Animation, Anthony Bushell, Archery, Ashleigh Sumner, Barack Obama, Biography, Bob Logan, Braven, Brian Keith, Cenobites, Charlie Bean, Chokeslam, Chris Bruno, Chris Marquette, Christopher Plummer, Comedy, Crime, Damon Carney, Dave Franco, David Bruckner, Deepika Kumari, Documentary, Drama, Dwayne Johnson, Ellen Seidler, Elsa Lanchester, Fantasy, Father/son relationships, Film noir, Foreign policy, Gangster Land, Garret Dillahunt, Gary J. Tunnicliffe, Ghosts, Greg Barker, Hellraiser: Judgment, Heritage Falls, High school reunion, Hiking trip, Horror, Hugh Grant, India, Jackie Chan, Jake Kasdan, Japan, Jason Momoa, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Kevin Hart, Kidnapping, Ladies First, LGBTQ+, Lilli Palmer, Lin Oeding, Logan Huffman, Luke Rivett, Matt Jones, Megan Siler, Michael Barrett, Michelle Williams, Monster, Murder, Nico De Leon, Oasis, Paddington 2, Passport to Destiny, Paul Fisher, Paul King, Puerto Rico, Rafe Spall, Ray McCarey, Ready Player One, Reginald Beck, Relationships, Reviews, Rex Harrison, Ridley Scott, Robert Cuffley, Sci-fi, Sean Faris, Sequel, Shea Sizemore, Something Real and Good, Steven Spielberg, Sweden, SyFy, The Forest, The LEGO Ninjago Movie, The Long Dark Hall, The Ritual, Thriller, Timothy Woodward Jr, Tye Sheridan, Uraaz Bahi, Video game, Virtual reality, World War II, Wrestling
The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) / D: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan / 101m
Cast: Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Peña, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Olivia Munn
Rating: 6/10 – when you’re the despised son (Franco) of an evil warlord (Theroux), there’s only one thing you can do: vow to defeat him with the aid of your ninja friends; after a superhero mash-up and a solo Batman outing, The LEGO Ninjago Movie brings us ninjas, but in the process forgets to provide viewers with much in the way of story, though the visual innovation is still there, as is (mostly) the humour, making this something that is only just more of a hit than a miss.
Braven (2018) / D: Lin Oeding / 94m
Cast: Jason Momoa, Garret Dillahunt, Stephen Lang, Jill Wagner, Zahn McClarnon, Brendan Fletcher, Sala Baker, Teach Grant, Sasha Rossof
Rating: 4/10 – a trip for Joe Braven (Momoa) and his father (Lang) to their family cabin located in the Canadian wilderness sees them fighting for their lives when drug runners come to claim a shipment that has been hidden in the cabin; an unsophisticated action thriller, Braven has an earnestness to it that sees it through some of its more absurdist moments, but its Nineties vibe works against it too often for comfort, and despite the occasional effort, Dillahunt remains an unconvincing villain.
Passport to Destiny (1944) / D: Ray McCarey / 61m
Cast: Elsa Lanchester, Gordon Oliver, Lenore Aubert, Lionel Royce, Fritz Feld, Joseph Vitale, Gavin Muir, Lloyd Corrigan
Rating: 6/10 – in World War II, a cleaning woman, Ella Muggins (Lanchester), who believes herself to be protected from harm thanks to a magical glass eye, determines to travel to Berlin and kill Hitler; a whimsical comic fantasy that somehow manages to have its heroine save a German officer (Oliver) and his girlfriend, Passport to Destiny is an uneven yet enjoyable product of its time, with a terrific central performance by Lanchester, and a winning sense of its own absurdity.
Hellraiser: Judgment (2018) / D: Gary J. Tunnicliffe / 81m
Cast: Damon Carney, Randy Wayne, Alexandra Harris, Paul T. Taylor, Gary J. Tunnicliffe, Helena Grace Donald, Heather Langenkamp
Rating: 3/10 – the hunt for a serial killer finds its lead detective (Carney) coming face to face with the Cenobites – still led by Pinhead (Taylor) – but the solution to the case isn’t as obvious as it seems; the tenth movie in the series, Hellraiser: Judgment at least tries to offer something new in terms of the Cenobites’ involvement, but in the end it can’t escape the fact that Pinhead et al are no longer frightening, the franchise’s penchant for sado-masochistic violence has lost any impact it may once have had, and as with every entry since Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), it fails to introduce one single character for the viewer to care about.
The Final Year (2017) / D: Greg Barker / 89m
With: Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, John Kerry, Barack Obama
Rating: 7/10 – a look at the final year of Barack Obama’s second term as President of the United States focuses on his foreign policy team and their diplomatic efforts on the global stage; featuring contributions from some of the key players, The Final Year is an interesting if not fully realised documentary that never asks (or finds an answer for) the fundamental question of why Obama’s administration chose to concentrate so much on foreign policy in its last days, something that keeps all the good work that was achieved somewhat in isolation from the viewer.
And Then Came Lola (2009) / D: Ellen Seidler, Megan Siler / 71m
Cast: Ashleigh Sumner, Jill Bennett, Cathy DeBuono, Jessica Graham, Angelyna Martinez, Candy Tolentino, Linda Ignazi
Rating: 4/10 – in a series of Groundhog Day-style episodes, the undisciplined Lola (Sumner) is required to rush a set of photographs to her interior designer girlfriend, Casey (Bennett), so she can seal the deal at a job interview – but she has varying degrees of success; an LGBTQ+ comedy that stops the action every so often to allow its female cast to make out with each other, And Then Came Lola doesn’t put enough spins on its central conceit, and doesn’t make you care enough if Lola comes through or not.
The Ritual (2017) / D: David Bruckner / 94m
Cast: Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Maria Erwolter
Rating: 7/10 – following the tragic death of one of their friends, four men embark on a memorial hiking trip in Sweden, but when one of them is injured, taking a short cut through a forest puts all their lives in jeopardy; a creature feature with a nasty edge to it and above average performances for a horror movie, The Ritual employs mystery as well as terror as it creates a growing sense of dread before it runs out of narrative steam and tries to give its monster a back story that brings the tension up short and leads to a not entirely credible denouement.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) / D: Jake Kasdan / 119m
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner
Rating: 7/10 – four teenagers find themselves transported into a video game called Jumanji, where, transformed into avatars, they are charged with thwarting the dastardly plans of the game’s chief villain (Cannavale); a reboot more than a sequel, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has the benefit of well-drawn, likeable characters, winning performances from Johnson, Hart, Black and Gillan, and confident direction from Kasdan, all things that serve to distract from the uninspired game levels and the predictable nature of its main storyline.
Paddington 2 (2017) / D: Paul King / 103m
Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Imelda Staunton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Ben Miller, Jessica Hynes, Noah Taylor, Joanna Lumley
Rating: 9/10 – the theft of a unique pop-up book sees Paddington (Whishaw) end up in jail while the Brown family do their best to track down the real thief, Phoenix Buchanan (Grant); an absolute joy, Paddington 2 is just so unexpectedly good that even just thinking about it is likely to put a smile on your face, something that’s all too rare these days, and which is thanks to an inspired script by director King and Simon Farnaby, terrific performances from all concerned, and buckets of perfectly judged humour.
Gangster Land (2017) / D: Timothy Woodward Jr / 113m
Original title: In the Absence of Good Men
Cast: Sean Faris, Milo Gibson, Jason Patric, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Peter Facinelli, Mark Rolston, Michael Paré
Rating: 4/10 – the rise of boxer Jack McGurn (Faris) from potential champion to right-hand man to Al Capone (Gibson), and his involvement in Capone’s feud with ‘Bugs’ Moran (Facinelli); a biopic that’s hampered by lacklustre performances and a leaden script, Gangster Land wants to be thought of as classy but budgetary constraints mean otherwise, and Woodward Jr’s direction doesn’t inject many scenes with the necessary energy to maintain the viewer’s interest, something that leaves the movie feeling moribund for long stretches.
Pitch Perfect 3 (2017) / D: Trish Sie / 93m
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Hailee Steinfeld, John Lithgow, Ruby Rose, Matt Lanter, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, DJ Khaled
Rating: 4/10 – the Borden Bellas are back for one last reunion before they all go their separate ways, taking part in a European tour and competing for the chance to open for DJ Khaled; a threequel that adds nothing new to the mix (even if you include Lithgow as Wilson’s scoundrel father), and which is as empty-headed as you’d expect, Pitch Perfect 3 isn’t even well thought out enough to justify its existence and trades on old glories in the hope that the audience won’t notice that’s what they are.
Something Real and Good (2013) / D: Luke Rivett / 81m
Cast: Matt Jones, Alex Hannant, Colton Castaneda, Marla Stone
Rating: 4/10 – he (Jones) meets her (Hannant) in an airport lounge, and over the next twenty-four hours, get to know each other, flirt, have fun, and stay in a hotel together due to their flight being cancelled; the slightness of the story – boy meets girl, they talk and talk and talk and talk – is further undermined by the cod-philosophising and trite observations on life and relationships that they come out with, leaving Something Real and Good as a title that’s a little over-optimistic, though if it achieves anything, it’ll be to stop people from striking up random conversations with strangers in airports – and that’s now a good thing.
Ladies First (2017) / D: Uraaz Bahi / 39m
With: Deepika Kumari, Geeta Devi, Shiv Narayan Mahto, Dharmendra Tiwari
Rating: 8/10 – the story of Deepika Kumari, at one time the number one archer in the world, and her efforts to obtain Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016; a sobering documentary that for a while feels like it’s going to be a standard tale of triumph over adversity (here, relating to Indian culture and gender equality), Ladies First offers a much deeper examination of success and failure than might be expected, and shows that in India, as in many other countries, there are precious few opportunities for women to be anything more than wives and mothers.
Heritage Falls (2016) / D: Shea Sizemore / 88m
Cast: David Keith, Coby Ryan McLaughlin, Keean Johnson, Sydney Penny, Nancy Stafford, Devon Ogden
Rating: 4/10 – three generations of males head off for a bonding weekend designed to overcome the divisions that are keeping them distant or apart from each other; a mixed bag of drama and lightweight comedy, Heritage Falls wants to say something sincere and relevant about father-son relationships, but falls way short in its ambitions thanks to a script that can’t provide even one of its protagonists with a convincing argument for their position, a bland visual style, and even blander direction from Sizemore, making this a turgid exercise in emotional dysfunction.
The Long Dark Hall (1951) / D: Anthony Bushell, Reginald Beck / 86m
Cast: Rex Harrison, Lilli Palmer, Denis O’Dea, Reginald Huntley, Anthony Dawson, Brenda de Banzie, Eric Pohlmann
Rating: 7/10 – when an actress is murdered in the room she rents, suspicion falls on her lover, married man Arthur Groome (Harrison), but even though he goes on trial at the Old Bailey, his wife, Mary (Palmer), stands by him; an early UK attempt at film noir, The Long Dark Hall has its fair share of tension, particularly in a scene at the Groome home where Mary is alone with the real killer (Dawson), but Harrison doesn’t seem fully committed (it wasn’t one of his favourite projects), and the screenplay lurches too often into uncomfortable melodrama, though overall this has an air of fatalism that keeps it intriguing for viewers who are used to their crime thrillers being a little more straightforward.
Ready Player One (2018) / D: Steven Spielberg / 140m
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Rating: 7/10 – in 2045, people have become obsessed with a virtual reality game called Oasis where anything can happen, but when its creator (Rylance) reveals there’s a hidden prize within the game, one that will give overall control of the game and its licence to the winner, it’s up to a small group of gamers led by Parzifal (Sheridan) to stop a rival corporation from winning; an elaborate sci-fi fantasy that provides a nostalgia overload for fans of Eighties pop culture in particular, Ready Player One has plenty of visual pizzazz, but soon runs out of steam in the story department, and offers way too much exposition in lieu of a proper script, a situation it tries to overcome by being dazzling if empty-headed, but which in the hands of Steven Spielberg still manages to be very entertaining indeed – if you don’t give it too much thought.
The Temple (2017) / D: Michael Barrett / 78m
Cast: Logan Huffman, Natalia Warner, Brandon Sklenar, Naoto Takenaka, Asahi Uchida
Rating: 4/10 – three American tourists – best friends Chris (Huffman) and Kate (Warner), and Kate’s boyfriend, James (Sklenar) – are travelling in Japan when they hear about an abandoned temple and decide to go there, little knowing what will happen to them once they get there; even with its post-visit framing device designed to add further mystery to events, The Temple is a chore to sit through thanks to its being yet another horror movie where people behave stupidly so that a number of uninspired “shocks” can be trotted out, along with dreary dialogue and the (actually) terrible realisation that movie makers still think that by plundering legends and myths from other countries then their movies will be much more original and scary… and that’s simply not true.
Chokeslam (2016) / D: Robert Cuffley / 102m
Cast: Chris Marquette, Amanda Crew, Michael Eklund, Niall Matter, Gwynyth Walsh, Mick Foley
Rating: 5/10 – a 10-year high school reunion gives deli owner Corey (Marquette) the chance to reconnect with the girl he loved, Sheena (Crew), who is now a famous female wrestler; a lightweight romantic comedy that pokes moderate fun at the world of wrestling, Chokeslam is innocuous where it should be daring, and bland when it should be heartwarming, making it a movie that’s populated almost entirely by stock characters dealing with stock situations and problems, and which, unsurprisingly, provides them with entirely stock solutions.
All the Money in the World (2017) / D: Ridley Scott / 132m
Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Timothy Hutton, Charlie Plummer, Marco Leonardi, Giuseppe Bonifati
Rating: 8/10 – a recreation of the kidnapping in 1973 of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), and the subsequent attempts by his mother, Gail (Williams), to persuade his grandfather (Christopher Plummer) to pay the ransom, something the then world’s richest man refuses to do; Scott’s best movie in years, All the Money in the World is a taut, compelling thriller that tells its story with ruthless expediency and features yet another commanding performance from Williams, something that takes the spotlight away from the presence of Christopher Plummer (who’s good but not great), and which serves as a reminder that money isn’t the central concern here, but a mother’s unwavering love for her child.
5 Headed Shark Attack (2017) / D: Nico De Leon / 98m
Cast: Chris Bruno, Nikki Howard, Lindsay Sawyer, Jeffrey Holsman, Chris Costanzo, Amaanda Méndez, Ian Daryk, Jorge Navarro, Lorna Hernandez, Michelle Cortès, Nicholas Nene
Rating: 3/10 – a four-headed shark terrorises the waters off Palomino Island in Puerto Rico before mutating into a five-headed shark, and being hunted by both the island’s police force, and a team of marine biologists from a local aquarium; operating at the bargain bucket end of the movie business, 5 Headed Shark Attack, SyFy’s latest cheaply made farrago, references Sharknado (2013) early on (as if it’s being clever), and then does it’s absolute best to make its audience cringe and wince and wish they’d never started watching in the first place, something the awful screenplay, dialogue, acting, special effects and direction all manage without even trying.
Aksel Hennie, Chris O'Dowd, Daniel Brühl, David Oyelowo, Drama, Elizabeth Debicki, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Ortiz, Julius Onah, Prequel, Review, Sci-fi, Shepard particle accelerator, Space station, Thriller, Ziyi Zhang
D: Julius Onah / 102m
Cast: Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth Debicki, Aksel Hennie, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Ziyi Zhang, Roger Davies, Clover Nee
Originally titled God Particle and delayed twice before Netflix picked it up, The Cloverfield Paradox is the third in the series that began with Cloverfield (2008 – is it really that long ago?), and continued with 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). A prequel to both movies in that it provides a partial explanation for the existence of the Cloverfield monster, this latest instalment has neither the strong visual aesthetic of the first movie, nor the strong storyline and characters of the second. It does have a great cast, but this time round the story isn’t there, and the muddled narrative that unfolds is chock-full of dramatic clichés, characters you’re never close to caring about (even Mbatha-Raw’s nominal heroine, Ava), and the kind of cod-science that sounds good unless you listen to what’s being said too closely. In essence, it’s a big let-down, both as a sci-fi movie, and as another entry in the Cloverfield franchise. And that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Oren Uziel’s screenplay was originally a spec script that was picked up by J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company back in 2012, and which had nothing to do with the Cloverfield universe. Until production began in 2016…
The story is a rote one that contains elements of Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), and any other sci-fi movie set on a space ship or station where the crew has to fight off an unseen and/or murderous presence. It also splits the narrative between scenes on the space station that see the plucky crew trying to reverse the effects of an infinite energy experiment that has flung them into an alternate reality, and scenes involving Ava’s doctor husband (Davies) back on Earth as the Cloverfield monster makes its presence felt. Each provides a respite from the other but only for a short while, and by the halfway mark, a complete respite from the whole silly set up is required. As the script inevitably picks off its space station characters one by one, the manner in which they’re dispatched ranges from the banal to the overly thought out set piece and back again. The cause of most of these deaths is concerning as Uziel’s script seems unable to explain exactly what is going on, and how, and why. A lot happens just because the characters are in a weird situation, and it seems fitting to throw weird stuff at them – a severed arm, a crew member trapped in a wall space, a condensation issue becoming a flood – but none of it makes any coherent sense.
As a result, the very talented cast have to work very, very hard to make the most of the script’s weaknesses and Onah’s by-the-numbers direction. Mbatha-Raw fares better than most, but then she’s playing the one character who has anything like a story arc. Ava has a tragic past, and the alternate reality she finds herself in gives her a chance to change things and alleviate her guilt. Against this, O’Dowd brings some necessary humour to the mix, while everyone else offers tepid support, from Oyelowo’s nondescript mission commander to Brühl’s German (and possibly villainous) scientist – #HollywoodStillSoRacist anyone? The movie also betrays its modest production values, with several scenes, especially those involving corridors on the space station, looking decidedly cheap. All in all, it’s a movie that offers nothing new to the franchise, or to viewers who might be intrigued enough to take a chance on watching it without having seen its predecessors. With the good possibility that a fourth movie in the Cloverfield universe will be with us in the next eighteen months, let’s hope that it’s not another spec script given a Cloverfield once-over, and instead an original story that fits more neatly into the world Bad Robot created ten years ago.
Rating: 4/10 – stock characters, stock situations, a garbled political crisis on Earth, and much more besides that doesn’t work, The Cloverfield Paradox is let down by its confusing screenplay, and by Onah’s inability to make much of it interesting; a jarring experience given the quality of its predecessors, the real paradox here isn’t why it was made, but how anyone could have thought it was any good.
D: Peter Chelsom / 121m
Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gary Oldman, Carla Gugino, Britt Robertson, BD Wong, Janet Montgomery, Gil Birmingham, Colin Egglesfield
In a strange version of the future that appears to be happening today, space exploration bigwig Nathaniel Shepherd (Oldman) announces the latest mission to Mars, and the crew that are going there to continue the Red Planet’s colonisation. But in one of those “What if?” scenarios that jump start way too many movies, the lone female astronaut, Sarah Elliot (Montgomery), proves to be pregnant. She gives birth to a son on Mars, and promptly dies from eclampsia. And from that moment on, The Space Between Us throws all sense and logic out of the window, and gallops headlong towards absurdity with all the gusto of a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s unsurprising to learn that the movie has been in development in one form or another since 1999, when it was titled Mainland and its central protagonist was a boy born on the Moon. Put in turnaround until it was picked up again in 2014, the basic idea has remained the same – boy born in space wants to visit Earth – but the idea that his physiology would be compromised, perhaps fatally, has also remained. Tough break for the kid, huh? Just don’t think it about it too much, though – no, really, don’t.
The Space Between Us is a movie that wants to tell its cute romantic story against a backdrop of new-fangled technological advancement and old school moral dilemmas. It’s a movie that bounces from scene to scene with no clear through line, and which lets its lovers on the run scenario get sillier and sillier as Gardner and his only friend on Earth, Tulsa (Robertson), avoid capture by stealing cars at every turn staying one step ahead of a pursuing Shepherd and astronaut-nominally-playing-stepmother-to-Gardner Kendra (Gugino) (with all the technology at Shepherd’s disposal you wonder how he’s so bad at catching up to them). Gardner’s mission on Earth is to find his father, something that should be easy enough as he has a photo of the man with his mother, but the script throws huge curve balls in the way of this, including a detour to a shaman (Birmingham), and a sidetrip to an ER where Gardner’s bone implants (don’t ask) barely register as a concern. And along the way, Gardner gets a crash course in human relationships including how not to sound weird, and losing your virginity (not to be funny, but does anyone remember that Eighties movie, Earth Girls Are Easy?).
There are far too many moments and scenes where the average viewer will be asking themselves, Really? Most of them involve Oldman, whose performance can best be described as desperately seeking relevance. Stuck with some of the movie’s worst dialogue, the more than capable Oldman has no redress against the inanities of both the script and his character. It’s a similar situation for Butterfield, playing a role that requires him to be a science whizz on the one hand but one who’s learned absolutely zero social skills while growing up on Mars (yes, he’s smart and dumb at the same time). Gugino and Robertson have interchangeable roles once you take out the sex, and everyone else has no option but to go along with it all and hope for the best. In the director’s chair, Chelsom keeps things moving in the haphazard way the script (by Allan Loeb) dictates, but he appears to lose interest early on, while Barry Peterson’s sharp and detailed cinematography proves to be one of the movie’s few blessings. At several points, Gardner asks people, What’s your favourite thing about Earth? One answer seems obvious: being able to avoid seeing this inane, stupid movie.
Rating: 3/10 – with its tortured science (just think about the environment Gardner has been living in since birth and ask yourself, would he really suffer on Earth?), and equally tortured YA theatrics, The Space Between Us is a movie that trips over itself continually in its efforts to tell a coherent, relatable story; a waste of everybody’s time and effort, the hint should have been taken back in 1999 when rewrites on the original Mainland script proved unworkable.
D: Guillermo del Toro / 123m
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Lauren Lee Smith
A romantic fairy tale set during the Cold War era of the Sixties, Guillermo del Toro’s latest feature is set in a secret government laboratory in Baltimore. Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a cleaner who works the night shift. She’s also mute from birth. One night the laboratory receives a new “asset”, an amphibious creature (Jones) captured in the Amazon river by military man Richard Strickland (Shannon). The creature proves to be humanoid, and though it’s ostensibly dangerous, Elisa develops a bond with it, and even uses sign language to communicate with it on a basic level. With the creature able to breathe in and out of water, the intricacies of its anatomy lead to the decision to have it vivisected. Elisa is horrified by this, and with the aid of her fellow cleaner, Zelda (Spencer), and her neighbour, elderly artist Giles (Jenkins), she determines to free the creature and return it to the sea. As she puts her plan into action, she finds unexpected assistance from one of the scientists at the laboratory, Dr Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg), and unwanted attention from Strickland.
Fully and firmly back on track after the disappointment that was Crimson Peak (2015), Guillermo del Toro has made perhaps his best movie yet. The Shape of Water is a veritable treasure trove of delights. By turns funny, dramatic, sad, tender, exciting, joyous, imaginative, bold, romantic, uplifting, and poignant, it’s a movie that crams so much into its two hour running time that it should feel heavy-handed. Instead it feels like the lightest of confections, even with the overtly darker undertones that are threaded throughout the narrative and which help the movie add a credible and palpable sense of menace to the overall tone. del Toro has long wanted to make a movie inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), but it’s unlikely even he could have predicted just how good the end result would be. From Paul D. Austerberry’s masterful period production design, to the efforts of the set dressers (so much detail), this is a movie that is constantly inviting the viewer to come nearer and peer closely at all the objects that fill each frame. And then there are the small yet seemingly effortless moments that pepper the movie, moments such as Elisa and Giles’ seated dance routine, or the man at the bus stop with the partially eaten cake. It all adds up to a richness of texture that is nigh-on faultless.
But the movie isn’t just beautiful to look at, it’s also an old-fashioned love story (an inter-species love story, to be fair, but hey, so what? As Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot (1959), “Nobody’s perfect”). It would have been so easy to misjudge the tone and the mood in presenting this romance, but del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor handle it perfectly, combining elements of magical realism and the aforementioned fairy tale aspect to wonderful effect. Hawkins – for whom the role of Elisa was written – gives a mesmerising performance, passionate and vulnerable, determined and caring, and capable of expressing any of Elisa’s emotions through the delicate shading of her features. As the principal villain, Shannon gets to add unexpected psychological layers to the role of Strickland, something that keeps the part from being that of a stereotypical bad guy, while Jenkins provides the majority of the laughs (and a great deal of pathos) as Giles, an elderly gay man still hoping to find love himself. Everything is rounded off by the music, as del Toro harks back to the golden era of Hollywood musicals. And just when you think he can’t squeeze in anything else, he gives us a black and white dance number featuring Elisa and the creature which is a tribute to Follow the Fleet (1936). This all leaves just one option: this much confidence must be applauded.
Rating: 9/10 – made with an intense amount of love and affection for its central characters, and with an elegance that shines throughout, The Shape of Water is a triumph of both style and substance; look closely, though, and you’ll find del Toro being quietly and unobtrusively subversive: ask yourself – which other movie are you likely to see where the heroes are in turn disabled, gay, black, and a Communist?
D: Rian Johnson / 152m
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Benicio Del Toro, Lupita Nyong’o
In the Star Wars universe there is one second sequel to rule them all (to mix franchise metaphors), and that’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980). That movie, even more so than A New Hope, was a lightning in a bottle experience, never to be repeated, and a shining example of what can happen when the stars are in perfect alignment. But now we have Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and though it falls just agonisingly short of being as good as Episode V, this is the closest anyone has come in coming close to the heights achieved by that particular movie. Better than all three prequel movies put together, richer and with more depth than either Episodes IV or VI, and showing even J.J. Abrams how it should be done, Episode VIII is the franchise entry that gives rise to another, newer hope: that Disney, for all that they want a Star Wars movie to grace our screens every year for the foreseeable future, do know what they’re doing. And the main reason for all this? Step forward, Rian Johnson.
Sometimes it’s a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, and with The Last Jedi, it’s definitely Johnson’s hour, and he’s definitely the man. Not only has he built on the (mostly) impressive groundwork laid down by J.J. Abrams, but he’s made the current trilogy into something that’s in a league of its own. Whatever happens in Episode IX – and there’s more than enough evidence here to have Johnson substituted for Abrams in the writer/director’s chair – it will have to go some to top what’s on show here. This is bold, imaginative, stirring stuff, a clear rebuttal to all those who felt that The Force Awakens was too derivative of previous entries (another Death Star – okay, planet – and another Emperor – okay, Supreme Leader, etc.), and convincing proof that there will, and can be, life after the Skywalker story arc.
For this is the movie’s strongest suit, the way in which it’s pushing the whole Star Wars franchise forward, away from past glories, and toward future glories of its own making. Kylo Ren (Driver) sums up the aim of the current trilogy best when he says: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” This could double as the trilogy’s raison d’etre, as we move further and further away from the events and legacies of the first six movies, and into a period within the galaxy that involves Star Wars finding a new identity for itself. In making this narrative jump to lightspeed, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman have made the most astute decision possible, and let Rian Johnson loose on their “baby”. And Johnson hasn’t let them, or the fans, or even casual viewers down. The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie we’ve all been waiting for since 1980: the one that reminds us of just how much story-telling potential there is in the saga, and how much it can all mean to us both culturally and personally.
This is a movie that will delight existing fans, but also will go a long way to persuading non-fans that there’s much more to Star Wars than action toys and cosplay. Johnson has created an exciting, intimidating, intelligent, and emotionally daunting piece of sci-fi, and has done so with flair, confidence, and no small amount of visual style (the prequels, for all their faults, always looked visually stunning, but Johnson has upped that particular ante, and seemingly effortlessly). The movie provides impressive amounts of eye candy in terms of the production design, the locations used, and the special effects, but it’s all in service to the story, and the three separate plot strands that occupy the movie’s extended running time (forget that it’s two and a half hours long; you won’t notice the time anyway once you’re watching it). This is the movie’s greatest strength: in telling these separate plot strands in such a way that you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next with all of them. Johnson keeps upping the stakes, putting the characters through the emotional, physical, and psychological wringer (and the viewer right along with them), and offering only very brief respites for everyone to catch their breath. It’s a juggling act, but one that Johnson pulls off with all the confidence of someone who’s been doing it all their lives.
Of course, the presence of Luke Skywalker (Hamill) is the main draw this time. Where Abrams had the nerve to keep Luke off-screen until the very last scene of The Force Awakens, here Johnson has to keep him front and centre for much of the movie, and provide some answers for the questions raised in Episode VII. To his credit, Johnson provides Luke with a character arc that makes sense of his isolation, and his reluctance to become involved with the Resistance. Hamill, naturally, seizes on the quality of Johnson’s writing and makes of Luke an old man with huge regrets and an attitude that keeps him feeling reproachful and pessimistic. The presence of Rey (Ridley) serves only as a painful reminder of his failings, and the way in which Luke rediscovers his sense of self-worth is played out with a great deal of attention to the character’s inner emotions, and the added layers of betrayal and guilt that he’s accrued over the years.
The dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren is given its due, and though there’s a degree of inevitability about the way their Force-led relationship is resolved for now, the path they’re taken on by Johnson offers up a range of possibilities that keeps the viewer guessing as to which ones will be explored the most, and which ones will be held over for Episode IX. Both Ridley and Driver delve deeper into their characters’ individual needs and destinies, and the scenes they share have an intensity that matches the high stakes involved in their manoeuvring around each other. Against this it would be easy to say that the other characters don’t fare so well and have truncated story arcs as a result, but Rey and Kylo Ren are the central protagonists, and it’s their particular story that drives much of the action. Finn (Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Isaac) are kept busy but as secondary characters this time around, while newcomers Tran, Dern and Del Toro have roles that fit the requirements of the plot rather than making their characters as memorable as some of the others. And then there’s Carrie Fisher (involved in the movie’s strangest moment) and as General Leia Organa, carrying the weight of everyone’s hopes on her shoulders – and feeling the strain. It’s a tightly controlled performance, not a swansong as such, but one that contains the gravitas needed to emphasise the importance of keeping the Resistance alive.
In a year where there have been a number of high profile, highly anticipated blockbusters – most of which have proved disappointing on many levels – it’s reassuring to know that there is at least one movie released this year under that banner that matches the expectations required of it. Whether it’s setting pulses racing in its opening sequence as Poe seeks to disable a dreadnought’s external gun placements, or exploring the darker aspects of the Force, or even the notion that power isn’t corrupting of itself but the intent to grasp power is, the movie treads carefully but effectively through a series of emotional minefields and debatable decision making. However, this isn’t to say that it’s all doom and gloom and entirely heavy stuff, because it isn’t. There’s plenty of humour – a lot of it laugh out loud funny and in places where you wouldn’t expect it – and there’s some excellent location work, especially in Ireland’s Skellig Michael (where Luke is found), and the salt flats of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Johnson’s go-to cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, makes it all look stunning, and this is an episode where more than ever the visuals are used to enhance and support the material, and which can on more than one occasion, elicit gasps of appreciation – much like the movie as a whole.
Rating: 8/10 – with still too many ties to the Lucas era, and still finding its way to a satisfying future without those ties, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a transitional movie but one that is so confidently handled by writer/director Rian Johnson that any qualms about the material can be overlooked – for the most part; a movie that keeps moving and keeps doing its best to be surprising, it’s the very definition of a crowd-pleaser, and one that rewards as it goes, and which sets up numerous possibilities for the next installment, due on 20 December 2019.
D: Paul Currie / 99m
Cast: Teresa Palmer, Michiel Huisman, Sam Reid, Maeve Dermody, Remy Hii, Simone Kessell, John Waters, Richard Davies, Kerry Armstrong
When a movie provides the viewer with an intriguing concept (and does so early on) it sets itself something of a problem: namely, how to maintain that sense of intrigue the longer the movie goes on, and the more that has to be explained. There are plenty of movies where that intriguing concept flounders soon after being introduced, and plenty more where it doesn’t go anywhere at all. And then there are the movies that keep that concept evolving and expanding, and in doing so, keep the viewer engaged and entertained throughout. But these movies aren’t as prevalent as we might like, and though it does its best to join that elusive and elite group, 2:22 has a basic flaw that stops it from gaining a place at the table: it never decides to settle for one cause out of three or four for the events that take place.
Dylan Branson (Huisman) is an air traffic controller living in New York. He has the ability to see patterns in all things, which makes it easy for him to make predictions out of what appear to be random variables. It also means that some of the flights under his control can sometimes take off and land within yards of each other, something that, frighteningly, his boss and his colleagues treat as more of a trick to be bet on than as an inappropriate way of dealing with hundreds of lives each time. But when a cosmic event – the shock waves from the collapse of a star in space from thirty years before – has an effect on the Earth, Dylan’s attention becomes focused on the patterns that are revealed through the waves, and he is lucky to avoid the deaths of around nine hundred people when this occurs. Rightly suspended, Dylan still goes about his daily routine, but soon begins to notice that the same things keep happening each day, and at the same times. However, it’s a fascination with Grand Central Station, and the time of 2:22pm, that he’s unable to shake.
As the patterns and repetitions become more and more ingrained, Dylan finds himself drawn into the story of three deaths that occurred thirty years before on the concourse at Grand Central. A love triangle that ended in tragedy, it saw a singer and her boyfriend, and a cop, all shot and killed. Dylan becomes obsessed with finding out why he’s seeing all this within the patterns, and why from so long ago. And when he meets Sarah (Palmer), an art gallery manager, he begins to realise that their relationship is in some way connected to the events of the past. What this all means is what Dylan feels compelled to work out, but at first it frightens Sarah, and she distances herself from him, but as their story begins to dovetail with the story from 1985, and too many coincidences occur to dispute what seems to be happening, Dylan tries to ensure that there isn’t a repeat of the concourse tragedy, and that he and Sarah can make it past 2:22pm.
There’s not exactly a glut of intelligent, well thought out science fiction movies available to audiences these days, and 2:22 clearly has ambitions to fulfill that particular requirement, but while it begins well – and with a couple of airport runway scenes that should have even the most blasé of frequent fliers gripping their upright tray tables – it’s not long before it gets bogged down in an unwieldy narrative, and it starts tripping over itself in its attempts to provide a coherent, viable framework for the mystery of thirty years ago and its relevance to what’s happening around Dylan today. At first, it’s clever, but then the movie tries to be too clever, and before long it has Dylan sounding like he’s in need of some serious medication. Sarah avoids him because he sounds crazy, the truth of the past reveals itself piece by piece, and it’s all done in such a way that makes it confusing as to whether or not it’s all in Dylan’s head, or the result of this strange cosmic event, or some kind of reincarnation version of history repeating itself. As to which one of those is the actual reason for Dylan’s visions of the past, the viewer is free to take a guess.
It may be that there is one true answer, but the screenplay by Todd Stein and Nathan Parker (from a story by Stein) is too respectful of its muddled internal logic to settle for a definitive solution. Instead it piles erratic images and mismatched scenes on top of one another, and as if it needs to add a sense of confusion to proceedings, when it does attempt to explain matters, it falls just shy of being convincing (which unfortunately leaves Michiel Huisman holding the exposition bag quite awkwardly a lot of the time). It’s obvious that the movie doesn’t want to come across as a sci-fi variation of Groundhog Day (1993), and so it throws too many extra elements into the mix, but without testing first to see if they match the level of intrigue required, and/or the details. Currie orchestrates matters with an eye for a compelling image at times, but on other occasions, there’s a pedestrian vibe to many of the scenes early on that aren’t exactly involving; thankfully, as the narrative speeds up, Currie’s confidence in his handling of the material increases also.
The well chosen cast do as well as can be expected with some of Stein and Parker’s more utilitarian dialogue, and overall Huisman and Palmer make for an interesting pairing, their characters not quite the star-crossed lovers they’re made out to be, but competently played nevertheless. By the end though, the sci-fi elements have been shoved aside so that the thriller elements can be pushed to the fore, and there’s a stretch where the familiarity of the narrative – or the obvious nature of it – casts a pall over proceedings as the screenplay manipulates the story into getting Dylan and Sarah, and her jealous ex-boyfriend, Jonas (Reid), to the station on time for the 2:22 deadline. Faced with these strong-arm tactics, the movie has no choice but to go along for the ride and hope that the drily philosophical dictum quoted at the end, “A star shines brightest right before it dies”, strikes the viewer as poignant instead of ironic.
Rating: 6/10 – narrative trips and tumbles aside, 2:22 is a modest sci-fi thriller with modest ambitions, but ones that should be applauded nevertheless; that it doesn’t work entirely is down to the lack of focus in the storyline, and some occasionally lazy “hey, kids, let’s connect the dots for the viewer” decision making, but though it’s very rough around the edges, you could do a lot worse, sci-fi wise, than to give this “out of its comfort zone” movie a chance.
Action, Amy Adams, Batman, Ben Affleck, Cyborg, DCEU, Drama, Ezra Miller, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Review, Sci-fi, Sequel, Steppenwolf, Superheroes, Superman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder
D: Zack Snyder / 120m
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton
If Justice League required the writing of a school report card, then that report would likely say, “Must do better.” A movie that furthers Warner Bros.’ insistence on building the DC Extended Universe one laborious movie at a time, this is unlikely to upset fans (who may well point to its lighter tone as reason enough to be happy with the finished product), but it should still provide cause for concern for anyone able to watch the movie objectively or without a vested interest. Although this is an improvement on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), there are still plenty of problems on show, some of which seem inherent in Warner Bros.’ approach to the DCEU, and some that have arisen out of the efforts made to address those same problems. If Justice League is to be as financially successful (if not critically) as previous entries in the DCEU – and early box office returns are casting doubt on this – then even more lessons need to be learnt.
The movie begins with the world mourning the death of Superman (Cavill), and crime apparently on the increase (though strangely, it’s hate crime that the movie chooses first as an example). Batman (Affleck) is still fighting criminals, as is Wonder Woman (Gadot), but an encounter with a strange, alien creature, a Parademon, leads the Caped Crusader to believe that a major threat is coming to Earth (alas, how and why he believes this, is left unexplored, possibly because it would add yet another plot hole to the many already on display). Wonder Woman confirms this, telling him that Earth is being targeted by Steppenwolf (Hinds), the “ender of worlds”. Steppenwolf and his Parademons are looking for three Mother Boxes, power sources that if linked together, could destroy Earth entirely (why he’d want to do this is another plot hole left for the movie to fall through). With one box entrusted to the Amazons on Themyscira, the second to Atlantis, and the third hidden by man, Steppenwolf collects the first two with unseemly ease, leaving Batman and Wonder Woman with only one choice: to find other people with “abilities” who can help try and defeat Steppenwolf; and yes, you guessed it, save the world.
Batman recruits the Flash (Miller) in record time, but has little luck with Arthur Curry (Momoa), the so-called Aquaman. And then there’s Cyborg (Fisher), part man, part machine, whose existence is due to his scientist father’s use of the third Mother Box (conveniently discovered for this very purpose) after his death in a car accident. Keeping hold of the third Mother Box long enough to resurrect Superman (more of which later), Batman and his new friends, including a newly motivated Aquaman, trace Steppenwolf to an abandoned nuclear power plant in Russia (plot hole alert!), and attempt to stop him uniting the Mother Boxes and destroying the world. In the process, Batman, the archetypal loner, learns to become a team player (even though everyone in the Justice League is, effectively, an archetypal loner, it seems to be more relevant to him than anyone else).
In assembling their own version of the Avengers, Warner Bros. and DC have tried to cut narrative corners by curtailing any origin stories and sidelining any character arcs. This leaves the newcomers looking and feeling like late additions to the story rather than integral parts of it. Batman and Wonder Woman are placed front and centre to provide the gravitas this series is committed to, while the Flash is used primarily to ensure there are plenty of laughs to be had (an improvement on previous entries, definitely, but by the end of the movie, a little over-used). But if any one aspect of Justice League should raise concerns about Warner Bros. and DC’s abilities to handle this franchise effectively, it’s in their treatment of Superman. The decision to kill him off at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was possibly that movie’s best idea, but here his resurrection is handled so badly that it feels like an insult. Resurrected purely so that there can be a showdown between Superman and the League, the movie ignores the possibility of a much stronger and more long-term story arc* in favour of a ten-minute punch-up that’s abruptly halted by the appearance of Lois Lane. If anyone is in any doubt that Chris Terrio’s screenplay isn’t up to much (even with Joss Whedon’s additions), then this is the moment that confirms it.
The movie retains the series’ inconsistency of tone, and superficial world building, as well as its plodding attempts at exposition, as well as its over-reliance on big, flashy, hollow set-pieces that deaden the senses and lack imagination (hero hits villain with crushing blow, villain hits hero with crushing blow – and repeat, again and again). It jumps from scene to scene without the slightest concern for its own internal logic – which is continually ignored in favour of getting to the next showdown – and it takes liberties with its minor characters; if you’re not Wonder Woman, but you’re still a female character, be prepared to be given short shrift at almost every turn. Shoehorned into the narrative for no particular reason than that they’re part of the canon, the likes of Commissioner Gordon (Simmons) and Martha Kent (Lane) appear briefly and for little purpose. And yet again, the villain is the least interesting character in the movie, a fully-CGI character who is effectively a thug from another dimension, and who has all the villainous intensity of a playground bully.
For a movie that reportedly cost $300 million to make, Justice League also looks a little on the cheap side at times, with some backgrounds looking incredibly fake (check out the cornfield scene with Lois and Clark for an idea of just how awkwardly the marriage of CGI and on-set footage can be rendered). Snyder still manages to direct as if he can’t believe he’s been given the chance to shepherd such a huge franchise in the first place, and his inability to make individual scenes work as part of a greater whole remains firmly in place. As for Joss Whedon’s contribution, there are certain scenes that bear his imprint, but not enough to offset the dour approach adopted by Snyder, and even though the movie is demonstrably lighter in tone than its predecessor, the inclusion of some much needed humour isn’t enough to make up for the pedestrian plotting and the lack of a convincing storyline (or indeed, any storyline). “Must do better” indeed, and as soon as possible.
Rating: 5/10 – still unable to contend with, or overcome the issues that hold back the DCEU from achieving what it’s capable of, Justice League is what might best be described as “a happy mess”, but that’s doing the lacklustre nature of the overall material something of a favour; Gadot and Miller head up a cast who can only go with the flow and hope for the best, while the mythology building is put on hold in favour of several underwhelming scraps that reinforce the notion that whatever else happens in future DCEU movies, it’ll still be safe to assume that buildings will continue to crumble, and important storyteling lessons will still need to be learnt.
*What if the following had happened: Superman returns from the dead but is different, less interested in doing good, more selfish and unapproachable. Unwilling to help defeat Steppenwolf, the League has to find a way to defeat him themselves as a team (which they do). And so, by the time of the next Justice League movie, their foe is Superman himself, whose transition to the “dark side” has become more pronounced (oh, and there’s no Kryptonite to help them out). Now that sounds like a great storyline.
Action, Biopic, Chanel Cresswell, Comedy, Dean Devlin, Dean Israelite, Drama, Dutchboy, Edward H. Griffith, Fantasy, Gavin Boyter, Geostorm, Gerard Butler, International Space Station, Jack Lee, James Dunn, Jillian Bell, Jim Sturgess, Joan Collins, Joan Crawford, Josh Helman, Leslie Arliss, Louis J. Gasnier, Lucia Aniello, Michael Baumgarten, Miss Tulip Stays the Night, Murder, My Name Is Lenny, Mystery, No More Ladies, Power Rangers, Reviews, Robert Montgomery, Romance, Ron Scalpello, Rough Night, Scarlett Johansson, Sci-fi, Sparks and Embers, Sunset Murder Case, The Guest House, The Living Ghost, Turn the Key Softly, Weather satellites, William Beaudine, Yvonne Mitchell
Miss Tulip Stays the Night (1955) / D: Leslie Arliss / 68m
aka Dead by Morning
Cast: Diana Dors, Patrick Holt, Jack Hulbert, Cicely Courtneidge, A.E. Matthews, Joss Ambler
Rating: 6/10 – a crime writer (Holt) and his wife (Dors) discover that a weekend break in the country is no guarantee that murder won’t come calling to disturb them, and so it proves when the garrulous Miss Tulip (Courtneidge) is found dead in the cottage; an amiable if too leisurely paced murder mystery, Miss Tulip Stays the Night relies on hoodwinking the viewer from the start and keeping a vital piece of information all to itself until the end, but as a vehicle for Dors it isn’t quite as successful as may have been hoped originally, as the actress is too often sidelined in favour of having Holt attempting to solve the mystery before the police do.
Power Rangers (2017) / D: Dean Israelite / 124m
Cast: Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, RJ Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader, David Denman
Rating: 4/10 – five teens discover the remains of a space ship buried in a hillside, and also find that they have been chosen to defend the Earth from an evil alien called Rita Repulsa (Banks), something that means wearing colourful outfits and playing with super powers; as if the likes of the Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchises hadn’t already shown that there is a dwindling audience for this kind of thing, Power Rangers goes ahead and makes the same narrative mistakes as its confederates, and only makes a decent fist of things when it’s focusing on the inter-relationships of the teens, and not the frankly ridiculous storyline that needed four writers to work on it.
Sunset Murder Case (1938) / D: Louis J. Gasnier / 60m
aka High Explosive
Cast: Sally Rand, Esther Muir, Vince Barnett, Paul Sutton, Lona Andre, Mary Brodel, George Douglas, Reed Hadley, Kathryn Kane, Dennis Moore, Henry King
Rating: 4/10 – when her policeman father is murdered, a showgirl, Kathy O’Connor (Rand), decides to pose as a fan dancer at a nightclub in an effort to find out who killed him; Rand’s presence is the only interesting thing about this deadly dull drama that stops too often for musical interludes, and which seems to run longer than it actually does, making Sunset Murder Case a disappointing exercise that lacks for thrills and any kind of appeal that might make it look or sound better.
The Guest House (2012) / D: Michael Baumgarten / 82m
Cast: Ruth Reynolds, Madeline Merritt, Tom McCafferty, Jake Parker, Jennifer Barlow
Rating: 3/10 – wild child Rachel (Reynolds), stuck at home for the weekend after splitting up with her boyfriend, gets to know her father’s new employee, Amy (Merritt), when she comes to stay in the guest house…and not just as a friend; a low budget insult to any lesbians who happen to watch this farrago, The Guest House is ludicrous in the way it depicts lesbian lovemaking, and ludicrous in the way that writer/director Baumgarten could have ever thought that his script was even halfway adequate enough to make this worth watching – and that’s without the two terrible performances at the movie’s centre.
Sparks and Embers (2015) / D: Gavin Boyter / 88m
Cast: Kris Marshall, Annelise Hesme, Waleed Akhtar, Valda Aviks, Sean Baker, Len Trusty
Rating: 4/10 – five years after they met while stuck in a lift, Tom (Marshall) and Eloise (Hesme), meet up again just as she’s on the verge of leaving London to go off and marry another man, making this Tom’s last chance to win her back after their relationship has ended; a movie that wants so much to say something profound about love (but doesn’t know how to), Sparks and Embers wastes its two co-stars’ time, and the audience’s, on a story that lacks any kind of spark, and which sees the couple wandering along London’s South Bank, aimlessly back and forth, and oddly, at different times of the year, which is no mean feat when Tom has just forty-five minutes to persuade Eloise not to leave.
My Name Is Lenny (2017) / D: Ron Scalpello / 91m
Cast: Josh Helman, Michael Bisping, Chanel Cresswell, Charley Palmer Rothwell, Nick Moran, John Hurt, Rita Tushingham, Frankie Oatway, George Russo, Martin Askew, Jennifer Brooke
Rating: 4/10 – the story of British bare knuckle boxer Lenny McLean (Helman) as he tries to deal with the demons that still haunt him from his childhood, while also trying to keep his marriage from falling apart, and defeat main rival Roy Shaw (Bisping) – and all at the same time; a raucous, cheaply made biopic that has a good sense of the period it’s set in, My Name Is Lenny is undermined by Helman’s decision (supported no doubt by director Scalpello) to portray McLean as a constantly gurning nutjob with all the self-awareness of, well, someone who’s taken too many punches to the head, and a number of violent scenes that are there to make the movie more interesting (though only briefly) than it actually is.
The Living Ghost (1942) / D: William Beaudine / 61m
aka Lend Me Your Ear; A Walking Nightmare
Cast: James Dunn, Joan Woodbury, Paul McVey, Vera Gordon, Norman Willis, J. Farrell MacDonald, Minerva Urecal, George Eldredge, Jan Wiley, Edna Johnson
Rating: 5/10 – when a wealthy businessman disappears only to return in a semi-comatose state that no one can explain, ex-detective Nick Trayne (Dunn) is persuaded to investigate; eerie goings-on coupled with a lot of broad comedy makes The Living Ghost more entertaining than it has any right to be, particularly as the script flits from one ill-thought out idea to another, and the more than competent Dunn is left to carry the picture on his own, a situation that isn’t any good for him or the audience.
Turn the Key Softly (1953) / D: Jack Lee / 78m
Cast: Yvonne Mitchell, Terence Morgan, Joan Collins, Kathleen Harrison, Thora Hird, Dorothy Alison, Glyn Houston
Rating: 7/10 – three women – lovelorn Monica (Mitchell), selfish Stella (Collins), and good-natured Granny Quilliam (Harrison) – are released from prison on the same day, but though all three have plans to stay on the right side of the law, temptations put them all in jeopardy of landing right back where they started; a nimbly executed drama that poses some unexpected questions about the likelihood of prison being a place of reform, Turn the Key Softly benefits from the performances of Mitchell, Collins and Harrison, and by an assured use of London as a backdrop to the action.
No More Ladies (1935) / D: Edward H. Griffith / 80m
Cast: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, Charles Ruggles, Franchot Tone, Edna May Oliver, Gail Patrick, Reginald Denny, Vivienne Osborne, Joan Fontaine, Arthur Treacher
Rating: 5/10 – lovesick Marcia (Crawford) finally lands the man of her dreams, committed Lothario Sherry (Montgomery), only to find that being married hasn’t dampened his ardour for the company of other women; though the script is by Donald Ogden Stewart and Horace Jackson, neither man can make this turgid tale of jealousy and vengeful scheming as credible as it needs to be, and despite the best efforts of Crawford and Montgomery, it fails to impress, leaving only Ruggles and Oliver to elevate the material, and then merely by being present and on fine form.
Rough Night (2017) / D: Lucia Aniello / 101m
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Kate McKinnon, Paul W. Downs, Ryan Cooper, Ty Burrell, Demi Moore
Rating: 6/10 – when five friends get together for a bachelorette party, they don’t plan on the male stripper they’ve hired ending up dead, or how difficult it will be to dispose of the body without anyone finding out; an uneasy mix of sweet-natured girl power and the kind of gross-out material that always makes for an equally uneasy combination, Rough Night features a great cast as the five friends (McKinnon is on good form as usual), but often leaves them stranded while the next set up is… set up, making this a comedy that relies on too much exposition to be truly effective, and which is only occasionally funny – though when it is, it is funny.
Geostorm (2017) / D: Dean Devlin / 109m
Cast: Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Andy Garcia, Ed Harris, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Wu, Eugenio Derbez, Amr Waked, Adepero Oduye, Robert Sheehan, Talitha Eliana Bateman, Richard Schiff
Rating: 5/10 – when a satellite system (called Dutchboy) that controls the Earth’s weather starts to malfunction, causing all sorts of catastrophes, it’s up to warring brothers Jake (Butler) and Max Lawson (Sturgess) to save the day, and to uncover the person behind it all – which might just be the US President (Garcia); despite having a ton of sincerity poured all over it, Geostorm is still as silly and as earnestly po-faced as you’d expect, with Butler in full-on macho mode, Sturgess doing perpetual anguish, Cornish wondering if her career will survive this, and all in support of a number of disaster porn episodes that, frankly, have lost the ability to impress thanks to all the other disaster porn movies that have come before it (some of which writer/director Devlin will be all too familiar with).
D: Denis Villeneuve / 163m
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Hiam Abbass, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Barkhad Abdi, Dave Bautista, Edward James Olmos
Perhaps the most anticipated sequel of 2017, Blade Runner 2049 is finally with us, having been in development – in one form or another – since 1999. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, built as it is on the legacy of its predecessor, and it’s received a lot of praise from critics and fans alike. But it’s not entirely successful in the goals it’s set itself, and despite some terrific performances, Villeneuve’s inspired direction, and sterling efforts from all concerned with the movie’s look and design, the movie struggles at times to maintain proper focus and to make more of its story elements than it actually does. The style is tremendous, then, but the story it supports isn’t as well worked out as it initially looks. Partly this is to do with decisions made at the pre-production stages, and partly to do with a script – by returning scribe Hampton Fancher, and Michael Green – that rarely tries to flesh out its themes or tease out the inherent subtleties within them. This is being touted as intelligent sci-fi and a worthy successor to its predecessor (and on the whole, it is), but in reality it’s a movie that looks amazing, but can’t make its mind up about the story it wants to tell.
It seems straightforward enough. Modern replicants are now being used as blade runners, and are tasked with tracking down and eliminating any remaining Nexus-8 models that are still out there. K (Gosling) is one such replicant, and he’s generally regarded as good at his job. But then what should be a simple “retirement” throws up an unexpected development in the form of buried human remains. But the truth is stranger still: the bones are those of a female replicant who has given birth, something that was, and is still, regarded as impossible, due to it not being a part of their bio-engineering. K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright), fearing such information would be catastrophic if it were made public, orders K to destroy all evidence relating to the case, and locate and kill the child. K visits replicant manufacturer Nyander Wallace (Leto), who identifies the remains as those of Rachael, a replicant who thirty years before, had an affair with a blade runner called Deckard (Ford). Wallace, who can’t manufacture replicants fast enough to match the demand for them both on Earth and on the Off-Worlds, instructs his enforcer, Luv (Hoeks), to follow K and locate the child before it can be “retired”.
And so the stage is set for a race against time in the search for the child (now clearly an adult but referred to as a child throughout). Except Fancher and Green’s script isn’t too concerned about this, and despite the amount of time it’s taken to set it all up. Instead we’re treated to extended passages concerning K’s relationship with a hologram called Joi (de Armas), evidence that K might be the child everyone (including himself) is seeking, meditations on the nature of memory and its veracity, an encounter with what could charitably called the Popular Replicant’s Front of Judea, and further oblique references to Joshi’s insistence that social upheaval will be the result of the child’s existence being made public. Some of this is interesting on a superficial, let’s-not-think-about-this-too-closely level, but that’s also why it remains at a superficial level. The idea that there’ll be a breakdown in the way that replicants are treated comes only from Lieutenant Joshi, but as there doesn’t seem to be anyone that she reports to (she and K could be the only two people in the blade runner department; we never see anyone else), this can only be looked on as her assumption, or her prejudice. But as neither idea is addressed or delved into, the viewer is left with the understanding that if she hadn’t raised it conveniently as an issue, then the movie would struggle to provide audiences with a strong plot.
Out of this, there’s still the confusing issue of whether or not replicants having children is a good or a bad thing. With nothing to suggest that it’s a bad thing – even though the viewer is asked to go along with this idea on faith alone – the fact that Wallace wants to crack this particular genetic anomaly in order to beef up his workforce in the off-world colonies (which would be a benefit for everyone), doesn’t seem such a bad idea at all. But the script insists that he has to behave badly in order to solve this issue and move forward (actually Luv behaves badly, and deliberately so, while Wallace is confined to the sidelines for much of the movie). As a result, tension and discord amongst the characters is encouraged instead of any détente, and once K finds Deckard hiding out amid the ruins of Las Vegas, the movie remembers it’s also a thriller as well as a romantic drama (K and Joi), and it ramps up the action accordingly.
From this it could be assumed that Blade Runner 2049 is a movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at it closely – and this is true. Fancher and Green’s script doesn’t always delve as deeply as it could do, particularly as replicants are still being treated as slave labour, a situation that should resonate but which is soundly ignored. But fortunately, the movie has Villeneuve as its director, and if he’s not able to smooth overt the cracks in the plot successfully, what he is able to do is make this sequel one of the most visually impressive movies of the last five/ten/fifteen (delete as applicable) years. Along with DoP Roger Deakins, Villeneuve has created a world that has devolved even further in the last thirty years, and which is alternately breathtaking and disconcerting. Dennis Gassner’s production design should be singled out for praise as well, as he makes every last aspect of 2049 life feel immediate and yet compromised, as if everyone is living in a world that’s becoming more and more withdrawn from their day-to-day reality. Large areas surrounding Los Angeles are now wastelands to varying degrees, and there’s still that perpetual rain to remind you of how bad things have remained, and the movie widens its horizons appropriately as it tells its bigger, broader story.
There are good performances throughout, with Gosling proving a good choice as K, his initially blank features slowly giving way to pained resignation mixed with profound hope as to his possibly being “the child”. It’s another outsider-looking-in portrayal, the kind of role that Gosling is so good at playing, and here he doesn’t disappoint. Ford is terrific as well, reconnecting with a role that he hasn’t played in thirty-five years but which he infuses with a grizzled intensity, and a great deal of sympathy. It’s good to see him embracing a part in a way that, Han Solo aside, he hasn’t done for quite some time. There’s great support from the likes of de Armas (in a role that is intended to make K’s replicant nature more human, but which remains surplus to requirements, no matter how hard the screenplay tries), and Hoeks as the movie’s resident replicant psycho. Leto wears odd contact lenses that contribute to his character’s blindness, and aims for urbane but still bizarro villain and largely succeeds thanks to his decision to underplay the role, while Wright, ultimately, is given too little to do other than repeat dire warnings about the child etc. etc.
A sequel to Blade Runner (1982) may have been on a lot of people’s wish lists over the years, but now that it’s here, there’s something of a temptation to praise it for what it does do – look astounding on too many occasions to count, have a score that complements Vangelis’ original score while being its own thing, create several worlds in one – instead of admitting that what it doesn’t do harms it too often (and on a couple of occasions, irreparably). Yes, it’s an incredible movie visually, and the makers should be congratulated, and awarded, for their efforts, but the script isn’t as convincing as it could have been. Still a movie to watch on the biggest screen possible (though not in 3D, which doesn’t add anything to the experience), and one to discuss for some time to come, this is one sequel that could have been bolder in its approach, and more complex in its ruminations.
Rating: 7/10 – though hugely effective for long stretches, Blade Runner 2049 does get bogged down in too many needless secondary plot lines during its middle section, but rallies to provide an exciting action sequence that rounds things off satisfactorily (even if it’s a long time coming); with many scenes that could have been trimmed or excised altogether, this is still a triumph for Villeneuve and his two male leads, and serves as another example of a movie that strives to be different from the rest of its multiplex brethren, even if it’s not fully successful.
D: James Ponsoldt / 110m
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Imagine a device that could accurately record and predict your every emotion before you experienced it. Would you find that a boon or a hindrance to your everyday life? Now hold that thought, because there’s a better question: would you find such a device a boon or a hindrance while watching The Circle? (Actually it would be both: If you feel it would be a boon then you’re advocating knowing you’re going to be bored for an hour and fifty minutes, and you can deal with that appropriately, like watching something else; and if you feel it would be a hindrance then you’re advocating knowing you’re going to be bored, and you can also deal with that appropriately, like watching something else.)
The Circle is a high-tech company that’s looking to integrate every possible form of social interaction, be it personal, professional, legal, financial, medical, morally proscribed or otherwise, into a catch-all application that’s designed to promote and provide transparency in all aspects of daily life. In essence, The Circle is attempting to create a world where there are no secrets or lies, and all to make everyone’s lives easier and better and more fruitful. What could possibly be wrong with that? (Actually, quite a bit, but for the movie itself, that’s another issue.) It’s left to newbie Mae Holland (Watson) to discover the truth behind The Circle’s motives, but not before she becomes the face of The Circle, and accrues the kind of worldwide popularity afforded to rock stars, footballers and self-promoting celebrity wannabes… and all because of a midnight kayak trip that goes wrong.
It’s at this point in The Circle that director James Ponsoldt, along with co-writer and creator of the original novel, Dave Eggers, throw in the towel and quietly resign the audience to a series of even more ineffectual scenes than have gone before. Mae gets her job at The Circle with the usual ease of someone in the movies who can field a barrage of probing questions by umming and ahhing and giving uninspired answers. Once ensconced in Customer Experience she quickly blends in with all the other vanilla members of staff, and makes no impact whatsoever. She meets but doesn’t recognise disillusioned programmer Ty Lafitte (Boyega), whose True You application is now being misused by the company, and believes everything that co-founder Eamon Bailey (Hanks) says at his regular company-wide meetings (which are no more than mini-Expo’s for the company’s latest innovations). All around her, the clues are there as to The Circle’s true motives, and though she’s not exactly drinking the company Kool-Aid, she is allowing herself to be drawn further and further into its “evil machinations”.
But then comes that fateful midnight kayak trip and everything changes. Mae, who is to civil disobedience what Stephen Hawking is to breakdancing, steals a kayak, ventures out into a shipping lane surrounded by fog, and ends up being rescued by the Coast Guard. Without this out of character moment (which is never satisfactorily explained), the movie would have stalled altogether and even more viewers would have lapsed into comas. Mae thinks the publicity – the whole thing was captured on dozens of the company’s SeeChange cameras – will mean the end of her career. But Bailey has other ideas and enlists Mae to promote the company’s latest idea, that of a life led through total transparency. Mae wears a tiny video camera, allows the feed to be shared online, and only gradually begins to understand that The Circle is as dastardly in its aims as everyone else has guessed from the beginning. It’s not until the use of a new app leads to a tragedy that affects Mae directly that she decides to turn the tables on Bailey and… well… let’s just say it’s meant to be ironic and a case of just desserts being served, but it’s so underwhelming you might not believe she’s actually done it.
As dystopian thrillers go, The Circle operates on a level that, much like the Circlers who work for the company, requires the viewer to go along with whatever the movie comes up with, and not to raise any objections. However, Ponsoldt and Eggers have crafted a script that defies the viewer to make any connection with Mae, or Bailey, or her parents (an underused Headly and Paxton), or anyone else for that matter, and which is dramatically inert for much of its running time. It’s a movie in which very little happens, and when it does, it doesn’t have the impact required to lift the movie out of its self-imposed doldrums. It’s a thriller where the director appears to have forgotten to include any thrills, and a message movie where the message is spelt out in big bold letters for anyone watching who might be hard of understanding. It’s a spectacularly misjudged movie, baffling in its intentions, and uncomfortably, unalterably dull.
As well as being unable to elevate the material above the merely mundane, Ponsoldt is also unable to draw out even the hint of a good performance from anyone. Watson gives yet another performance that makes it seem as if she’s still astonished at how she’s been able to sustain a career beyond Harry Potter, while Hanks adopts a friendly uncle persona that is the whole of his portrayal (after this and A Hologram for the King (2016), perhaps he should stay away from any more adaptations of Eggers’ work). Boyega is wasted as the “mysterious” Lafitte (Bailey doesn’t know where he is, even with all his SeeChange cameras; which is a shame as he can be spotted at The Circle’s HQ wandering around quite openly), and several subplots waste the involvement of the likes of Oswalt, Gillan and Coltrane. While the movie clunks along in neutral, with occasional detours into first gear, it also manages to undermine the not inconsiderable talents of its composer, Danny Elfman, its DoP, Matthew Libatique, and its production designer, Gerald Sullivan. And when that’s the best achievement that a movie can make, then it’s definitely time to move on and watch something else.
Rating: 4/10 – boring, dull, uninspired, leaden, bland – take your pick as all of those could (and do) apply to The Circle, the latest in a long line of thrillers that have chosen high tech businesses as their preferred boogeyman; just when you think it’s going to get interesting, it doesn’t, and just when you think Mae will wake up and smell the bullshit, she doesn’t, leaving the movie to promise much, but deliver very, very little in the way of viewing satisfaction.
D: Luc Besson / 137m
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, John Goodman, Elizabeth Debicki, Rutger Hauer
There’s a phrase, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, that needs an update. It should now read, “Beware of French movie directors making vanity projects”. A project that’s been on his mind to make since The Fifth Element (1997), Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets arrives trailing a cosmos-worth of hype and anticipation, but somehow manages to land with a massive, resounding thud. This is a movie that looks continuously busy, but at the same time it feels like it’s leaden and ponderous. It’s another loud barrage of a sci-fi movie driven by mounds of uninteresting exposition, and supported by empty visuals that look amazing but offer as much refreshment as an empty bottle of water. It’s a mess, and one that never lets up in its efforts to impress you with its meticulously detailed sets and costumes, and its tired characterisations. There’s a love story too, between two charismatic military operatives, Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne), that offers occasional and all too brief periods of respite from the CGI onslaught, and which feels as organic as the pixelated backgrounds it plays in front of. And there’s a villain, one so obvious that they might as well stomp around yelling, “I’m the bad guy!” (in case the viewer isn’t sure).
There’s more, lots more, lots and lots and lots of it, with Besson aiming to include a veritable kitchen sink’s worth of alien species, high-tech weaponry, dazzling backdrops, vibrant colours, impressive make up designs, and specious action scenes. There’s a story in there too – somewhere – but it’s overwhelmed by the movie’s need to keep moving from one breakneck-paced scene to another. There are long stretches where the viewer might find themselves wondering if they’ve transitioned into watching the video game version of Valerian… and other stretches where they might also be wondering if Besson actually knows what’s supposed to happen next. Too often, things happen for no better reason than that Besson wants them to, and the pacing seems relentless, as the writer/director flings his lead characters into danger after danger, but without once actually putting them in danger.
The cast suffer almost as often and as much as the viewer. As the titular hero, DeHaan tackles the role with enthusiasm and a fair degree of commitment, but is hampered by Besson’s decision to make Valerian look and sound like a high school kid on his first day at an entry-level job. DeHaan is a talented actor but fantasy sci-fi is not his forte, and he rarely seems comfortable with all the running and leaping about and firing guns. Delevingne, meanwhile, appears to be far more in tune with Besson’s ambitions for the movie, and her knowing, unimpressed demeanour works well for the character, and acts as a subtle commentary on the movie as a whole. But too often, Laureline has to play second fiddle to Valerian, an unhappy circumstance that gives rise to the idea that in the 28th century, sexism still hasn’t been consigned to the dustbin of history.
There’s a great supporting cast, too, used to occasional good effect, but too often required to stand around waiting for the next clunking shift in the storyline to get them moving again. Owen’s character is an angry clown in a self-consciously big hat, Rihanna is a shapeshifting cabaret artist whose admittedly enjoyable stage routine still stops the movie dead in its tracks, Hawke (as Jolly the Pimp no less!) seems to be acting in another movie altogether, while Hauer gets off lightly with a Presidential address at the start of the movie that has all the hallmarks of being a favour to the director. Only Spruell as an harassed general seems to have grasped Besson’s intentions for his character, and as a result, his appearances are a godsend.
In case you’re wondering if there’s anything remotely good about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, then rest assured there is, but unfortunately it’s all packed into the first fifteen to twenty minutes. Here we see the International Space Station grow in size as several countries from Earth send representatives in space vehicles that attach themselves to the station. As time goes by, alien life-forms also visit the station, and the same welcoming rituals are observed: a handshake, a bemused smile/grimace from the human in charge, and a succession of impressively realised aliens who seemed equally bemused by the idea of said handshake. As more and more ships arrive and attach themselves, the space station becomes – ta-da! – Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. It’s a terrific idea, well executed, and bodes well for the rest of the movie. Things look even better when the narrative shifts to the planet Mül, and we’re introduced to the race that live there, a peaceful, pearl-cultivating civilisation that becomes central to the plot later on (as expected), and which is apparently wiped out by events happening nearby in space. But with that prologue out of the way, we’re thrust thirty years on and forced to put up with the romantic aspirations of Valerian, and the machinations of a plot that serves as a second cousin retread of Besson’s earlier work on The Fifth Element (watch that movie now and you’ll see how inter-connected they are).
When a director announces that they’re finally going to make a long-cherished project, and one that they’ve delayed making due to the limitations of existing technology, it should be a cause for celebration. After all, it wouldn’t be wrong to believe that as they have such a passion for the project, that they’d make every effort to ensure the finished product was a vast cut above their other movies, the pinnacle of their career perhaps. But somewhere along the way, Besson has settled for making a movie that is plodding and uninspired. Scenes and characters come and go without making the slightest impact, and Besson makes the same basic error that so many other fantasy/sci-fi directors make: they mistake a distinct visual style for substance. This leaves Valerian… feeling like it’s only half the movie Besson envisaged, and with a generic genre score by the usually reliable Alexandre Desplat to add to the misery, this is a strong contender for Most Disappointing Movie of 2017.
Rating: 4/10 – technical wizardry aside, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is an unabashed dud, content to make as little effort as possible, and trading on its writer/director’s past glories; with its €197 million budget making it the most expensive European and independent movie ever made, it’s a shame that all that money has been used to such undemanding and underwhelming effect.
D: Neill Blomkamp / 22m
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Eugene Khumbanyiwa, Robert Hobbs, Carly Pope, Brandon Auret
In the future, aliens have invaded Earth and set about destroying our world and making it into a facsimile of their own, with giant engines spewing methane into our atmosphere and humans being used as de facto incubators for the aliens themselves. The human resistance is sporadic but determined to fight back with whatever resources it can muster. In Texas in 2020, a small group of resistance fighters led by Jasper (Weaver), hatch a plan that involves the use of helmets called brain barriers that reduce the influence the aliens can have over humans. Enlisting the aid of a bombmaker called Nosh (Auret), Jasper hopes to use the brain barriers and an item made by Nosh to take the fight to the aliens and maybe turn the tide against them.
While Jasper and a handful of her team carry out their mission, a man called Amir (Khumbanyiwa) is tended to by a woman called Sarah. Amir has been rescued from the aliens, but he’s been operated on and his skull is a bio-mechanical fusing of human and alien materials. His condition appears to offer a view into the future, and Sarah attempts to get Amir to tell her what he can see, but though he has visions relating to Jasper’s mission, he’s unable to tell her the outcome he’s privy to.
With District 9 (2009), Neill Blomkamp’s career, previously consisting of shorts, got an impressive boost, and his future as a director seemed assured. But Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015) didn’t fare so well with audiences and critics alike, and Blomkamp’s long-gestating Alien project found itself cancelled when Ridley Scott decided to reboot the original franchise. Faced with setback after setback and unable to get any projects green-lit with the studios, Blomkamp decided to take matters into his own hands and create his own production company, Oats Studios. With a remit that involves producing a number of short movies that are hoped will go viral and be successful enough to raise enough money for full-length movies to be made, Oats Studios is a brave step for the director, but perhaps a necessary one. By starting out small – returning to his own beginnings perhaps – Blomkamp will be able to retain overall control of any productions made under the Oats Studios banner. And if his distinct visual and narrative style is allowed to flourish under these conditions then it’s possible that he could be responsible for other moviemakers following suit and making their own movies without having to go cap in hand to the major studios.
But as a calling card for his new production company, Rakka isn’t necessarily the best choice to entice further viewers or converts to Blomkamp’s cause. Shot both formally and experimentally – which gives the movie a slightly schizophrenic feel – Rakka is yet another dystopian slice of science fiction that riffs on both District 9 and Chappie through its gritty, effects-heavy visual style and deliberately disjointed editing. Making the most of an obviously low budget, Blomkamp pays close attention to creating a familiar mise en scene for his story to unfold in front of, but forgets to provide as much detail for the characters or the overall storyline. This leads to some scenes appearing out of sync with others, as if the limitations of the budget meant that Blomkamp had to make too many concessions in order to meet the requirements of the running time, and the script suffered as a result. It’s clear that this is a taster for a longer movie, and if it’s ever made it would, hopefully, delve more into the workings of our invaded world, and provide audiences with a clearer picture of what’s happening. But Blomkamp has taken a risk by leaving so much unanswered, and by hoping that he’s done enough to encourage enough interest to get a full-length version made in the future. Too often it’s the substance that suffers in a short movie, and while Rakka is a visually enthralling experience, the alien invasion storyline isn’t as immediately compelling as it could have been.
Rating: 5/10 – though Blomkamp should be applauded for taking his moviemaking career into his own hands, Rakka sees the director revisiting past glories to a much lesser effect; hopefully, other Oats Studios releases will veer away from the recurrent themes and imagery of Blomkamp’s movies so far, and if they’re to be successful, concentrate instead on creating much more original content.
There’s no official trailer for Rakka, but the movie can be seen here:
D: Ridley Scott / 122m
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Siemetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich
When the Alien franchise was given a new lease of life with official prequel Prometheus (2012), audiences were teased with the idea that they would finally learn just where the series’ chief villain, the xenomorph, came from. Prometheus, though, raised far more questions than it provided answers, and while it introduced the Engineers and went some way to showing the xenomorph’s origins (though not the reasons for its creation), the intended link between this first prequel and the original Alien (1979) remained obscure, and still far from being revealed. With Alien: Covenant, audiences could be excused for believing that some of those unanswered questions would be addressed, and the connecting story expanded on. But with at least two further prequels (sequels to the prequels?) planned, and possibly a third, the message here is frustratingly clear: don’t expect to learn anything you didn’t already know.
After the cod-theological leanings of Prometheus, the latest in the saga opts instead for cod-philosophical leanings, and spends time musing on notions of creation and acknowledging one’s place in the scheme of things. But the movie – scripted by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green – isn’t interested in exploring these notions in relation to the human contingent of the story, but instead in relation to two androids: David and Walter (both Fassbender) who represent opposite ends of their creationist cycle. David is the prototype, while Walter is the later model built to surpass the limitations of the original. Together they talk about their creator’s expectations for them, and then their own. But while on the surface these musings appear in keeping with the wider story of the xenomorph’s creation (whatever that may be), they don’t add as much depth to the material as may have been intended. Instead, they provide a basis and a reason for a third act “reveal” that exists purely to set up the next installment.
Before then, we’re introduced to the latest group of dinner dates for the murderous xenomorph. Only this time it’s either a neomorph (“infant” version) or a protomorph (“adult” version), but either way it still behaves like its forebear(?), has acid for blood, screeches like a banshee, and kills anyone in its path. This time around, the movie’s motley band of victims is the crew of the colony ship Covenant. A group of terraformers en route to an Earth-like planet called Origae-6, their cargo consists of two thousand colonists all in cryo-sleep, and a thousand embryos all in cold storage. While the crew also enjoys their cryo-sleep (they’re seven-and-a-half years away from reaching their destination), Walter carries out a variety of assigned tasks and monitors the ship and its personnel. A blast of unexpected solar energy damages the ship, and Walter wakes up the crew – all except for the captain, whose cryo-pod refuses to open. Thanks to the damage to the ship’s systems, the captain burns to death in his cryo-pod, which leaves Oram (Crudup) in charge.
A distress signal picked up from a planet that apparently doesn’t exist on any celestial maps reveals a human origin, and prompts Oram to redirect the Covenant to check it out. With the planet appearing to support human life, and being only a few weeks’ to get to, the reservations of chief terraformer Daniels (Waterston) are acknowledged but unheeded. Leaving chief pilot Tennessee (McBride) and two other crewmembers on board, Oram, along with Daniels, Walter, and the rest of the crew descends to the planet’s surface. There they find an anomaly in the form of wheat, a crashed spaceship, danger in the form of spores that infect two of the crew, and an unexpected rescuer when said spores precipitate the deaths of more than the infected. With a massive magnetic storm hindering their return to the Covenant, Oram and the remaining crew must find a way to survive the deadly intentions of the protomorph, and a more sinister danger lurking in their midst.
Those who found themselves dissatisfied with the direction taken in Prometheus will be pleased with this return to the series’ more basic roots, but even though it’s a step in the right direction, the problem with the movie overall is that it doesn’t offer anything new, and it doesn’t come close to replicating the tension and sense of dread that made Alien such an impressive outing. It tries to, and the script is clearly designed and constructed to provide gory set pieces at regular intervals in honour of the series’ abiding commitment to shocking audiences with jolts of body horror, but for anyone who’s seen all the previous movies in the franchise, this is a retread of scenes and set ups that were far more effective the first time round. Likewise the introduction of the various characters as regular joes, a device used to very good effect in Alien, but which here is truncated in favour of getting on with the action. Inevitably this means that when the crew starts to be whittled down, it doesn’t have the same effect as in the past, and Waterston’s plucky terraformer aside, it’s difficult to care about anyone as well.
In many ways, Alien: Covenant is a stripped down series’ entry that concentrates more on reliving old glories than advancing the franchise’s intended long-form narrative. Whatever happens in Alien: Awakening (2019?), it’s to be hoped that it reverts to telling the story begun in Prometheus and which should eventually connect with Alien. Here there are still more questions to be answered, and there’s a suspicion that the writers are already painting themselves into a corner, and that the decision to make a handful of prequels instead of just one all-encompassing prequel is beginning to look more than a little unsound. This has all the hallmarks of a movie made in response to the negative reaction afforded Prometheus, and if so, you have to wonder what this movie would have been like if the reaction had been positive. More of the same? Further exploration of the Engineers and their motivations? More pseudo-religious theorising? Less rampaging alien attacks and gory killings? It looks as if we’ll never know.
With the characters reduced mostly to alien-bait, only Fassbender and Waterston make any impact, though it is good to see McBride playing it completely straight for once. Fassbender is a mercurial actor but he always seems to have a stillness about him that seeps through in all his performances. Here as both David and Walter, that stillness is used to tremendous effect, and whether he’s waxing lyrical about art and music as David, or looking concerned as Walter, Fassbender provides two endlessly fascinating portrayals for the price of one. Waterston is equally impressive in a role that will inevitably draw comparisons with Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, but Waterston is canny enough not to make Daniels as strong-willed as Ripley, nor as valorous. Though she’s the movie’s nominal heroine, Daniels retains a vulnerability that Ripley didn’t have at all, and Waterston is a winning presence, her last act heroism borne out of desperation rather than determination.
Third time around, Ridley Scott ensures the movie looks as beautiful and darkly realised as his other entries, but somehow fails to make the movie as tense and compelling as Alien, or as intellectually portentous as Prometheus. He does ensure that the movie rattles along at a fair old lick, but with the script providing a series of “greatest hits” moments for him to revisit, Scott’s involvement doesn’t always appear to be as purposeful as in the past. There are too many moments where the movie’s energy seems to flag, and the tension dissipates as a result, leaving the viewer to wonder, if a director’s cut should be released in the future, will it be shorter than the theatrical version? And not even he can avoid making the movie’s coda look uninspired and predictable, all of which begs the question, should someone else sit in the director’s chair for the rest of the prequels?
Rating: 6/10 – a fitful, occasionally impressive second prequel/first sequel, Alien: Covenant revisits the haunted house horror tropes that made the first movie so successful, but finds little inspiration to help it fulfill its intentions; another missed opportunity to make the series as momentous as it was nearly forty years ago, where the story goes from here remains to be seen, but in continuing Scott et al really need to remember that a satisfying mystery requires a satisfying answer, something that this entry seems to have forgotten about entirely.
D: James Gunn / 136m
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Kurt Russell, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Laura Haddock
At the end of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), there was a reference to the identity of Peter Quill/Star Lord’s father. It wasn’t particularly complimentary, but it did give some idea of where a sequel might be headed if the movie was successful (which it ever so slightly was). Three months on from the events of the first movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 begins with our heroes working for the Sovereign, a race led by Ayesha (Debicki). Charged with protecting some valuable batteries, the Guardians complete their mission but manage to earn the Sovereign’s enmity when it’s discovered that Rocket (Cooper) has stolen some of the batteries himself. Attacked by hundreds of Sovereign drone ships, the Guardians’ spaceship suffers a lot of damage before it can make a light speed jump to safety – and before the drone ships are all destroyed by another mysterious craft.
The Guardians crash land on a nearby planet and the mysterious craft lands also. The owner of the craft reveals himself as Peter’s father, called Ego (Russell), and that he’s been searching for Peter (Pratt) for years. It also transpires that Peter was abducted from Earth by Ravager Yondu Udonta (Rooker) at Ego’s request (though why Yondu kept charge of Peter goes unexplained). Now reunited, Ego suggests they travel to his home planet so that he can be “the father he should have been”. While Peter, Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Bautista) agree to journey with him, Rocket and Baby Groot (Diesel) stay behind to repair their ship and look after Nebula (Gillan), Gamora’s sister and the payment they received from the Sovereign for their work. However, Ayesha has hired Yondu with the mission of retrieving the stolen batteries and capturing the Guardians.
On Ego’s home planet, Peter and his father begin to bond, but Gamora senses that something isn’t right. Ego’s attendant, an empath called Mantis (Klementieff), appears anxious over Peter’s being there but remains silent. Meanwhile, Yondu has been the victim of a mutiny, and some of his crew, led by self-proclaimed Taserface (Sullivan) and aided by Nebula, have taken over the ship. Nebula takes a ship and heads for Ego’s planet intent on killing Gamora, while Rocket, Baby Groot and Yondu find they need to work together to avoid being killed. Soon, everyone, including another drone armada sent by Ayesha, is heading for Ego’s planet, and the fate of the Guardians and hundreds of other far-flung planets hangs in the balance…
The surprise success of Guardians of the Galaxy three years ago was a shot in the arm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, proving to audiences becoming accustomed to a regular diet of superhero theatrics, that there was more to said Universe than egotists in tin suits, enhanced super soldiers, and feuding demi-gods. By making a movie that had nothing to do with anyone else in the MCU, Marvel showed a confidence in their original material, and in the movie’s writer/director, that could so easily have backfired on them. That it didn’t must lie squarely on the creative shoulders of James Gunn, the man who took a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells and made them loved the world over. It wasn’t long before there was talk of the Guardians appearing in Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but a sequel was already in place. So – what to do with them in the meantime?
The answer is…not very much at all. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 falls into the category of uninspired Marvel sequel, a placement it shares with Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (only the Captain America sequels have avoided falling into this category). While it’s true that there’s much to enjoy this time around, and the first movie’s freewheeling sense of fun and adventure is firmly in place, the fact is that this is a two and a quarter hour movie that runs out of steam – dramatically at least – at around the hour and a quarter mark. By that time, the three main storylines – Peter finds his father, Yondu makes amends for breaking the Ravager code, Gamora and Nebula come to terms with their hatred of each other – have all reached a point where there’s nowhere further for them to go, and James Gunn’s script lurches into an extended series of showdowns and signposted revelations that offer little in the way of character or plot development.
On this occasion, and with only one post-credits scene designed to set up the already announced Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s clear that this is Marvel’s first true filler movie, designed and made to capitalise on the success of the original, and to fill a gap in the release schedule. Fortunately though, and again thanks to the involvement of Gunn and his returning cast, this is a filler movie that replicates much of the first movie’s highly enjoyable charm and visual quirkiness. From the opening credits sequence that sees Baby Groot dancing to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky while his fellow Guardians take on a multi-tentacled inter-dimensional monster in the background, Gunn’s novel approach to the material proves (again) to be one of the movie’s MVP’s, and is only bested by the sequence later in the movie when Yondu and Rocket take back control of Yondu’s ship. (However, Ego’s home planet looks like it was designed by My Little Pony on an acid trip.)
But while there’s a heck of a lot going on visually, it’s down in the story department that the movie shows signs of wear and tear. The emphasis on family ties is made over and over again as old enemies become bosom buddies in order to give the movie a happy, feelgood vibe, and the ranks of the Guardians are swelled temporarily (this is personal redemption achieved easily and without the slightest challenge). The characters remain much the same too, with Peter and Gamora still at odds over their attraction for each other, and Rocket retaining his knack for deliberately saying things that will antagonise others. Drax is even more insensitive than before, Nebula is still consumed with rage against her father, Thanos, and Baby Groot – well, he’s still just as cute (if not more so). Of the newcomers, Gunn doesn’t seem entirely sure of how to use Mantis, Ayesha is akin to a spoilt little princess, while Ego’s “purpose” isn’t fully explored, and makes Russell work extra hard in getting the idea across to audiences.
With much of the movie underperforming in this way, it’s fortunate that Gunn has retained the irreverent sense of humour present in the first movie, and there are some very funny moments indeed, from Rocket being described as a “trash panda”, to an out of leftfield reference to Mary Poppins, and the pay-off to the first post-credits scene. Elsewhere, Sylvester Stallone pops up in a role that’s intended to be expanded on in future outings, Russell is given the same younger version treatment Michael Douglas received in Ant-Man (2015), the Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 2 is exactly that, and the space battles are bewildering in terms of what’s happening and to whom. But with all that, this is still hugely enjoyable stuff, lavishly produced and glossy from start to finish, and designed to please the fans first and foremost. On that level it will probably succeed, but it won’t change the fact that this is not quite the triumphant sequel that many will be expecting – or hearing about.
Rating: 6/10 – with much of the movie feeling flat and ponderous in terms of the drama, and the characters no further forward in terms of their development, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gets by on its often inspired humour, and the chemistry that unites its cast; a safe bet for the most part, with enough inventiveness and charm to make it look and sound better than it is, it’s a solid enough movie, but in automobile terms, it doesn’t have too much going on under the hood.
D: Daniel Espinosa / 104m
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
It’s a good day on the International Space Station (ISS). A probe that has been collecting soil samples from the Mars surface is on its way back and is about to be intercepted by the team on board the ISS. The hope is that the soil samples will contain evidence of extraterrestrial life. The team – medical officer Dr David Jordan (Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Dr Miranda North (Ferguson), systems engineer Rory “Roy” Adams (Reynolds), ISS pilot Sho Murakami (Sanada), biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare), and ISS commander Ekaterina Golovkina (Dihovichnaya) – are all excited at the prospect. They’re further excited when they discover a dormant cell in amongst the samples. Derry manages to revive it, and it’s not long before it grows into a multi-celled organism. Back on Earth, the news is received with even greater excitement, and the organism is given the name Calvin.
However, Calvin enters another period of dormancy. Derry elects to use a low-level electric shock to help re-stimulate it, but this approach has an unexpected result: Calvin attaches itself to Derry’s hand and begins to crush it. Derry manages to free himself, and while Calvin devours a lab rat, Adams rushes in to the quarantine area to rescue him. Derry gets out but Adams isn’t so lucky: Calvin attaches itself to his leg, leaving Jordan no option but to keep them both locked inside the quarantine area. Adams does his best to kill Calvin but the creature escapes into the vents. As it continues to grow it causes further problems for the crew, leading them to realise that it’s far more intelligent than they could ever have expected.
With their communication with Earth cut off, and an attempt to send Calvin into deep space failing, the ISS enters a decaying orbit, one that will see it burn up on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. Certain that Calvin would survive such an event, the crew have to come up with a plan that will see Calvin stopped from reaching Earth’s surface, while also ensuring their own safety, but further events dictate that this won’t be as easy as they’d hoped, and soon time is running out for everyone – both on the ISS and on Earth…
The first thing that anyone will tell you about Life is that it’s so obviously an Alien (1979) rip-off (and that’s supposed to make it a bad thing). And while it does share certain elements with that movie, it’s also a little unfair to damn the whole movie with such faint praise. With Ridley Scott poaching his own genre classic in Prometheus (2012), and no doubt the upcoming Alien: Covenant (2017) as well, accusing Life of being a rip-off isn’t exactly fair criticism. And if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Life has taken a pretty good template from which to tell its story. What screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have done is taken the bare bones of the Alien premise, and from that they’ve created an intense, thrill-ride of a movie that – if it has a real problem – only falls short when it focuses on the characters.
One aspect where the movie doesn’t emulate Alien is in the speed with which it puts the ISS crew in danger. There’s no leisurely build-up, no time to get to know anyone, and as a result, no one to care about. The characters express themselves solely through their roles on board the ISS, and when they do stop to express any philosophical or moral implications to the situation they’ve found themselves in, it all feels trite and under-developed. It’s all a bit Screenwriting 101: give the characters an inner life for the audience to connect with. But these interludes only serve to stall the movie and stop it from what it does best, which is ramp up the tension, exert as much pressure on the crew as possible, and reduce the odds of anyone surviving the longer the movie progresses.
To this end, director Daniel Espinosa and his editors, Mary Jo Markey and Frances Parker, have fashioned a series of encounters and showdowns between Calvin and the ISS crew that equate to good old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat sequences designed to have audiences holding their breath as they wait to see what’s going to happen next. Life is like a rollercoaster ride, but an often grim, horrific rollercoaster ride, one that doesn’t let up (except for those pesky dialogue scenes), and which isn’t afraid to be nasty when it wants to be. Like the Nostromo before it, the ISS is a claustrophobic, up-is-down environment where Calvin could strike at any time. Espinosa lets the camera – operated with his usual aplomb by Seamus McGarvey – roam the corridors and remote areas of the ISS with an eerie stealth, emulating Calvin’s point of view or just setting up a scare that may or may not happen (you’ll never be too sure).
With the majority of the movie given over to these sequences, Life holds the attention and plays out its simple storyline with a great deal of confidence and a gripping visual style to it. The cast, however, are hampered by the script’s need for their characters to be introspective from time to time – too often, actually – and when they’re not debating whether Calvin should be feared or admired or both, they’re action figures floating around the ISS trying to survive. Gyllenhaal has a back-story that involves wanting to be completely alone, and which gives you a clue as to the eventual resolution, but it doesn’t resonate enough to feel important, just contrived. Ferguson is the tough decision-maker who won’t feel pity or remorse for killing another living creature, even if it is just trying to survive on its own terms, while Reynolds adds yet another semi-anarchic risk-taker to his resumé, a role he does well but which he could probably do in his sleep by now. Sanada and Bakare have their moments, and both actors are well-cast in their roles, bringing a much-needed sincerity to characters who could have been entirely forgettable. Which is almost the sad fate of Dihovichnaya, except that her encounter with Calvin is one of the movie’s more impressive set ups.
Fans of serious science fiction will find lots to annoy them, and though there are many occasions where disbelief is suspended too easily for the movie’s own good, Life isn’t going to be regarded as a modern classic like its genre forbear, but in terms of what it sets out to do – that is, entertain an audience – it succeeds for the most part, and its cheesy, forehead-slapping conclusion aside, is a lot more effective than most people will give it credit for. This isn’t a movie that will change your life, nor will it prompt anyone to become an astronaut and work on the ISS, but it is a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment, and in Calvin it has an alien life form that is one of the most well-conceived creatures ever seen on our screens; and it’s eerily beautiful too.
Rating: 7/10 – boasting superb production design and a vivid sense of impending doom, Life isn’t entirely successful, but it does more than enough to justify its existence (Alien clone or not); a popcorn movie for anyone seeking an undemanding hour and three quarters to kill, it’s unashamedly populist moviemaking and none the worse for being so.
D: Rupert Sanders / 107m
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Peter Ferdinando, Anamaria Marinca, Chin Han, Kaori Momoi
While watching Ghost in the Shell, the latest animation to live action remake to reach our screens, it’s not too long before the question, Why? pops up. As in, why has this movie been made in the first place? Visually stunning but emotionally stagnant, this close proximity adaptation of the manga original (released in 1995) looks impressive, but soon reveals a heart that is as non-existent as its lead character’s. This is a sleek, shiny, superficial movie that in some ways has a very apt title: the movie is a ghost in its own shell, offering little in the way of a coherent or cohesive meaningful subtext about what it means to be synthetic of body and yet human of mind. This makes it very difficult to sympathise with Scarlett Johansson’s Major, despite her frowning a lot of the time as if she’s trying to work out a particularly difficult Sudoku puzzle.
Although this is a very faithful adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking anime, somewhere along the way, the essence of Oshii’s work has been jettisoned in favour of a standard, by-the-numbers approach that keeps its characters firmly entrenched in a kind of personality-free limbo, and which struggles to provide equally standard motivations for their actions. Major’s dilemma: are the glitches she experiences part of a past that has been suppressed (for nefarious reasons), or merely issues with her current programming, is played out in such a way that there’s no emotional payoff or impact when – surprise! – the extent of those nefarious reasons are revealed.
Part of the problem here is the amount of time that’s passed since the original Ghost in the Shell was released. Twenty-two years on and the issues it raises around notions of self-identity and cyber-assisted body enhancement have become too commonplace in cinema for this incarnation to contain any resonance. With nothing new to offer, or even follow up on, the movie lacks the relevancy it could have had if it had been made twenty years ago. Instead, it makes a few spurious attempts at looking and sounding significant, and opts for a bland, uninspired standpoint that ensures the movie takes no real risks with the material (aside from the equally spurious idea that Johansson’s casting was a case of “whitewashing”).
With the script – credited to Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger – showing signs of ennui thanks to its long gestation process (the project was first announced in 2008), and Sanders unable to overcome the problems that hold it back from allowing its audience to engage with it, Ghost in the Shell ultimately – and ironically given how impressive it looks – suffers from a lack of vision that does it more harm than good. As a result, the cast are often left stranded by the banal nature of the material. Johansson tries her best, but is hamstrung by having to look deadly serious all the time, while Asbæk and Binoche have thankless secondary roles; only Kitano has the measure of his character, and he plays the head of Section 9 perfectly. In the end, the movie is only effective in its many well-choreographed action scenes, but even they’re not enough to offset the tedium that makes up the rest of its running time.
Rating: 6/10 – anyone looking for a live action anime with depth and something to say about the ethics of melding humans and machines should look elsewhere, as Ghost in the Shell has little to say about either; a remake that lacks purpose and drive, it’s a movie that disappoints on many levels, and which makes the cardinal sin of not being very interesting.
D: Morten Tyldum / 116m
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia
The spaceship Avalon is on its one hundred and twenty year journey from Earth to colony planet Homestead II. On board are two hundred and fifty-eight crew and five thousand passengers, people looking to build new lives on the colony planet. Everyone is in a state of suspended animation, asleep in hibernation pods until the Avalon is a few months from reaching its destination. Thirty years into the journey, the ship is struck by a massive meteorite. Following this, one of the passengers, engineer Jim Preston (Pratt) is woken from hibernation. The only passenger who’s awake, and with no way of resetting the hibernation pod to put him back to sleep, Jim finds the only company he has is that of an android barman named Arthur (Sheen).
After a year by himself, Jim is joined by Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer looking to find a story in the migration from Earth. As time goes by, a romance develops between them. But the ship is constantly malfunctioning, sometimes to the extent of putting Jim and Aurora’s lives at risk. They do what they can to fix things as they happen, but it becomes obvious that there’s a bigger problem to contend with – they just don’t know what it is. When crew member Gus Mancuso (Fishburne) is also awoken by mistake, the trio begin to make a concerted effort to locate the source of all the malfunctions. But when they do, the potential arises for one of them to have to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the ship…
Ostensibly a sci-fi movie about a stricken ship and the stranded souls on board, Passengers works best as a romantic drama, but even then it lacks the depth and the courage of its own convictions. Jim and Aurora make for a seemingly perfect couple, but thanks to the way in which the movie is advertised, what you don’t learn until seeing the movie is that their relationship is founded on a lie. So you have a broad, generic romance where two people inevitably fall in love, and just as inevitably part ways before coming together again for the sake of the movie’s big finish (and an unnecessary coda). Lawrence and Pratt work well together, and there’s a certain amount of chemistry between them, but unfortunately the emphasis is on the spaceship rather than their characters’ straightforwardly handled romance.
Tyldum’s last feature was The Imitation Game (2014), another movie that lacked a sense of tension (or urgency) as it told its story, and his work here is no different, failing to make the ever-expanding crisis on board into the pulse-pounding race against time it needs to be to be fully effective. Instead, Jon Spaihts’ script has Pratt mouthing romantic platitudes at every opportunity, while Lawrence endeavours to make her character’s novelistic intentions at all interesting. Only Sheen rises above the blandness of the material, and he does so by means of some very detailed micro-expressions. Unsurprisingly, the movie looks very good indeed, with Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography highlighting and complementing the sterling production design of Guy Hendrix Dyas. But when a movie fails to make you care if either or both of the main characters lives or dies, then there’s definitely something that’s not working as it should be.
Rating: 5/10 – a decent premise that’s handled with too many broad brush strokes, Passengers wastes its cast on a characters in peril narrative that should have been given more prominence, and a romance that remains tepid throughout; Lawrence and Pratt do their best, but even they look as if they’ve lost interest by the time the third act hoves into view, and Tyldum never quite seems to know how to knit everything together into a satisfying whole.
aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
D: Gareth Edwards / 133m
Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, James Earl Jones
Rogue One is like the bride at a wedding: it’s got something old – an implied storyline from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope; something new – characters we haven’t seen before; something borrowed – the plot of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi; and something blue – Donnie Yen’s contact lenses. It also has a hard time deciding what kind of Star Wars movie it wants to be, whether it’s closer in spirit to Episode IV, or thanks to the technology employed, nearer to the look and feel of Episode I. With no clear decision made, the movie ends up being neither; instead it equates itself as an awkward mix of the two, where the perceived low tech of Episode IV clashes with the confused storytelling of Episode I. Make no mistake, this is a Star Wars movie, but it’s an amalgam of moods and irregular narrative necessities that stop it from becoming as impressive as it wants to be.
We’re in trouble right from the start, with a prologue that introduces us to Death Star designer and loving father Galen Erso (Mikkelsen). Having helped the Empire to begin building their big, bad planet killer, Erso has somehow managed to get away with his wife, Lyra, and young daughter Jyn, and avoid detection on a remote, largely uninhabitable planet. But big, bad Empire honcho Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) has found him, and plans to take Galen back with him to help finish building the Death Star. Soon, Lyra is dead, Jyn is hiding in a hole in the ground, and Galen is whisked off to continue in his task of facilitating the Empire’s desire to commit repeated intergalactic genocide. Later, Jyn is discovered by half-human, half-tin man Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), and taken under his resistance fighter wing.
There are several things wrong with this sequence, and they’re indicative of the problems the rest of the movie has to try and cope with (and largely unsuccessfully). First there’s the matter of the Death Star itself, which is still being built at this point, and which needs Galen’s presence in order to be completed. This begs the question, is the Death Star being built bit by bit as Galen comes up with the design bit by bit, or has he designed it all but there’s no one else who can understand what his design entails? And then Lyra, who has initially fled with Jyn, leaves her daughter, faces down Krennic with a blaster, and is killed for her trouble by his guards, making her death entirely pointless. Jyn sees all this and runs and hides in the aforementioned hole in the ground that is camouflaged by a large, fake rock. And while Krennic’s guards look for her, and are right next to where she’s hiding, we witness Jyn peering out through a gap in the “rock” – a gap that allows us to see her eyes and nose, and which even blind Jedi disciple, Chirrut Îmwe (Yen), could have spotted. But she remains there until Gerrera arrives to save her – even though there’s no reason for him to know she’s there in the first place.
There are more illogical steps throughout, and as it progresses the movie becomes more and more confusing, and narratively complex, as the plans for the Death Star require the Rebel Alliance – in the form of Cassian Andor (Luna), his robot sidekick, K-2SO (Tudyk), Îmwe and his friend, Baze Malbus (Jiang), and later, Empire pilot turned rebel Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), and not to mention a now adult Jyn – to trek here, there and seemingly everywhere in their efforts to track down a copy of its plans, and so enable the rebels to have something to do in Episode IV (when they’re not playing second fiddle to a farm boy, a scoundrel, an old man and a Wookiee, not to mention the wheezy guy in the black helmet who pops up here a couple of times).
In the process of this search, mistrust between characters is overcome, an old villain (not Vader) makes a semi-welcome return (you might be excited until you get a closer look at him), battles are fought, lives are lost and/or sacrificed, stormtroopers are dispatched by the bucket load, good triumphs over evil, and the whole unconvincing mishmash of ideas dovetails nicely into the beginning of Episode IV. There are a couple of standout moments: Vader taking his red lightsabre to a corridor full of unlucky rebels, Îmwe’s martial arts takedown of a dozen or so stormtroopers (it’s always good to see Yen in action), and though they’re sometimes blatant (though also necessary) in their placement, there are plenty of riffs and pre-echoes of events in Episode IV to keep the fans happy.
Ultimately it’ll be the fans who will take this installment of the re-ongoing Star Wars franchise to their hearts, but for newcomers to the saga, or even those who are keen to see what all the more recent fuss is about, this will be a bit of a struggle. Part of the problem is that no matter what obstacles are put in the way of Jyn and the rebels, we all know the outcome. With a pre-ordained conclusion ahead of us, it’s also difficult to care about any of the characters, despite the best efforts of a cast who aren’t exactly lightweights. But Luna is too earnest; Jones runs him a close second; Tudyk contributes yet another robot-with-attitude performance (why do robots have to have an attitude?); Yen and Jiang make for a great, if underused, team; Mendelsohn vacillates between scowling menace and angry outbursts in a fruitless search for something to make Krennic more interesting as a villain; Whitaker and Mikkelsen both lack for screen time and never overcome their minor character status; Ahmed does wide-eyed and shell-shocked for too long; and the great James Earl Jones is brought in for a scene where, unfortunately, Vader’s dialogue only serves to muddy the waters of what’s happening even more than they’re muddied already.
With the script – by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy – moving safely from one join-the-dots scene to the next, and providing little in the way of depth, Rogue One has to fall back on its visuals, and in that respect, the movie holds a little potency. There’s still no one shot that will invoke awe or a sense of wonder (like the Star Destroyer taking up more and more room at the top of the screen at the beginning of Episode IV), and while there’s plenty of beautiful moments to take in, even the Death Star at one point emerging from hyperspace, there aren’t quite enough to make this installment stand out from the rest.
As a so-called stand alone movie, Rogue One doesn’t fit the bill, as it’s too busy reminding everyone of its connection to the series’ opener, and as an additional entry to the franchise timeline, it’s further entrenched in the overall story arc. In charge of it all, Gareth Edwards does a great job of arranging all the elements (even if he can’t overcome the clumsiness that comes with them), and he ensures that the movie hits the required number of beats on time and to its best advantage, but this is still Star Wars-by-numbers, a functional if unnecessary addition to the series, and if it doesn’t tarnish the legacy of the overall franchise, it still doesn’t quite add anything to it either.
Rating: 7/10 – superficially entertaining with its blockbuster mentality and slick, professional appearance, Rogue One lacks the heart and charm of the original trilogy, and plays out its tale efficiently and with any emotion firmly kept in check; a movie then that mimics the series’ best values without appreciating or embracing them fully, and which should leave the impartial viewer feeling more than a little let down by it all.
D: Luke Scott / 92m
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Giamatti, Michael Yare, Chris Sullivan, Vinette Robinson, Brian Cox
As the song has it, “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…” Not once you see Kate Mara’s risk assessment consultant, Lee Weathers, driving to a facility hidden deep in the woods where a science experiment, codenamed L9, is going badly wrong. The experiment in question is the creation of a human/nano technology hybrid. The hybrid (Taylor-Joy) looks like a young woman, is called Morgan, is actually five years old, and has recently stabbed one of the team, Kathy (Leigh), repeatedly in the face and blinded them in their left eye. With a psych evaluation planned to take place that will determine whether or not the project continues, Lee’s role is to make the final decision, either to continue the work or to shut it down.
For everyone’s safety, Morgan is confined to a room that has toughened glass from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. She appears to understand the need for this, but the team are overly apologetic about the incident with Kathy. They all state that it was their fault and not Morgan’s; they should have known better, should have been paying better attention to her current mental state. Lee takes none of this for granted, but does accept that they treat Morgan more as a human being than as a thing. When the psychiatrist, Dr Alan Shapiro (Giamatti), arrives the next day to conduct his assessment, his approach goads Morgan to anger, and a violent outburst means that Lee has no option but to shut down the project.
She’s stopped, though, by the team. Rendered unconscious, she awakes in Morgan’s safe room, while the team’s own efforts to control the situation – and Morgan – start to unravel at an alarming rate. By the time Lee finds a way out of the room, Morgan’s determination to be free from the confines of the facility has proven disastrous for the team, and she makes her escape, taking along Amy (Leslie), who is the one member of the team that Morgan considers is her friend. But Lee is equally determined to find Morgan and make sure that the project is shut down once and for all.
Morgan is director Luke Scott’s first feature, a step up in terms of money and opportunity following his clever and impressive short movie, Loom (2012). That movie augured well for the future, but with Morgan it seems that Ridley Scott’s son has been let down by a poorly realised script, and the faint whiff of post-production interference. There’s little about the movie that works as well as it should, and long-time fans of this type of speculative sci-fi will be dismayed by the many ways in which the narrative shies away from making any kind of moral statement.
Another screenplay picked out from the Black List (this time 2014’s), Morgan begins with a shocking act of violence, and continues with not one character reacting or behaving normally in its wake. Everyone carries on as if it was a minor incident, one that’s hardly worth bothering about. Morgan behaving strangely is to be expected, but when the team behave even more strangely than she does, and right from the start, then it only serves to undermine the drama that follows. Only Michelle Yeoh’s mother figure acts as if she has any idea of the consequences to Morgan’s actions, but she’s allotted so little screen time that she becomes the occasional, and token, voice of reason, trotted out to offer a limited balance to everyone else’s strange behaviour.
Things are further hampered by the character of Lee, played with stony-faced antipathy by Mara. It’s a role that’s difficult to talk about without revealing too much of why the character is at the facility in the first place, but while she’s an outsider given over to remaining so, Mara provides a better performance than expected, giving Lee an unexpected likeability even though she’s pretty much there to conduct a corporate hatchet job if necessary. As the movie progresses, her minimal social skills are stripped away, and Mara again strikes a careful balance between “assassin for hire” and consultant doing her job. She’s matched by Taylor-Joy, whose bleached looks and unnerving stare never quite manage to morph into the features of someone you could trust implicitly. Though her motivation becomes more and more strained as the movie continues, her performance highlights the emotions that Morgan has managed to express, even though she can’t understand them properly.
Alas, the rest of the cast aren’t given nearly enough to make their roles worthwhile, and as you might expect, some are just waiting around until Morgan decides that everyone is surplus to requirements. The final half hour ups the ante in terms of action, and Mara and Taylor-Joy enjoy some well-choreographed fight scenes, but even then there’s a distinct lack of tension or energy. Scott seems unable to inject the necessary spark to make things that much more exciting, and the movie suffers as a result. As it heads towards an inevitable conclusion, one that it’s set up right from the moment we first see Lee in her car, Morgan begins to look and sound and feel like another great idea for a movie given the least amount of commitment by all involved. That’s not entirely true, but there are large stretches where the viewer won’t be able to shake off that feeling at all.
Watching Morgan, there’s an obvious correlation with Ex Machina (2015), but this is a different movie with a different agenda, and nowhere near as complex. The script by Seth W. Owen isn’t as fully rounded or well thought out as it needs to be, and Scott never really finds a way to avoid the pitfalls that Owen has left in situ. And watching the movie unfold, and the speed with which it changes direction from a somewhat intriguing sci-fi thriller to all-out action drama, it does smack a little of interference in the post-production stages, as if the producers had realised that the movie was in danger of losing its audience altogether if it didn’t change tack. On the plus side, the movie does have a decent score courtesy of Max Richter, and Tom McCullagh’s production design does help to anchor the movie in a more realistic fashion than the script does.
Rating: 4/10 – what could have been an intriguing, thought-provoking movie is scuppered by poor narrative choices, a lack of credible characterisations, and a shift in tone two thirds in that alters the movie’s trajectory as if no one would notice; a good idea given a lacklustre presentation, Morgan will only satisfy those viewers who don’t expect much from sci-fi thrillers, or are comfortable looking at things only on a superficial level.
D: Denis Villeneuve / 116m
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma
Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguistics professor whose private life has recently been shattered by the break up of her marriage and the death of her daughter from cancer. Getting by but still grieving, Louise is as unprepared as the rest of the world when twelve huge spaceships suddenly appear one day in different locations around the globe. Soon, though, she is approached by the US military – in the form of Colonel G.T. Weber (Whitaker) – to aid in communicating with the aliens on board the ship that hovers over American soil in Montana. The best in her field in terms of linguistics and translations, Louise joins Weber’s team along with mathematician and scientist Ian Donnelly (Renner).
In Montana, Louise and Ian are advised that the most important question is, What do they want? Later, they ascend into the ship – called a “shell” by the military – and have their first encounter with the aliens. A symbol is written on the screen that separates the aliens in their atmosphere from Louise and Ian et al in theirs. Using it as the basis of the aliens’ language, Louise soon deduces that the symbol doesn’t just translate into one word, but into many. From then on she is able to determine much more of how the aliens communicate. Meanwhile, at the other arrival sites, particularly in China, suspicion and distrust of the aliens’ intensions are leading to veiled threats of attack on the shells, while violent unrest occurs around the globe.
Louise begins to have visions of a little girl, who in various ways helps her to understand more of what the aliens are communicating. When she translates a symbol and the meaning is “Offer weapon”, it causes the CIA agent in charge of the whole operation in Montana, Halpern (Stuhlbarg), to order an evacuation. But Louise insists they should stay, to keep faith with the aliens, and to complete the mission to find out why they are here. She returns to the shell by herself, and by coming into direct contact with the aliens, Louise learns why they have arrived, and why she’s having visions of the little girl, a revelation that has a profound effect not just on her, but on her understanding of her marriage and also, her daughter’s death.
There’s a dearth of good, old-fashioned, serious sci-fi in the movies right now – in fact, it’s been that way for some time – but Arrival is here to redress the balance. Playing with notions of time and memory and the nature of happiness, the movie is a thought-provoking treatise on what it is to mourn a life while discovering at the same time that that life has much more to offer even though the person has passed away. It’s a bit of a mindbender at times, but Villeneuve confidently handles the narrative twists and turns of Eric Heisserer’s script – itself an adaptation of the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and heavily reworked by Villeneuve himself – so that the viewer can still grasp the subtleties of what’s happening and why.
Along the way, said viewer is treated to an intelligent story and plot that packs an unexpectedly emotional wallop towards the end, as the various strands of Louise’s life are brought into sharp relief, and the aliens’ reason for visiting Earth is revealed. Louise herself is brought to life by Adams in a performance that acts as a reminder that, away from the DC Extended Universe, she is still one of today’s finest actresses. As the emotionally distant Louise, Adams shows just how removed she is from everything going on around her – at first. But as Louise slowly begins to unravel the complex patterns of the aliens’ language, she begins to reconnect with herself and everyone around her; and particularly Ian. Adams is the movie’s chief ingredient for success, her succinct, subtle portrayal of Louise proving layered and intuitive, and deeply moving come the movie’s end.
But while Adams’ performance is the bedrock upon which the movie supports itself, there’s so much more to recommend it. Though she plays the central character, and the rest of the cast have essentially supporting roles, the likes of Renner and Whitaker still manage to contribute well-rounded and credible characters that are necessary to the plot, while even Stuhlbarg’s paranoid (and potentially one-note) CIA agent fits in to the overall set up without feeling extraneous or unnecessarily villainous. Villeneuve also allows each character to display their own fears and concerns, and a corresponding sense of wonder, at being in such close proximity to the aliens and their craft.
Visually, the movie is a gloomy-looking, though consistently well-thought out viewing experience, with Villeneuve choosing to dial down on any bright colours and in doing so, adding texture to the narrative. The aliens operate in a cloudy grey environment and “write” using appendages that produce a black inky substance that is surprisingly vibrant, while at the military base, the various comms rooms and private quarters also lack for vivid colours, with only computer screens providing any brightness to offset the gloom. Villeneuve is making a conscious choice here: the bleak, low-lit hive of activity reflecting the interior of the aliens’ ship, as if to insinuate that there is a greater level of connection between “us” and “them” than is immediately apparent.
The visuals are more than ably supported by a distinctive sound design that unnerves far more than it reassures, and which also includes a suitably eerie and mournful score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve’s go-to composer. Keeping the viewer on edge as Louise deconstructs the alien message, the visuals and the sound design combine to create a haunting, other-worldly feel that is not only entirely appropriate given the nature of the story, but also serves to highlight the idea that if we aren’t alone in the universe, then ideas of melody and tone may still hold but are likely to be interpreted in completely different ways.
Ultimately though, it’s Villeneuve’s confident handling of the material that impresses the most. He’s not afraid to take his time in telling the story, and doesn’t drip-feed all the relevant information at regular points in the narrative. Instead he lets the story unfold at its own pace, revealing key plot points quietly and without the usual fanfare required in other sci-fi movies, and the result is a measured, affecting tale that contains a major twist, one that perhaps for the first time, is allowed to play out over much of the movie’s running time, rather than just suddenly and without warning, and which in its simplicity and emotional effectiveness, elevates Arrival over and above any other sci-fi movie you’re likely to see this year (and probably for some time to come).
Rating: 9/10 – a beautifully constructed movie with a clever, intelligent script, superb cinematography from Bradford Young, an intense soundtrack, heartfelt performances and all held together by a director at the top of his game, Arrival is a must-see movie that is less about why the aliens are here, and more about why we are here; quite simply, one of this year’s best movies.
400 Days, Action, Africa, Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Crime, David Yates, Documentary, End of a Gun, Greg Kwedar, Historical drama, John Dower, Johnny Simmons, Keoni Waxman, Louis Theroux, Malin Buska, Margot Robbie, Matt Osterman, Michael Nyqvist, Mika Kaurismäki, Monthly roundup, My Scientology Movie, Queen Kristina of Sweden, Reviews, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Gadon, Sci-fi, Steven Seagal, The Girl King, The Legend of Tarzan, Thriller, Transpecos
The Legend of Tarzan / D: David Yates / 110m
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Chaplin
Rating: 3/10 – “meh”; woeful only just about covers how bad this movie is, from the wooden performances, to the haphazard scripting, to Yates’s casual engagement with the material, and all the way to the creaky use of CGI to simulate the African backgrounds – at no point does The Legend of Tarzan ever feel as if it has any intention of putting any real effort into things.
400 Days (2015) / D: Matt Osterman / 91m
Cast: Brandon Routh, Dane Cook, Caity Lotz, Ben Feldman, Tom Cavanagh, Grant Bowler, Dominic Bogart, Fernanda Romero, Sally Pressman, Mark Steger
Rating: 4/10 – four astronauts are locked inside a chamber designed to simulate the timescale of a planned mission, and the psychological effects of such a journey, but as the simulation nears its finish, the quartet find that things aren’t entirely what they seem; a mystery thriller that doesn’t need its sci-fi trappings (and where the mystery is unengaging), 400 Days plays out like an old Outer Limits episode but without the succinctness that show could provide, all of which leaves the viewer trying hard to make sense of what’s going on, and trying equally hard to decide whether or not they should be bothered about it all.
The Girl King (2015) / D: Mika Kaurismäki / 106m
Cast: Malin Buska, Sarah Gadon, Michael Nyqvist, Lucas Bryant, Laura Birn, Hippolyte Girardot, Peter Lohmeyer, François Arnaud, Patrick Bauchau
Rating: 5/10 – the story of Queen Kristina of Sweden (Buska), who in the ten years she ruled her country, did her best to bring enlightenment and peace for everyone, and who fought against her advisors’ insistence that she marry and secure her throne for the future; reminiscent of the Euro-pudding movies so prevalent in the late Seventies and throughout the Eighties, The Girl King lacks a coherent shooting style that isn’t helped by Hans Funck’s scattershot approach to the editing, but it does keep things admirably simple (if not too simple at times), and remains unexpectedly watchable thanks to Kaurismäki’s determined effort to convert Kristina’s reign (and her presumed lesbianism) into historical soap opera.
My Scientology Movie (2015) / D: John Dower / 99m
With: Louis Theroux, Marty Rathbun, Marc Headley, Tom De Vocht, Jeff Hawkins, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter
Rating: 7/10 – Louis Theroux, intrepid (and annoying) documentarian turns his attention onto Scientology, and attempts to understand why the organisation is so litigious and defensive about its practices; Theroux teams up with ex-Scientology bigwig Marty Rathbun to learn about what goes on behind the scenes, but succeeds largely in having childish spats with one of the organisation’s “security” team (very funny indeed), while organising a filmed representation of a meeting where Scientology leader David Miscavage threw a major tantrum, all of which leaves My Scientology Movie feeling arid for long stretches and not quite as illuminating as Theroux might have hoped.
Transpecos (2016) / D: Greg Kwedar / 86m
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, Clifton Collins Jr, Julio Oscar Mechoso
Rating: 5/10 – three Border Patrol guards find themselves in trouble with a Mexican cartel when they stop the wrong car at a checkpoint, and learn that one of them is in even deeper trouble than anyone knew; Transpecos makes good use of its New Mexico locations, and the opening twenty minutes point towards the movie being a tense, tightly constructed thriller, but sadly it soon degenerates into an unconvincing, meandering collection of scenes that are often dramatically inert, and which stretch the narrative in a variety of ineffective ways that it can’t recover from.
End of a Gun (2016) / D: Keoni Waxman / 87m
Cast: Steven Seagal, Florin Piersic Jr, Jade Ewen, Ovidiu Nicolescu, Jonathan Rosenthal, Alexandre Nguyen, Claudiu Bleont
Rating: 4/10 – retired DEA agent-cum-“ghost” Michael Decker (Seagal) rescues a stripper (Ewen) from her abusive boyfriend (by killing him) and finds himself helping her steal €2m of the man’s money – which doesn’t go down well with his drug czar boss; another Romanian-shot quickie from Seagal that keeps his stunt double, his running double, and his walking double in gainful employment, End of a Gun is made bearable thanks to a good performance from Piersic Jr, and Waxman’s ingenuity when shooting low-budget shootouts, but otherwise it’s business as usual, which is to say, pretty awful (and the less said about ex-Sugababes member Ewen, the better).
D: Tony Elliott / 88m
Cast: Robbie Amell, Rachael Taylor, Shaun Benson, Gray Powell, Jacob Neayem, Adam Butcher, Tantoo Cardinal
In the future, a man (Amell) wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning and there’s a woman (Taylor) sleeping next to him. Suddenly, men wearing air filtration masks burst in; when the man resists them he’s rendered unconscious. When he wakes for the second time, he and the woman are tied to chairs in the basement. The men are threatening, but will leave if the man gives them his “scrips”, credit notes they believe he has a large supply of. The home invaders leave the couple to think about it. The man finds a way to free himself and the woman. The man attempts to escape and is killed in the process.
In the future, the man (whose name is Renton) wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning and there’s a woman (whose name is Hannah) sleeping next to him. Suddenly, men wearing air filtration masks burst in; when Renton resists them he’s rendered unconscious. When he wakes for the second (fourth?) time, he and Hannah are tied to chairs in the basement. The men are threatening, but will leave if the man gives them his “scrips”, credit notes they believe he has a large supply of. The home invaders leave the couple to think about it. The man finds a way to free himself and the woman. Aware that, somehow, this has already happened, he forms a plan to kill the intruders by releasing cyanide gas into the ventilation system. While he turns on the system, he waits for Hannah to release the gas. But she doesn’t, and is revealed to be in collusion with the men. Renton hands over the scrips but is then shot and killed.
Renton wakes with a start. It’s early in the morning… and his predicament is beginning all over again. He formulates another approach but this backfires as well, and so on, until one by one, Hannah and the intruders become aware that they’re all stuck in a time loop, one that lasts for around three hours and fourteen minutes, endlessly repeating itself. The cause is a device, the ARQ (pronounced Ark), that Renton was working on for the Torus Corporation, and which he stole from them when he realised that its properties as a perpetual motion machine could be used as a weapon. The intruders, and Hannah, are members of a rebel group called The Bloc, and Renton is convinced that they’re after the ARQ and the need for scrips is incidental. Not wanting to let either side get their hands on the ARQ, Renton tries to figure out a way of escaping the time loop, saving himself and Hannah, and foiling the plans of the Torus Corporation and the Bloc.
Writer/director Tony Elliott’s first feature, ARQ is a quirky, sincere sci-fi drama that is refreshingly free of the kind of initial setting up period that would normally introduce us to the characters and their surroundings before letting them loose in the overall plot. Instead, Elliott throws us and Renton straight into the thick of things, and with a great deal of aplomb, lures his main character, and the viewer, into thinking that a solution to the time loop can be easily arrived at – and despite our knowing that nothing that easy is likely to happen; this is a time paradox movie after all.
With each successive loop, the movie creates more and more unexpected twists and turns, and in doing so, proves remarkably refreshing to watch. Of course, things get increasingly worse with every loop, and there’s an awful lot of dying involved (mostly by Renton), but Elliott’s script retains a fair degree of optimism as Renton’s efforts to solve the problem of the time loop and the ARQ’s role in it gathers momentum and urgency. The necessary internal logic that keeps everything as credible as possible is strictly maintained – for the most part – and one huge flaw aside, keeps the viewer hooked and wanting to see what happens next (the flaw involves the ARQ and what’s needed to shut it down). As Renton’s dilemma becomes more acute – can he afford for even the Bloc, the nominal good guys in this story, to have the ARQ? – Elliott works hard to maintain a level of suspense that also allows the relationship between Renton and Hannah to be explored in some detail.
Their back story allows for a degree of ethical debate, but thankfully it’s not at the expense of the movie’s more acute thriller elements. But it does add some much needed emotional depth to what would otherwise be a straighforward sci-fi thriller. Both Amell (best known for roles in TV shows such as The Flash and The Tomorrow People) and Taylor (also a TV alumni from shows such as 666 Park Avenue and Jessica Jones) strive for an honesty and a sincerity in their roles, and while they both stumble occasionally thanks to minor inconsistencies in Elliott’s script, their commitment to the material is evident in every scene and every twist and turn of the narrative.
The story plays out in a claustrophobic home setting, with a splendid mix of futuristic and old-fashioned production design courtesy of Oleg M. Savytski that makes Renton’s home look entirely practical for his needs and not just the script’s. If occasionally it feels like it’s a home designed to replicate a warren, with too many corridors and rooms for comfort, it merely adds to the level of anxiety created by the recurring time loop and the feeling that there’s no escape. Even when Elliott allows Renton and Hannah a brief respite by letting them go outside, they’re too uncomfortable with the open space (and a further mystery) to stay there. They return inside, and their brief sojourn is forgotten, another wrinkle in the machinations of the ARQ.
Elliott makes good use of his limited resources and keeps things moving intelligently and with a good deal of visual flair, despite the gloomy, and sometimes oppressive, atmosphere. The ARQ itself is nothing more than a revolving drum, and doesn’t always carry the weight of being such an important component of the story. Elsewhere, Elliott’s decision to make one of the intruders into an all-out bad guy adds unease to the narrative, and allows the story to go off in some unexpected directions. It’s this willingness to change the storyline and take chances with the material and the characters that is, ultimately, the movie’s biggest strength. And if these chances don’t always pay off, it’s a small price to pay for a largely solid and deliberately unprepossessing movie that tries hard to be different – and largely succeeds.
Rating: 7/10 – some viewers may be put off by the familiarity of some of the twists and turns thrown up by the time loop, but ARQ isn’t afraid to mix expectations and surprises, and it often manages to transcend both; a small-scale triumph then – not without flaws though – and a movie that has been carefully thought through from the off, it’s been assembled with a fair degree of skill and precision.
A Perfect Day, Aid workers, Animation, Benicio Del Toro, Blue Sky, Curt Siodmak, Denis Leary, Drama, Espionage, EVP, Fedja Stukan, Fernando León de Aranoa, Galen T. Chu, Harrison Gilbertson, Haunt, Haunted house, Horror, Ice Age: Collision Course, Ione Skye, Jacki Weaver, Jean Byron, John Leguizamo, Ken Hughes, King Donovan, Liana Liberato, Little Red Monkey, Mac Carter, Mélanie Thierry, Meteorite, Mike Thurmeier, Morello Curse, Murder, Nuclear scientists, Olga Kurylenko, Queen Latifah, Ray Romano, Review, Richard Carlson, Richard Conte, Rona Anderson, Russell Napier, Sci-fi, Scrat, Simon Pegg, Spaceship, Sylva Langova, The Balkans, The Fifties, The Magnetic Monster, Thriller, Tim Robbins
The Magnetic Monster (1953) / D: Curt Siodmak / 76m
Cast: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Michael Fox
Rating: 6/10 – a sample of selenium, bombarded with alpha waves, becomes a lethal danger to mankind as it develops exponentially – and only the A-Men from the Office of Scientific Investigation can stop it; an exposition heavy sci-fi thriller that takes time out for (stranger) domestic interludes involving Carlson and Bryan, The Magnetic Monster packs a lot in to its relatively short running time and is unexpectedly entertaining for all its techno-speak and overly serious demeanour.
Haunt (2014) / D: Mac Carter / 86m
Cast: Harrison Gilbertson, Liana Liberato, Ione Skye, Jacki Weaver, Brian Wimmer, Danielle Chuchran, Ella Harris, Carl Hadra
Rating: 3/10 – a family move into a house where tragedy struck the previous owners, and the son (Gilbertson), along with abused neighbour Sam (Liberato), discovers that the place is haunted by a vengeful spectre; muddled, confused and scare-free, Haunt aims for unsettling and frightening but misses by a mile thanks to weak plotting, a jumbled storyline, stock characters, absentee direction, and an overbearing score (and that’s without mentioning the performances, particularly Weaver’s – which is dreadful).
Ice Age: Collision Course (2016) / D: Mike Thurmeier, Galen T. Chu / 94m
Cast: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah, Simon Pegg, Keke Palmer, Adam Devine, Wanda Sykes, Seann William Scott, Josh Peck, Jennifer Lopez, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Jessie J, Nick Offerman, Chris Wedge
Rating: 5/10 – while Scrat does his best to keep his acorn safe aboard a spaceship, his actions lead to a massive meteorite heading for Earth, which in turn leads to Manny (Romano) and the usual gang having to formulate a plan to avoid the extinction of them all; while the series can still manage to sprinkle a handful of inspired visual gags throughout each entry (and this is no different), the law of diminishing returns is having a savage effect on the storylines, with this outing proving less than inspired, and leaving the characters teetering on the edge of becoming their own caricatures.
Little Red Monkey (1955) / D: Ken Hughes / 71m
aka The Case of the Red Monkey
Cast: Richard Conte, Rona Anderson, Russell Napier, Sylva Langova, Colin Gordon, Donald Bisset, John King-Kelly, Bernard Rebel, Arnold Marlé, John Horsley
Rating: 7/10 – when several nuclear scientists are murdered, and the culprit appears to be a little red monkey, Scotland Yard and a visiting US State Department agent have to make sure that defecting Professor Leon Dushenko (Marlé) doesn’t end up dead as well; an agreeable, fast-paced thriller, Little Red Monkey mixes international espionage, early Cold War paranoia, romance, and intrigue to good effect, and thanks to the script by Hughes and James Eastwood, has a discreet Hitchcockian vibe that benefits it tremendously.
A Perfect Day (2015) / D: Fernando León de Aranoa / 106m
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Tim Robbins, Olga Kurylenko, Mélanie Thierry, Fedja Stukan, Eldar Residovic, Sergi López
Rating: 7/10 – a group of aid workers in the war-torn Balkans try to have a dead body removed from a well that provides drinking water, and are met by every type of obstruction possible – bureaucratic, cultural, and just plain bizarre; A Perfect Day‘s very good cast can’t mitigate against the episodic nature of the story, or de Aranoa’s offhand treatment of some of the minor characters, but otherwise this is a pointed, unsentimental look at the quieter horrors that war can throw up, and when it wants to be, uses black humour as a trenchant counterpoint to all the tragedy.
The Fifties were a great time for sci-fi movies. But if you were an actress appearing in a low budget sci-fi movie – in a starring role or even further down the cast list – then chances were you’d be saddled with some of the lamest, dumbest, sometimes sexist dialogue this side of an Ed Wood feature. To “celebrate” those “difficult roles” that actresses such as Joan Taylor, Mara Corday and Andrea King did their best to play straight (against almost impossible odds), here are ten quotes that show just what they were up against.
1 – “So I decided after one bad marriage to bury myself in science.” – Ann Anderson, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
2 – “The only reason I open my trap is to keep my teeth from chattering.” – Vicki Harris, Target Earth (1954)
3 – “Well, flying battleships, pink elephants, same difference.” – Sally Caldwell, The Giant Claw (1957)
4 – “How is it you’re so strong, Ro-Man? It seems impossible.” – Alice, Robot Monster (1953)
5 – “Can’t I just dust around the fingerprints?” – Mrs. Porter, The Blob (1958)
6 – “Miz Hawthorne, she deal with the Evil One.” – Louann, the maid, The Alligator People (1959)
7 – “It’s the Sermon on the Mount… from Mars.” – Linda Cronyn, Red Planet Mars (1952)
8 – “I love you, Doug, and I must kill you!” – Lambda, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
9 – “For a few dollars you can hire a woman who’ll fulfill all your fetishes. And when you get tired of her you can run down to the employment agency and hire another.” – Claire Anderson, It Conquered the World (1956)
10 – “Caught me unprepared. I’ve been cooking over a hot creature all day.” – Marisa Leonardo, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
NOTE: The quote in the title is from Tarantula (1955), and is spoken by Stephanie ‘Steve’ Clayton.
Action, Bones McCoy, Chris Pine, Drama, Federation, Idris Elba, James T. Kirk, Justin Lin, Karl Urban, Krall, Review, Sci-fi, Scotty, Sequel, Simon Pegg, Spock, Uhura, USS Enterprise, USS Franklin, Yorktown, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana
D: Justin Lin / 122m
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella, Joe Taslim, Lydia Wilson, Deep Roy, Shohreh Aghdashloo
It’s unfortunate, given the response to Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), that the latest instalment in the JJ Abrams’ revamped movie franchise opens with über-Captain James T. Kirk (Pine) lamenting his time in space as part of the Enterprise’s five year mission. After nine hundred and sixty-six days, Kirk is, frankly, bored, and as he puts it, “wondering what it is we are trying to accomplish”. It’s like a listening to a man who’s treading water in the ocean, far from land, and hoping a shark comes along to break the monotony. Harking after further adventure, Kirk sounds petulant rather than unhappy. But if it’s a challenge he’s after, then he need wait no further, because once the Enterprise has docked at the Federation’s new super-duper starbase, the Yorktown (a nod to the Enterprise’s original name in the original series’ pilot), an alien craft seeking help arrives and propels Kirk and his long-suffering crew into just the kind of adventure that he craves.
Told that an alien menace headed by someone called Krall (Elba) is responsible for the abduction and imprisonment of her crew, Kalara (Wilson), leads Kirk and co to the planet where her crew are being held. Orbiting the planet, the Enterprise suffers a devastating attack, and the main saucer is forced into a crash landing – but not before Krall and his men have invaded the starship and made it clear they’re after an artifact – the Abronath – that is on board, and not before the crew have been either captured by Krall or gotten away by means of the Enterprise’s escape pods. Spock and Bones escape together, as do Kirk and Chekov, while Scotty gets clear by himself. Down on the planet, Scotty meets Jaylah (Boutella), a scavenger whose people were captured and imprisoned by Krall in the past. She takes him to what she calls her ship, and Scotty is amazed to find it’s the remains of the USS Franklin, a ship long considered to have been lost.
Meanwhile, Spock has been injured, and Bones is doing his best to keep him alive. Sulu and Uhura have been captured, and Kirk and Chekov head for the downed Enterprise to see if they can make it operational again. Krall appears to be one step ahead of everyone, and his motive for gaining the Abronath is revealed to be part of a plan of revenge on the Federation. Aided by Jaylah, the crew of the Enterprise come together to fight back against Krall’s homicidal intentions, and in the process, find some very unique ways of taking the fight to him.
When Paramount announced that they were rebooting the original Star Trek franchise and had given the project to JJ Abrams, it seemed like a risky proposition, what with William Shatner et al having become so completely associated with the roles of Kirk and Spock and Bones etc, that it was hard to imagine anyone else portraying them. But Abrams was more than up to the task, and even managed to come up with a plot device that allowed his “new crew” to have their own adventures independently of the original movie series’ timeline. Quinto was a great choice for Spock, Pine had the cocksure audacity of a younger Kirk down pat, and Urban was possibly a better (if underused) Bones than DeForest Kelley. Only the lack of a convincing villain stopped Star Trek (2009) from being a complete triumph. And then Star Trek: Into Darkness tried to be too clever for its own good with its “He’s not Khan/Okay, he is Khan” shenanigans, and overwrought plotting.
Perhaps realising that going “darker” on the first sequel works only on other sci-fi franchises, the producers have decided with this third outing to go lighter and make Star Trek Beyond more like an episode of the original series; or to be more accurate (or cynical – you decide) a retread of Star Trek: Generations (1994). The script, by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung (who appears briefly as Sulu’s husband, a gender acknowledgment that carries no weight whatsoever in the grand scheme of things), coasts along for the most part, and does what the original series always did so well: focuses on the relationships between Kirk, Spock and Bones, gives Scotty a chance to shine when something needs fixing (which happened pretty much every week), adds an alien collaborator to help the crew overcome the villain, throws in said villain and ensures they have a grudge against everyone else, and sidelines Uhura at every opportunity (though she is involved, by reference, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes). A tried and tested formula, to be sure, and one that on this occasion makes for an enjoyable if underwhelming experience.
But while enjoyable is good – and in a loud, dumb, fun kind of way the movie is enjoyable – there’s something missing that stops it from becoming a Star Trek movie that makes you want to go back and view it again because you had such a great experience watching it the first time. Partly because Krall is yet another weak villain, partly because there are too many occasions when the solution to a problem is to “couple the doohickey to the whatchamacallit and transverse the first number you thought of” (and who knew Kirk was so familiar with the properties of FM radio frequencies?), and partly because any plot development that relies on the presence of a fully functioning motor bike on the bridge of a downed starship, is stretching credibility to snapping point. (There are other moments where the viewer’s jaw is in danger of hitting the floor, but to reveal them all would take too long.)
In the director’s chair, Fast & Furious alumni Lin makes a decent enough fist of things but doesn’t manage to provide audiences with anything really memorable to go away with. It’s a turbo-charged experience, to be sure, and Lin, along with his editing team (Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto and Steven Sprung) ensures that the movie zips along at an exciting pace. The visuals are as crisp and vibrant as you would expect, and even though there’s an over-reliance on CGI, this is to be expected: it’s a science fiction movie, for Pete’s sake; how else is it going to look? The cast enter into the spirit of things, though Elba struggles with his dialogue thanks to the kind of alien mask that looks great but probably isn’t that functional; and there’s a touching moment where Spock looks at a picture from the past (that he can’t possibly have).
All in all, Star Trek Beyond is a movie that falls under the heading of “honourable mention”. It’s not going to be at the top of anyone’s list of all-time favourite Star Trek movies, but it won’t be anywhere near the bottom, like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). It zips along like a young child eager to show off the neat-looking toy it’s just found, but as any parent will tell you, even neat-looking toys can lose their attraction quickly and without warning.
Rating: 6/10 – a middling, superficially diverting entry in the Star Trek canon, Star Trek Beyond is nothing new or special, and only occasionally rises to meet the demands of franchise (and genre) expectations; more a case of “boldly going where everyone has been before” than anything else, the movie is yet another reminder that the odd-numbered entries in the series are the ones that don’t always work.
Action, Ariel Vroman, CIA, Drama, Gal Gadot, Gary Oldman, Jordi Mollà, Kevin Costner, Memory transplant, Review, Ryan Reynolds, Sci-fi, Sociopath, The Dutchman, Thriller, Tommy Lee Jones, Wormhole program
D: Ariel Vromen / 108m
Cast: Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, Alice Eve, Michael Pitt, Jordi Mollà, Antje Traue, Amaury Nolasco, Scott Adkins, Lara Decaro
Emotionless career criminal and sociopath Jericho Stewart (Costner) has a motto: “You hurt me… I hurt you worse.” It’s tempting to rephrase said motto so that it reflects Criminal‘s effect on its audience: “You trust the movie… and it gets worse.” For the movie is an unappealing mix of action movie, paranoid thriller and sentimental drama, and it tries to be all these things at once, with varied results.
It begins with London-based CIA agent Bill Pope (Reynolds) being followed by a bunch of bad guys led by Elsa Mueller (Traue). He has a holdall full of money, but he manages to hide it. When he’s tricked into making an “escape” to a cement works, he finds himself under fire and eventually captured by terrorist nutjob Xavier Heimdahl (Mollà). Heimdahl (he’s Spanish but his Scandinavian surname elicits no comment from anyone) wants a flash drive that’s also in the holdall; on it is a wormhole program that will give him complete access and control over the US’s weapons and defence system. But Bill keeps schtum and is beaten to death.
But this is the movies and being dead doesn’t always mean being dead. In Criminal, the twist is that Bill’s memories can be accessed and transferred into the mind of another person; in theory, that is. Pioneer scientist Dr Mahal Franks (Jones) has been trying to get permission for human trial for five years, but with the CIA’s London overseer, Quaker Wells (Oldman), desperate to find the program’s creator, a hacker called Jan Stroop aka The Dutchman (Pitt) before he can sell it to the highest bidder (which was Bill before he was killed), he sees no option but to allow Franks to test his theory that transference of memories is possible in humans. But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?).
Franks’ best candidate to receive Bill’s memories is the aforementioned emotionless career criminal and sociopath Jericho Stewart. Currently in prison, he’s dragged from his cell in the US and shoved on a plane to the UK where Franks operates on him. When he comes to, Wells conveniently fills him in on what’s at stake and his part in it all, but Jericho pretends he doesn’t have any of Bill’s memories. Thinking he’s of no further use, Wells instructs two of his men to take Jericho out into the British countryside somewhere and kill him. But Jericho has other ideas, ideas that centre around a holdall full of money…
Criminal is a movie that offers three storylines for the price of one, and while each one would have made a respectable enough impact as a single movie, Douglas Cook and David Weisberg’s script gets so carried away with itself that the storylines tend to trip each other up and get entangled. Storyline one is a standard world-in-peril scenario that gives Gary Oldman the chance to run around and shout a lot about how much peril the world is in, while storyline two concerns Jericho Stewart’s coming to terms with having Bill’s feelings and emotions, two things he’s had no previous use for. And then there’s storyline three, the (very) unlikely relationship that develops between Jericho and Bill’s wife, Jill (Gadot).
It’s this last storyline that’s the most problematic, and not just because on their first meeting, Jericho uses duct tape to tie Jill to her bed before making off with her jewellery. No, it’s the alacrity with which she lets him stay the night when he returns the next time, albeit wounded and showing clear signs that her husband is in his head somewhere. And while Jan Stroop demonstrates his control over the US’s weapons and defence system by firing a nuclear warhead from a submarine in the atlantic, Jericho and Jill (now there’s a name for a spin-off TV series) share chicken and waffles with her daughter, Emma (Decaro). This is the point in the movie where storylines two and three ride roughshod over storyline one – it literally grinds to a halt – and any pretense of Criminal being an action thriller is forgotten.
The movie rights itself, though – thankfully – and Jericho is soon back to letting out his inner rage, and on one singular occasion, in a way that’s uncomfortably, misogynistically non-PC (and he gloats about it too). Unfortunately it’s a moment that not even Costner can rescue, which is a shame as he’s just about the only consistently good thing in the whole movie. From his first appearance as a fuzzy-wigged prisoner in chains, all animal instincts and snarling antagonism – when he’s shot with a tranquiliser dart he merely grunts and says, “You’re gonna need another one” – Costner gives a terrific performance that holds the movie together; when he’s on screen you can’t take your eyes off him, and when he isn’t, you can’t wait until he’s back. As Jericho begins to deal with the onslaught of Bill’s memories and feelings, Costner articulates the pain he feels with conviction and sincerity – and this despite having to deal with some truly lame dialogue.
Elsewhere, Oldman and Jones pop up at various points to push along the basic plot to its unsurprising conclusion, Reynolds contributes what amounts to an extended cameo that anyone could have played, Eve is completely wasted in a role that amounts to approximately five minutes of screen time and a handful of lines, Mollà never gets a grip on his character’s motivations, Pitt has the same problem, Adkins has a supporting role that doesn’t require him to go up against anyone (not even Costner), and Gadot struggles with a role that most actresses would have had trouble with.
Doing his best to make all this fit together in a halfway credible sense is Vromen, whose last movie was the gripping character study The Iceman (2013). He does his best, and the action sequences, despite offering little in the way of original thrills and spills, have a kinetic energy to them that ensures they stand out from the often plodding nature of the rest of the movie… but it’s the generic nature of the thriller elements that defeats him. Danny Rafic’s editing tries to make the movie feel more vigorous than it actually is, and there’s an appropriately dramatic score by Keith Power and Brian Tyler that provides a degree of ad hoc excitement but like so much of the movie, never fully encapsulates the sense of imminent peril Oldman continually shouts about.
Rating: 5/10 – another high-concept idea gets a lukewarm treatment, leaving Criminal feeling undercooked and dragging its heels when it should be embracing its race against time plotting; fans of Costner won’t be disappointed but otherwise this is an action/thriller/sci-fi/drama hybrid that lets its cast, and the audience, down way too often for its own good.
A Certain Justice, A Place to Go, Action, Al Pacino, Ann Sheridan, Anne Heywood, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, Bascom Affair, Baseball, Basil Dearden, Bernard Lee, Bethnal Green, Cecil Parker, Cochise, Crime, Cung Le, D. Ross Lederman, David Gordon Green, Dennis O'Keefe, Dolph Lundgren, Drama, Ethan Hawke, Freddie Francis, Frieda Inescort, George Sherman, Giorgio Serafini, Heather Angel, Holly Hunter, Jack Elam, James Coyne, Jay Silverheels, Jeff Chandler, John Lund, Johnny Simmons, Literary adaptation, Manglehorn, Mike Sarne, Monument Valley, Moon landing, Moonwalkers, Mystery, Noah Buschel, Norman Foster, Paul Cavanagh, Paul Giamatti, Peter van Eyck, Relationships, Reviews, Rita Tushingham, Robbery, Robert Keith, Ron Perlman, Rupert Grint, Sci-fi, Shadows on the Stairs, Susan Cabot, The Battle at Apache Pass, The Brain, The Phenom, Thriller, Vinnie Jones, Western, Whodunnit, Woman on the Run
Manglehorn (2014) / D: David Gordon Green / 97m
Cast: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine, Chris Messina, Skylar Gasper
Rating: 5/10 – in the wake of a failed romance that has left him heartbroken, locksmith A.J. Manglehorn (Pacino) decides to try again with bank teller Dawn (Hunter), but his personality puts obstacles in his way; despite the obvious talent involved, Manglehorn is a chore to sit through, as the character himself – as Dawn discovers – isn’t someone you want to spend too much time with.
The Brain (1962) / D: Freddie Francis / 83m
Cast: Anne Heywood, Peter van Eyck, Cecil Parker, Bernard Lee, Jeremy Spenser, Maxine Audley, Ellen Schwiers, Siegfried Lowitz, Hans Nielsen, Jack MacGowran, Miles Malleson, George A. Cooper
Rating: 5/10 – a fatal plane crash sees a millionaire businessman’s brain kept alive by pioneering scientists, one of whom (van Eyck) finds himself searching for the person who caused the plane crash when the businessman’s brain communicates with him; an erratic sci-fi thriller that gets bogged down whenever it concentrates on the murder suspects, this adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain has a great cast and a terrific premise, but is let down by Francis’ pedestrian direction and a style that wants to evoke film noir but can’t because the script hasn’t been written that way.
A Certain Justice (2014) / D: James Coyne, Giorgio Serafini / 96m
aka Puncture Wounds
Cast: Cung Le, Dolph Lundgren, Vinnie Jones, Briana Evigan, Gianni Capaldi, James C. Burns, Robert LaSardo, Jonathan Kowalsky, Sean O’Bryan, Eddie Rouse
Rating: 4/10 – Iraq veteran John Nguyen (Le) returns home and becomes embroiled in a fight against big-time drug dealer Hollis (Lundgren) when he saves a hooker (Evigan) from the violent attentions of Hollis’ men; as a showcase for Le, A Certain Justice works well enough, but this is still a muddled actioner that cuts narrative corners more often than it doesn’t, and sees Lundgren adopting a wig and ponytail that makes him look like an aging hippie instead of a menacing crime boss.
Woman on the Run (1950) / D: Norman Foster / 77m
Cast: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, John Qualen, Frank Jenks, Ross Elliott, J. Farrell MacDonald, Victor Sen Yung, Steven Geray
Rating: 7/10 – when store window designer Frank Johnson (Elliott) witnesses a gangland execution he goes on the run, leaving his estranged wife (Sheridan), the police, and a persistent reporter (O’Keefe) trying to track him down before the killer does; a cleverly written film noir based on Sylvia Tate’s original story, Woman on the Run may have a misleading title but it features hard-boiled dialogue, bruised relationships, and atmospheric location work, all of which means the movie is an under-rated gem and deserves a wider audience.
The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) / D: George Sherman / 82m
Cast: John Lund, Jeff Chandler, Susan Cabot, Bruce Cowling, Beverly Tyler, Richard Egan, Jay Silverheels, John Hudson, Jack Elam, Regis Toomey
Rating: 6/10 – peace on the frontier with the Apache nation is threatened by the divisive tactics of Indian Affairs agent Neil Baylor (Cowling) and unsanctioned raids by Geronimo (Silverheels); based around two historical events – the Bascom Affair in 1861, and the title encounter in 1862 – The Battle at Apache Pass is an enjoyable Western featuring good location work in Monument Valley, beautiful photography, and Chandler (as Cochise) and Silverheels reprising their roles from Broken Arrow (1950).
The Phenom (2016) / D: Noah Buschel / 88m
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Yul Vazquez, Louisa Krause, Paul Adelstein, Elizabeth Marvel, Marin Ireland
Rating: 5/10 – Hopper Gibson (Simmons) is a talented pitcher who has a shot at the big leagues but suffers a crisis of confidence, one that threatens his future; well acted but dour and uninviting, The Phenom plods along in such a low-key manner that some viewers may well decide they don’t care enough if Hopper overcomes his slump, and may also decide to watch something else instead.
A Place to Go (1964) / D: Basil Dearden / 86m
Cast: Rita Tushingham, Mike Sarne, Bernard Lee, Doris Hare, Barbara Ferris, John Slater, David Andrews, William Marlowe, Michael Wynne, Roy Kinnear
Rating: 5/10 – an ambitious young man who wants to get away from Bethnal Green gets involved with a local racketeer (Slater) and a young woman (Tushingham) at the same time, and much to the consternation of his parents (Lee, Hare); a slice of life, East London style, this kitchen sink drama is enjoyable enough but is hampered by a dreadful performance by Sarne and some weak plotting, but still has enough to recommend it, particularly the (deliberately) sad sight of Lee’s character trying to impress as an escapologist.
Shadows on the Stairs (1941) / D: D. Ross Lederman / 64m
Cast: Frieda Inescort, Paul Cavanagh, Heather Angel, Bruce Lester, Miles Mander, Lumsden Hare, Turhan Bey, Charles Irwin, Phyllis Barry, Mary Field
Rating: 4/10 – a killer strikes in a boarding house where everyone comes under suspicion; a leaden whodunnit shot in a pedestrian style, Shadows on the Stairs is typical of the period with its mix of drama, comic relief in the form of Hare and Irwin as bumbling policemen, romantic triangles, and occasional flashes of social comment, but it all adds up to a movie that betrays its stage origins at every turn.
Moonwalkers (2015) / D: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet / 107m
Cast: Rupert Grint, Ron Perlman, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell-Moore, Tom Audenaert, Jay Benedict, James Cosmo, Eric Lampaert, Kevin Bishop, Erika Sainte
Rating: 4/10 – in 1969, the US military sends unstable CIA agent Kidman (Perlman) to London to contact Stanley Kubrick with an offer to film a mock moon landing (in case the real mission goes wrong) – but he ends up working with a would-be rock band manager (Grint) instead; uneven and often groan-inducing, Moonwalkers takes a great idea and tramples all over it with a mix of psychedelia, undercooked comedy and inappropriate violence, leaving just a few knowing nods and winks in relation to the period to provide anything of interest.
Action, Cranks, Drama, Dylan O'Brien, Gladers, Immunes, James Dashner, Kaya Scodelario, Literary adaptation, Patricia Clarkson, Review, Sci-fi, Sequel, The Flare, The Right Arm, The Scorch, Thriller, WCKD, Wes Ball
D: Wes Ball / 132m
Cast: Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores, Jacob Lofland, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Aiden Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor, Alan Tudyk
Following on immediately from the events of The Maze Runner (2014), The Scorch Trials begins with Thomas (O’Brien) and his fellow Gladers – Teresa (Scodelario), Minho (Lee), Newt (Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Darden), and Winston (Flores) – having escaped the maze and finding sanctuary in a facility run by Mr Janson (Gillen). All seems to be well, and Janson refutes any connection to WCKD, the organisation that’s behind the maze and the reason for its existence. But strange things are going on in the facility; each night selected Immunes from other mazes are chosen to be taken to a place of safety, far away from WCKD’s clutches. And Teresa is separated from the group. When Thomas tries to see her he’s prevented from doing so.
Help comes in the form of Aris, one of the first survivors to be brought to the facility. He shows Thomas proof that Janson is lying about the Immunes being safe, and that he works for WCKD. Rescuing Teresa from some kind of medical procedure, Thomas and the rest of the Gladers, and Aris, escape from the facility and find themselves in the hostile environment of the Scorch. There they encounter Cranks, people infected by the Flare, the disease that has brought worldwide destruction to the planet. Thomas and the rest head north to a range of nearby mountains where they hope to meet up with a resistance group called The Right Arm.
Circumstances find them taking shelter from a thunderstorm, where they meet Brenda (Salazar) and her surrogate father, Jorge (Esposito). Their hideout is discovered by WCKD forces led by Janson. In the resulting firefight, Thomas and Brenda find themselves separated from everyone else, but they manage to escape. At a nearby night club run by the duplicitous Marcus (Tudyk), the pair fall foul of a powerful narcotic but are saved by Jorge and the others. Marcus is forced to reveal the location of The Right Arm’s location in the mountains, and the group travels there quickly. But when they reach the Right Arm’s camp – led by Vince (Pepper) – Thomas is dismayed to discover that one of his friends has contacted WCKD, and more of their forces are on their way.
Where The Maze Runner was a surprising, tightly structured introduction to the world of the Flare and the young people known as Immunes, The Scorch Trials alas suffers very definitely from Middle Movie Syndrome. It tries hard to be as dramatic and as intense as its predecessor but the narrative is against it from the start. This is a movie that gives sporadic clues as to the larger back story, and even seems on the cusp of revealing some really important information about Thomas and his time working for WCKD, but ultimately it holds back from doing so, leaving any revelations for the final movie, The Death Cure, now due in January 2018 thanks to Dylan O’Brien’s on-set injuries suffered back in March of this year.
With the plot put largely on hold until then, The Scorch Trials becomes one long chase movie, with Thomas once again acting as unofficial leader of the Immunes, and Clarkson returning as WCKD head Dr Ava Paige. Character development is also put on hold, and the introduction of new antagonists such as Janson and Brenda is done in such a perfunctory way that it becomes impressive that both Gillen and Salazar are able to inject anything of note into their performances. And with Thomas front and centre throughout, O’Brien’s co-stars are left wth little to do but stand around while he agonises over his past, and monopolises the action scenes.
But where the plot struggles to make itself felt, the movie does impress with said action scenes, and several of the encounters with the Cranks are filmed with a sweat-inducing energy that makes what are essentially zombie attacks that much more inventive. It’s difficult enough to come up with a new look for any flesh-eaters, but the makeup and visual effects departments have done a great job here, and those that Thomas et al encounter in a ruined shopping mall are a terrific addition to the canon. It’s worth bearing in mind that this is still an adaptation of a YA novel, and the movie should be congratulated for keeping the darkness that is inherent in James Dashner’s novel (even if certain changes have been made in terms of the story).
More troublesome is the night club sequence which slows down the movie in its attempt to remind viewers that Thomas has a shared past with WCKD (it also seems to have been included to further remind viewers that when it comes to narcotics they should Just Say No). T.S. Nowlin’s script hits an awkward stretch at this point, almost as if it couldn’t find a way forward unless Thomas found himself in even more jeopardy than before. And the subsequent “interrogation” of Marcus by Jorge sees the kind of strong-arm tactics used that doesn’t sit well with the idea that this is being carried out by one of the “good” guys (there’s only a token objection made to Jorge’s methods of information gathering).
Away from troubling notions of the means justifying the ends, the movie lacks a suitable hook for the audience to cling on to. With the movie’s raison d’etre being to set up the final movie (no two-parter, thankfully), returning director Wes Ball can do little except keep things ticking over until next time. That he does this with a certain amount of conviction is evident enough, but it doesn’t help with a number of scenes that prove listless and ineffective, and there’s too much repetition as the characters move from one new introduction to yet another. This also leaves new cast members such as Pepper and Lili Taylor failing to make an impact, an oversight that points once more to the problems of trying to cram so much into a movie that runs for over two hours and lacks an overall focus.
Rating: 6/10 – although it moves (for the most part) with alacrity, The Scorch Trials isn’t as rewarding as The Maze Runner, and tries its best to make up for this by putting all its efforts into making its action scenes as thrilling as possible; in between times though, some viewers may be wondering why so much has been included and why so very little of it builds upon what’s gone before.
Action, Angel, Apocalypse, Beast, Bryan Singer, Cyclops, Drama, Evan Peters, Havok, James McAvoy, Jean Grey, Jennifer Lawrence, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Magneto, Marvel, Michael Fassbender, Mutants, Mystique, Nicholas Hoult, Nightcrawler, Oscar Isaac, Professor Xavier, Psylocke, Quicksilver, Review, Rose Byrne, School for Gifted Children, Sci-fi, Sequel, Storm, Superheroes, Thriller, X-Men
D: Bryan Singer / 144m
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Lucas Till, Olivia Munn, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ally Sheedy
Rating: 6/10 – an average sequel that offers a muddled storyline complete with yet more disaster porn, the best thing you can say about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it’s competently made; without a strong emotional core to help the audience care about the characters, or a real sense of impending apocalypse to make the stakes all the more gripping, this is a sequel that fails to build on the good work achieved in the previous two instalments.
Briana Evigan, Chris Fisher, Conejo Springs, Daveigh Chase, Donnie Darko, Drama, End of the world, For One Week Only, Iraq Jack, Jackson Rathbone, James Lafferty, Meteorite, Review, Sci-fi, Sequel, Thriller
Cult movies are often beloved by their admirers beyond all other movies – passionately, fiercely, and with little truck for anyone or anything that tarnishes that movie’s reputation or their belief in it. Tell a fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) that anyone who attends a midnight screening in costume is a few sexual peccadilloes short of an orgy, and you’re likely to be slapped round the face with a posing pouch. But cult movies, by the nature of their fans’ love for them, will often attract producers with an eye to making a quick buck by exploiting said fans’ love and affection. Here’s one such movie, apparently made with the best of intentions but which in practice proved to be as far from those intentions as it’s possible to get.
S. Darko (2009) / D: Chris Fisher / 103m
Cast: Daveigh Chase, Briana Evigan, Jackson Rathbone, James Lafferty, Ed Westwick, Matthew Davis, John Hawkes, Bret Roberts, Elizabeth Berkley
By now – unless they’re trapped somewhere in the Fragmentary Universe – fans of Donnie Darko (2001) will have realised or heard that S. Darko is a less than satisfactory follow up to Richard Kelly’s surreal mindbender of a movie. With zero involvement from Kelly himself (not even a “good luck guys!”), this independently made sequel was created with the intention of taking place in “a similar world of blurred fantasy and reality”. Watching the movie, one thing is abundantly clear: neither director Chris Fisher nor screenwriter Nathan Atkins has any real idea of the world that Kelly created for Donnie Darko, or more importantly, the elements that made it all work.
The worst idea they have is to focus on Donnie’s younger sister, Samantha (Chase), as if by using one of Kelly’s original characters (and persuading the original actress to return to the role) it will lend their movie a degree of legitimacy it otherwise wouldn’t have. That this doesn’t work is evidenced by the way in which the character is treated. Samantha has run away from home, aged seventeen, with her best friend Corey (Evigan). When their car breaks down in Utah, the two friends accept a lift into the nearest town, Conejo Springs. Once there, Samantha finds herself sleepwalking; in this state she sees a future version of herself talking to a disturbed man nicknamed Iraq Jack (Lafferty). She tells him that the world will end in a few days’ time on July 4th.
Aside from passing on these messages, Samantha tends to wander aimlessly around town bumping into various locals and being treated like a bystander in her own storyline. She does get involved in the mystery of a missing child but it’s a subplot that, like large portions of the movie, hasn’t been thought through enough, and it feels like a distraction from the larger story. References to Donnie are made but Samantha’s reactions are muted, as if both Atkins and Chase don’t really know how to articulate her feelings over what happened to him at the end of Donnie Darko. What the script does do however, is saddle both the character (and the unfortunate Chase) with little motivation and even less development, preferring instead to treat Samantha in a callous (and careless) manner not once but twice (you’ll know how when you see the movie – not that you should, of course).
Atkins’ script is further muddled by its end of the world plotting, incoherent notions of time travel, secondary characters such as creepy bride of Jesus Trudy Kavanagh (Berkley), and inclusion of local nerd Jeremy (Rathbone) who develops a nasty looking rash that remains unexplained and immaterial to the narrative. There are further problems that Atkins can’t overcome, but the main one is his inability to craft dialogue that sounds like a real human being would say it. Here’s just one deathless exchange, between Samantha and local bad boy Randy (Westwick):
Samantha: I didn’t tell you something before. My brother died too. I was ten. Ever since that day, nothing’s ever been the same.
Randy: Never will be. We can’t change that.
Samantha: Think it’ll ever get easier?
Randy: Probably get worse.
Samantha: Maybe it’s up to us.
Samantha: Wake up, start over?
Randy: I wish I could believe that. We have the same holes in our hearts, you and me.
That exchanges like that one are delivered with such po-faced sincerity makes it almost impossible to take the movie seriously. It’s like watching a teen movie where the leads are trying to make sense of relationship issues rather than fathom the mystery they’re all involved in. The plot – such as it is – is developed in fits and starts, and in such a haphazard manner that when it’s all wrapped up neatly (and with the cinematic equivalent of a bow on top), the viewer who’s managed to reach the end will be wondering what the previous ninety-five minutes were all about (or for).
Fisher may well be a fan of Kelly’s (emphasis on the) original movie, and he and Atkins may have set out to make a companion piece to that movie, but they show their complete lack of understanding of what made Donnie Darko such an extraordinary experience at every turn. Even on its own merits the movie struggles to perform effectively, with Fisher failing to inject any tension into the material, and leaving scenes feeling listless and uninvolving. The spirit of the original is missing entirely, as is the sense of mystery and chaos just beyond the veil of everyday life. And anyone waiting to see Frank put in an appearance, be prepared for disappointment; here his presence is entirely symbolic.
Rating: 3/10 – while using time lapse shots of clouds as indications of a portentous enigma may work in some movies, in S. Darko it merely serves to remind viewers of just how devoid of purpose and originality the movie really is; jumbled and unnecessary, it’s a movie that doesn’t even try hard enough to match its predecessor for subtlety or thought-provoking drama.
40 years, Action, Alien virus, Ammo, Antonio Fargas, Best friends, Blooming, Coming out, Drama, Ex-boyfriend, Harrison J. Bahe, Holly Valance, Jamie Dornan, Jane LA, Jason Biggs, Jenny Mollen, Julie Benz, Kat Coiro, Kidnapping Caitlynn, Lesbianism, LGBT, Max Landis, Reviews, Sammi Pechman, Sci-fi, Shanae Styles, Short movies, X Returns, Zena Grey
The short movie is an oft-neglected aspect of movie viewing these days, with fewer outlets available to the makers of short movies, and certainly little chance of their efforts being seen in our local multiplexes (the exceptions to these are the animated shorts made to accompany the likes of Pixar’s movies, the occasional cash-in from Disney such as Frozen Fever (2015), and Blue Sky’s Scrat movies). Otherwise it’s an internet platform such as Vimeo, YouTube (a particularly good place to find short movies, including the ones in this post), or brief exposure at a film festival. Even on DVD or Blu-ray, there’s a dearth of short movies on offer. In an attempt to bring some of the gems that are out there to a wider audience, here’s another in an ongoing series of posts that focus on short movies. Who knows? You might find one that becomes a firm favourite – if you do, please let me know.
Jane LA (2014) / D: Max Landis / 12m
Cast: Zena Grey, Russell Henson, Maggie Levin, Hadrian Belove, Anna DeHaan, Max Landis
Rating: 7/10 – A documentary movie maker (Landis) films a young woman, Jane (Grey), who believes that by setting off a bomb in a crowded public place, she’ll bring people closer together (as well as making an artistic statement). With talking head soundbites from some of the people that know her, Jane’s story is played out in a wistful, semi-serious way that keeps the viewer guessing as to whether or not she’s completely serious, or (to be unkind) completely deluded. Landis plays with our perceptions of other people’s truths, while Grey makes Jane lovable and scary at the same time, leading to a final shot that is both haunting and unnerving.
Blooming (2013) / D: Harrison J. Bahe / 10m
Cast: Shanae Styles, Sammi Pechman
Rating: 6/10 – A young woman reveals her sexuality to her best friend… with unexpected results. Though entirely predictable, this is the kind of wish fulfillment tale that stands or falls on the quality of its dialogue and performances, and Bahe’s stripped down narrative is no exception. With an earnest performance from Styles as the young woman afraid to tell her best friend that she’s a lesbian, Blooming does enough to avoid being easily dismissed, but for some viewers, Bahe’s simple approach may be too flat in its presentation.
Kidnapping Caitlynn (2009) / D: Kat Coiro (as Katherine Cunningham-Eves) / 10m
Cast: Jenny Mollen, Jason Biggs, Julie Benz, Rhys Coiro
Rating: 7/10 – Daniel (Coiro) and Emily (Mollen) have split up, but this doesn’t stop Emily from trying to get some of her things back from their house, and despite the locks having been changed. Dragging her new beau Max (Biggs) with her, Emily’s “retrieval” of her things leads to Daniel’s new girlfriend, Caitlynn (Benz) being abducted with everything else. A bright little comedy, Kidnapping Caitlynn is endearing and engaging thanks to assured performances from Mollen and Biggs, and features some great one-liners to show just how deluded Emily is in the way she deals with her break-up.
X Returns (2009) / D: Ammo / 10m
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Holly Valance, Antonio Fargas
Rating: 5/10 – In the wake of Apollo 11’s return to Earth in 1969, a marine (Dornan) is infected by an alien virus and kept in quarantine for forty years before being freed by a woman (Valance) who works in the facility where he’s being kept. With its lack of back story to explain what’s going on and why (particularly the woman’s actions and just why the marine has spent so long in quarantine – and without aging), X Returns should best be viewed as an attempt to drum up interest in making a full-length feature out of Agent X’s plight. It also has an X-Files vibe about it, and is worth seeing for Fargas’s quietly menacing portrayal of a government spook. If you’re a fan of Dornan’s though, be prepared for disappointment: he’s barely in it.
Alex Roe, Alien invasion, Aliens, Chloë Grace Moretz, Drama, J Blakeson, Liev Schreiber, Literary adaptation, Maria Bello, Nick Robinson, Review, Rick Yancey, Sci-fi, Thriller, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, YA novel
D: J Blakeson / 112m
Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Alex Roe, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Zackary Arthur, Maika Monroe, Tony Revolori, Talitha Bateman, Cade Canon Ball, Alex MacNicoll, Nadji Jeter, Gabriela Lopez
It’s actually hard to know where to start with The 5th Wave. (It’s equally hard to know where to finish as well.) Yet another adaptation of the first in a trilogy of YA novels – this time by Rick Yancey – the movie has so many problems, and so many flaws it’s almost embarrassing. Up front and centre there’s Chloë Grace Moretz, an actress whose career has evolved – somehow – out of calling a bunch of goons “c*nts”, and who lacks the wherewithal to cry properly when her character’s father dies (look closely and you’ll find that Moretz’s face is not the definition of “tear-streaked”). Moretz just isn’t convincing enough as Cassie, the nominal heroine of the novels and the movie, and every time she’s asked to show some emotion it’s like there’s a war of attrition going on in her head, as she struggles to work out which facial expression will fit the bill. Often she settles for confused, or confused and angry, almost like they’re default modes for acting.
Then there’s the supporting cast, a mix of relative newcomers and veterans who all should have known better and sought employment elsewhere. On the veterans side there’s Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello, two very good, accomplished actors who are more than capable of giving award-winning performances (and they have). But here it’s a very different story (much like this adaptation of Yancey’s novel). Schreiber, playing a US military commander, looks bored and sounds bored throughout, as if he’s committed to the movie before reading the script and is now regretting the decision completely. Bello, on the other hand, at least has the luxury of being almost unrecognisable as another member of the military, but even she can’t bring anything resembling an effective portrayal to a role that requires her to jab her co-stars with a needle gun or spit out her lines as if they were poisonous.
On the relative newcomers side, it’s disheartening to see the likes of Revolori, excellent as the bellboy in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and Monroe, also excellent as the heroine of It Follows (2014), reduced to making ends meet by playing characters who are either unmemorable (Revolori) or stereotypically superficial (Monroe – the tough as nails female who doesn’t take shit from anyone). If this is the best movie they could get to work on in 2015 then they need to seriously rethink who’s representing them. As the two male leads, Robinson (as Cassie’s high school crush, Ben) opts for sulky and remote, while Roe (as Evan, who helps Cassie when she’s injured) aims for a combination of Theo James and Ansel Elgort from the Divergent series, and misses them both by a mile.
The look of the movie is also a problem. At the beginning, as Cassie provides an overview of the alien invasion and the various waves that have occurred so far, there’s a definite feel of money being well-spent, and the movie has an exciting buzz about it. But once that section is over, and Cassie, her father (Livingston), and her younger brother Sam (Arthur), arrive at the refugee camp it all becomes very generic in terms of both the art direction and the cinematography. And by the movie’s end, the cast are consigned to running around empty underground corridors in a volley of scenes that could be taking place in any post-apocalyptic low-budget sci-fi movie.
All this can be laid firmly at the door of the script, a mishmash of YA tropes and sci-fi melodrama that’s been cobbled together by three writers, all of whom should have been able to do a better job than this. Susannah Grant wrote the script for Erin Brockovich (2000) and was nominated for an Oscar, while Jeff Pinkner has an envious track record on TV shows such as Lost and Fringe. And then there’s Akiva Goldsman, an Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind (2001), and a recent participant in YA adaptations with the script for Insurgent (2015). But when all three can’t stop a movie from sounding like it was written by a trio of people who believe caricature and cliché are the best options, then the movie is pretty much abandoning all hope and waving a surrender flag.
But all this pales in comparison to the flaccid direction foisted on the movie by Blakeson. Making only his second feature after The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), Blakeson has trouble making any of it sound or look convincing, from the tepid romance between Cassie and Evan, to the video game sequences where Ben and his squad try and hunt down the aliens – possibly the worst example of the movie’s haphazard approach to editing – whatever the requirement, Blakeson finds some way to spoil it or prevent it from reaching its full potential. When you can’t even find a way of making Liev Schreiber look menacing, or inject any excitement into the destruction of a major air force base then you’ve got real problems. Maybe there’s a budgetary explanation for some of this but in the main, nothing works as well as it should.
Rating: 3/10 – its opening salvo of disaster aside, The 5th Wave works best as a cautionary tale to other makers of dystopian YA movies, in that they should avoid replicating this movie’s mistakes and do exactly the opposite of what it does here; limp and unappealing, with yet another inexplicable lead role for Moretz, it’s a movie that redefines the term “lacklustre” and has hopefully done enough to dissuade any sequels from being made.
D: Jeff Nichols / 112m
Cast: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen
It’s only taken writer/director Jeff Nichols four movies to become a movie maker whose projects carry an enormous weight of expectation. First there was Shotgun Stories (2007), then there was Take Shelter (2011). He followed that up with Mud (2012), and now he brings us Midnight Special, a tale about an eight year old boy who may be an alien, or an emissary from God, or something else completely. It’s a measure of Nichols’ success that he’s taken what could have been an awkward, unconvincing story – in lesser hands – and made it into an articulate, gripping tale that’s also exciting and thought-provoking.
The movie begins with the police searching for a missing child called Alton Meyer (Lieberher). He’s been abducted from a religious compound known as the Ranch. It’s head, Alton’s adoptive father, Calvin Meyer (Shepard), wants him back, and within the next four days. But Alton – who has to wear blue goggles during daylight hours – has been abducted by his real father, Roy Tomlin (Shannon), and he, along with his friend, Lucas (Edgerton), are trying to keep Alton safe and also get him to a certain place in four days’ time. There, something momentous will happen, but neither Roy nor Calvin Meyer knows what it is; and at this point, Alton doesn’t know either.
The FBI, and the NSA – in the form of agent Paul Sevier (Driver) – are also trying to find Alton, as they have become aware that he has been including coded intelligence in the sermons he’s written for Meyer. But Alton has other gifts, and one in particular, connected to his sight. When Ray decides to stop off at an old Ranch member’s home, that particular gift almost causes the house to shake apart. From there, the trio drive to the home of Alton’s mother, Sarah (Dunst), but not before an incident at a gas station reveals that Alton’s heat signature is similar to that of a nuclear bomb. Now a foursome, they travel on to the location that Alton must reach, however, they’re unaware that two members of the Ranch, Doak (Camp) and Levi (Haze), are tracking them with the intention of kidnapping Alton and returning him to the Ranch.
Before they are able to, Alton, who has been getting sicker and sicker, and has to avoid direct sunlight, tells Roy that he can no longer continue to keep hidden from the sun. Roy exposes Alton to a sunrise, and it has an extraordinary effect: he can now walk about unaffected in daylight, and knows exactly what he needs to do and why he needs to be in a certain place at a certain date and time. As he tells Roy: he doesn’t belong here.
Whether or not Alton makes it to his rendezvous is, ultimately, neither here nor there. What’s important is the journey he makes getting there, and the way in which he and his parents, and Lucas, make it there. One of the strengths of Nichols’ impressive and layered screenplay is the way in which Roy’s parental determination to not let anything stop him from getting Alton to his rendezvous, sometimes presents itself as unfeeling and harsh. When he and Lucas encounter a state trooper, Roy is unequivocal: he tells Lucas to shoot him. Roy doesn’t care about anyone else, only Alton, and his zeal and willingness to put moral certitude aside makes him one of recent cinema’s more interesting and intriguing characters. Shannon is perfect for the role, morally absent when he needs to be, but a committed, loving father as well, and fully able to show these two sides of Roy’s character without any sense that he’s a Jekyll and Hyde personality and able to call on either side when necessary.
What’s also important is that Roy believes in Alton, albeit in a different way from Calvin (he and his followers believe that Alton’s rendezvous is also the time when they will all be judged by God). He believes in his son, wholeheartedly, and even if what he knows is incredibly far-fetched. If it wasn’t for the light that can stream from Alton’s eyes when he’s exposed to sunlight, the viewer would be hard pressed to believe in the same way as Roy does. Nichols doesn’t keep the viewer in the dark for long (no pun intended), and any doubts are dispelled when Elden (Jensen), the ex-Ranch member has to have “another look”. From then on, Alton’s gifts/abilities/powers are assimilated into the narrative in a way that both explores them and allows them to drive events forward. As the otherworldly Alton, Lieberher does a fantastic job of balancing his closeted childhood with his increasing awareness of the skills he really possesses (he reads a lot of comic books and at one point asks about Kryptonite as if it were real).
Nichols orchestrates all this with a tremendous amount of flair, even as he keeps a tight rein on the more overt sci-fi elements of his screenplay. The subplot involving the Ranch members sometimes comes across as more of an afterthought, or late addition to the script, while the inclusion of Sarah doesn’t give Dunst much more to do than look concerned and hesitant. And there’s one very important question that Nichols leaves right until the very final shot to explain (in many respects it’s the most important question). But with such a high level of confidence on display, Nichols can be forgiven a couple of narrative faux pas, and his handling of the action sequences is bracing and not at all derivative (a major feat in itself). The whole thing is beautifully shot by Nichols’ regular DoP Adam Stone, and there’s an insidious, disorientating score courtesy of another Nichols’ regular, David Wingo.
Rating: 8/10 – Nichols continues his run of impressive features with a movie that asks what it is to be human, and comes up with some unexpected answers in the process; Midnight Special is an intelligent, original, and supremely well executed sci-fi drama, as well as a fantastic example of what can be done with a well constructed script, a more than willing cast, inspired direction, and all on a modest budget.
Amy Adams, Batman, Ben Affleck, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Daily Planet, Diana Prince, Doomsday, Drama, Gal Gadot, General Zod, Gotham, Henry Cavill, Jesse Eisenberg, Justice League, Lex Luthor, Metropolis, Review, Sci-fi, Sequel, Superheroes, Superman, Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder
D: Zack Snyder / 151m
Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Harry Lennix
$250 million budget + uneven script + wayward direction + awkward performances + Jesse Eisenberg (“The red capes are coming, the red capes are coming”) + Doomsday looking too much like the Abomination from The Incredible Hulk (2008) + Batman and Superman being upstaged by Wonder Woman = the longest, most uninteresting, most bloated and unwieldy Batman and Superman movies yet. ‘Nuff said.
Rating: 4/10 – dreary, overlong, and lacking a coherent storyline, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is neither a DC Universe movie that works, or a superhero movie that gives viewers anything new; with too many short cuts in the narrative to help overcome its sluggish construction, the movie provides further evidence – if any were needed – Snyder should move on, David S. Goyer shouldn’t be an automatic choice for DC screenplays, and Henry Cavill is still so awfully po-faced as the son of Kal-El.
Ansel Elgort, Bureau of Genetic Welfare, Chicago, Divergent Series, Drama, Jeff Daniels, Literary adaptation, Miles Teller, Naomi Watts, Providence, Review, Robert Schwentke, Sci-fi, Sequel, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Thriller, Veronica Roth
D: Robert Schwentke / 120m
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Jeff Daniels, Zoë Kravitz, Ansel Elgort, Miles Teller, Keiynan Lonsdale, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Bill Skarsgård, Jonny Weston, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer, Ashley Judd
And so Jeanine is dead, killed by Four’s mother, Evelyn (Watts). Everything’s okay and peace has been restored. Except that Evelyn is making sure it comes at a further price: everyone who was on Erudite’s side has to be put on trial and their “crimes” answered for. This means executions on a wide scale, and although Tris (Woodley) has disowned her brother, Caleb (Elgort), he faces the same fate. With the message from outside Chicago still indicating that there are more answers to be found outside the city than in, Tris and Four (James) opt to breach the wall and go in search of those answers. Four decides to help Caleb escape, and the trio are joined by Christina (Kravitz), Tori (Maggie Q), and Peter (Teller). Despite an attempt to stop them by Evelyn’s lieutenant, Edgar (Weston), they climb over the wall and down to the other side.
There they find a toxic wasteland, where the earth is a scorch blasted red. Having been followed by Edgar, the group are relieved when they reach a force field that opens to reveal an armed force. This group protects Tris and her friends from Edgar, and with his threat neutralised, they take Tris and company to their base far out in the wasteland, the so-called Bureau of Genetic Welfare, where Tris in particular is welcomed by the Bureau’s director, David (Daniels). With Tris being the fruit of an experiment to right a wrong perpetrated long ago, David is keen to run tests on her, while keeping Four and the others occupied and away from her as much as possible. But Four is quick to suspect that David isn’t as honest as he makes out, but Tris doesn’t see it.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Johanna (Spencer) has formed a group she calls Allegiant, and who are at odds with Evelyn’s way of running things. Another war of attrition is about to take place between the two factions, and though Tris wants David to intervene – after all, he has been monitoring Chicago for a long time because of the experiment – but instead of doing so, he sends Peter back with a nerve gas that will render everyone who comes into contact with it, unable to remember anything that happened to them before they were exposed. And while David takes Tris to meet the Council who ultimately decide everyone’s fate, Four discovers what the gas has been used for in the wasteland. And when Tris finally becomes aware of David’s duplicity, she and Four, along with Christina and Caleb, return to Chicago to stop Evelyn from using the gas on Allegiant.
Three movies in and the Divergent series is showing serious signs that it’s running out of ideas. Allegiant is superficially entertaining, but in comparison with parts one and two, it lacks anything fresh to entertain either fans or newcomers. It’s also the first time that the series gives up on Tris as an independent, strong-minded female, and instead hands over leadership duties to Four – which wouldn’t be such a bad idea if he wasn’t written as a bit of a pompous told-you-so kind of character. (Throughout the series, Four has been the gloomiest character of them all, unable to smile or express his feelings about anything without a frown.) And with Tris relegated to a secondary role, there’s only Daniels left to pick up the slack, as everyone else (James excepted) is afforded only enough screen time to either provide any relevant exposition, or keep the plot ticking over (Spencer and Watts are wasted, while Judd is brought back yet again to add some more of her character’s turgid back story).
The problem with the movie is twofold: one, it’s the first half of the third book in the series, and as such, doesn’t have a credible ending, just another narrowly avoided cliffhanger that leaves things open for part four (or should that be part three-point-five?); and two, the action seems more than usually contrived once Tris et al leave Chicago. The wasteland is less than threatening, and the Bureau is predictably shiny on the surface (and in David’s “office”), while the barracks Four and Christina are assigned to are remarkably similar to those inhabited by Dauntless in the first movie. It’s all brightly lit and commendably shot by esteemed DoP Florian Ballhaus (returning from Insurgent (2015) and already hired for the next instalment), but it’s becoming hard to care what happens to anyone.
At its heart, the Divergent series is about DNA profiling and the perils that can follow on from it. It’s a concept that’s been there in the first two movies, but which hasn’t been addressed directly. But now that it has, and through the medium of video no less, the truth behind the use of Chicago as a test ground, and the true meaning of being Divergent, all sounds quite dull and unexciting. The movie fails to make Tris’s nature important to its own story, and instead opts for being yet another race-against-time thriller, abandoning the ethical and moral debate it wants to engage in and relying on tried and trusted action movie clichés to wind up its narrative.
It’s no surprise that the movie has underperformed at the box office (leading to the final movie, Ascendant, due next year, having its budget cut), because even though Tris makes it out of Chicago, once she does, the movie doesn’t know what to do with her, and for a character as intriguing and interesting as Tris, that’s a terrible decision to make on any level. And it doesn’t help that your central villain is ultimately a harried bureaucrat, a futuristic pen-pusher if you will. That’s another stumble, and especially bad after having Kate Winslet fill the villain’s shoes for the first two movies. It all adds up to a movie that coasts on the success of its predecessors, and feels and looks like a stopgap before the real conclusion in part four.
Rating: 5/10 – another series instalment that will have newcomers wondering what all the fuss has been about, Allegiant is a movie that has little to offer in terms of its characters’ development, or in terms of expanding the wider narrative; Woodley – this series’ biggest asset – is sidelined for much of the movie, and though James is a competent enough actor, he doesn’t have his co-star’s presence on screen, which makes large chunks of the movie something of a chore to sit through.
Andy Mikita, Australia, Comedy, Cricket, Crime, Death of a Gentleman, Deathgasm, Devil worship, Disaster, Documentary, Drama, Ed Cowan, Edgar Ramirez, Ericson Core, Extreme Sports, FBI, Fred Durst, Horror, Ice Hockey, India, James Blake, Jarrod Kimber, Jason Bourque, Jeremy Sisto, Johnny Blank, Luke Bracey, Michael Shanks, Michelle MacLaren, Milo Cawthorne, Movies, Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story, Murder, Paul Johansson, Point Break (2015), Population / 436, Ray Winstone, Religion, Remake, Reviews, Robbery, Rockwell Falls, Sam Collins, Sci-fi, Sebastian Spence, Sports, Stonados, SyFy, Test match cricket, Twenty 20, Water spouts
Deathgasm (2015) / D: Jason Lei Howden / 86m
Cast: Milo Cawthorne, James Blake, Kimberley Crossman, Sam Berkley, Daniel Cresswell, Delaney Tabron, Stephen Ure, Andrew Laing, Colin Moy, Jodie Rimmer
Rating: 7/10 – when a teenage wannabe death metal band come into possession of sheet music that, when played, summons a demon called the Blind One, it’s up to them to stop both a zombie outbreak and the Blind One from destroying the world; raucous, rough around the edges, and with a liberal approach to gore, Deathgasm is a good-natured horror comedy that stumbles on occasion but, luckily, never loses sight of its simple brief: to be loud, dumb and lots of fun.
Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story (2013) / D: Andy Mikita / 87m
Cast: Michael Shanks, Kathleen Robertson, Dylan Playfair, Andrew Herr, Emma Grabinsky, Martin Cummins, Andrew Kavadas, Teach Grant, Ali Tataryn, Lochlyn Munro, Tom Anniko, Donnelly Rhodes, Erik J. Berg
Rating: 6/10 – the true story of ice hockey legend Gordie Howe who, after retiring in 1971, came back two years later and played not only with his two sons but in a new league altogether – and maintained his winning ways; looking like a strange hybrid of TV movie and abandoned big screen project, Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story does its best to avoid being a formulaic biopic, but is let down by the episodic nature of the script and a tendency to raise issues but not always follow them through.
Point Break (2015) / D: Ericson Core / 114m
Cast: Edgar Ramirez, Luke Bracey, Ray Winstone, Teresa Palmer, Matias Varela, Clemens Schick, Tobias Santelmann, Delroy Lindo, Max Thieriot, Nikolai Kinski
Rating: 4/10 – ex-extreme sportsman Johnny Utah joins the FBI and is given the opportunity to infiltrate a group of extreme sports fanatics who may or may not be responsible for a string of daring robberies; pretty to look at and featuring some great extreme sports sequences, Point Break is nonetheless a pointless remake with poor performances from all concerned, a woeful script, and lacks the edge Kathryn Bigelow brought to the original, leaving the viewer to wonder – yet again – why Hollywood insists on making so many dreadful remakes.
Stonados (2013) / D: Jason Bourque / 88m
Cast: Paul Johansson, Sebastian Spence, Miranda Frigon, Jessica McLeod, Dylan Schmid, William B. Davis, Grace Wolf, Thea Gill
Rating: 3/10 – off the coast of Boston, freak water spouts appear and hurl large stone chunks in all directions, putting everyone in danger and hoping they don’t hit land and become… stonados!; made in the same year as Sharknado, this tries to take itself seriously, but without a sense of its own absurdity it stutters from one poorly staged “stonado” sequence to another while – ironically – being unable to shrug off a whole raft of ineffective, embarrassing performances.
Population / 436 (2006) / D: Michelle MacLaren / 88m
Cast: Jeremy Sisto, Fred Durst, Charlotte Sullivan, Peter Outerbridge, David Fox, Monica Parker, Frank Adamson, R.H. Thomson, Reva Timbers
Rating: 6/10 – a census taker (Sisto) comes to the small town of Rockwell Falls and begins to suspect a terrible conspiracy, one that keeps the town’s population fixed at the same number; an uneasy, paranoid thriller with horror overtones, Population 436 features a good performance from Sisto and a well maintained sense of dread, but is held back from being entirely convincing by some awkward soap opera moments and a mangled reason for the town keeping its numbers to 436.
Death of a Gentleman (2015) / D: Sam Collins, Jarrod Kimber, Johnny Blank / 99m
With: Sam Collins, Jarrod Kimber, Ed Cowan, Giles Clarke, Narayanaswami Srinivasan, Lalit Modi, Gideon Haigh, Mark Nicholas, Chris Gayle
Rating: 8/10 – journalists Collins and Kimber set out to make a movie about their love of cricket and the challenges it faces, both commercially and culturally, and discover a scandal that threatens an end to test match cricket; not just for fans of “the gentleman’s game”, Death of a Gentleman is a quietly impressive documentary that sneaks up on the viewer and exposes the level of corruption at the very top of the game, revealing as it does the way in which the sport is being held to ransom by Srinivasan and a handful of others.
Anton Sheptooha, Australia, Benjamin De Bandt, Comedy, Drama, Fabio Gradassi, France, I Miss You, Impuissance, Italy, Mech: Human Trials, Mihalis Monemvasiotis, Nick L'Barrow, Patrick Kalyn, Red Wine, Reviews, Romance, Sci-fi, Thriller, Una di troppo
The short movie is an oft-neglected aspect of movie viewing these days, with fewer outlets available to the makers of short movies, and certainly little chance of their efforts being seen in our local multiplexes (the exceptions to these are the animated shorts made to accompany the likes of Pixar’s movies, the occasional cash-in from Disney such as Frozen Fever (2015), and Blue Sky’s Scrat movies. Otherwise it’s an internet platform such as Vimeo, YouTube (a particularly good place to find short movies, including the ones in this post), or brief exposure at a film festival. Even on DVD or Blu-ray, there’s a dearth of short movies on offer. In an attempt to bring some of the gems that are out there to a wider audience, here is the second in an ongoing series of posts that will focus on short movies. Who knows? You might find one that becomes a firm favourite – if you do, please let me know.
I Miss You (2014) / D: Anton Sheptooha, Nick L’Barrow / 7m
Cast: Alex Fitzalan, Steph Howe
Rating: 8/10 – A touching, heartfelt little movie that charts the course of a romance between an unnamed young man and woman in a succession of scenes that show the rise, and eventual collapse, of their relationship. All the while the young man narrates his feelings of loss at not having his girlfriend in his life anymore. Subtly and succinctly made, with a voiceover that convincingly displays sadness and regret (even if the character says he doesn’t have any regrets), this Aussie charmer is one of those rare shorts that you wish was just that little bit longer.
Una di troppo (2015) / D: Fabio Gradassi / 4m
aka One Too Many
Cast: Arianna Ceravone, Marco Stefano Speziali
Rating: 8/10 – It’s the morning after the night before and Marco is congratulating himself on yet another sexual conquest, a friend of his flatmate’s called Gianna. But there’s more to his apparent good fortune than he suspects, a fact that becomes all too clear when he asks to see Gianna again. A quickfire assault in the Italian battle of the sexes is handled with deft humour as Gradassi has fun with Marco’s pompous self-belief and Gianna’s no-nonsense intentions. The “twist” is perhaps a little too obvious but it’s handled with aplomb by the two stars, which makes Una di troppo a small but very delicious treat.
Impuissance (2015) / D: Cleaudya Deschamps, Ludovic Julia, Chloé Prendleloup, Júlia Tomàs Pagès, Benjamin De Bandt / 8m
Cast: Benjamin De Bandt, Sylvie Morizot
Rating: 7/10 – A young boy tries to cope with feelings of pain and despair in the wake of his mother’s unexpected death. If you search out short movies on the Internet then you’re bound to come across some that are the results of school projects, such as this moody, slightly eerie French endeavour, that features an impassive performance from De Bandt, and a visual approach that favours bleak, existential compositions spliced into the boy’s humdrum daily routine. It has a gradual effect on the viewer, but one question will probably remain uppermost in most viewer’s thoughts: where is the father in all this?
Mech: Human Trials (2014) / D: Patrick Kalyn / 6m
Cast: Steve Baran, Rowland Pidlubny, Douglas Chapman, Pete Gasbarro
Rating: 7/10 – Following an accident, a man retreats into the world of designer drugs, only to find their effect on him isn’t quite what he was expecting… and that he’s not alone. Along with school projects, there are an awful lot of short movies that are made to show what a movie maker can do, a) on a limited budget, b) with a lot of imagination, and c) as a calling card to the various studios out there. This sci-fi thriller, with its Terminator overtones, is high on moody shots of its star, and does well with its depiction of the drug’s physical effects, but also makes the mistake of repeating its one standout moment – and for a six-minute movie that’s not always a good thing.
Red Wine (2013) / D: Mihalis Monemvasiotis / 6m
Cast: Peter Greenall, Aggy Kukawka
Rating: 9/10 – Having cooked dinner and poured two glasses of red wine, a man waits for his wife to come home and join him. When she does, her being late leads to accusations of sexual impropriety, and an uncomfortable confrontation that speaks of domestic violence to come – or does it? With a bigger budget and a longer running time, it’s unlikely that Red Wine would work as well as it does. By keeping it tight and memorably disturbing, and even more so when the nature of the action becomes clear, Monemvasiotis manages to draw the viewer in and keep their attention fixed as events spiral seemingly out of control. Tense and hypnotic, Red Wine is one short that is astute enough to not “let off” its audience by providing a cosy ending.
Adam Driver, Anthony Daniels, BB8, C-3PO, Carrie Fisher, Chewbacca, Daisy Ridley, Darth Vader, Drama, Episode VII, Finn, Harrison Ford, J.J. Abrams, Jakku, John Boyega, Kylo Ren, Lightsabre, Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Poe Dameron, R2-D2, Review, Rey, Sci-fi, Star Wars, The First Order, The Force
D: J.J. Abrams / 135m
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Greg Grunberg, Warwick Davis, Simon Pegg, Harriet Walter, Iko Uwais
The Lucasfilm logo appears. The screen fades to black. Then the opening crescendo of the Star Wars theme in perfect sync with the Star Wars logo sends a welcome shiver down the spine. And then the subtitle: Episode VII The Force Awakens appears, followed by a summary of recent events that tells us Luke Skywalker is missing and Princess (now General) Leia has sent her best man to find him. With everyone up to speed we see a familiar sprinkling of stars against the inky blackess of space. The camera begins its equally familiar pan down until a planet comes into view. Then an ominous sound can be heard, and a dark shadow falls across the planet, only this is no shadow, it’s a huge starship; this can’t be good.
And it isn’t. But we all know it isn’t. This is Star Wars, and huge starships are always bad news, because it’s a sure sign the bad guys are up to no good. But wait – haven’t the bad guys been defeated? Wasn’t the evil Emperor, Palatine, killed by Darth Vader at the end of Episode VI? And didn’t the Rebel Alliance take charge of the galaxy, and restore order where previously there had been tyranny and unfair trade embargoes? Isn’t this a brave new future we’re looking at?
Well, actually, no, it isn’t. Thirty years have passed since the Emperor’s death, thirty years in which a lot has obviously happened, but for some reason the Rebels are still fighting, this time against a pernicious new regime, the First Order, and they don’t seem to have been in charge of anything, or made any difference to the galaxy they fought so hard to free from oppression. Just what have they been doing all this time? (We learn what Luke has been doing, and Han Solo, but Leia? That’s a little less clear.) So with no one having ensured peace and prosperity are the “first order” of the day, we’re back to a frighteningly familiar situation: the bad guys are running things and a small group of rebels are the only thing standing between them and – wait, that’s a little less clear as well. Just what are the First Order planning to do, other than show off their fancy new weapon (or the Mark III as it might be known)?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I really liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a fantastic thrill ride, for fans new and old, but instead of The Force Awakens it should be titled Another New Hope, because this is what writers J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt have given us, a retread of Episode IV with some fancy new trimmings. The similarities between the two movies are unavoidable, and are sometimes as unavoidable as the crashed star destroyers we see in the deserts of Jakku. Where we might have hoped that this new trilogy would strike out in a bold, new direction, instead it retreats back into the previous trilogy and gives us a kind of Star Wars Greatest Hits movie, with storylines lifted clean out of Episode IV, dusted down and given a shiny retooling, and references galore to the earlier episodes (“Is there a trash compactor?”).
As there may still be some people who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m not going to spoil things by listing all the ways in which Abrams et al have cribbed from George Lucas’s original vision (not in this post anyway), but it’s relevant to say that he is very much present throughout, almost as if Abrams and his co-writers have continually asked themselves, what would George come up with next? So we have a movie that looks new but feels old at the same time, and it’s a tribute to Abrams – can the mantle of franchise viagra be stripped from Dwayne Johnson and given to Abrams now? – that despite this the movie feels as invigorarting as it does. It fizzes and pops in all the right places, and if it doesn’t quite have anything that really gets the audience saying “Wow!”, then you can put that down to the number of big-budget sci-fi spectaculars we’ve become overly familiar with since 1977 (and that includes the other five Star Wars movies).
What it does have that raises the bar for the franchise as a whole, are three new characters who audiences can relate to, and who have been developed with great care by… yes, Abrams et al. First there’s Rey, waiting for her parents to return to the planet of Jakku where she ekes out a living trading scrap for food. Then there’s Finn, a stormtrooper whose conscience won’t allow him to serve the First Order any more. And lastly, there’s this trilogy’s über-bad guy, Kylo Ren, a follower of the Dark Side who boasts Darth Vader as an inspiration. These three characters’ fates become intertwined, and it will be interesting to see how their storylines play out over the course of Episodes VIII and IX.
Thanks to some very astute casting – Ridley as Rey, Boyega as Finn, and Driver as Ren – these characters should prove to be as popular as Luke, Han and Leia, and its their diversity which is a major plus for the franchise as a whole. Rey is fearless and largely unimpressed by the testosterone she’s surrounded by (including Han Solo), and it’s great to see a female character so unencumbered by stereotypical programming at the forefront of such a huge movie. The same can be said for Finn, his character torn between doing the right thing and getting as far away as possible from the First Order. As for Ren, well, let’s just say he has issues and they’re not going anywhere anytime soon, and it’s good to see a level of emotional complexity that you don’t normally see in what’s effectively a space opera.
With the new cast members proving so effective – except for Isaac, alas, whose role as Leia’s “best man” Poe Dameron is sidelined for much of the movie – what of the old guard? Without giving too much away, it’s only Ford and Mayhew who grab much screen time, but it’s good to see them back, and there’s a moment in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon that should bring a tear to the eye of every diehard fan of the series. This feels very much like a transition movie, and though one “old” character should be at the forefront of Episode VIII, it’s the new ones who’ve already proved they can connect with fans and it’s their journey that (hopefully) will drive the trilogy to its conclusion (and even if it seems clear already where those journeys will converge and end).
A good job, then, and imbued with the sense of wonder that made Episode IV such a breath of fresh air back in 1977. It has a modern day sheen to it, and is effortlessly funny in places, with Abrams’ trademark sense of humour applied liberally throughout, but it’s unmistakably a Star Wars movie, from John Williams’ magical score to the inclusion of so many different alien races and species, to the exhilarating aerial battles between T.I.E.’s and X-Wing fighters. And of course there’s the Force, so integral to everything that happens, and still the guiding factor for everyone concerned. It’s so good to know that it’s woken up at last.
Rating: 8/10 – not entirely the joyous celebration everyone wanted it to be, but still standing head and shoulders over every other sci-fi series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a welcome return to form after the po-faced seriousness of the prequel trilogy; with more than enough on display to make fans feel that the remaining two episodes are in good hands, this is easily the best feelgood movie of 2015, and if you don’t come out of the cinema with a big smile on your face, then you shouldn’t have gone in the first place.
District 13, Donald Sutherland, Drama, Francis Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Julianne Moore, Katniss Everdeen, Liam Hemsworth, Literary adaptation, Panem, Philip Seymour Hoffman, President Snow, Review, Sci-fi, Sequel, Suzanne Collins, The Capitol, Thriller, Woody Harrelson
D: Francis Lawrence / 137m
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Michelle Forbes, Patina Miller, Stanley Tucci
Picking up after Peeta’s failed attempt to kill Katniss, the final instalment in The Hunger Games series begins with a problem for both the makers and the audience to consider: should the movie launch straight into the rebels’ expected attack on the Capitol, or should it hold back and spend some time reiterating the relationships between Katniss and Peeta and Gale, and begin to explore the similar machinations of President Snow and his potential successor, Alma Coin? The answer is the latter, and while this decision allows for further layers to be added to Katniss’s ever-present self-doubt (and sets up the ending), it also has the effect of reminding the viewer that we’ve been here before – and in each of the three previous movies.
One of the series’ strengths has always been the way in which Katniss appears to be a stranger to herself while everyone around her finds her actions entirely predictable. It’s an idea that continues here, with the Mockingjay being used at every turn, even when she acts independently. But it’s in danger of becoming as unwieldy a plot device as the idea that President Snow has a camera in every home in Panem (as well as in every shop, and on every street corner… you get the idea). We get it. And if the decision to split Mockingjay the novel into two parts was so that the final movie could be all about the rebels’ final push on the Capitol, then why are we still going over old ground?
To be fair, it’s the price the movie makes for being faithful to Suzanne Collins’ source material. But what it also does is to make The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 longer than it needed to be, and curiously sapped of urgency once Katniss et al begin their progress toward the Capitol. There are too many scenes where characters stop to muse on their individual plights, and Peeta tries to sort out if his memories are real or lies constructed by his torturers in the Capitol. At first glance it’s all meaningful, and yet another indication of how careful the makers have been in grounding the action, but do you know what? It’s Part Four – we already care about these characters. All we want now is for Katniss to come face to face with President Snow, and for the promise of all those booby traps we’ve seen in the trailer to give us a thrilling, rousing, edge-of-the-seat kick-ass end to everything.
What we’re looking for is the kind of series’ ending we got with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011), but the action sequences, though expertly staged and choreographed – and which winnow out the surplus characters – just… don’t… bring it. It’s a strange awareness to have, to realise that the best action scenes have all appeared in the earlier movies, but there it is: even the underground fight against the Capitol Mutts suffers from over-familiarity as Katniss shows off the same bow skills we’ve seen before from Legolas and Hawkeye. And as mentioned before, there’s a distinct lack of urgency to it all, as the movie’s rhythm is maintained at such a steady pace that even when Katniss and her comrades are out-running a booby-trap at full pelt, you can sense the editing team of Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa making sure it’s not shown at too full a pelt or their hard work elsewhere might be jeopardised.
And yet, somehow – somehow – the movie overcomes these drawbacks and proves to be a fitting end to the saga. It’s still an intelligent, and intelligently made, movie, and the effort in maintaining the good work achieved in the previous movies is clear to see, with returning director Lawrence once again steering things to tremendous effect. He’s aided by a returning cast who all clearly want to be there, and who are committed to ending the series as best they can. And for the most part, they succeed. Lawrence doesn’t put a foot wrong as Katniss, miring her in doubt and misplaced guilt, and keeping her insecurities to the fore in a performance that becomes all the more impressive for having been sustained across four movies. Hutcherson impresses the most (four words I didn’t think I’d ever write), his PTSD Peeta being a difficult role to pull off, but he makes short work of it, and in doing so, makes Peeta the most sympathetic character in the whole series.
Completing the “romantic threesome” is Hemsworth as Gale. Four movies in and he’s still the series’ one weak link, an actor so stiff he could throw himself at the enemy instead of shooting them, and still score a death. (Now if Sam Claflin had played Gale, then the often tepid romance with Katniss might have been more compelling.) Sutherland continues to play Snow with effortless malice; without his silky venom to play against, the rebellion would have appeared less than necessary. As his rival for power, Moore strikes a more strident note as Coin, and as Coin’s true nature becomes more and more clear, the actress withstands the temptation to become the series’ answer to Cruella de Ville (the clue’s in the hair).
Further down the cast list, Harrelson is sidelined early on; the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman has a few scenes that hint at a bigger, if obviously curtailed role; Claflin brings his trademark smirk to playing Finnick Odair, as well as a much needed sense of fun; Banks hangs around on the periphery of things as Effie; and Tucci is shoehorned in as Caesar Flickerman in a TV segment that goes against an earlier scene where Snow (very severely) chastises an underling. Everyone is present and correct, and director Lawrence coaxes good performances from everyone, making it incredibly easy for the audience to continue rooting for their favourite characters.
Whatever your feelings about The Hunger Games franchise – and there are plenty of nay-sayers out there – this has been one of the most surprisingly intelligent and well produced projects of the last ten years. Jennifer Lawrence has proved to be an inspired choice as Katniss Everdeen, and the world of the Districts has been so convincingly constructed that the plight of their inhabitants has been echoed by events taking place in the real world even now. And even though Suzanne Collins originally wrote her novels for the YA market, these are remarkably adult movies, with a strong sense of moral culpability and responsibility. A triumph then, and when all is said and done, one that few of us could have seen coming.
Rating: 8/10 – narrative hiccoughs aside, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is still head and shoulders above any other dystopian YA sci-fi series out there, and is a great showcase for what can be achieved if the intention is not to soft pedal any serious themes inherent in the material; thrilling (just) and chock-full of great performances, this is a fitting swansong to a series that has surprised and entertained audiences for four years and this despite getting increasingly bleaker as it’s gone along.
Andy Weir, Ares III, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Drama, Hermes, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Literary adaptation, Mark Watney, Mars, Matt Damon, NASA, Pathfinder, Potato crop, Review, Ridley Scott, Sci-fi, Thriller
D: Ridley Scott / 144m
Cast: Matt Damon, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover
On Mars to explore the terrain and collect samples, the crew of the spaceship Hermes, headed by Commander Melissa Lewis (Chastain), have established a habitat station (the Hab) that allows them to check their samples before sending the results back to NASA. It’s also a living space for them. When a fierce storm approaches more quickly than expected, and some of the team are caught outside, botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is struck by debris and catapulted out of sight. With little option but to abandon the habitat centre and return to the Hermes, Lewis makes the decision to leave Mars even though she wants to find Watney. When NASA learns what’s happened, its director, Teddy Sanders (Daniels), holds a press conference that details the mission’s current status, and Watney’s unfortunate death.
But Sanders’ declaration proves to be wrong. Watney is still alive, though when he wakes after the storm has passed, he has a piece of antenna sticking out of his torso. He makes it back to the habitat station where he removes the antenna and staples shut the wound. He then starts to work out how long he can survive on the rations left in the Hab, but quickly realises that he doesn’t anywhere near enough to sustain him until a rescue mission can reach him. Drawing on his knowledge as a botanist, Watney decides to use the Hab’s resources (including his and the crew’s waste), and the Martian soil to grow potatoes. Meanwhile, back at NASA, mission director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor) is alerted to the fact that there is unexpected movement occurring on Mars, and soon it becomes apparent to everyone that Watney is alive.
Watney travels to where the Pathfinder probe lies abandoned and manages to get it to transmit images back to Earth. He and NASA come up with a means of communicating with each other (even if it is a bit slow due to the distance between them), and soon Watney is able to establish a more stable comms link. With NASA determined to rescue Watney, they finally decide to tell his crewmates that he’s alive. They’re all pleased but angry as well for being left out of the loop. But disaster strikes, when an airlock decompression at the Hab destroys the potato crop, leaving Watney with only enough rations for around 200 days, and a rocket supply drop arranged by NASA malfunctions and blows up before it even leaves Earth’s atmosphere. With time running out, NASA must find a way of getting to Watney before his food runs out, and he has to find a way of making his food last as long as possible.
An adaptation of the bestseller by Andy Weir, The Martian is something of a return to form for Ridley Scott, with the septuagenarian director making his most accessible and expertly constructed movie for some time. This is largely due to Drew Goddard’s assured, though not entirely flawless screenplay, which juggles successfully not only the hard science that keeps Watney alive (and making it relatable to the average viewer), but a myriad cast of characters, all of whom had the potential to become stereotypes. But Scott keeps all this in check and presents us with a sci-fi thriller that feels fresher than most recent outings (despite some obvious antecedents), and which features an impressive central performance from Matt Damon that helps ground the movie immeasurably.
So good, in fact, is Damon as the embattled astronaut of the title, that sometimes the events happening on Earth come as a bit of an intrusion. Yes, it’s good to see the effort being put in to rescue one man (even though you could argue that the cost of doing so would be too prohibitive for even the most caring of space agencies to consider), but these scenes too often feel like second cousins to those in Apollo 13 (1995), and Ejiofor’s character also feels like a close relative to his character from 2012 (2009). With this element of the narrative ticking several expected boxes, even down to the plucky, rule-bending astrodynamicist (Glover) who comes up with a plan to save Watney that no one else has thought of, it’s thanks to Goddard’s understanding of the necessity for these scenes, and Scott’s accomplished direction, they’re intrusion becomes less worrisome, and as Watney’s continued survival comes closer and closer to connecting with his rescue, the viewer can root for both camps.
But with so much happening back on Earth (and with such a large ensemble cast to cater to), the script doesn’t put Watney in as much jeopardy as Weir’s novel does. Part of the fun of reading the novel was that Weir consistently came up with ways to put Watney in danger, and he consistently made it seem as if Mars itself was conspiring to make Watney pay for being there. But here the suspense is lessened in favour of Watney’s unflagging determination to survive, which is admirable in itself, but there needs to be more in the way of peril, even if we can all guess the outcome. Harking back to Apollo 13, it was the way in which problems continued to mount on that mission that heightened the drama, and the way in which each problem was overcome that made it all the more engrossing and exciting. Here, Watney’s methodical, never-say-die attitude ensures that each setback is dealt with matter-of-factly and in double-quick time (and usually by virtue of a montage). By taking some of the natural tension of the situation away, the gravity of Watney’s dilemma is lessened when it should have had us on the edge of our seats.
But Damon holds it all together, making Watney a pleasure to spend time with, and be sympathetic of. The little dance and shouts of joy he makes when he discovers he can talk to NASA is a small moment of inspiration, especially when he looks round to check if anyone has seen him. And Damon is equally good at expressing the character’s somewhat arrogant sense of humour and keeping the viewer on his side, even with lines such as “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonised it. So technically, I colonised Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!” There are few actors audiences would want to spend an entire movie with, alone, but Damon is one of them, and he keeps the viewer focused on what is essentially one man’s battle for survival against (almost) impossible odds.
He’s supported by a great ensemble cast headed up by the ever reliable Ejiofor, with Wiig playing serious for once, and Daniels giving Sanders a sardonic air that fits well with his job as director of NASA. Chastain and Peña grab most of the limelight from Mara, Stan and Hennie as Watney’s fellow astronauts, and The Martian marks one of the few occasions when Sean Bean’s character in a movie doesn’t get killed (he’s also part of a great joke involving The Lord of the Rings). As you’d expect from a movie directed by Ridley Scott, it all looks incredible, with Jordan standing in for Mars, Arthur Max’s expressive production design, and very impressive cinematography from Dariusz Wolski (Scott’s go-to DoP for his last few movies). And on the music front, anyone expecting to hear David Bowie’s Life on Mars? at some point will find that Scott has gone for Starman instead, and there’s the completely unexpected use of ABBA’s Dancing Queen, which should feel out of place but is surprisingly apt for the point at which it’s used.
Rating: 8/10 – good sci-fi these days is rare (as anyone who’s seen Prometheus (2012) should know – sorry, Ridley), but The Martian is that rare beast, and is intelligent enough overall to overcome a few narrative concerns; with Damon in commanding form, and the drama of the situation sufficiently gripping, being stranded on another planet has never seemed so tempting.
Adam Sandler, Adventure, Centipede, Chris Columbus, Comedy, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Light cannons, Michelle Monaghan, Pac Man, Peter Dinklage, Review, Sci-fi, US President, Video games
D: Chris Columbus / 106m
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Peter Dinklage, Matt Lintz, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Jane Krakowski, Fiona Shaw
Ten things you’ll be wondering while watching Pixels, and the answers that may well pop into your head:
1) How on earth has Adam Sandler landed a four-picture deal with Netflix – didn’t anyone at Netflix see this before they signed on the dotted line? (He must have something on the guys who run it.)
2) Is it really necessary for Sandler and Michelle Monaghan to behave like five year olds in the White House? (No, but it does seem like the script’s idea of cutting edge humour.)
3) Will it be easier to watch if I shut my eyes? (Probably.)
4) Would Americans really elect a complete idiot to the highest office in the land? (Hang on, who was that guy George something or other?)
5) When is that unfunny Rob Schneider cameo going to turn up? (Hopefully when it’s time for a toilet break.)
6) If the aliens are using video game characters that were around in 1982, just how many video games that came out post-1982 are they going to be allowed to use as well? (Loads, because nobody could be bothered to do the research.)
7) When is Chris Columbus going to direct another decent movie? (On this evidence, not any time soon.)
8) Why are the human characters more like cartoons than the video game characters? (Perhaps it’s meant to be ironic? Maybe?)
9) Just how many young actors are there that look like Adam Sandler when he was a kid, and are they all receiving counselling? (Too many, and probably not; what help could they possibly be given?)
10) Hang on, hasn’t this been done before – and better – in an episode of Futurama? (Yes, it has, so why aren’t I watching that instead of this mess?)
Rating: 3/10 – sci-fi has had a rough summer this year, and Pixels, with its lazy script and so-what-if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-or-is-particularly-funny approach acts as yet another nail in the coffin of tent-pole sci-fi movies; Sandler coasts, James gives yet another unfunny embarrassing performance, Monaghan and Cox look inconsolable, and Gad is left to – well, it’s not clear – making this ill-advised project one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
12 Rounds 3: Lockdown, Abigail Breslin, Action, Airlock, Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day, Arizona, Axe to Grind, Baseball, Beverly Tyler, Birthday, Brian McGinn, Brighton, Cancer charity, Cattle rustling, Corrupt cops, Crime, Dean Ambrose, Debbie Rochon, Drama, Earl Bellamy, Ferrell Takes the Field, George Montgomery, Georgie Henley, Horror, Insurance fraud, Jennifer Garner, Jim Davis, Jim O'Connolly, John Carson, Josh Gad, Judith Viorst, Keoni Waxman, Literary adaptation, Matt Zettell, Mercenary, Michael Matzur, Michael Steppe, Miguel Arteta, Mira Sorvino, Movie role, Murder, Perfect Sisters, Peter Vaughan, Rob Margolies, Roger R. Cross, Romantic comedy, Sci-fi, Screenwriter, She Wants Me, Short movie, Silver mines, Smokescreen, Stanley M. Brooks, Stephen Reynolds, Steve Carell, Steven Seagal, The Boss, The Toughest Gun in Tombstone, True story, Vacuity, Vinnie Jones, Western, Will Ferrell, Wish, WWE, Yvonne Romain
Smokescreen (1964) / D: Jim O’Connolly / 70m
Cast: Peter Vaughan, John Carson, Yvonne Romain, Gerald Flood, Glynn Edwards, John Glyn-Jones, Penny Morrell, Barbara Hicks, Sam Kydd, Deryck Guyler
Rating: 7/10 – bowler-hatted insurance fraud investigator Roper (Vaughan) is called in to investigate when a heavily insured businessman’s car bursts into flames before going over a cliff – but was he in it?; a neat, unprepossessing British thriller, Smokescreen features an enjoyable performance from Vaughan, some stunning location photography, and a script that allows for plenty of ironic humour in amongst the drama.
Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day (2014) / D: Miguel Arteta / 81m
Cast: Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey, Sidney Fullmer, Bella Thorne, Megan Mullally
Rating: 7/10 – when overlooked youngest child Alexander (Oxenbould) has the worst day ever, he wishes that his family could experience just a little of what he has to deal with – but when they do, things quickly escalate beyond anything that Alexander has ever faced; Judith Viorst’s novel gets a fun-filled adaptation that is amusing, clever, and visually inventive, but which lacks bite, and has surprisingly few characters to root for (that is, none).
She Wants Me (2012) / D: Rob Margolies / 85m
Cast: Josh Gad, Kristen Ruhlin, Johnny Messner, Aaron Yoo, Hilary Duff, Melonie Diaz, Wayne Knight, Charlie Sheen
Rating: 6/10 – an ambitious though neurotic writer (Gad) working on his first screenplay faces a dilemma when the role written for his girlfriend (Ruhlin) grabs the attention of an A-list actress (Duff); a romantic comedy with few ambitions that struggles to make good comedy out of anxious indecision, She Wants Me is innocuous stuff that passes by in amiable fashion without ever really involving its audience.
12 Rounds 3: Lockdown (2015) / D: Stephen Reynolds / 90m
Cast: Dean Ambrose, Roger R. Cross, Daniel Cudmore, Lochlyn Munro, Ty Olsson, Sarah Smyth, Rebecca Marshall, Kirby Morrow
Rating: 3/10 – an honest cop (Ambrose) finds himself trapped in a station house and hunted by several of his corrupt colleagues when he comes into possession of evidence that will see them put away for the rest of their lives; another depressing WWE Films action movie, 12 Rounds 3: Lockdown dispenses with the set up of the first two movies, and does its best to be yet another Die Hard rip-off, albeit one stifled by inept plotting, terrible dialogue and a performance by Ambrose that never gets started.
Perfect Sisters (2014) / D: Stanley M. Brooks / 100m
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Georgie Henley, Mira Sorvino, James Russo, Rusty Schwimmer, Zoë Belkin, Jeffrey Ballard, Zak Santiago
Rating: 5/10 – two sisters (Breslin, Henley), fed up with the antics of their alcoholic mother (Sorvino) and her poor choice in boyfriends, decide the only way of improving their lives is to kill her; if it wasn’t based on a true story, Perfect Sisters would be dismissed as absurd nonsense with no basis in reality, but as it is it’s an uneven, tonally awkward movie that features average performances from its leads, but which does seem completely committed to drawing the viewer’s attention to Breslin’s cleavage at every opportunity.
Ferrell Takes the Field (2015) / D: Brian McGinn / 49m
With: Will Ferrell
Rating: 5/10 – in support of a friend’s cancer charity, Will Ferrell takes to the baseball field to play all nine positions for ten major league teams at five separate pre-season games, and all in one day; if the charity had been the Reassure Will Ferrell He’s Still Funny Charity, then this would have made more sense because Ferrell Takes the Field is a mercifully brief documentary that sees the comedian attempt to appear relevant in an arena where he has no real talent, and where, when he gets it wrong, he’s quite rightly booed by fans, leaving viewers to wonder why on earth this idea was commissioned in the first place.
Axe to Grind (2015) / D: Matt Zettell / 81m
Cast: Debbie Rochon, Guy Torry, Matthew James Gulbranson, Paula Labaredas, Michelle Tomlinson, Dani Thompson, Adrian Quihuis, Tony von Halle
Rating: 2/10 – when the producer of her latest film tells aging actress Debbie Wilkins (Rochon) that her role has gone to another, younger actress, it sets her on a killing spree that sees her despatch the cast and crew, and anyone else who gets in her way; low-budget horror always runs the risk of being offensively stupid, and Axe to Grind is no exception, as it treats its audience with disdain while failing to appear as clever and entertaining as it thinks it is.
The Toughest Gun in Tombstone (1958) / D: Earl Bellamy / 72m
Cast: George Montgomery, Jim Davis, Beverly Tyler, Gerald Milton, Don Beddoe, Scotty Morrow, Harry Lauter
Rating: 6/10 – with outlaws running most of the nascent state of Arizona, the Governor assigns Matt Sloane (Montgomery) and a team of undercover officers to apprehend the gang involved with cattle rustling and silver thefts; a modest Western that tells its simple story plainly and with few frills, The Toughest Gun in Tombstone is acceptable fare that doesn’t exert itself too much, but is enjoyable nonetheless.
Absolution (2015) / D: Keoni Waxman / 91m
aka The Mercenary: Absolution
Cast: Steven Seagal, Byron Mann, Adina Stetcu, Vinnie Jones, Howard Dell, Josh Barnett, Maria Bata, Dominte Cosmin
Rating: 4/10 – mercenary John Alexander (Seagal) and his colleague Chi (Mann) find themselves battling both a criminal syndicate and their own corrupt boss when a contract killing proves to have larger ramifications; another mumbling, stand-in heavy performance from Seagal detracts from what is – for him – a better outing than of late, and thanks to Mann’s athleticism and Jones’ snarling villain, any scenes where Seagal doesn’t take part are actually halfway enjoyable.
Vacuity (2012) / D: Michael Matzur / 14m
Cast: Michael Steppe
Rating: 6/10 – an astronaut, Alan Brahm (Steppe), stranded in an airlock while the space station he’s on begins to fall apart has a choice: either save his crew by jettisoning the airlock (but dooming himself), or save himself and get back to Earth (and dooming the crew) – which choice will he take?; as moral dilemmas go, the one facing Alan Brahm in Vacuity is, on the face of it, fairly cut and dried, but thanks to Matzur’s script and Steppe’s performance you’re never quite sure how things will play out, or even if either choice will be taken away from him, making this short movie a model of concisely focused drama.
Drama, Jamie Bell, Josh Trank, Kate Mara, Marvel, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Mr Fantastic, Origin story, Reboot, Review, Sci-fi, Stan Lee, Superheroes, The Human Torch, The Invisible Woman, The Thing, Tim Blake Nelson, Toby Kebbell, Victor Von Doom
D: Josh Trank / 100m
Cast: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson
Telephone call from Fantastic Four director Josh Trank to Marvel head Stan Lee:
Trank: Hi, is that Stan Lee?
Lee: Yes. Who’s this?
Trank: Hi, it’s Josh Trank, I’m directing the new Fantastic Four movie.
Lee: How’s it going?
Trank: It’s going very well, very well indeed. I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.
Lee: That’s good. I hear you’ve made some interesting casting choices.
Trank: That’s true, but I think Toby Kebbell will be the definitive Victor Von Doom.
Lee: Ah, that wasn’t what I meant… Anyway, what can I do for you?
Trank: Well, I was calling to find out when you can come out to Louisiana to film your cameo role.
Lee: I’ll need to get back to you on that. I’m really snowed under at the moment. By the way, can you let me see any footage if you have some?
Trank: Sure, we’ve got some great early footage of Reed and Ben as grade school kids, and then seven years later when they’re played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell.
Lee: Seven years? Okay… Well, if you could let me see it, that would be great.
Trank: Okay, I’ll get it sent to you.
Lee: Great. And I’ll let you know about the cameo.
Trank: Terrific. Well it was great talking to you. You take care now.
Lee: You too. Bye.
E-mail sent from Stan Lee to Josh Trank six days later:
Dear Josh – Thanks for sending the early footage, it was… illuminating. I don’t think I’ll be able to find the time to film a cameo, though.
Rating: 3/10 – when your superhero team only works together as a team out of narrative necessity, and the actors portraying that team appear to have all the chemistry of fire and water, then you know you’re in trouble – unless you’re Josh Trank, writers Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg (and Trank), and the executives at Twentieth Century Fox, in which case you plough on hoping that no one will notice just how bad the reboot you’re making really is; an appalling mess that features a badly rendered Human Torch to add insult to injury, Fantastic Four is enough to make viewers pine for the 2005 and 2007 movies that should now be reassessed in the light of this movie’s failure to provide anything other than an incoherent plot, dreadful dialogue, even worse characterisations, and one of the all-time worst superhero movies ever (seriously, even Roger Corman’s 1994 version is more enjoyable than this farrago).
As part of my look ahead to 2016, here’s the trailer to a movie whose combination of Independence Day destruction and Divergent series’ teen action heroics could prove to be an enormous crowd pleaser. Trading on her action star status from the Kick Ass movies, Chloë Grace Moretz looks convincing as the teenager taking a lonely stand against an alien invasion, while the visuals have that crisp, arresting style that allows for moments where the audience can safely allow their jaws to hit the floor. It’s based on a novel by Rick Yancey, and if successful, we’ll see two sequels hit our screens in the coming years (unless the last in the trilogy – still to be published – is split into two movies).
A Capella, Action, Anna Kendrick, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bank robbers, Barden Bellas, Bloody Mary 3D, Brighton Mob, Cathryn Michon, Charlie Vaughn, Christian J. Hearn, Comedy, Crime, David Arquette, David Siegel, Derek Jameson, Documentary, Elizabeth Banks, James Cameron, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jaqueline Siegel, Lauren Greenfield, Lavalantula, Literary adaptation, Los Angeles, Max Day, Mike Mendez, Movies, Muffin Top: A Love Story, Musical, Nia Peeples, Pitch Perfect 2, Ray James, Real estate, Rebel Wilson, Reviews, Sci-fi, Self esteem, Spiders, Steve Guttenberg, Terrorists, Thriller, Tom Arnold, True Lies, Undercover cop, Veronica Ricci, Versailles, Volcanoes, Weight loss
True Lies (1994) / D: James Cameron / 141m
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Tia Carrere, Bill Paxton, Art Malik, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, Charlton Heston
Rating: 8/10 – spy Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) must track down and thwart the plans of jihadists to detonate nuclear bombs on US soil – and keep it all secret from his unsuspecting wife (Curtis); even now, True Lies remains tremendous fun, even if it does get bogged down by its middle act domestic dramatics, and Cameron directs with his usual attention to detail and aptitude for kinetic energy.
The Queen of Versailles (2012) / D: Lauren Greenfield / 100m
With: Jaqueline Siegel, David Siegel, Richard Siegel, Marissa Gaspay, Victoria Siegel, Wendy Ponce
Rating: 7/10 – a look at the lives of self-made millionaire David Siegel and his wife Jaqueline, as their lives go from riches to rags thanks to the economic crisis in 2008; “how the other half lived” might be an appropriate subtitle for The Queen of Versailles, and the ways in which the Siegels try to deal with their reversal of fortune will bring a wry smile to viewers who aren’t millionaires, but ultimately this is a story about a couple for whom hardship means not being able to build their dream home: an enormous mansion that defies both taste and propriety.
Brighton Mob (2015) / D: Christian J. Hearn / 79m
Cast: Ray James, Max Day, Philip Montelli Poole, Stephen Forrest, Nick Moon, George Webster, Reuben Liburd, Amy Maynard
Rating: 2/10 – an inexperienced young policeman (James) is given the job of infiltrating a gang suspected of carrying out bank robberies across the South of England; a low-budget, amateurish effort, Brighton Mob features dreadful dialogue, awful acting, and the kind of direction that seems to have been carried out by someone who’s not actually watching any of the dailies.
Muffin Top: A Love Story (2014) / D: Cathryn Michon / 97m
Cast: Cathryn Michon, Diedrich Bader, Melissa Peterman, David Arquette, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Haylie Duff, Marcia Wallace, Gary Anthony Williams
Rating: 7/10 – when Suzanne (Michon) learns that her husband (Bader) is having an affair and wants a divorce, she goes on a voyage of personal discovery; with several pertinent (if obvious) points to make about self-esteem and body image, Muffin Top: A Love Story is a gently comedic, engaging movie that features an endearing performance from Michon, and doesn’t overdo its theme of female empowerment.
Lavalantula (2015) / D: Mike Mendez / 80m
Cast: Steve Guttenberg, Nia Peeples, Patrick Renna, Noah Hunt, Michael Winslow, Marion Ramsey, Leslie Easterbrook, Ralph Garman, Diana Hopper, Zac Goodspeed, Danny Woodburn, Time Winters
Rating: 4/10 – when volcanic activity strikes Los Angeles, it brings with it giant fire-breathing spiders, and only action movie hero Colton West (Guttenberg) can save the day; taking its cue from the Sharknado series’ combination of low-budget special effects and broad self-referential humour, Lavalantula is enjoyable enough if you just go with it, and benefits from having Mendez – who gave us the superior Big Ass Spider! (2013) – in the director’s chair.
Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) / D: Elizabeth Banks / 115m
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks
Rating: 6/10 – after a show goes disastrously, embarrassingly wrong, the Barden Bellas are banned from competing in the US, but it doesn’t stop them from taking part in the World A Capella Championships and going up against the dominating Das Sound Machine; a predictable sequel that offers nothing new (other than a great cameo by Snoop Dogg), Pitch Perfect 2 will satisfy fans of the original but newcomers might wonder what all the fuss is about.
Bloody Mary 3D (2011) / D: Charlie Vaughn / 77m
Cast: Veronica Ricci, Derek Jameson, Alena Savostikova, Bear Badeaux, Shannon Bobo, Michael Simon, Natalie Pero, Ryan Barry McCarthy, Shawn C. Phillips, Shay Golden
Rating: 2/10 – the ghost of Mary Worth (Ricci) targets the makers of a music video when her name is invoked and she finds the reincarnation of the man who killed her is the video’s star; dire in the extreme, Bloody Mary 3D is the kind of low budget horror movie that gives low budget horror movies a bad name, and criminally, takes too much time out to showcase Jameson’s limited talents as a singer (and the 3D is awful as well).
D: Brad Bird / 130m
Cast: George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull
At the 1964 World’s Fair, a boy named Frank Walker (Robinson) takes his latest invention, a jet pack, to the science tent in the hopes of winning a $50 prize. But as his jet pack doesn’t actually work properly, the presiding judge, David Nix (Laurie), tells him to come back when it does. As he leaves he’s approached by a young girl called Athena (Cassidy), who gives him a pin with a bright blue T on it, and tells him to follow her when she gets on one of the rides. When he does he finds himself transported to a strange futuristic world where there are tall, shining buildings, trains and vehicles that travel on air, and a launch site for spaceships. There, his jet pack is adjusted to work properly and he’s accepted as a member of Tomorrowland, a world where the brightest and the best – the geniuses of Earth – have gone to create a utopian world devoid of war, social inequality, famine, natural disasters and greed.
Fifty years later, teenager Casey Newton (Robertson) lives near Cape Canaveral with her dad, Eddie (McGraw), and younger brother Nate (Gagnon). Eddie is an engineer working for NASA, and helping to dismantle the nearby Apollo launch site. Casey “knows how things work”, but is using her skills to delay the site’s demolition. When she’s caught and arrested, she finds a pin with a bright blue T on it in amongst her belongings when she’s released. She touches it and is immediately transported to a wheat field where, in the distance, is a city of tall gleaming spires. She drops the pin and is back in her own world. Unable to convince her father that the pin is special, she looks for information about it online, and learns that there is a store in Texas that will buy them.
She travels there but the store owners, Ursula (Hahn) and Hugo (Key), try to take the pin from her by force. Casey is rescued by Athena, who doesn’t look a day older than when she met Frank. Athena explains a little about Tomorrowland but not enough to fully satisfy Casey’s questions. They travel to a remote farmhouse where Casey is left to meet the owner, a now older Frank Walker (Clooney). When agents from Tomorrowland arrive and try to abduct Casey, Frank and Casey manage to escape, and both are reunited with Athena. From there they head for Paris and the Eiffel Tower, which, aside from being a national monument, is also the launch site for a hidden rocket ship. The ship takes them to Tomorrowland, but when they arrive, the trio find it in ruins, and Nix in charge of everything. And it becomes very clear that our world is on the brink of complete destruction, unless Casey can “fix” it, something that Nix doesn’t want her to do…
The movie that Bird passed on directing Star Wars Episode VII for, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond arrives with no small amount of hype attached to it, and an appropriately high level of anticipation. And up until we meet Casey it’s exactly the movie we’ve been expecting: a richly detailed, nostalgic look back at a time when the future seemed brighter than ever, and technological miracles were being produced that were poised to make our lives all the better. There’s a wistfulness about these early scenes, and a joy in the discovery of Tomorrowland that is infectious and intoxicating, and Bird and his co-writer Damon Lindelof give us an unforgettable introduction to the unforgettable world they’ve created.
And then it all goes horribly wrong. In placing our world in peril, but with the solution located in Tomorrowland, Bird and Lindelof have managed to come up with one of the murkiest, most unconvincing – or clearly explained – storylines in recent years. So much happens that doesn’t make sense, and so much happens that isn’t followed through, that the movie becomes unwieldy and bogged down by too many scenes that fail to advance the plot or deepen the characters. It’s like being given a box of assorted chocolates, only to find that they all have the same centre. For a movie that touches on so many different aspects and themes – nostalgia, individualism, collectivism, fate, unfulfilled love, the benefits of technology, looking to the future, nihilism, hope, manifest destiny – it develops not into a thrilling adventure that matches the joie de vivre of its opening section, but a tired, downbeat, dystopian odyssey that squeezes the life out of its characters and its plot.
What this leads to is an impending worldwide catastrophe that you just can’t care about, and if filmmakers of the calibre of Bird and Clooney can’t make an audience care about the end of the world then there’s definitely something wrong (although, ironically, the idea fits neatly with Nix’s disparaging remarks about everyone else on Earth). It’s as if the initial idea was settled on, but fleshing it out proved too difficult, so any way the story could be continued was seized upon and no further development took place. There’s no tension, an abstract sense of impending doom, and too much reliance on Athena to bail out Frank and Casey when they get in trouble.
The cast struggle gamely with characters who lack shading and depth, though Cassidy is a minor revelation as Athena, her poise and command of her dialogue helping her performance immeasurably (and showing the others how it should be done). Hahn and Key provide some much needed respite (though too early on) from the drudgery, and Robinson is so cute he shouldn’t be allowed. But it’s still not enough to offset the awkward miscalculations made by Messrs. Bird and Lindelof, and the strangely disaffected tone the movie adopts when it returns to Tomorrowland. However, the movie does have a wonderful sheen to it, Claudio Miranda’s cinematography proving an exquisite treat, his mix of light and colour at the World’s Fair being particularly gratifying. If only as much attention had gone into the script.
Rating: 5/10 – with just enough on display to keep it from being a complete disappointment, Tomorrowland: A World Beyond starts out fresh and engaging and ends like a lame athlete finally crossing the finishing line; Bird directs as if he were absent from the set, and it all has the air of a movie that “will just do for now”.
D: Tim Johnson / 94m
Cast: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Matt Jones, Brian Stepanek
Fleeing from their sworn enemy the Gorg, the Boov race – led by Captain Smek (Martin) – arrive on Earth and begin to colonise it, sequestering the human population in various locations around the globe. The Boov are otherwise a peaceful race, and believe they are doing Earth a favour by inhabiting it. One of them, Oh (Parsons), decides to invite everyone to a party at his apartment, but when he sends out his electronic invitation he doesn’t realise that it will be picked up by the Gorg as well. When Captain Smek learns of this, Oh is forced to go on the run.
In a convenience store, Oh runs into Tip (Rihanna) and her cat Pig. Tip is on her own after her mother, Lucy (Lopez), was taken away. She hates the Boov, but when Oh transforms her mother’s car into one that can fly, and he agrees to help her find her mother, she lets him come with her. They fly to Paris to the Boov Command Centre where they learn that Lucy is in Australia. Evading the Boov, they then find themselves under attack from a Gorg ship. They manage to bring it down but their car is damaged in the process. The Gorg ship proves to be a drone, and Oh is able to use a chip from it to get their car going again.
Once in Australia, Tip and Oh discover that the Boov are evacuating to their mothership. Tip wants to find her mother but Oh insists they leave with the rest of the Boov before the Gorg destroy them all. Tip refuses and continues her search for Lucy, while Oh begins to realise that he has to do something to stop the Gorg from killing everyone, Boov and human alike. On the Boov mothership he uses the chip from the drone to place their mothership at a distance from the newly arrived Gorg mothership. This leads to Captain Smek being dismissed from his position as Boov leader, and the honour is given to Oh.
Tip and Lucy are finally reunited, but there’s still the problem of the Gorg mothership which has entered Earth’s atmosphere and is preparing to land outside the Australian camp. Oh has only a short time to find a solution that will save them all, but he finds the answer in the most unlikeliest of places…
Now fully committed to making computer animated movies – their last traditional animated movie was Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) – Dreamworks now finds itself, perhaps like Pixar, in a very strange position. Each animated movie it releases comes under a great deal of scrutiny, and Home is no different, with the movie being accused of failing to live up to the standards set by the likes of How to Train Your Dragon (2010) or Kung Fu Panda (2008). It’s an invidious position to be in, and in the case of Home, more than a little unfair.
Certainly, the movie’s message that we’re all the same under the skin (even if it is purple) is a well-worn theme in cinema, but here it’s not as hammered home as some other movies, and it’s approach to racial diversity – Tip is the first non-Caucasian lead in an animated movie – as well as its integration of the Boov, who adopt most human lifestyles, is all cleverly done. If it all seems predictable and safe, then that’s because it is. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that though, because the movie does it all with a tremendous amount of verve and eye-popping visual splendour, and is consistently funny throughout, thanks to Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember’s astute adaptation of Adam Rex’s kid-lit novel The True Meaning of Smekday.
Fizzing with a day-glo colour scheme that makes almost every scene glisten and zing, Home creates one of the sweetest on screen relationships seen for some time, as Oh and Tip become friends and realise how strong their bond is. Parsons is excellent as Oh, his vocal tics and mannerisms – some lifted, admittedly, from The Big Bang Theory – a perfect match for the continually puzzled yet curious little Boov, and Rihanna is just as effective as Tip, matching her co-star for emotional expression and displaying a range that may come as a surprise to some viewers. Martin almost steals the show with his turn as the cowardly Captain Smek, the character’s pompous vanity perfectly expressed in every scene he’s in, and while it may not be the most layered performance, it doesn’t have to be. With less screen time, Lopez doesn’t quite register as strongly as Lucy, but again, the relationship between Tip and Oh is the main focus, and not Tip and her mother.
Ably directed by Johnson, Home sets out its stall quickly and efficiently and provides enough entertainment for adults and kids alike. It isn’t a serious movie by any standard, and relies on the charm of its lead characters for most of its running time, but Oh and Tip are delightfully animated and voiced, and make for a great screen partnership. The Boov are a delight as well, the way their bodies change shade or colour depending on how they feel being one of the movie’s small pleasures. The movie doesn’t try too hard and does a lot with its small-scale story and plot, and proves endlessly visually inventive. It’s a fun, popcorn movie, the kind of animated distraction we could all use from time to time… and what’s wrong with that?
Rating: 8/10 – with a bucket load of charm and a refreshingly straightforward approach to its storyline, Home is a movie that rewards the viewer from start to finish; fun with a capital F and proof it were needed that Dreamworks is still making good choices when it comes to its animated movies.
Original title: Kumo no mukô, yakusoku no basho
D: Makoto Shinkai / 90m
Cast: Hidetaka Yoshioka, Masato Hagiwara, Yuka Nanri, Unshô Ishizuka, Kazuhiko Inoue, Risa Mizuno
In an alternate reality, Japan is a divided nation. The northern half, Hokkaido, is ruled by the Union, while Honshu and everything else to the south is overseen by the US. At some point after the division, a tower that stretches up and beyond the clouds was built on Hokkaido, but the reason for its having been built is unknown.
One summer, two young friends, Hiroki (Yoshioka) and Takuya (Hagiwara), decide to build a plane that will enable them to fly to the top of the Tower (and maybe find out what it does). They spend all their spare time finding parts for the plane and assembling it, and are aided by their employer during school breaks, Mr Okabe (Ishizuka). One day, Takuya finds himself talking to a girl both friends know called Sayuri (Nanri). He tells her about the plane and she tags along when he next goes to the abandoned train station where they’re building it. Despite, Hiromi’s doubts about her being included in their plans, her enthusiasm for the project wins him over.
As they grow older, and the plane nears completion, Sayuri begins to have strange dreams that are connected to the Tower. One such dream sees the Tower exploding and causing tremendous destruction. Shortly after, Sayuri falls ill and is taken to Tokyo for treatment. Three years pass, during which Hiroki and Takuya stop work on the plane and go their separate ways. The political situation worsens between the Union and the US, and war is imminent. Sayuri has been asleep for the last three years, but she has been studied during this time, as her dream activity is reflected in the activity of the Tower. When Sayuri dreams, the Tower produces sufficient energy to overlay a separate reality on the area immediately around it. The scientists studying the Tower and Sayuri believe that if she were to wake up, the Tower would replace the existing reality with another, completely different one.
With Takuya being a part of the research team investigating the Tower, he learns of the connection to Sayuri and determines to free her from the hospital where she’s being kept. He enlists Hiroki’s aid in completing the plane and together they aim to fly it, with Sayuri aboard, close enough to wake her, and then to destroy the Tower with a missile. But they choose to do this just as the war breaks out, and the likelihood of their being successful is drastically reduced.
If your experience of Japanese anime has been restricted to the movies produced by Studio Ghibli, you could be forgiven for thinking that movies such as Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Arrietty (2010) are the pinnacle of that particular genre. But there are so many other fine examples out there that it’s sometimes worth the reminder that Studio Ghibli isn’t the only purveyor of tremendous Japanese anime.
Because such is the case with The Place Promised in Our Early Days. Starting out as a coming of age tale that is both affecting, and quietly and unobtrusively observed, the movie introduces its three main characters with a winning amiability. Hiroki and Takuya’s friendship is warm, committed and unselfish; they’re a good match too in terms of their intelligence and skills. And Sayuri is the girl who binds their relationship even tighter, making it stronger and more deep-rooted. The script, by director Shinkai from his own story, resists the temptation to introduce a love triangle, and the movie benefits immeasurably from this, the viewer unencumbered with having to worry as to which one of Hiroki and Takuya will be chosen over the other. Instead, two close friends become three, and each share in each other’s ambitions and concerns.
When the story changes focus in the second half and becomes more of a thriller, Shinkai retains the trio’s connections and shows how time and distance has failed to erode their bond. This allows for an emotional follow-through that adds to the increased pace and race-against-time urgency of the last twenty minutes. Takuya’s determination is easily understood, as is Hiroki’s initial reluctance to become involved in the plane and their original plan. And through it all there’s Saruyi’s consciousness, putting together the clues from her childhood, and from her time with her two friends, in order to work out the mystery of the Tower. Shinkai juggles the expanding storylines of the movie’s second half with ease, while darkening the tone and still managing to retain some of the lyricism of the first half.
The plot and storylines are served greatly by some stunning animation, with the rural location where Hiroki and Takuya build their plane offering vistas of dazzling beauty. Shinkai – again – leads the movie’s animators in creating a world that is similar and different to ours at the same time, and includes all manner of small touches that illustrate the differences (check out the advertisement for “Popsi”). The blue skies and green fields, even the greys of the town, are all shot – again by Shinkai – with a view to making it all look richly alluring, a feast for the eyes that provides ravishing image after ravishing image. Even when the tone darkens, the movie is still striking to watch and rewards the eye continuously.
On the minus side, Saruyi’s eyes have that enlarged look favoured by animators the world over, the urgency in rescuing her from the hospital is forced on the plot without any build-up, and some of the political manoeuvring of the second half is glossed over or given just a passing nod – everyone talks about the war being inevitable and no one tries to stop it. And the finale strays too close to being confusing to provide the emotional dividends that the viewer has every right to expect.
Rating: 8/10 – breathtaking and beautiful to watch for most of its running time, The Place Promised in Our Early Days is a minor masterpiece from Makoto Shinkai and shows that Japanese anime has more to offer than talking animals and creatures from Japanese folklore; a more emotional tale than usual but this is easily the movie’s strength, and it’s backed up (not overwhelmed) by some superb animation.