Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Good Dinosaur

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Peter Sohn.

Cast: (voices of) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn.

Acid was way better back in the day.

IF any of the other animation houses released The Good Dinosaur, you’d consider it a hit.

But by the lofty storytelling standards of Pixar, it is merely good. Really good, but still just good.

Being released the same year as possibly Pixar’s greatest film – Inside Out – means it’s impossible not to look at the two movies side by side, which puts The Good Dinosaur at a disadvantage. Next to the remarkable script of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels so simple, conventional and even clichéd.

Thankfully, like all Pixar films (bar Cars 2), The Good Dinosaur has so much heart and integrity and so deftly handles its jokes and emotions that you can overlook the plainness of the story.

The set-up is intriguing – in a bizarro world where the asteroid that wipes out the dinosaurs misses Earth, we end up with a dino-society of sorts.

The herbivores are crop farmers, the carnivores run cattle, and the humans are not that different from the other non-sapient mammals running around.

Our hero is Arlo (Ochoa), a scared little apatosaurus desperate to “make his mark” but haunted by a family tragedy.

A run-in with a human child, who Arlo names Spot (Bright), whisks the pair a long way from Arlo’s home, and the two must work together to make it back.

The Good Dinosaur’s plot is of the Homeward Bound variety, with a boy-and-his-dog dynamic thrown in – the twist being the boy is actually a dinosaur and the dog is actually a boy.

Once Arlo and Spot team up, the film finds its feet as it gets a much-needed sense of humour and stops labouring its message about overcoming fear in order to make your mark in the world.

It’s still a very normal story dressed up in some rather eccentric clothes, and at times the movie almost feels too weird for its own good. We get cowboy tyrannosaurs, storm-chasing pterosaurs, and raptor rustlers, but weirdest of all is the look of the dinosaurs, which takes a while to get used too. The photo-realistic world they live in is visually stunning, but it makes the cartoonish, plasticine-like characters seem out of place.

Despite its formulaic story, it still manages to the push the right buttons. There will be a few happy tears at the end, and there are a couple of decent laughs.

In the wake of Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur could be seen as a deliberate attempt at a simpler film that’s more kiddie-friendly and less cerebral and inventive.

As such, The Good Dinosaur is good enough, even if it’s not as Pixar perfect as we’ve come to expect.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens

(M) ★★★★

Director: J.J. Abrams.

Cast: Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill.

"It's George Lucas! Run for it!"

IT is increasingly likely that at some point in the future, every film will be remade.

Even the seemingly untouchable and iconic ones – like, say, Star Wars – will get a re-imagining centuries from now.

If someone 100 years in the future is bold/stupid enough to remake the original 1977 saga-spawning game-changing sci-fi classic, they would do well to check out J.J. Abrams’ sterling effort with Episode VII.

This new addition to the franchise is, in many ways, a remake. While it’s actually a sequel, a bit of a reboot, and a definite passing of the torch, it follows similar story beats and even specific plot points of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.

This is not a criticism – it’s a compliment and part of the secret to its success. Abrams and his co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote episodes V and VI) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) have tapped into many of the core elements that made the original work, as well as the structure and pacing, to build something that is both fresh and familiar.

This nostalgic skeleton and classic storytelling approach has been fleshed out with great new characters and new twists on old favourites. Incoming masked baddie Kylo Ren (Driver) is a fantastic villain, taking the imposing nature and deathly style of Darth Vader and combining it with real flaws, such as a wild, brattish temper and a niggling sense of self-doubt and inferiority. He is a true threat yet also feels like a well-rounded character, and he’s one of the best things in The Force Awakens.

Not to be outdone though is Ridley as Rey – the shining heart of the film. Her character merges traits of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa (that’s not a comment on her lineage, by the way). She has Skywalker’s wide-eyed naivety and earnestness, and it is through her eyes we see much of the universe, but she also has Organa’s can-do attitude and brashness. Rey continues Hollywood’s welcome recent run with strong female action leads (The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa) – she is not a damsel in need of rescuing; she is more likely to free herself and save everyone else in the process.

The other big tick for the casting agents is Boyega as Finn, a stormtrooper trying to find his place in the galaxy after deciding that slaughtering the innocent is not his cup of tea. He delivers a good mixture of drama and humour, and shares good chemistry with Ridley and Ford.

The latter returns as Han Solo, older, a bit goofier, and far less sprightly than he used to be. Ford slips into the role like it's a comfy old leather jacket and helps balance the fresh elements with a sense of history and occasion. The character has also evolved sensibly – he is wiser for his experiences and also tired of it all.

Less well handled is Fisher’s return as the promoted General Leia Organa. While Leia and Han’s relationship is well played, the writers and Fisher don’t seem to have figured out exactly who the princess has become.

One of the most notable things about The Force Awakens is that it does the prequels no favours. While episodes I, II and III have their moments, they’re shown up as being the green-screen-heavy toy commercials they truly are when compared with Episode VII. This is a real film, set in a real-seeming tangible lived-in world, with real-seeming people you care about, and the majority of the movie doesn’t look like a computer game.

Add in the fact this has the best acting, best dialogue, best direction, and best cinematography of any film in the entire franchise, and the prequels don’t stand a chance. It doesn’t have the myth-making quality of the original – nothing can – nor does it have a stack of classic moments, but nonetheless this is technically a better crafted film than any of its predecessors.

There are flaws. An extended set-piece involving tentacled creatures loose on a spaceship plays badly, while some key moments in the third act feel rushed. Gleeson is also miscast and saves Fisher from the ‘worst on ground’ award.

There is also a dark air to this that, while certainly no darker than the deepest pockets of episodes III and V, stamps this as a film for the older fans. The slapstick of Jar Jar Binks and twee annoyances of young ‘Ani’ Skywalker are nowhere to be seen, thank the maker. It’s largely bloodless, but its M rating is warranted.

All in all, The Force Awakens is deeply satisfying. It’s as good as fans could have hoped for and better than we deserve. It is a fine successor to the original trilogy that knows what it needs to do, packs in some fantastic and emotional surprises along the way, and impresses on so many levels that many will want to go and see it again.

Thursday, 10 December 2015


(M) ★★★★

Director: Ryan Coogler.

Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew.

"What about Throw Momma From The Train? Can we reboot that one?"
YOU can’t keep a good fighter down.

And while many would have been happy for cinema’s greatest boxer Rocky Balboa to stay down after the surprising success of his self-titled and sixth film nine years ago, you’ll be glad he got back up off the canvas for a seventh round.

To be fair though, this is not Rocky’s fight. It’s a passing of the torch, or gloves as it were, to Adonis Johnson aka the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent in the first two films of the series (and friend in the third and fourth).

“Baby Creed” - played by Michael B Jordan (Chronicle, Fantastic Four) - is a troubled young man who didn’t know his father but is drawn to Apollo’s legacy and the world of boxing.

After a promising start to his pugilistic career but with a temper in danger of landing him in trouble, the young Adonis packs in his job as an accountant to follow his boxing dreams.

He moves from LA to Philadelphia, tracks down Rocky (Stallone, of course) and begins training, hiding the fact he’s Apollo Creed’s son from everyone but Rocky.

So far, so formulaic, and on paper this looks like an uncalled-for cash-grab; a desperate attempt to restart the franchise. But the reality is this is one of the best films of the Rocky series – one worthy of the championship belt.

Creed is filled with the rich history of its predecessors but is not weighed down by it. Perhaps its greatest feat is walking the line between the old and the new – fans of the series will be well rewarded, but newcomers will find this a great starting point to the saga.

The film is totally Adonis’, and therefore Jordan’s, but it does a great job of valuing and honouring Rocky, and therefore Stallone.

Jordan’s performance is outstanding, both in terms of the physicality and the dramatic requirements. He owns a tough role that is constructed almost entirely in the shadows – not only of his character’s father, but of Stallone, of Balboa, and of the Rocky legacy. That he doesn’t buckle under all that weight while comfortably creating a new character is something to be applauded.

But as much as this film is about Adonis, the real star of the show is Stallone. A best supporting actor Oscar nomination beckons. After seven films, Rocky is a comfy pair of slippers for him, but in the transition from ageing fighter to “loveable uncle”, he adds new depth and new dimensions to the character that is the best display of Stallone’s talents since Cop Land.

Coogler, directing his own script, is the quiet achiever here. He gives both Adonis and Rocky good arcs, and you can see the screenplay is the real difference between this being a cheap knock-off and the real deal. But he also handles the action well. The film’s middle fight – a one-take, two-round sizzler – is masterfully done, as is the way he builds momentum in the final bout.

The flaws are few but are really no fault of the film’s. There is nothing truly new here – no surprise given this is Rocky VII – and you can spot the story’s beats from a mile away, which takes some of the punch (ahem) out of proceedings.

There is also a fine line between melodrama and real heart, and which side Creed falls on may well depend on your frame of mind when you step in the ring. Similarly, it’s humourless/serious approach skews toward self-parody, something amplified by the over-the-top and unbelievable nature of the climactic bout.

But Creed has the potential to win you over if you let it. The injection of new blood, dealt with intelligently, makes for an enjoyable new story in the Rocky saga, aided in no small way by Jordan, Coogler and, dare it be said, a career-best turn from Stallone.

Thursday, 12 November 2015


(M) ½

Director: Sam Mendes.

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes.

Dinner at her parents' place had not gone well.

THE sixth Bond is back for his fourth outing and the world of 007 has never been so liberated.

Since effectively rebooting the series with the arrival of Craig in Casino Royale in 2006, Eon Productions have been able to do whatever the hell they want with the films.

If they play things straight and do away with the quips and gadgets, it’s a new Bond for a new era. If they throw in some quips and gadgets, it’s a nod to the past. They can’t fail.

Well, actually, they can fail. The confusing mess of Quantum Of Solace proved that, although that can be largely attributed to the 2007-’08 writers’ strike apparently.

But after the outright victories of Casino Royale (the most un-Bond-like of the series yet also possibly the best) and Skyfall (somewhat more Bond-like and also great), the filmmakers find themselves in the position of being able to do whatever they want and have it called “Bond”.

So here we have Spectre, a movie that continues in the super-serious vein of Craig’s previous outings yet throws in some typical Bond wit, that delves deeply into the psychology and history of its characters but can’t resist a gadget and a tricked-out car, and that has a visual style unlike any previous Bond film but 007 is still unable to resist shagging a woman he’s just met.

Plot-wise, the movie’s catalyst is a message from beyond the grave telling Bond to kill a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) and go to his funeral.

The funeral leads him to Sciarra’s wife Lucia (Belucci, making headlines as the oldest ‘Bond girl’ to date), who in turn points Bond in the direction of Spectre, an organisation that appears to link many of the most recent Bond villains.

But who is the Big Bad behind them all (hint: he looks like Christoph Waltz) and what is he up to?

Following in the footsteps of 23 predecessors makes it hard to avoid some obvious throwbacks. A mountaintop health clinic smacks of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a relentless colossal henchman played by Bautista is like Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker but without the dental work, a torture scene tries to outdo Casino Royale’s ballbuster, the “go rogue” subplot was Timothy Dalton’s bag, and there’s a villain and a villainous organisation we’ve seen before.

These are not criticisms. Spectre revels in the opportunity to be new and old (Bond orders a vodka martini shaken not stirred and a dirty unshaken vodka martini!) and it largely works well when both are mixed together.

Case in point is a mindbogglingly brilliant opening tracking shot that goes through a crowded Mexican square, into a hotel, into an elevator, up a few floors, into a room, out a window and along a rooftop. It’s a bravura moment and something we’ve not seen in a Bond film before - it's more like Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil opening shot or one of Scorsese's signature tracking moves.

It’s then topped off by a fight in a helicopter that is one of the ballsier stunts seen in recent times and which is typically Bond, but dialled up to 11.

Sadly, Spectre can’t keep up the pace of its pre-credits sequence forever and the momentum slowly drops away, unaided by a two-and-a-half-hour running time. It’s almost a relief when we get to the final stand-off on a London bridge, having been to Mexico, Italy, Austria, and Morocco already.

Things get particularly wonky in the deserts beyond Morocco, where the villain seemingly welcomes Bond with open arms, despite having sent a henchman to kill him just moments earlier. The film fully leaps off the rails and from then on it is a struggle to get back on them.

Most disappointing is Waltz, who has habit of stealing movies. He couldn’t even steal a shot in this film. His character is never imposing or scary or intimidating or dangerous or charismatic or unhinged or psychotic (even when he’s torturing Bond), and every Bond villain needs to be at least one of these things. He plays his Big Bad like a benevolent uncle, which would be fine if there was a hint of menace underneath, but there isn’t. This is Waltz’s most disappointing performance since his breakout in Inglourious Basterds.

Holding it all together is Mendes and in-demand cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who give the film a visual style that is beautiful to behold, and Craig, who has achieved the difficult task of creating a fresh post-Brosnan Bond that still somehow feels like Bond.

Spectre really impresses early on but loses its way and struggles to a satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s great bits are truly great and at least it’s better than Quantum Of Solace.

My wife and I watched and discussed every Bond film in positively riveting fashion in BlogalongaBond, which you can read here.

Thursday, 16 July 2015


(M) ★★★½

Director: Peyton Reed.

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña.

The latest Psycho remake was weird.
MARVEL is getting cocky with its cinematic universe these days.

While comic book rivals DC are throwing all their big guns – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman – into one film in a desperate attempt to catch-up, Marvel are doing whatever the hell they feel like.

Case in point is Ant-Man, the debut appearance of a character who, despite being one of the original comic book Avengers, is laughably named, oddly talented (he can control ants!) and weirdly antiquated in this day and age.

But Marvel are going to have their cake and eat it too, which is part of what makes this film so fun. They know it’s ridiculous so they make jokes about its ridiculousness. The script is acutely aware of how absurd the entire premise is but enthusiastically embraces the absurdity.

Dr Hank Pym (Douglas) is a brilliant professor and the original 1960s Ant-Man – a secret government weapon whose super-powered suit allowed him to shrink to the size of a bug and marshal an army of ants.

But when his former student Darren Cross (Stoll) gets close to cracking the secret of the Ant-Man costume and threatens to sell it to the bad guys, the long-retired Pym goes in search of a new hero to take up the miniature mantle and stop the villains.

Enter Scott Lang (Rudd), fresh out of prison and boasting a particular set of skills that Pym needs to save the day.

What’s different about this origin tale is that it comes in halfway through the telling – Ant-Man has already saved the world and hung up his helmet by the time our new protagonist Lang comes on the scene. It’s as if this is Ant-Man: The Next Generation, but in a practical sense it adds to the rich history in the increasingly complicated tapestry that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU as the fanboys and fangirls call it).

Thematically, it’s covering some old Marvel ground. It’s about being worthy of what is presented to you (Thor), that technology is not inherently bad or good (Iron Man, Avengers: Age Of Ultron), the need for redemption and second chances (Iron Man again and anything with Black Widow in it), and the importance of family (Guardians Of The Galaxy).

But the strength lies in its fleshed-out characters. Lang is a little bit straight-up-and-down, but Pym, his daughter Hope (Lilly), and Cross are all well nuanced. Pym in particular is an interestingly flawed protagonist, with Douglas’ gravitas giving the science-babble weight and delivering the emotional needs of the story with aplomb.

What’s surprising is the film is not quite as funny or off-the-wall as anticipated. There are still plenty of laughs and Rudd is solid but he is largely restrained, which is confounding for someone with a reputation as a comedic actor. Also you can’t help but feel that writer and ex-director Edgar Wright was pushing for this to be funnier and even more off-the-wall, but that the version we’re seeing is Marvel’s dialed-down take.

If that’s the case, it’s a little bit of a shame. The best moments are the humourous ones and Ant-Man really excels when it’s taking the mickey out of itself and its pint-sized action, which is fleshed out with some novel-looking and wonderfully executed special effects. A fight between Ant-Man and an Avenger is a highlight, as is the climatic showdown which takes place primarily in a child’s bedroom.

While this is not quite on the MCU top shelf alongside Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and The Avengers, it’s not far below them. It’s also further proof of Marvel’s self-confidence and ability to make sure each film works yet bears a distinct feel (this is basically a heist film) and look.

With its small-scale action and tongue-in-cheek irreverence, Ant-Man is a welcome relief from the large-scale destruction and save-the-universe shenanigans of recent superhero movies.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Inside Out

(PG) ★★★★★

Director: Pete Docter.

Cast: (voices of) Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Richard Kind.

"They elected who as president?"

INSIDE Out is proof positive that when the Pixar brains trust puts its collective mind to an idea, they can do anything.

The thought of doing a film largely set within the head of an 11-year-old girl and where the principle characters are her emotions would send every other animation studio reaching for the metaphorical paracetamol before immediately turning its attention to another Madagascar/Ice Age/Shrek/Despicable Me sequel/spin off.

Not Pixar. Having already pushed the boundaries by using a grumpy elderly widower as a hero, making a largely wordless enviro-centric sci-fi flick, and celebrating the joys of food with a cast of rats, the concept at the heart of Inside Out is a bold yet natural progression for this game-changing institution.

But the fact that they pull off this hair-brained idea so brilliantly and beautifully is enough to make you want to stand up and applaud.

The 11-year-old girl in question is Riley (voiced by Dias) and the emotions in charge of the control room that is her mind are Joy (Poehler), Fear (Hader), Disgust (Kaling), Anger (Black), and Sadness (Smith). All are tested when Riley and her folks (Lane and MacLachlan) sell up their Minnesota home and relocate to San Francisco, triggering something of an emotional breakdown for the girl and her anthropomorphic feelings.

Director Docter (Up, Monsters Inc), the screenwriters, and Pixar's brain trust reportedly spent three and a half years getting the story of Inside Out exactly right, and it shows.

The script sets up Riley's internal world with an ease that belies the amount of thought, research and sweat that must have gone into it - in the charmingly simple opening, we're introduced to the emotions, their roles, and the creative way the film demonstrates such intangible concepts as making and storing memories and the things that are important to Riley in her own mind.

At its simplest it's a journey story - two of the characters are trying to get from one place to another - but that journey takes us through some fascinating locations we've never seen in a family film before. Abstract thought, the subconscious, the imagination, "the dream factory", long-term memory - these are all shown in inventive ways, as are the critters that populate these areas.

But this is so much more than just a journey. There is a level of depth, heart, reality, beauty, honesty and, of course, emotion in this film that is astounding for any type of movie, let alone something that's largely marketed to kids.

At the lowest age bracket, which is lower primary school-age children, there is enough light and movement to keep them interested, plus they're bound to have a basic enough grasp of different emotions to keep track of things.

At the "tween" level (and for early teens), the subject matter is bound to resonate, as they've just gone through these kind of pre-pubescent mental shifts or are just about to go through them. It's dealt with so simply and truthfully that it has to hit the mark.

Realistically though, this is a movie for the parents. This film is a grown-up wolf in kid's clothing, or mutton dressed as lamb, to labour the sheep analogies.

It's bright colours and cartoonish characters may make it look like its targeted at the young'uns, however the beautifully nuanced ideas such as the loss of innocence and the importance of sadness reveal this as the mature think-piece it really is. It's a movie about kids trying to understand who they are, and as a result, it's about and for parents trying to understand their kids.

Inside Out is also laugh-at-loud funny, cry-out-loud moving, and genuinely thrilling, exciting and fascinating.

Picking the greatest Pixar movie was already difficult, but the arrival of their latest effort just made it all the harder.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: George Miller.

Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne.

Bathurst was off the hook this year.

WHEN Tina Turner sang We Don't Need Another Hero in Beyond Thunderdome it sounded like an effective sign-off for the Mad Max series. And despite the fact we didn't need another Max Max movie, we have one.

Thankfully it's awesome, combining the best elements of all three previous films - the ominous atmosphere of the first movie, the exhilarating and intense action of the second one, and the larger world-building and end-of-days ramifications of Beyond Thunderdome.

At its core, Fury Road is basically a two-hour-long stunt-heavy chase sequence, with small amounts of plot and a bare minimum of character development eked out along the way.

We're reintroduced to Max (with Tom Hardy more than adequately filling Mel Gibson's dust-covered boots) in the post-apocalyptic desert, haunted by his past and those he couldn't save.

Captured by the despotic warlord Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), Max is forced into servitude as a "blood bag" for one of his warriors (Hoult) and sent off into battle to hunt Furiosa (Theron), who has fled with five of Joe's wives.

What follows is the very definition of an action movie. It's white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat, strap-in-and-feel-the-Gs film-making that whirs by refreshingly quick in a blur of dirt, flame, and flying car parts.

There's a fear that such an endeavour could become repetitive, given that it's chase after chase after chase, but somehow it doesn't. The strange relationship (which is largely unspoken) between Furiosa and Max helps build some effective quiet moments, without ever letting the intensity slide.

In these lulls we also get a greater understanding of the dead future Miller has been hinting at since Max first fired up the Pursuit Special in 1979 - it's an apocalypse that makes the one in The Road look like a holiday park.

Miller reportedly didn't bother with a script first and instead just made a bunch of storyboards, which shows. The film is not big on dialogue but manages to say a lot without saying much, which is refreshing (although some will complain that we don't get enough of an idea about the characters).

Fury Road is largely about the visuals - of stunningly designed Franken-vehicles, of mind-blowing practical stunts, of blown-out colours and slowed-down frame rates that accentuate the incredibly staged set-pieces.

There are some strange moments, such as the way the truck noises disappear during some conversations or how the accents are all over the shop (isn't this set in Australia?), and admittedly this is not going to be to all tastes, nor is it terribly cerebral film-making.

But this will surely please action aficionados and fans of the previous films, and it could be the best non-superhero action movie of the past decade.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

(M) ★★★

Director: Elizabeth Banks.

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam DeVine, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins.

The Bellas embraced their new roles as sneaker salespeople.

IF you needed to study the formula for sequel-making, look no further than Pitch Perfect 2.

All the rules are adhered to - the characters have been brought down to a new low after the high of the previous film's climax, the stakes have been upped, the villains are tougher to defeat, and there's the requisite new character on board.

On top of this you have to ensure the vibe and tone of the film is the same, while striving to be bigger and hopefully better.

Pitch Perfect 2 certainly hits all those notes without being better than the charmingly funny and enjoyable original, but it gets a pass by being reasonably amusing and bursting with great musical performances.

This time around all-girl collegiate a cappella group The Bella Bardens find themselves in danger of being permanently shut down after a wardrobe malfunction at a Presidential event that would have even Janet Jackson blushing.

Their only hope of earning re-instatement is winning an international a capella contest, which would mean defeating the hot favourites from Germany, Das Sound Machine. To do that, The Bellas need to re-discover their sound, overcome their fears, and realise that college can't last forever.

So much of the first film's success hinged on its humour and its harmonies, and while not as fresh second time around, those ingredients are still present. Kendrick's charm and Wilson's comedic skills are once again a plus, as are the snarky commentary duo of Banks (making her directorial debut too) and Higgins, who get all the best (and most inappropriate) lines.

There's enough goodwill from the first film to roll over and carry along this so-so sequel and help overcome its bum notes, largest of which is the way the middle section drags. In the second act we follow the Bellas through an underground a cappella competition (which benefits from a David Cross cameo and some great tunes), a team-building retreat, plus subplots for Kendrick's Beca and Wilson's Fat Amy thrown in for good measure too, and it's all a bit much as it slows the film and makes it longer than it needs to be.

A more streamlined script might have helped, but at least the pay-off is worthwhile - as in the previous film, the crescendo is a real showstopper. On top of the closing number, the aforementioned underground a cappella battle is a highlight, as is Das Sound Machine's impressive cover of Muse' Uprising.

Inevitably, a third film is in the works and it almost feels like Steinfeld's character was introduced merely so there was someone to carry the torch into another sequel after all The Bellas graduate.

But for all its flaws, Pitch Perfect 2 does all it needs to do to entertain those who enjoyed the original.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

(M) ★★★★

Director: Joss Whedon.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany.

Super-awesome friends fistbump!
THE Marvel Cinematic Universe has come a long way since Robert Downey Jr first strapped on the Iron Man suit in 2008.

Through an interweaving web of 10 films we've seen Norse gods, super-soldiers, alien attacks, a mono-syllabic tree and a gun-toting raccoon, with the high watermark being 2012's The Avengers, which brought most of these things together for the third-biggest grossing film of all time.

It was the culmination of what is now called a "mega-franchise" - something comic book rivals DC are desperately and hurriedly trying to mimic - but it set the bar impossibly high for every MCU film that followed.

It's a bar that the 11th film, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, can't quite reach, but that doesn't stop it from being an action-packed rollercoaster punctuated by some cool character moments and ruled by a great villain.

After some individual adventures (Iron Man 3, Captain America 2 and Thor 2), the Avengers re-assemble to track down Loki's sceptre - a left-over MacGuffin from their first team-up.

But Iron Man longs for a time when he doesn't have to strap on his battle armour, so he and Bruce Banner (Ruffalo) set about using the staff to create a super-smart super-suit to protect the entire world from intergalactic threats.

The result is Ultron (Spader), a robot who sees the world's biggest threat as coming not from space, but from humanity itself.

Whedon's wit and way with words, such a highlight in The Avengers, are back in full force for Age Of Ultron and are particularly evident in the titular robot, where Spader's delicious delivery (and some motion-capture wizardry) help create an android with attitude that's unlike any we've seen before.

The character of Ultron also sets up some interesting themes about gods and evolution - there's some intriguing science-meets-spirituality ideas at play here, but nothing too heavy as Whedon's humour ensures a nice mix of levity and gravity.

In fact it's the script's talky moments that are the real highlight, perhaps more so than the bash-and-crash spectacle. Most notable is a scene where the Avengers just hang out and play a party game of "Try to Lift Thor's Hammer" - it's this kind of stuff that sticks in the memory more than most of the action.

Not that the action is bad though. There is a tendency for it to whiz by in too-quick edits and blurs of CG imagery, but some parts are outstanding, such as a single-take opening shot and the much-previewed Hulk vs Iron Man showdown.

Another highlight, especially for the fans, is the introduction of new characters. We get the super-powered Maximoff twins (Taylor-Johnson and Olsen), the aforementioned Ultron, and The Vision (Bettany), with the latter being a fascinating prospect for future films. There are also a few "hey it's that guy" moments for some returning characters.

Where the film struggles is juggling such a big cast evenly. It seemed a Herculean task in The Avengers with six characters (one that Whedon pulled off amazingly well) but here we're up to at least 10 characters and it's near impossible to keep track of them when they split up for the final battle. They each get their moment to shine, but it's occasionally too many balls to juggle in the editing suite.

Even less successful is a seemingly out-of-nowhere romance between two characters, and a few strange plot points, including one which is best described as "Thor goes for a swim". These elements stick out as "huh?" moments but are not enough to drag the film down.

After all, this is a comic book movie, and there is a fair amount of comic book insanity and MacGuffin mumbo jumbo involving alien technology and "computer magic", so the best idea is to just strap in for the ride because it's a fun one, filled with plenty of laughs, great spectacle, and more cool characters than you can poke Loki's sceptre at.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

(MA15+) ★★★½

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Samuel L Jackson, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Michael Caine.

Firth knew he would regret coming to Bridget Jones Con 2014, and he was right.
REMEMBER when James Bond films used to be a bit bonkers?

It was back in a time before The Bourne Identity hit cinemas and changed the genre forever and before Daniel Craig re-invented the 007 mantle in a trio of excellent (except for Quantum of Solace) but oh-so-serious instalments of the superspy series.

Those were the days when villains had insane plans for world domination and henchmen with bizarrely useful physical attributes. Those were the days when literally anything could hide a weapon and when watches did far more than just tell the time. Those were the days when there was always a big clock counting down to armageddon and when faceless baddies couldn't shoot straight.

Kingsman: The Secret Service remembers those times and misses them dearly. It imagines an alternate history where Colin Firth was picked to play Bond instead of Pierce Brosnan and where modern movie sensibilities merged with the sense of fun found in the Connery and Moore days.

Firth is the Bond-like agent Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad and member of the ultra-secret group the Kingsman, who is charged with investigating the death of a fellow Kingsman and to put forth a candidate as a replacement.

The possible new guy (aka audience surrogate) is a young geezer from the wrong side of the tracks named Eggsy (played by coincidentally named newcomer Egerton), whose father was a Kingsman that Hart owes a debt of gratitude to.

If Eggsy can survive the recruitment process, he might just get a chance to save the world from the clutches of lisping tech billionaire Richmond Valentine (Jackson).

It's all reasonably formulaic but then that's the point - first and foremost, Kingsman: The Secret Service walks a fine line between spoof, homage and rip-off of the 007 series, so when it does deviate from what we expect (which only happens a couple of times) it actually packs a punch, which is nice.

When it's not winking at the audience with its over-the-top ridiculousness and the occasional John Barry-esque musical cue, it embraces a style all its own that sits somewhere between its comic book origins and the hyperactive editing style of modern action movies. The difference here is that we can actually see what's going on - the stylised cinematography enhances rather than gets in the way of the action.

And there is plenty of action, and the film doesn't just wear its MA15+ rating lightly. Unlike 007, Kingsman revels in getting its hands bloody and dropping a few F-bombs along the way.

But that's half the fun of the film. When was the last time we heard Michael Caine call someone a "f**king prick" or saw Firth kill a large number of people in a matter of minutes? The answer is "probably never" (unless you go to more interesting parties than I do) and it's part of what makes this such a ludicrous guilty pleasure.

Kingsman is Vaughn's second adaptation of a Mark Millar comic but it is a far looser take than Kick-Ass. It does share some similarities beyond the presence of the always dependable Mark Strong - notably the gleeful silliness, the genre subversion that's going on, and the love of a well placed bullet or curse word.

After all, it's not every film that features heads that explode in a mixture of fireworks meet mushroom clouds.

But that's the kind of thing that Kingsman revels in and it's the kind of thing that will make you see this as either an enjoyable frivolity or an absurd disappointment.

I'm going with the former.