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Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Good Dinosaur

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Peter Sohn.

Cast: (voices of) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn.

Acid was way better back in the day.

IF any of the other animation houses released The Good Dinosaur, you’d consider it a hit.

But by the lofty storytelling standards of Pixar, it is merely good. Really good, but still just good.

Being released the same year as possibly Pixar’s greatest film – Inside Out – means it’s impossible not to look at the two movies side by side, which puts The Good Dinosaur at a disadvantage. Next to the remarkable script of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels so simple, conventional and even clichéd.

Thankfully, like all Pixar films (bar Cars 2), The Good Dinosaur has so much heart and integrity and so deftly handles its jokes and emotions that you can overlook the plainness of the story.

The set-up is intriguing – in a bizarro world where the asteroid that wipes out the dinosaurs misses Earth, we end up with a dino-society of sorts.

The herbivores are crop farmers, the carnivores run cattle, and the humans are not that different from the other non-sapient mammals running around.

Our hero is Arlo (Ochoa), a scared little apatosaurus desperate to “make his mark” but haunted by a family tragedy.

A run-in with a human child, who Arlo names Spot (Bright), whisks the pair a long way from Arlo’s home, and the two must work together to make it back.

The Good Dinosaur’s plot is of the Homeward Bound variety, with a boy-and-his-dog dynamic thrown in – the twist being the boy is actually a dinosaur and the dog is actually a boy.

Once Arlo and Spot team up, the film finds its feet as it gets a much-needed sense of humour and stops labouring its message about overcoming fear in order to make your mark in the world.

It’s still a very normal story dressed up in some rather eccentric clothes, and at times the movie almost feels too weird for its own good. We get cowboy tyrannosaurs, storm-chasing pterosaurs, and raptor rustlers, but weirdest of all is the look of the dinosaurs, which takes a while to get used too. The photo-realistic world they live in is visually stunning, but it makes the cartoonish, plasticine-like characters seem out of place.

Despite its formulaic story, it still manages to the push the right buttons. There will be a few happy tears at the end, and there are a couple of decent laughs.

In the wake of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur could be seen as a deliberate attempt at a simpler film that’s more kiddie-friendly and less cerebral and inventive.

As such, The Good Dinosaur is good enough, even if it’s not as Pixar perfect as we’ve come to expect.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

(M) ★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill.

"It's George Lucas! Run for it!"

IT is increasingly likely that at some point in the future, every film will be remade.

Even the seemingly untouchable and iconic ones – like, say, Star Wars – will get a re-imagining centuries from now.

If someone 100 years in the future is bold/stupid enough to remake the original 1977 saga-spawning game-changing sci-fi classic, they would do well to check out J.J. Abrams’ sterling effort with Episode VII.

This new addition to the franchise is, in many ways, a remake. While it’s actually a sequel, a bit of a reboot, and a definite passing of the torch, it follows similar story beats and even specific plot points of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

This is not a criticism – it’s a compliment and part of the secret to its success. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote episodes V and VI) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) have tapped into many of the core elements that made the original work, as well as the structure and pacing, to build something that is both fresh and familiar.

This nostalgic skeleton and classic storytelling approach has been fleshed out with great new characters and new twists on old favourites. Incoming masked baddie Kylo Ren (Driver) is a fantastic villain, taking the imposing nature and deathly style of Darth Vader and combining it with real flaws, such as a wild, brattish temper and a niggling sense of self-doubt and inferiority. He is a true threat yet also feels like a well-rounded character, and he’s one of the best things in The Force Awakens.

Not to be outdone though is Ridley as Rey – the shining heart of the film. Her character merges traits of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa (that’s not a comment on her lineage, by the way). She has Skywalker’s wide-eyed naivety and earnestness, and it is through her eyes we see much of the universe, but she also has Organa’s can-do attitude and brashness. Rey continues Hollywood’s welcome recent run with strong female action leads (The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa) – she is not a damsel in need of rescuing; she is more likely to free herself and save everyone else in the process.

The other big tick for the casting agents is Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper trying to find his place in the galaxy after deciding that slaughtering the innocent is not his cup of tea. He delivers a good mixture of drama and humour, and shares good chemistry with Ridley and Ford.

The latter returns as Han Solo, older, a bit goofier, and far less sprightly than he used to be. Ford slips into the role like it's a comfy old leather jacket and helps balance the fresh elements with a sense of history and occasion. The character has also evolved sensibly – he is wiser for his experiences and also tired of it all.

Less well handled is Fisher’s return as the promoted General Leia Organa. While Leia and Han’s relationship is well played, the writers and Fisher don’t seem to have figured out exactly who the princess has become.

One of the most notable things about The Force Awakens is that it does the prequels no favours. While episodes I, II and III have their moments, they’re shown up as being the green-screen-heavy toy commercials they truly are when compared with Episode VII. This is a real film, set in a real-seeming tangible lived-in world, with real-seeming people you care about, and the majority of the movie doesn’t look like a computer game.

Add in the fact this has the best acting, best dialogue, best direction, and best cinematography of any film in the entire franchise, and the prequels don’t stand a chance. It doesn’t have the myth-making quality of the original – nothing can – nor does it have a stack of classic moments, but nonetheless this is technically a better crafted film than any of its predecessors.

There are flaws. An extended set-piece involving tentacled creatures loose on a spaceship plays badly, while some key moments in the third act feel rushed. Gleeson is also miscast and saves Fisher from the ‘worst on ground’ award.

There is also a dark air to this that, while certainly no darker than the deepest pockets of episodes III and V, stamps this as a film for the older fans. The slapstick of Jar Jar Binks and twee annoyances of young ‘Ani’ Skywalker are nowhere to be seen, thank the maker. It’s largely bloodless, but its M rating is warranted.

All in all, The Force Awakens is deeply satisfying. It’s as good as fans could have hoped for and better than we deserve. It is a fine successor to the original trilogy that knows what it needs to do, packs in some fantastic and emotional surprises along the way, and impresses on so many levels that many will want to go and see it again.

Thursday, 10 December 2015


(M) ★★★★

Director: Ryan Coogler.

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew.

"What about Throw Momma From The Train? Can we reboot that one?"
YOU can’t keep a good fighter down.

And while many would have been happy for cinema’s greatest boxer Rocky Balboa to stay down after the surprising success of his self-titled and sixth film nine years ago, you’ll be glad he got back up off the canvas for a seventh round.

To be fair though, this is not Rocky’s fight. It’s a passing of the torch, or gloves as it were, to Adonis Johnson aka the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent in the first two films of the series (and friend in the third and fourth).

“Baby Creed” - played by Michael B Jordan (Chronicle, Fantastic Four) - is a troubled young man who didn’t know his father but is drawn to Apollo’s legacy and the world of boxing.

After a promising start to his pugilistic career but with a temper in danger of landing him in trouble, the young Adonis packs in his job as an accountant to follow his boxing dreams.

He moves from LA to Philadelphia, tracks down Rocky (Stallone, of course) and begins training, hiding the fact he’s Apollo Creed’s son from everyone but Rocky.

So far, so formulaic, and on paper this looks like an uncalled-for cash-grab; a desperate attempt to restart the franchise. But the reality is this is one of the best films of the Rocky series – one worthy of the championship belt.

Creed is filled with the rich history of its predecessors but is not weighed down by it. Perhaps its greatest feat is walking the line between the old and the new – fans of the series will be well rewarded, but newcomers will find this a great starting point to the saga.

The film is totally Adonis’, and therefore Jordan’s, but it does a great job of valuing and honouring Rocky, and therefore Stallone.

Jordan’s performance is outstanding, both in terms of the physicality and the dramatic requirements. He owns a tough role that is constructed almost entirely in the shadows – not only of his character’s father, but of Stallone, of Balboa, and of the Rocky legacy. That he doesn’t buckle under all that weight while comfortably creating a new character is something to be applauded.

But as much as this film is about Adonis, the real star of the show is Stallone. A best supporting actor Oscar nomination beckons. After seven films, Rocky is a comfy pair of slippers for him, but in the transition from ageing fighter to “loveable uncle”, he adds new depth and new dimensions to the character that is the best display of Stallone’s talents since Cop Land.

Coogler, directing his own script, is the quiet achiever here. He gives both Adonis and Rocky good arcs, and you can see the screenplay is the real difference between this being a cheap knock-off and the real deal. But he also handles the action well. The film’s middle fight – a one-take, two-round sizzler – is masterfully done, as is the way he builds momentum in the final bout.

The flaws are few but are really no fault of the film’s. There is nothing truly new here – no surprise given this is Rocky VII – and you can spot the story’s beats from a mile away, which takes some of the punch (ahem) out of proceedings.

There is also a fine line between melodrama and real heart, and which side Creed falls on may well depend on your frame of mind when you step in the ring. Similarly, it’s humourless/serious approach skews toward self-parody, something amplified by the over-the-top and unbelievable nature of the climactic bout.

But Creed has the potential to win you over if you let it. The injection of new blood, dealt with intelligently, makes for an enjoyable new story in the Rocky saga, aided in no small way by Jordan, Coogler and, dare it be said, a career-best turn from Stallone.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

In The Heart Of The Sea

(M) ★★★

Director: Ron Howard.

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson.

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

HERMAN Melville’s Moby-Dick is a remarkable novel but perhaps even more remarkable is one of the true stories that inspired it.

Melville’s 1851 classic is a composite of many tales and ideas, including the author’s own time aboard a whaling vessel, but deep within its lyrical prose are bits and pieces from accounts of the Essex – a whaling ship that met a grim fate at the hands of a monstrous white whale.

It’s this dark saga that forms Howard’s 24th film, and while In The Heart Of The Sea has its moments, this gripping story is marred by a tendency to pull you out of the heart of the moment.

Hemsworth stars as Oliver Chase, a skillful whaler keen to be promoted from first mate to captain, and who makes little effort to hide his displeasure at having to serve under a cocky new captain George Pollard (Walker) aboard the whaling ship Essex.

Unable to find many whales in the usual places, the Essex rounds Cape Horn, and during a stopover for supplies the crew hear of a section of the ocean teeming with sperm whales but protected by an enormous and aggressive white whale.

Undaunted, the crew head into the Pacific, in search of glory, only to find tragedy.

At its best, In The Heart Of The Sea is fantastic. Despite the conflicting feelings that come with watching people hunt and kill such majestic (computer-generated) creatures, the harpooning sequences are enthralling, and any time the monstrous Moby (the whale, not the musician) is on the screen, the movie goes up a notch.

As the Essex’s best laid plans turn to driftwood and the crew’s minds turn to survival, the film is riveting. It gets dark – really dark – and it’s compelling.

The strong cast, led by Hemsworth, Walker, Murphy and future Spider-man Holland, is uniformly excellent, handling the physicality (including some extreme weight loss) as well as the drama with equal aplomb. Watching Hemsworth go from Thor to thin is fascinating in itself, but he shines in several scenes. After seeing Rush and now this, one can only hope he makes more films with Howard.

But In The Heart Of The Sea suffers from some annoying defects. To ram home the point that this is the true story that partially inspired Moby-Dick, the movie is framed (and repeatedly interrupted) by author Herman Melville (Wishaw) extracting the Essex’s tale from the older version of Holland’s character (Gleeson).

It adds unnecessary melodrama and flab to what could have been a sleek survival story, but worst of all it continually rips us off the Essex and back on to dry land, despite every swaying camera and well staged wave doing its utmost to make you feel like you’re there on the boat as it happens.

In fact, the film over-stretches in its efforts to put you amid the action – there are too many strange GoPro-like camera angles and shots amid the otherwise beautiful cinematography, which only serve to break the movie’s flow and remind you that you are indeed simply watching a movie, not experiencing something special.

Whenever In The Heart Of The Sea sets foot on land, it struggles. The opening landlocked moments are stuffed with clichés and clunky character descriptions, while Wishaw and Gleeson’s scenes don’t work at all.

But when the movie sets sail, it’s a winner. In summary, the film has its sea legs, but can’t seem to find its land legs.