Thursday, 29 December 2016


(PG) ★★★★

Director: Ron Clements & John Musker.

Cast: (voices of) Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk.

Maui and Moana embark on an epic adventure in the excellent Disney film Moana.

THE pantheon of Disney princesses is a big one, and each new arrival must find her place in the pecking order.

So is Moana more Ariel and Elsa (ie. intriguing and memorable) or more Sleeping Beauty and Tiana (ie. at the uninteresting and forgettable/forgotten end of the scale)?

The good news is Moana is the former, not the latter, both as a film and a character.

Disney’s new Polynesian princess is refreshing in many ways, particularly because her raison d'être is not to wed a prince and she is just as likely to do the rescuing as be rescued.

When her idyllic Pacific island home’s food supply starts to fall victim to a mysterious scourge, Moana (Cravalho) sets out to save her people by finding the long lost demi-god Maui (Johnson).

Legend has it that Maui created the scourge when he stole the goddess Te Fiti's heart – a pounamu stone bestowed upon Moana by the ocean itself and which must be returned to Te Fiti.

But saving her world will mean defying her father and sailing beyond the reef surrounding her home – something her people have not done for many generations.

Moana has a look and style that feels instantly iconic, and its use of Polynesian mythology to craft a new story gives it a classic quality. Blended with some great songs and the usual high-end CG animation, it’s another win in the House Of Mouse’s current streak of modern masterpieces (which includes Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia for those of you playing along at home).

Its titular princess (actually a chief’s daughter) is key to the film’s success. Bold and brave but not totally fearless or without self-doubts, Moana is a wonderfully realised character that fits perfectly into the belated and very welcome recent trend of seeing stronger female leads in movies.

Her sparring partner Maui is also a great – the fallen-from-grace demi-god is brought to life perfectly by Johnson. His relationship with Moana is a highlight of the film – the story is largely a two-hander, with much of it set on a boat with just Maui and Moana present, so the movie’s success hinges a lot on their repartee.

There is one other minor character on the boat – a rooster called Heihei, who is voiced (and I’m using that word lightly) by Tudyk. Heihei has been described by director Clements as "the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation”, and he’s not wrong, but the rooster gets the biggest laughs from the youngest members of the audience. Cult status awaits Heihei.

The other character highlight is the gold-hoarding coconut crab Tamatoa, voiced by Flight Of The Conchords’ Clements. Tamatoa gets perhaps the best song of the film, a Bowie-esque number called Shiny, and is a great comedic villain. A couple of other songs, largely written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, are strong. How Far I’ll Go (sung by Cravalho) is the film’s Let It Go number, while Johnson has fun with the peppy and witty You’re Welcome.

Like Frozen, Moana meets the regal requirements of a great modern Disney princess movie, and best of all, manages to do so without ever really feeling like it’s a Disney princess movie.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

(M) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Gareth Edwards.

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker.

The gang's all here, led by Felicity Jones, for the first Star Wars spin-off story.

There's a school of thought that taking Star Wars away from George Lucas was the best thing to happen to the franchise.

After the incredible Episode VII: The Force Awakens and now this strong spin-off – both of which leave Lucas’ prequels for dead – it’s hard to argue with that way of thinking. If only someone had done it sooner.

But it should be noted Rogue One is not as good as The Force Awakens, despite what some people are claiming. It’s great, yes, but it lacks the heart, the depth of character, the interactions, and that mystical magical something – the Force maybe? – that JJ Abrams managed to sprinkle on top of Episode VII.

For those of you struggling to keep up with this increasingly sprawling series, Rogue One takes place mere days before Episode IV – A New Hope, with its actions effectively setting the events of Lucas’ 1977 groundbreaker in motion. This is less Episode 3.5 and more like Episode IV – The Prologue.

Pivotal to it all is Jyn Erso (Jones), a tough former freedom fighter rescued from an Imperial prison camp by the Rebel Alliance. The Rebels hope Jyn can broker a deal with extremist Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), who is holding captive of an Imperial defector (Ahmed) with links to the Empire’s new superweapon – one that can destroy an entire planet (anyone wanna guess what that might be?).

As mentioned before, what's missing from Rogue One is character depth, which in turn affects the character interaction. We get to know Jyn’s backstory and motivations pretty well, and somewhat too Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Luna), but the rest of their band – Ahmed’s Bodhi and in particular Yen’s blind warrior Chirrut and his offsider Baze (Wen) – are left lacking, with little discussion given over to why they are suddenly part of this ad hoc team. It’s the film’s biggest flaw because it feels like large pieces of important conversation are missing and the relationships between the key characters are ill-defined, stripping away some much needed heart and empathy from this unit we’re following into battle. It’s particularly frustrating because Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze are all obviously cool characters, played well by three good actors.

The film still survives and thrives despite its shortcomings. These richer character layers have been jettisoned for a more streamlined, relentlessly paced story that races from one shoot-out to the next. It’s enjoyable stuff that never lets up or drags at any point in its two hours-plus running time.

One of the many, many criticisms of the prequels was they made the universe too small (Darth Vader made C3PO, knew Greedo, and fought alongside clones of Boba Fett’s dad? Huh?). Although Rogue One throws in some welcome nods to the other films with the presence of familiar faces, they never feel gratuitous or serve to shrink the universe. With its new planets and raft of new characters, it expands the Star Wars galaxy, helping restore a sense of vastness and richness to the cosmos.

Given how ingrained in Episode IV’s story it is - the end of Rogue One almost runs straight into the start of A New Hope – it's surprising how fresh Rogue One feels. Yes, it's a Star Wars film through and through, but it's unlike any of its seven predecessors in some ways. It's filled with gritted teeth, desperation, and a nervous energy – the much-touted line that it feels like a war film is on the money. Whereas JJ Abrams nailed the mythic quality of the series in The Force Awakens, Edwards has pinned down the military side – JJ got the “star”, Edwards got the “wars”.

Speaking of stars, Mendelssohn is the stand-out performer amid a strong field (Jones, Whitaker and Yen are all great) as high-ranking Imperial Director Krennic. Jyn is an excellent heroine and Andor a fine second fiddle, although the scene-stealer is K2-S0 (voiced by Tudyk), another droid you'll love in the fine tradition of R2-D2 and BB8.

As mentioned, there are some returning familiar faces, but it must be said that some of those faces look weird – the power of CGI brings back a couple of characters via a quick trip through uncanny valley. It’s startling and distracting at first, even if it’s great to see these figures back on the big screen.

In short, Rogue One works. It’s a cracking sci-fi adventure worthy of the Star Wars brand. There’s no opening crawl, no Jedi, no mention of the name Skywalker, and plenty of new music, but Rogue One does a great job of walking the fine line between being a Star Wars film and not feeling like any other Star Wars film.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Office Christmas Party

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Josh Gordon & Will Speck

Cast: Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T. J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry.

McKinnon, Bateman, Miller and Munn get ready to party down.

THIS is how I presume this movie was pitched.

A group of writers walked into the office of Dreamworks Pictures, sat down and said: “Here’s the idea – the biggest, craziest office Christmas party ever”.

“I love it,” said the executive. “What’s it called?”

Office Christmas Party.”

“Brilliant. Here’s $45 million.”

And thus we have Office Christmas Party which, to be fair, does exactly what it says on the box. It promises crazy laughs at the expense of the most outrageously over-the-top work celebration you’ve ever seen, and on that front it delivers.

The plot leading up to and out of the titular shindig centres around a tech company branch run by popular party boy Clay (Miller), who is threatened with massive job cuts by his strict sister and interim chief executive Carol (Aniston).

In an effort to land a much-needed massive account and save the branch, Clay, his right-hand-man Josh (Bateman) and tech wizard Tracey (Munn) pull together the biggest bash possible in order to win over a prospective client (Vance).

The lack of effort put into the title almost extends to the plot, which is neatly scripted and flows well but is packed to the brim with every cliché you’d anticipate in a film called Office Christmas Party. On one hand, this means it doesn’t disappoint expectations, but on the other hand, there is a sense of deja vu as the film fails to exceed any expectations.

You could play Movie Party Bingo with this film. As happens with every movie in which someone throws “a party to end all parties”, everything is unimaginably awesome and everyone is having fun until it descends into chaos as the hedonism kicks in and the dark side of humanity comes to the fore. Someone will unknowingly take drugs. Someone will be horribly injured. Daring feats will be attempted. Enemies will make up and make out. Secret crushes will be revealed. The people trying to maintain civility will give in or succumb. There will be fires, water damage, violence, weird sexual encounters and gatecrashers.

Throw in the usual workplace stuff, a “save the company” countdown, and the somehow typical strippers/gangsters/pimps/drug dealers that end up in adult comedies, and it’s all a bit same-same.

But amid all this predictability and a line-up of characters that are largely clichéd (tough lady boss vs party boy boss, buttoned-down HR person desperate to cut loose, the under-appreciated secret heroes of the office, the nerd who can’t get a girlfriend), the saving graces are the laughs and the cast. As tiresome as the big party plot has become (see also Sisters, Project X, Animal House, The Party, Superbad etc) there is plenty of humour amid the shenanigans. Office Christmas Party at least has a pretty high hit-rate of gags.

This is partly down to the experienced comedic hands in the cast. Aniston, who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her comedic chops, is great in an unlikeable role and owns most of the scenes she’s in. Bateman does what he always does (which is be funny) but has next to no chemistry with the usually great Munn, who is unfortunately the ensemble’s weakest link. Miller also does his usual schtick and is a good fit for bouncing off the comparative straightness of Bateman and Aniston. McKinnon, Corddry, Bell, Vance, Sam Richardson, Randall Park, and Karan Soni round out the cast nicely.

Office Christmas Party is kind of like a regular drinking session with your friends. You know what to expect, there are no real surprises, and there are probably more constructive and intelligent things you could be doing, but it’s pretty funny and you’ll have a good time.

Thursday, 1 December 2016


(G) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Mike Mitchell & Walt Dohrn.

Cast: (voices of) Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor.

Did someone puke up a rainbow in here?

The current plan at the big studios is to pick cultural touchstones from the '80s and '90s and repackage them as movies for a new generation.

It's an ingenious plan – you lure in the parents who grew up with these things and they bring their kids. Everyone wins and the studios make all the money.

This explains why we’ve had new Ghostbusters, Smurfs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies in recent times, and goes some way toward explaining the abomination that was Pixels (but not fully – nothing will ever fully explain that piece of crap).

It also partly explains the success of the new Star Wars movie and The Lego Movie - there are three generations with built-in brand recognition there (although they were also genuinely good movies, which helps).

This all brings us to Trolls, which is based on the odd cultural phenomenon that was the colourfully hirsute little toy known as a troll doll. They were big in the ‘80s and ‘90s. No one is sure why exactly, but they were definitely a thing.

There was no story around the troll dolls – they were just toys. Several computer games and TV shows have been made in an attempt to create a backstory and a world for them to exist in, but each disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

In this version, put out by Dreamworks Animation (Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon), the trolls are an all-singing, all-dancing and all-hugging race of smurf-ish beings led by King Peppy (Tambor) and his daughter Princess Poppy (Kendrick).

When we are first introduced to them, they are the farmed food of the hideous Bergens, but a daring escape led by King Peppy ushers them to freedom. Fast forward 20 years, and Poppy is throwing a big party celebrating the anniversary of their exodus but resident grouchy troll Branch (Timberlake) thinks such a spectacle will attract the unwanted attention of the Bergens – and he’s right.

It all sounds so kidsy (it’s rated G) but the good news is that Trolls is surprisingly hilarious and does a reasonable job of appealing to all ages. The plot and its theme about how everyone has happiness inside them are definitely aimed young, plus you just know that singing and dancing is going to win the day, but you’d have to be a real Bergen to hate it.

Part of the all-ages appeal is also in the music, with a good mix of new and old songs peppered throughout. On occasion the musical interludes slow things down, but mostly they’re used intelligently, in particular the clever use of tracks such as True Colours, Hello and Clint Eastwood.

The look of the film is pretty cool – everything is animated to look like it’s made of felt and clay, with the Bergen’s town showing a touch of Laika’s The Boxtrolls. Meanwhile, the trolls' home looks like someone ate a packet of crayons and puked up a rainbow.

It should be noted that the Trolls have been slightly remodelled to ensure they look cuter. Not that anyone will care or object – it’s doubtful there are hardcore troll aficionados ready to flip out about that, or the fact that some of the trolls fart glitter (I’m not even making that up).

For the most part, Trolls is flimsy and fluffy but fun. There are some good gags, but there are also some weird what-the-hell moments (in particular a character called Cloud Guy) and it lacks the emotive power of anything by Pixar or Laika.

But don’t be afraid, parents. Trolls is like Smurfs, but way better and way funnier and actually a good movie.