Review

Paddington 2

(BBFC PG 1hr 43mins)

 

2014’s Paddington was an absolute treat. A genuine slice of unadulterated family fun with a heart big enough to bring joy to multiple generations. With that in mind it was with more than a touch of trepidation that I approached Paddington 2, fearing that “difficult second album”, worried that this sequel would throw too much sugar in the recipe or that lightning couldn’t be bottled twice.

Within minutes of the opening of Paddington 2 I was wrapped in a warm bear-hug of comforting familiarity, a gormless smile plastered itself on my face and for the next hour and three-quarters everything was right with the world. Even the most cynical of viewers, once embraced by its marmalade-sticky paws, would find it difficult to leave the cinema with anything but joy in their hearts and an ache in their chuckle muscles after watching it.

This time out, our ursine hero (beautifully voiced again by Ben Whishaw) finds himself in need of money to buy a present for his aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, having found the perfect gift in Mr. Gruber’s quaint little shop of curiosities: a unique pop-up book of London. Whilst Paddington takes on a bunch of odd-jobs (creating the sort of chaos that only he can), the book is stolen by cravat wearing cad and down on his heels thespian Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant) who frames the young bear for the crime. The book supposedly holds clues to a hidden fortune. A fortune which Buchanan hopes to find in order to fund his dreams of staging a one man spectacular in London’s West End. Poor Paddington finds himself thrown in gaol for a crime he didn’t commit but, with the assistance of curmudgeonly prison cook Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), plans an audacious escape (The Pawshank Redemption, anyone? Anyone?). Everything culminates in a thrilling and hilarious dash to the west country as Paddington and his adoptive family, the Browns, chase down Buchanan, the book and, possibly, the treasure.


It’s all very silly, edge-of-the-seat thrilling and tremendously entertaining. It doesn’t take a genius to work out where the movie is heading but it’s so much fun getting there that you really don’t care.

The casting of Ben Whishaw as the voice of the eponymous little hero seems even more inspired in this second outing, constantly curious, occasionally puzzled, always innocent yet possessing a very clear sense of right and wrong, there’s something of Paddington that harks back to Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp (and in the action set-pieces, of Buster Keaton). Meanwhile, when he’s not stealing pop-up books, Hugh Grant nicks virtually every scene he’s in as the narcissistic Phoenix Buchanan, a mediocre, has-been actor reduced to starring in dog food adverts (Buchanan not Grant). Buchanan is a wonderful invention, the kind of moustache twirling villain of the Chaplin era rather than Nicole Kidman’s evil intentioned taxidermist from the first Paddington.


The Browns are happily pootling along despite Mr. Brown’s oncoming mid-life crisis and flirtations with moisturiser and yoga. Hugh Bonneville and the always excellent Sally Hawkins provide plenty of laughs and warmth, while Julie Walters returns as wily housekeeper Mrs. Bird. There’s also excellent support from Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber, Brendan Gleeson as Knuckles, Sanjeev Bhaskar as a forgetful neighbour, Richard Ayoade as an eccentric forensics expert, Peter Capaldi as the long-suffering misery-guts neighbour Mr. Curry and a host of well-known faces who do themselves, or their reputations, no harm whatsoever by appearing in this funny and charming movie.

Paul King returns to the director’s chair once more and, along with co-writers Jon Croker and Horrible Histories’ Simon Farnaby, has managed to produce a movie that looks effortlessly original and yet heart-warmingly familiar. The laughs come thick and fast and refreshingly free of snark, the jokes are there for everybody to enjoy and all aimed at the entire audience, young and, ahem, older. Yes, it is all too easy to get sniffy about the idealised London, the spotlessly clean Notting Hill, the steam trains and the fact that people still use red telephone boxes (or, indeed, the fact that they can find any working examples of such) but… Hello!… This is a movie about a talking bear that wears a red hat, a duffle coat and subsists solely on a diet of marmalade sandwiches! Don’t pick holes, okay?

Paddington 2 is a Christmas treat come early. A full-on feast of fun that you’ll want to gorge on until your trousers get uncomfortably tight; a gloriously colourful gift that is powered along by its Grade-A laughs rather than AA batteries; and best of all, when it’s all over there’s no washing up required (though you might be tempted to go back for seconds).

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

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

 

 

(BBFC 15 2hrs 21mins)


Oh dear.

There’s no easy way to say this but Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the follow up to director Matthew Vaughan and writer Jane Goldman’s fun, breezy, occasionally off-colour, occasionally shockingly violent but always exciting spy-spoof Kingsman: The Secret Service, is a bit of a slog. It’s a “Tough Mudder” of a movie, an exhausting trial of endurance, and the only prize waiting for those crawling across its finish line is to sniff a bucket of poop. It’s not without a few fun moments but unfortunately, as a whole, it’s a disappointment.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the council estate raised hero of the first movie, returns as a now fully-fledged member of ultra-dapper secret service organisation The Kingsmen, to face an all-new super-villain and an all-new threat to World peace. Poppy (Julianne Moore), the Martha Stewart/Kirstie Allsop-ish head of a major drugs cartel has been lacing her product with a lethal virus thereby infecting her entire userbase, an antidote to which will only be forthcoming if the US President (Bruce Greenwood) ends the war on drugs. The problem here being that POTUS sees Poppy’s plan as the way to solve the drugs problem once and for all.

Tired of the Kingsmen’s meddling Poppy destroys the organisation leaving only Eggsy and Kingsman Quartermaster Merlin (Mark Strong) as the surviving members. The pair then bounce around the world, team up with their US counterparts The Statesmen and discover that veteran Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is still alive (despite being shot in the head at point-blank range in the first film), albeit suffering amnesia.

If you’ve seen the first movie or, indeed, any James Bond movie ever you’ll know where this is all heading: set-piece upon set-piece leading to an all-out, mega-action finale.

The problem is that it takes so long to get there and those set-pieces become increasingly tiresome, one extended sequence in which Eggsy has to… ahem, how should I describe this?… deposit a fingertip mounted tracker inside the genitals of a bad guy’s girlfriend (Poppy Delevingne) at Glastonbury becomes a particularly wearing test of endurance. So much time and effort is put into that sequence and none of it is really worth the pay-off, which, in many ways, sums up the whole movie.

The introduction of The Statesmen is a pleasant enough diversion but they are so poorly served that they feel like a wasted opportunity. Stars like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry are painfully under-used and only Pablo Pascal gets a decent amount of screen time. Bizarrely Elton John (yes, Elton John) gets more to do in The Golden Circle than many of the other extended cameos, that’s how weird this movie is. The wonky use of The Statesmen is sort of resolved in the final third of the film but by then patience and suspension of belief has already been stretched to their limits.

Much of the criticism of The Secret Service was aimed at a particularly jarring and ill-advised gag at that movies end and chances were that The Golden Circle was always going to respond to those complaints by gleefully asking, “You think that was bad? Here, hold my pint…” And it certainly doesn’t hold back in its attempts to shock, in fact it tries way too hard (as evidenced by that Glastonbury sequence) and as a result sinks to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brothers Grimsby levels of lad-mag humour. Great if you like that sort of thing, alienating if you find it don’t and, whatever you feel about it, it adds very little except bum-numbing minutes to an already too long movie.

It’s understandable that they’d want to bring back the always likeable Colin Firth as Eggsy’s mentor Harry but the way it’s done is a cheap cop-out (apparently the application of some super-Savlon can repair the damage of being shot in the face), a cheat which removes any life or death tension. Harry believes he’s a lepidopterist (butterfly collector) because of his amnesia and is perfectly happy and content until Eggsy forces him to relive a past trauma to snap him out of it. It’s a stretch to believe that the Eggsy of The Secret Service would be the callous Eggsy of The Golden Circle to take that away from him. It’s all too contrived and jarring and sells out the characters for a plot that doesn’t deserve them.

For all its fun moments, of which there are too few, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is too dogged by forced motivations, forced situations, increasingly weightless action sequences (all of which try to be as iconic as the church massacre of The Secret Service, none of which are successful), flaky CGI and wasted opportunities to hang together as an enjoyable whole. It’s a shame and I hope that it’s not a franchise killer, I’d love to see more of The Kingsmen, The Statesmen, Eggsy, Merlin, et al. Vaughan and Goldman just need to understand that more is not always necessarily more, sometimes you need to touch the brakes to get around the corner with speed.

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

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

Moonlight, Hidden Figures, The Great Wall

MOONLIGHT

 

(BBFC 15)


A story in three chapters that chronicles the boyhood, adolescence and young manhood of Chiron, a gay black character growing up in a rough, drug riven district of Miami. Moonlight is an achingly beautiful examination of life that transcends its settings to tell a story we can all find meaning in.

Like pebbles dropped in a pool people fall into our lives creating ripples and waves that shape who and what we are. Moonlight posits that we have no control over not only our skin colour, our backgrounds or sexuality but that we have no control over who will enter our lives and the effects they will have upon us. The themes are universal and through them director Barry Jenkins allows us to explore a life so alien and different to our own yet so similar. What is it that makes us “us”?

Centring your thoughts on Moonlight being a black movie or a gay movie is missing the point, the film asks you to look at your own life and the influences that subliminally and consciously have brought you to the place you are today. And what happens to us if we decide to create our own narrative. Whilst Chiron (in the third and final chapter, Black) has allowed his past to shape his present, Kevin finds his “happy” in, finally, ejecting his past and the people he allowed to shape decisions.


Everything about Moonlight is next level. Universally great performances; beautiful cinematography; understated yet powerful writing; a melancholy, yet uplifting, score and poetic and subtle direction all combine to create one of the most nuanced and (though I hate the term) “Important” movies of the year (or many years, for that matter). Where Richard Linklater’s wonderful “Boyhood” focused on a single life, Moonlight has implications for all our lives.

Saying it is a coming of age movie or a black movie or a gay movie or a “worthy” movie is missing the point. Yes, it is all these things, but those are “parts”, what make Moonlight so special is the “whole”.

 

HIDDEN FIGURES

 

(BBFC PG)

Hidden Figures tells the spectacularly fascinating, and yet little known, story of the black women who contributed to the early years of NASA’s space program. Unfortunately, it is told in an utterly pedestrian manner that embraces stereotypes and clichés, it’s like buying the very best ingredients and still ending up with egg and chips for dinner.

There’s plenty of solid work from the central trio of Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, but the movie has so many problems it’s hard to know where to start in dissecting it: tonally, it’s all over the place never sure whether it wants to be serious or amusing; it embraces so many clichés about black people and black culture that it borders on its own racism; it lacks any focus wanting to tell three stories and only really doing one of them any kind of justice (barely any justice at all actually); nobody is ever called to account for their overt or covert acceptance of institutionalised racism and sexism (and even goes so far as to portray all the white characters as nice guys who are simply misguided or absolute straight arrows); about five minutes in you get the first of Pharrell Williams’ faux Sixties soul tracks which continue to jar and annoy throughout the movie.


Add to this, Kevin Costner chewing the scenery (and an endless supply of gum); Jim Parsons attempting to show that there’s more to him than playing a snippy science nerd in The Big Bang Theory (here he plays a snippy science nerd who’s also a bit racist) and a script so shallow you would struggle to get the soles of your shoes wet were you to step in it. It’s everything that was bad about eighties/nineties movies, more Cool Runnings than Selma, less The Right Stuff and more Spacecamp.

Such a shame as the story of these women genuinely needed to be told and admired. Hidden Figures is just not the film to do it.

 

THE GREAT WALL

 

 


(BBFC 12A)

The Great Wall, although beautifully designed, is such a weird mix of generic Western and Eastern action tropes, Chinese mythology and Communist ideology (yes, really) that it’s difficult to understand exactly where it’s coming from.

Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal play a pair of European mercenaries who travel to ancient China in search of the secret of gunpowder, only to stumble upon an ongoing war between men and monsters. Should the pair use the chaos of battle to steal the secret they came for or stay and fight?

There’s plenty to enjoy in the film’s design (including the creatures and the colourful costumes of the oriental army) and original ideas (especially the female warriors who bungee jump off the wall to attack the dragon-like beasts below and the well-thought creature hierarchy), less so in the story or characters. The Great Wall is an okay action movie, no more, no less. It’s only when you scratch beneath the surface it becomes ideologically troublesome.


Made by House of Flying Daggers and Hero auteur Zhang Yimou for the state-owned China Film Group, The Great Wall is pretty overt in its politics, ie the blind adherence to the state in the face of outside antagonism over individualism (interesting to see how that plays in 2017 America). The nobility is buffoonish and incompetent whereas the strength and sacrifice of those who hold the line for the greater good seems like a polemic straight out of a certain little red book. Admittedly it’s one hive-mind versus another, it’s just that the outside one wants to devour the other.

Yimou is a master of composition and large-scale action and, as propaganda, The Great Wall is not short of spectacle or subtlety, unfortunately it lacks enough plot or character depth to make it a memorable cinematic experience.

Andy Oliver

Hacksaw Ridge

 

(BBFC 15)


Calling himself a “Conscientious Co-operator”, Desmond Doss went to war. A Seventh Day Adventist, Doss refused to carry a weapon or work on a Saturday (the Sabbath in said church) and yet he managed to save the lives of seventy-five severely injured men from the blood-soaked killing field beyond the Maeda escarpment (the titular “Hacksaw Ridge”), Okinawa.

The movie begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia where we follow the childhood and adolescence of Desmond (Darcy Bryce), the son of an alcoholic, damaged WWI veteran Thomas Doss (Hugo Weaving). It’s an “Aw, shucks” upbringing straight out of The Waltons, tinged with moments of sudden violence (such as hitting his brother in the head with a brick) and the constant threat of his father’s belt. It’s another belt, though, that provides the momentum to push the story forward when the slightly older Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) uses his as a tourniquet to save the life of a man trapped under a car. Not only does this incident provide Doss with a calling, it also brings him into contact with nurse Dorothy Shutte (Teresa Palmer) with whom he is instantly smitten and becomes the love of his life.

When most of his town, including his brother, enlist to serve to fight in World War II Desmond is compelled to join up to become a medic despite/because of his deeply held beliefs and the protestations of his father. Basic training at Fort Baxter becomes pivotal to the story as Doss refuses to pick up a weapon, a decision that brings him into conflict with not only the platoon’s hierarchy (Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington) and his comrades but with the army itself. Life is made hellish for him as he is forced into endless menial and demeaning duties, beaten viciously by his ‘buddies’ and faces a court martial and it is only through the intervention of his father, ironically, that Doss is allowed to remain in the army and go to war.


Which brings us to the literal meat of the movie, the battle for Hacksaw Ridge. Remaining behind after a savage attack and even more bloody retreat, Desmond pulls man after wounded man from the charnel killing field and delivers them to safety. Despite the threat of multiple Japanese patrols, constant danger and exhaustion he continues to venture out to save, “Just one more”.

In many ways, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is a proper, old fashioned “war is hell” war movie on a scale not seen since Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, even. It’s a crowd-pleasing epic that tells of one man’s courage in the face of, not just, a relentless enemy but implacable bureaucracy and gung-ho bravado; it’s a tale of heroism that harks back to, and is akin to, classic Hollywood fare starring Gary Cooper or John Wayne or Jeff Chandler and wades through devastated landscapes of violence, action and gore to deliver a (mostly) true-story as inspirational as it is uplifting.


And yet, I found it deeply troubling. It works really well on a surface level but beneath that surface bubbles the director’s politick, a right-wing agenda that plays to Red-States America and the baser side of our nature. Gibson uses techniques perfected by the propagandist movie makers of the 1940’s, films used to drum up enlistments or demonise the enemy:  The movie opens under bucolic Virginian skies, good ol’ boys drinking beer and church choirs assert the way of life under threat; before we even see the Japanese they are referred to as unkillable animals and, when we do see them, they are a horde not unlike the CGI waves of World War Z zombies, faceless, unstoppable and relentless; enemy bullets rip, tear and explode American bodies in huge meaty gouts of blood where allied bullets kill cleanly, humanely, because, remember, atrocities are only what the other guys carry out.

Mel just can’t help being Mel. There is much of his Passion of the Christ in Hacksaw Ridge, the camera lingering over the suffering and pain, the blood and injury, the slow-motion hero posing. There are direct lifts from other movies (most obviously during the basic training section of the movie in which the woeful Vince Vaughn attempts his best Full Metal Jacket) and moments that could only have come directly from the bizarro-mind of Mel (such as a weirdly glaring moment when a soldier uses a dead comrade’s torso as a shield as he charges, gun-blazing, into the enemy).


Hacksaw Ridge
plays in entire counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s Silence, a movie in which, once again, Andrew Garfield plays a man of faith venturing into the far east to find that his faith is tested. When Garfield’s Rodriguez asks of God all he receives is silence; when Garfield’s proto-Gump asks of God, God answers with explosions and the cries of the dying: “What is it you want of me? I don’t understand” BOOM! “This, you idiot”. Scorsese wants you to think about belief, to question, to find your own answers. Gibson wants you to know that his god is bigger than your god.

I didn’t like Hacksaw Ridge but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. It’s a great story and I have nothing but respect for Desmond Doss, there is nothing about Gibson’s film that you could ever call, “boring”, in fact it’s pretty exciting (albeit in a goofy kind of way). There’s much I don’t agree with in the movie but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining (which is why I gave it a 4-star rating). It’s a 1940’s war film made for a 2017 audience and that is its strength as well as being its weakness.

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

 

 

 

MOANA

MOANA (BBFC PG)

rating

 

moana1

Beautiful.

There is nothing about Disney’s 56th animated feature that is anything less than beautiful. From the tops of mountains to the depths of the ocean; from the inspirational, aspirational heroine to the ; from the comedy (both broad and oblique) to the truly exciting action set-pieces; from the effortlessly toe-tapping songs to the colourful, unforgettable characters; from the story to the message; from start to finish (and I mean the very end when the screen goes blank) Moana pulls at your eyes, heart and mind then snaps them back into your body leaving you breathless and basking in its sheer audacious over-use of the word.

The descendent of Polynesian sea-faring nomads Moana of Motonui (Auli’i Cravalho) feels the waves of wanderlust washing over her as she enters her mid-teenage years, she yearns for travel and adventure, to break away from the responsibility and staunchly land-based community provided and nurtured by her father, Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison). When ecological disaster threatens her tribe’s paradise and based upon the advice of Gramma Tala (Rachel House), Moana takes the initiative to return a magical stone to its original resting place on the distant shores of Te Fiti.

So, she takes a canoe, her pet pig Pua and, along with stowaway rooster Heihei (clucks by Alan Tudyk), sets sail to save her people. But to achieve her task Moana must enlist the aid of prankster demi-god Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who stole the stone in the first place and this entails rescuing his magical fish-hook from the Realm of Monsters and the clutches of villainous, “Glam-Rock” crab Tamatoa (Jermaine Clement).

moana2

Add in one of the most exciting chases since Mad Max: Fury Road involving some extremely diminutive pirates and the climactic battle with Te Ka, the monstrous lava creature guardian of Te Fiti and you have in place everything you’d expect from a Disney “Princess” movie.

Except one.

Romance.

There’s no handsome prince to woo Moana’s princess (although she determinably expresses that, despite being the daughter of a chief, she is no such thing). Moana is about friendship, mutual trust, platonic and familial love but not romance. And you know what? It is absolutely the right decision, Moana is about finding out who you are rather than how you are defined by your romantic relationship. It’s a subtle but powerful message that is as empowering as it is refreshing and it’s genuinely appropriate.

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Directors Jon Musker and Ron Clements are no strangers to creating perfect Disney fare, their CV boasting The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and the criminally under-appreciated The Princess and the Frog. The DNA of those movies is more than evident in the character of Moana, someone who yearns for a life beyond their immediate environment, whose courage and ingenuity is tested, who lives beyond the screen. Using full computer animation for the first time (their previous films used traditional hand-drawn techniques with limited CGI) has not limited but expanded their palette, there is an incandescence to the colours, bright, popping and luminous; there are levels of detail here that deserve the biggest screen and highest resolution; there is warmth and emotional involvement from even the most surprising characters.

The voices are all perfectly cast and all deliver excellent performances, especially from Auli’i Carvalho as Moana who, only 14 when she recorded her part, makes for a believable and loveable protagonist, perky, plausible, intelligent and brave, she’s the person we all hope our daughters could be. Dwayne Johnson proves to be just as likeable and amiable as his on-screen persona and provides many of the movie’s best laughs (most of the others come via Alan Tudyk’s crazy rooster and Jermaine Clement’s jewellery obsessed crab, Tamatoa, both of whom are, again, perfectly cast). Maui is as vainglorious as Moana is earnest and they complement each other gloriously, like opposing sides of the same shiny coin you’ll want to keep in your pocket forever.

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The bad news for parents who’ve only just reclaimed their music systems from their little darlings and the Frozen soundtrack is that the music and songs of Moana are just as catchy, infectious and sing-along-able to the point of distraction. The song-writing trio of Disney regular Mark Mancina, Samoan singer Opetaia Foa’i and Hamilton impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda have crafted songs that will have you humming on the way home and power millions of school-runs. All the cast sing their own songs which means, yes, The Rock sings and he’s not half bad, in fact he’s pretty good (so, that’s about the last thing you need to cross off your “Worry List”).

I don’t know whether Moana will have the same impact as Frozen, that’s down to a generation much younger than my own, although I very much hope it does. There’s so much misogyny and racism in the world right now a little immersion in a vibrant foreign culture and a bold heroine is a welcome respite, an exciting, funny, colourful and stimulating ray full of hope.

Beautiful.

Andy Oliver

Andy Oliver