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Sunday, 28 December 2014

Big Hero 6

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Don Hall & Chris Williams.

Cast: (voices of) Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, TJ Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr, Genesis Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk.

Sometimes you just need a big goalie, not necessarily a good goalie.

DISNEY is on a roll with its computer animated films.

Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen have helped put the House of Mouse back on the animation map after more than a decade of so-so releases.

You can add the name Big Hero 6 to that Pixar-like run of excellent adventures, and while it you're at it you can put the name "Baymax" on the lengthy list of memorable and lovable Disney characters.

Based very, very loosely on a little-known Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 is the tale of Hiro Hamada (Potter), a 14-year-old robotics genius who lives in the quasi-futuristic city of San Fransokyo and spends most of his time gambling on (and winning) illegal streetbot fights.

His older brother Tadashi (Henney), concerned that Hiro is wasting his talents, introduces Hiro to the robotics lab where Tadashi works at university and gets the younger Hamada excited about using his skills for a greater purpose.

But when tragedy strikes, Hiro and his friends must team up to solve a mystery, catch a bad guy and save the day.

It may sound fairly formulaic and, as a superhero story, Big Hero 6 certainly hits all the notes we've come to expect from those kind of origin tales. However, there is much more to this film than hyper-powered individuals belting seven shades of snot out of each other.

At its heart, it's a story about grief and loss - there's an interesting juxtaposition between how the good guy and bad guy wander into the grey areas between right and wrong as they each struggle to deal with the death of a loved one. There's also a nice spin on the old "with great power comes great responsibility" line - in this case there's a bit of "with great intelligence comes great responsibility" thrown into the mix.

But as much as Big Hero 6 is a celebration of the mind (most of the main characters are self-confessed "nerds"), there is a lot of heart to go with the head. There are a couple of really sweet moments here, including some tearjerkers, and Hiro is a relatable and endearing (ahem) hero.

But the stand-out character is Baymax (Adsit), the inflatable robot built by Tadashi as a medical assistant, who serves as audience surrogate, comic relief, moral compass, straight man, action centrepiece, and even emotional core to the movie.

Whether he's taping up his punctures, losing power, doing karate, helping the sick and injured, or simply trying to walk around a room, Baymax is a scene-stealing sidekick who pretty much runs off with the whole movie.

In terms of family fun, Big Hero 6 is a real winner. There are laughs, great set-pieces, and deeper layers beneath the fast-moving bright colours to ensure this is ideal for all ages.

Friday, 26 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

(M) ★★★

Director: Peter Jackson.

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom.

"And I say, let us all cut off our hands and replace them pointy objects, damn the consequences."

It's finally over. Thirteen years since Peter Jackson first took us to Middle Earth, his role as tour guide through Tolkien's fantastical lands has come to an end.

Because of this massive journey there and back again, The Battle Of The Five Armies is a film that not only follows on from the two previous (surprisingly solid) Hobbit movies, bringing that trilogy to its conclusion, but which also serves as a farewell to a six-film saga that's raked in almost $5 billion (and counting) at the box office and 17 Oscars.

It also serves as a lead-in to The Fellowship Of The Rings (The Hobbit is a prequel trilogy after all).

That's a lot to put onto the shoulders of one film, and The Battle Of The Five Armies unfortunately is not the momentous masterpiece required to meet these expectations and obligations, making it a slightly disappointing note to finish on.

But this is really only by comparison because let's face it - The Hobbit trilogy was always going to be measured against the feats of The Lord Of The Rings films, ie. The One Trilogy To Rule Them All, and The Battle Of The Five Armies must stand in the shadow of its predecessor's conclusion, The Return Of The King.

Taking all this into account, ...Five Armies falls short but still manages to be a rollicking good ride and a decent-enough farewell to the world of hobbits, orcs, elves and dwarves, mixing good humour and heart to balance the over-the-top ridiculousness that creeps in as Jackson and co attempt to meet the lofty duties thrust upon this closing chapter.

While the eponymous battle takes up the majority of the two-hours-plus running time, the film also concerns itself with Thorin (Armitage) descending into treasure-induced madness AKA "dragon sickness", Bard (Evans) assuming the mantle of Laketown leader, Gandalf (McKellan) dealing with the growing evil that is playing a hand in the battle and pointing towards the rise of Sauron, and the weird subplot of elf-dwarf love between Tauriel (Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner).

But really its all about the battle, which unfolds in an escalating series of set-pieces, charges, rallies, sacrifices, and last-ditch displays of bravery that are a largely impressive combination of special effects and solid performances.

The opening sequence, which sees Laketown set aflame by the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), unfortunately sets the tone for the aforementioned over-the-top ridiculousness. It's only Jackson's knack for deftly sliding in a moment of comic relief that brings things back to (middle) earth, allowing the audience to settle back into the tone and groove of life in Tolkien's realm.

The biggest issue here is the very criticism levelled at Jackson since he announced Tolkien's slight children's book would be made into three films - there's not enough material to go around.

While he and fellow writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro stretched An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation Of Smaug comfortably, ...Five Armies almost reaches breaking point as the battle rages on and on (interestingly, ...Five Armies is the shortest Middle Earth movie to date).

This leaves us with a film that is only for the devoted Tolkienites. Beyond the battle itself, the padding includes plenty of nods to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and information dug from Tolkien's lengthy appendices. If you've never seen any of these films, let alone the two previous Hobbit films, this movie is not for you.

For the fans, ...Five Armies will leave you with mixed feelings. It's a sad farewell to a wondrous world that is always worth visiting, but it's ultimately the weakest of the six films.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Exodus: Gods & Kings

(M) ★★★★

Director: Ridley Scott.

Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, John Turturro, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver.

Elton John's Oscars after-party was off its tits.
With the arrival of Noah and Exodus this year, it's tempting to see 2014 as the year of the biblical epic.

But two films doesn't count as a trend. However, it does give us an interesting point of comparison.

Whereas Darren Aronofksy took a largely secular route in his animal-packed ark, Ridley Scott mostly takes the Bible as gospel (pardon the pun) in his retelling of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery.

After an opening battle scene that's more like a chapter of Wilbur Smith than a verse of the Old Testament, we get to know Moses (Bale) and Ramesses II (Edgerton) - brothers in arms in the Egyptian military as well as princes of Egypt.

But Moses soon learns he is adopted and that his real mother was a Hebrew - a group of people enslaved by the Egyptians - causing friction between Moses and Ramesses II and leading to Moses being exiled.

After wandering through the desert, getting married and raising a son, Moses suffers a severe head injury, leading him to believe God has instructed him to return to Egypt, free the slaves and lead the hundreds of thousands of Hebrews home to the promised land of Canaan (Israel).

Unlike Aronofsky, who took the "this could have happened" approach with Noah, Scott revels in the grand myth-making of the Exodus story, seeing no need to find a rational explanation for what goes on, instead embracing the fantastical elements as if he was adapting Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter (it's worth pointing out that the historical and archaeological consensus is that there is a distinct lack of evidence of the exodus actually happening).

With the full arsenal of computer wizardry at his disposal, Scott parts the Red Seas and unleashes an onslaught of plagues in suitably epic fashion. They are the dramatic and visual high points of the film - never before has the wrath of God been rendered so vividly and spectacularly.

Speaking of the Almighty, God is portrayed in fascinating fashion. I won't spoil it but there are many discussions to be had focusing on how the Supreme Being is depicted in this film, including the non-spoilerific fact that Old Testament God was, it has to be said, kind of a jerk (and that might be putting it mildly).

The other highlight is the performances. Bale's Moses, like Russell Crowe's Noah, is portrayed in the grey areas between mad man and prophet, but Bale's typical intensity really takes it up a notch, helping make Moses a complex man dealing with something he doesn't fully understand (and which may indeed be largely in his head).

Equally impressive is Edgerton, in what is hopefully a break-out role for the Aussie actor. His pharaoh is stubborn, dismissive and slightly vainglorious, but Edgerton keeps it all in check, never resorting to chewing the scenery.

The other standard performances come from youngster Isaac Andrews and Aussie Mendelsohn, with the latter stealing his scenes as an incompetent Egyptian viceroy.

Exodus takes itself very seriously but manages to stay on the right side of melodrama, thus avoiding the ever-present danger of tipping into "accidental Life Of Brian" territory.

There may be a sensation that the film is all noise and no heart, that its CG extravaganzas overwhelm the bigger moral issues, but there is plenty of food for thought in this tale of fanaticism, desperation, fear, and the greater good.

It also happens to be Scott's best film since Gladiator.