Thursday, 29 December 2016

Moana

(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

Trolls

(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

Arrival

(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.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

(M) ***

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Aldis Hodge, Patrick Heusinger, Holt McCallany.

"Says here you're 6'5" - now that can't be right."

ONCE fans of Lee Child's books got over the fact 6'5" Jack Reacher was going to be played by 5'7" Tom Cruise, most people were able to sit back and enjoy the first big screen outing of Child's ex-military man-turned-drifter.

Jack Reacher was not as spectacular or memorable as Cruise's Mission:Impossible franchise, but it ticked all the boxes in a satisfactory-enough way, and reminded us yet again there's a pretty solid argument to be made for Cruise being the Biggest Action Star On The Planet Right Now™.

The main problem is all of the characters he plays in action star mode (which is his predominant mode lately) are pretty much the same. Reacher, M:I’s Ethan Hunt, Cruise’s characters in Edge Of Tomorrow, Minority Report, Oblivion, and Knight & Day – they’re all similarly indomitable, largely unflawed, and ultimately interchangeable heroes.

So for Reacher 2 AKA Never Go Back, we have another enjoyable but unmemorable outing with Cruise as the impossible protagonist. For those unfamiliar with the character, he’s a composite of Jason Bourne, Sherlock Holmes and NCIS’ Jethro Gibbs, combining brute strength and agility with near-psychic investigative skills, useful paranoia, and a weird love-hate relationship with the US military and its protocols.

In this sequel, former military police officer Reacher builds a relationship with current military police officer Major Susan Turner (Smulders) after helping out on a case, but when Reacher drops in to visit Turner, he finds she’s been arrested. Naturally Reacher suspects a set-up (there’s that aforementioned useful paranoia).

After a jailbreak, Reacher and Turner go on the run to try and uncover who is behind the set-up of Turner and the murder of two military police officers.


Never Go Back is as satisfactory yet forgettable as its predecessor. In an effort to give Reacher some depth there is a daughter subplot, which becomes cheesy and silly but the film would be less interesting without it – if it wasn’t there we’d miss out on some of the film’s best non-action bits, which involve Reacher and Turner having faux parenting fights after being forced into an unfamiliar family dynamic.

The tension between Smulders and Cruise is okay – Smulders is a highlight and has the film’s most interesting character – and the plot is solid. The whole thing feels like a big-budget, bloodier NCIS episode, but the film’s “ah-ha!” moment is solid and the climax is convincing enough. Some cheesy lines get in the way but it’s all good fun.

Dotted in between are some impressive fights and shoot-outs but once again you can’t help but wonder what Reacher would be like with an edgier actor playing him. If Ethan Hunt is his Bond, then Reacher is Cruise’s Bourne, but neither of his characters are as spectacular or iconic as their predecessors.

Yet, without The Cruiser, this actioner would have far less going for it. Ironically, given the Cruise-control nature of his performance, it’s his presence that is the only thing that sets this apart from the pack.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

(M) ★★★★

Director: Antoine Fuqua.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard.


Little known fact: The Wild West often celebrated racial diversity.

EVERYONE loves a good team-up.

Whether it’s Marvel’s Avengers, DC’s Justice League and Suicide Squad, cult ‘90s cartoon Captain Planet, or an NBA All-Star game, people enjoy watching uniquely talented individuals coming together to make something greater than the sum of their parts for the power of good.

When done properly, it’s a thing of beauty. Take for example Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai and its 1960 Western rehash The Magnificent Seven (anyone lamenting a remake of The Magnificent Seven was hopefully doing so with a healthy dose of irony). Both films are regarded as bona fide classics, and stand as team-up benchmarks, as well as being great examples of the “hired guns save the village” sub-genre (which has its own spin-off sub-sub-genre – “hired pretend guns save the village”, featuring the likes of Three Amigos, A Bug’s Life and Galaxy Quest).

Digressions aside, this remake from Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) probably won’t be held in the same high regard in 50 years time as the Kurosawa or John Sturges versions, but the key qualities that made those predecessors tick are on display again here. This is perhaps damning it with faint praise, but Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven will always easily be the third best version of this story.

Uniting the team, in the Toshiro Mifune/Yul Brynner role, is Denzel Washington – as cool and calm as ever as Wild Mid-West registered bounty hunter Sam Chisholm. When he is approached by the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Bennett) and asked to help save her town from the clutches of evil robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), Chisholm collects a random team of talented individuals who must come together to make something greater than the sum of their parts for the power of good.

The things that made its predecessors great are all here – colourful characters, a canny cast, and a stirring plot about sacrifice and overcoming impossible odds because, goddammit, it’s the right thing to do.


The cast in particular is outstanding. Seeing Washington re-team with his Training Day co-star Hawke makes you think they should do more films together. Pratt is playing the same louche hero he plays in all his films of late, but he does it so well it’s silly complaining about it. D’Onofrio hasn’t had a role this good outside of the small screen in decades. Sarsgaard gives good villain. Bennett is going to be big.

They all get decent characters, and while some aren’t as well sketched as they could be, at least some effort is made to hint at deeper layers.

The plot is rock solid and remains unchanged from 1954 and 1960. Fuqua hasn’t gone out of his way to mess with it and this is both a blessing and a curse.

On the downside, the film plays it incredibly safe. There is nothing daring or unpredictable about it – the only thing that will keep you guessing is trying to figure out which of the seven will survive the big shoot-out. This means this Magnificent Seven will always run a respectable third.

On the upside, Fuqua hasn’t done something stupid and attempt to fix something that ain’t broke. And in that sense, this version of The Magnificent Seven is a great success. It does exactly what you hope it would do – deliver an updated version of an old story with a few good laughs, a sense of cool camaraderie between its misfit heroes, and conclude with an over-the-top showdown that boasts a ridiculous body count. It is exactly as good as you hoped it could be, and not an iota more.

What more could you ask for in a remake of Seven Samurai?

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Storks

(G) ****

Director: Nicholas Stoller & Doug Sweetland.

Cast: (voices of) Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Danny Trejo, Stephen Kramer Glickman.

Parenting: not for the birds.

DO parents still tell their children that babies come from storks? I thought that changed to cabbage patches back in the ‘80s. And wouldn’t there be a more modern update involving the internet or something by now?

Either way, the old lie about storks delivering babies is at the centre of this surprisingly enjoyable CG animation from Warner Bros Animation, who appear to be back in the game thanks to The Lego Movie, which ended a decade-long drought from the former cartoon powerhouse.

Storks captures a similar vibe to The Lego Movie, offering the same brand of over-the-top self-aware humour, but without being as stylised or inventive. It’s just good old-fashioned fun with a new twist.

The starring stork is Junior (Samberg), a hotshot deliverer in the rebranded stork enterprise of Cornerstore.com, where they now deliver packages instead of babies.

Junior’s future as boss of the business is assured so long as he can get rid of the clumsy and troublesome Orphan Tulip (Crown), a well-meaning human who works in the Cornerstore warehouse, having been the last undelivered baby before the storks found their new purpose.

Unable to bring himself to fire Tulip, Junior instead finds a pointless job for her in the old baby factory, where she inadvertently “makes a baby” after receiving a letter from a young boy (Starkman) who is desperate for a brother.

With his job on the line, Junior is forced to team up with Tulip to deliver the baby before it is discovered and they get fired.


The premise is fun and modern and the plot dives into the world of storks with enthusiasm and intelligence. Right from the get-go, it sets up its sense of humour and you are either onboard or not. Samberg’s goofy charm is not to all tastes and when married with the exuberant zaniness of the comedy it could be off-putting to a lot of grown-ups.

But Storks will win you over. It’s absurdities pile on, one after the other – best examples are a pursuing wolf pack capable of some insanely complicated manoeuvres and an hilariously silent battle with some penguins – to the point where you just have to laugh, so you may as well embrace it as early as you can. Similarly, an important side character called Pigeon Toady (Kramer Glickman) is an utterly bizarre creation who becomes increasingly hilarious as the action progresses.

The film is also filled with pratfalls and visual gags, which the kids will love – in fact, the film’s broad humour is a large part of its all-ages appeal and it goes out of its way to impress and get a giggle out of every demographic.

Digging beneath the silliness, you'll also find a charming amount of heart rooted into the themes of family. Tulip, Junior and their baby form an unconventional unit that offers some knowing winks to the pains (and joys) of parenthood, while Nick and his workaholic parents (Aniston and Burrell) are a ‘conventional’ family that struggles with its own issues. Along the way, the character arcs are convincing, and by the end the whole thing bubbles over with a whole bunch of warm and fuzzy feelings (and more cute CG babies than you can poke a pacifier at).

Storks is disarmingly good fun, undeniably absurd, and surprisingly thoughtful in its look at what makes a family tick.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Pete's Dragon


(PG) ★★★★

Director: David Lowery.

Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford.

"Man, your dog is ugly. And fucking huge."

WHEN Disney started digging into their treasure chest to find story nuggets to re-model, polish up and re-mount as live action films for the big screen, there was the typical burst of cynicism that comes with the announcement of reboots and remakes.

But this heritage mining has yielded a couple of gems so far, in particular the reinventions of Cinderella and The Jungle Book.

Both nailed the things that made the Disney animations great. Cinderella captured the fairytale whimsy with perfection while simultaneously making Cinders a more modern character. Likewise The Jungle Book captured the swinging moods – from the humour of Baloo to the menace of Shere Khan – while creating a visual approach that was fresh and memorable.

Which brings us to Pete’s Dragon, the latest heirloom to be pulled out of Disney’s box of tricks. The 1977 musical mix of cartoon and live action has not aged well and is not as fondly recalled as Cinderella or The Jungle Book, but has its fans.

Even they will be impressed by the transformation the story has undergone. Instead of an orphan who escapes hillbillies to live by the sea with his traditionally animated dragon, Pete is an orphaned wild boy, forced to survive in the American north-west wilderness with his CG-animated dragon following the death of his parents (which is shown in a beautifully heartbreaking opening).

Pete (Fegley) and his dragon Elliot survive unnoticed in the forests until their world is intruded upon by humans in the form of park ranger Grace (Howard), her mill worker boyfriend Jack (Bentley), and Jack’s impulsive lumberjack brother Gavin (Urban).


As much as this is based on a ‘70s musical, its antecedents are ‘80s family films. The pacing, the predictable fish-out-of-water (or feral child-out-of-forest) plotting, the unconventional family dynamic, the big chase finale, the old man with the unbelievable stories – all these tropes feel like they’ve come from a hundred great and not-so-great all-ages adventures from a couple of decades ago. Throw in a captured beast that harks all the way back to King Kong, and a wild boy right out of the aforementioned Jungle Book, and you have a film that’s not exactly original.

So it’s to the film’s credit that Pete’s Dragon is so enjoyable and captivating. Like a great modern song, it somehow feels new and classic at the same time. Its comedic touch is light, so it’s the heart and the cast that are its biggest strengths.

The two kids – Fegley and Laurence – are excellent. The former has the tougher role, but the latter does hers effortlessly. They’re surrounded by plenty of talented adults, notably Urban, who keeps his ‘villain’ on the right side of goofy, the always solid Howard, and the 80-year-old legend Redford. The last name there is a spark that helps ignite the film’s latter half, which builds to a predictable yet enjoyable conclusion.

The fact Pete’s Dragon does everything you expect and yet somehow still keeps you hanging on is, ironically, somewhat unexpected. It can really only be put down to the strong storytelling, tight film-making, and a heart as big as a dragon’s. The start and finish are particularly good examples of this – the opening is concisely edited and powerfully sad, while the climax is a wonderfully satisfying set piece that manages to ramp up the tension while still being stunning to look at.

Through it all is Elliot the dragon. It should go without saying these days that the special effects are incredible (although you’d be surprised what some films try to get away with), but they really are amazing. Elliot fits into the world perfectly and is another great example of modern FX wizardry.

So Disney is on a good run with its live action rehashes. Let’s see if next year’s Beauty & The Beast can maintain the winning streak.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Secret Life Of Pets

(PG) ★★★

Director: Chris Renaud.

Cast: (voices of) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Steve Coogan, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Albert Brooks.

It's a dog-meet-dog world.
Ugh. I hate myself.

WHAT do your pets get up to when you’re not around?

It’s not a bad premise for a CG animated movie – it’s also not that far removed from the premise of the Godfather of CG animated movies Toy Story (just swap ‘pets’ for ‘toys’).

This is no Toy Story however, and Illumination Entertainment is no Pixar, and it’s perhaps unfair to compare the two … but I’m going to anyway. If Pixar is the smart, thoughtful kid sitting in the corner reading, Illumination is the hyperactive kid running around crashing into things.

As with previous Illumination films (most of which have starred or co-starred the Minions), The Secret Life Of Pets is a slapstick-heavy adventure that’s big on over-the-top set pieces and an increasing level of ridiculousness.

This is not necessarily a criticism on its own, but that’s all Pets is. It’s a wacky premise and a bunch of wacky chases – kind of like Mad Max: Fury Road in a way, but not as exhilarating or amazing to look at it. And aimed at kids. Mad Pets: Furry Road, if you will (it's ok, I'll show myself out).

Pets also stars a Max – a Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.) who idolises his owner – whose world comes crashing down with the arrival of a big shaggy mongrel roommate named Duke (Stonestreet).

Max and Duke battle it out for the position of top dog, but their fighting results in them running afoul of some alley cats, animal control, and an underground gang of ‘flushed’ pets.

It’s up to Max’s secret admirer Gidget (Slate), with a little help from her friends, to come to the rescue.


The characters and voice cast are solid. Hart is a scene-stealer as the film’s nominal villain Snowball the Bunny, while Brooks chimes in with some great lines as Tiberius the Hawk, as does Bell as Chloe the Cat.

For much of its run time, Pets is exuberant and enjoyable, bouncing from one crazy set-piece to the next, barely drawing breath except to throw in some animal-related gags and a few clever lines.

The biggest problem is there’s not much more to it than that. Once it’s exhausted its jokey premise about what pets do while their owners are away, there’s little else going on. It’s the kids equivalent of an action movie.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Some of the set-pieces are both fun and funny, such as watching a psychotic rabbit drive a bus through peak-hour traffic, or seeing a Pomerian destroy a gang of thug animals. There is some good humour along the way but the biggest problem is the film’s endless chases and escapes get tiring and there is no depth or big life lesson to be learnt beyond ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ and ‘look after your pets’.

It’s predecessors are the madcap thrills of Looney Tunes and unhinged idiocy of The Muppets, but Pets lacks the depths and smarts of these ancestors, and is just left with the wacky sight gags and off-the-wall pratfalls.

Classic kids movies offer something new with every repeat viewing as a kid gets older, even into adulthood. The Secret Life Of Pets is not destined for ‘classic’ status. It’s vibrant and enjoyable, but it’s disposable and slim and somewhat forgettable.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Sully

(M) ★★

Director: Clint Eastwood.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney.

The Moustached Middle Distance Staring Competition was in full swing.

IT’S an odd truth of filmmaking, but sometimes incredible true stories don’t make for incredible films.

Case in point is Eastwood’s take on the extraordinary “Miracle On The Hudson” – the 2009 incident in which Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles lost both engines of their A320 Airbus over New York but managed to land safely on the Hudson River, saving the lives of the 155 people on board.

It was a stunning feat that instantly saw Sullenberger labelled a hero.

Hanks gives a great performance as Sully, portraying him as an unremarkable man thrust into a remarkable situation. His 40 years of piloting experience helped him handle a daring water landing, but it didn’t prepare him for the media circus and investigation that followed.

There are some nice moments in this film, such as when Sully finds out all 155 people have survived, and some good conversations between he and Skiles (a subtle performance from Eckhart), but on the whole, the film is a mess.


Despite being just 96 minutes long, there is a lot of padding going on. We watch the crash-landing, which is admittedly spectacular, twice in full (as well as three simulations of it, and a couple of nightmarish alternate versions). Such repetition is unnecessary and increasingly boring. There is also a sense of repetition in many of the conversations – phone chats between Sullenberger and his wife (Linney) either add nothing to the film or go over old ground.

In and around the crashes, the timeline is thrown around like luggage in turbulence. We go to before the crash, during the crash and after the crash with seemingly no rhyme or reason, stripping any rhythm from the film.

It seems as though Eastwood and his editor Blu Murray have done everything they can to avoid what happened to Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, which started with an incredible airplane crash sequence but struggled to reach those dramatic heights (pardon the pun) again for the rest of the film. Eastwood and Murray’s solution is to stick the crash in the middle and again at the end, but then throw the rest of the movie around them in a jarring manner.

The lack of focus and flow is distracting. When we do finally see the crash in its entirety for the first time, it comes mid-conversation, taking us out of one scene for about 20 minutes before dumping us back where we were. It’s anything but smooth.

Equally graceless is the film’s attempt to find a source of tension and antagonism to drive the drama. Sadly this comes in the form of the ludicrous investigation that follows, which tries to argue Sullenberger could have made it back to an airport and was therefore reckless in attempting a water-landing. While the investigation really happened, the plotting is idiotic (particularly the courtroom-style ending) and feels insincere. It may be true (the film is based on Sullenberger’s own autobiography) but it plays out as anything but.

With no convincing dramatic tension, Sully ultimately fizzles out and feels long despite it short run-time, surviving largely on the good graces of Hanks’ performances, the crash itself, and the occasional warm-and-fuzzies the Miracle On The Hudson generates.


Thursday, 25 August 2016

Kubo & The Two Strings

(PG) ★★★★½

Director: Travis Knight.

Cast: (voices of) Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes.

They were gonna call it Bug, Boy & Monkey
but it sounded like a '70s folk band.
(I may have made this up)

PEOPLE talk about Pixar’s impressive strike rate and how the Pixar name is a signifier of quality – which is all totally true – but we also need to be talking about Laika in the same way.

Laika is the company behind the stop-motion gems Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. They may not have set the box office alight like say Finding Dory, Toy Story 3 or Inside Out, but each is a magnificent film, not just technically but also in terms of their all-ages appeal, intelligent themes, and depth of storytelling.

However Laika’s latest may well be its best yet, which is saying something. Kubo & The Two Strings ticks all of the same boxes and continues the animation house’s winning streak, but also takes it to new heights with its visual splendour and unique ideas.

The film plays like an old Japanese folk tale, but is in fact an original story – very original. In fact, describing the plot will make people think you’re crazy or just saying random words.

It is the story of a young one-eyed boy named Kubo, who uses a stringed instrument called a shamisen to perform origami magic and is forced to go on an adventure with a talking monkey and a samurai who has been turned into a beetle. Their quest is to find some enchanted armour that could save Kubo from his evil aunts and grandfather.


See? That reads like the scribblings of a crazy person or, at best, a very interesting child.

At a basic level, it’s actually a formulaic hero’s journey and at times feels like a twisted take on The Wizard Of Oz, but there is a healthy dose of imagination at play here that keeps it from going stale. Even the bits that feel predictable fail to get in the way of the giddy pleasure derived from its unexpected qualities, which are many.

The Japanese setting (although the American accents are jarring at first) and its wildly unique narrative and characters combine to make Kubo & The Two Strings feel new and fresh, but there is much more to the film than just that. The look of it is out-of-this-world – it’s a stunning blend of stop-motion and CG animation, dressed up with some beautiful production design. Each of Laika’s films have been endowed with a wondrous visual style all their own, but Kubo’s Asian-influenced eye-candy takes the cake. The remarkable settings, striking characters, awesome fight sequences and creepy villains are all top notch (although the final big boss is a bit of a disappointment compared to what precedes it).

Parkinson and McConaughey are the stars of the show, with the latter offering some welcome comic touches, but it takes a little while to get used to Theron’s performance. Eventually the film hits its stride and the voice casting makes a lot of sense.

The themes of stories and memories, particularly how they relate to death, and the mix of pain and beauty that life holds, coupled with some scary-looking baddies, mean Kubo earns its PG rating, but for hardier youngsters (and grown-ups who like to encourage their inner child) it’s a rewarding experience that combines laughter and excitement with some intriguing depths and touches of darkness.

The one-word descriptor for Kubo & The Two Strings is “impressive”. It’s awkward moments are fleeting and vanish amid the stunning visuals and a story that feels remarkably new and old at the same time.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

War Dogs

(M) ★★★

Director: Todd Phillips.

Cast: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, JB Blanc, Bradley Cooper.

"Mention the Fantastic Four remake one more time 
and my client will punch you in the face."

HOW did two 20-something stoners from Miami end up scoring a $300 million contract with the US government to supply weapons to armed forces in Afghanistan?

That’s exactly what the media was asking back in 2008 when the story of David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli came to light.

It’s a remarkable tale, one first told in great depth in an article by Rolling Stone journalist Guy Lawson (and his subsequent book Arms & The Dudes) and retold with a fair amount of poetic licence in this film from The Hangover trilogy director Phillips.

Packouz is played by Teller, who narrates the story of how he gave up being a masseuse, hooked up with his old school buddy Diveroli (Hill), and became an arms dealer to earn money to feed his family.

Through Packouz’s naive eyes we see he and Diveroli wade deeper into the murky world of government-endorsed gun-running, where the deals get dodgier as the dollar signs get bigger.


Wars need guns and War Dogs is an interesting insight into how those guns end up in the hands of soldiers, but first and foremost, it’s about the weird rise and inevitable fall of Packouz and Diveroli.

Hill is great in his role as Diveroli, making him an oddly charismatic yet often repulsive young man, complete with a distinctive laugh and a terrible fake tan. Teller is given the less interesting role, but they make for a good pairing. It’s the relationship between Packouz and Diveroli that ends up being the most compelling part of the film. The intriguing backdrops - which juxtaposes sunny Miami with the varying desolations of Iraq and Albania - don't hurt either.

But Phillips, using a script he co-wrote with Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin, doesn’t nail the bigger picture. The absurdity of the situation never quite matches the tone of the film. It’s never funny enough, dark enough, or satirical enough to match the bizarreness of its subject matter, and instead plays things way too straight. It’s an edgy story delivered with no real edge, and if it’s meant to be an indictment on the American dream or the American military complex, it misses those targets too.

Instead it's merely a story about two friends who take an interesting career path – which is fine and mildly enjoyable, but feels like an underselling of the subject matter.

There are a couple of vaguely annoying directorial tics along the way – freeze frames, quotes written on screen to break the film into chapters, and an either unnecessary or under-utilised narration from Teller – but mostly War Dogs coasts by on the strengths of its stranger-than-fiction premise and its core relationship. Ultimately these factors are rewarding enough, and if nothing else, it’s another great performance from Hill.

The liberties taken with the story give the film a decent, if slow at times, structure, but the biggest let-down is that War Dogs never rises to the heights of its subject matter.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Sausage Party


(MA15+) ★★★★

Director: Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon.

Cast: (voices of) Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek.

No one knew what to expect at Elton's Oscar party.

LOOKING back at the incredible filmmaking technology unleashed by Pixar’s magnificent debut Toy Story in 1995, it's inevitable we would end up with something like Sausage Party.

In fact, it’s somewhat surprising it’s taken so long for someone to harness the power of computer animation to make a totally messed-up comedy for adults.

But here we are – two decades after Buzz and Woody saved the toy box, we have a film starring a supermarket full of sexed-up, drug-smoking, profanity-dropping groceries. And it’s fantastic.

Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen – the guys behind Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End – are the reprobates responsible for Sausage Party and it’s fair to say if you like their previous work, you’ll love this.

Rogen also voices the film’s star Frank, a hot dog who, like all food products at Shopwell’s Supermarket, desires to be “chosen” by one of the "gods" and taken through the checkouts to the Great Beyond that lies on the other side of the automatic doors.

But he starts to question his beliefs when a returned jar of honey mustard (McBride) starts trying to tell other foodstuffs what he saw in the Great Beyond, which leads Frank on a journey with his beloved bun Brenda (Wiig) to discover the truth about their so-called "gods".


There are many surprisingly elements to Sausage Party, not least of which is the fact it’s a swear-heavy parable about religion and the need to question baseless beliefs. While the film could have gotten away with simply being a brainless load of f-bombs and sex jokes, it instead uses its off-the-wall ideas and juvenile banter as tools to dig for extra layers of thematic depth.

It’s enough to make you overlook the many racial stereotypes because by the end you realise that was all part of the bigger picture and the plot’s undertones – it’s much easier to forgive a bagel and a lavash for sounding like Jewish and Muslim caricatures respectively when they are having cleverly disguised discussions about Israel and Palestine.

Another surprise is the ending.

Wow.

Nothing you’ve ever witnessed in an MA15+ film can prepare you for the final 10 minutes of this movie. Let’s just leave it that, shall we?

In an era when many people are bemoaning the lack of genuinely funny comedies, Sausage Party hits its humour targets with refreshing regularity. Yes, it’s juvenile, potty-mouthed and obscene, but if your comedic predilections swing that way, it’s hilarious. It’s also as intelligent as it is dumb – for every innuendo or (admittedly funny) profanity, there is also a wicked food pun or sharp point to be made about the nature of belief.

Visually, the film is nothing special. It has a style all its own and it doesn’t look cheap and nasty, but it’s deceptively simple. Fortunately, it’s not trying to be a work of art. It offers no moments of visual splendour to match anything Pixar can muster (although seeing a meatloaf singing I Would Do Anything For Love comes close) but we’re talking about a cuss-laden movie starring talking frankfurters here.

A lot of success rides on the script, but it’s delivered by a top cast of Rogen regulars and a few bonus players. Norton’s voice is unrecognisable and excellent, same with Rudd, while Rogen, Wiig, Cera, Hader, McBride and Robinson all wring every possible laugh out of every line.

It’s unlikely to live on in the pantheon of “greatest comedies of all time”, but to a certain group of people – ie. the demographic that will laugh at the fact that in the credits Seth Rogen’s name appears on a docket next to the price 4.20 – this will be a cult classic, preferably watched in a double feature with Pineapple Express in a very hazy loungeroom that rarely has its curtains opened.

On just about every level, Sausage Party is a success. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do – to stir and occasionally shock you into laugh after laugh by flipping a typically family-friendly style of movie into something more suited to an older crowd. The fact that it’s a sharp fable about religion is just an added bonus.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Suicide Squad


(M) ★★

Director: David Ayers.

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne.

"I just know there's a decent DC movie around here somewhere."

AT the risk of firing up the DC troll brigade again, Suicide Squad is another disappointment in the DC Extended Universe.

So that’s three films down, and three fumbles, for those of you playing along at home. On the plus side though, this is the best movie the DCEU has thrown up so far, but it’s still well short of where it could have landed.

After the lifeless Man Of Steel and the super-sized mess of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, DC has loaded up some of its most charismatic villains and let them loose in this stylised romp which works well from time to time but can’t quite get its act together.

In the wake of the events of Batman V Superman, government official Amanda Waller (Davis) decides the best way to deal with the rise of the “meta-humans” is to fight fire with fire. She puts together a team of super-powered prison inmates who can be used to save the day (and then quietly thrown under the bus if things go bad) – the assassin Deadshot (Smith), The Joker’s insane girlfriend Harley Quinn (Robbie), a sewer monster nicknamed Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Aussie thief Boomerang (Courtney), the “human torch” Diablo (Hernandez), and a witch called The Enchantress (Delevingne).


Writer-director Ayers has some cool characters at his disposal and the film is at its best when they do their thing. Robbie’s Quinn owns every scene she’s in, Killer Croc is an impressively scary collection of prosthetics and tics, and Diablo proves to be a surprise packet.

With so many characters, it was always going to be hard to give them all the requisite amount of air – Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Katana (Karen Fukuhara) get ridiculously short shrift – but Ayers does a good job of balancing the load. What’s odd is that the least interesting character – Smith’s Deadshot – gets the most screentime, and one can only surmise that is because he’s played by the best (ie. highest paid) actor in the bunch. Let’s face it – no one is going to see this movie for Deadshot, yet he’s everywhere.

Setting up so many characters can be tricky and Suicide Squad does this incredibly efficiently, only to then do it again and again. For some reason, the film feels the need to keep introducing and re-introducing the key players, dragging the first act out and ruining a lot of the good work already done. There is also a scene where Waller outlines her proposal, which is then followed by her outlining her proposal again, to different people. This is bad writing, plain and simple.

The opposite tactic is then used to deal with the big event that the entire film is about, which flits by in a matter of moments and all of a sudden a whole city is in ruins, days have apparently elapsed, and the Suicide Squad is being brought in to deal with the baddies and their MacGuffin (what the hell is that thing? Seriously, I have no idea). It’s a jarring entry to the film’s actual plot, which is scant as it is.

Having given us too much of one thing and not enough of another, Suicide Squad finally settles into a rhythm of running battles, one-liners and cool character moments that range from awesome to underwhelming. The ending is the typical overblown CG assault we’ve come to expect in action movie finales these days, and the feeling afterwards is one of hollowness – there is plenty of style on show here, but at the expense of substance.

Thankfully, Robbie’s Quinn is worth the ticket price alone, and as questionable as Smith’s slice of screentime is, he’s a welcome presence who keeps the film grounded. The ragtag team of anti-heroes get laughs and varying degrees of depth, and are a highlight.

There are a couple of cameos from other DC notables, but the main one is Leto’s much-hyped Joker. Sadly, his “Mr J” skirts around the periphery of the film and is never in a scene for long, which makes it hard to get a handle on Leto’s interpretation of the character beyond “intense psychopath” (also, he adds nothing to the film). No doubt we’ll see him again when the DCEU gets around to a standalone Batman movie, but until then, the jury is well and truly out on how he stacks up against Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s stellar efforts (although the initial feeling is one of vague disappointment).

Light on plot but loaded with style, Suicide Squad is all character and charisma but ultimately empty and unsatisfying, and is largely saved by Robbie and Smith.

DC trolls, come at me.

BONUS MATERIAL

I really want to share this video with you. It's about the editing in Suicide Squad and why it's terrible. I learnt a lot from this. Folding Ideas often make great in-depth videos about film and this is one of their best.


Monday, 1 August 2016

Jason Bourne

(M) ★★★

Director: Paul Greengrass.

Cast: Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed.

Matt Damon spotted Jimmy Kimmel in the crowd.

FOURTEEN years on from his cinematic debut, it’s easy to forget how big an impact Jason Bourne had on the world of movie spies.

While James Bond was driving invisible cars around ice castles and Ethan Hunt was in between impossible missions and unfathomable stunts, Bourne burst on to the scene, punching and headbutting his way into the hearts and minds of critics and fans around the world.

He was a gadget-free, CG-light breath of fresh air that blew some much-needed grit, blood and brutality into an increasingly tired genre. It led Bond and Hunt to have a look in the mirror and change what they saw – there would be no Casino Royale without The Bourne Identity, and M:I3 would likely have been a very different film.

Across a consistently great and under-rated trilogy, Bourne made Damon into a superstar, with the series even spawning a surprisingly okay non-Damon ‘sidequel’ starring Jeremy Renner.

But the question has to be asked – why is Bourne back? What more is there to do with this once-amnesiac assassin, having neatly wrapped things up with three films and an unnecessary spin-off?

To paraphrase Michael Corleone, just when Bourne thought he was out, they pull him back in, with Nicky Parsons (Stiles) returning to do the pulling. Having gone rogue herself, she entices Bourne out from the cold with some stolen CIA documents she claims reveal more details about Bourne’s life before he became a US government-sanctioned killer. This inadvertently shoves Bourne into the thick of it, with a CIA director (Jones), an analyst (Vikander) and an assassin known as The Asset (Cassel) hot on his tail.


As with Renner’s The Bourne Legacy, this film is entertaining yet redundant. It adds nothing vital to the Bourne mythos beyond filling in the superfluous details of what he’s up to post-The Bourne Ultimatum (illegal boxing matches apparently) and more of what he did pre-The Bourne Identity. It’s a sequel looking for a raison d'être but is unable to find one and carries on regardless.

This isn’t an entirely bad thing. Jason Bourne does everything you expect a Bourne film to do – the up-close punch-ons and improvised weapons, the insane car chases, the oh-so-clever spycraft, and the hi-tech espionage techniques that border on wizardry are all pleasingly on display.

But five films in, the Bourne saga has hit the problem all rock bands face on album number five – do you reinvent yourself and do something new, potentially failing and alienating your fans, or do you stick to what you do best and keep pumping out same-sounding albums, potentially boring your fans?

It’s a tough choice and either way you will draw flak. Greengrass (who directed Bournes 2 and 3) opts for the latter route, so while it is probably unfair to criticise him for sticking to a winning formula, it’s the biggest downside to Jason Bourne. As entertaining as this fifth film is in places, it adds nothing new to the saga, making it ultimately unnecessary and far from vital, washing over you in a sense of unmemorable déjà vu.

Amid the blur of edits and shaky shots – a technique The Bourne Identity helped make de rigueur 14 years ago – there are a few moments of real spectacle (the car chases are notably awesome) and Damon is still a commanding presence in the titular role. Vikander can do no wrong, Stiles is again sadly under-used, Jones does what Jones does best (which is grumble with authority), and the whole thing is smooth and efficient.

Like The Bourne Legacy, this is a decent time-killer and probably as good as you can expect it to be, but when it comes time to argue over which is the best Bourne movie, no one will be picking Jason Bourne.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

(PG) 4.5 out of 5

Director: Taika Waititi.

Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley, Rhys Darby.

"Is it a velociraptor, Mr Neill?"

FOR a country of 4.4 million people, New Zealand has long punched above its weight when it comes to producing great movies.

In recent years Whale Rider, The World’s Fastest Indian, Boy, and What We Do In The Shadows have all attracted large audiences and critical acclaim in and out of their home country.

Those latter two films are the work of Taika Waititi, who is following the likes of directors Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, Roger Donaldson and Lee Tamahori out of NZ and into Hollywood (he’s presently helming Thor: Ragnarok).

Waititi’s latest, Hunt For The Wilderpeople, is his most accessible and enjoyable film yet – the best of a great bunch – but it’s also his most iconically “New Zealand” movie, demonstrating a deep love of the country’s “majestical” landscapes and the rough-and-tumble people that live in its hidden places.

Neill stars as Hec, who is none-too-pleased when his wife Bella (Te Wiata) brings a foster child named Ricky Baker (Dennison) into their rural home on the edge of the NZ wilderness.

Ricky is a troubled 13-year-old city kid who has bounced around foster homes all his life and is one step away from juvenile prison, but after his initial attempts to flee Hec and Bella’s house fail, he finds a new existence and sense of purpose in the country.

But a tragedy shakes Ricky’s newfound happiness, and an unfortunate set of circumstances force Ricky and the belligerent Hec on the run from child services and the police in the NZ bush.


The relationship between Ricky and Hec is the film’s strength. It’s as charming as it is inevitable – both are wonderfully flawed and dynamic characters, and while we know where their relationship will end up, it’s an absolute joy to watch it get there. Dennison and Neill give good performances without being perfect, but their dud moments are not enough to detract from the finished product or the affection and empathy they draw.

The other big star of the movie (aside from the Terminator Pig that appears toward the end of the second act) is the scenery itself. Finding the few locations left around NZ that Peter Jackson hasn't already stuck an elf and a hobbit in, Waititi and his crew take us to some gorgeous places as Ricky and Hec wind their way through the beautiful bushland and lakes of the North Island.

The film’s humour, typically dry and Kiwi, is another highlight, with writer-director Waititi playing Ricky’s wannabe gangster attitude neatly against Neill’s stoic country type. The whole thing occasionally tips too far into the absurd, most notably in any scenes featuring Paula the social worker and her cop offsider (House and Kightley), yet strangely the arrival of Rhys Darby’s hermit “bushman” Sam seems to work despite being even more off-the-wall. It’s all based loosely on Wild Pork & Watercress by NZ author Barry Crump (largely unheard of outside New Zealand) but takes the country-esque, Fred Dagg-like laughs and adds a modern twist.

Kooky, charming, and full of heart and humour, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is great fun, occasionally sweet, and destined to be an iconic NZ film.