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Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Laika's Best Film Yet
Kubo and the Two Strings is the fourth feature film from Studio Laika, the animation studio responsible for some of the best stop motion films of the past couple of years. Their previous work includes Coraline, The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman, all of which have been consistently fantastic, mixing studio Laika's signature stop motion animation with heartfelt stories and memorable characters. And Kubo might just be their best film yet. It's the brilliant kind of family film that doesn't just try to distract kids for an hour and a half, but instead challenges them, whilst also taking us on an epic adventure not quite like any I've seen done through stop motion animation before.
The films story feels as if it's been ripped right from the pages of a classic fairy-tale. Kubo (Art Parkinson) is a young boy gifted with magical powers that allow him to control paper using his shamisen. At day he uses his powers to tell stories in a nearby town, often telling tales of his father, who was a legendary samurai warrior. Then at night he must return to live with his mother in a cave, as if he wonders out at night Kubo's grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), will find him and steal his remaining eye to make him blind to the world.
One night Kubo ventures out too long and his grandfather sends his mothers sisters (both played by Rooney Mara) to capture him. Now with the help of a strict and protective monkey (Charlize Theron) that has been bought to life from a wood carving to protect Kubo and Beetle (Matthew McConaghey) who is a samurai that was transformed in to a giant insect man, Kubo sets off on a quest to find his fathers armour and defeat the Moon King.
They never really explore much what exactly the Moon King's powers are or why they need to find the armour to defeat him. But just like we never need to know where the fairy godmother comes from in Cinderella, we never need a backstory here. We're so caught up enjoying the adventure and are too invested in Kubo's journey to start questioning the logic of this world. Also whilst all the characters of the film play their typical roles, they all play them so well. Our trio of heroes are all hilarious and lovable whilst the villains are genuinely threatening, having an intimidating presence whenever they're on screen in a similar style to the Other Mother from Coraline.
The story is the stuff of mythical legend, but Kubo's journey in the film is one that we can all relate to. He ends up facing a great deal of loss in the film, which is something that any viewer can relate to in some way. But the film tackles death in a very unique way. Instead of just showing death to be the end, this film serves to remind us that the ones we love will always be with us within the memories that we cherish. That they can live on through us and the stories that we tell. It's a message that might sound difficult and complex for a kids film, but it's told in such an elegant way that it's actually a very accessible message for audiences of all ages.
Then there's the films breath taking imagery. It's always incredible to see what minds like Pixar are able to do with computer generated animation, but there's something truly special about seeing a film on this scale made using stop motion animation. It's the same reason to love a film like Fury Road over something else that favours CGI. It just looks all the more impressive when it's really there. Plus the epic scale that Laika's undertaken for this production is remarkable. Whilst there is some CGI used, the focus on all the action sequences remains on using real sets and stop motion characters to tell the story. For example, in one stunning sequence Kubo is fighting a giant skeleton to retrieve a sword, which the animators created by using a giant 18 foot puppet in order to capture the scale of the monster.
Kubo is a rare family film that succeeds at just about everything that it sets out to do. It's both fun and adventurous, whilst also containing a very melancholy tone that's never afraid to take the film in to some dark places. Beyond this, the films ending, particularly its final shot, is something truly beautiful that really must be experienced to be completely understood.
Finding Dory (2016)
Dory Never Reaches the Same Depths As Nemo, But It's Still a Lot of Fun
Whilst Pixar has a deserving reputation for being one of the greatest animation studios of all time, their sequels have tended to be a lot more hit and miss. The second and third Toy Story films are some of the studios best works, but its other sequels 'Cars 2' and 'Monsters University' are probably the studios biggest disappointments. As for finding Dory it's probably somewhere between these two extremes. It doesn't quite live up to Finding Nemo, but it's still a worthwhile sequel that still better than the mediocrity of 'Cars 2'.
Taking place about a year after the first film, Dory (Elen DeGeneres) has started a happy new life with Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence). But one day when helping out with a class trip at Nemo's school Dory see's something that remind her about her family and she realises she has to find them. Knowing what it's like to lose their family, Marlin and Nemo go with Dory on a journey across the ocean to find her family. Their search quickly leads them to an aquarium (wisely changed from being located at Seaworld after the Blackfish documentary) where Dory rediscovers her roots and remembers her life before she found Nemo.
It's a good story and one that does feel like an organic development from the first film, but it does feel like a step down from Finding Nemo. Whilst the journey still allows for a lot of emotional moments, there's never the same feeling of urgency or danger as there was in the first film. Plus everything just feels like it's happening on a smaller scale this time. Instead of focusing on a vast adventure across the sea, it's much more scaled down from Finding Nemo taking place almost entirely within the aquarium. It's still a fun setting, but it fails to recapture either the epic scale of Marlins adventure across the ocean, or Nemo's hilariously confined setting of a dentist's fish bowl.
Unlike Cars 2 where Mater never felt like he was a strong enough character to be the lead, it really felt natural to have Dory become the lead. Dory has such a likable personality and DeGeneres' incredible comedic timing makes it difficult not to love her. Plus she's still able to have a lot of powerful emotional moments, including one dramatic sequence that shows her before meeting Marlin and searching the sea for years slowly forgetting her family across her lifetime. It's also a lot of fun to see Albert Brooks return as Marlin and it's nice to see how he's become Dory's surrogate family. But Nemo's return was a little more disappointing. He's still the cute and kind clownfish that we knew from the first film, but he never really has much to do in the film other than just tag along.
There's also a range of new aquatic creatures that the gang encounters when they're exploring the aquarium. There's Destiny (Katilyn Olson) a blind whale who Dory knew as a child who offers a friendly glimpse in to Dory's past. A pair of kind sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West) who want to do nothing but nap on their rock. Though the best addition is a octopus with a missing leg named Hank (Ed O'Neil) the loner who is says he's helping Dory for his own gain, but is shown to be a creature with 3 hearts of gold. He's also a real scene stealer with a dry wit and some really creative and over the top sequences showing him getting around the aquarium. Seeing him blend in to environments and sling himself across the aquarium does lead to the most visually creative sequences of the film.
Parts of the film does seem a little too over the top at times. Even for a film with talking fish, some moments where we see fish flying through the air or at one point even driving a truck seems a little too unbelievable. But it does always remain fun. Plus whilst the film shares several story ideas and characters to its predecessor, it's still able to remain wholly original by introducing its own ideas about family and has several scenes that will be able to resonate with audiences of all ages.
A Tragic Masterpiece
Near the beginning of Shame we're given a glimpse in to Brandon's (Michael Fassenbender) life as he sits alone on a train. He catches the eye of a pretty young woman who gives him a smile. As he begins to look her up and down he notices that she's wearing a wedding ring. But this doesn't matter to him. Brandon is unable to resist and tries follows her off the train, before losing her in the crowd. He is completely controlled by his addiction and is trapped in his own self-loathing life style. Throughout this entire sequence, Fassenbender has a look of complete anguish on his face. He gains no pleasure from pursuing his sexual needs. He feels only shame.
Steve McQueen represents sex addiction as a form of self-abuse, with the agonising pain Brandon's sex addiction causes himself being bought to the forefront of practically every scene. McQueen avoids the clichés of a typical Hollywood sex scene, with shots uncomfortably lingering for too long and maintaining a focus of Brandon's emotional fallout throughout the scene. In one of the most powerful and tragic moments of the film McQueen ends a sex scene with a close up of Fassenbender's face as he orgasms. His expression is a mixture of pain and misery, with the entire scene having such an overwhelming feeling of anguish that feels similar to a death scene a death scene.
In spite of Brandons addiction controlling his entire life, nobody around him seems to notice. Every girl he meets seems to be perfectly fine catering to his every sexual need (although to be fair many of these girls are hookers just doing their jobs). His co- workers seem completely oblivious to the fact that Brandon spends most of his time at work jacking off in the bathroom. Even when Brandon's boss discovers that his entire hard drive is filled with porn, his boss quickly assumes that it belongs to his assistant and remains completely unaware of his addiction.
The only person who seems to be aware of his addiction is his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who moves in to his apartment whilst she has some gigs in the city. But she doesn't seem to be able to help much since Brandon appears to want to create as much distance between the two of them as possible, constantly avoiding her calls and remaining extremely aggressive towards her at any opportunity he gets.
It also doesn't help that Sissy is just as self-destructive as Brandon is. But whereas he is cold and detached, Sissy is in dire need of emotional support with a history of self-harm who has cut herself several times in the past. We never know exactly what caused them to become this way, but it's clear they've both been damaged in the past. This history is instead told through both Fassenbender and Mulligans powerhouse performances that can tell a history of suffering and anguish without needing to say a single word.
Sissy keeps reaching out to Brandon and Brandon keeps pushing her away, leaving them both completely isolated. And this is probably the greatest tragedy of Shame, as it is the lack of any real support that leaves addicts like Brandon unable to escape their lifestyle. They'll either keep their addiction hidden in embarrassment or actively push away anybody who could actually help them, leaving them trapped in their own self-harming life-style and unable to stop their path of self-destruction.
The entire tone of Shame strongly resembles Requiem for a Dream. It creates a similar tone of complete despair and serves as a harrowingly realistic representation of the pitfalls of addiction. It's a true masterpiece, though also one that can be hard to sit through.
Suicide Squad (2016)
They're the bad guys. Well, kind of bad
On paper Suicide Squad seemed like it should have been DC's golden child. It had a stellar cast that included Oscar winner Jarred Leto and rising star Margot Robbie, it was being helmed by director David Ayer who's written great villainous leads in the past such as Alonzo Harris in Training Day and the trailers made it look like we were going to get everything that we'd want from a Suicide Squad movie. But somewhere along the line all this potential got wasted and Suicide Squad has ended up being the biggest misfire from DC Entertainment since Green Lantern.
The Suicide Squad is based around a group of dangerous meta-humans put together by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and led by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman). This team includes the most deadly shooter in the world Deadshot (Will Smith), the Jokers girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), an Australian thief called Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a fire conjurer called El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a human reptile called Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and a woman with a sword capable of trapping the souls of its victims named Katana (Karen Kukuhara).
Unfortunately the film seems to glaze through all the character introductions as quickly as I've done in the last paragraph, with Viola Davis presenting each of the characters in the beginning as if she were reading off the background summaries from trading cards. Even Harley Quinn, who has one of the darkest and most interesting backstories of how she entered an abusive relationship with the Joker, has her history summed up in a very brief two minute flashback. Although she still gets more time to be introduced than most, with some characters just showing up out of nowhere to join the team without any explanation whatsoever.
In spite of the core concept of the suicide squad being that they're a task force of dangerous villains, the film makes every member of the squad seem like very noble characters. Whilst the film constantly reminds us that they're "the bad guys", there never seems to be much to differentiate the Suicide Squad from any other superhero team. At one point there's nothing stopping some members of the Squad from simply leaving, but they still stay for no other reason than to save the day. Their characterisation is similar to the crew from the Fast and Furious films. Sure they're criminals, but at the end of the day we're supposed to root for them since they're still going to do the right thing. They just complain more whilst they do it.
Though the films saving grace is that it does have some great performances. Will Smith brings back the charm and quick wit that made him a star in films like Independence Day and Men in Black. Margot Robbie gives Harley Quinn a great live action cinematic debut with an unpredictable, chaotic nature that feels partly like the Joker and partly like the wife from the Honeymooners.
Viola Davies brings a level of cold heartedness and brutality to Amanda Waller in a performance that is probably the most loyal to the comics of any character in the film. The film also boosts a charismatic and loud mouthed performance from Jai Courtney and a surprisingly heartfelt performance by Jay Harnandez, whose fire blasting antihero ends up getting the best story arc of the entire film.
These performances are so good that most of the films best moments are when the film has the characters personalities bounce off one another, like Captain Boomerang teasing other members or Deadshot annoying El Diablo to get him to burn out a room full of enemies. The best scene in the film ends up just being when the squad stops to get some drinks in the bar and just start talking to each other.
It's just a shame that Jared Leto, one of the films strongest cast members, doesn't even get an opportunity to interact with any members of the Suicide Squad other than Harley Quinn. In fact, in spite of Leto's prominent billing in marketing he hardly gets any screen time throughout the entire film. He was great in the short time he got, giving the Joker a young, brutal, mob boss style, so I'm looking forward to seeing him in future DC films. But his talents do not get the chance to shine here.
Supposedly there was a lot cut from the film, including a lot more of the Joker and several cool trailer moments that don't end up appearing in the final film. So just like Dawn of Justice: Ultimate Edition there is probably a better version of the Suicide Squad sitting on a cutting room floor somewhere. But unless that gets released I'd advise just checking out the animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham. It's does far better justice to the Suicide Squad characters and is everything that this film should have been.
The Little Prince (2015)
"All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it."
Proving that Disney doesn't have a monopoly on adapting classic stories with whimsy and wonder, Mark Osborne has successfully brought 'The Little Prince' to life through a beautiful mixture of computer generated and stop motion animation. It's already an instant classic, with a thought provoking, multi-layered story and some visually stunning animation.
We start off the film in a CGI world where a Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy) has just moved houses so that she can be within correct district to attend a prestigious school. This is all part of her Mother's (Rachel McAdams) life plan to turn her in to "a wonderful grown up". This life plan includes planning out literally her entire life, giving her daughter clear instructions of what she should be doing down to every hour, including a summer break that includes nothing but revising from text books.
But all this changes when her old, eccentric neighbour, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges) enters her life and begins to tell her the story of The Little Prince (Riley Osborne). Thus we are introduced to a stop motion animated world, telling a tale of how the Little Prince fell in love with a Rose (Marion Cotillard) and then travelled across the stars meeting many strange characters, including the Businessman who seeks to own ever star (Albert Brooks), the conceited man who believes all should admire him (Ricky Gervais) and the Fox (James Franco) who the Prince seeks to tame.
Much is added to the original novella, but director Mark Osborne ensures that the film never strays too far from the original novellas tone or themes. Instead the messages of the novella, such as needing to explore in order to learn and grow as a person, are given an entire new layer through the girls interactions with the Aviator. On top of this every voice performance (which includes the directors own son playing the Little Prince) seems perfectly cast. This includes a great performance from Jeff Bridges who is able to balance both the eccentric and heartfelt side of the Aviator.
Both of the animation styles complement each other very well. In the CGI world there's a lot of emphasis on the blandness of what growing up can be like with grey colours and the lack of any uniqueness or identity. The houses in the neighbourhood are so similar that the mother even drives past her own home since you can't tell them apart. In contrast the stop motion style is so full of life and colour. It's as if the pages are literally coming to life with the stop motion focusing on details like shadows and the crinkled paper look for each of the characters.
The film does falter a little within its third act that favours trading out its focus on its characters and story, instead having the girl travelling on an exciting adventure across the stars to save the Little Prince. It never detracts from either the messages of the film or of the original book and it's still an entertaining third act. But it does depart from the rest of the films unique and subtle beauty, in favour of an action sequence that feels out of tone to the rest of the film. Although this is only a slight misstep as the films finale is emotional and leaves a deep impact that is bound to resonate with viewers of any age.
Far Better Than The Trailer Made It Look
Even before it was released, this Ghostbusters reboot had already been the centre of great criticism, even becoming the most disliked trailer in the history of YouTube. But whilst it never feels like this reboot completely escapes the shadow of the 1984 original, Paul Feig's Ghostbusters has successfully defied it's poor trailer by building on the talents and personalities of its entire cast to create a fun, up-beat and all-round entertaining experience.
It more or less follows most of the basic plot beats of the original film. After ghosts begin to pop up in New York, three scientists (Wiig, McCarthy and McKinnon) begin to investigate and along with a subway employee who witnessed the ghosts called Patty (Leslie Jones) they form a team to start fighting these ghosts. The only major difference is this time the ghosts are being lured in to our dimension by a man named Rowan who detests humanity and wants to destroy everyone. He's a villain so uninteresting and generic you'll forget about him as you're watching it.
Fortunately the rest of the cast are all hilarious. They avoid falling in to the trap of being gender swapped versions of the original Ghostbusters cast and instead let their own comedic styles and personalities form unique dynamics between the new characters without relying on the 1984 original.
Wiig plays Abby, a paranormal expert who loses her tenure due to her belief in the paranormal. She is the most restrained member of the cast whose best strength is playing off the other cast members. McCarthy also does well by moving away from her brash and outspoken performances in films like Tammy and Bridesmaids, instead playing a lovable upbeat scientist, in a role that gives her a good opportunity to show of her physical comedic skills.
Leslie Jones is at her best when she's reacting to the strangeness of everything that's going on like running away from a mannequin that's come to life screaming at it to stop. Chris Hemsworth plays the dim-witted secretary, in what at first could have risked being a one note joke of role reversing the dumb blonde stereotype. But Hemsworth seems to elevate the source material with some great comedic delivery that makes him become a surprisingly likable mascot for the film.
Though the real show stealer is definitely Kate McKinnon whose hyper-energetic style dominates the film whenever she's on screen. Even when she's not the focus she'll be in the background doing loads of visual gags. She's a weird mixture of an oddball personality and some great physical comedy to create one of the most charming and bizarre characters from any of Feig's films.
The film is definitely at its strongest when Feig lets his own style takeover and focuses on letting the casts unique personalities and chemistries lead the film. Some of the films best moments are where the characters are just given an opportunity to hang out, like when McKinnon and Wiig are at their new headquarters and randomly burst out in to a small song and dance number that accidentally sets the place on fire.
In contrast the films weakest moments tend to be when it tries to homage or throw in too many call-backs to the original film. At times these are hilarious with cameos from Akroyd and Slimer being some of the best moments of the film that are bound to appease both fans and newcomers alike. But at other times the filmmakers try so hard to show their love of the original film that they end up turning away from the fun personalities of the characters and instead stop the film dead in its track to directly quote lines like "mass hysteria" from the original film. They do references like this so often throughout that it ends up feeling like the film is unable to stand apart entirely from the 1984 original.
Also Feig does seem somewhat limited when it comes to some of the films big action set pieces and seems uncomfortable working with the heavy amounts of CGI. This is particularly clear in the films finale where the film sways away from the actress's chemistry that made the film fun and replaces it with an extended fight sequence against generic looking ghosts that feels like it drags on for way too long.
Though there are still some creative aspects to these sequences. It is cool to see all the different weapons that the Ghostbusters have including things like whips, pistols and grenades that are something genuinely different to what we saw from the original Ghostbusters. And the film as a whole is definitely a lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately it's not going to be good enough to win over people who go in to the film expecting to hate it, but for anyone hoping for a fun movie this will not disappoint.
Blow Out (1981)
The Sound of Murder
Out of Brian De Palma's entire filmography, Blow Out could easily be his most overlooked. Similar to his other works he plays homage to other classic films (such as Blow Up) in his own stylistic direction, whilst also combining it with cynicism and concluding with one of the most tragically powerful moments of De Palma's entire career.
Travolta stars as sound recording artist Jack Terry. He works on cheap exploitation movies and his time is mostly spent gathering sound effects like screams to dub over bad actresses. One night when he's collecting new sound recordings, a car tyre blows out nearby and sends it plunging in to a river. Travolta dives in and rescues a girl named Sally (Nancy Allen) but is unable to save the driver. Later Travolta discovers the driver was a presidential candidate and after reviewing the sound recording becomes convinced that he heard a gunshot before the blow out.
As Travolta begins digging deeper a man named Burke (John Lithgow) emerges who's willing to do anything to cover up what happened, even if it means killing even more people to do it. He's a pure sociopath who never shows any remorse for his actions. Beyond this, many others (including the police) also seem to be covering up whatever happened. Travolta is even told after the accident not to tell anybody that the girl was in the car with him. Supposedly this is to prevent distress to his wife that her husband was in an affair, but Travolta can't be sure that there wasn't some ulterior motive to this cover up.
Similarly to Francis Ford Coopla's The Conversation, it's this feeling of Paranoia that dominates the majority of Blow Out. It's an extremely pessimistic film that is still reeling from the conspiracies and cover ups that surrounded the likes of Watergate and the Kennedy assassination. These events seem to have shaped Travolta's character to be distrusting of almost everyone around him. Even when somebody does eventually offer to help him out, Travolta remains hesitant and convinced that they're in on it too. And for good reason, since he's never entirely certain of just how large this conspiracy is.
De Palma really helps build this paranoia throughout the film through a very voyeuristic style. For example, in one recurring shot we see Travolta from the street looking up at him through a window. This feeling of being watched recurs throughout the entire film and it serves as a constant reminder of the unknown conspiracy that constantly consumes Travolta's life.
De Palma also seems to take great pleasure throughout the film in giving us a look in to the filmmaking process. In the introduction of the film then after following a long take from one of the horror films that Travolta's working on (in a shot resembling the introduction of Halloween) we see how he isolates each individual sound and the attention to detail that's required to create even something like a cheap exploitation film. Then later when Travolta is reviewing the recording of the crash we see the lengths that he goes to so he can put together the audio in order to make a solid case to prove his theories. It's an effective attention to detail that really shows a great appreciation to the entire film-making process.
Interestingly this film is also the reason that Tarantino cast Travolta in Pulp Fiction and Blow Out is definitely a key example of Travolta at his very best. Throughout Travolta seems so worn down and constantly on the verge, whilst also still successfully creating a very loving and natural chemistry with Nancy Allen. On top of this he really brings a real sense of tragedy to the films climax and really brings home just how grim this world can be.
A Disappointing Sequel
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remains one of the greatest martial arts films ever made. The breath-taking cinematography and graceful fighting sequences led it to become the highest grossing film in a foreign language in North America, helped open up the west to Asian cinema and is quite simply a masterpiece. But sadly The Sword of Destiny seems to capture very little of the beauty that made Crouching Tiger so incredible and instead feels more like an attempt to cash in on the legacy of Ang Lee's original film.
Taking place 18 years after the original film, Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) returns to defend the sword Green Destiny once again, this time from the evil Lord Hades (Jason Scott Lee). She is assisted by Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), her ex fiancé who she believed was dead. Meanwhile a young woman known as Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who is training under Shu Lien begins to fall for Wei Fang (Harry Shun Jr), a young thief who attempted to steal the sword for Hades. The film rehashes several story beats from the original film but recreates them with far weaker characterisation and lacks the same depth of its predecessor.
The only returning cast member from the first film is Michelle Yeoh, who does deliver a good performance by bringing the same wisdom and nobility that she bought to the first film. However every other character suffers from a screenplay that is incapable of doing anything other than filling up time until the next action sequence. The main romance in the film between the two young lovers is never able to create any real chemistry. Even Donnie Yen, one of the greatest Chinese action stars, is unable to do anything with his little screen time and the incredibly bland script other than fight and look stoic.
The cinematography mixed with the vast landscapes looks nice at times, but at others the film suffered heavily from an overuse of CGI that feels like a very misguided departure from the natural beauty of the original film. Also instead of being filmed in Mandarin like the original film, the actors instead all speak English. Obviously this is done to appeal to a wider demographic, but it ends up distancing itself even further from the tone of the original film.
Out of everyone who could direct a sequel to Crouching Tiger, Woo- Ping Yuen could at first seem like a good choice. He's directed some of the greatest action films from China (including Drunken Master and Iron Monkey) and was even the action choreographer for the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And he is able to pull of some great fight sequences throughout the film, including one creative sequence battling along a frozen lake. But as impressive as the fight choreography is, it never recaptures the tone of the original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Whereas the fights in Crouching Tiger played out like a delicate dance through which two warriors communicated, Sword of Destiny is an impressive display of fighting skill and stunt work, but nothing much else.
Also whilst Woo-Ping Yuen is quite possibly one of the greatest action directors of all time, his style just wasn't suited here. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wasn't really an action movie. It was a romantic drama cleverly disguised as a martial arts flick. But Sword of Destiny is instead just an action movie with a weak romantic sub-plot tacked on.
The Nice Guys (2016)
Shane Black Remains the Master of Buddy Cop Comedies
On a basic level The Nice Guys works like any buddy cop movie. Great action, well developed characters and a decent story to hold it altogether. But just like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the real strength of The Nice Guys is how Shane Black is able to both mock the clichés in the action genre, many of which he helped to create in films like Lethal Weapon, whilst paying homage to all the action tropes that made the genre what it is today.
Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healey, a tough enforcer whose work mostly includes freelance work of beating up someone for whoever's willing to pay. He has considered becoming a licensed private investigator, as he wants to give real help to some clients, but he doesn't want to pay for the licence. He's a nice guy, but he's not that Nice. Then there's Ryan Gosling as Holland March, who is a licensed investigator and father to a thirteen year old girl. He spends most of his time accepting cases from old people with dementia paying him to find their recently deceased spouses, constantly screwing up and spending most of his time trying to drown himself in Bourbon. Even his daughter calls him a bad person.
After one old lady with bad eyesight hires him to find her niece, who is a porn star who had recently died in a car crash. Thinking the job is easy money to just confirm the girl is dead, March takes the case. But he quickly discovers the girl could be alive. This causes him to cross paths with Healey, who is hired to burst in to March's home to threaten him and get him to drop the case. Before leaving he casually asks March a few questions about his life as a private investigator and how he's able to afford such a nice place on an investigators salary, before calmly breaking his wrist and leaving. It's a good tone setter for their relationship for the rest of the film.
But Healey quickly realises the case was bigger than he thought it was and wanting to be a "nice guy" decides to work with March and solve the case. Very quickly they fall in to a case filled with 70's pornography and government conspiracies. It's part Boogie Nights, part Chinatown and all tied together with Shane Blacks tongue and cheek charm.
Similar to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, one of the films greatest strengths comes from the charismatic leads of Crowe and Gosling as the mismatched duo investigating the case. Crowe delivers all his lines in a great deadpan style, whilst Gosling goes out of his usual element, giving up his usual macho man image in order to play a Buster Keaton style slapstick performance. Sometimes they seem like the smartest guys in the room, chasing obscure leads and coming up with good results. Then at other's they seem like a pair of idiots getting by on pure luck alone, such as one scene where Gosling accidentally stumbles down a hill and ends up discovering a dead body. They are both screw ups, but they screw up in such charming ways that we can't help but to continue rooting for them.
The film is also able to avoid the annoying cliché used in films like War of the Worlds or Commando where the child ends up serving no role in the film other than being a victim and a plot device. Instead March's daughter is written with the same charm and depth as both March and Healey. Angourie Rice also pulls of a great performance working very well with all the other actors in the film.
Shane Black both wrote and directed the film and he definitely plays to all of his greatest strengths through the films mixture of great comedic timing and sharp dialogue. He also works in all the clichés that you'd expect from his work, even managing to fit in one scene at the end randomly set at Christmas (since it just wouldn't be a Shane Black film without a little festivity). Ultimately it's a film that keeps you laughing throughout and by the end it leaves you wanting more.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
"And From the Ashes of Their World, We'll Build A Better One!"
As this is Singer's 4th addition to the X-men franchise, it's hard to watch it without making direct comparisons with his previous instalments and whether he's still able to add anything else to the franchise. Whilst Singer does cover familiar ideas in this film, it never feels stale with the themes of social acceptance resonating as strongly here as they always have before and Singer still succeeds at creating new exciting sequences in to the franchise.
Taking place after the events of Days of Future Past and still using cast of First Class, a new enemy awakens after resting for thousands of years known as Apocalypse, played by a very intimidating Oscar Isaac whose presence constantly dominates the screen. He's a being who believes he's a god, as he has become seemingly omnipotent having gained many mysterious powers over his several lifetimes including the ability to increase the powers of other mutants. He uses these powers to attempt to bring together four followers and destroy the world in order to start a new empire where only the strongest survive.
In many ways Apocalypse is the polar opposite to Xavier (James McAvoy). Whereas Xavier unlocked the potential of mutants like Magneto through helping them reach serenity, Apocalypse uses their pain and suffering to mould them in to warriors he can control to bring the earths destruction. It's Apocalypse's want for control and his power to destroy that unites the X-men to stop Apocalypse and once again save the world.
The first 30-40 minutes of the film are quite clunky, with the film jumping all over the place to introduce all of the various characters in to the story. It has to catch us up with all the older heroes after a 10 year gap between films, whilst also introducing an entirely new young cast for some of the most iconic X-men like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Because of this the first act of the film does feel rather slow, but once the film gets going it never slows down until the end credits, being well paced whilst moving swiftly between action set pieces and combining multiple story lines.
Fans of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) will be glad to know his role is much larger than it was in the previous film and once again he ends up delivering some of the biggest laughs in the entire film. There are also several great new additions to the franchise. Tye Sheridan re-establishes Cyclops in to the franchise at a point where he's far from the natural leader that we saw from the original X-men trilogy and adds some much needed charisma to the role. Whilst Sophie Turner doesn't have the same hypnotic element that Famke Janssen bought to the role, she does bring to life a far more timid and uncertain Jean than what we've seen before, with the film also setting up some groundwork to redo the phoenix saga in a future film.
Also Fassenbender once again has another great outing as Magneto, whose own hatred further sets himself down the path to villainy that he's been forced down since his parents were first murdered. He goes on a very painful journey within the film, with Fassenbender adding a great deal of anguish and tragedy to his character once again. His story also has several great stand out moments, including one incredible sequence where he destroys the remains of Auchwitz, another reminder of how those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
However with such a large cast to use there are some characters who don't get the time that they needed. For example, whilst Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is funny and has a few good moments in the film, there's nothing near the scale of the Whitehouse sequence in the introduction of X-2. Also this is probably the weakest outing for Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Whilst her character arc was one of the strongest aspects for both First Class and Days of Future Past, here in spite of her prominent screen time her role seems so tagged on and unnecessary that she probably could have been removed from the film and it would have been none the weaker because of it. Similarly, new characters like Jubilee (Lana Condor) and Angel (Ben Hardy) feel entirely unnecessary and receive absolutely no character development.
Once again there's another show stealing Quicksilver sequence (this time to the tune of Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams) which is just as funny and creative as the one in Days of Future Past, but also adds a dramatic element in to the mix. Singer also found a great way to visualise Xavier and Apocalypses battle of the minds, in one thrilling sequence that see's Apocalypse grow in to a giant to overpower Xavier.
(POTENTIAL SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE 3rd TRAILER) However the biggest show stopper in the film is in the weapon X facility and Wolverines (Hugh Jackman) escape sequence. Whilst he's only in the film for a few minutes, this short time does better justice to the character than the entirety of Origins was ever able to, finally unleashing feral Wolverine in a brutal hallway fight that leaves a mass of dead bodies left in Logan's wake.
Though one drawback of X-men Apocalypse is that it is a film for those familiar with the franchise only. Unlike Days of Future Past, which could appeal to both fans of the franchise and newcomers alike, Apocalypse relies a lot on its audience knowing about plot lines from past films, such as being already familiar with characters like Stryker and Mactaggert. But so long as you're familiar with the franchise, this film delivers with some great action pieces whilst following in the tracks of Days of Future Past by adding new life in to the franchise.