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The Great Wall (2016)
A blemish on Yimou's (and Damon's) career.
Zhang Yimou is one of the finest Chinese directors working today; Hero and House of Flying Daggers are two of the most gorgeous and engrossing martial arts movies of this millennium. So it defies belief that he is also responsible for this absolute turkey. Centred around the protection of China from a horde of flesh-hungry monsters, who are thankfully limited to attacking the Great Wall of China in one spot only, the screenplay is full of laughable plot holes, shonky dialogue and predictable story beats. Like almost every alien invasion flick that has come before it, the protagonists are provided the remarkably convenient opportunity to end it all if they can just get to that pesky Alien Queen! But never fear, as Matt Damon's warrior is here. Complete with woeful accent and silly ponytail, Damon dishes up a career-low effort as the mercenary-turned-saviour William, his flirtatious relationship with feisty Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) is embarrassingly stodgy whilst the witty banter with his rascally mate Tovar (Pedro Pascal the standout) is hit and miss. Thankfully, with Yimou calling the shots, there is a plethora of stunningly choreographed action sequences
no, wait, there isn't. The crime to end all crimes is the complete dearth of inventive and beautifully shot set pieces; instead of Yimou's trademark elegance and wondrous composure, there's limp action full of horrendous CGI, messy editing and confusing staging. The production and costume design is aesthetically pleasingthe colour coded army factions is a neat ideabut even this is lost amidst a flurry of atrocious visual effects and murky cinematography. Incredibly muddled, staggeringly boring and chock full of Z-grade awfulness, The Great Wall will forever be a blemish on the careers of all involved.
Hidden Figures (2016)
An inspiring tale of overcoming adversity to achieve greatness.
Virginia, 1961. Race segregation was in full force and women were expected to stay at home with the children. Needless to say being an African American female was replete with hardships; every small step forward was on the back of sacrifice and suffering. This uplifting true story is a testimonial to the unwavering efforts of three brave women who, through their genius and determination, forged the first steps towards equality at NASA. Writer-director Theodore Melfi has chosen the crowd-pleasing path, opting for a more light-hearted tone that allows the audience to revel in the brilliance of these women rather than getting bogged down in the difficulties that they faced. The tough topics aren't shied away from entirely though, one particularly heart-wrenching scene places the issue of segregation front and centre when mathematical genius Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) is forced to explain that her bathroom breaks are so lengthy due to the building having no 'coloured toilets'. It's not an overly subtle screenplay, the broad strokes of struggle often boiled down to showcase moments like the aforementioned confrontation, but it's delivered with such passion and pluck that it's utterly affecting. A spot on cast helps with the energy too: Henson shines throughout as a widowed mother of three, Octavia Spencer bustles with resolve as the pragmatic Dorothy, Janelle Monáe spices it up as sassy engineer Mary, and Kevin Costner brings his All-American charm to a forward-thinking NASA manager. Insightful, moving and entertaining, Hidden Figures is an inspiring tale of achieving one's dreams despite constant adversity.
Patriots Day (2016)
An intelligent and thoughtful tribute.
Reliving the horrible events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing so soon after it transpired is a risky move. A misstep here can make the whole movie reek of profit-making from a tragedy, a misstep there and you have a slavish recreation that offers no entry into the story on a personal level. It was only a few months ago that director Peter Berg and actor Mark Whalberg gave us the wonderful Deepwater Horizona true story about an oil rig disasterbut they've managed to back that up with another triumph-against-all-odds real life tale. Berg introduces us to a plethora of characters in the first act that, although initially unrelated, we know will all be linked together under horrendous circumstances, imbuing the entire set-up with a dread that gets under the skin. Yet no amount of being prepared for what is to come makes the gut punch any softer; the chaos and agony of the bombings are depicted with such ferocity that it's a purely visceral experience of the highest order. Not surprisingly the film wanes a little bit once the focus shifts to tracking down the perpetrators, but as we spend a rather large portion of screen time with the terrorists, the hunt becomes a tense cat-and-mouse affair between monsters who'll kill anyone and an entire city out for justice. We view the complete string of events through the eyes of Whalberg's experienced cop SGT Tommy Saundersa fictional amalgamation of real-life first respondersallowing the mass heartache of a whole population to be condensed into one relatable, likable man. Thankfully Whalberg is in top form; his Tommy is one part an older, wearier version of SGT Dignam (the sharp-tongued hard-nut played by Whalberg in The Departed) and one part American hero. Considering Berg built a reputation as a Michael Bay-esque style-over-substance filmmaker, it would appear a career course-correct has occurred; Patriots Day (and Deepwater Horizon before it) is an intelligent, thoughtful and emotional tribute to the victims and heroes of a truly terrible event.
Tense, exciting and a welcome return to form for Shyamalan.
The double whammy of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable saw filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan ascend to the throne as the master of twists. Yet after delivering a string of debacles (The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth) his title was lost, seemingly forever. Thanks to a career shakeupinvolving collaboration with super successful low-budget producer Jason Blumhouse (Paranormal Activity, The Purge)Shyamalan has announced his return to form with this creepy psychological thriller. Creating an atmosphere of dread via constant tension building and a genuinely unpredictable narrative, Shyamalan is back to his old tricks of misdirection, rug-pulling and Kafka-esque storytelling. Opening with the kidnapping of three teenage girls in an utterly unnerving sequence, the tale unravels to explore the complicated lives of both abductee Casey (Anna Taylor Joy) and split-personality abductor Kevin (James McAvoy). Or is it Barry? Or Patricia? Chewing the scenery with aplomb, McAvoy delights in a role that allows him to segue between an obsessive compulsive weirdo, a frightfully stern mother-figure, a whimsical (and hilarious) 9 year old, and, in the final act, something else entirely. There are undoubtedly flawsan underwhelming and frustratingly ambiguous climax for examplein addition to a few nonsensical genre tropes, but the film's tempo and energy diminishes the negative effects of these missteps. Possibly a transcendent movie short of regaining his old position amongst Hollywood royalty, Split is nevertheless an exciting and gratifying thriller that continues the Shyamalanaissance.
A riveting drama that steers clear of biopic clichés.
This Australia-India co-production has been a heavyweight in the awards season, having picked up multiple Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and it's not hard to see why. Based on an incredible true story, Lion opens with the harrowing journey of 5-year-old Indian boy Saroo Brierley, who is separated from his family after being trapped on a cargo train that terminates in Calcutta, some 1600km away from his hometown in Khandwa. Anchored by an outstanding turn from newcomer Sunny Pawar, the first half is a devastating look at how easily children can become lost in the over-populated India, and how the terror is amplified when so few peopleeven those charged to protect citizensseem to care. It's a relief to Saroo then, albeit tentatively and sceptically at first, that he's saved from his prison-esque orphanage by a sweet Tasmanian couple who, through genuine love and care, wish to provide him a fruitful childhood he otherwise would have missed. When we meet adult Saroo (Dev Patel) two decades later he is about to head off to university in Melbourne, blessed with a wonderful upbringing, a loving family and bright future ahead. Yet there's something nagging him, an underlying issue of identity and loss that is bubbling away underneath the surface. Saroo's search for home could have bogged down the second half in cliché and melodrama, but Patel's performance is so full of complexity and charisma that it grounds the unbelievable sequence of events in heartfelt realism. Despite sharing a cute chemistry together, Saroo's complicated romance with American exchange student Lucy (Rooney Mara) feels like an unnecessary subplot, but his unique relationship with adoptive mother Sue (a terrific Nicole Kidman) is captivating. Refining his trade on the haunting mini-series Top of the Lake, Aussie director Garth Davis' leap into feature films is a successful one; Lion is a riveting drama worthy of all the awards attention it has received.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)
The guiltiest of guilty pleasures.
The trailer for this threequel promised dumb fun, but in reality the phrase 'dumb fun' barely covers the sort of bombastic action entertainment this extreme sports-themed flick delivers. The Fast and Furious franchise appears steeped in rock-solid physics by comparison. Yet there's a heavy tongue-in-cheek tone that ensures the utter ridiculousness of it all is playful and enjoyable, rather than eye-rolling and pretentious, á la the recent Point Break remake. The light-heartedness goes so far as to include cheeky cameos, colourful character intro screens and a few meta-jokes about The Avengers, which, along with the amount of fun the entire cast seem to be having, gives licence to the sheer insanity of the set pieces. There's a grenade party game, skateboarding on the side of a bus, sniping whilst hanging from a tree, fighting in a free-falling military transport plane, jumping over moving cars on a highway, and motorbike skiing at the beach. And that's only a tiny glimpse of what's on display. Headlining the titular comeback, Vin Diesel is clearly having a blast in hero-with-an-attitude modethink Dominic Toretto but without the solemn family-first moral codewhilst his multicultural co-stars do their best to ham it up in the best way possible. Bollywood star Deepika Padukone is full-on femme fatale, martial arts legend Donnie Yen is a laidback arse-kicker, Aussie Ruby Rose oozes next-gen sexuality, acting vet Toni Collette snarls with glee, Nina Dobrev gives good perky nerd, and Samuel L. Jackson does, well, Samuel L. Jackson. The guiltiest of guilty pleasures, xXx: Return of Xander Cage offers up an unapologetically ludicrous action film that earns bonus points for poking fun at itself.
Assassin's Creed (2016)
Deeply flawed, undemanding popcorn entertainment.
The track record for video game adaptations is, to be generous, underwhelming. Some have been a bit of fun Doom, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia but there has yet to be one that has transcended its source to be a genuinely great action movie. Boasting a top tiered cast with two Oscar winners and a further two Oscar nominees, in conjunction with a dark and edgy tone that screams to be taken seriously, this slice 'em and dice 'em action adventure had the elements necessary to buck the trend. But it doesn't. Preventing this from being anything more than a spot of popcorn entertainment is the confused and clichéd script, with underwritten plot threads (including an oddly anti-climactic finale), eye-rolling character conveniences and unintentionally giggle-worthy dialogue. It's a shame there wasn't more on paper for director Justin Kurzel to work with, as his set-piece prowess is clear. Given the necessary narrative flesh he could've delivered a franchise-starter with smarts as well as swinging swords. Alas the Aussie filmmaker makes the best of what he is given and provides a few entertaining sequences set in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, an extended parkour-infused action scene exciting the most. Giving it their all, often in thankless roles, the acting group elevates the material where possible. Michael Fassbender is a charismatic anti-hero and Marion Cotillard brings depth to her conflicted scientist, but Charlotte Rampling and Brendan Gleeson are under utilised. Deeply flawed at a base level, Assassin's Creed squanders its potential to be more than a B-grade video-game adaptation. The presence of Fassbender and Cotillard however, along with Kurzel's visual acuity, yields a certain level of undemanding enjoyment.
Bland, lazy and ultimately dumb.
When mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakes from his hibernation 90 years too early he needs to figure out why he is the only person aboard the Avalon an intergalactic spacecraft heading towards new colonised planet Homestead II that isn't still in cryosleep. A lonely year goes by before another passenger, novelist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), wakes up. Together, with the dubious help of android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen), they search for answers, all the while falling deeply in love. After the interesting first hour sets up the concept, builds the mystery and introduces the eminently likable central duo, the second half stumbles and splatters into a shockingly dull and unoriginal tale of, well, basically nothing. The script from Jon Spaihts expends all goodwill at an alarming rate as the unravelling plot takes us down the blandest and most uninspired rabbit hole imaginable, the biggest enigma being why in the world Pratt and Lawrence signed on for such a rote adventure. Worst of all, it gets dumb. Really, really dumb. And lazy. After emphasising over and over again how *insert machine/equipment/etc* can't possibly *insert problem/mishap/etc*, guess what? Turns out it can
just because. A few gravity-loss scenes are impressive and showcase Norwegian director Morten Tyldum's capability with a big budget, however a couple of exterior sequences are strikingly similar to Gravity, which unfortunately only serves as a reminder of how inferior this film is within the genre. A frustratingly banal and unintelligent second half cements Passengers as one almighty missed opportunity. Disappointing.
La La Land (2016)
A triumph of cinema.
Musicals are a rare breed in cinemaland these days. Once every so often a big budget effort (Chicago, Les Mis, Into the Woods) comes along to remind us they do still exist, but even these films don't do much to entice newcomers to the genre. Now I don't know if La La Land will succeed where others have failed and prove to be the birth of a musical reconnaissance, but if any movie can achieve it, this is definitely the one. Vibrant, funny and superbly shot, this tongue-in-cheek throwback to the upbeat musicals of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire is a toe-tapping delight from the ambitious highway-set opening number all the way to the closing what-could-have-been sequence. Following up after the phenomenal Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle has definitively announced his arrival into Hollywood; the combination of flair and technical mastery in which he executes each diverse set piece is astounding. The song and dance numbers continually build on the story a struggling actress and a budding Jazz pianist juggle life, love and their lofty dreams whilst always bringing something fresh both visually and musically, whether it's an 80s parody dance sequence or a soulful jazz interlude. Director of photography Linus Sandgren must be given his due praise too; the camera-work is both enterprising and stylish, the frequent unbroken tracking shots adding another level of pizazz to the proceedings. Yet for all of the wonder and awe brought by Chazelle and his crew, the film still requires a headlining duo capable of providing an emotional core that can match the song and dance fireworks. Step up Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. In their third movie opposite each other (after Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad) the ridiculously talented acting pair not only boast a sizzling chemistry on screen, but also get to show off their dancing and singing skills that, much to the normal person's ire, are obviously brilliant. More accessible to the average moviegoer than many previous modern musicals, La La Land is a triumphant convergence of music, dance and awe-inspiring cinema.
Lacks depth, but offers plenty of fun.
The success of the Despicable Me series has put Illumination Entertainment well and truly on the map in the world of animated films, but unlike their rivals Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, they've yet to produce any masterpieces. And whilst Sing is tremendously fun, a masterpiece it is not. With a concept based on one of the more tedious fads of the new millennium a singing competition à la Idol and The Voice, etc the story feels ten years too late, although the high-level of energy permeating throughout barely gives you the chance to care. The melodies performed on screen are surprisingly eclectic, featuring hits from a range of artists such as Elton John, Katy Perry and Frank Sinatra, with some pulled off fabulously (Elton John's "I'm Still Standing") and some not so much (Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off"). Much like the soundtrack the comedy on offer has a bit to suit everyone's tastes, from fart gags and pratfalls to montage parodies and subtle one-liners. Which jokes are for the kids and which ones are for the parents I'll let you decide. There are no major weak links in the diverse, albeit stereotypical cast, however Taron Egerton's son-of-a-crook gorilla Johnny and Nick Kroll's hilariously uninhibited pig Gunter are easily the most memorable. Sing is an in-the-moment treat with some laugh out loud gags and seriously good, umm, singing.