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Thursday, 25 August 2016

Kubo & The Two Strings

(PG) ★★★★½

Director: Travis Knight.

Cast: (voices of) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes.

They were gonna call it Bug, Boy & Monkey
but it sounded like a '70s folk band.
(I may have made this up)

PEOPLE talk about Pixar’s impressive strike rate and how the Pixar name is a signifier of quality – which is all totally true – but we also need to be talking about Laika in the same way.

Laika is the company behind the stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. They may not have set the box office alight like say Finding Dory, Toy Story 3 or Inside Out, but each is a magnificent film, not just technically but also in terms of their all-ages appeal, intelligent themes, and depth of storytelling.

However Laika’s latest may well be its best yet, which is saying something. Kubo & The Two Strings ticks all of the same boxes and continues the animation house’s winning streak, but also takes it to new heights with its visual splendour and unique ideas.

The film plays like an old Japanese folk tale, but is in fact an original story – very original. In fact, describing the plot will make people think you’re crazy or just saying random words.

It is the story of a young one-eyed boy named Kubo, who uses a stringed instrument called a shamisen to perform origami magic and is forced to go on an adventure with a talking monkey and a samurai who has been turned into a beetle. Their quest is to find some enchanted armour that could save Kubo from his evil aunts and grandfather.

See? That reads like the scribblings of a crazy person or, at best, a very interesting child.

At a basic level, it’s actually a formulaic hero’s journey and at times feels like a twisted take on The Wizard Of Oz, but there is a healthy dose of imagination at play here that keeps it from going stale. Even the bits that feel predictable fail to get in the way of the giddy pleasure derived from its unexpected qualities, which are many.

The Japanese setting (although the American accents are jarring at first) and its wildly unique narrative and characters combine to make Kubo & The Two Strings feel new and fresh, but there is much more to the film than just that. The look of it is out-of-this-world – it’s a stunning blend of stop-motion and CG animation, dressed up with some beautiful production design. Each of Laika’s films have been endowed with a wondrous visual style all their own, but Kubo’s Asian-influenced eye-candy takes the cake. The remarkable settings, striking characters, awesome fight sequences and creepy villains are all top notch (although the final big boss is a bit of a disappointment compared to what precedes it).

Parkinson and McConaughey are the stars of the show, with the latter offering some welcome comic touches, but it takes a little while to get used to Theron’s performance. Eventually the film hits its stride and the voice casting makes a lot of sense.

The themes of stories and memories, particularly how they relate to death, and the mix of pain and beauty that life holds, coupled with some scary-looking baddies, mean Kubo earns its PG rating, but for hardier youngsters (and grown-ups who like to encourage their inner child) it’s a rewarding experience that combines laughter and excitement with some intriguing depths and touches of darkness.

The one-word descriptor for Kubo & The Two Strings is “impressive”. It’s awkward moments are fleeting and vanish amid the stunning visuals and a story that feels remarkably new and old at the same time.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

War Dogs

(M) ★★★

Director: Todd Phillips.

Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, JB Blanc, Bradley Cooper.

"Mention the Fantastic Four remake one more time 
and my client will punch you in the face."

HOW did two 20-something stoners from Miami end up scoring a $300 million contract with the US government to supply weapons to armed forces in Afghanistan?

That’s exactly what the media was asking back in 2008 when the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli came to light.

It’s a remarkable tale, one first told in great depth in an article by Rolling Stone journalist Guy Lawson (and his subsequent book Arms & The Dudes) and retold with a fair amount of poetic licence in this film from The Hangover trilogy director Phillips.

Packouz is played by Teller, who narrates the story of how he gave up being a masseuse, hooked up with his old school buddy Diveroli (Hill), and became an arms dealer to earn money to feed his family.

Through Packouz’s naive eyes we see he and Diveroli wade deeper into the murky world of government-endorsed gun-running, where the deals get dodgier as the dollar signs get bigger.

Wars need guns and War Dogs is an interesting insight into how those guns end up in the hands of soldiers, but first and foremost, it’s about the weird rise and inevitable fall of Packouz and Diveroli.

Hill is great in his role as Diveroli, making him an oddly charismatic yet often repulsive young man, complete with a distinctive laugh and a terrible fake tan. Teller is given the less interesting role, but they make for a good pairing. It’s the relationship between Packouz and Diveroli that ends up being the most compelling part of the film. The intriguing backdrops - which juxtaposes sunny Miami with the varying desolations of Iraq and Albania - don't hurt either.

But Phillips, using a script he co-wrote with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin, doesn’t nail the bigger picture. The absurdity of the situation never quite matches the tone of the film. It’s never funny enough, dark enough, or satirical enough to match the bizarreness of its subject matter, and instead plays things way too straight. It’s an edgy story delivered with no real edge, and if it’s meant to be an indictment on the American dream or the American military complex, it misses those targets too.

Instead it's merely a story about two friends who take an interesting career path – which is fine and mildly enjoyable, but feels like an underselling of the subject matter.

There are a couple of vaguely annoying directorial tics along the way – freeze frames, quotes written on screen to break the film into chapters, and an either unnecessary or under-utilised narration from Teller – but mostly War Dogs coasts by on the strengths of its stranger-than-fiction premise and its core relationship. Ultimately these factors are rewarding enough, and if nothing else, it’s another great performance from Hill.

The liberties taken with the story give the film a decent, if slow at times, structure, but the biggest let-down is that War Dogs never rises to the heights of its subject matter.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Sausage Party

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon.

Cast: (voices of) Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek.

No one knew what to expect at Elton's Oscar party.

LOOKING back at the incredible filmmaking technology unleashed by Pixar’s magnificent debut Toy Story in 1995, it's inevitable we would end up with something like Sausage Party.

In fact, it’s somewhat surprising it’s taken so long for someone to harness the power of computer animation to make a totally messed-up comedy for adults.

But here we are – two decades after Buzz and Woody saved the toy box, we have a film starring a supermarket full of sexed-up, drug-smoking, profanity-dropping groceries. And it’s fantastic.

Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – the guys behind Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End – are the reprobates responsible for Sausage Party and it’s fair to say if you like their previous work, you’ll love this.

Rogen also voices the film’s star Frank, a hot dog who, like all food products at Shopwell’s Supermarket, desires to be “chosen” by one of the "gods" and taken through the checkouts to the Great Beyond that lies on the other side of the automatic doors.

But he starts to question his beliefs when a returned jar of honey mustard (McBride) starts trying to tell other foodstuffs what he saw in the Great Beyond, which leads Frank on a journey with his beloved bun Brenda (Wiig) to discover the truth about their so-called "gods".

There are many surprisingly elements to Sausage Party, not least of which is the fact it’s a swear-heavy parable about religion and the need to question baseless beliefs. While the film could have gotten away with simply being a brainless load of f-bombs and sex jokes, it instead uses its off-the-wall ideas and juvenile banter as tools to dig for extra layers of thematic depth.

It’s enough to make you overlook the many racial stereotypes because by the end you realise that was all part of the bigger picture and the plot’s undertones – it’s much easier to forgive a bagel and a lavash for sounding like Jewish and Muslim caricatures respectively when they are having cleverly disguised discussions about Israel and Palestine.

Another surprise is the ending.


Nothing you’ve ever witnessed in an MA15+ film can prepare you for the final 10 minutes of this movie. Let’s just leave it that, shall we?

In an era when many people are bemoaning the lack of genuinely funny comedies, Sausage Party hits its humour targets with refreshing regularity. Yes, it’s juvenile, potty-mouthed and obscene, but if your comedic predilections swing that way, it’s hilarious. It’s also as intelligent as it is dumb – for every innuendo or (admittedly funny) profanity, there is also a wicked food pun or sharp point to be made about the nature of belief.

Visually, the film is nothing special. It has a style all its own and it doesn’t look cheap and nasty, but it’s deceptively simple. Fortunately, it’s not trying to be a work of art. It offers no moments of visual splendour to match anything Pixar can muster (although seeing a meatloaf singing I Would Do Anything For Love comes close) but we’re talking about a cuss-laden movie starring talking frankfurters here.

A lot of success rides on the script, but it’s delivered by a top cast of Rogen regulars and a few bonus players. Norton’s voice is unrecognisable and excellent, same with Rudd, while Rogen, Wiig, Cera, Hader, McBride and Robinson all wring every possible laugh out of every line.

It’s unlikely to live on in the pantheon of “greatest comedies of all time”, but to a certain group of people – ie. the demographic that will laugh at the fact that in the credits Seth Rogen’s name appears on a docket next to the price 4.20 – this will be a cult classic, preferably watched in a double feature with Pineapple Express in a very hazy loungeroom that rarely has its curtains opened.

On just about every level, Sausage Party is a success. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do – to stir and occasionally shock you into laugh after laugh by flipping a typically family-friendly style of movie into something more suited to an older crowd. The fact that it’s a sharp fable about religion is just an added bonus.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Suicide Squad

(M) ★★

Director: David Ayers.

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne.

"I just know there's a decent DC movie around here somewhere."

AT the risk of firing up the DC troll brigade again, Suicide Squad is another disappointment in the DC Extended Universe.

So that’s three films down, and three fumbles, for those of you playing along at home. On the plus side though, this is the best movie the DCEU has thrown up so far, but it’s still well short of where it could have landed.

After the lifeless Man Of Steel and the super-sized mess of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, DC has loaded up some of its most charismatic villains and let them loose in this stylised romp which works well from time to time but can’t quite get its act together.

In the wake of the events of Batman V Superman, government official Amanda Waller (Davis) decides the best way to deal with the rise of the “meta-humans” is to fight fire with fire. She puts together a team of super-powered prison inmates who can be used to save the day (and then quietly thrown under the bus if things go bad) – the assassin Deadshot (Smith), The Joker’s insane girlfriend Harley Quinn (Robbie), a sewer monster nicknamed Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Aussie thief Boomerang (Courtney), the “human torch” Diablo (Hernandez), and a witch called The Enchantress (Delevingne).

Writer-director Ayers has some cool characters at his disposal and the film is at its best when they do their thing. Robbie’s Quinn owns every scene she’s in, Killer Croc is an impressively scary collection of prosthetics and tics, and Diablo proves to be a surprise packet.

With so many characters, it was always going to be hard to give them all the requisite amount of air – Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) get ridiculously short shrift – but Ayers does a good job of balancing the load. What’s odd is that the least interesting character – Smith’s Deadshot – gets the most screentime, and one can only surmise that is because he’s played by the best (ie. highest paid) actor in the bunch. Let’s face it – no one is going to see this movie for Deadshot, yet he’s everywhere.

Setting up so many characters can be tricky and Suicide Squad does this incredibly efficiently, only to then do it again and again. For some reason, the film feels the need to keep introducing and re-introducing the key players, dragging the first act out and ruining a lot of the good work already done. There is also a scene where Waller outlines her proposal, which is then followed by her outlining her proposal again, to different people. This is bad writing, plain and simple.

The opposite tactic is then used to deal with the big event that the entire film is about, which flits by in a matter of moments and all of a sudden a whole city is in ruins, days have apparently elapsed, and the Suicide Squad is being brought in to deal with the baddies and their MacGuffin (what the hell is that thing? Seriously, I have no idea). It’s a jarring entry to the film’s actual plot, which is scant as it is.

Having given us too much of one thing and not enough of another, Suicide Squad finally settles into a rhythm of running battles, one-liners and cool character moments that range from awesome to underwhelming. The ending is the typical overblown CG assault we’ve come to expect in action movie finales these days, and the feeling afterwards is one of hollowness – there is plenty of style on show here, but at the expense of substance.

Thankfully, Robbie’s Quinn is worth the ticket price alone, and as questionable as Smith’s slice of screentime is, he’s a welcome presence who keeps the film grounded. The ragtag team of anti-heroes get laughs and varying degrees of depth, and are a highlight.

There are a couple of cameos from other DC notables, but the main one is Leto’s much-hyped Joker. Sadly, his “Mr J” skirts around the periphery of the film and is never in a scene for long, which makes it hard to get a handle on Leto’s interpretation of the character beyond “intense psychopath” (also, he adds nothing to the film). No doubt we’ll see him again when the DCEU gets around to a standalone Batman movie, but until then, the jury is well and truly out on how he stacks up against Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s stellar efforts (although the initial feeling is one of vague disappointment).

Light on plot but loaded with style, Suicide Squad is all character and charisma but ultimately empty and unsatisfying, and is largely saved by Robbie and Smith.

DC trolls, come at me.


I really want to share this video with you. It's about the editing in Suicide Squad and why it's terrible. I learnt a lot from this. Folding Ideas often make great in-depth videos about film and this is one of their best.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Jason Bourne

(M) ★★★

Director: Paul Greengrass.

Cast: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed.

Matt Damon spotted Jimmy Kimmel in the crowd.

FOURTEEN years on from his cinematic debut, it’s easy to forget how big an impact Jason Bourne had on the world of movie spies.

While James Bond was driving invisible cars around ice castles and Ethan Hunt was in between impossible missions and unfathomable stunts, Bourne burst on to the scene, punching and headbutting his way into the hearts and minds of critics and fans around the world.

He was a gadget-free, CG-light breath of fresh air that blew some much-needed grit, blood and brutality into an increasingly tired genre. It led Bond and Hunt to have a look in the mirror and change what they saw – there would be no Casino Royale without The Bourne Identity, and M:I3 would likely have been a very different film.

Across a consistently great and under-rated trilogy, Bourne made Damon into a superstar, with the series even spawning a surprisingly okay non-Damon ‘sidequel’ starring Jeremy Renner.

But the question has to be asked – why is Bourne back? What more is there to do with this once-amnesiac assassin, having neatly wrapped things up with three films and an unnecessary spin-off?

To paraphrase Michael Corleone, just when Bourne thought he was out, they pull him back in, with Nicky Parsons (Stiles) returning to do the pulling. Having gone rogue herself, she entices Bourne out from the cold with some stolen CIA documents she claims reveal more details about Bourne’s life before he became a US government-sanctioned killer. This inadvertently shoves Bourne into the thick of it, with a CIA director (Jones), an analyst (Vikander) and an assassin known as The Asset (Cassel) hot on his tail.

As with Renner’s The Bourne Legacy, this film is entertaining yet redundant. It adds nothing vital to the Bourne mythos beyond filling in the superfluous details of what he’s up to post-The Bourne Ultimatum (illegal boxing matches apparently) and more of what he did pre-The Bourne Identity. It’s a sequel looking for a raison d'être but is unable to find one and carries on regardless.

This isn’t an entirely bad thing. Jason Bourne does everything you expect a Bourne film to do – the up-close punch-ons and improvised weapons, the insane car chases, the oh-so-clever spycraft, and the hi-tech espionage techniques that border on wizardry are all pleasingly on display.

But five films in, the Bourne saga has hit the problem all rock bands face on album number five – do you reinvent yourself and do something new, potentially failing and alienating your fans, or do you stick to what you do best and keep pumping out same-sounding albums, potentially boring your fans?

It’s a tough choice and either way you will draw flak. Greengrass (who directed Bournes 2 and 3) opts for the latter route, so while it is probably unfair to criticise him for sticking to a winning formula, it’s the biggest downside to Jason Bourne. As entertaining as this fifth film is in places, it adds nothing new to the saga, making it ultimately unnecessary and far from vital, washing over you in a sense of unmemorable déjà vu.

Amid the blur of edits and shaky shots – a technique The Bourne Identity helped make de rigueur 14 years ago – there are a few moments of real spectacle (the car chases are notably awesome) and Damon is still a commanding presence in the titular role. Vikander can do no wrong, Stiles is again sadly under-used, Jones does what Jones does best (which is grumble with authority), and the whole thing is smooth and efficient.

Like The Bourne Legacy, this is a decent time-killer and probably as good as you can expect it to be, but when it comes time to argue over which is the best Bourne movie, no one will be picking Jason Bourne.