Friday, 26 May 2017

Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

(M) ★★½

Director: Joachim Rønning & Espen Sandberg.

Cast: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Kevin McNally, Geoffrey Rush.

The Cure had been on the road for far too long.

So long as Johnny Depp keeps signing on to play Jack Sparrow, and so long as they keep making treasure chests worth of money, Disney will keep making Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.

How else can you explain the fact we're up to Pirates 5 when only the first film was any good? It's certainly not a matter of quality.

The bad news is Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (AKA POTC: DMTNT or Pirates 5) does not improve matters. It will make close to a billion dollars despite the fact its no better (or worse) than the second and fourth films (which were worse than the marginally okay third film).

The garbled plot is another "hunt the MacGuffin" adventure, with this season's must have accessory being Poseidon's Trident - a magical all-purpose, all-powerful oceanic curse-breaker.

New character Henry Turner (Thwaites) wants it to free his dad (briefly returning former star of the series Orlando Bloom), Captain Jack Sparrow (Depp) wants it to get some dead Spaniards off his tail, dead Spanish pirate hunter Salazar (a CGI-enhanced Bardem) wants it return to the living and because it will lead him to Sparrow, Captain Barbossa (Rush) wants it so he can continue ruling the sea free of the pesky dead Spaniards, and newcomer Carina Smyth (Scodelario) wants it because it reminds her of her dad for some reason (or something - I'm still a bit hazy on that one).

If you think that's messy, then you're right. The script creaks like an ageing ship under the strain of having to get all these characters (and a few token British navy types led by David Wenham) heading in the same direction. It's filled with deus ex machinas, coincidences, contrivances, and just-plain-don't-make-senses as writer Jeff Nathanson does everything he can to keep things moving in between the eye candy.

And if there's one thing the POTC series does well, it's eye candy, and Pirates 5 works best when it's doing its OTT high seas stuff. Salazar's ship and crew are a modern CG marvel, particularly Salazar's perpetually-underwater look, and a pitched battle between them and Sparrow's cohorts is great to look at, even if it makes no sense that it should happen whatsoever, given Salazar's ship has the power to destroy any other ship with one blow.

Such idiotic plotting is par for the course here. So it's a shame that the script has some great characters floating in it that are wasted in a mediocre film. Bardem's Salazar is another great villain in a series that has been weirdly well-endowed with baddies. The returning Rush continues to be wonderful, but series star Depp plays Sparrow more drunken than usual and the lustre is starting to wear off his character. He still gets the best lines, most of which are immaculately delivered, but it might be nearly time to hang up the captain's hat before it starts to get truly tiresome.

However the most interesting character is Scodelario's Smyth - she's well-rounded, well-acted and adds flair to any scene she's in. It's just a shame she's saddled with an uncharismatic love interest in the form of Thwaites' Henry, who makes his dear old dad Orlando Bloom look like a master thespian. If this is the next generation taking this franchise into the future, then they've got it half-right, and half-very wrong.

It's in the smaller character moments that the film is at its best, so it's a shame the script is such a bucket of burley. There is some utter nonsense here - a wedding scene comes to mind as a key WTF moment - and POTC 5 continually wavers between amusing and annoying. A key example is Paul McCartney's cameo, which is surprisingly funny, but adds absolutely nothing to the plot. 

There is a very obvious attempt here to get the next generation of the franchise happening. Does that ever work? It seems unlikely people will turn up to see Scodelario and Thwaites' pirate adventures, especially if Depp's not there. The POTC franchise will only last as long as Depp keep turning up for a paycheck. 

But if they're going to keep making them, can they at least make some good ones? 


PS. Recent allegations by his former managers suggested Depp was fed lines through an earpiece because he couldn't be bothered learning them anymore. In the credits, I noticed "Sound technician to Mr Depp". Why a single actor would require their own sound technician, I don't know. Just sayin'.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

RIP Chris Cornell

Like most people of a certain age, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Chris Cornell's passing. Of all the alternative sounds that shaped the '90s (and thus a whole generation of malleable minds), the sound of Cornell's voice is one of the most prominent. It was phenomenal, soaring across four octaves like a stunt pilot. Cobain and Vedder were more influential as singers, but only because no one could do what Cornell did - Cornell was inimitable and untouchable. Vocally, he was one of a kind.

Seeing as how this is a movie blog and not a music one, I'm going to attempt to stay on track here and resist the urge to turn this into a blubbering eulogy where I just post my favourite Soundgarden/Temple Of The Dog/Audioslave/solo Cornell songs. 

So how does all this relate to movies? Bear with me as I pay tribute to Chris Cornell via his filmic connections.

Singles (1992)

IF you ever need to explain to someone what the early '90s, the Seattle sound and the whole Gen-X thing was all about, show them this film. It won't explain it definitively, but its rambling arty inclinations and alt-rock soundtrack captures the zeitgeist pretty well. Writer-director Cameron Crowe, who spent a lot of time in Seattle in the late '80s/early '90s, had the film in the can for nearly nine months while Warner Bros dithered about wondering what to do with it. Then boom - Nirvana's Nevermind blew-up and all of a sudden all these Seattle musos Crowe had roped in to star in the film and provide the soundtrack were megastars by association. Cornell and the recently formed Pearl Jam were heavily involved in the film (Cornell has a dorky wordless cameo and performs with Soundgarden in a live sequence), and they feature on the soundtrack alongside other Washington state heroes Mother Love Bone (which featured a couple of future Pearl Jam members), Mudhoney, Alice In Chains, Jimi Hendrix, the Wilson sisters, and Screaming Trees.

Cornell's acoustic contribution Seasons is beautiful (it would also later appear in the film Man Of Steel) and hints at the quieter stuff that would appear on Soundgarden's last pre-hiatus album Down On The Upside. The soundtrack (which was released a full three months before the film to cash in on the Seattle boom) also featured previously unreleased Soundgarden track Birth Ritual. But perhaps the greatest Cornell-related thing to emerge from the film was the song Spoonman. Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament was tasked with creating a fake tracklist for the film's faux band Citizen Dick, and Cornell saw the list and started writing songs to go with the made-up titles. One of them was Spoonman, and a demo of the song can be heard in Singles, almost fully formed in all its wonderful 7/4 rock glory. The tune would grow up to be a Soundgarden monster single. 

Hype! (1996)

But if you really want to understand the whole Seattle alt-rock explosion thing, check out Doug Pray's wonderfully insightful and hilariously cynical doco Hype!. Released a couple of years after the grunge bubble burst, it's a great ground-level insight into how and why Seattle became a global music epicentre. Nirvana isn't even mentioned until about the 35 minute mark, when they appear on screen in jittery fan-shot footage playing a little ditty called Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time, but prior to that you get bits and grabs from a host of other Seattle bands, including Soundgarden. The film is populated with every band that did and didn't make it, and the soundtrack is filled with about 20 of them. Soundgarden features prominently throughout the doco - Matt Cameron and Kim Thayil are interviewed and there's live footage of them playing Searching With My Good Eye Closed - and their contribution to the soundtrack is Nothing To Say, the band's first great song. In Hype!, producer Jack Endino calls it insanely heavy and he's right. It's a downtuned Sabbath-esque dirge with Cornell's phenomenal voice flying over the top of it. Damn that's high.

Feeling Minnesota (1996)

The influence of the alternative movement was so big in the '90s that you could name a crime-comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz after an obscure lyric from a Soundgarden song and no one batted an eyelid. It's a great line - "I'm looking California, and feeling Minnesota". I'm not from America, but I get it (or at least I think I do). It's a great example of Cornell's way with words. But I always wondered how the line went down whenever Soundgarden played in Minnesota. Did the crowd take it badly or as some kind of compliment? Either way, Outshined is a great song, and aside from giving us the name of the long-forgotten film Feeling Minnesota, it also appeared on the soundtrack for True Romance.

Great Expectations (1998)

After Soundgarden's initial demise in 1997, Cornell set to work on his first (and best) solo album Euphoria Morning (apparently originally to be called Euphoria Mourning until a typo happened). The album emerged in 1999, but the first inkling of what it might sound like emerged the year before when a track called Sunshower turned up on the soundtrack for the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Great Expectations (Sunshower ended up as a bonus track on some versions of Euphoria Morning). This under-rated track (which gets really great around the 3m30s mark) again demonstrates Cornell's knack for a Beatlesy chord change and a hint of melancholy psychedelia.

And while we're talking about Euphoria Morning, can we all please take a moment to appreciate how incredible this next song is? For most of us, it was the first post-Soundgarden thing we heard from Cornell. Suffice to say, we all knew he wasn't done yet. Can't Change Me is one of the best things he ever wrote.

Collateral (2004)

I had to find a way to get Audioslave in here, and it comes via Michael Mann, who must be a fan of Cornell's supergroup with three-quarters of Rage Against The Machine because Mann included Audioslave tracks in the excellent Collateral and the already-forgotten Miami Vice. Audioslave get a bit of a bad rap, typically from people who loved Soundgarden and RATM, but I'll be damned if that first Audioslave album isn't rad. What's not to love about Cornell's voice, Tom Morello's guitar craziness, and the RATM rhythm section working together to rock the house?

Casino Royale (2006)

Cornell was the first American man to sing a Bond theme, which is kind of a big deal. He co-wrote this with composer David Arnold and the result is one of the better 007 songs - easily top 10 - and certainly the best of the Daniel Craig era. Cornell said he was trying to sound vocally like Tom Jones' Thunderball, but musically like Paul McCartney's Live & Let Die. Not a bad aspiration.

The Avengers (2012)

After a decade and a half, Soundgarden reappeared, of all places, in the end credits of a Marvel movie. Despite being a Marvel fan and a Soundgarden fan, I didn't know this was coming and, at first, I was presently surprised. And then slightly underwhelmed. It's part-Soundgarden riffage of a classic vintage, and really kicks in with Thayil's idiosyncratic wah solo, but it's also part-average acoustic latter-career Cornell. The song has grown on me over the years though, but it's not one of Soundgarden's best tracks, let's be honest.

A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

Soundtracks to trailers go through phases, and there's been a trend over the past decade or more to "Mad World" a song for a film preview. You know, like Gary Jules did to the Tears For Fears track in Donnie Darko. Recent examples have included the school choir singing Radiohead's Creep for The Social Network, and Nouela's take on Black Hole Sun for A Walk Among The Tombstones. The latter is a beautiful cover, highlighting the complexity and beauty of the chords and melody.

And now that Cornell is sadly gone, this song will serve as his epitaph, and it's an incredible one. Dave Grohl called this song "the perfect meeting of The Beatles and Black Sabbath" and he's not wrong. It's darkly psychedelic thanks to those eerie watery guitars, and its hefty chorus is somehow sludgy and beautiful at the same time, partly because it's also unashamedly pop - the hook of the chorus is one for the ages. If there was such as thing as the quintessential grunge epic, it's probably this song.

If you get a chance, check out this amazing Aussie cover version by Katie Noonan and Little River Band's Glenn Shorrock, and this isolated vocal track to remember just how amazing Cornell's voice really was.

Bonus track

This song has never been used in a film, and has no cinematic connection I'm aware of, but screw it, I'm chucking it here because it's my favourite Soundgarden song. It's everything I love about them, crammed into one song - the kink in the timing, memorable rhythms, and a stomp-on-the-fuzz-pedal chorus, with Cornell soaring over the top of it with those incredible melodies and astonishing range. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

(MA15+) ★½

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou, Aidan Gillen, Jude Law, Eric Bana.

Much like Tarzan, filmmakers just can't leave King Arthur alone.

It's one of those old public domain stories that Hollywood types love to dig up, dust off and "re-imagine" every few years when bereft of anything new to contribute or when all the good franchises have been snapped up by other production companies.

And so it falls to Guy Ritchie to do the directorial legwork on this re-imagining, having re-imagined himself in recent years as a re-imaginer, doing wonders for Sherlock Holmes and The Man From UNCLE. 

Unfortunately Ritchie's return to form is over. This attempt to reboot the Round Table as some kind of all-conquering, thoroughly modern film saga is dead in the water.

Some parts of this version will be familiar - there's a sword in a stone, and a young Arthur extracts it on his way to reclaiming his rightful place as king of the Britons. But there is also the unfamiliar, such as giant battle elephants, kung-fu masters, and demon knights.

What appears on the screen looks part-computer game, part-Lord Of The Rings wannabe, part-scruffy Shakespeare for lads, part-Robin Hood-meets-The Matrix, and it's all blended together with a liberal dash of Ritchie's cockney crime background and way too much money. As such, it's a bloody mess.

It's obvious he's trying to do what he did to Sherlock Holmes, but where his hyperactive directorial tendencies were well suited to the mind of the world's greatest detective, here they get in the way of some potentially classic story telling and prove to be more annoying than interesting.

Ritchie is also lacking a super-talented frontman like Robert Downey Jr to make all this work. Hunnam's Arthur is unlikeable for so much of the film, and the actor can't save or spin the role into something roguish or entertaining. I'm still unconvinced about Hunnam's capabilities as a leading
man, having seen him be unremarkable in this, The Ledge, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak

The film starts strong - in fact so strong that its opening sequences involving giant war elephants that seem to have wondered over from the Battle of Gondor can't be topped by anything else in the film. It then uses some very economical editing to set up Arthur and his back story, and everything is going really well for the first five or 10 minutes, but then you realise they're skipping bits just so the film can get bogged down in them later via countless tedious flashbacks, mystical visions and general chronology shenanigans, and it turns out it wasn't efficient storytelling but in fact the exact opposite. There's a lot of timeline jumping and flashbacking and flashforwarding and hypothetical imaginings, and the whole thing becomes utterly annoying.

There are so many issues with this film. It skips over the bit where Arthur supposedly truly earns Excalibur. It does a whole bunch of unnecessary bollocks during the final boss battle. It's humour falls flat, and it's lacking in heart. The score, while excellent, is distracting and doesn't fit in. And the aforementioned editing leaves a lot to be desired, so much so you can't help but wonder if there wasn't a better film left on the cutting room floor. 

One saving grace is Jude Law. As Arthur's evil uncle Vertigan, he is deliciously bad, yet somehow ends up being the most sympathetic character of the piece. He does horrible things, but makes incredible sacrifices for them and as result becomes the most intriguing player in this sad misfire.

At the end of this, Arthur builds his round table and knights his buddies, with an eye toward future movies. The fact Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot aren't in this also points to hopes of franchise. But that all looks incredibly unlikely. This King Arthur swings, misses its target, and cuts itself off at the knees.

Besides, Ritchie was doomed from the start. Everyone knows the definitive King Arthur story was made in 1975 by Monty Python.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Alien: Covenant

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez.

"I'm going to kill everyone, starting with the writers of Prometheus."

In most decade-spanning franchises, the goodwill of the early films can be enough to make fans endure the usually inevitable diminishing returns as they live in hope of a return to the glory days.

For example, Star Wars fans put up with George Lucas' comparatively shitty prequels and still turned up in droves for The Force Awakens, where they were justly rewarded for their years of suffering. Less fortunate were the increasingly frustrated punters who saw the most recent Terminator dross in the hopes it would recapture the glory of the first two films. And as much as most people hated Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, those same people will line up again for Indy 5.

So regardless of the terrible Prometheus, and the so-so third and fourth films, lovers of the Xenomorph will be back for more Alien action, despite the fact there hasn't been a great film in the series for over 30 years. The good news is Covenant is Ridley Scott remembering what made the original Alien great. Gone are the thematic excesses and screenplay idiocies of Prometheus - Covenant is less concerned with myth-building and more focused on being entertaining and scary.

Set 10 years after Prometheus, it follows the crew of the spaceship Covenant, who have awoken early from their cryosleep after a random star burst damages their ship. They are on their way to a distant planet, which they aim to colonise, but during their unplanned awakening they intercept a weird transmission and decide to stop over at a nearby planet and check it out. Aliens ensue.

As mentioned, Covenant is Scott nailing some of those original notes he hit back in 1979. The original Alien was a wonderfully taut, contained horror film - a haunted house saga in space, with one of the most vicious killers up against cinema's greatest heroine. Covenant is also, first and foremost, a horror film. It's less haunted house and more, well, spoilers forbid me from saying what it is exactly, but just know that this is skincrawlingly scary in places.

Scott hasn't totally thrown out the nonsensical mythologising of Prometheus, but it's largely irrelevant. In fact you could watch, understand and enjoy Covenant without having seen or rewatched Prometheus (which I wouldn't wish on anyone). What's important is that Scott ditches most of the absurd philosophising while still maintaining a cohesive and coherent theme, which is about creation and the desire/need to create.

The result is a far more interesting (and intelligible) film that doesn't skimp on the action or the gore. Aliens burst out of all manner of places and they stalk and kill a fair whack of the largely forgettable crew over the course of two entertaining hours.

As for that crew, the key names are great. Everyone beneath Bechir is cannon fodder, but everyone above that does a great job, particularly Fassbender, who is back on board after Prometheus  as a more updated android named Walter. Equally excellent is Waterston, who has the tough task of enduring Ripley comparisons. She can handle them - her performance as Daniels is cut from the same cloth and she wears it well. Also of note is McBride, who tempers his typical loudmouthed attitude with some actual dramatic acting. Who knew he had it in him?

It's equally satisfying to see Scott get a bit of blood on his hands again. When combined with previous films The Martian and Exodus, you'd almost say he's got his mojo back after the trash trifecta of The Counselor, Prometheus and Robin Hood. Not that Covenant is perfect or up with his best work. There is a lack of punch and there's a predictability in places, and the pacing of the first act and a half is off, but by-and-large it's interesting and entertaining.

Scott walks a fine line between trying to find new tricks and reminding us of the magic of the first film (and even James Cameron's sequel), but it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. Thankfully Covenant is part-fresh, part-nostalgic, and largely enjoyable, and certainly the best Alien movie since Aliens, although that's not saying much.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Get Out

(MA15+) ★★★★★

Director: Jordan Peele.

Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lil Rel Howery, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Betty Gabriel, Marcus Henderson.

"Has anyone seen Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?"
"Oh yeah, I love Ashton Kutcher!"

THE best horror and sci-fi stories reflect the fears and concerns of the time. 

Godzilla is the manifestation of Japan's post-Hiroshima nuclear nightmares. Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers hinted at the threat of Commies and the equally heinous McCarthyism. Dawn Of The Dead tackled consumerism. Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde first emerged as cautionary tales about unchecked science. The best of the early slasher films mirrored concerns about teen sex, stranger danger and the media-driven fascination with serial killers. The emergence of body horror films coincided with the rise of cosmetic surgery.

And so on and so forth. People write PhDs on this stuff. 

Its when genre pieces like these explore such social issues that they typically take on an extra level that can catapult them above the morass of more mindless examples. In other words, it's this deeper thematic layer that helps make them classics.

Get Out fits in that category. It is reflective of the racial tensions that have bubbled and burst in the US in recent years and is effortlessly demonstrative of white privilege and the accompanying ingrained impact that it has on black Americans. And simmering along underneath, beside and inside all these concerns is a wonderfully silly little horror plot, delivered with a straight face that amplifies the film's moral worries. 

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Kaluuya), a photographer who is on his way to meet the family of his girlfriend Rose (Williams) for the first time. Chris is nervous about spending the weekend with them because Rose is white and she hasn't told her family that Chris is black. As the weekend progresses, Chris begins to feel odd about Rose's family and friends, but he can't quite tell if he's just being paranoid or if something truly weird is going on.

The performances across the board are superb. Kaluuya carries the film comfortably and does an amazing job, ably supported by Williams, while the side players of Keener, Whitford and Root are excellent. Gabriel, Henderson and LaKeith Stanfield excel in small but pivotal roles that go along toward giving Get Out its creepy air.

Given that writer/director Peele is better known as one half of comedy duo Key & Peele, it's no surprise there is some humour here, but it's cleverly sectioned off into the moments involving Lil Rel Howery's TSA agent Rod - a friend of Chris who keeps tabs on Chris' weekend over the phone. 

The greatest strength of Get Out is its script, and not just because of its thematic depth. There's not a wasted line or moment - everything is there for a reason, and as you mentally unpick the film after watching it, it becomes increasingly impressive. The subtle set-ups, the slightly off tones, and the seemingly throwaway lines all pay off and serve a purpose, often in wonderful ways.

Peele nails the subtlety, awkwardness, blatantness, and ridiculousness of racism. The film's exploration of it is never awkward or blatant though. It simply has a black lead character and looks at how white people would honestly deal with him ... and then things get weird and everything is dialed up a notch as the horror plotting takes hold. But it's still in the small things, particularly the final pivotal moment, where you get a powerful display of racism at work.

Peele also handles the horror well. There's nothing overtly gory, and while it is violent, it's not gratuitous. The film's appeal is in the slow unwind of its creepy tone and its psychological edge. Peele lets the script's evils creep up on you. He's not adverse to a jump scare, but its the overall tone and ideas of Get Out that really get at you.

Predicting what films will be future classics is one of the more impossible tasks of the movie critic. It's what five-star reviews should be saved for - the films that are not only great now, but likely to be considered great for decades to come. Get Out is definitely great now, and I'm taking a punt that it will be considered great for decades to come.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Five Easter eggs you may have missed in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Hilarious image stolen from hilarious interwebs

Heads up. This is spoiler country.

I'm about to tell you about some of the specific nerdy foiled-wrapped chocolate nuggs James Gunn and his Marvel overlords left behind for you to find in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2.

So if you stumbled in here by accident, you can still leave now without doing yourself any spoiler-related injuries. I'm just padding out this top bit of the article in case you did stumble in here by accident. It happens all the time on the internet.

If you were looking for an actual review, here's one I prepared earlier. It's spoiler-free in the sense that it doesn't give away anything that wasn't already shown in a trailer. Like, did you know the movie stars a talking tree named Groot?

He's adorable, by the way.

Ok, still padding. In all seriousness, and talking in a totally unreviewy way here, I will say that Vol. 2 didn't hit me like Vol. 1. After seeing Vol. 1, I felt like I was five again and had just seen Star Wars for the first time. That's how fresh and exciting and thrilling it felt. Gunn had opened up a window to a whole new cosmos and I loved every minute of it (flaws aside). 

Vol. 2 was never going to stack up against that, but trying to put aside my juvenile sense of awe from Vol. 1, Vol. 2 is definitely a weaker film, but still a wonderfully enjoyable and fun film (flaws aside). It suffers by comparison, but is also structurally inferior and has more pacing and plotting issues than its predecessor. But it's still awesome. Go see it.

Anyway, have I padded enough? Are you ready?

But first, forgive me if I mess some of these up - I've only seen Vol. 2 once and am going from memory.

Stan Lee & The Watchers

Image from

Stan Lee's regular cameos have sparked one of my favourite net-nerd theories - that Lee is actually Uatu the Watcher. For those that don't know, Uatu is a supposedly passive and immortal cosmic figure in the Marvel universe who records what happens in his neck of the galaxy, which is Earth. Naturally, he can't help but meddle, making him the ultimate deus ex machina in several comics. Given Lee's frequent appearances in plenty of significant Marvel happenings, it's a neat idea that in his cameos he's actually playing Uatu (or at the very least one of the Watchers - Uatu is just the best known of the bunch). Gunn nods at this theory with Lee's cameo, in which a spacesuited Lee is shown telling stories to a group of Watchers while Rocket, Yondu and Kraglin hyperjump their way across the galaxy. Net-nerd theory confirmed (kinda).

Adam Warlock

The Collector's digs in Vol. 1 had Marvel fans pausing every frame of the Blu-Ray release, hunting for Easter eggs. One of the main ones was this horrible thing, which looks like something Jabba The Hutt dropped off in the porcelain bus after a big night on the suds.

Gunn apparently confirmed in a podcast that this was in fact Adam Warlock's cocoon only to later take it back, probably when he realised he could do bigger, more amazing things with the character than just have his cocoon somehow end up in The Collector's possession. Warlock was reportedly a major player in Vol. 2 but was cut out so he could be used in Vol. 3. So that shinier, prettier cocoon Ayesha is talking about (mid-credits) containing someone who just happens to be named Adam ... well, it's definitely Adam Warlock.

And who is Adam Warlock? At various times in the comics, he has worked with The Avengers, had the Soul Gem (AKA one of the Infinity Stones) stuck to his forehead a la Vision in the MCU, died (repeatedly), been the champion of Counter-Earth, fought Thor, served as a Christ metaphor, become an evil preacher named Magus, and been a Guardian Of The Galaxy. At the cosmic end of Marvel, he's kind of a big deal so expect the usual pointless bitching when his role is cast.

The original Guardians

At the very end of the film, Sylvester Stallone turns up again to remind you that yes, he was in the film earlier for no apparent reason. Turns out he's only in there to tease another cosmic team. In the context of the film (Stallone says "let's go steal some shit" or some variation of, I can't remember exactly), it sounds like his team is an alternate Guardians-style gang, possibly doing more bad than good. What's really interesting though is that the make-up of his team is pretty much the original '60s-era Guardians Of The Galaxy line-up. 

Stallone's character's name is Stakar Ogord, who in the comics is Starhawk, an original Guardian. Also appearing at the end is Aleta (Michelle Yeoh), Charlie-27 (Ving Rhames) and someone who I presume to be Martinex (the diamond-looking fella hanging with Stakar earlier in the film as well). I can't remember who the other ones are (they're only together in one shot at the end pretty much) but there's a red fishy looking guy who I have no idea about. It's worth noting Yondu was an original Guardian in the comics. Other possible early Guardians we could see are the fiery Nikki and Vance Astro. I can't be bothered hyperlinking all those names. Just browse the Marvel Wikia at your leisure.

Howard The Duck

You won't have missed this one unless you blinked for an abnormally long time. Like three seconds. That's more like a micro-nap than a blink really. Anyway, Howard The Duck is back, chatting up a woman in a quick cameo, proving that Gunn is going to milk that joke (ie. that Howard The Duck is a joke character) at least once in every Guardians film. Expect him to turn up in Vol. 3 for a one-liner. Personally, I think it's great. Howard The Duck's comics, especially in the early Steve Gerber days, are cool, and short silly cameos suit the character down to the ground.

The Grandmaster's cameo

During the credits, on either side of the scrolling text (and frequent "I am Groot"s) you can see '80-style bubbles featuring the cast doing dorky dance movies. Among them is Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster (as well as Cosmo the telepathic space dog, who cameoed in Vol. 1), who is appearing in Thor: Ragnarok. This means one or some of several possible things:

1) Taika Waititi gave Gunn footage of Goldblum dancing in costume for no reason and Gunn decided to use it.
2) The Grandmaster had a cameo in Vol. 2 that got cut.
3) The Guardians have cameos in Thor: Ragnarok.
4) It's in the credits of Vol. 2 for no reason other than to make Marvel nerds like me flip out.

I'm sure there are other Easter eggs, but these are the ones I spotted. Did you see some more? Apparently Miley Cyrus voices Mainframe, but I don't know what that sentence even means. Comment below and tell me what foil-covered chocolate nuggs you noticed in Vol. 2.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

(M) ★★★½

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Kurt Russell, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sean Gunn, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sylvester Stallone.

Baby Groot loved his homemade Atari.

MARVEL has done amazing things with its Cinematic Universe (AKA the MCU) but there have been two things that have repeatedly tripped it up.

The first thing has been sequels. The two weakest films across the 15 (!) entries in the franchise have been Iron Man 2 and the second Thor film (The Dark World). It's as if after striking gold once with a character, a giddy nervousness sets in and nobody's quite sure how they did it the first time (the exception to this, of course, is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which came after Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World, so maybe Marvel is learning from its mistakes).

The second thing has been villains. Outside of Loki and Ultron (and I would also argue Red Skull, though many disagree), the villains of the MCU have rarely matched up to their heroic counterparts, tending to fall into the forgettable category.

These two issues rear their ugly heads again in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, though not as prominently as in Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World. It must be stated that GOTG2 (as it shall be henceforth referred to) is fun, hilarious and utterly enjoyable, and it's only when stacked up against its predecessor (which also had a somewhat generic and unmemorable villain too, to be fair) that GOTG2 suffers. The first one was more fun, more hilarious and more enjoyable, and while this one is still great, it's just not as great. The symptoms of sequelitis can be seen, but thankfully it's only a mild case.

In the wake of their successes in the first film, the so-called Guardians - cocky rogue Starlord (Pratt), super-serious warrior Gamora (Saldana), socially inept man mountain Drax (Bautista), trigger-happy space raccoon Rocket (voiced by Cooper) and the slowly regenerating sapient plant Groot (voiced by Diesel) - are in hot demand as heroes for hire.

But when a job protecting a valuable asset belonging to Ayesha (Debicki) and her people goes slightly awry, the Guardians find themselves being hunted once again. Intervening is Ego (Russell), a mysterious figure who claims to be Starlord's long lost dad, which raises all manner of questions.

Much like every Fast & Furious movie, the key theme here is family. Starlord has daddy issues and the presence of Ego brings them all bubbling back to the surface, as does the return of Yondu (Rooker), Starlord's surrogate dad for many years. Then there's the sisterly hatred between Gamora and Nebula (Gillan), which rumbles along as a nicely violent subplot throughout the film.

The script, written by director James Gunn, does a good job of finding things for everyone else to do while Starlord grapples with understanding his lineage, and Gamora and Nebula beat seven kinds of crap out of each other. Drax is paired with the even-more-awkward newcomer Mantis (Klementieff), and Rocket and Yondu are forced to team up. The throughline of it all is everyone is messed up and everyone has their issues. But being part of the Guardians makes it palatable and survivable. It's a nice message, and means the film plays the "family" card in a far more dysfunctional, interesting and enjoyable way than the Fast & Furious movies.

However dividing the team makes the film less direct and more scattershot. It robs us somewhat of the group's wonderful chemistry as the characters wander off to do their own thing while Ego and Starlord sort out their stuff, but it does give everyone their little moments to shine. The story also avoids the catch-the-MacGuffin plot of the previous film too.

In some ways, this is darker than the GOTG1, which is the inevitable thing for a second film to do, but thankfully it is still funny. Some extended Baby Groot sequences are a hoot, including a clever long-take opening where he dances his way obliviously through a fire fight, or when he is given the task of retrieving an item for Rocket and Yondu, which becomes a prolonged series of gags.

Ego is an interesting character (and well played by Russell), but the whole "I am your father" bit, as vital as it is to the story, does drag on a little. Again, Gunn is smart enough to pull us out of it and back to something more fun frequently, but it does weigh the film down in its second act.

Gunn's love of nostalgia, particularly classic sci-fi is again evident, and the film is funnier than most so-called comedies. Basically, if you loved the first film, you will love this one. It's only by comparison that Volume 2 becomes the cliched "difficult second album". Sure the first one will always be your favourite, but you know you'll grow to love this one almost as much.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Going In Style

(M) ★★

Director: Zach Braff.

Cast: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Ann-Margret, John Ortiz, Matt Dillon, Peter Serafinowicz, Joey King, Christopher Lloyd.

The Dark Knight reunion was going well, but Christian Bale had aged poorly.

FEW crimes are romanticised like bank robbery. It's because we all hate banks, so it's the perfect "victimless" crime (if you ignore the horrible trauma and psychological damage done to the staff by these robberies).

This film, however, is not a victimless crime. The victims are the cast, who do their best but are weighed down by bad direction and a bloated script, which makes director Braff and screenwriter Theodore Melfi the villains.

It's not that Going In Style - a remake of an old 1979 comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg - is a terrible film, it's just that it's unfortunately boring and toothless. But it's worst crime of all is wasting a brilliant cast, who are valiant in defeat.

Caine, Freeman and Arkin star as Joe, Willie and Albert, three out-of-luck pensioners headed for Skid Row after a corporate takeover leaves them without a pension. Joe, who witnesses a bank robbery in the opening scene, decides he's had enough of getting screwed over by society and decides to hit back by robbing a bank, and ropes in Willie and Albert to help.

The leading trio are great and definitely elevate this film. Caine, Freeman and Arkin have an effortless chemistry and wring the most out of every line. But there should have been more drama and more comedy for them to draw from this dramedy, which is sadly lacking in both departments.

The idea of old people being shafted by society and forced into crime is a powerful one and the idea of three geriatrics robbing a bank is a goofy one, but Going In Style is neither powerful nor goofy enough. We never get a true sense of how dire or cruel or heartbreaking their situation is - we know Caine is destined to lose his house, but the worst we really see of it all is they can't afford to order pie to go with their coffees.

This lack of drama is perhaps best displayed during the pivotal robbery sequence and will-they-won't-they moment of the subsequent police investigation. Because a key part of the robbery where it all nearly goes awry lacks the necessary punch, the follow-up "hallelujah" moment falls flat. This is emblematic of pretty much the whole movie.

As for the comedic possibilities, Going In Style has a couple of good guffaws but nowhere near enough. A warm-up robbery of a supermarket is a highlight, as is Lloyd's bit role, but either side of that the laughs dry up. There's a scene where the lead trio watch The Bachelorette and it's supposed to be funny, but it isn't. It's almost as if the scene is a placeholder while everyone tried to think of something actually funny.

Braff, whose previous films have been indie-style dramedies, seems out of his league on this. The key scenes fall flat with depressing regularity, there is a lack of tension and gravitas, and it's only the presence of Caine, Freeman and Arkin that make this watchable. You could watch a whole TV series of those guys just sittin' 'round, talkin' shit. Everyone would watch that. Those are the best bits in this film.

It's all the bits around that, when we're supposed to buy into how shitty their situation is and how they're pulling off a very flawed "perfect crime" to hit back at society, that the film falls short. Some blame must be leveled at Melfi's script, which features an utterly unnecessary and distracting romance involving Ann-Margret's supermarket employee Annie and Arkin's Albert. This romance should make Albert less likely to participate in the robbery, not the opposite, which is what happens in the film.

But the majority of blame must fall with Braff. There is probably a decent film in here somewhere, but he can't find it. The laughs don't flow and the necessary tension and heft are missing. Watch it for the joy of seeing Caine, Freeman and Arkin share the screen, but even then your patience will be tested.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Fate Of The Furious

(M) ★★★½

Director: F. Gary Gray.

Cast: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges, Scott Eastwood, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Kristofer Hivju.

Their mums are gonna be so mad.

It's been said before but it bares repeating - no one, not nobody, not no-how, could ever have predicted that The Fast & The Furious would spawn seven sequels.

Watch The Fast & The Furious back-to-back with The Fate Of The Furious and it is a baffling experience. To think the innocuous 2001 Point Break retread based on a magazine article would result in this OTT mega-explosive hurricane of muscle-car madness is unfathomable and implausible. But here we are, roughly $4.5 billion later, talking about Fast 8.

After rebirthing with the fourth film (which is confusingly the third chronologically, and equally confusingly titled Fast & Furious), the series found a new gear with Fast Five. Still the best film of the franchise, Fast Five jettisoned much of the car fetishism and replaced it with shoot-outs, fist fights, and insane heists. The series was all the better for it.

Now we have a Fast & Furious Formula that is more like a '90s Bond film than the cops-and-hoons starting point. Bigger explosions, crazier stunts, CG aplenty, overuse of the word "family", and physics be damned - that's the Fast & Furious way since Fast Five.

As such, The Fate Of The Furious does exactly what its three predecessors have done, albeit with one new neat conceit. Dominic Toretto (Diesel), honeymooning with his wife Letty (Rodriguez) in Havana, is made an offer he can't refuse by Cipher (Theron), the cyber-terrorist to end all cyber-terrorists. Forced into her servitude, Toretto is made to work against his old team, who are understandably perplexed by his apparent change of stripes.

Enter Mr Nobody (Russell), the ambiguous government spook from Fast 7, who employs Toretto's old team to bring Cipher down and save the world, and hopefully save Toretto in the process.

Turning Toretto against his team adds some spark to a potentially dying engine, helping elevate The Fate Of The Furious, even if the mechanics of the plot are somewhat holey (for example, Toretto can orchestrate an amazing secret plan to save his hide yet can't let his old team know what's going on? Give me a break).

It's facile to say "leave your logic at the door" with these films - all movies should adhere to some kind of internal logic lest they devolve into incomprehensible insanity - but the Fast series has an uncanny knack of papering over its cracks with a rollicking good time. Thankfully the cracks are fairly minor and don't detract too much but once again, the action sequences, both human-driven and car-based, are deliciously and distractingly bonkers, including the batshit-crazy finale which involves a bunch of supercars, a mini-tank, a small army, a nuclear submarine and a frozen lake.

Beyond the action set pieces, the rogue-ish cast has been the other driving factor in the series' success, and Fast 8 is no exception. With no Brian (RIP Paul Walker) and with Dominic turned to the dark side, it's actually surprising how well the central line-up holds its own. Gibson and Bridges handle the humour, Johnson is a proven force who readily slots into Diesel's usual figurehead role, while Statham (whose character is a little-too-easily flipped) returns to give Johnson someone to butt heads with. Rodriguez adds heart, Russell's interludes add spice, leaving only Emmanuel to wander aimlessly, and Eastwood to awkwardly sit on the edge, just far enough back so as not to be labelled The New Brian.

As for Theron, she's easily the nastiest and most memorable Big Bad the series has had. Cipher as a character is nothing special, but Theron makes her something special. She's a very welcome addition.

The Fate Of The Furious is still packed with all the inane dialogue and idiotic exposition you would expect, but it knows where it's going and it knows how to get there in style. There's a scene in here where it rains cars - I'm not even kidding - and you kinda wanna stand up and applaud the sheer audacity of the franchise. Scriptwriter Chris Morgan, who's written the last six films, understands what makes the series work and a string of solid directors have managed to bring that ludicrous spectacle to life, with F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) the latest.

If you hate what the Fast movies represent, this one is not going to win you over (try #5 or #7 for that). If you love the Fast movies, this one won't disappoint.

PS. Fast 9 and Fast 10 are due out in 2019 and 2021.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The Boss Baby

(G) ★★

Director: Tom McGrath.

Cast: (voices of) Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Miles Christopher Bakshi, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Conrad Vernon, James McGrath.

Timmy gives Boss Baby the old two-eyeball stare.

Here's a little test for you.

Step one: find a baby (keep it legal - I suggest borrowing one if you don't have one of your own).

Step two: dress the baby up as a business executive. You know, suit, tie, little black business shoes. The works.

Step three: sit back and laugh at how hilarious the business baby looks.

Now comes the question - how long does a baby dressed up as a business executive remain funny? Two minutes? Ten minutes? Twenty minutes?

If this little baby experiment keeps you in chuckles for longer than 30 minutes, you'll probably be able to sit through The Boss Baby without wondering where the laughs are or why you're watching this film. If the answer to the latter question is because you're taking your kids to see it, then I'm sorry to say you'll probably find yourself experiencing few guffaws and feeling vaguely bored for 90-or-so minutes.

While it has its plusses, The Boss Baby's humour is monotone. So many of its attempts at getting a laugh depend on the incongruity of a baby being a boss, and once you get past the initial giggle of seeing an infant looking like a corporate arse-kicker (ie. the first couple of times you see the poster) the film has little else to back it up. This means it's unfunny for long stretches, which is not good in a CG family film that is meant to be funny.

This whole besuited baby image seems to have come first, with the plot being crafted around this short-lived sight gag. As such, it's about The Boss Baby (voiced by Baldwin) who turns up at the home of seven-year-old Timmy (Bakshi) and proceeds to unravel Timmy's perfect existence as the shining light of his family.

Timmy can see something's not right about the baby - he carries around a tiny briefcase for one - but his parents are besotted blind. So it's up to Timmy to get to the bottom of The Boss Baby's secret mission.

Maybe I just wanted this to be a lot funnier than it was, possibly because I swear The Boss Baby looks like my own 14-month-old son and I reckon if I dressed him up as a little businessman I'd probably laugh for at least 20 minutes. But the film's one-note gag gets old really fast, leaving in its wake an annoying tale of an only child having to learn to share his parents' affections. While it's well-intentioned and somewhat universal, it's unfortunately not terribly interesting. Or funny.

The film finally picks up momentum when Timmy and The Boss Baby are forced to work together to achieve a shared goal (even if the plotting of that goal makes no sense - they achieve the goal at the end of the second act, then for some reason go to Las Vegas for the finale ... I'm not even making that up. I mean, their own unnecessary action of going to Las Vegas partly creates the problem in the third act and spurs a rescue mission they've created, so if they'd just completed their mission as agreed and not gone to Vegas that could have both gone their separate ways, which is exactly what they both wanted. Ugh.). All of a sudden the two characters are more effective - it turns out having them playing as a team is funnier and more enjoyable to watch than their animosity. It's at this point you finally realise, hey, these characters are okay and you finally start to care about them and like their company and repartee.

But it's too little, too late. There's a crazy chase, then a bizarre trip to Vegas and then a typically ridiculous finale and we're done, with little to take away from it other than the fact Alec Baldwin does a great job voicing the baby.

The awkward plotting, so obviously built around it's baby-in-a-suit gag, struggles to hold itself together. As a result there are a couple of massive exposition sequences - one where The Boss Baby explains his existence and mission to Timmy, and another where the villain monologues - that are stuck into the script to try to make sense of things but ultimately grind the film to a halt.

The few choice gags are too few, and beyond Baldwin's performance and a surprisingly touching ending (with a clever reveal that explains the film's incongruities), there is not a lot to recommend The Boss Baby over, say, last year's baby-related comedy Storks.

Unless you find the idea of a baby dressed as a business executive continuously hilarious for an hour and a half. In that case, knock yourself out.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Lego Batman Movie

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Chris McKay.

Cast: (voices of) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes.

Is that Christian Bale or Ben Affleck? I can't keep up.

How much Batman is too much Batman?

The correct answer is "there is no such thing as too much Batman". But you could be forgiven for thinking we could be close to Peak Bat.

Including his role in The Lego Movie (and definitely counting The Lego Batman Movie), by the end of this year there will have been eight movies featuring Batman released in the past 12 years. That's with three different actors bringing three different versions of the Bat to the big screen. That's even more than Spider-man who, by the end of 2017, will have had three actors play him in seven movies over 15 years.

But as previously stated, there is no such thing as too much Batman (or Spider-man for that matter). So it seems fair that if the grown-ups can have their Batman, tearing his way through the dark and moody DC Extended Universe, then surely the kids can have their own Batman too, poking fun at his own winged existence in the hyperactive Lego Movie universe.

The Lego Batman (voiced in comedically gravelly fashion by Arnett) explores the loneliness and awesomeness of being the Bat. After yet another bout of smashing the baddies and saving Gotham, he returns to sit alone in (spoiler alert) Wayne Manor, raising questions about whether such an existence is healthy.

Fortunately The Joker (a surprisingly but pleasantly subdued Galifianakis) is on hand to force Batman to emote and stop pushing people away. Driven by an urge to have Batman admit The Joker is his #1 nemesis, The Joker hatches a plan to pit every villain Warner Bros can get their hands on to get Batman to grow as a human.

It's all very meta and self-aware, which is the film's greatest strength. In their quest to find a new way to look at Bruce Wayne's alter-ego, the writers (led by Pride & Prejudice & Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith) have focused on the isolation the Batsuit creates, bashing that notion up against adopted sidekick Robin (Cera), butler Alfred (Fiennes) and new police chief Barbara Gordon (Dawson), who each want to make life easier and better for the lone wolf Wayne. Oddly for a film that is so unrealistic looking, it nails a certain weird realism in regards to Batman - that he lives a lonely, rage-fuelled existence driven by unresolved issues surrounding his parents' death. The Lego Batman Movie nails this idea better than pretty much every Batfilm except for The Dark Knight and Batman Begins.

There are in-jokes aplenty for hardcore DC fans, including a run-through of some of Batman's more obscure foes (Condiment King, Polka-Dot Man and Orca all get a mention). That, and an understanding of what makes the characters work and their relationships to each other, help keep the movie from tipping into parody. An affection for the source material is evident.

With that in mind, The Lego Batman Movie makes sure to reference what has come before (even going so far as to get Billy Dee Williams to voice Two-Face). There are visual flashes of Lego renditions of all the movies going back to Tim Burton's 1989 Batman, and even a screen grab of Adam West doing the Batusi. As much as this is a kids movie, it's definitely one for the Bat-spotters, which all goes toward helping make this good for all ages. After all, few other characters have been as all-pervasive in pop culture as Batman.

The jokes come thick and fast, and the voice cast is excellent. Arnett, who has been more enjoyable as a voice actor of late, wrings every bit of humour out of his performance, while Cera is a great foil as Dick Grayson AKA Robin. The talent comes thick and fast in this huge ensemble - as well as an all-star villain line-up that includes Lord Voldemort, King Kong, Sauron, the Wicked Witch of the West, the Daleks, and the Gremlins, there is also the DC who's who of Superman, Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and dozens more Justice Leaguers, so keep your eyes on the credits to see who did what.

As with The Lego Movie, there is a clever finale that reminds you that, hey, this is all Lego (CG Lego, yes, but you get the picture). But similarly to its predecessor, the animation style is a love-it-or-hate-it venture. In its battle sequences, which are many, The Lego Batman Movie is a blizzard of movement where it can be hard to discern what is happening. Director Chris McKay throws everything at the screen and often it is too much, especially in a medium (ie. Lego) where there are no flat surfaces. 

This busyness on the screen is so full on that in the slower, quieter moments the film struggles to keep momentum. This is no in-between - it's either everything moving all the time or nothing. You get used to the animation style eventually, but you sometimes wish they would just chill out and stop going so overboard. 

These gripes aside, The Lego Batman Movie is the best combination of Batfun and Batseriousness since Tim Burton was in charge. And as good as Affleck is, this leaves Batman Vs Superman for dead, although that is damning the film with faint praise.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Beauty & The Beast: 1991 vs 2017

1991 version

(G) ★★★★★

Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise.

Cast: (voices of) Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Bradley Michael Pierce, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, Hal Smith, Jo Anne Worley.

The age old story of one woman's love for a buffalo.

Upon its release in 1991, Beauty & The Beast marked a turning point for Disney.

Buoyed by the success of The Little Mermaid two years earlier - the House of Mouse's best film since The Jungle Book in '67 and the start of the so-called Disney Renaissance - the animation company had some wind in its sails once again. That renewed confidence is evident in Beauty & The Beast. While remaining true to what had come before, it is also a signpost pointing toward the future.

On the one hand, it's very much cut from the fairytale cloth of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, while retaining the goofiness of, well, Goofy and his style of talking-animal Disney comedy. The humourous sidekick Le Fou, the horse Phillippe, and the talking household paraphernalia all speak to the Walt era of Disney.

The classic Disney look is there too, although there is an extra level of depth and detail to the artwork. Note the slow zoom into the castle in the opening shot, with layers of foliage moving in and out of focus - this is just the first hint of what's to come. This newfound capability is courtesy of a fledgling company called Pixar, who introduced a new computer animation production system (CAPS) which Disney effectively road-tested on previous film The Rescuers Down Under. Pixar were also responsible for the CG backgrounds in the ballroom scene - a masterfully animated combination of the old and the new which showed the producers could see what was coming and weren't afraid of it.

The old and the new can also be found in Belle, a heroine who is brave, intelligent and independent, but still a romantic whose favourite book tells of a Prince Charming. Disney was moving forward but ensuring one foot remained in the past, something it continues to do with great success to this day - just look at how Frozen and Moana hark back to the "princess musicals" such as Beauty & The Beast while being thoroughly modern, especially with their heroines.

One of the unsung heroes of Beauty & The Beast is screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Of all the major film awards it was nominated for, only one was for Woolverton's script. The screenplay is so lean, tight, pacy and punchy, that even the special edition (which adds the song Human Again) is only 90 minutes long. There is barely a wasted second or piece of surplus plotting, and the whole thing crackles with energy. The entire set-up for the film, narrated by Ogden Stiers (who pulls double duties as Cogsworth), is wrapped up in a couple of minutes and its a good indication that there will be no stops on this service.

The only toilet breaks here are in the songs, but you'd be missing out. While the title track (which has the absolute shit oversung out of it by Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson in the credits) is probably the best known, the opening Belle and the humourous Be Our Guest are the standouts. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who also penned songs for The Little Mermaid and Aladdin until Ashman's death in 1991, were a match made in heaven (Beauty & The Beast is dedicated to Ashman).

It's often mentioned Beauty & The Beast was the first animation to be nominated for the best film Oscar, but what's not noted is that 1991 was a comparatively weak year. That's not to take anything away from Beauty & The Beast - it's a worthy nominee - but in a stronger year it's doubtful it would have made the top five. Silence Of The Lambs was a worthy winner, The Fisher King, Barton Fink and Thelma & Louise were notable omissions, and of the other nominees for best film only JFK is spoken of with any reverence (when was the last time you heard anyone rave about Bugsy or The Prince Of Tides?).

Still, Beauty & The Beast broke new ground while recapturing the spirit of Disney traditionalism. A more modern heroine, the incorporation of CG elements, and some Academy respect, combined with figuring out the essential qualities that made their past classics so classic helped pave the way for the House of Mouse's future, and indeed, the next few decades of animation.


2017 version

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson.

One woman's love for a buffalo ... now in hi-res.

Which brings us to the 2017 version of the western world's most beloved tale of Stockholm Syndrome.

(I'm fairly sure this wasn't mentioned back in 1991, but I've heard the Stockholm Syndrome thing mentioned recently because this is the time we live in. I don't say this by way of criticism or dismissal, I'm just saying. What does it mean? I don't know. But the fact is that's what the fairytale features, and so that's what the film features. There's also a little bit of the Florence Nightingale Effect going the other way too. What does that mean? I don't know. I'm not judging. I'm just saying. But will kids walk away from this thinking "ooh, if I kidnap someone they'll fall in love with me"? Doubtful, unless you're teaching your kids wrong to start with. Will your kids walk away thinking "there's more to people than just looks"? Probably, because that's the real message here.)

(Also, while I'm at, there are a couple of allusions to homosexuality in this and OH MY GOD IT WILL TURN YOU KIDS GAY IF THEY WATCH IT! Ha. Of course it won't, you fuckwit. It's 2017, for fuck's sake. Grow up, you ignorant douchebag.)

Anyway, here we have the latest live action remake of Disney's back catalogue of classics. Unlike Alice In Wonderland or Pete's Dragon, this sticks very close - beat for beat to be honest - to the 1991 version. This is a good thing. Those doing the remaking are obviously aware of what worked last time around and are sticking with that.

That includes the songs as well as the story. The first and biggest criticism to be levelled at the 2017 take is that it's added more songs and more story, the lean 90 minutes blown out to 129 minutes. Some of the extra minutes are necessary. The breathless pace of the animated world doesn't translate directly to live action, and characters such as Le Fou (Gad) and Belle's father Maurice (Kline) grow into more than the goofy cliches of '91.

But the new songs - particularly How Does A Moment Last Forever and Evermore - add nothing (it would have been preferable to see some variation of Human Again in the mix than those). As for the added story elements, did we really need to know what happened to Belle's mother? Or the Beast's mother for that matter?

What the live action version nails is its real life realisations of the characters. Watson makes Belle Hermoine 2.0 but it works. Evans is perfectly cast as the increasingly devious Gaston, Kline is great as Maurice, while the voice cast of the household objects is excellent (McGregor's dodgy French accent notwithstanding).

The look of the film is good too. It has the same magical realism of the live action Cinderella, but with a darker edge to match the story. The Beast occasionally looks a bit CG (mostly when he walks), but mostly he is a convincing creation.

If there's one thing the 2017 version does better, its humanise the Beast. The '91 version leans on the goofiness too often, while in this take he feels like a real character, which seems to be thanks to the script.

In general, B&TB2017 hits the marks it needs to but can never beat the '91 version. It does some things well, but ultimately this beast is more bloated than it needs to be.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Manchester By The Sea

(M) ★★★★

Director: Kenneth Lonergan.

Cast: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, C.J. Wilson, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol.

Definitely not a film about a coastal shop selling bed linen.

When films claim big awards for their actors as opposed to the film itself, the film tends to live on in the shadow of the actor.

As great as you might think The Revenant is (personally I thought it was overblown and pretentious), it will forever be the film Leonardo DiCaprio finally (and deservedly) won the best actor Oscar for. As good as The Theory Of Everything and Lincoln are, they revolve in the memory around their shining stars Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Day Lewis. Ditto for Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side and Charlize Theron in Monster (in fact, do you hear these last two films talked about at all these days except in reference to their Oscar-winning actresses?).

Manchester By The Sea is likely to suffer the same fate. It is a solid, beautiful and poignant film, but it lives and dies on the strength of Casey Affleck's restrained Oscar-winning role. Affleck's turn alone is the thing that elevates it to greatness, despite it having so many great elements, and as such, it will be remembered for his performance.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a socially awkward recluse who is drawn back to his hometown (the titular Massachusetts seaport) following the death of his brother Joe Chandler (played by Kyle Chandler - I had to spell that one out so it didn't seem like a mistake).

The return not only finds Lee grappling with being named as guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (Hedges), but also struggling with issues from his past that have left him an unwieldy, pent-up, shell of a man.

Lonergan's film is an exploration of grief that offers no pithy solutions or platitudes, instead portraying it as a never-ending, never-mending faultline that runs through your life from the fateful moment onwards. It's a gut-punching, heartbreaking movie, with Affleck's Lee in the epicentre. He has serious loss in his life he has never properly dealt with and it festers in him like a cancer, bursting out at inappropriate moments and in inappropriate ways. He has been running from it and his return to Manchester-by-the-Sea means it is going to hit him head on.

Affleck's performance captures these ideas perfectly. It's not showy or actorly but rather naturalistic, understated and subdued, drawing you into Lee's world completely. The film's narrative is similarly underplayed. It poses a mystery early on, and after it exposes it, the hook is in seeing how the characters, particularly Lee, deal with it now he's back in town.

Hedges is good in support, and combined with the strong script makes Patrick a real teen, determined to continue with his day-to-day life but still deeply unsettled by the loss of his father. The rest of the supporting cast is also powerful - the under-rated Kyle Chandler is excellent in his role, which is limited to flashbacks, Williams is fantastic as Lee's ex-wife, and Mol is great in her handful of scenes, one of which includes a neat cameo from Matthew Broderick.

The slow-burn pace and quiet tone of the film will annoy some, but more off-putting are some overly dramatic musical choices and the occasional weird patch of dialogue. For the most part, the script is spot-on, but every so often a line sticks out. Similarly the soundtrack choices sometimes make themselves too pronounced. As for the pacing, it must be argued it is perfect for the subject matter, and the film unravels at exactly the tempo it should.

Minor gripes aside, Lonergan has tackled his subject with sensitivity and beauty (the backdrop of a north-eastern US winter is stark but pretty), and with Affleck in the driver's seat he has found a perfect role for the under-appreciated actor.

Friday, 17 March 2017

REWIND REVIEW: Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale (RIP Murray Ball)

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Murray Ball.

Cast: (voices of) John Clarke, Peter Rowley, Rawiri Paratene, Fiona Samuel, Peter Hayden, Dorothy McKegg, Billy T. James, Brian Sergent, Marshall Napier, Michael Haigh.

Pets should rarely be kept in the fridge.

America had Charles M Schulz and Peanuts, France had Goscinny & Uderzo and Asterix, and New Zealand had Murray Ball and Footrot Flats.

As representations of their respective nations, each is telling. Peanuts was a good cross-section of American post-war society when it began in the 1950s, ranging from the ultimate example of "nice guys finish last" in its downtrodden hero Charlie Brown through to the dumb bully Lucy, who is constantly keeping the everyman down.

Meanwhile Asterix emerged less than 15 years after WWII, as France was continuing to reclaim its identity and rebuild, having suffered the indignity of the invading Nazis. Hence it throws back to a time when a group of "indomitable Gauls" hold out against the all-conquering Romans.

And New Zealand had Wal Footrot and Dog. In the wit of Ball and his characters lay a prime example of rural Kiwi (and Aussie for that matter) humour. New Zealand farming was predominantly more modern than Ball depicted it to be circa 1980, but it spoke to a certain romanticism for the land, and in a country with a population the size of NZ's, it seemed just about everyone had relatives who lived on a farm, so almost everyone had an understanding of what Ball was banging on about. Like Australia, New Zealand rode on the sheep's back, and Footrot Flats was a proud portrayal of the strugglers who shore that back in between weekends of playing rugby (or footy or cricket) and heading into town for fish and chips.

When Ball's comic strip hit the silver screen, every man and his dog (ahem) turned out to see it in New Zealand (it was a box office hit in Australia too). Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale was the first Kiwi feature-length animated film and held the record for being the most successful local movie at the NZ box office from 1986 through to 1994's Once Were Warriors.

Some of this success is down to its all-ages appeal - families drove long distances to see this film, making rare trips to town for it. Much of its humour is of the slapstick variety, whether it be a goose's attempts to bite Wal "on the prickle" (actually his butt, despite what you might be thinking) or Dog's attempts at heroism. It's all very Looney Tunes in places, right down to the unnecessary "comedy" sound effects.

As well as being kid-friendly (although there are plenty of terrifying things about the Murphy farm, notably the crocopigs and the rat leader Vernon), it had a fair bit for the grown-ups. Wal's dream sequence about becoming an All Black features some choice moments, while his ill-fated date with Cheeky Hobson is great and includes a weird moment where Wal pries baked beans from out of Cheeky's bosom. In spite of (or because of) its weird moments, it's funny for all ages. It should also be noted that John Clarke was an inspired choice to voice Wal Footrot, who wasn't a million miles away from his iconic NZ cross-media character Fred Dagg. Clarke joked at the time that the casting call was out of himself, John Gielgud and Meryl Streep, but he got the role because he had a shorter commute.

As director, Ball was reportedly meticulous, ensuring the animators got his style just right. His perfectionist streak paid off because the film looks like his comic strips come to life, with the added bonus of Richard Zaloudek's sublime backdrops, which give the film a surrealist edge due to their impressionistic qualities.

Equally surreal is Dave Dobbyn's score. Dobbyn, who took on the gig after Tim Finn turned it down, excels as much as he stumbles. Parts of the score haven't aged well, worst of all being a couple of songs that turn the cartoon into a musical (the tracks Let's Get Canine and Vernon The Vermin). But beyond those are the absolute gold of You Oughta Be In Love and, of course, this:

This was my little brother's favourite movie growing up and rewatching it 30 years on, it's not hard to see why. As farmer's sons, it spoke to our sense of reality - there's nothing Disneyfied or sanitised here. Dog eats dags, is nearly shat on by a sheep, and almost drowns in the sheep dip, all within the first few minutes. This was real farming, but it was a cartoon.

It has aged badly in places, but Footrot Flats - The Dog's Tale is a wonderful snapshot of what the comics captured and why Murray Ball was not only a national hero in NZ, but also an icon to farming communities all around Australia. For all it's slapstick silliness, it's a fantastically pacy and enjoyable piece of rural '80s nostalgia.