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Beautifully designed animation with hope beyond dark themes
6 July 2017
When I was very young growing up in the UK, there was a children's show I watched called "The Raggy Dolls". Defective toys thrown into 'the reject's bin' of a toy factory came to life and had adventures. By depicting cast-outs and the marginalised finding solidarity and friendship the show aimed to represent and build empathy for children who, for whatever reason, didn't fit in.

While watching the Oscar-nominated Swiss animation "My Life as a Courgette" I thought about "The Raggy Dolls" more than once and felt that the creators must have had similar aims here. The film tells the story of Courgette, a young boy who has been raised by an alcoholic single mum and now finds himself in an orphanage. The other children have faced an array of similar abuses and must find courage and hope from one another.

A key strength of the film is the fine line it walks between depicting real darkness and maintaining a light enough tone for child viewers. There are hints that one of the children in the orphanage has been the victim of sexual abuse and writer Celine Sciamma deserves a lot of credit for portraying such a theme with the sensitivity it merits while maintaining a child-friendly rating.

The film is an adaptation of a book by French author Gilles Paris which was largely intended for teenagers but here the focus seems to have been attracting an adult audience while leaving the experience suitable for the whole family. It certainly feels like the sort of film that parents will watch together with their children rather than leaving them in front of it.

The design of the film is remarkable. The materials used, with clay for the character models but real cloth for their clothes, give the film a wonderful physicality and texture. Coupled with the small scale locations and cute designs such as the tiny wheels on all of the cars, the film has a toy-like feel which produces a protective, safe atmosphere to counter its dark subject matter.

The characters are charmingly realised, with the children given the principle roles. Their actions are often heart-breaking. One girl, whose mother has been deported, runs to the door expectantly every time a car pulls up. The children all gaze longingly at a mother comforting her son after he has fallen from a sled. It definitely works - the film is emotionally affecting but genuinely hopeful.

The film should be applauded for not tacking on a lengthy, unnecessary third act which ups the stakes and adds a conflict to be resolved - the orphanage is going to be bought by evil Mr. Grimshanks? We have to stop him children! Lots of movies would have done this to make the film more 'cinematic' but these are always the parts of the movie where the plot stops serving the characters and would have been sinfully out of place here. Having said that, the film does fall short of providing a Dardenne-esque breakthrough moment to bring our characters to a new state or realisation and the movie to even greater heights.

This is the 3rd of the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Film in 2017 that I have seen, with "The Red Turtle" and "Moana" yet to be viewed. So far I think that the Academy definitely picked the worst of the bunch with "Zootropolis". At the time of writing "My Life as a Courgette" has 50x fewer ratings than Pixar's film on IMDb. This is a shame, as the Swiss film is a considerably more measured story and innovative film and deserves a wider audience.
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Wonder Woman (2017)
Strong performances not quite enough to rescue muddled themes
21 June 2017
There is a lot of expectation going into this movie which I think has probably helped it critically. On the one hand, it is the latest instalment in the DCEU franchise, which I think even critics want to eventually give a good score to, if only to provide some balance against the all-conquering critical success of the Marvel universe movies. Then there's the fact that this is the big female-lead movie of the year and critics will go in wanting to like it for this fact alone. With these factors combined, an average movie will probably pass, in the short term at least, for a great one.

And I think that this is what has happened in this case. "Wonder Woman" is far from being a bad movie. A lot of reviewers have focused on the fun feel to the movie as a positive. It's certainly the most cartoon-y superhero movie to come out of the DCEU so far which seems to be a response from Warner Brothers to criticism of the drained palette and humourlessness of "Batman vs. Superman". While it is fun, there are definitely negatives to this style, with considerably less grit in the overly bouncy action scenes. These cannot escape from Zack Snyder's creative influence and suffer as a result.

The core strengths of the movie are the central characters, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). The characters are written well, with Wonder Woman's do-gooder resolve offset by her naivety. Gal Gadot gives a great physical and emotional performance, her movements, postures and facial expressions capturing her strength and, well, goodness perfectly. Comparisons to Christopher Reeve as Superman are fitting, and she is every bit as dashing as Reeve was. Pine almost steals the show as the love interest. He has tremendous chemistry with Gadot and his character has enough depth to be interesting in his own right.

I did find the setting of the story in WWI a big distraction and a flawed choice thematically. The character Wonder Woman was created in the 1940s and her origins placed in WWII, where she battles the evil Nazis alongside Allied forces. The writers' choice here to shift this back to WWI could have been justified. For such a staunchly anti-war character, in some ways WWI is a better fit. It serves as a symbol of a mechanised embodiment of war which simply consumed men and resources rather than serving any cause. Had the creators of the movie emphasised the meaninglessness of the conflict, with no clear distinction between good sides and bad sides, it would have been a great setting to test Wonder Woman's moral strength. It also fits with Wonder Woman's key motive during the film - she must destroy Ares, as it is his external agency that she believes has corrupted men and drawn them into the conflict.

Sadly the writers want to have their cake and eat it, so alongside this core theme we get some gleefully evil German villains who would clearly be more at home in a WWII setting. Wonder Woman is always fighting the Germans and never seems to really question whether the Triple Entente are any better. This isn't a hard choice, since it's the Germans here, and not the British, who are out to create super death gas (never mind the fact that both sides used chemical weapons during the actual war). I genuinely don't think that the movie ever really makes up its mind about which of its conflicting ideas is right, a non-trivial problem at the heart of the film.

The motivation for the change of setting appears, to me at least, to have been largely aesthetic and probably driven by a desire for something less familiar than WWII. Director Patty Jenkins showed a shocking ignorance of this problem when she said "World War I is...not something that we really know the history of." This ignorance of the issues raised by this creative decision only increases the validity of these criticisms.

It's a real shame because, action scenes aside, so much of the hard work to make this movie great is in place. The look and mood of the film and the casting choices are all spot on and the story could really have worked with more sensitivity and courage from the writers. As it is, the film must be seen as a decent, but undeniably flawed effort.
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Excellent adaptation of Du Maurier mystery
14 June 2017
Writer/director Roger Michell has done a wonderful job with this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's book "My Cousin Rachel". The film tells the story of Philip (Sam Claflin), an orphan raised in the early 19th Century by his cousin Ambrose. When Ambrose dies abroad in Italy shortly after marrying their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), Philip suspects that she has murdered him and prepares to confront her on her return to England. When she arrives, his plans are abandoned as he instead becomes swiftly infatuated by her beauty and intimacy.

Michell should be credited with resisting the temptation of presenting the story as a moody Gothic romance akin to the 1952 adaptation starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. Instead Michell allows most of the story to unfold in the bright sunshine and emphasises the impacts of characters' choices over the inevitability of fate, a refreshingly modern approach. Despite the importance of the mystery at its heart, the film had more of "Far from the Madding Crowd" in it for me - with its socially liberated characters and bright depictions of agricultural life - than "Wuthering Heights" or Hitchcock.

Central to the success of the film are the lead performances by Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. Weisz gives a truly unique performance as Rachel, giving her sensuality without making her a femme fatale and allowing her idiosyncrasies, particularly in her half chuckles and swallowed words, which give her character the depth required to keep the mystery alive. Sam Claflin impressed me here with an impassioned performance of the naive young man trying to shield his insecurities with his growing authority. Michell invites them to explore the almost Oedipal nature of Philip's attraction to Rachel, and the actors whole-heartedly oblige with some wickedly perverse interplay.

The cinematography is beguiling, with excellent use of focus to emphasise what the characters see (and equally importantly what they do not), and serves to enhance the tension. The score by Rael Jones, with soft but sinister bells, is effective and never distracting.

I think that the film's chief drawback is that once the characters are in place, the events of the 2nd act are quite predictable and the film perceptibly slows down. This is made up for by a bracing final 20 minutes but was enough to hold the film back from being a real masterpiece. Despite this, I think that the film will be seen in years to come as the definitive adaptation of Du Maurier's book and a fine release for 2017.
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Lacking the energy of the original, GotG2 limps over the finish line
3 June 2017
It was always going to be a difficult job to make this sequel. "Guardians of the Galaxy" was an unexpected hit in 2014 whereas this time we all knew what was coming. But what made the original such a breath of fresh air in a depressingly stagnant genre is missing this time around.

The first film was brimming with enthusiastic, immature energy. But while the enthusiasm and the immaturity are both back in spades, there is nothing driving the plot forward here. In GotG we had the assembly of an unlikely team of original weirdos. The sequel offers up a couple of plot-lines: fractures in the team due to clashing characters, a will-they-won't-they romance and a central story that revolves around the protagonist's past. To the film's credit, there isn't an excess of story-lines here, a fault of many franchise sequels (I'm looking at you, Pirates). It's just that there's nothing organic about the way the film moves forward. After a fairly decent set-up, which goes some way to expanding the universe, we enter into sluggish 2nd and 3rd acts which draw their impetus from the writers, rather than a natural energy emerging from the characters or story. It never feels like the actions or choices of our characters are drawing them towards anything - plot developments occur purely when it's convenient for them to happen. I was so bored by the last 20 minutes - I could not wait for the film to end.

Every now and then, the film throws us an action sequence to liven things up. Unfortunately, the characters are so unthreatened by these set pieces that there's no chance of any tension developing. Early on, Drax (played to amusing effect once again by Dave Bautista) hangs out of the back of a space ship and is pummelled by debris during a crash landing. He just shrugs it off, and it's indicative of the level of damage the heroes can sustain without any effect. Admittedly I haven't seen the first movie since it came out in the cinema, but I don't remember this being a problem last time around.

There are definitely some positives. The performances are very good, once again, with Bautista and Pratt in particular delivering on their comic moments. We get a little bit of universe expansion, which is gratifying, as it's a colourful world. It's a shame that so much of the film takes place away from the vibrant multi-world cultural mix that we know is in the background, as the film often feels limited in size and sparsely inhabited.

It definitely feels like I am judging GotG2 by a harsher standard than the first film. But this is warranted - sequels need to justify themselves as more than simply another go round for the characters, but this time they have to build on the plot resolutions that we've already had, which makes the job harder. While this is by no means a disastrous attempt, it is a limp and unexciting one.
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Colossal (2016)
Compelling, original movie which is less than the sum of its parts
31 May 2017
When I first saw the poster for "Colossal" I thought that it looked like a mid-90s family-friendly magic realism movie in the vein of "Practical Magic". When I learned the plot of the movie - down-and-out alcoholic learns that she is inadvertently controlling a giant monster attacking Seoul - and that Nacho Vigalondo, the director of the excellent "Timecrimes", was behind the helm, I knew I had to give it a watch.

The movie is certainly many things. On the one hand, the realism plot-line with Anne Hathaway's Gloria moving back home and entangling herself with old acquaintance Oscar (played by Jason Sudeikis) takes itself very seriously and works very well as a story about the mistakes people make when they are struggling with addiction. On the other hand, we have the magic part with monsters in Seoul, which is arguably much more light-hearted (despite the indication of a heavy death-toll!). Do they work together? Just about, in my view.

There will be some who argue that there isn't enough explanation tying these together, but I feel that Vigalondo is right not to fill the movie with dull exposition trying to make sense of what is, at heart, an absurd premise. Vigalondo spends much more time on the visual and spatial ties between the plot-lines, such as the use of the playground representing Seoul, a much more satisfying way to build credibility with the audience.

Where it does fall short is in its symbolism. It felt to me that Vigalondo was attempting to represent Gloria's struggles with alcoholism through her interactions with the monster, but I never deduced a consistent code for how the relationships between the key characters translated between their realistic and magic forms. This was disappointing as without this, the film's purpose feels diminished to an interesting but ultimately frivolous story, all the more strange given its weighty subject matter.

At times I got the impression that there were significant elements of the original story which were left on the cutting room floor, as there are one or two moments in the film relating to Oscar which seem important but are never developed further. I am left wondering whether some of the links that would allow the movie to form a more convincing whole will emerge in future cuts.

Hathaway and Sudeikis play their parts very well. Some of their scenes could have come across as plain goofy if the audience was not invested in their characters but I never felt that they were in danger of this. I did think that Dan Stevens, of "Downton Abbey" and "The Guest" fame, was wasted as Gloria's ex-boyfriend, Tim.

Overall, I did like "Colossal". It is undeniably original, but ultimately succeeded because it remained compelling throughout. I was invested in the outcome of the movie and the film was able to deliver surprisingly tense confrontations alongside its more light-hearted absurd moments. Had the film also managed to deliver a consistent symbolism to tie together its diverse elements it could have been a real triumph.
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It's all downhill from here for Alien
24 May 2017
Warning: Spoilers
I feel that I can't review this movie without spoilers, so SPOILERS! "Alien: Covenant" must have been a very difficult movie to write. The film has plenty of flaws despite there being the remnants of one or two good films in there.

The key flaw in the movie is in its characters, of which there are many, of whom very few have a clearly defined purpose or persona. The main character, Daniels, played by Kath Waterston, is a Ripley/Shaw wannabe, who I felt never deserved to become the protagonist through actions she made, unlike those other two. About 2/3 of the way through the film she emerges as one of the remaining crew members and becomes badass all of a sudden. It seems that Ridley Scott feels that one of the defining characteristics of an Alien movie is to have a strong female in the lead role, so here's one! Billy Crudup is also built up to be a main character, and almost makes it as the best character in the movie. He's just killed the gooey alien that decapitated his crew member, delivering one of the best lines of the movie along the way, and then...oh, he for some reason falls for David's trap, despite clearly not trusting him moments earlier and...yeah he's dead now. Well that was a shame. Then there's Tennessee, played by Danny McBride. His wife is dead, so he's the reckless one I guess. A bit like Parker, maybe. Nah he never gets that level of characterisation. I guess he'll be dead at the beginning of the next movie. Oh well. At one point in the film, when they were exploring the planet I thought oh, some of them are scientists and some of them are more like soldiers, that could be a cool dynamic. A day later, I read through the character list and see names like Karine, Ricks, Upworth, Hallett, Ankor and I think who? What? Were they characters in the movie I just watched? I guess one of them was probably the woman who got decapitated and two of them were the ones who were killed in the shower. I guess.

I should mention Michael Fassbender's two characters, David and Walter. David is the only character from "Prometheus" to make it into this movie, and it looks like he'll be the only character from "Covenant" to make it into the next movie. But I remember another character from "Prometheus" who seemed like a bigger deal. Who was that? Noomi Rapace played her, I think. Remember when Ripley was the main character in "Aliens". That made sense, because she was the protagonist from "Alien". The story was a continuation of her journey - in fact "Aliens" symbolically seemed to work as a way of her moving on from the trauma she faced in "Alien". I guess the studio didn't like the fan reaction to "Prometheus" so decided that Scott had to go in a different direction, and he made David the main character. The result is a film that is simultaneously a dissatisfying sequel to "Prometheus" and a dissatisfying prequel to "Alien". That the end of this movie seems to take us narratively further away from the set-up for "Alien" than the end of "Prometheus" is a worrying sign that there's a lot more movies on the way. Scott probably has them all worked out, but Fox will probably insist on a new direction when this movie doesn't make all the money they were hoping for. I'm guessing the result will be an incomprehensible mess that satisfies no-one.

The next key flaw after characters and plot is atmosphere. I actually quite liked "Prometheus" because it was scary. It helped that the characters had motivations that seemed to relate to the plot of the film, but on a basic level I thought that the threat posed by the monster, you know the alien, was real and effective. This was missing from "Covenant". Partly this is because there are several aliens in "Covenant" that follow after one another in the movie. We have 3 separate gestation events (some of which are inexplicably short compared to the other movies) that lead to 3 successive generations of threat. Because they don't get the time to generate any connection to the human characters, like the sole monster of the first movie, the moments when they are inevitably dispatched in a cool action set-piece just fell kind of flat. It doesn't matter that Daniels and Tennessee destroy the monster on the landing craft, there's another one in just a few minutes. "Aliens" doesn't rely on this - the threat there is the sheer number of aliens to fight, but this movie does, and it fails. The aliens kill a bunch of characters whose names I do not remember and then they are killed by the characters whose names I do remember. Tension does not feature.

So what is good about the movie? Well, Ridley Scott knows how to make a movie look good. The production design is predictably good and the film works shot for shot. The performances are pretty decent I guess - Fassbender is the only actor to be given a real character and he does a good job of it.

Much more than "Prometheus" this film heralds the end of any expectation that this series can deliver any more good films. It's not Ridley Scott that is ruining this franchise. It is the fact that Fox simultaneously want to expand the franchise, which requires careful world-building, but clearly won't stick to any long-term vision for it. It is already practically incomprehensible now, and let's be honest - it's going to get worse.
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Their Finest (2016)
Charming wartime movie-within-movie
3 May 2017
"Their Finest" is a clever, charming and funny movie from Danish director Lone Scherfig. Adding to her most well-known films to date, "An Education" and "The Riot Club", it is clear that Scherfig is a true Anglophile at heart, as this is as British as it comes. The film tells the story of Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton), a Welsh secretary in London at the height of the Blitz who finds herself on the writing staff of a propaganda film about the Dunkirk evacuation. Though married to a struggling artist (Jack Huston), feelings grow between Catrin and fellow writer Buckley (Sam Claflin) as they struggle to make "The Nancy Starling" a film worthy of raising the nation's spirits.

One of the strengths of "Their Finest" is its glorious sense of place and time. The locations and production design provide a real asset. The daily threat of the Blitz is rightly given sufficient screen time to feel like an ever-present menace, while wartime London and an idyllic Cornish coast are well realised.

"Their Finest" is at its best when the the lines between the movie we are watching and the movie being produced on screen are blurred. We see the characters and plot of "The Nancy Starling" evolve within Catrin's mind in a series of comic scenes which give Bill Nighy's character, ageing actor Ambrose Hilliard, some of his best moments. In one particularly inspired moment, the continuation of a real conversation between the romantic pair is imagined in the same visual style of the on-screen movie. The writers and director clearly had a lot of fun with these ideas and their execution is spot on. The creators' love of cinema is realised in a way only possible in a film about film-making and film-watching. The emotions of an audience watching "The Nancy Starling" in the film clearly capture the joy the writers and director take from cinema in general, and it's very infectious!

Arterton plays the lead role very capably, creating a likable protagonist. Among the most memorable performances, Bill Nighy plays himself very well (it's difficult to imagine who could have played him better), and Rachael Stirling shines but is sadly underused. Jake Lacy is also entertaining as the square-jawed American who turns out to be a terrible actor. The film possibly suffers from the distracting addition of star cameos (Jeremy Irons popping up here for a single scene), a fault I find particularly noticeable in British films of this style.

The key fault for me was that the film seemed unsure which of its two main plot-lines, the making of "The Nancy Starling" and the romance between Catrin and Buckley, should take centre-stage. Developing both meant that the beginning and the end of the film suffered. Initially the film needed to introduce lots of only partially related themes and concepts, which made the opening scenes feel artificially and dissatisfyingly forced together. The need to conclude both threads produced more than a few false endings which certainly made the film feel its length. The competition between story-lines also meant that some of the supporting characters, particularly Jack Huston's suffering artist, did not receive the attention they needed to give enough weight to their plot contributions. Even Buckley, one of the key players, didn't seem quite fleshed out enough, though this is not helped by the poor chemistry between Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton.

At its best though, "Their Finest" is a wonderful send-up of propaganda movie-making of the 1940s and a worthy war film in its own right.
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13th (2016)
Relentless and affecting, but deliberately overwhelming in style
20 February 2017
I want to be clear that I am not reviewing the message presented by this film, a flaw in documentary reviewing that I find very common, even (especially?) among professional movie critics.

Instead, I want to address how this film works as a film in delivering its message.

13th is clearly intended to shock its audience. Its message is a wholly unpleasant reality to deal with - the idea that institutional racism is arguably as prevalent in the US today as it has ever been and that it serves the wealthy in maintaining their power and wealth. I consider myself to be relatively well-informed about the privatisation of the jail system in the US and other matters that the film highlights, such as police brutality and attempts to disenfranchise black Americans in many states. However, I did find 13th shocking still, and felt at the end of it that I had learned more than I perhaps even wanted to know. The film commanded my attention and, largely, stayed on topic and linked its points together credibly.

Having said this, I did find that the pace of information delivered and the rapid editing was simply overwhelming at times. More than once, I had to wind back and listen to a point again, simply because my brain was still trying to register what was pouring into it. This made the film feel like a deliberate assault on the senses.

A good illustration of this is the multitude of talking heads that are brought into the movie one after the other, all facing different directions, though they're the only thing on screen at the time, with barely a pause for breath between each point. The effect was as if there were 15 people in a room all talking over each other, but the camera is only ever on one of them at a time. Clearly these are all individual interviews, filmed separately, so why does director Ava DuVernay feel the need to present them all in such a haphazard manner? It felt to me that the only reason for this is to make the viewer disoriented as all of this information comes rushing at them. In short, to make them less able to critically analyse what is being said. It feels like the technique used by someone who isn't telling the truth. Now I am not arguing that this is the case here - I don't think that it is - so why make the style like this? I think that the message of this movie is shocking enough without the need to pummel the audience into submission with the way it is edited and I think that it's a shame that this was the choice made. With some audiences I imagine it will backfire and they will feel alienated by a message they may otherwise have accepted.

Overall, I definitely applaud this film for its ability to enlighten audiences about an important issue, but I fault it for choosing to do so in such an overwhelming manner, which makes real-time critical assessment of its message difficult.
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Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Folksy mediocrity punctuated with exceptional battle scenes
1 February 2017
'Hacksaw Ridge' is a deeply split movie. On the one hand there are some of the most horrifying, frankly excellent depictions of battleground carnage ever put on film. Sadly on the other, much more heavily weighted hand, there is a deeply mediocre, folksy boy goes to war movie surrounding them.

Okay, so the bad points: Mel Gibson seems to have had the attitude when making this movie that maybe his audience hasn't seen any other war films and will happily sit through every scene from every war movie ever without yawning. So we get the scenes which show our young hero finding love before going off to war (check), a fierce but sensitive sergeant (check), the training scenes (check), yada yada yada. I can only think of one moment in the whole set-up, which lasts for a good hour twenty, where Gibson used a little subtlety to transition over a beat in the movie. Our hero, Private Doss, admires his wedding ring momentarily before talking to his new wife. This little moment spares us the need of a wedding scene and moves us closer to the pay-off, the film that Gibson actually wants to show us and that we actually want to see. The movie desperately needed more moments like this. Sure, the scenes are all made competently, but there's an insufferable lack of originality for such a long set-up.

Exacerbating this mediocrity is the corny dialogue. Actually, corny isn't a strong enough word to describe just how 'gee shucks, mister' folksy, porch rocking chair hayseed the characters in this movie are. Now I'm not mocking 1940s Virginia, mostly because I just don't buy that this is what it was like. The dialogue is just plain bad and reveals a key reason why 'Apocalypto' is Gibson's best film.

The cast are fine, with only one or two stand-out performances, notably from Hugo Weaving as the alcoholic father (check!) and Luke Bracey as the training ground foe turned battlefield friend (check!).

Okay, so we finally get to Okinawa and the movie begins. The build-up to the battle is over-the-top but effective and by the time the first bullet is fired, the tension is unbearable. The battle itself is a film-making masterclass of war action. The first engagement with the Japanese in particular brilliantly balances the desire to convey the frenetic pace and chaos of the battle with the need for it to be coherent for the audience. The battle is fast and terrifying, but the editing allows us to take it in and follow the narrative of the action. This is no easy achievement and makes editor John Gilbert perhaps the only Oscar nominee from 'Hacksaw Ridge' to deserve the prize.

It's in these scenes that we become re-acquainted with the man who made 'Apocalypto', that ceaselessly energetic, kinetic movie. When his characters move, rather than talk, Gibson is capable of genuinely entrancing sequences of film, in the same league as the likes of Sam Peckinpah or George Miller.

It's a real shame that most of this movie is not these battle scenes, which are in stark contrast to the majority of the run time. It would be great if Mel Gibson could deliver us another tightly managed action epic like 'Apocalypto'. The best parts of this film, which are enough to lift the whole out of mere mediocrity, show that it was not a fluke.
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La La Land (I) (2016)
Likable, original movie that shouldn't be tied to one genre
25 January 2017
Where to start with a review of the most talked-about movie of the moment? Well, how about with what it is not? Watching 'La La Land' last night I fairly quickly decided that the film was not what the majority of critics had labelled it, a homage piece to 1950s musicals. With the exception of one or two of the opening scenes, the film lacks the giant sound stage atmosphere of a studio musical and is instead rooted much more firmly in the LA of today. It is perhaps better described as romance first, love letter to LA and jazz second, and homage to studio movies in general (rather than just the musical variety) third. Indeed the film's many references, both in dialogue and style, to 'Casablanca' signpost this wider homage.

That jazz features so prominently once again in Damien Chazelle's third movie is unsurprising after the success of 'Whiplash' - it will be more of a shock if it is a centrepiece of his next movie, Neil Armstrong biopic 'First Man', which may give us a better impression of whether he is capable of diversity as well as quality. The direction in 'La La Land' is very solid and gives the impression of a writer/director who knows exactly how he wants his movie to unfold. The pace of the movie is very easy and relaxing and I found myself enjoying each moment without concentrating on what might be coming next, an all too rare experience and one of the most likable aspects of the film.

Perhaps one of the only real negatives of the film for me was the freedom given to cinematographer Linus Sandgren, of 'American Hustle' and 'Joy' fame, whose camera work was ostentatious at times and distracted from the more grounded feel that Chazelle and lead actors Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling brought to the film.

Centred as it is on the romance between the leads, the movie simply wouldn't work without the excellent performances of Stone and Gosling. Stone uses her expressiveness with great subtlety, steering the film equally well through moments of emotional drama and romantic fantasy. Gosling will be credited most for his musical talent which is coupled with the effortless, pensive charm that has become his trademark. I have read criticism of their singing and dancing but feel that this is misplaced. Were the film the musical in the Gene Kelly style that many critics have dubbed it, this might be a relevant criticism. However, the film that I saw suited the slightly understated musical performances, which complemented its relaxed, grounded feel.

My final thoughts are on the overall theme of the movie. For a romantic fantasy the movie is surprisingly thought-provoking and presents a nuanced stance on the conflicts between love and success which felt accessible despite its Hollywood glamour. The achievement of this balance between fantasy and realism owes a great deal to Chazelle's witty-yet-believable dialogue and the performances of the two leads.

Approach this movie without the desire to shoe-horn it into one genre or another and I think you will be pleased by how many sizes it fits!
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Passengers (I) (2016)
Strong movie that fails to fulfil its ambition
9 January 2017
Warning: Spoilers
"Passengers" has received a very negative appraisal from many critics, scoring a paltry 31% on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing. After seeing the movie, I find it hard to comprehend what it is that so many critics disliked. It seems to me that a film that has attempted a very ambitious concept and not wholly succeeded has been disproportionately punished for its ambition and that had director Morten Tyldum and writer Jon Spaihts aimed lower they might have been received more positively.

At its heart, "Passengers" is a morality tale. Jim (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken 30 years into a 120 year space flight and, unable to put himself back to sleep, he faces spending the rest of his life alone while the other 5,000 passengers sleep out the rest of the journey. He becomes obsessed with Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer also making the journey. Before long, his desire for company overwhelms him and he wakes her up, condemning her to share his fate. Jim keeps his terrible secret from Aurora and allows a romantic connection to form between them.

The concept is flawlessly introduced. The pacing of the first act is perfect, the film patient enough to display the desperation of Jim's position and throwing in enough humour to prevent things becoming unduly depressing. Jim's dilemma - encapsulated in his question to Arthur, the robot bartender (played wonderfully by Michael Sheen), "If you were stuck on a desert island for the rest of your life and had the ability to wish someone there but neither of you would ever be able to leave, would you do it?" - is a fascinating moral problem that the film at least begins to address with some depth. It is hard to imagine an audience member not asking themselves whether they think they would display the willpower to remain forever alone and spare the life of another.

Unfortunately the film does eventually fail to maintain the serious examination of this problem and the third act of the movie descends into unnecessary action shenanigans and a woefully neat solution to the moral dilemma is forged. There are definite signs here that a room of suits decided that the audience shouldn't be forced to reflect on whether Jim should be forgiven for his actions or how human nature and endless empty time might interact with each other to produce complicated reactions that reach beyond the moral examination of a fortune cookie. For this the film does fail in its initial ambition.

In my view however, the first 90 minutes of this movie are worth the viewing and elevate the film beyond the average popcorn movie that it could so easily have been from the outset. The performances from Pratt, Lawrence and Sheen are all very strong, aided in no small part by grounded, relatable dialogue from Spaihts. This everyman feel to the movie, so necessary to allow us to put ourselves in the centre of the moral dilemma, should have been allowed to continue into the third act, and is shattered by the unlikely heroics at the end.

It does seem to me that had the creators of this film decided to begin this movie in a much simpler, more action-centred way, it would not have been so harshly treated and could easily have been received by critics in a way comparable to Marvel movies of recent years - conventional, predictable and well-trodden stories, capably rendered for the screen. By attempting something fresher and more complex, "Passengers" has instead been punished for reaching a little higher and coming one act short of something special.
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Desperately in need of subtlety and depth
2 November 2016
I remember when Ken Loach used to make films rich in symbolism which featured characters capable of moral ambiguity living thoughtfully crafted stories on the screen. Those were the days.

Unfortunately, in the already gargantuanly over-rated "I, Daniel Blake" we are treated to none of these things. With this film, Loach's desire to beat his message into viewers' heads has trumped all other considerations relating to the quality of the viewing experience.

The story revolves around the struggles of 59 year old Daniel Blake, a skilled workman recovering from poor health, as he attempts to claim benefits from the state. Along the way he befriends and helps single mother of two Katie, who is barely holding her family together in a new city.

The message that the director seems to want so very much for us all to understand is that the benefits system in Britain is designed, quite purposefully it would appear, to grind down those unfortunate enough to come across it. There's little room here even to consider that the system may be well-meaning but intrinsically flawed, so extreme is the position taken.

This wouldn't be such a problem if the film possessed other cinematic qualities, but these are in short supply as well.

Just like in real life, characters in the film can all be very easily separated into good, honest folk or nasty, hate-filled jobsworths. Loach's view seems to be that people who work with their hands must be alright, but heaven help you if you hang a tie around your neck and work with paper, or (cross yourselves) a computer - then you're probably the sort that would push your own grandma into the gutter if there was a quid in it for you.

The plot is very hastily pasted together, with very little regard to allowing the story to unfold satisfyingly or intelligently. Key moments in the plot just follow flatly one after the other as if story-boarding was ignored altogether. The script shows a similar need for attention, characters delivering narration-like dialogue as if they were reading aloud the notes in the script margin rather than the lines themselves. It also falls into near-embarrassing clichés like the emotionally-mature child-philosopher part that also smacks of lazy writing.

There are redeeming features. The cast, particularly Dave Johns in the lead role, give satisfying performances. Johns's lighter moments in the film are particularly well-delivered and the film is genuinely funny at times. But these flourishes don't make up for a very lazy film, both conceptually and in execution.
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Finding Dory (2016)
Dull and unnecessary repetition of original
15 August 2016
I'll come out and admit up front that "Finding Nemo" is not one of my favourite Pixar movies. When it was released I found it quite easily the least funny Pixar movie to date and, having followed "Monsters Inc.", I worried that Pixar were shifting their focus to the kids in the audience without delivering so many of the clever references and gags that are the core of their appeal to adults. Happily "The Incredibles" followed the subsequent year, still the best movie the studio has produced.

Critical reception for "Finding Dory" convinced me to give it a go, but I wish I had listened to my instincts to avoid this one. Much like its predecessor, the film is generally lacking in humour and barely raised a chuckle from me throughout. Not much thought seems to have gone into making clever gags, exemplified by the oft-mentioned use of Sigourney Weaver as voice talent. It's like someone at Pixar said "Hey, wasn't it funny when we had Sigourney Weaver as the voice of the ship's computer in "WALL-E"? Well, yes, it was - because that was a clever reference to the film "Alien". Here, no such reference exists, so it's just unfunny name-dropping.

The lack of humour compounds upon a really weak story line that is soul-drainingly repetitive. It is no spoiler to say that the vast majority of this movie consists of the three main characters being split up on their way somewhere, managing to get back together again and then immediately being split up again. It happened over and over again until I was internally screaming at the film to come to a merciful end. The film's emotional core is a simple rehash of the original and never rises above the bargain-basement "Family is good" and "You can do it if you try" tropes of a million other kids films. It's a far cry from the subtlety exhibited by last year's "Inside Out".

Possibly most damning of all is the fact that this movie doesn't even push the visual boundaries of the original. Considering that it's been 13 years I was expecting to be wowed by some great underwater visuals, but this film doesn't look any better than its predecessor. Disappointing to say the least.

Overall this is definitely one to skip unless its to keep young children occupied for 90 minutes. Given that next year we have an unwanted 3rd "Cars" movie, we'll have to hope that original IP "Coco" can demonstrate the qualities that we've come to expect from Pixar - they're in short supply here.
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The BFG (2016)
Charming but distant effort from Spielberg with brilliant turn from Mark Rylance
3 August 2016
I've read a lot of negative reviews for "The BFG" on IMDb. While the film is flawed in several respects, I do think it showcases some of the elements that have made other Spielberg movies family classics.

I'll start with the positives. Mark Rylance's performance in this film is sublime. Still a relative unknown on the screen when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor earlier in the year (for a performance that I wasn't so bowled over by), his performance of the BFG showcases his long stage experience. Only a classically trained actor could deliver the kind of nuanced expression and emotion in the tangled vocabulary of the dialogue here and Rylance never failed to captivate me for a single moment. It's fair to say that the film would not have succeeded without this crucial performance - Spielberg must have been grinning from ear to ear when he first witnessed it. It probably adds 2 points to my score here and is worth seeing the film to experience.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill needs to be mentioned here as well. While not lighting the screen up with her performance as the orphan Sophie, she capably carries the scenes that she needs to.

The production design of the film is also impressive at times, particularly the giant sets in the BFG's house which convey a fun sense of wonder for Barnhill to navigate in. The area where the BFG keeps his dreams is also nicely designed with inventive water mechanisms which provide the basis of the best dramatic sequence in the film. That being said, I did have some niggling issues with the continuity of scale throughout the film, particularly between the 3 main dimensions of the humans, the BFG, and the considerably larger other giants. This seemed noticeably inconsistent to me which grated against my enjoyment of the film.

The film successfully delivers the fun moments with some good family comedy moments. A particularly memorable set-up "whizz-banger" scene in Buckingham Palace is sure to make the kids (and most adults with a funny bone) laugh out loud.

However it is in the drama that the film suffers. One of Roald Dahl's talents was in creating an unusual level of threat for a children's author and this is simply missing from the film. We're told that the other giants eat people but never come close to witnessing this on screen. As a result the bad guys more often come across as a bumbling gaggle of idiots than a source of dread. Roald Dahl takes time in the book to make us afraid of the other giants but Spielberg, possibly in search of his PG rating, declines to do so here to the detriment of the film. Contrast this with Nick Roeg's excellent adaptation of "The Witches" where the truly chilling opening is devoted to showing the evil and terrifying methods employed by the antagonists.

As well as lacking in scares, the film rarely raises the adrenaline either. Unlike in the excellent "The Adventures of Tintin", Spielberg fails here to raise the pace much culminating in a truly limp finale.

Overall this felt like a very old-fashioned kids movie which is not helped by the indistinct setting which veers in feel from modern day to Victorian. It has a lot of charm in its presentation and is aided enormously by the main performance but falls short of the source material and Spielberg's best.
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Promising start to Studio Ghibli's next generation
29 July 2016
"When Marnie Was There" has the unenviable task of representing Studio Ghibli's first production without the involvement of either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata. These two men, Miyazaki in particular, are synonymous with Studio Ghibli, which left "When Marnie Was There" needing to reassure movie-goers that the company would continue in the fine traditions of its founders.

The result is promising with slight reservations. There's a lot to like here. The main character, Anna, is a complex central piece to a fairly complex story. She is emotionally distant from those around her, owing to the early loss of her parents and the loss of familial connection this brings her. This makes her genuinely unpleasant to some of the people who try to reach out to her, an ambitious choice by the writers for a character that we need to connect to in order to care about the film. I found that this really worked, and provided an intriguing and sometimes unpredictable character to focus our attention on.

The story that unfolds around Anna, involving her fascination with an abandoned house and its former occupants, is beautifully presented to us but with few scenes that really dazzle dramatically. A gripe that I had with the film was that some slowly simmering plot points, such as the sinister grain silo, didn't really deliver on their early promise, and overall the film ties off a lot of plot points fairly rapidly which left me feeling slightly dissatisfied. Overally I was left suspecting that there were probably a lot of plot holes that wouldn't take a lot of poking to reveal, if one spent the time.

This wouldn't matter to me too much if the film's emotional core was solid and it is, again, for the most part. As is fairly typical of a Ghibli film, my eyes did well up a few times during the movie and some of this was certainly due to the emotional connections that were developed throughout. However, I couldn't escape a nagging feeling that at times the film used some fairly cheap tricks to elicit these reactions from me, including the swells of a very unsubtle score and the buckets of tears produced by the on screen characters.

The film's key strength is in visuals and accompanying sound as it is a delight to experience. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and his animation staff deserve enormous credit for conveying the sensations of the main character with such tactile clarity. When Anna crosses the bay to the abandoned mansion for the first time in the low tide, the animation and sound combine to such an effect that I could practically feel the cold water around my ankles and the uncertain contours of the bottom underfoot. These are the moments that really carry the film and display the talent still on offer at this illustrious animation studio.
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Mr. Turner (2014)
Measured and human portrayal of genius
3 July 2016
Mike Leigh returns to the historical biopic with this visually arresting and deeply human portrayal of British artist JMW Turner. Timothy Spall is a perfect choice to play a man at once sensitive and lascivious, pioneering and fragile. Leigh has a knack for selecting actors whose faces display the cares of their lives, Imelda Staunton in "Vera Drake" a prime example, and Spall is no exception here, playing the role with great physicality. He's ably supported by a wide cast, Marion Bailey bringing some much-needed warmth and sincerity. The film also just about manages to avoid name-dropping too frequently, adeptly navigating the scores of Turner's famous contemporaries.

The script is excellently paced and crammed with brilliant dialogue, a notable example being the discussion between Turner, Bailey's Mrs. Booth and her husband, played by Karl Johnson, who recounts his days as a ship's carpenter for a slaver. It is clear that the actors here have all benefited enormously from Leigh's trademark lengthy pre-production and are utterly bedded in with their characters' lives.

As has been commented upon by many other reviewers (and recognised by the Academy), "Mr. Turner" is beautifully shot with the lighting in some scenes rightfully stealing the show. Given the subject matter, anything less than this would have displayed comical misrepresentation. Dick Pope finds many of Turner's reds, greys and golds in his beautiful portrayal of the English countryside, but there are also some wonderfully candlelit interiors which sharpen the manifold contours of the aged cast. The use of digital trickery to enhance the palette and provide visual touches that chance denies is sometimes a little too noticeable, fittingly in conjunction with the narrative's occupation with Turner's own fascination and resignation with the encroaching visual technology that will overtake his fine arts in the capture of light.

Gary Yershon deserves a mention for providing a sumptuous score to accompany Dick Pope's cinematography. His woodwind-dominated compositions are some of the finest original work I've heard in the last couple of years.

The negatives are relatively light - the film's 150 minute run-time eventually took its toll and I was certainly ready for the end. Uncharacteristically I also found some of the scenes lacking in subtlety. When Turner declines a fortune for his work, preferring to bequeath it to the British public, the sentiment comes across a little too bluntly, as do Turner's final moments.

That being said, these take little away from an outstanding achievement from a modern master.
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Another limp Hollywood horror
18 April 2005
This film is simply another nail in the coffin for the hopes of horror fans such as myself that an American cast and crew will deliver a genuinely frightful offering for our senses. 'The Amityville Horror' belongs to a growing collection of recent horror films from the USA such as the Ring remakes, 'Darkness Falls', 'Gothika', 'White Noise' etc which are seemingly designed only to make test audiences jump in the seats every so often. Only this can explain the barrage of loud noises and flashing images we seem to experience whenever a scary scene emerges from the otherwise mediocre dialogue and cinematography.

What happened to the skillful build-up of tension created by effective use of location seen in films like 'Don't Look Now'? Or the feelings of unease experienced during 'Rosemary's Baby'? Special effects is the villain from this reviewer's perspective. Time and time again, 'The Amityville Horror' presents us with shocking images of the evil in the house. However, with no tension, fear, or suspense in place, all these images can be appreciated for is the technical expertise which went into making them.

I only hope that audiences will begin to punish the Hollywood horror factory for this stream of limp attempts.
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