Thursday, 29 December 2016


(PG) ★★★★

Director: Ron Clements & John Musker.

Cast: (voices of) Auli'i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk.

Maui and Moana embark on an epic adventure in the excellent Disney film Moana.

THE pantheon of Disney princesses is a big one, and each new arrival must find her place in the pecking order.

So is Moana more Ariel and Elsa (ie. intriguing and memorable) or more Sleeping Beauty and Tiana (ie. at the uninteresting and forgettable/forgotten end of the scale)?

The good news is Moana is the former, not the latter, both as a film and a character.

Disney’s new Polynesian princess is refreshing in many ways, particularly because her raison d'être is not to wed a prince and she is just as likely to do the rescuing as be rescued.

When her idyllic Pacific island home’s food supply starts to fall victim to a mysterious scourge, Moana (Cravalho) sets out to save her people by finding the long lost demi-god Maui (Johnson).

Legend has it that Maui created the scourge when he stole the goddess Te Fiti's heart – a pounamu stone bestowed upon Moana by the ocean itself and which must be returned to Te Fiti.

But saving her world will mean defying her father and sailing beyond the reef surrounding her home – something her people have not done for many generations.

Moana has a look and style that feels instantly iconic, and its use of Polynesian mythology to craft a new story gives it a classic quality. Blended with some great songs and the usual high-end CG animation, it’s another win in the House Of Mouse’s current streak of modern masterpieces (which includes Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia for those of you playing along at home).

Its titular princess (actually a chief’s daughter) is key to the film’s success. Bold and brave but not totally fearless or without self-doubts, Moana is a wonderfully realised character that fits perfectly into the belated and very welcome recent trend of seeing stronger female leads in movies.

Her sparring partner Maui is also a great – the fallen-from-grace demi-god is brought to life perfectly by Johnson. His relationship with Moana is a highlight of the film – the story is largely a two-hander, with much of it set on a boat with just Maui and Moana present, so the movie’s success hinges a lot on their repartee.

There is one other minor character on the boat – a rooster called Heihei, who is voiced (and I’m using that word lightly) by Tudyk. Heihei has been described by director Clements as "the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation”, and he’s not wrong, but the rooster gets the biggest laughs from the youngest members of the audience. Cult status awaits Heihei.

The other character highlight is the gold-hoarding coconut crab Tamatoa, voiced by Flight Of The Conchords’ Clements. Tamatoa gets perhaps the best song of the film, a Bowie-esque number called Shiny, and is a great comedic villain. A couple of other songs, largely written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, are strong. How Far I’ll Go (sung by Cravalho) is the film’s Let It Go number, while Johnson has fun with the peppy and witty You’re Welcome.

Like Frozen, Moana meets the regal requirements of a great modern Disney princess movie, and best of all, manages to do so without ever really feeling like it’s a Disney princess movie.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

(M) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Gareth Edwards.

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker.

The gang's all here, led by Felicity Jones, for the first Star Wars spin-off story.

There's a school of thought that taking Star Wars away from George Lucas was the best thing to happen to the franchise.

After the incredible Episode VII: The Force Awakens and now this strong spin-off – both of which leave Lucas’ prequels for dead – it’s hard to argue with that way of thinking. If only someone had done it sooner.

But it should be noted Rogue One is not as good as The Force Awakens, despite what some people are claiming. It’s great, yes, but it lacks the heart, the depth of character, the interactions, and that mystical magical something – the Force maybe? – that JJ Abrams managed to sprinkle on top of Episode VII.

For those of you struggling to keep up with this increasingly sprawling series, Rogue One takes place mere days before Episode IV – A New Hope, with its actions effectively setting the events of Lucas’ 1977 groundbreaker in motion. This is less Episode 3.5 and more like Episode IV – The Prologue.

Pivotal to it all is Jyn Erso (Jones), a tough former freedom fighter rescued from an Imperial prison camp by the Rebel Alliance. The Rebels hope Jyn can broker a deal with extremist Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), who is holding captive of an Imperial defector (Ahmed) with links to the Empire’s new superweapon – one that can destroy an entire planet (anyone wanna guess what that might be?).

As mentioned before, what's missing from Rogue One is character depth, which in turn affects the character interaction. We get to know Jyn’s backstory and motivations pretty well, and somewhat too Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Luna), but the rest of their band – Ahmed’s Bodhi and in particular Yen’s blind warrior Chirrut and his offsider Baze (Wen) – are left lacking, with little discussion given over to why they are suddenly part of this ad hoc team. It’s the film’s biggest flaw because it feels like large pieces of important conversation are missing and the relationships between the key characters are ill-defined, stripping away some much needed heart and empathy from this unit we’re following into battle. It’s particularly frustrating because Bodhi, Chirrut and Baze are all obviously cool characters, played well by three good actors.

The film still survives and thrives despite its shortcomings. These richer character layers have been jettisoned for a more streamlined, relentlessly paced story that races from one shoot-out to the next. It’s enjoyable stuff that never lets up or drags at any point in its two hours-plus running time.

One of the many, many criticisms of the prequels was they made the universe too small (Darth Vader made C3PO, knew Greedo, and fought alongside clones of Boba Fett’s dad? Huh?). Although Rogue One throws in some welcome nods to the other films with the presence of familiar faces, they never feel gratuitous or serve to shrink the universe. With its new planets and raft of new characters, it expands the Star Wars galaxy, helping restore a sense of vastness and richness to the cosmos.

Given how ingrained in Episode IV’s story it is - the end of Rogue One almost runs straight into the start of A New Hope – it's surprising how fresh Rogue One feels. Yes, it's a Star Wars film through and through, but it's unlike any of its seven predecessors in some ways. It's filled with gritted teeth, desperation, and a nervous energy – the much-touted line that it feels like a war film is on the money. Whereas JJ Abrams nailed the mythic quality of the series in The Force Awakens, Edwards has pinned down the military side – JJ got the “star”, Edwards got the “wars”.

Speaking of stars, Mendelssohn is the stand-out performer amid a strong field (Jones, Whitaker and Yen are all great) as high-ranking Imperial Director Krennic. Jyn is an excellent heroine and Andor a fine second fiddle, although the scene-stealer is K2-S0 (voiced by Tudyk), another droid you'll love in the fine tradition of R2-D2 and BB8.

As mentioned, there are some returning familiar faces, but it must be said that some of those faces look weird – the power of CGI brings back a couple of characters via a quick trip through uncanny valley. It’s startling and distracting at first, even if it’s great to see these figures back on the big screen.

In short, Rogue One works. It’s a cracking sci-fi adventure worthy of the Star Wars brand. There’s no opening crawl, no Jedi, no mention of the name Skywalker, and plenty of new music, but Rogue One does a great job of walking the fine line between being a Star Wars film and not feeling like any other Star Wars film.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Office Christmas Party

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Josh Gordon & Will Speck

Cast: Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, T. J. Miller, Jennifer Aniston, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance, Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry.

McKinnon, Bateman, Miller and Munn get ready to party down.

THIS is how I presume this movie was pitched.

A group of writers walked into the office of Dreamworks Pictures, sat down and said: “Here’s the idea – the biggest, craziest office Christmas party ever”.

“I love it,” said the executive. “What’s it called?”

Office Christmas Party.”

“Brilliant. Here’s $45 million.”

And thus we have Office Christmas Party which, to be fair, does exactly what it says on the box. It promises crazy laughs at the expense of the most outrageously over-the-top work celebration you’ve ever seen, and on that front it delivers.

The plot leading up to and out of the titular shindig centres around a tech company branch run by popular party boy Clay (Miller), who is threatened with massive job cuts by his strict sister and interim chief executive Carol (Aniston).

In an effort to land a much-needed massive account and save the branch, Clay, his right-hand-man Josh (Bateman) and tech wizard Tracey (Munn) pull together the biggest bash possible in order to win over a prospective client (Vance).

The lack of effort put into the title almost extends to the plot, which is neatly scripted and flows well but is packed to the brim with every cliché you’d anticipate in a film called Office Christmas Party. On one hand, this means it doesn’t disappoint expectations, but on the other hand, there is a sense of deja vu as the film fails to exceed any expectations.

You could play Movie Party Bingo with this film. As happens with every movie in which someone throws “a party to end all parties”, everything is unimaginably awesome and everyone is having fun until it descends into chaos as the hedonism kicks in and the dark side of humanity comes to the fore. Someone will unknowingly take drugs. Someone will be horribly injured. Daring feats will be attempted. Enemies will make up and make out. Secret crushes will be revealed. The people trying to maintain civility will give in or succumb. There will be fires, water damage, violence, weird sexual encounters and gatecrashers.

Throw in the usual workplace stuff, a “save the company” countdown, and the somehow typical strippers/gangsters/pimps/drug dealers that end up in adult comedies, and it’s all a bit same-same.

But amid all this predictability and a line-up of characters that are largely clichéd (tough lady boss vs party boy boss, buttoned-down HR person desperate to cut loose, the under-appreciated secret heroes of the office, the nerd who can’t get a girlfriend), the saving graces are the laughs and the cast. As tiresome as the big party plot has become (see also Sisters, Project X, Animal House, The Party, Superbad etc) there is plenty of humour amid the shenanigans. Office Christmas Party at least has a pretty high hit-rate of gags.

This is partly down to the experienced comedic hands in the cast. Aniston, who doesn’t get nearly enough credit for her comedic chops, is great in an unlikeable role and owns most of the scenes she’s in. Bateman does what he always does (which is be funny) but has next to no chemistry with the usually great Munn, who is unfortunately the ensemble’s weakest link. Miller also does his usual schtick and is a good fit for bouncing off the comparative straightness of Bateman and Aniston. McKinnon, Corddry, Bell, Vance, Sam Richardson, Randall Park, and Karan Soni round out the cast nicely.

Office Christmas Party is kind of like a regular drinking session with your friends. You know what to expect, there are no real surprises, and there are probably more constructive and intelligent things you could be doing, but it’s pretty funny and you’ll have a good time.

Thursday, 1 December 2016


(G) 3.5 out of 5

Director: Mike Mitchell & Walt Dohrn.

Cast: (voices of) Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Zooey Deschanel, Christine Baranski, Russell Brand, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, James Corden, Jeffrey Tambor.

Did someone puke up a rainbow in here?

The current plan at the big studios is to pick cultural touchstones from the '80s and '90s and repackage them as movies for a new generation.

It's an ingenious plan – you lure in the parents who grew up with these things and they bring their kids. Everyone wins and the studios make all the money.

This explains why we’ve had new Ghostbusters, Smurfs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies in recent times, and goes some way toward explaining the abomination that was Pixels (but not fully – nothing will ever fully explain that piece of crap).

It also partly explains the success of the new Star Wars movie and The Lego Movie - there are three generations with built-in brand recognition there (although they were also genuinely good movies, which helps).

This all brings us to Trolls, which is based on the odd cultural phenomenon that was the colourfully hirsute little toy known as a troll doll. They were big in the ‘80s and ‘90s. No one is sure why exactly, but they were definitely a thing.

There was no story around the troll dolls – they were just toys. Several computer games and TV shows have been made in an attempt to create a backstory and a world for them to exist in, but each disappeared as quickly as it appeared.

In this version, put out by Dreamworks Animation (Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon), the trolls are an all-singing, all-dancing and all-hugging race of smurf-ish beings led by King Peppy (Tambor) and his daughter Princess Poppy (Kendrick).

When we are first introduced to them, they are the farmed food of the hideous Bergens, but a daring escape led by King Peppy ushers them to freedom. Fast forward 20 years, and Poppy is throwing a big party celebrating the anniversary of their exodus but resident grouchy troll Branch (Timberlake) thinks such a spectacle will attract the unwanted attention of the Bergens – and he’s right.

It all sounds so kidsy (it’s rated G) but the good news is that Trolls is surprisingly hilarious and does a reasonable job of appealing to all ages. The plot and its theme about how everyone has happiness inside them are definitely aimed young, plus you just know that singing and dancing is going to win the day, but you’d have to be a real Bergen to hate it.

Part of the all-ages appeal is also in the music, with a good mix of new and old songs peppered throughout. On occasion the musical interludes slow things down, but mostly they’re used intelligently, in particular the clever use of tracks such as True Colours, Hello and Clint Eastwood.

The look of the film is pretty cool – everything is animated to look like it’s made of felt and clay, with the Bergen’s town showing a touch of Laika’s The Boxtrolls. Meanwhile, the trolls' home looks like someone ate a packet of crayons and puked up a rainbow.

It should be noted that the Trolls have been slightly remodelled to ensure they look cuter. Not that anyone will care or object – it’s doubtful there are hardcore troll aficionados ready to flip out about that, or the fact that some of the trolls fart glitter (I’m not even making that up).

For the most part, Trolls is flimsy and fluffy but fun. There are some good gags, but there are also some weird what-the-hell moments (in particular a character called Cloud Guy) and it lacks the emotive power of anything by Pixar or Laika.

But don’t be afraid, parents. Trolls is like Smurfs, but way better and way funnier and actually a good movie.

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Founder

(M) ★★★★

Director: John Lee Hancock.

Cast: Michael Keaton, Laura Dern, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Linda Cardellini.

Set in a time when going to a McDonald's restaurant was a thing to be celebrated.

AFTER the incredible double of Birdman and Spotlight – both of which won the best film Oscar – directors must have been tripping over themselves to cast Michael Keaton.

Not only is he potentially a lucky charm for big awards at the moment, but he's in career best form. Not to be dismissive of his previous best roles (Beetlejuice, Batman), but Birdman’s Riggan Thomson and Spotlight’s Walter "Robby" Robinson were new PBs.

While it's unlikely The Founder will give Keaton a spot in three best film Oscar winners in a row, it's another top turn from an actor at the top of his game, with his Ray Kroc right up there with Riggan and Robby.

Kroc was the man who took McDonald’s to the world and The Founder details his rise from “52-year-old, over-the-hill milkshake machine salesman” to president of the biggest fast food empire on the planet. It also shines a light on the original McDonald brothers Dick (Offerman) and Mac (Lynch), and how Kroc snuck their own restaurant out from under their noses.

For the most part, The Founder is fascinating stuff, driven by the personality clash between the cautious McDonald brothers and the gung-ho Kroc. Keaton’s performance as Kroc is tasty, but there’s also a delicious script at work that balances the main character’s flaws with an underdog determination that keeps Kroc likeable for the audience well beyond when he should be. This is one of the best aspects of the film – the way it has us barracking for Kroc before pulling the rug out from under us and portraying him as an utterly heartless money-man, corrupted by his own dream.

Keaton is ably supported by Offerman and Lynch, two vastly under-rated actors. The former underplays things nicely in a refreshingly straight role and the latter delivers another strong, unshowy performance. The rest of the cast is solid and flits in and out well, but this is Keaton’s film and he carries it with ease.

The biggest downside is some slower sections in the second act that feel like you’re watching a McDonald’s franchisee induction video. It’s all necessary background, demonstrating how revolutionary McDonald’s was in a time of drive-in diners and rollerskating waitresses, but it drags the tempo down to the careful and precise level of the McDonald brothers, not the flashy, fast-talking swagger of Kroc.

Like Keaton, director Hancock is on a good run – this follows the successful Saving Mr Banks and Oscar-nominated The Blind Side, and is his best film yet. The look of the film is authentic and Hancock ensures it’s Keaton’s show, neatly tricking the audience into liking Kroc for longer than we should.

The Founder is as much about the American dream of becoming filthy rich as it is about the history of McDonald’s. It’s what it says about the former – that you have to trample on some good people to get to the top – that makes it really interesting. But even if you have no interest in how McDonald’s went from one little walk-up restaurant in San Bernadino to something that feeds one per cent of the world’s population every day, there’s at least another great Keaton performance here to tide you over.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

(M) ★★★

Director: David Yates.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo.

"Gotta catch 'em all!" said Newt Scamander (probably).

THERE must be a saying in Hollywood to the effect of “No franchise is ever finished”.

Warner Bros, having made close to $8 billion at the box office from the eight Harry Potter films, had this adage in mind when it came knocking on JK Rowling’s door looking for another excuse to return to the Potterverse.

Because $8 billion is never enough, Warner Bros suggested Rowling turn her spin-off textbook about magical animals (originally released as a Comic Relief charity fundraiser) into a new film, to which Rowling agreed (and it’s now rumoured to be the first film in a five film series).

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is set 70 years before Potter’s adventures, and follows magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne) as he arrives in New York with a suitcase overflowing with enchanted creatures.

A couple of these mystical animals escape, which puts Scamander in the sights of MACUSA (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Magic) and in particular a recently demoted witch named Porpentina Goldstein (Waterston).

But MACUSA has bigger problems – a dark force is terrorising New York and rumours abound that the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose.

The Potterverse is a marvellous cinematic universe to return to and the franchise is in good hands with Rowling on script duties and Yates, a veteran of the final four Potter films, back in the director’s chair. They’ve acquired a solid cast, led by the Oscar-winning Redmayne.

Comparisons are unavoidable and Fantastic Beasts falls down in that category. Its adventures feel twee in the shadow of the Voldermort vs Potter duel that spanned eight films and embroiled so many excellent characters in a run of increasingly impressive movies. But all things being equal, Fantastic Beasts is a stronger start than Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, which remains easily the runt of the Rowling litter.

On its own Fantastic Beasts is enjoyable, solid entertainment, but is sadly lacking in some key areas. It’s missing a focused villain, with much of the film spent without anything resembling a definite Big Bad, leaving the drama slightly directionless. Instead of having a key antagonist to channel the story, we get diverted by Scamander’s pursuits of his missing magical animals.

Unfortunately the fantastic beasts are the least fantastic part of the film. Lengthy tracts where Scamander and his non-maj (AKA muggle) companion Jacob Kowalski (a pleasantly amusing Fogler) hunt down the missing creatures or hang out with them in Scamander’s menagerie are the most pedestrian sections of the story because there are more interesting things going on in the subplots. When people are dying and dark forces are afoot, it’s hard to get excited about a man’s collection of stick insects, gryphons, and giant dung beetles.

These FX-heavy sequences are also disappointing visually, but outside the green-screen fakeness of Scamander’s zoo (and the CG blizzard of the big finale), the film looks great. The production design of the 1920s helps give the movie a style of its own, while still managing to have the appearance of a Potter film.

Where the movie really succeeds is in its casting. Redmayne is particularly good as the socially inept Scamander, giving him a neat mix of naivety and cleverness. Farrell is also top-notch as the dubious MACUSA director Percival Graves, Waterston makes Porpentina well-rounded and intriguing, while Fogler and Sudol bring some much-needed humour. Miller and Morton are disturbingly good as a couple of anti-magic protesters, and the bit players like Jon Voight and Ron Perlman add plenty of gravitas to small roles. There’s also a surprise cameo at the end for those of you who haven’t had it spoilt yet.

That cameo points to big, exciting things to come and, like the rest of the film, gives the impression that this is just a warm-up – a dip of the toe back into the pool to see if the Potter fans are keen for another swim.

Whatever may come next though, this is a satisfying-enough spin-off and a welcome return to the wizarding world.

Thursday, 10 November 2016


(M) 4.5 out of 5

Director: Denis Villeneuve.

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner talk to some strange visitors in Arrival.

HOW many times has the Earth been visited/invaded by aliens?

The answer is “so many we’ve lost count”, and for that reason alone you could be forgiven for switching off at the thought of another cinematic close encounter.

But don’t. Because if you do, you’ll miss not only one of the best films of the year but also one of the best sci-fi films of the decade so far.

Based on Ted Chiang’s short story Story Of Your Life, Arrival explores the ... uh ... arrival of 12 interstellar spaceships (referred to as “shells”) at 12 seemingly random locations around the world.

At the Montana landing, linguist Louise Banks (Adams) and mathematician/physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner) are called in to help answer some massive questions, in particular “why are they here?” and “what do they want?”.

Able to enter the shell for short bursts every 18 hours, Banks and Donnelly start to piece together the aliens’ language while the rest of the world nervously teeters on the brink of war.

Alien visitations can go any number of ways in the movies, but Arrival is a spiritual successor to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. These otherworldly events are entirely viewed from the perspective of Banks, who develops a Richard Dreyfuss-like connection with the extra-terrestrials as she attempts to crack their language, allowing the film to have a deeply personal feel amid the decidedly global ramifications of 12 spaceships landing across the planet. This approach eschews large-scale spectacle for a more considered and cerebral tack, but keeps an eye on both the macro and micro storytelling at all times.

It’s Banks’ story that makes this so much more than your average alien invasion film. Adams gives yet another top-shelf performance as the linguist struggling to comprehend an insane puzzle and decode it before the entire world (and she) goes mad.

There are some big ideas at play here. Remember all that crap at the end of Interstellar where the film dove through a blackhole and tried to get clever but failed horribly? This does something similar but actually pulls it off and then some (and without the $200 million budget).

The only downside is it’s slow. Not just languidly paced, but occasionally drawn out – the two hours feels like two-and-a-half. It’s methodical in its approach, as Villeneuve always is (see also Prisoners, Incendies and Sicario) but the film will ride a fine line between tension and frustration for those with short attention spans.

But it’s worth it for a final act that will leave you thinking and weighing up the philosophical implications of what seems to be a tiny facet of the film yet proves to be a mind-blowing centrepoint. There are so many fascinating things about Arrival that will keep you turning it over in your head and the more you think about it, the more impressed you’ll be.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Accountant

(MA15+) ★★

Director: Gavin O’Connor.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow.

DC were already having regrets about their spin-off film Batman Does His Tax.

BEN Affleck has been on a roll in recent years.

He directed an Oscar-winning film (Argo), worked with auteur directors Terrence Malick and David Fincher, was perfect in Gone Girl, and was a great Batman and the best thing about Batman V Superman.

Flush with success, he’s now cherry-picking roles in between directing gigs and suiting up as the Dark Knight.

Case in point is the part of Christian Wolff in The Accountant, which on paper is a knockout – the autistic bookkeeper who’s secretly a cold-blooded killer.

Unfortunately that paper is stapled into a cumbersome script overladen with superfluous subplots and ungainly twists, resulting in an overlong mismatch of ideas surrounding a cool character.

The plot, which doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, sees Wolff hired by prosthetics guru Lamar Blackburn (Lithgow) to find the millions of dollars that have been leaking from his company.

For some reason, this puts him in the crosshairs of some cold-blooded killers. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department is closing in on Wolff for his role in “uncooking the books” for a number of nefarious drug cabals and warlords.

The idea of an accountant with high functioning autism who is also a lethal weapon and who jets into international hotspots to do some highly illegal number-crunching for drug lords and terrorists is a tantalising set-up for a film. Sadly, this is not that film. In The Accountant, we see the fallout from Wolff’s career of doing such things, but none of the actual things. While there is still plenty of number-crunching and lethal-weaponing, it’s as a result of a far less interesting plot that’s riddled with as many holes as the foot soldiers Wolff guns down in the climax.

Bill Dubuque’s script is full by good ideas but the result is messy. An entire subplot with Simmons and Addai-Robinson as Treasury Department officers is supposed to be enriching but is ultimately superfluous – all it does is highlight the film’s inability to commit to making Wolff a man with a grey moral code.

Affleck is fine in what is an interesting role, although how much you enjoy the film will hinge on how credible you find the character. Kendrick is shoehorned in as a love interest of sorts, but seems to have wandered in from another movie with her typical “adorkableness” undimmed. She’s almost comic relief, which is much needed but so fleeting that it just leaves Kendrick seeming out of place.

And then there are the twists, which are tricky beasts to wrangle. The Accountant is a good example of this – a couple of plot maneuvres at the film’s end are dead on arrival, but a very minor one right before the credits is a neat touch.

For Affleck fans, this is worthwhile, but beyond that, it's only a sporadically intriguing investment of your time.

Unlike its lead character, The Accountant can’t get all its numbers in a row or balance its books properly.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Dr Strange

(M) ★★★★

Director: Scott Derrickson.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton.

"And for my next trick - pretty colours."

MARVEL Studios is becoming increasingly like Evel Knievel – with every successful stunt it lands, it makes the next one bigger and more difficult.

First it was Asgardian gods with faux-Shakespearean overtones – no worries. America’s #1 shield-wielding patriot? Piece of cake. How about sticking every hero together in one film? Easy. What about a bunch of sci-fi weirdos no one has ever heard of, including a raccoon and a talking tree? Nailed it. Hell, they even did an amazing job with Ant-Man.

(If they keep up this kind of bravado, they might even dare to lead a film with a female superhero someday….)

The studio’s latest trick is the little-known Dr Strange – a crucial character in the Marvel comic books, but one whose popularity peaked in the ‘60s and ‘70s when he became a favourite with college students dabbling in psychedelic drugs and eastern mysticism.

Strange (Cumberbatch) is an arrogant yet brilliant neurosurgeon whose hands are left severely damaged by a car accident. His quest to regain his abilities leads him to a Nepalese temple and The Ancient One (Swinton) – a guru who opens Strange’s eyes to the world of magic and the constant mystical threats facing the earth.

This brings Strange into conflict with The Ancient One’s former student Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), forcing Strange to put aside his doubts, team up with new pals Mordo (Ejiofor) and Wong (Wong), and earn his stripes as a sorcerer.

Dr Strange is another leap successfully landed by Marvel. It makes its magical mumbo jumbo visually dynamic and doesn’t disappear up its own mythology, sprinkling its exposition among pacy editing and storytelling. The film bears all the strengths (and, to be fair, weaknesses) of the other origin stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), while pulling off some remarkable visuals, including a couple of mind-blowing sequences that are unlike anything we’ve seen on the big screen before.

Like his heroic MCU predecessors, Stephen Strange is a realistically flawed and well drawn character. Prior to his awakening, he’s like Dr House (accent included) but without the barely buried empathy – pre-magic Strange is the most unlikable figure in the MCU to date. It’s a credit to Cumberbatch’s performance and the finely tuned script that Strange doesn’t entirely lose his ego post-transformation and that we are still willing to follow him on his initial journey even though he’s a total jerk.

After 14 MCU films its not surprising there’s some repetition here – Strange’s journey to Sorceror Supreme is similar to Tony Stark’s resurrection as Iron Man (smug, arrogant rich guy suffers horrific injury, has spiritual awakening, is reborn as superhero). There are also the “cosmic colours” of Thor, Guardians Of The Galaxy and even Ant-Man’s microverse, which give the film a similar look to some of its fore-bearers, and the slightly forgettable villain (one of the MCU's biggest failings to date). While Mikkelsen does his best with Kaecilius, it’s another example of the MCU sending out great actors in cool make-up without furnishing them with a killer bad guy to inhabit (Loki and Ultron are the exceptions).

But Dr Strange is predominantly another demonstration of what Marvel does best. The script is wonderfully paced, the characters largely avoid being one-note, the casting is spot-on, and it has a neat sense of humour that helps diffuse the seriousness (although this is not as funny as other MCU outings).

Where this film really excels is in its visuals. It’s a rare movie these days that offers you something you’ve never seen before, but Dr Strange has a couple of moments that are pretty mind-blowing. Among a 2001-like journey through the multiverse that will have stoners embracing this film like their ‘60s counterparts did with the comics and some Inception-like world-folding (turned up to 11) is a fight scene that takes place in the midst of a world where time is flowing backwards. It’s impressively staged and a mean feat of CG wizardry, but it’s also infused with humour and tension.

Dr Strange’s stunning visuals, pacy plot and great casting overcomes its deficiencies. Best of all, it’s place in the MCU and enjoyment factor means you’ll be keen to see what Strange happenings occur next.