Archive for cinema

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

The fifth instalment of the Pirates franchise hit the screen this week, the big question is: Did anyone other than Johnny Depp really ask for this film?

This is the second of the series not to be directed by Gore Verbinski, the fourth – On Stranger Tides – having been directed by Rob Marshall, who really pared back a lot of the extravagance that Verbinski packed into the bloated Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s EndSalazar’s Revenge has two directors, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, and as much as there is no real sense of different ‘voices’, it’s not entirely coherent either.

As far as these films go, this is basically ticks all the boxes: Johnny Depp doing his drunken Keith Richards/David Bowie as a pirate impression, implausible CG galleon battles, cursed pirate crews, a score that beats you into submission during the action set-pieces, returning characters, risqué jokes, basically everything you expect. The problem with Salazar’s Revenge is that nothing is quite right.

The CG is a bit ropey, especially the zombie sharks, the film was shot for 3D (which I didn’t even realise was still a thing) so there are lots of pointy things and explody things shooting towards you, and it always stands out when you watch in 2D. The jokes are more suggestive than ever, and the gender politics in the franchises universe are more draconian than ever (anyone remember there were women in high-ranking positions in the previous films? Even Knightly managed to become Queen of the Pirates! Here the single female character is branded a witch time and time again) the cameo from a famous pop star is even more clumsily shoe-horned-in than Keith Richards’ – which actually made sense. And Johnny Depp seems to have been given free-reign to basically just do whatever he wants while having fewer and fewer lines of dialogue. In fact, the dialogue he does manage to spit out is now virtually unintelligible as his drunken slurring has been turned up to 11 in this film, especially during the opening scenes.

Luckily, the talents of Geoffrey Rush and Javier Bardem manage to serve as balance to Depp’s mad ramblings, although Bardem is basically playing a pantomime villain. Newcomer Kaya Scodelariois a breath of fresh air as Carina Smyth, the woman of science trying to track down her absent father. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner, the son of Bloom and Knightly’s characters, he’s just as wet and weak as Bloom and Sam Claflin’s character from On Stranger Tides. This franchise really has a thing for tepid male supporting characters.

The plot centres around a cursed crew of Spanish pirates(?) who are set free after years being confined to some sort of cave and who are out to get the person who put them there in the first place: Sparrow. Various characters are looking for the Trident of Poseidon (which, the more it’s said, the stupider it sounds) that will break the curse. The list of people included in tracking down the Trident of Poseidon (see?!) includes the English, who want to use its power to rule the sea… but even though they’re set up to be powerful secondary protagonists they seem to get forgotten by the writers halfway through the film. Adventure ensues, a central character is killed-off and that’s about it.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge – and the franchise in general – is the movie equivalent of popcorn. It has no real calorific content, it’s probably not good for you, but it tastes quite nice at the time until you have too much of it and you start feeling sick, however you start to feel hungry again soon after finishing. Th film passes a couple of hours, but is completely forgettable and not very good. But at least Mr Depp will be able to pay some of his legal fees with the earnings, if the press is to be believed he’s going to need it, so expect many more adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow in the coming years.

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Review: Alien: Covenant

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Originally, Ridley Scott had the idea to make a trilogy of films that would be linked to, and eventually link up with, the Alien franchise that he started back in 1979 but would explore deeper ideas. The result was Prometheus and, on the whole, people reacted negatively to it. The general consensus was ‘It’s not like Alien’, ‘Where’s the xenomorph?’ and ‘this is too pretentious’.

Alien: Covenant is the direct sequel to Prometheus and has been through a number of scripts and titles since its original inception with Scott seemingly making changes to his original plan based on reaction to Prometheus. It feels a shame that such a visionary director appears to feel that he has to appease the audience over sticking to his original vision. So, Alien: Covenant is what Scott thinks we want, rather than exactly what he wanted to make. This is a film for the people that moaned.

The philosophical ideas explored in Prometheus are right there from even before the title appears on the screen in Alien: Covenant. Also, the over-ripe dialogue that is only really there to explain what’s going on, which was never there in Alien. In the 1979 original the characters had believable conversations about pay and profit-sharing schemes, they were space-truckers and spoke like truckers. In Prometheus, the scientists are looking for the answer to where humans came from, so the cod-philosophical dialogue made some sense. But in Alien: Covenant the majority of the cast are colonists, off to make a new planet their home. They are engineers, botanists, explorers, yet they constantly talk in ways normal people don’t.

In film, it should be ‘show, don’t tell’, but at one point Billy Crudup’s newly-promoted captain says – out loud –  that people don’t trust him because he is religious. It’s written on the faces of the actors, we can see it, it doesn’t need saying.

This sounds like an absolute slating, but there are many, many positives too. Scott is an amazing world builder, and the landscapes and sets are stunning, the gore is visceral and used sparingly to leave things to your imagination, except in one scene very early on which is super uncomfortable to watch. There also isn’t a weak link in the cast either, this is probably the first time since Tropic Thunder that  Danny McBride has turned in a performance that I’ve enjoyed. Michael Fassbender gets to show more range than previously, playing two very different (but quite similar) roles and Katherine Waterston is brilliant as this film’s Ripley stand-in who starts off weak, but proves to have hidden reserves as the horror unfolds.

You get a lot of history about what has been happening in the 10 years between the goings on in Prometheus and now. Which probably serves as a proxy for some of the stuff Scott cut from his original drafts. The other half of the movie serves as a remixed greatest hits of scenes from previous Alien movies. Which is great!

There are face-huggers scrambling around and jumping out at people, chest bursters (that isn’t quite how it happened in Aliens and gestated as fast as in the Alien v Predator films that people also had problems with), Aliens attacking from shadows/above, acid blood spraying, chases through corridors, air-locks, big machinery, small Alien mouths through the skull, and much more.

There are new thrills, one of which has been mentioned in this review already, and they are super-effective. The problem with having so much that harks back to the Alien films is that as soon as characters start to split up or investigate certain things you know what’s going to happen to them. This makes the film a lot less scary than it’s predecessors, but it’s no less tense.

The villainous character is properly insidious and keeps you guessing… to a point. And the finale of the film really has you in suspense for another film, perhaps this will be the one before Alien and Scott will finally have closed his loop, perhaps not. Maybe Neill Blomkamp will get the roll the clock back with his Alien 2.5 movie that is supposed to be set after Aliens and rewrites the timeline after Alien 3 did something almost unforgivable with two of the characters from the second film.

Either way, I’ll see and enjoy any film based around xenomorphs. Alien: Covenant may be a little messy, mainly because of the fact that Scott felt he had to diverge from his original plans, but when it works it really works, and it works more than it doesn’t. I just wish he’d stuck with his convictions.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Guardians of the Galaxy proved to be the sleeper hit of Marvel Studios’ prolific output from the last 12 years because it came completely out of left field, with no huge stars (on-screen at least) and about characters very few had ever heard of. However, the mix of a hilarious script, irreverent soundtrack and the chemistry of the cast came together to blow audiences and critics away.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn’t have that same luxury, people know what to expect from it. So, how does Vol. 2 go about replicating, if not building of the success of Vol. 1? As with so many sequels – especially in the comic-book genre – Vol. 2 goes bigger right from the jump.

The opening five to 10 minutes looks like it cost more money than any opening scene ever. But what the film does is focus on a very small, cute detail rather than the massive action set-piece happening in the background. And, in a way, that’s kind of the point of this particular franchise: the first film was about finding family, this film is about being a family – while also being a team that saves the galaxy.

Almost all the characters in Vol. 2 have been fleshed out and given more depth, rather than sticking with the templates that were sketched out in the fist film. Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Drucker) have been given deeper issues to work through, Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) is more playful, the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) has been deepened with Nebula giving the real reason for her hatred of her stronger sister. Drax (Dave Bautista) continues to be a scene stealer with all the best lines, but his character has even been given more depth. Instead of being a character that takes things completely literally, he is now trying to use sarcasm, though he still doesn’t understand it.

The only character that doesn’t seem to have been given more is Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), despite the fact he has become the leader of the group and is the lead human character that we’re supposed to empathise with. He’s found his biological father in Ego (Kurt Russell), a god of sorts that offers Quill the chance to become a god too. For some reason though, this his character doesn’t seem to have the spark or charisma that he did in the first film.

There are some decent, if not well-telegrahed, plot twists along the way and some great visuals. Some of the action sequences, especially towards the end of the film, can be a little hard to focus on because of the quick cutting and the fact that there is so much going on.

There are some interesting cameos including Sylvester Stallone (who is difficult to understand), Ving Rhames (fleetingly), the Hulk (possibly), Jeff Goldblum (buried in the credits) and David Hasselhoff (bizarrely)! But my personal favourite was Stan Lee’s double cameo that goes some way to addressing a fan theory about his cameos. In it he is communing with the Watchers, a race of aliens who oversee the Marvel universe, telling them about his various entanglements with superheros on Earth. It would have been truly mind-blowing had he referenced a cameo in one of the Fox or Sony films… but that’s me getting super-geeky about things. Is he a Watcher in human form, or just a human go-between, keeping them abreast of goings on they may have missed?

If anything, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a funnier film than it’s predecessor and has been given more substance. The few criticisms levelled at it are the abundance of characters muddying things, the lack of development of the central character and the fact that a lot of what happens in the film relies on your knowledge of the previous film, even more so than most of the other films Marvel puts out. But if you’re seeing a film with Vol. 2 in the title before seeing the first, you’re doing something wrong.

Review: Ghost in the Shell

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

Yet another live action remake of a classic, iconic animation, this is something slightly more grown up than what Disney have been giving us for the last few years though.

Ghost in the Shell has an incredible following by those who enjoy Anime/Manga and as such expectations and fears have been running high. This has been especially apparent around the casting of non-Japanese actors, especially Scarlett Johansson as the Major. Personally, I don’t find this a problem as there are may difficulties when dealing with representations of race within Anime. Plus, the cast is incredibly diverse with actors from Japan, Singapore, Australia, Britain, America, Zimbabwe, Romania, Denmark and France.

The problem this film has is that it tries a bit too hard to explain the reason for the Major’s ethnicity when really it didn’t have to. It’s as though the filmmakers decided to answer the critics instead of having the courage of their convictions.

All that aside, we have a film that takes place over an hour and 47 minutes that is trying to condense the mythology of four previous feature films, three series, as well as books and video games. The live action film focuses on the plot of the 1995 film, with certain scenes and shots that are eerily close to those in the Anime.

Ghost in the Shell is a beautiful looking film. Everything looks like it belongs in the film’s post-cyberpunk world where people enhance themselves with bionic implants. Even though the cityscapes are epic in their scale and the gigantic multicoloured advertisements that tower over the skyscapers, you can tell that this futuristic society is broken. All the film’s characters are brooding and introverted with the Major, in particular, constantly questioning her place in the world. This gives the whole film a very existential and ponderous tone akin to The Matrix, which could be a bit grating to the uninitiated. But, as far as I can remember, this is part-and-parcel of Ghost in the Shell‘s mythology (it’s been a long time since I’ve watched the originals).

I’m almost certain that this will be part of a franchise if it does well enough, as so many films tend to be. This is also the reason I can forgive it being a little underwhelming, however I shouldn’t have to apologise for it’s shortcomings. This should have blown me away. Although it looks amazing and there are some brilliant set pieces, the whole seems a little distant, cold and unengaging… but, I did enjoy it.

Review: Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

What is there to say about Disney’s latest live action remake, other than it’s basically very very faithful to the original 1991 animated classic. And that makes it, disappointingly ordinary for such a magical film.

Don’t get me wrong, This film is a solid gold hit – the box office numbers prove that. But unlike The Jungle Book, which based its plot slightly more on the Rudyard Kipling stories and striped away all but two songs to make it stand apart, Beauty and the Beast doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself, much like Cindarella.

It’s quite possible that a child who has never seen the animated version will adore this version and I’m of a generation that can’t un-see the 1991 original – I was six years old when it came out, prime Disney age – because there’s an awful lot to like.

The  Beast (Dan Stevens) is scary, and in this case has been given a proper back story that makes you understand the curse put upon him and his household, although the facial design is somewhat ‘off’.

Emma Watson turns in a fine performance as Belle, although she has more of a girl-next-door vibe about her, rather than a classic Disney Princess. Also, the autotuning of her voice detracts from her musical numbers somewhat, especially the iconic ‘Provincial Life’.

The supporting cast is incredibly strong, especially Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice. The voice talents of Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Haydn Gwynne and the unrecognisable Stanley Tucci are perfect as are the animations of each character.

The absolute show-stealers though are Luke Evans and Josh Gadd as Gaston and LeFou. Originally the casting of Evans was a little underwhelming, but he really throws himself into the role of this brash, alpha male ad although much was made in the media about LeFou being Disney’s first overtly gay character, there was only very subtle evidence of this on-screen. Gadd’s comedic chops more than make up for this however. Their slightly-more-than-bromance is a delight to watch.

The songs are largely indestructible and feel required rather than shoe-horned in and the updated compositions and minor changes to some of the lyrics are brilliant, especially the additions to Gaston’s song. Even the added song that the Beast sings is a good addition, as are the scenes added to give a bit more depth to the characters. It all largely works. The problem is that nothing feels like it’s added overall.

If the original didn’t already exist this would be brilliant, but because it does and this adds nothing of substance it just feels ordinary. Still very much worth a watch though.

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

This is now the umpteenth version of the King Kong story, coming some seven years after the horribly boring Peter Jackson version. None of the previous films have managed to hold a candle to the brilliance of the original 1933 version, so how do you go about retelling this tired old story yet again? Set it during the Vietnam War and throw A-list film stars in it of course!

Kong Skull Island isn’t really retelling the tried and tested version of the King Kong mythology, it’s actually trying to do something a little different. Plus, it’s already a part of the upcoming monster-movie mashup series that includes 2014’s Godzilla reboot.

For starters, the 1970s makes sense as the most recent decade for the discovering the giant ape. It’s mentioned in the dialogue that there is a mythical island in the Pacific that is difficult to access due to unique weather systems that surround it, meaning the only way to really tell if it’s there is from satellite surveillance, something the US has and the Russians are developing, so it’s another race in the Cold War, akin to the arms race, the space race and the race to get the first man on the Moon.

Also, different from previous versions, this is the biggest and scariest Kong so far and apparently he’s still growing! It turns out that Kong is all that stands between us and a load of reptilian monster that want to wipe out humankind. (See how they might pit Kong against Godzilla in a future film?!) So, rather than dinosaur this time round there are a plethora of mega-fauna roaming ‘Skull Island’ that have had managed to grow so large thanks to the island’s ecosystem and their low levels of exposure to humans, presumably.

There’s the standard rag-tag band of adventurers, scientists and soldiers who all have their own agendas. The latter group has been plucked straight from the end of the Vietnam War under the command of Samuel L. Jackson’s character who basically doesn’t want the war to stop. The scientists are led by John Goodman’s character who managed to sneak in this last expedition under the guise of finding fuel but who seems to know a bit more about the islands inhabitants than he’s letting on, Brie Larson’s character is a photographer along for the thrill of shooting never-before-seen landscapes after being disillusioned with the way the War had unfolded. And Tom Hiddleston is there as a former SAS tracker. Cue lots of paranoia and scheming.

 Essentially, Sam Jackson plays a typical Sam Jackson character (even down to the point that he repeats a line word for word that he said in Jurassic Park), Tom Hiddleston plays a typical Tom Hiddleston character suave and threatening, in a slightly unbelievable way), Kong is Kong (can’t help but save the girl)and John C. Reilly plays everything for laughs as usual.

The elements of Kong: Skull Island that are really cool and different are the creature designs, how cine-literate it is (with references to films from The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now to Cannibal Holocaust – really!) and the fact that during one fight scene Kong is given a weapon to use! He was also never caught and showcased in New York.

Above all else it was a whole load of fun, I can’t wait to see Kong go toe to toe with Godzilla and a host of other Kaiju in future films! One of the rumours going round is that the relationship between the Japanese and American characters from the very beginning of he movie will mirror the way these two titans will get along in the next film. I for one can’t wait to see that match-up and what villainous Kaiju will force them into an alliance.

Review: Logan

Posted in Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by Tom Austin-Morgan

logan-poster

This is the ninth time Hugh Jackman has donned the claws of the character that he is arguably best known for. This time the title of the film doesn’t contain the words ‘X-Men’ or ‘Wolverine’, which should give you a clue as to the tone of the movie, even if you haven’t seen the trailers which gave a downbeat, western vibe along with that Johnny Cash song.

 The film itself really is a completely different beast than any of Fox’s forays into the X-Men universe. For a start,all mutants seem to have been wiped out with the exception of Logan, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Caliban – an albino mutant played by Stephen Merchant looking like a very gaunt Richard O’Brien. Instead of fighting back against the people responsible for this perceived cull, they are in hiding, with Logan working as a chauffeur to make enough money to get the drugs Charles needs as he is going senile.

Logan plays more like a drama with some action elements. But even these action scenes work on a much more intimate level than your standard comic book movie where typically, entire cities are being levelled by giant robots or orc-like creatures from space/another dimension. In this film Logan is pitted against gangs and paramilitary bounty-hunters. And, unlike any previous films, you’re aware that Jackman has said this is the final Wolverine movie, plus something is wrong with him, he isn’t healing like he used to and he also seems to have something of a death-wish, so there is real jeopardy when he gets into a fight.

In fact, this movie is like a dysfunctional family drama with the put upon father (Logan) looking after an increasingly frail and mentally deteriorating grandfather (Charles) while looking after a tear away daughter. And what a performance from the young Dafne Keen who plays Laura, or X-23. Although she is mute for the majority of the film, her intensity is palpable an herd physical ability is impressive. As soon as she is forced into Logan’s life and he realises what she is, it gives him a reason to carry on.

Along the way there are some touching moments between all the central characters, especially when they help out and are taken in by a farmer’s family. But there are also some big surprises that really pull the rug from under you with one scene in particular playing with your expectations of how these kind of scenes usually play out.

As previously stated, while Logan is trying to get Laura from Mexico to ‘Eden’ in the North of America, he is pitted against paramilitary-style bounty hunters who are in the employ of Dr Rice (Richard E. Grant) the man in charge of creating a new generation of mutants who wants her back. His character reveals himself to be the son of the man in charge of the original Weapon X programme that created Wolverine. This is a nice nod to the previous films, and there are a couple of these sprinkled throughout the film, but not enough to distract.

Actually, Logan is probably the only film in the entire franchise that isn’t bogged down by being closely tied to the franchise. It’s a true stand-alone where you wouldn’t need to have seen a single X-Men film before. It also stands apart because of its 15 rating. The fact that we finally get to see the violence this character is capable of made a refreshing change and wasn’t used too gratuitously like it was in Deadpool.

One of the main criticisms of the film is its overuse of swearing, especially at the beginning, where it seemed like the script writers were let loose after not being able to use them. But again, rather than the cartoony, gross-out use of violence and language in Deadpool, at least the swearing was used in ‘real’ ways, even if it did feel gratuitous in places.

This is the best X-Men film in the 17 year history of the franchise, and this is mainly to do with the more intimate feel of the film as well as the fact the filmmakers were able to play with different genres. It’s more like a drama or a western, similar in tone and even colour palette to Unforgiven. If you’ve never watched an X-Men film before it won’t matter, the story is that good that it can be watched in isolation. Go see it.