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Satisfying, but not the brilliant conclusion it could have been.
I'm not above flogging a dead horse, so if I've said it once I've said it a million times: splitting the final movie into two parts is, obvious fiscal motivations aside, a terrible decision. Much like Mockingjay Part 1 came off as a hollow, stretched-out introduction with no payoff, the culminating part feels like an over-extended finale that could've been a cracking third act instead of a bloated feature-length instalment. In amongst the needless padding and nonsensical story elements there's still plenty to enjoy though, not least the handful of gritty and brutal action sequences that emerge primarily in the middle act. Director Francis Lawrence has maintained a dark and sombre tone throughout the sequels and this entry with characters killed off mercilessly and continuing themes of oppression taken to their logical conclusions is arguably the bleakest of the lot. The uprising against the Capitol's dastardly President Snow (played with sneering delight by Donald Sutherland) is front and centre, but Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta's (Josh Hutcherson) complex relationship provides the real narrative spark. Lawrence and Hutcherson possess a palpable chemistry together, the former offering another wonderfully hard-edged performance whilst the latter provides depth in the dramatic scenes that other, more experienced actors sharing the screen can't bring. Mockingjay Part 2 isn't the brilliant ending it could have been, and proves yet again that splitting the final chapter is dumb, but it's a satisfying enough conclusion for those invested in the series.
Lives in the shadow of 'Skyfall'.
Following up the brilliant Skyfall was always going to be tough. Much like Quantum of Solace failed to ignite in the wake of the awesome Casino Royale, Daniel Craig's fourth Bond outing struggles to emerge from its predecessor's shadow. Bringing back Sam Mendes as director was a major coo for MGM, but there's a faint sense that for his sophomore 007 effort he is merely going through the motions. Luckily for us Mendes' talent as a filmmaker is so high that his "second rate" is still pretty darn good. His skill is on full display in the outstanding pre-credits sequence set amidst Mexico City's Day of the Dead festivities where a long, continuous tracking shot opens up into an explosive showdown between our hero and a mysterious baddie. It is such an impressive introduction that the remainder of the movie can't compare; the action set pieces suffering from diminishing returns, culminating in a bland and uninspired London-set finale that M:I Rogue Nation did much better. One thing that can't be faulted is the look of the film. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema's photography is all class, imbuing proceedings with a timelessness befitting 007 and proving the franchise lost nothing by the departure of industry legend Roger Deakins. Doubling down on the vintage feel that Skyfall returned to the series, this movie harks back to the Bond flicks of old with a playful tone and tongue-in-cheek humour, although the storyline is underwhelming and predictable, and Sam Smith's theme tune is a damp squib. As for the suave spy with a licence to kill, Craig is effortlessly cool and provides a beating heart for the film to hang its hat on when the other cast members dish up a mixed bag of performances. Christoph Waltz is always great and clearly relishes the opportunity to play malevolent arseholes, yet his big bad isn't the instant-classic Bond villain it could've been. And his mute henchman Mr. Hinx, played by man-machine Dave Bautista, lacks an interesting edge. As for the fairer sex, Lea Seydoux's femme fatale is a feisty, old school Bond girl that oozes both charm and danger but is bereft of chemistry with Craig, whilst Monica Bellucci is criminally underused as a grieving damsel in distress. Meanwhile in 007's corner, Ralph Fiennes is a commanding yet wry M, Naomie Harris is a disappointingly one-note Moneypenny and Ben Whishaw is a hilarious Q who is elevated from mere cameo character to critical supporting player in Bond's globe-trotting adventures. Back-to-back modern-Bond masterpieces remain elusive, however Spectre delivers just enough entertainment to keep fans sated until the next entry.
Lightweight but in-the-moment fun.
There are no surprises from Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. It is exactly the juvenile, B-grade schlock-fest that the name insinuates. But let's break it down a bit. Scouts: teenage flicks from any genre often live and die by their casting choices. Here the central trio do a decent job with stereotypical characters; Tye Sheridan's sensitive Ben is likable, Logan Miller's obnoxious Carter is exuberant and Joey Morgan's nerd-tastic Augie is often humorous. Guide: not unexpectedly, the screenplay is not the film's strong point with a threadbare, signposted and clichéd plot. Christopher Landon's zesty direction, however, thankfully injects the tried and tested formula with a rambunctious, carefree energy and a killer soundtrack. Zombie: at this point in the popularity resurgence of the undead in both cinemas and on TV, it's a question of what there is to add to the canon. If this film is an indicator then the answer is nothing, although there are some slight twists on genre convention successfully played for laughs. Apocalypse: perhaps most importantly for a zombie flick, the slapstick uber-violence on display is gleefully gory and bucket loads of (bloody) fun. There is a distinct Evil Dead vibe with the cartoonish nature of the butchery, albeit with the assistance of CGI. A recommendation is hard to give due to Scouts Guide being so lightweight and forgettable, yet it entertains as in-the-moment popcorn silliness.
The Last Witch Hunter (2015)
Rubbish end of the Vin spectrum.
The choice to watch a Vin Diesel flick comes hand-in-hand with the acceptance that you're either going to get B-grade fun or Z-grade trash. And with Big Vin, the two can often be hard to tell apart. There's no such difficulty in placing this snorefest on the Vin spectrum of entertainment; it slots in comfortably on the complete-rubbish end of the scale. With the sort of vapid storyline that would be subpar even for a direct-to-DVD movie, this clichéd, dull and nonsensical actioner flounders at every turn, hoping to get by on style alone. It doesn't. Although there is a glimmer of inventiveness in a few set pieces, the action gets bogged down with messy editing, strangely bloodless violence and a ludicrous reliance on CGI that is, considering the $90m budget, indefensibly bad. For all of Vin's dubious acting talent he is nothing if not a passionate actor, yet again giving 100% to a job where he's fighting an uphill battle against everything from laughably clunky lines to horrendous cast support. Which brings us to the single worst element of the film: Rose Leslie. Delivering one of the most atrocious performances you'll ever see with a U.S. accent so terrible it sounds like a speech defect the Scottish actress should prepare her Razzie speech now. There is very little to compliment in The Last Witch Hunter, except that Vin gives his all and it's not as dire as Fantastic Four.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Solid Cold War thriller, but a bit disappointing.
Spielberg, Hanks, Coen Brothers. Rarely have there been so many members of the Hollywood royal family working together on a single motion picture. With this calibre of talent involved the expectations are unsurprisingly sky high; unfortunately this Cold War true story lands in the 'good, but not good enough' category and subsequently feels like a missed opportunity. At first it's difficult to pinpoint why the spark is missing as all the ingredients for an old-school espionage yarn are present, but after careful contemplation it seems to me that Spielberg may be going through the motions. His direction is purposely understated to be sure, although there is a distinct lack of oomph in his narrative propulsion that is strangely un-Spielbergian. There's also never any real sense of Hanks' American attorney being in danger, despite spending large chunks of time in war-torn Berlin liaising with shadowy Russian diplomats and volatile German soldiers. Nevertheless, this thriller predominantly satisfies thanks to another heartfelt performance from main man Hanks. His put upon lawyer is righteous but grounded, intelligent but humble, fearful but optimistic, all with a welcome dash of wit. In fact it's the Brooklyn-set first act that proves the most entertaining, when it's mostly a two-hander between Hanks and Mark Rylance's dryly-humorous Russian spy, the latter damn near stealing the show right from under Hanks' nose. With regular Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski on hand as director of photography, the movie looks utterly spectacular too, the glowing courtrooms of New York just as impressive as the snowy streets of a war-ravaged Germany. Bridge of Spies is a solid Cold War thriller with a compelling protagonist, yet with the Tinseltown heavyweights involved I can't help but think it's also somewhat of a disappointment.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Pedestrian story covered by stunning visuals.
As has become his modus operandi, Guillermo del Toro's latest offers a feast for the eyes whilst working within a pedestrian story. This Victorian-era Gothic horror is a visually sensational experience boasting gorgeous music-video-style imagery, painstakingly detailed production design and lush, immersive photography that trickles with creepiness. But del Toro missteps with narrative and tone; the former is too plodding and predictable, whilst the latter is neither scary enough to be a great horror nor twisty enough to be a great thriller. Thus Crimson Peak feels entirely inconsequential and must rely heavily on its visual flair, including splendidly designed CGI ghosts and blood-splattering gore, to keep the audience's attention. Nabbing such a talented group of actors doesn't hurt del Toro's cause either, Australia's own Mia Wasikowska heading up a cast that also features Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam and, with a show stealing turn, Jessica Chastain. Lovers of classical horror will find plenty to delight in and fans of del Toro (like me) will relish his usual quirky spark, everybody else may be a tad dissatisfied.
Outstanding crime picture (and Hardy is a LEGEND).
The infamous Kray brothers identical twins Reggie and Ronnie are so well known in British gangster history they've already had multiple films made about them. What writer-director Brian Helgeland brings to the table with his take on the notorious siblings is exuberant storytelling, classy visual styling and a tour de force performance by Tom Hardy as both twins. Hardy's dual turn is undeniably the centrepiece of the movie. His Reggie is all charm and swagger, with intelligence and ambition to boot, whilst the schizophrenic Ronnie is a short-tempered ball of emotional bluster. Helgeland sensibly opts to make Reggie the focus; of the two he is the more grounded one, a gangster with lofty aspirations and the ability to interact on a human level with those around him to make his goals a reality. There is also genuine chemistry between Hardy (as Reggie) and Emily Browning, her fragile yet strong-willed Frances able to draw out the romantic side of Reggie, making his bursts of savagery all the more terrifying. Sporadically placed throughout the (overlong) two hour plus runtime, the bouts of violence bubble with intensity and exhilaration, often uneasily enjoyable thanks to moments of levity sprinkled alongside them. The 60s setting is capitalised on too, Dick Pope's elegant photography giving proceedings a classical feel while Carter Burwell's powerfully soulful score affects deeply at all the right times. There's a sense of glorification here that mightn't sit well with some audience members, however the Krays were adored in the East End and to deny the glitzier parts of their life would be to deny what made them popular to begin with. An exceptional crime picture with two outstanding performances from one man, proving again that Hardy really is an acting
Black Mass (2015)
Not bad, just so damn standard.
The American crime genre is arguably the cornerstone of modern cinema. Think cinematic masterpieces and there's a good chance every third one is a mobster flick or underworld yarn. This breed of film is nothing if not reliable. Why, then, is the first notable movie about one of U.S.A's most notorious and durable heads of crime so unmemorable? Checking off key points in an organised but uninspired manner, this James "Whitey" Bulger biopic is seemingly more concerned about fitting in all the Wiki-worthy moments rather than truly delving into the psyche of a monstrous man. The unfocused script stems from the choice to trace two decades of Bulger's life (1975 to 1995), an unwieldy stretch of time that results in an unclear filmic timeline and the requirement for truly horrible makeup and wigs. Johnny Depp has succeeded at portraying a gangster before his John Dillinger in Public Enemies is enthralling however he's lumped with too many poorly executed physical alterations and character development shortcomings to make an impression here. Aussie Joel Edgerton fares better as a morally intriguing federal agent skating on thin ice, and Kevin Bacon is enjoyable as a frustrated FBI boss, but why Benedict Cumberbatch signed on for such an inconsequential role, as Bulger's Senator brother, is anyone's guess. Scott Cooper keeps it relatively low-key behind the camera, aside from a couple of stylish murder sequences, with the suitably dour cinematography and unfussy score following suit. Overall Black Mass is never overtly bad, per se; its major sin is just being so damn standard.
The Martian (2015)
Another successful epic form Ridley.
Ridley Scott and science fiction go together like strawberries and cream. They are made for each other. Some of Scott's greatest work has been in the sci-fi realm: Alien, Blade Runner and, arguably, Prometheus. His impressive form within the genre continues with The Martian, a surprisingly comedic adventure that is so meticulous and intelligent you would be forgiven for thinking it was science fact. Pitching its tent somewhere between a less serious Interstellar and a more plot-driven Gravity, this interplanetary saga follows Matt Damon's stranded astronaut as he MacGuyver's his way to survival on the red planet. Damon's portrayal of the never-say-die genius botanist is tremendous, unexpectedly delivering one of the funniest performances on his CV whilst still bringing the dramatic heft. It's a small shame then, that we spend a fair chunk of our time away from Mars, either back on Earth with NASA execs, engineers and astrophysicists figuring out how to rescue their man or in outer space with the guilt-racked crew that accidentally left him behind. Regardless of location, Drew Goddard's screenplay (based on Andy Weir's novel) is always clever and carefully balanced, with a light-hearted tone that works amazingly well considering the dire circumstances. In fact it's this consistent and edgy humour that sets The Martian apart from other similar sci-fi outings; some gags are so funny it could quite easily find a place on 'best comedies' lists at year end. Scott brings his usual visual flair too; the arid vistas of Mars are gorgeous, the outer space shots are conceptually intriguing and photo-realistically executed, whilst the wisely injected action scenes are thrilling, if not totally reinventing the wheel. And wow, what a cast. Damon is the deserving star of the film, but it doesn't hurt when Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig and Kate Mara are playing second fiddle. Don't be fooled by its jovial disposition and spirited 70s disco soundtrack, this is yet another successful Scott epic.
Enthralling, tense and immersive. A masterpiece.
Federal authorities carefully and silently approach a suburban home in Phoenix. They raid the house looking for a hostage; instead they find dozens of dead bodies packed inside the walls. This is Mexican drug cartel business, and it has now crept well over the border. Opening with this superbly crafted sequence, Sicario is an unrelenting portrayal of the seemingly unwinnable war against drugs and, more crucially, the ruthless cartel bosses who will do anything to strike fear in the people. Emily Blunt's FBI agent is our eyes and ears into this world, as she's pulled into a legally and morally cloudy task force supposedly given free reign to strike off the snake's head by any means necessary. Blunt is amazing, striking the perfect balance between the-way-it-ought-to-be idealism and the-way-it-actually-is practicality; never completely giving away which side she'll ultimately land. It's a ferociously gripping and uncompromisingly bleak story, as written by Taylor Sheridan, with Denis Villeneuve's direction raising the stakes even higher through taut, immersive and potent set pieces. There are at least three high-stakes sequences that are utterly exhilarating thanks to Villeneuve's unique vision and Roger Deakins' remarkable cinematography, yet the quieter moments are equally powerful due to a trio of scintillating performances. Along with Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro command the screen, the former as a charismatic but shady federal agent with a deep conviction, the latter as a mysterious "contractor" who is riddled with torment and anger. Sicario is a psychologically bruising film that offers no easy answers; it's also tense, enthralling and, quite simply, a masterpiece.