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Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Taika Waititi Does It Again
"Thor: Ragnarok" is be the best time I've had at the cinema in a long time. And the most enjoyable superhero film I've yet seen.
Possibly what makes this even more delightful is how unexpected it is. Cards on the table. Prior to this film, Thor was boring. I have seen "Thor: The Dark World" twice. I still can't really remember what it was about.
And here's where Taika Waititi's talent shines through. We hear a lot about those directors who make "beautiful" films. And here I'm mainly thinking of Ridley Scott and Zack Snyder who make great-looking films, but seem to feel that characterisation and motivation just aren't important.
But Taika Waititi appears to be a director who understands that it's characters who drive a great story. Here, he allows the actors room to find their characters through improvisation. "Thor: Ragnarok" finally allowed Chris Hemsworth to show us that Thor is more than a god-like superhero with a firm jaw, and it pays off in spades.
But it's not just Hemsworth who benefits from Waititi's direction. "Thor: Ragnarok" is so stuffed full of great performances you'll walk out of the cinema arguing over who was your favourite character. The "new & improved" Hulk? Cate Blanchett clearly having great fun at the Goddess of Death? The dazed & confused Bruce Banner? Amazingly enough, that's just the start of it. Often the stars of the film are the new side-characters. Valkyrie is absolutely terrific, Scourge has a believable journey; Korg is a hoot and the banter between Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster and the wonderful Rachel House as his guard is a joy.
But focusing on Waititi's directorial strength as an actor's director isn't to diminish the visual style of the film either. Some of the scenes - most notably the Valkyrie attack on Hela are stunning. And the scenes on Siccar take the retro-cool 1970's aesthetic of James Gunn's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and runs even further with it.
Finally, the story is genuinely satisfying with an ending that doesn't rely on constant bashing and brute force winning the day. There's actually a pretty smart resolution at work here, involving a major sacrifice.
"Thor 3" flies in the face of those who predict the bursting of the superhero bubble. This film opens so many doors I can't wait for Marvel and DC to keep on exploring new ways to tell these stories.
Stephen King finally captured on screen
IT is not my favourite adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Obviously, that would be "Shawshank". But there's something about IT that feels more authentically Stephen King than any of the other adaptations I've seen (and I've seen a LOT - I've even seen "Firestarter" and King's performance as Jordy Verrill).
This is not to say that it is wholly faithful to the novel. It is not, and with good reason. There are some parts of IT-novel that would never work on screen. Let's just say that the turtle only gets a cameo role as a piece of Lego in this film and quite right too.
But where the film seems to capture the strengths of King is in warping reality, just a little. Venturing into the basement and seeing something that might be eyes, glowing in the dark. Passing by a creepy picture every day and trying to NOT look at it... just in case...
These are the experiences we've all had - but in King's world the thing you know that CAN'T happen sometimes does. And sometimes those eyes in the dark look right back at you.
Director Muschietti captures this spot-on. Also King's ability to take more prosaic horrors like school bullies or overly-affectionate fathers and add them to the palette. I could hear the audience around me tense up whenever Mr. Marsh was on screen.
The reason it works so well is that the film takes the time to develop (most) of the child characters well. Unfortunately, a film's running time is a tyrannical thing so Stanley and Mike lose out. In Stanley's case, I think this might be a problem for chapter 2. In Mike's case, I didn't mind so much - the acting in this film is uniformly good except in the case of the actor who plays that part. I'm sorry, but he was wooden in comparison to the rest of the Losers.
So this is not by any means a perfect film, but I can see why it has been so spectacularly successful. It's a terrific ghost-train ride. If you go in with the right frame of mind it will make laugh, jump and be enthralled.
IT is definitely NOT the scariest film ever made though. Go in with that expectation and you will be disappointed. This is a film that wants to entertain as much as scare - it's often as funny as it is spooky.
But IT does have one ace up its sleeve - the nightmarish creation that is Pennywise. We all have a built-in suspicion of the creature who smiles too wide, whose friendly grin so easily becomes a snarl, a rictus of bared teeth. King didn't create our shared fear of clowns, he just built on it. His Pennywise is a creature that will be hard to forget, and I even though I didn't feel that scared during the film, I felt my mind going back to him for a few days after I saw it. Bill Skarsgard gives an amazing performance as a being not quite in its own skin, and the subtle special effects merely emphasise his strangeness.
I'm looking forward to IT Chapter 2 much more than I ever expected. This is a far better film than I thought it would be. But I'm also hoping that Chapter 2 will really take the gloves off and try to terrify in a way that Chapter 1 shied away from. Chapter 1 did feel a little like an R rated kid's film, or "Stranger Things" with a more meaningful monster. I hope that in Chapter 2, the fears are fully-grown. But this will do nicely for now.
Dunkirk or "Christopher Nolan Wants To Hit You Around The Head With a Bat"
There's not much said in "Dunkirk" for a lot of the time. Occasionally, officers heave into view for some handy bits of exposition, but mostly this is a film where the soundtrack consists of tortured metal grinding, diving bombers screaming, engines roaring and Hans Zimmer's score.
And what a score it is. More industrial BWAAAMPS and thuds, as if the sounds of battle were not horrific enough.
It's to make the point that war is hell. I get that. Although I've also come to the conclusion that war could potentially be worse if it was accompanied by a Hans Zimmer score.
The story mainly consists of one event that took place during the Dunkirk evacuation, seen from three different points of view, that you then see three times during the movie. Yes, playing around with a non-traditional narrative structure is cool and clever. But it's also kind of pointless in a film like this.
I mean, we in the audience sit there, potentially in suspense - will the thing that we've seen happen twice before in the movie happen again the third time?? Well, of course it will. Suspense gone. Patience running thin.
The movie ends abruptly on a note of patriotism. Nothing wrong with that. But hearing Churchill quoted as Elgar swells isn't exactly subtle is it? But Christopher Nolan seems to have lost touch with subtlety. He wants his audience bludgeoned, beaten, BWAAAAAMP'ed into submission. I think I'll stick with David Lean.
Baby Driver (2017)
Slight and Insubstantial
I'm a bit perplexed by the ecstatic reviews. Perhaps it's just that "Baby Driver" is different compared to Marvel Movie #21 or Generic CGI Robot Saga #5.
Either way, the strengths of the film seem to be summarised as follows:
Cool soundtrack. Great editing. Some mildly funny lines. Some great car chases. Kevin Spacey is always great in everything. Except maybe "Nine Lives".
I'm struggling to say more about it than that. It was pleasant, it passed the time. I didn't get bored. But I'm struggling to understand the 10 star reviews which bypass the spit-through characterisation and the repetitive story (it's essentially just three car-chases interspersed with a very flimsy plot). The romance between the two leads is pleasant enough, but it is pretty by-the-numbers teen stuff.
In the last third of the film it falls apart completely. The motivations of certain characters start to make no sense other than they move the plot to where it needs to go for the next set-piece. I'm honestly still trying to figure out why Kevin Spacey's character acted as he did at the end.
So you see what I mean? It's a decent film. I'd buy the soundtrack, and watch it on DVD. But I suspect if it didn't have the name Edgar Wright on the credits you could probably reduce its IMDb rating by about a third.
And now that I think about it... Marvel Sequel #21 probably had more depth to it. And Guardians of the Galaxy probably had the better soundtrack too.
Shriek! Yeek! Aiee! Squeal!
There are so many great things about this film - the opening dash for the poison, the traps beneath the palace, the mine chase and the exciting confrontation on the bridge, and of course Harrison Ford.
Which makes it all the more frustrating that it also contains such boneheaded elements and irritating side-kicks. Neither Willie Scott or Short Round seem to be able to communicate without yelling or screaming, even when not in peril. From "YOU CALL HIM DOCTOR JONES!!!" to "DIAMONDS!!" or "TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT I SLIPPED THROUGH YOUR FINGERS" to "VERY FUNNY! HA HA! ALL WET!" The shouting (and the over-acting) never ceases.
This isn't just some middle-aged cynic speaking by the way. Even as a 15 year old seeing this in the cinema, I wished Short Round could be replaced by Squashed Flat.
Add to that a frankly ridiculous escape from a crashing plane, an embarrassingly awful "funny food" routine and some pretty bad racial stereotypes and it's really only the fact that Spielberg stages the action well that kept me watching.
It's hard to say whether this is worse than Crystal Skull, which had serious problems of its own. But despite that, I think part 4 is not as much of a chore to sit through as parts of this film.
Action-Packed Zombies - Heavy-Handed Storyline
There are good and bad things about "Train to Busan". It's a claustrophobic zombie movie that makes the most of having its protagonists trapped on a speeding train with a horde of ravenous zombies.
It doesn't milk that situation of being trapped quite as effectively as "REC" but the action sequences are spectacular and the zombie attacks are very well-staged.
Other reviewers have praised the social satire element of the film. Hmm... I found it might have worked better if it were not laid on with a trowel. The "douche" fund-manager, the evil executive who just NEVER MISSES an opportunity to screw someone over. I found it painfully sentimental at times and "Yes, I get it" obvious at others.
At this moment in history, when the rich and powerful are turning us against each other in order to further their own interests we do need films with messages like this. And on the whole I enjoyed "Train to Busan" more than I didn't. But if there is to be remake, I do hope the film-makers allow for a little more subtlety in there.
I suppose it's a question of taste, and some people may find the BBC adaptations more realistic than the ITV Poirot & Marple adaptations, but I'm afraid both this and last year's "And Then There Were None" just leave me thoroughly depressed.
While both have been well-acted and well-directed, there seems to be an insistence on making things as bleak, miserable and depressing as follows, from the coughing-fit sex scene to the muted colours with no really likable characters at all.
Perhaps it is wrong to expect stories of murder to be fun. And maybe shows like "Midsomer Murders" cater for the likes of me.
I just find it irritating that in order to gain critical respectability, the BBC feels a need to pour a thick layer of dismal over their Christie adaptations. As excellent an actor as Toby Jones is, I found myself longing for Charles Laughton's bombast and energy.
And yes, I must admit, I miss the flashy, cartoony ITV Marple series. What a shame the BBC now has the rights to those stories too.
Jurassic World (2015)
Great Fun - Don't Think About The Subtext...
I thoroughly enjoyed this sequel to Jurassic Park - which is practically a remake of the original in terms of storyline, but manages to re-energise the series by having likable leads and a genuinely scary monster.
The plot is by-the-numbers for a monster film. Tree-hugging animal lovers talk about animals, while evil corporate types talk about assets. As a bonus, we've also got an oily Vince D'Onofrio muttering about using the beasts for military purposes. I think we know who's going to make it and who's going to end up as dino-snax.
But I forgive it that, for the spectacle and the verve of the piece. I even forgive it for wasting Irrfan Khan, my favourite Bollywood actor.
What's harder to stomach is the not-so-subtle message that women who don't take care of kids aren't proper women. Dudes can get away with this sort of behaviour but Bryce Dallas Howard's character (and her assistant) clearly have something wrong with them for not going all dewey and matronly when kids show up. Even the mother (Judy Greer, who seems to be making a career as put-upon mom in films lately) is shown as letting down the side by working. Hey, where's dad in all this? Funnily enough, no-one mentions how he neglects his kids by daring to have a job.
It's a bit mid-1970's in terms of attitude is what I'm saying. But - sigh - I'll overlook that too. You can think too much about these things. Howard is actually pretty good in the movie, Chris Pratt is great and the raptors are just adorable.
The kids aren't too annoying. I'm not fond of kids in films. I suspect if I was in a Jurassic Park film I'd get eaten in the first 10 minutes for admitting that.
Rogue One (2016)
Disney Do What Lucas Could Not
There were so many negative comments about Disneyfication of the Star Wars universe - making it more child-friendly, more merchandise- driven, more bland, more blah, more nothing.
This film feels like a one-fingered salute to all of that criticism.
The fact is that "Rogue One" is a brave experiment and a film that really steps away from the tone - if not the setting - of Star Wars in a way no other film in the franchise has dared. It's the boldest move since "The Empire Strikes Back".
Feeling more like "Where Eagles Dare" or "The Dirty Dozen" in space, this film paints a more complex picture of the rebellion. Not a united group of like-minded, high-minded freedom fighters, but a group of zealots with mixed motivations, underhand methods and no lofty ambitions.
Felicity Jones makes an excellent heroine, without Jedi powers or especially strong with the Force, just with a desire to reunite with her father (Mads Mikkelson) whose existence manages to explain really neatly a major plot point in "A New Hope".
To save her father, Jones' character has to team up with a disparate group of rebels and from there it's an action-packed race against time to once again thwart the Evil Empire.
Is it entirely successful? I think so. I think it sets out what it intended to do, which is make a war movie in space, complete with "Battle of Britain" style dogfights and "The Dirty Dozen" style battles. I've read criticisms that the cast isn't as charismatic as the original trio of stars - that's probably fair. But they compare favourably to the new leads (Ridley, Boyega and Isaac) and they blow Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman out of the water.
But a note of warning - if the film fails it is because this is in no way a movie for kids. The characers and settings aren't so colourful. Parts of it look like footage from Beirut in the 80's. Plus, it strikes the bleakest end note since "Empire" and that may be unsatisfying for those expecting happy endings from Star Wars movies.
It's a brave move, a most un-Disney move, and I hope that Disney continues to make non-Star Wars films in the Star Wars universe.
Save Me From Fanboy Hate
Dear lord, there's nothing more furious than a disappointed fanboy.
Having read page after page after page of 1 star "Worst. Film. Ever." type reviews I had to redress the balance.
"The Force Awakens" is a good, enjoyable, sci-fi romp. There, I've said it.
Sadly, that's not what these chaps appear to have wanted. I think they were after a the sci-fi equivalent of a 5th gospel or something. Although I concede that the main criticism - that the film shamelessly steals plot-points from "A New Hope" are well- founded.
However, what a lot of these fanatics appear to have forgotten is that the "Remake! Not sequel!" criticism was equally applied to "Return of the Jedi" when it came out (I remember it well - and although it pre-dated the internet, print critics were particularly harsh about the "new" Death Star and the uber-cuteness of the Ewoks).
Thirty years on, "Return of the Jedi" is a film we all now apparently agree is another good, enjoyable, sci-fi romp. So "Star Wars" under the guidance of George Lucas, plagiarised itself. And now JJ Abrams has done the same - why the outrage?
A few of the reviews claim this film is worse than episodes 1 to 3 despite the fact that the leads in this film are actually pretty good (and not burdened with risible dialogue about medichloriens).
The plot is fast-moving, the return of the "veterans" is well- handled and Kylo Ren is a much more interesting villain than Darth Maul, Count Dooku and General Grievous combined. The bad guys aren't villainous pseudo-Japanese (instead you get a Scottish hard man) there isn't a horrid child actor and some of the dialogue is actually pretty funny.
Yes, I experienced deja vu during this movie. You have to bear in mind that the writers were clearly trying to make this "familiar" to audiences, given they were introducing 3 new unfamiliar leads. But the action sequels are breathless and enjoyable and the visuals are terrific.
People giving this film one star need to take a breath, step back and appreciate what the film makers have accomplished. They've brought excitement back to something that nearly sent me to sleep in the turgid "Attack of the Clones". Give these guys a break.
p.s. Also, no Jar-Jar. That in itself must be worth a 3 point bonus.