Movie

It

 

IT (BBFC 15, 2hrs 15mins)


It may not be the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel to make it to the screen but it is certainly the most Stephen King adaptation to make it to the screen. It really feels like a Stephen King novel, it understands what it is that makes his novels so readable and, whilst it is not a direct lift of page to screen, it manages to deliver everything that any fan could want (unless you actually want a direct lift of page to screen, that is). King knows that time spent with characters is as important (if not more) as the moments of horror they have to endure or succumb to, we have to know them and empathise with them for the scares to hit home, and It understands this as well: there are as many scenes that will have you laughing and/or crying as there are sequences that will have watching between your fingers. It’s proper scary as well as being lump-in-your-throat inducingly moving.

Something evil stalks the streets of Derry, Maine. Something that eats children and bathes in their fear. Something that haunts the town every twenty-seven years. When little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) seemingly vanishes into thin air, his brother Bill (Jaeden Liebeher) and six pals (collectively known as The Losers Club) decide that only they can solve the mystery of a town with a disturbingly high rate of child disappearances. What begins as a Hardy Boys Mystery adventure for the kids soon becomes a battle for their very lives as they uncover the terrifying truth: Derry is the home of an ancient evil, an evil that can shapeshift and become the manifestation of a child’s deepest fear, but most often it appears as uber-creepy clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).


Director Andy Muschietti plays the horror of Derry on two fronts, there’s Pennywise, of course, but there’s also something about the town that breeds bullying, abuse racism and violence, there’s not only supernatural horror but everyday horror that dwells here. The first half of King’s novel placed The Losers Club’s investigation in the late 1950’s, here Muschietti (along with screenwriters Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga) has transposed the action to the late 1980’s and replaced the kids’ fears of The Wolfman and The Mummy with things drawn directly from their psyche to give the film a more contemporary, not to mention relatable, feel. How these fears manifest themselves via Pennywise and his shape changing ability are at once strange and horrifying and pant-wettingly scary, one example *SPOILER*: the sole female member of the gang, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), has a fear of puberty and menstruation, there will be blood. And lots of it.


The young cast are very good indeed, along with the afore mentioned Scott, Liebeher and Lillis there are some great performances from Jeremy Ray Taylor as the chubby nerd Ben, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, Jack Dylan Fraser as germ phobic Eddie, Wyatt Olef as Stanley and, best of all Finn Wolfhard as bespectacled smart aleck Richie. But it’s Pennywise you’ve really come to see and Bill Skarsgård and the make-up and effects department don’t let you down. Although his appearances are kept to a minimum he’s the movie monster that will have grown men sleeping with the lights on. He’s all weird angles, distressing stillness and a fast-forward effect so chilling it gives you goose-bumps in even your warmest of places. Even if you’ve never suffered Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) there is a distinct possibility you’ll have it in spades after watching It.


However, there are a few structural problems with the film, for example each of the kids’ encounters with their fears/Pennywise feel somewhat disjointed and episodic (an effect that is heightened by the interstices between each that tonally and dramatically give this portion of the film a kind of stop/start momentum). The dialogue tends to get rather heavy-handed and clunky whenever there’s a whiff of exposition and it tends to lean into its 1980’s references a little too heavily. There’s also a lot of connective tissue between It and the Netflix serial Stranger Things, not least being the appearance of Finn Wolfhard in both, and it’s a shame because this might be detrimental to some viewers, but if you can put these qualms to one side you’re in for a fun and scary ride (if a film about child murdering can be fun).

Now, people who’ve read the novel or seen the 1990 mini-series adaptation (you know, the one with John Boy Walton and Tim Curry) might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the second half of the story, the half where The Losers Club come together again as adults to continue the fight. Well, there’s a good reason for that, you see this is only Chapter One, the second (and final) chapter hasn’t even started filming yet so don’t expect it for at least another 18-24 months. Having said that, It stands alone pretty well and there’s a satisfying conclusion to this part that is definitely no lead balloon. So, until Chapter Two comes out you’ll just have to float along on the waves of expectation and anticipation… We all float down here.

Andy Oliver

War for the Planet of the Apes

(BBFC 12A, 2hrs 22mins)


War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’ (?).

Or, at least that was the stance taken by Andy Serkis’ remarkable creation, Caesar the chimpanzee, at the end of the last instalment of the Planet of the Apes saga, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Caesar had killed the warmongering simian Koba and looked to live in (an uneasy) peace with mankind, both sides wanting to build or rebuild their societies and start afresh.

War for The Planet of the Apes opens with an establishing battle that destroys that accord, a massacre perpetrated by the now-militarised humans that hints that something has shifted within the status quo. That balance is subsequently blown out of the water when a sneak attack by the humans led by a figure known only as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads to the deaths of Caesar’s wife and eldest child. Consumed by anger, Caesar vows revenge on the Colonel and sets off to exact his vengeance along with his closest allies, Maurice the Orangutan (Karin Konoval), Rocket the Chimp (Terry Notary) and Luca the Gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite). His quest leads him directly into the heart of darkness and a final battle that will change the fate of the world forever.


There is plenty in War for The Planet of the Apes that connects it to “Heart of Darkness”, or, more accurately, the most successful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s best-known work, Apocalypse Now: from Woody Harrelson’s bullet-headed, unhinged Colonel, held in reverence by his troops/followers to an explosive attack by a formation of helicopters; the forest settings a constant reminder of how far from civilisation we’ve come; crucifixions, compound building, the soldiers referring to their ape enemies as “the Kong” (as in “Viet-Cong”, geddit?) and, most obviously, graffiti scrawled on a wall that reads, “Ape-pocalypse Now”.  It’s a lofty bar to aspire to and whilst War is hugely entertaining and affecting, it never quite hits those heights.

For the most part War moves successfully between revenge Western and escape movie, it’s a humane story written across an epic landscape and when it focusses on these aspects it is at its most effective often recalling the films of John Ford or David Lean, it’s director Matt Reeves’ pretensions to Coppola that prove less than satisfying. But that’s a film-nerd niggle, when judged against other Summer blockbusters, War is a hugely thoughtful and satisfying movie, a thinking person’s epic that proves good, old-fashioned storytelling is just as exciting as bloomin’ great big explosions.


The performances and performance captures are, across the board, of the highest quality. Andy Serkis lays down his heaviest gauntlet yet to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be recognised for its highest awards, an Oscar nomination being the very least he deserves. It’s mostly a two-hander with the Caesar/Colonel relationship at its centre, Serkis’ motion capture performance is remarkable in its subtlety and nuance, conveying emotion through his body language, expression and small gestures, you are never unsure as to his essential ‘goodness’ even as his soul is consumed by his roiling need for justice and Harrelson has never been better as his driven and unceasingly chilling nemesis. There’s light relief and heart-breaking tragedy offered by the monkeyshines of Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape and if you thought it unfeasible to love Maurice the Orangutan more, his relationship with a young mute girl (played by Amiah Miller) manages to prove that nothing’s impossible.

I cannot even imagine how much work has gone into rendering the CGI of the apes, there’s a scene early on where Caesar walks amongst his tribe of primates, seemingly hundreds of them, and every single one has its own personality, a light behind the eyes that suggests each and one of them has a story to tell that’s worth listening to. The effects are absolutely flawless and, after an initial few minutes of stunned wonder, you no longer question that what you’re watching is the result of clever programming and immaculate artistry, there are no jarring moments that shatter the imitation of life, there’s never a second that you don’t believe they are living, breathing creatures deserving of your full attention and every ounce of your empathy.


It’s a formidable, thematically dense, soul-stirring and thought-provoking conclusion to the one of the more well-considered trilogies and, whilst there is no cosmic-bending “Statue of Liberty” or (Heaven forbid) “Lincoln Memorial” twist, Keyser Soze-like War for The Planet of the Apes pulls its greatest trick after you have left the building and you’ll find yourself wondering, “Wait, was I just rooting for the end of mankind?”

War is the apocalypse mankind knows full well it is rushing into but even with both eyes fully open seems unable to prevent. Yet, as dark as it gets, like the ending of a classic Western there is always a bright horizon and a better tomorrow.

That’s always worth seeing, isn’t it?

Andy Oliver

Baby Driver

 

(BBFC 15 1hr 53mins)


Director Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is the car chase movie you’ve been waiting to see since the 1970’s; it’s a high-octane, effervescently cool, toe-tapping, white knuckle wild ride set to the beats of one of the hippest, most diverse and, occasionally, goofy soundtracks ever insanely committed to film.

Oh, and it doesn’t defy the laws of physics.

Ever.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver, a reluctant participant in bank and security van heists paying off his debt to criminal mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey). Baby constantly listens to music to drown out the ringing in his ears caused by a car crash that killed both his parents. When Baby meets and falls in love with waitress Debora (Lily James) and, nearing the end of his obligation to Doc, he begins to make plans to leave his life of crime and run away to a fresh beginning. But Doc has different ideas and ropes him into another job alongside the psychotic trio of Bats (Jamie Foxx), Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). And when things go bad they go really bad, Baby finds himself running not only from the cops but from three psychopaths hell bent on revenge.

Elgort (charming as was in his breakout role in The Fault in Our Stars) really shines as Baby, all cool confidence in his ability as a driver mixed with intense desperation as his situation spirals beyond his control. It’s a star making role and Elgort grabs his opportunity with both hands.

Edgar Wright once again shows how to cast a movie with Elgort’s surrounding members all on top form. There is never any doubt that Baby’s partners-in-crime are dangerous career criminals not by their words or deeds but by their sheer screen presence. Whilst Foxx clearly relishes being let off the leash as the most overtly psychotic character it is the pure menace that exudes from every single pore of Jon Hamm’s Buddy that will send shivers down your spine when you think of this movie. It is important that we understand the psychopathy of the bad guys, never more than a heartbeat away from pulling the trigger, in contrast with Baby’s innocence, he knows what he’s doing is wrong but doesn’t want to see anyone hurt or even offended by his actions and in this Edgar Wright has delivered a masterclass in casting. Even his selections for minor characters is beyond redoubtable, from Jon Bernthal, Lanny Joon and Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) as supporting criminals to CJ Jones who plays his deaf, elderly foster-father. And, on a personal note, I can’t begin to tell you my delight at the appearance of Paul Williams as a particularly memorable gun runner.


My only minor problem with Baby Driver is with Lily James’ character Debora, she seems, at best, to be representing a goal rather than a fully-formed person. Don’t get me wrong, James does her best but the role is slightly underwritten, the problem is that when the rest of the film is so near-perfect details like this tend to glare. Although we want to see Baby and Debora ride off into the sunset and pray for their success, the film just slightly misses the emotional arcs of, say, Hot Fuzz or even Shaun of the Dead. Like I say, it’s only a minor niggle but it’d be remiss of me not to mention it.

[Excuse the pun, but…] What really drives Baby Driver is the music. The music is not chucked in there because it fits the action, it’s there to serve a symbiotic relationship with the story to create a more dynamic “whole”. It’s an exploration of what music means to us, how it moves us, provides a comfort blanket, brings us together, pushes us apart, provides a soundtrack to our lives. It is doing what all great musicals do, baring the soul and tapping our emotional cores, giving voice to our innermost thoughts and feelings and providing a beat to which we live. There’s a couple of times it’s a little too “on the nose” (such as Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas or Golden Earring’s Radar Love) but any movie that opens with The John Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bellbottoms, features Bongolia by The Incredible Bongo Band and makes something as goofy as the yodelling bits of Focus’ Hocus Pocus toe-tappingly cool can’t be all bad, right?


Kudos go to Wright who, in an age of an all-out CGI arms race, has chosen to keep all the action practical and the stunts hair-raisingly real. It’s loud and it’s brash and undeniably cool. You’ll maybe spot nods toward classic chase movies like Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, Walter Hill’s The Driver, Bullitt, Freebie and the Bean and Gone in 60 Seconds, amongst others, but Baby Driver isn’t a re-tread of what’s gone before, it’s a remix and, like all great remixes, it shows us that something new and surprisingly original can be created from those things we thought we knew inside out.

Like a great song heard for the first time Baby Driver makes you want to hear it again straight away, to hit replay, rewind the tape, pick up the needle and place it back at the start of the track. It’s an instant classic and you’ll kick yourself if you don’t catch it.

Andy Oliver

Transformers: The Last Knight

 

(BBFC 12A, 2hrs 29mins)

Transformers: The Last Knight is by far the best sequel of director Michael Bay’s giant robot, destructo-porn saga. This is because Transformers: The Last Knight is by far the shortest sequel of director Michael Bay’s giant robot, destructo-porn saga (though, at a staggering, bum-numbing, headache inducing, head-scratching 149 minutes it is still way too long to tell a story that, quite frankly, does not exist. And, believe me, you will feel every one of those minutes as if each of them lasted a week).

Nothing about this movie makes any kind of narrative sense and, taken as a part of an ongoing franchise, it makes even less sense. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a magic staff bequeathed to Merlin (Stanley Tucci) back in “Ye Olde” times by a previous visit from the Transformers. The staff is the only thing that can stop the Transformer homeworld, Cybertron, colliding with Earth and must be wielded by a direct descendent of Merlin. Enter Oxford professor (or, at least, a porno director’s idea of what an Oxford professor looks like) Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock). Wembley teams up with Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), the leering dad/hero from the last movie, under the guidance of Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) and his robot butler Cogman (Jim Carter).

*Deep breath*

Meanwhile, America is at war with the Transformers (should’ve built a wall) and a bunch of other characters we don’t care about are introduced or reintroduced, including Josh Duhamel as the soldier fella from some of the previous instalments and Izabella (Isabella Moner) and her distinctly BB-8ish companion.

*Deep breath*

Meanwhile, Optimus Prime (the big truck one) has returned to Cybertron to confront his creator, the sorceress Quintessa, who has set the robot planet on its collision course with Earth. Quintessa overpowers Prime and turns him to the dark side and he returns to Earth as Nemesis Prime. Cue confusing robot battles with goodie robots, baddie robots and baddie robots who used to be goodies.

I think.

(One of) The problem(s) with the Transformers series is that it’s structured like a very different toy: Lego. Instead of having a clear idea what this Universe is and sticking rigidly to that arc, Transformers constantly adds bits, loses bits, conveniently forgets bits and continually steps painfully on bits it left in the dark. The film is full of huge, lumpen drops of exposition that are at odds with everything we were told in previous episodes and crowbars in unnecessary detail that make for unwieldy and, frankly, embarrassing viewing.

Michael Bay is like a child who has been bringing home the same painting to stick on the fridge for ten years. Yes, it was mildly amusing the first time you saw it, in an, “Awww, who’s that? Is that Daddy?” kind of way, but now? I think we need to talk about Michael. Bay is one of the great composition directors working in Hollywood today. Seriously. The guy really knows how to frame a shot and there are individual moments in just about every one of his movies that would easily sit on a shelf with Stanley Kubrick or Terence Malick. It’s when those images start moving or trying to tell a coherent story that it all falls apart. Yes, they might work wonderfully as GIF’s but they’re just blips in time and not segments of a whole.

Having had to sit through far too many Michael Bay movie it was sadly unsurprising at the way his camera lustfully lingers over his lead female’s body; how confusing and flat the action scenes are, failing to hit a single beat; how really, really big the explosions are; how emotionless and crass the whole thing is; how much money this is going to make.

But before I get too depressed thinking about all that, I will take a moment to laud the performance of Anthony Hopkins, a performance that saved this reviewer handing out half a star. In general, the acting in Transformers: The Last Knight is pretty much what you’d expect with everybody doing just enough to stop them getting thrown off set but, oh boy, Anthony Hopkins just grabs hold of the film’s stupidity and runs with it, he just embraces it and looks like he’s doing whatever the hell he damn well pleases and Bay is too in awe to stop him. Some of the finest scenery chewing ever captured on film, bravo sir, bravo.

Listen, end of the day, Transformers: The Last Knight is going to make an absolute ton of cash and I’ll have to come back and review the inevitable next one (there’s a mid-credits extra scene that promises as much), but I always hold out the hope that it’ll be good. Die-hard fans and eight-year old boys will love it, the rest of us will leave with the look of haunted agony and terror I imagine usually reserved for Melania when she sees Donald naked on date-night.

Andy Oliver

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

 

BBFC 12A, 118 mins


Let me chuck this out there right at the start: Kong: Skull Island is audacious, goofy, insane even, and I loved practically every minute of it. It’s a movie that embraces its own ridiculousness, gleefully revelling in action and fun; it’s a Saturday morning cartoon; a theme park ride; it’s the joy of a narrative created by a kid playing with action figures with no regard to which toy-line they belong; it’s Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness channelled through a Guardians of the Galaxy entertainment filter.

It’s 1973 and the United States is facing the humiliation of losing The Vietnam War, the early days of the Watergate scandal and America needs a quick win, something that reasserts their standing on the world stage. A shady government task-force known as Monarch (yes, the same Monarch from the 2014 Godzilla movie, hinting toward a royal rumble?), led by Bill Randa (John Goodman) and Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), suggests that not only do monsters exist but proving their existence and bringing them under control will show the world just how powerful America is. Nobody’s going to make a monkey of the USA (sorry).

Monarch gathers together an uber-tough crack military team, a war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), and an ex-SAS captain turned tracker, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and takes them into an uncharted region of the Pacific in search of giants. Not unexpectedly, they find them and then some. Cue chaos and a fight for survival, you know the drill.


I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, suffice to say that Kong is not the greatest threat native to the island, but let’s not spoil the fun or thrill of discovery.

Unlike Peter Jackson’s 2005 or John Guillermin’s 1976 King Kong, which were straight remakes of the 1933 original, Kong: Skull Island instead builds upon the mythos of Kong, minus the gurning sentimentalism. This is Kong as King with a capital ‘K’, unassailable, regal, as benevolent as he is ferocious; he’s primal terror, compassionate protector, the soul of a poet trapped in the body of a beast. Plus, you don’t have to wait an interminable portion of the film’s running time before you get to see him (and you’ll want to see him the biggest screen available to you, trust me).

With only one small, independent movie (the rather glorious Kings of Summer) under his belt, director Jordan Vogt Roberts seemed an unusual choice for such an obvious tentpole blockbuster, but where (with a similar CV) Safety Not Guaranteed’s Colin Trevorrow failed with Jurassic World, Vogt Roberts succeeds in spades with Kong: Skull Island. Vogt Roberts picks up the “goofiness ball” of the script and runs with it, he never stops to linger over the nonsense it spews, rather he embraces it with controlled abandon and brio. Admittedly, few of the action scenes match the initial heady excitement of the adrenaline-fuelled Kong versus helicopters set-piece, but neither are they dull or incomprehensible and always full of fresh ideas. Everything moves along at one heckuva lick and never loses sight of how much fun you’re supposed to have watching it.


Although slightly under-written for the central characters the script does a good job of fleshing out the support, giving surprising back-story and depth to characters usually consigned to “fodder”, most notably with Shea Whigham’s Cole, a career soldier who takes a laid-back, philosophical approach to life and the extraordinary events he finds himself in. Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery with glee, turning up his Samuel L. Jackson-ness to eleven but it’s John C. Reilly’s World War 2 fighter pilot, Hank Marlow who steals the show. When Marlow, who crash-landed on the island during the war, breaks away from his expository role as guide to the island’s weird evolution and fauna he is a joy: with no experience of the outside world he is constantly asking questions and surprised by the answers, imagine leaving the world listening to Glenn Miller and re-entering to Jimi Hendrix.


The special effects are on point, the soundtrack (full of classic rock songs) soars and you may find yourself temporarily deafened by the roaring of monsters, machine guns and explosions (but that’s what you pay your money for, right? So please don’t complain that it’s too noisy). Some scenes may be too distressing for younger viewers and those with a fear of spiders may want to look away at a certain point but Kong: Skull Island delivers all the thrills and boisterous entertainment you could wish for in exchange for two hours of your life.

Oh, and you might never look at a peanut butter sandwich in the same way ever again.

Andy Oliver

 

 

 

2016. The Cinema Year in Review

 

2016. A year, let’s face it, that will mostly be remembered for the people and things we lost rather than the quality of cinematic outpourings… especially when it came to the product served up to visitors of our own local Odeon. Yeah, there were bright spots but, in general, it has been a rather weak year (quality-wise) for cinema and the best described as, “Passable, must try harder”.

And yet, in terms of box office receipts worldwide, this has been a record breaking year so, surely, Hollywood must be doing something right, right? Well, the aggressive marketing to emerging markets (primarily China, though we wait to see what the Trump effect will have there), as well as audience familiarity with known and trusted “Brands” (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Marvel Studios and a new Disney “Princess” IP) have helped put bums back on seats. Also, a look at worldwide box office takings reveals that there are quite a few foreign movies doing rather well in their domestic markets (most notably Mei Ren Yu – or Your Name, if you prefer – hovering just outside the top ten and making the equivalent of just over $550 million in its native Japan).

It has been a year of “good enough”. Movies that are just good enough to attract audiences and make a small, but good enough, profit seem to have proliferated. Films that deliver on minimum expectation without ever reaching to be great have scattered the year and, as business models go, it seems to have worked. Movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Finest Hours, Don’t Breathe and Ghostbusters are all perfectly serviceable, good enough pieces of entertainment but lack “rewatch-ability”, once you’ve seen them there’s very little need to go back and watch them again. To a certain extent, good enough movies are critic-proof, they seem more than happy to be 3-star rated because that’s what they were designed to be, no more, no less. What this means for the future, only time will tell but, I suspect, with the continued rise of internet streaming and films released simultaneously in cinemas and on-demand what might be good for the studios may not be so great for cinemas themselves.

Which brings us to the prospect of not one, but two new cinemas opening in Colchester within the next year or two. Curzon is definitely going ahead, albeit slowly, in Queen Street on the site formerly owned by Keddies department store (ask your parents, kids) and Cineworld will be opening their doors to a 12 screen, 3083 seat multiplex (including an IMAX screen and a 4D theatre) though its location, due to legal wranglings and local government ineptitude red-tape (probably) has yet to be finalised. This would take Colchester back to being a three-cinema town, something not seen since the old Cameo Cinema closed its doors in late 1972, but, significantly, there were only three screens between all of them. Supporters of the Curzon project would hope that it will feature a more varied diet than that offered at the local Odeon, but a quick look on the internet at the fare being offered by Curzon’s other out-of-London theatre (Canterbury) shows their programme to be disappointingly familiar. Still, we live in hope. Curzon looks set to open late 2017 and Cineworld? Well, don’t go getting yourself an Unlimited card just yet, I’m thinking 2018 if we’re extremely lucky.

Back to 2016 and, I guess, in the time-honoured tradition of film critics everywhere, I owe you a list of my favourite movies of the year. Please bear in mind that this list is HUGELY subjective (I’m not trying to objectively countdown what was the BEST movies of the year here); these are all films that were on general release AND available to see at the Colchester Odeon; do not reflect the opinions of Simon or any of the other marvellous Colchester101 contributors.

10 The Hateful Eight – Quentin Tarantino’s epic who-will-do-what-and-to-whom? As much a polemic on contemporary America as it is a gloriously twisted, gory and goofy play on everything he has made before.

9 The Witch (or is that The VVitch?) – Definitely a horror movie (despite what some may say) and confirmed a life-long suspicion of goats. Wracks up the tension relentlessly with metaphysical angst and dread, left me glad to step out into the sunlight again (in a good way).

8 Hell or High Water – The Chris Pine/Ben Foster movie which wasn’t The Finest Hours and the film I wish Cormac McCarthy had made rather than The Counsellor. A contemporary Western in which all the hats are shades of grey rather than simply black or white. Also, Jeff Bridges best work in ages.

7 Room – What could have been a depressing wade through the darker recesses of human desire was, actually, one of the most hopeful and emotionally joyous movies of the year.

6 Hail, Caesar! – The Coen Brothers delivered with this tale of Golden Age Hollywood and reds-under-the-beds with typical Coen Brothers quirk, brio and laughter and I, for one, couldn’t have been happier. Still chuckling about the Ralph Fiennes/Alden Ehrenreich “Would that it were so simple” exchange.

5 Captain America: Civil War – Hands-down, not only the best superhero movie of the year but one of the best movies of the year. Solid story-telling backed with three-dimensional characters, moral complexity, stunning action sequences and respect for the intelligence of the audience.

4 Kubo and the Two Strings – It’s been a great year for family films, Zootropolis, The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Fantastic Beasts and The Secret Life of Pets could all have made my list, but I decided to plump for Laika Studios’ Kubo for its sheer technical brilliance and the importance of the message it carries. It’s a movie that no one seems to be talking about but deserves so much more attention. I’d urge everyone to seek it out.

3 The Nice Guys – A movie with a big heart, a dirty mind and everything you’d want from a Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black movie. And manages the seemingly impossible act of making Russell Crowe loveable. I loved every twisted, ridiculous minute of it.

1 = Arrival and Moana – I just couldn’t split these two for my favourite of the year. Arrival delivered one of the most intelligent and nuanced science-fiction movies in years and, like all the best sci-fi films, is so much more than the sum of its parts. In terms of pure entertainment Moana represented the most enjoyable 113 minutes of the year and the only movie I wanted to rush back into the cinema and see again.

Now, the bit I’ve been dreading, revisiting those movies that made me want to eat my own head: My most hated movies of 2016!

Yes, I disliked Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, hated Passengers and London Has Fallen and despised Bad Santa 2, but the bunny-currant on top of the dog-poop ice-cream has got to be the truly abysmal Dirty Grandpa. No other movie made me want to tear my own eyeballs out of their sockets and poke about at the squishy bits inside with a stick more than Dirty Grandpa. Hated hated hated it.

I won’t leave on that sour note. I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few of the movies coming in 2017 and I hope that they are representative of the year as a whole: terrific, intelligent and entertaining films like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, The Autopsy of Jane Doe and, the sublime, La La Land.

I’ll continue to try and point you toward the best and steer you from the worst and I hope that 2017 is the one that, against the odds, turns out to be a great one for all of us.

Andy Oliver

 

 

 

Pete’s Dragon

We can count ourselves lucky at Colchester 101 that our resident movie critic has written this review of Pete’s Dragon as he wasn’t expecting to like it. Instead he loved it.

Petes Dragon 1

It was a very different person who walked out of the darkened cinema to the one that went in. A grumpy, middle-aged cynic took his seat for the remake of Disney’s underwhelming Pete’s Dragon, a cutesy-cute confection of a kid’s film from that studio’s doldrums years; it was a small child, heart full of hope, joy and the possibilities of an unlimited imagination, cheeks still damp from tears, that emerged into the bright Summer sunshine 100 minutes later.

Pete’s Dragon is an absolute gem of a movie, a family film that is enchanting, beautiful, terrifying, funny, glorious. In short, it delivers everything that the very best of cinema promises: it lifts you up, carries you on a journey and leaves you way up high with emotions, characters and story that will live long in your heart.

The film opens with five-year-old Pete and his family heading out for an adventure in America’s densely forested Pacific North-West. Pete is sat in the back of the car reading Elliot Gets Lost when a deer wanders into the road resulting in a devastating crash that kills his parents. Young Pete crawls from the wreckage his picture book in hand and wanders off into the forest. Things go from bad to worse for our young hero when he is set upon by a pack of ravenous wolves, but then a huge, lumbering form intervenes and saves the child from a horrific death a great, green dragon, its shaggy fur bristling with anger and menace. When the child places his hand on the dragon its fur changes from dark to a light, friendly green and I think this was the moment I fell in love with not only Elliot (as Pete names him) but also with the film itself.

Petes Dragon 2

We then skip to six years later and civilisation begins to encroach upon the idyllic, fun existence the boy and his dragon chum enjoy, loggers are clear-cutting the forest in which the pair have played, romped and flown. Only park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her kindly old dad, Meacham (Robert Redford) stand between the loggers and the destruction of the wilderness, but this is further complicated by the fact that Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley), the owner of the logging company responsible. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) is determined to push further and further into the forest and cutting as much as possible and it is here that he encounters the now feral Pete (Oakes Fegley).

Pete is the boy many of us wanted to be, tough, self-sufficient, effortlessly athletic, brave and living his life and adventures with his very best friend. Oakes Fegley is yet another wonderful find in a year stuffed with great child actors, especially in the moments where he realises the other side of the fantasy – the loneliness, fear and isolation, the pull of reality and that first pre-teen love (provided here by Oona Lawrence, Jack’s snappy, street-wise daughter Natalie).

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It’s a great cast and everybody gives nothing less than their best, especially Karl Urban as the movie’s villain, Jack. Whereas the big bad of the original was a two-dimensional cartoon baddie played by Jim Dale, Urban plays Gavin with nuance and depth, a deeply wounded man who is just doing what he believes must be done. And it’s always great to see that winning twinkle in the eyes of Robert Redford.

But it’s Elliot who’s the standout character. Maybe not every shot of him is perfect but every shot he’s in is perfect. With his big eyes, wonky under-bite, stumpy legs and bright green fur it’s impossible not to love him. He’s silly and sad (sometimes in the same scene), exuberantly full of life and love for his forest and for Pete and full of happiness.

Director and writer David Lowery has crafted a beautiful and awe inspiring cinematic experience, that’s not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve and yet is full of goofy fun and buckets of snot. All the characters are allowed to be fully human, or in Elliot’s case fully dragon, and there are hints of their back stories carefully hidden in plain sight. It’s difficult not to compare Lowery’s approach to that of classic Spielberg, there’s a sense of awe that permeates the entire film and not just those fantastical scenes where Elliot appears. Pete’s Dragon is a big screen movie that is unashamedly big screen, that’s where it was designed to be seen and that’s where you should see it, you’ll thank me later.

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I was glad I saw Pete’s Dragon with a real audience and not in a screening room full of cynical critics (myself included). I revelled in the joy, giggles, awe and occasional sniffles of the children (and some of the parents) in the audience. It’s a movie that makes adults feel nostalgic, not for the original or for toys but for the nostalgia of a time when we felt anything was possible and for younger viewers just starting out on the journey that cinema offers, Pete’s Dragon is a giant, furry, welcoming pair of friendly arms that say, “Come with me, let’s go on an adventure”.

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

After months of endless speculation since its release date was announced, Colchester 101’s Andy Oliver was one of the very first to see the Christmas blockbuster. Here’s his review.

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The Force Awakens is a sprawling, expansive, space-opera epic that will have Star Wars fans leaving the cinema with huge grins, empty pockets and a sense that their franchise has been rescued from the mire of the unsuccessful prequels. There’s huge star-ships, alien worlds, straight-arrow good guys, dark as night villains, laser guns, light sabres, a sense of humour, exciting battles… and a sense of familiarity that is both its strength and its weakness.

There’s a new Death Star in this movie. Starkiller* Base is not a space station this time but an entire planet, seventeen times larger than those seen in earlier movies. When I tell you this, I don’t mean it as a spoiler but a clue to where The Force Awakens sits, it’s as much a complete reboot of Episode IV: A New Hope as it is a sequel, played on a vastly expanded scale. There’s lots of familiar plot beats, but with a twist on them: There’s not a princess hiding a secret in a droid, but an X-Wing pilot; the central hero lives on a desert planet but she’s not happy about leaving it; there’s a Stormtrooper dressed as a rebel; there’s a villain dressed all in black who’s… well, that would be telling.

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There’s also moments you’ll recognise from Episodes V an VI (Empire and Return of the Jedi): A small group of rebels have to knock out a shield generator so the main force can attack the Super Death Star; there’s a cantina scene; a forest planet; an ice planet; stuff too spoilery to go into. Some of the scenes feel more like forced attempts to crowbar in familiar concepts and conceits than an attempt at organic story telling. The sense of magic, of discovery that the original movies shared is missing here. Whilst some may welcome this forced familiarity, those looking for new, weird worlds to explore will probably be mildly disappointed.

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But, while the plot feels rather under-nourished and a bit “been there, seen that”, the characters deliver on a massive scale, especially the new ones and they are the best reason for revisiting this series again. Like Luke, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, Rey, Finn and Poe are the reason you’ll want to come back. For every too-on-the-nose callback to the originals there’s a great character moment from one of these guys that make you smile from ear-to-ear at how magical and alive these characters feel.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina) is the first of the new heroes we meet. Dameron is a straight-arrow good guy, an X-Wing pilot version of a Nicholas Sparks leading man: he’s good to his friends and robot and probably sands down boats with his shirt off. A lesser actor might seem a little Dudley Do-Wright in the role, but Isaac plays him with just the right balance of a square jawed man of action and vulnerability; a good old-fashioned, two-fisted pulp hero.

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Attack The Block’s John Boyega plays Finn, a character cursed to give a damn. Finn is originally FN 2187, a Stormtrooper who refuses to do the wrong thing and finds himself turning from The First Order (as the successors to the Empire are now called, I don’t know why, hey, I thought the rebels won at the end of Jedi) and fighting for the Rebel Alliance. He’s equal parts heroic, terrified and full of bluster and steals the majority of the film’s funny moments.

If the original trilogy made stars of relative unknowns Hammill, Ford and Fisher, then Daisy Ridley (as Rey) emerges as the new star of The Force Awakens. Rey is very much the emotional centre of the movie, abandoned on the backwater desert planet, Jakku, as a child by her family and terrified to leave in case she misses her chance at reunion. It is her compassion and the compassion she receives from others that sets her free. She’s the movie’s single-most capable and self-sufficient character and, although her story arc feels a little rushed, you feel the whole saga will pivot upon her. Ridley is great and her on-screen chemistry with John Boyega is worth the ticket price alone.

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Of the returning characters Harrison Ford has the lion’s share of the screen time and looks like he’s finally having fun again. Han and Chewie are back in the smuggling game but the Empire and The Force are not done with him yet. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia is basically reduced to standing at the central command console at the rebel base, which is a shame and a waste. The first line of the usual screen-crawl states, “Luke Skywalker is missing”, so don’t expect too much of Hammill and what there is is eye-rollingly predictable.

But it’s Adam Driver (another Llewyn Davis alumni and Frances Ha) as the central bad guy, Kylo Ren, who really steals the show. Where Rey, Finn and Poe feel like Star Wars characters, written with bold strokes, Ren is psychologically underpinned in complex and thrilling ways. He’s a man drawn to the dark side of The Force, praying to Darth Vader to resolve the conflict within him; he wants to be consumed by darkness but the light won’t let him go. He’s petulant; his confidence is illusory, a mask behind which his lack of self-esteem festers. He’s a furious ball of emotions, scary and sympathetic and, when the mask is off, he’s a cauldron of conflict. Where George Lucas failed with Anakin in the prequels, Driver triumphs.

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Director JJ Abrams keeps The Force Awakens moving along at a cracking pace, but ultimately it is the dearth of new ideas that holds it back from being a great movie. Too often it riffs on the original trilogy’s action and emotional beats and refuses to be its own beast.

Ultimately, how you feel about The Force Awakens will depend on how invested you are in Star Wars lore, die-hard fans will probably love it, but there’s a little too much fan service for the casual viewer.

*George Lucas’ original name for Luke Skywalker was Starkiller, apparently

 

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver