Odeon

Justice League

(BBFC 12A 2hrs 1min)

 

Some films you want to keep forever, to cherish and pop in the dvd player whenever you need a pick-me-up or guaranteed thrill or even the comfort of something familiar. Other films are your third choice in a three-for-twenty-quid promotion because you’ve found two movies you really want, can’t find that third one and… well, it’ll do to make up the numbers.

Unfortunately, Justice League is that second kind of movie. It’s alright. You might want to watch it on a rainy afternoon or you’re just after something to stick on while you’re doing the ironing. In fact, the less attention you pay it the better it seems: ignore the gaping plot holes, the awful dialogue, the Playstation 2 era special effects, the muddy colour palette and derivative villain and you might just find something to enjoy. Though that’s a big ask, unless you’re an eight-year-old, dyed-in-the-wool DC fanboy.

The plot, such as it is, follows on from the risible Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Superman is dead (or is he?), the Earth has no protector (or does it?), those flashbacks and flashforwards start to make sense (or do they?) and everybody bonds over the fact that their moms are all called Martha (not really, but entirely possible). There are a bunch MacGuffins called Mother Boxes (a kind of DC version of Marvel’s Infinity Stones or Harry Potter’s Horcruxes) hidden on the planet and interdimensional baddie Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) and his horde of parademons are after them. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) needs to bring together a team of heroes to find the Mother Boxes and save the world, so along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) he recruits Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller).


Herein lays part of the problem with the film and, whilst I don’t want to become a part of the Marvel vs. DC angry-fan narrative it is almost impossible to talk about Justice League without comparisons to its closest neighbour across the comic book divide. Whereas Marvel’s Avengers Assemble established its heroes before bringing them together (with the exception of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye), Justice League opts for a more “wham-bang” introductions on the fly approach. Yes, this approach allows us to get to the pudding a lot quicker, but sometimes you need to deal with the Brussel sprouts before you can get to the bit everybody’s looking forward to. Despite maybe too much exposition, the three new inductees struggle to establish themselves as characters you’d like to see more of. Ezra Miller’s Flash is the quirky likeable one with the one-liners, Jason Momoa is a bit more Aqua-bro than Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the mysterious, moody one. They’re all good enough, they’re just not interesting enough or fleshed out enough that you really care about them.


Ben Affleck’s Batman is back to being Batman and not the gun-wielding angel of vengeance seen in BvS, but Affleck struggles to bring any conviction to playing him and seems uncomfortable in the part. Thankfully Gal Gadot continues to shine as Wonder Woman and brings some much-needed sanity and humanity to the film. Because his name is right up there in the opening credits I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Henry Cavill returns as Superman/Clark Kent (but is this in flashback form or does he really return? Aha!). Cavill finally seems to have gotten a handle on the character despite battling some dreadful dialogue and an obviously CGI-ed out moustache (apparently, he was recalled for reshoots, had grown the upper-lip furniture for another role and was contractually obliged not to shave it off).

When writer/director Zack Snyder left the project due to a particularly tragic family incident, Warner Bros. brought Avengers Assemble director Joss Whedon onto the film to rework much of it, add additional dialogue and complete filming. Whedon is Hollywood’s go-to guy if you are looking for someone who really understands team dynamics (he has, after all, been in charge of two Avengers movies and was show-runner for television’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly) but his lightness of touch is often at odds with Snyder’s more pop-operatic, carefully choreographed, darker action style. I can’t in all certainty say who directed which bit, but I can have a good guess and I’m betting you can too.


Justice League’s main problem is that it feels we got to it too quickly, maybe three films too early: A Flash movie, an Aquabro movie and a proper Affleck Batman movie would have helped tremendously. It doesn’t feel like this universe has paid its dues and it’s all a touch unearned. Also, much like the Marvel films, it lacks a decent villain and maybe should have gone straight in with the real big-bad rather than throw us the morsel of one of his generals (long time comics readers will know who I mean, stick around after the credits if you don’t).

Like I said, it’s not a bad movie, it’s no Suicide Squad but, then again, neither is it a Wonder Woman (which bordered on being great). It’s a bit incoherent, a bit generic and makes you wonder if the superhero genre is wearing a bit thin. Still, if you can’t get enough of CGI characters getting punched maybe you’ll love it. Stranger things have happened.

Andy Oliver

Thor: Ragnarok

(BBFC 12A 2hrs 10mins)

With Thor: Ragnarok, New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has ditched the Shakespearean miserabilism of Kenneth Branagh’s crack at the character and the muddled/studio-interference troubles of Alan Taylor’s The Dark World. What he’s done instead is embrace the goofy fun of The Guardians of the Galaxy and the inherent silliness of the whole “Men in capes and lycra” superhero genre to produce a movie that’s garlic and Kryptonite to anyone who doesn’t like fun: a kaleidoscopic romp bursting at the seams with laugh out loud one-liners, great characters and excitingly crazy action scenes.

The plot is pretty standard comic book fare (especially if you were reading Marvel comics in the 1970’s) and won’t stretch any viewer too far, although a little familiarity with previous Marvel movies might be helpful as Thor: Ragnarok picks up a few threads from the earlier entries. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard (the mythical home of the Norse gods) to discover his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) has banished their father, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and now sits at the throne of the realm.


Unfortunately for the squabbling siblings their long-forgotten sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), has escaped her millennia-old captivity and returned to herald the destruction of the gods and their kingdom (hence Ragnarok, The Doom of the Gods). Thor and Loki are then banished themselves, the god of thunder finding himself on the battle planet Sakaar where, to earn his freedom, hemust fight in gladiatorial games and comes up against an old rival/ally in the form of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With the help of allies old and new Thor must find his way back to Asgard to save the realm from his sister who wants only to destroy it.

Thor’s regular supporting cast all put in appearances including Heimdall (Idris Elba), Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) and The Warriors Three (Ray Stephenson, Tadanobu Asano and Zachary Levi), bolstered by all new heroes and villains like Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Hela’s henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and a gloriously over-the-top Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster. Oh, and as hinted at the end of his own movie, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance as well.

Chris Hemsworth has already shown a deft hand at comedy in the remakes of National Lampoon’s Vacation and Ghostbusters, but here he gets free reign to flex his considerable comedic muscle and grasps that chance with aplomb. When he and Mark Ruffalo (in both his Bruce Banner and Hulk modes) share the screen it’s like Withnail & I in space, permanently trapped on an inter-galactic holiday by mistake. Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki gets probably the best character arc of the movie and even at his most scheming he’s still a likeable presence. Cate Blanchett is clearly relishing her chance to go all-out panto villainess and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is Goldblum at his most Goldblum-iest, which is always a joy to behold. Tessa Thompson might be the breakout character though as Valkyrie, a bounty hunter who turns hero, she’s definitely the “Han Solo” of Thor: Ragnarok and Thompson is great in the role.

The baggy plot is not the reason to see Thor: Ragnarok though. It’s just the hook upon which all the fun and goofiness ultimately hangs. No, the real reason to spend your well-earned sheckles is the fun and goofiness. The movie sets out its stall right from the opening scene, in which Hemsworth spins in and out of frame as he engages in a barbed battle of “bants” with a horrifying antagonist whilst, at the same time, delivering a gloriously stylized (and hilarious) voice-over. It’s almost exhaustingly self-aware but never tips over into parody, it’s clear that everyone’s having a great time making this movie and the audience has an open invite to either jump on board or find the nearest exit.

The look of the film is obviously inspired by a thousand Heavy Metal magazine covers (as well as a thousand “heavy metal” album covers), it’s insanely vibrant and harks back to a time when legendary comic book artist Jack “King” Kirby was doing his greatest work on titles like Thor, The New Gods and The Fantastic Four.

There’s bad-ass women, hilarious gags, monsters, Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song and a bonkers 1980’s style synth-pop score by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh; lively and exciting characters that you want to spend the whole movie with; top-notch CGI and practical effects; Jeff Goldblum…

That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is not without its problems, some of the world building and lore is flubbed (probably because it wasn’t as much fun to film as making the rest of the film) and a little too much time is spent developing Karl Urban’s Skurge, whose role in the movie is obvious from his first appearance. Because the rest of the movie is so enjoyable you do start to resent the moments when it has to go “serious”, but that’s a minor quibble and there’s really only about ten minutes that it could do without.

Fans who prefer the superhero canon to be a bit more straight-laced and serious faced might well baulk at the irreverence and meta-commentary of Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi obviously doesn’t believe in sacred cows or, if he does he really enjoys hitting them in the bum, and, credit where it’s due, Marvel has been brave enough to hand him a banjo big enough to do it. It was a big risk to let the director indulge in all his favourite idiosyncrasies, but it’s a gamble that Marvel/Disney should now be able to collect on: Thor: Ragnarok manages to make “more of the same” not only feel fresh and shiny-new but provides one of the most enjoyable visits to the cinema this year.

Andy Oliver

The Snowman & The Ritual

THE SNOWMAN (BBFC 15 1hr 59mins)

 

 

There were 26 years between two of Hollywood’s most iconic chillers, Jaws (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Any hopes that lightning might strike for a third time are fading fast as, 26 years after Hannibal Lecter’s fava bean and chianti sides, the “great white hope”, an adaptation of bestselling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, fails to deliver a single shiver.

Based on the seventh of Nesbø’s successful Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-eh, so no jokes about Michael Fassbender’s Hole, okay?) detective novels, The Snowman struggles to find anything new to bring audiences unfamiliar to the author’s work whilst also alienating his existing fanbase. When elite crime-squad detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a young woman he begins to suspect that the elusive serial killer dubbed “The Snowman” may be on the prowl again after years of hibernation. With the help of brilliant rookie Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Hole has to connect his investigation to decades-old cold cases if he wants to catch the killer before he (or she) strikes again.

Various characters appear, disappear, deliver exposition and generally muddy the waters of both the investigation and the movie’s plot: J.K. Simmons plays a sinister magazine mogul trying to engineer a major winter-sports event; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Hole’s ex, Rakel, who constantly interrupts proceedings with some crisis or another involving their teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates); James D’Arcy as the hostile husband of the disappeared woman; Chloe Sevigny as identical twin chicken-farmers (one of whom is basically just a head stuck on top of a snowman); and a precariously coiffured Val Kilmer who appears in flashback scenes as the detective in charge of the original Snowman case. The audience is led up and down numerous snow-blind alleys and served up more than a barrel’s worth of pickled red herrings on their way to a finale that’s as bafflingly impractical as it is emotionally unrewarding.

Fassbender is fine as the clinical detective who is only ever really alive when he’s challenged by his work and a hopeless alcoholic when he’s not. Rebecca Ferguson is the standout as the feisty and eager Katrine, though she’s never quite handed enough by the script to really get her teeth into. The rest of the cast do the best they can with what little they’re given, although I’d like to know the reasoning behind the bizarrely bad voice-dubbing of Val Kilmer’s appearances.

The real detective work that hangs around The Snowman though, is how such a fine pedigree of talents (both in front of and behind the camera) managed to produce such a mutt? Director Thomas Alfredson, the man behind the near-impeccable Let the Right One In and the equally classy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, seems to have not just dropped the ball but left it on the bus on his way home from the shops, a bus that subsequently burst into flames, driven off a bridge and plunged into a lake full of ball-eating piranhas. Where Jaws and Silence of the Lambs relied on a slowly building intensity and an inexorable feeling of inevitable dread, The Snowman goes straight for lurid, grisly shocks straight out of the most basic eighties slasher canon. Martin Scorsese is on board as executive producer and top-notch editors Claire Simpson (Platoon, Wall Street, The Reader) and long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker fail to pull the pieces together. Perhaps the fault lies at the feet of the writers? Peter Straughan (Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Wolf Hall and the afore-mentioned Tinker, Tailor) and Hossein Amini (highs: Drive, The Wings of the Dove, lows: 47 Ronin, Snow White and the Huntsman) appear to have forgotten that what appears terrifying on the page may appear ridiculous on the screen, not the least of these being the snowmen which appear at every murder scene just come across as naughty or sad Olafs rather than signposts of evil.

Not the worst movie of the year by a long stretch but The Snowman is pretty abominable.

BONUS REVIEW

THE RITUAL (BBFC 15 1hr 34mins)

 


A bunch of chums (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton and Robert James-Collier) go hiking in Sweden in memory of their friend Robert who was murdered in a convenience store robbery. Luke (Spall) is especially traumatised because he failed to intervene in the senseless killing and hid behind shelving unit during the crime. When one of the chums twists his ankle, a shortcut through a forest is decided upon with predictable horror movie results.

Dead animal hanging in the trees still dripping blood? Check. Creepy cabin in the woods? Check. Mysterious runes cut into trees/cabin/everything? Check.

Can you see where this is heading?

There’s good, solid performances by all but The Ritual is more of a trudge than a brisk hike. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, in fact there’s probably less. Sometimes you need a creepy local to say, “Stay out of the woods, lads” just to add a bit of context, which is something this movie sorely needs. It’s all a bit dull and you’ve seen it all before (unless this is your first horror movie, in which case you might experience minor goose-pimpling). It’s a calorie free rice cake of a movie, which is fine I suppose, I just like my calorie free rice cakes to be dipped in chocolate and smarties and served between two cream buns.

Andy Oliver

 

Blade Runner 2049

 

 

(BBFC 15 2hrs 43mins)


I’ve already booked a ticket to see Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 again.

Not because I loved it, at least not yet. I want to see it again to cement in my mind whether it’s a truly great movie or merely a mediocre picture draped in a hallucinatory coat of many colours; whether, or not, there is actually anything resembling life in its sterility or just an affectation of life; whether there is substance in its style or whether it’s an empty, albeit beautifully crafted, vessel. Or, maybe, the truth lies in all these things.

Set thirty years after the events of Ridley Scott’s original, Blade Runner 2049’s central character is K (Ryan Gosling), a limited-life replicant working as a detective (or Blade Runner) for the LAPD, tracking down the first-generation models who can live as long as, and live as, humans. During a routine mission to apprehend/eliminate one of those rogue replicants K stumbles upon a secret that, if given the oxygen of publicity, could destroy the delicate sense of order that exists between humans and the now million strong sub-caste of androids. Ordered by his police chief Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) to forget what he has learned, K disobeys and begins an investigation that takes him to the ruins of Las Vegas and directly to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is hiding therein. Meanwhile creepy oligarch Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who now owns the replicant manufacturing corporation, Tyrell, has his own bizarre and ruthless interest in K.


Gosling is back in zero-emotion, Drive/Only God Forgives mode, doing a fine job of channelling Le Samourai era Alain Delon, both enigmatic and unreadable. Harrison Ford is great as the haggard misanthrope Deckard (not really a stretch, I guess, but still…). I’m still not convinced by Jared Leto, he will forever be the poor man’s Daniel Day-Lewis to me, he’s not terrible but he does seem to suck the oxygen out of his every scene. A terrific, and overwhelmingly female, supporting cast is led by Robin Wright as the stern and severe Lt. Joshi, but there’s more than a few performances that one would struggle to describe as other than breakthrough: Sylvia Hoeks as the ruthless Luv, Ana de Armas as K’s designed for pleasure hologram Joi and watch out for an all too brief, but impactful, appearance by In Syria’s Hiam Abbas.

If you’ve seen this year’s earlier entrants in the unofficial competition to melt the audience’s eyeballs, Ghost in the Shell and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets you’ll have some idea of the colourful visual flair on display, but Blade Runner 2049 possesses some things neither of those earlier two seemed to understand: Composition. Through the eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera lens (director of photography on such classics as Fargo, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall amongst many, many others) the images have depth, context, a sense of the surreal, a sense of the monolithic and, above all, an understanding of stillness and beauty. Seriously, virtually every frame is breath-taking, see it on a big screen and take in every inch of neon-lit artistry as you would the work of a great master in a gallery.


Director Denis Villeneuve returns to two of his favourite themes, two recurrent ideas that power all his films: How does man fight monsters without becoming a monster and the inherent hopefulness of female nature. He’s a director whose opus tends toward the exhaustingly tense (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), so why, many might ask, is Blade Runner 2049 so slow and (I hesitate to say it, but) boring? I think it’s an interesting choice to slow everything down to a crawl, to allow time for the audience to really think about the film as it unfolds, in many ways it’s an imitation of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker, Andrei Rublev). It’s deliberate, thoughtful and packed but it’s very, very long. People with short attention spans or who hate having to put any thought into a movie might want to avoid and sit at home with their Explody-Robots IV dvd. If you enjoy sci-fi as allegory, fill your boots, there’s plenty to tuck into here.


Despite its undisputed influence on not only movies but upon design and culture, I’ve never really been much of a fan of the original Blade Runner. It’s just too full of holes, lacks a believable through-line, it’s an exercise in design over content and chucks in things because they look or sound cool rather than having any importance. There are multiple versions out there and it took Scott five attempts at recutting it before he actually understood what he was trying to say. Blade Runner 2049 builds upon the aesthetics of Scott’s original, cherry picking the best ideas and expanding upon them to reach a natural conclusion. It’s much closer to Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian vision, in its existential ponderings if nothing else. In fact, the less familiar you are with the original the better, I think it works best if you are not wedded to the mythology of Blade Runner and everything that has been written about it.

Like I say, I’m genuinely torn by Blade Runner 2049 and maybe I should have written this after that second viewing. I think it might be one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made, but I’m not sure.

Andy Oliver

 

Mother!

Anywhere between

 

and

 

(BBFC 18 2Hrs 1Min)


If you were anticipating my review of Mother! I’m afraid I have to disappoint: Although I tried many times to write a spoiler-free review, I have failed miserably. All I offer here is a kind of steer, a warning to the unwary, a softly whispered piece of advice in the ear of the hopelessly intrigued. In fact, I’m not sure this movie is even reviewable, it is possible to read it on so many levels, all of them right, most of them wrong, very few of them unworthy of friendship destroying argument.

Nominally, Mother! concerns a couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) renovating the man’s childhood home (none of the characters have names, by the way, so this might get confusing), when a stranger (Ed Harris) appears on their doorstep, closely followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Bardem’s character invites the strangers in and Lawrence’s character begins to doubt her sanity (and their relationship) as more and more people come to the house and Bardem welcomes them all in and offers them free lodging. Where it goes from here is all spoiler territory into which I shall not tread, suffice it to say that the plot spirals into ever more horrific psychological and, eventually, physically violent acts which are not sexual but definitely gender-specific.

Be aware that if you’re handing over your hard-earned money for a ticket it may well be for something you will absolutely hate, I suspect more people will loathe Mother! than love it. It is one of the most divisive movies I’ve ever seen. I’m talking Anti-Christ/Eternal Sunshine/Only God Forgives/Spring Breakers/ Neon Demon level divisiveness. If you think you’re going to see a horror movie, you’re wrong. If you think you’re going to see a marital drama, you’re wrong. If you think everything will be wrapped up with a neat bow or Shyamalan-esque twist, guess what? You’re wrong.

Is it a thesis on toxic masculinity and misogyny? A religious parable? A satire in the mould of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (albeit one with a 180⁰ shift)? A damning critique of celebrity relationships? An environmental warning? A puzzle akin to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad? An anthropological study of solitude versus tribal responsibilities? It’s all these things and more… or some of these things and less… or all of these things and none of them. Listen, how you respond to Mother! will depend exclusively upon you and what you take from it and how much you’re willing to put into it.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Noah, Black Swan), everything about Mother! is next level: beautifully shot, designed and lit; incredible performances from everyone in the cast, Lawrence remarkably manages to up her already “A” game and Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are nothing if not magnetic, to mention but four of this astonishing ensemble.

I’ve tried to help here but, honestly, nothing can prepare you for Mother! You will love it or you will hate it with venom. Caveat Emptor, my friends, Caveat Emptor. Maybe ask yourself would you watch this if it wasn’t a Jennifer Lawrence movie?

Me? Predictably, I loved it.

Andy Oliver

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

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

 

(BBFC 12A 2Hrs 17Mins)


Imagine a big empty cardboard box. Now imagine that box wrapped in the most astonishing paper, ribbons, bows and gift tags. Got it? Okay, now imagine that the box and wrapping cost the best part of £200 million and you’ll come close to understanding the experience of watching director Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter just referred to as Valerian in this review for the sake of time and word count). It’s a sprawling epic that blasts beyond the screen with eye-popping visuals and aesthetics but, beyond that, it’s a bit like a bubble-headed Love Island contestant, “… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, as Lady MacBeth once decried.

Alpha, the “City” of the extended title, is an ever-expanding space station, a repository of the collected knowledge and information of a plethora of CGI and practical effects alien races. Into this neon-infused, candy-crush coloured diaspora arrive Special Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a couple in all but name, squabbling and babbling inanely, spreading their own unique brand of “banter” as they try to solve I’m not sure what because I’m not sure why. I didn’t really understand what was going on and I suspect nobody involved in the movie did either, the plot has something to do with a Pokemon dinosaur that poops marbles and the destruction of some kind of “Ibiza” inspired planet full of lithe, pale supermodels and an infection/dead zone spreading through the city/space station. None of it makes any sense and there’s over two hours of it.


But what Valerian lacks in plot, characters or plausibility it more than makes up for in its visuals, every frame is crammed full of invention and mind-bending colour. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Aldous Huxley, John Lennon or Doctor Timothy Leary experienced without the hassle and expense of consciousness expanding drugs? Look no further: Memory consuming jellyfish; a bazaar that exists simultaneously on multiple dimensional levels; Cara Delevingne wearing the Universe’s biggest hat; fat-bottomed frogs; fish in spacesuits… you’ll want to check that bucket of popcorn you’re inhaling to make sure it hadn’t been inadvertently switched out with a huge tub of mescaline.


I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve never truly been aboard the Luc Besson train, his movies leave me cold, he’s a director whose ideas are vacuous and, whilst almost always visually impressive, as a storyteller he has all the panache and craft of Monty Python’s Mister Creosote forcing a last “wafer thin mint” between his bloated, gluttonous lips: yes, there’s a huge explosion of colour on the screen but ultimately his bacchanalian greed leads to disappointment and emptiness. People may leap to his defence citing The Fifth Element (loopy fairy-tale powered by cliché) or Leon The Professional (amoral and smarmy in its Hollywood excess) or The Big Blue (free divers squabble when not holding their breath, tedious), but even they would have a tough time denying the indulgence and sheer lack of soul in Valerian. For a director steeped in self-indulgence, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets surely represents the pinnacle of his achievements.

There are moments of dizzying invention, for instance a chase scene that crashes through multiple dimensions, but it is dazzling empty spectacle and, unfortunately, nothing more.


Both DeHaan and Delevingne struggle to bring anything based in reality to their characters, neither has the charisma or joie de vivre necessary to carry the film or imbue it with any sense of fun. Dane DeHaan is best known for his moody “outsider” roles such as Chronicle (moody teen become moody teen with super-powers), The Amazing Spider-Man (moody, rich teen becomes moody, rich teen with super-powers) and The Cure For Wellness (moody banker becomes moodier banker but with added incest and eels), Valerian should be a crazy, thrill-ride of a character; as quick with his thoughts, actions and quips as he is with his trigger finger; DeHaan, with his permanently furrowed-brow and slow delivery only manages to convey a sense of fatigue. Cara Delevingne, all pouts and eyebrows, is best known for being a coat hanger and for being easily the most appalling thing in the appalling Suicide Squad; like a personality vacuum, she manages to suck all the life from practically every scene she’s in. Valerian and Laureline sound like ingredients in the latest, miracle shampoo but that’s where any analogy to chemistry ends; they bicker like a couple who’ve been together too long, a pair you’d spend two weeks trying to avoid on your holidays, which makes it all the more bewildering when a “Will they, won’t they…” story thread is introduced. Like I said, “NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE”.

Oh, and Rihanna, Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen turn up as well. Mostly briefly, mostly looking bewildered.

If, like a toddler who delights in the wrapping paper more than the present, there’s probably plenty to enjoy here. Valerian, for the rest of us is just that big old empty box.

“Out, out brief candle”, indeed.

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