Saturday, 30 April 2016

Captain America: Civil War
Dir: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
2016
*****
Now that the Avengers have teamed up twice and have appeared in each other's franchises, it's pretty hard to make a film about just one member of the super-group. Iron Man had his trilogy quite early on, while Thor and Captain America only have two under their belts at this point, but after Thor: The Dark World received lukewarm reviews, Captain America overtook him to secure his hat-trick before it was really his turn. I wasn't that fussed about Captain America: The First Avenger but Captain America: Winter Solder was fantastic, the difference being the addition of other characters. Captain America's relevance in the modern world has been debated and also cleverly explored in the films, so you can't help but feel that poor Chris Evans, who has been very good in the role, has been somewhat short-changed. However, with the ball rolling and many a character to explore, both he and Robert Downey Jr. have actually been rewarded here for their commendable work, as Civil War is one of the most brilliantly written, well received and impressive comic 'events' in the last few decades. This story arch could have easily been the basis for the next Avenger film, it could have even been a two-parter, but it is clear that Marvel don't want to save anything or pull anything back, they're progressing at full speed to give the fans something bigger and better with each new movie. It's working brilliantly so far, with each Marvel film being a hit, even when involving lesser known characters. Captain America: Civil War is crammed full of these said lesser known characters and two of the biggest Avengers are absent, so it doesn't seem quite like an Avengers film and not really a Captain America film. New territory, but does it really work? Easy answer is yes, very much so. In my humble opinion, Captain America: Civil War is by far Marvel's best film to date. It has everything a Marvel/Comic/Superhero fan could wish for. Civil War was such a clever story and while this is a very different version of that idea, it's about as intelligent as a superhero film has been. I would also argue that this film contains the best performances of all the Avenger films. Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are both sensational, their passionate and raw performances brought a level of reality that you just don't expect from a big action superhero film. It's not all serious though, the same level of humour as we've come to expect from Marvel's films is present, indeed, this may also be the funniest or at least on par with the first Avengers film. The addition of the new Avengers is brilliant, they almost steal the show from the originals. I'm glad Thor and Hulk were missing, mainly due to the fact that the story really wouldn't have worked with each character but also because it gave the new guys a chance to show of their talents. The big fight scene is my favorite scene so far in a Marvel film. I didn't think seeing the Avengers together in the same frame in the first film could be bettered but I think it just has. Seriously, Spiderman vs Ant-Man is the best thing I've seen for a very long time. Both characters in particular should have a bright future on the big screen. To get the balance of serious drama, politics, humour and action so perfect has to be applauded. One of the things I liked most about it was seeing the superheroes out of their costumes. It gives the characters depth, it makes them feel real, believable and most importantly, vulnerable. It would have been easy to have paired the characters off, had an overlong fight scene and just filled in the gaps - indeed, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice did just that - but Marvel have been meticulous with the details, in joining the stories of each film and staying true to each character. They have improved on greatness. In just one film they've opened up the franchise even wider, not with gimmick or false promise but with quality writing, excellent performances and a fundamental understanding of modern comics and how to adapt them to film, not as easy as it might seem, although the Russo Brothers make it look easy. I loved every second.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Focus
Dir: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
2015
***
There is a certain quirkiness to Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's films that I really do love. Their writing credits are impressive but their directional debut I Love You Phillip Morris  was a lovely romance that took place in an environment and genre where you wouldn't expect it. It swam up stream which I liked but sadly, it was let down by poor casting in my opinion. The follow up, Crazy, Stupid, Love, was a rom-com that at last most guys could also enjoy (I don't like the term 'chick-flick and I refuse to use it). Both films had a fantasy tone about them that I can't quite put my finger on, 2015's Focus is in much the same style. It's great to see a heist movie with a strong romantic story-line that doesn't just consist of one-liners, fast cars and smug faces. Will Smith and Margot Robbie are totally believable in their characters and in their relationship with each other. It's easy to see two ridiculously good-looking mega-stars and loose interest but I thought they were both compelling and convincing and I wanted them to get together, just like in Ficarra and Requa's previous films. They clearly get the best from their cast (and I can almost forgive them for casting Jim Carrey). The start of the film builds into quite a compelling romantic thriller, B.D. Wong's performance half-way through the movie gives it a little extra kick and I loved the conclusion but unfortunately it has a habit of sagging slightly in-between. There a couple of directorial tricks used that almost ruined it for me though, one in particular first used by Hitchcock and quickly denounced by him and declared one of the biggest mistakes of his career. A heist film must carry itself with clever but realistic writing, you cannot cheat, but unfortunately Focus does. However, it doesn't ruin the film, I didn't see the twist coming and aside from that, the characters were interesting enough and the script was refreshingly natural as well as being a little zesty. I really liked it but there is just that certain something about it that didn't work for me, a strong three star film and still miles better than most of the genre. I could write something witty along the lines of 'Ultimately the film looses Focus...' but I'm not going to as that would be unfair and a cheap shot, there is something original and fresh about it that deserves credit.
The Purge
Dir: James DeMonaco
2013
***
James DeMonaco's 2013 horror The Purge had quite an impact. Its three million dollar budget turned over nearly 90 million in profit. That's pretty impressive considering how simple it is. DeMonaco has clearly found a winning formula and knows what people react to. I think The Purge works as well as it does for several reasons. Firstly, 'home invasion' horrors are always popular, whether it be zombies or ghost seeking access, when a family have to defend themselves within an environment everyone should feel safe in, it gives people the intensity, chills and the heebie-jeebies they want from a thriller/horror. Secondly, horror film makers are becoming increasingly aware that the scariest thing on this planet are human beings. When human beings become unhinged, are pushed to the limit or being indoctrinated, they can be far scarier than anything mythical, supernatural or fictional. Scarier still, some humans are just bad without reason. DeMonaco's simple premise in The Purge is that in 2022, after years of mass violence, unemployment and recession, the USA has established a totalitarian government, a police state, led by the mysterious 'New Founding Fathers of America'. The idea is that the governing New Founding Fathers have brought in a 28th amendment to the US constitution, stating that once a year, for twelve hours, serious crime such as assault, theft, arson, rape and murder is legal and the emergency services are unavailable during this time. Using questionable psychological analysis (hinted at very briefly in the film) it is suggested that the annual release of man's natural rage is a positive thing, a purge of negativity. This purge is disguised as something symbolic and patriotic and society is generally won over by it due to its impressive results. It's never really explained, I'm sure it will be within the sequels, but there are suggestions throughout that although the purge is seen as an act of catharsis for society, it is in reality a method of population control by the ruling elite, who sit back and essentially make the poor, those that contribute nothing to the nation’s economy, kill each other. Not such a ridiculous notion when you remember that this was actually a thing in the civilized ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy. DeMonaco isn't just using humans as a realistic bad guy, he's using humans who have been brainwashed by the uprising of the far right, a very real thing in the modern world we live in, and the stuff of classic Dystopian literature. When you look at the terrible atrocities that happen in this day and age and that happened in the recent past around the globe, this really isn't an unfeasible idea. That is what makes it a scary film. DeMonaco was a producer on the 2005 Assault on Precinct 13 remake, the John Carpenter influence is very clear but take away the clever political idea and you are left with a relatively average 'home invasion' horror that has all the same clichés as the others, that is until the brilliant conclusion. The idea and the last scene are absolutely fantastic and just what the horror genre needed, it's just a shame that the majority of the film is a bit colour-by-numbers.
Girl from Rio
Dir: Christopher Monger
2001
*
As much as I love Hugh Laurie and as good as he is in Girl from Rio, he just can't save it from being an utter disappointment. On first glance it seems to trying to emulate the John Cleese comedies of the 80's, A Fish Called Wanda and Clockwise, as well as few others that in turn were inspired by the Ealing Comedies of the 40s and 50s. Unfortunately, it's nowhere near as funny or clever as either and it looked dated before it was even released. Christopher Monger had made the very sweet The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain five years before, so I was looking forward to seeing what he would do next and while the idea is sound and Hugh Laurie is on form, the rest of the cast are awful and the script is atrocious. The story of a disgruntled bank manager, who dreams of the samba and escaping his boring life, who finds out that his horrid boss is sleeping with his spiteful wife and robs his own bank and flees to Rio, should have been at least half interesting but it isn't, even in the slightest. It looks worse than a badly made for TV movie, more so by the fact that it must have been quite expensive to make. The initial idea, the setup of the story, is easily the best element of the film, why no one realized this and embellished it more shows a lack of creativity. Rio should have been the big star of the film but it wasn't, all the best bits were filmed in the stuffy old bank in London. A wasted opportunity without the laughs to make up for it, they don't make films like this anymore and for very good reason.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Age of Adaline
Dir: Lee Toland Krieger
2015
****
It's fair to say that there aren't that many films that fall into the romantic sci-fi fantasy category, so it's probably not saying much when I proclaim The Age of Adaline to be one of the best of the genre. It's somewhat of an oddity really, a basic sci-fi fantasy idea explored quite wonderfully, albeit with questionable plot at times. Adaline, the main character of the title, was born on Jan first 1908. In 1937, while driving home in the dark, it began to snow, a freak occurrence in San Francisco, she lost control in the dense blizzard and drove into a river. She drowned and her heart stopped. Luckily for her, a bolt of lightning hit the river and, as the narrator explains to the viewer, Adaline is brought back to life due to a scientific anomaly, of which won't be discovered or understood until the 2030s. Not only is Adaline alive but because of science, her body no longer ages. The Age of Adaline is a suggestion of what it would be like if you reached twenty-nine and suddenly stopped getting older. The film explores how one would keep such a secret, how it would affect one’s life and points out the benefits and misfortunes of such a life. One of the most touching aspects of the film is how Adaline interacts with her daughter, who is now in her 80s. It is incredibly touching but never overcooked or forced in any way. This is down to a great script and the excellent performance from Blake Lively in the title role. It's a romance, and it's a good one, but personally I would have liked to have seen more of just Adaline's character and how she saw the world 100 years after she was born. There is a brilliant twist to the story later on in the film, with Harrison Ford giving his best performance in years. It's a rather sophisticated film for what it is. However, I hurt my sockets from severe eye rolling when the films conclusion was revealed. It's such a touching and wonderful fantasy and the nonsensical science fiction element was forgivable at the beginning of the film but the idea was pushed a little too far at the end. A shame but it certainly didn't ruin the film. Even if the fantasy element doesn't appeal, the brilliant performances from Blake Lively and Harrison Ford make it more than worth a watch. 2015's sleepy gem, maybe even a future classic, I certainly think it deserves to be anyway.
Obvious Child
Dir: Gillian Robespierre
2014
***
In 2009 Gillian Robespierre made a short film called Obvious Child. It was somewhat of a stand against what she perceived as misrepresentation of unplanned pregnancy and abortion in mainstream cinema. Robespierre stated at the time that she felt "disenchanted with the representation of young women's experience with becoming pregnant". She's got a good point and many agreed so she decided to write and shoot a feature length version. Jenny Slate reprises her role from the short film and, as much as I didn't always like her character, she does a fantastic job of it. It's a tough subject, especially within the realms of comedy because whether you agree with abortion or not, it's just not a very nice subject. However, it is a very normal thing, a way of life and it has been for many hundreds of years, Robespierre and Slate really are telling it how it is. Never is the subject treated without respect though, the characters acknowledge and are clearly effected by the situation. There are times where Slate's character is beyond annoying and it is very easy to dislike her and her behaviour but this also highlights the fact that she isn't ready for motherhood, it wouldn't be fair on either her or her child. The message here is two mistakes don't make a right and at the end of the day, it's no one's decision but that of the woman in that situation. There really isn't a bad guy in this scenario, just a very ordinary and unfortunate situation that hundreds of thousands of people find themselves in at one point or another. It's not great but it happens, the idea that woman use abortion as a form of contraceptive is of course ridiculous, unwanted pregnancy comes from a mistake both a woman and man make at the same time and it is wrong that it is always the woman who is victimized. Obvious Child doesn't lay blame with anyone as such, it points out a mistake, that is all. How the main characters deal with it is rather wonderful, it may seem like it's in the worst possibly taste but this is quite a sweet love story. Rites of passage comes in all shapes and sizes, not only is this an intelligent alternative to the usual mainstream nonsense but it's also a really good exploration of change and maturity. It's a gusty film with big cojones and I applaud it for what it stands for and what I believe it has achieved. However, I just didn't like the humour or Jenny Slate's character. I didn't like the fact she was a stand-up comedian, I hated the scenes where she spat out her humourless routine to a room full of coffee drinking cardboard cut-outs and the fact she had no money but still afforded to live in an expensive area of Brooklyn. The strength of the film is in its realism, this realism is almost shattered by all the unrealistic and synthetic looking ideas. Maybe it had to be somewhat abrasive to give the film the impact it required, and I love what they've done, I just hated the details, which I think were important and sadly overlooked.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Good Dinosaur
Dir: Peter Sohn
2015
*
In 2015 Pixar, for the first time in its history, released two films in the same year. The first was the amazing Inside Out and the second was The Good Dinosaur. Inside Out was one of 2015's best films, while I'm afraid to say, The Good Dinosaur was one of the worst. It's hard to believe that this is the work of the great animation studio. The first problem I had was its accuracy. Dinosaurs and humans didn't live at the same time, I'm happy to overlook this to be honest but to then read subsequently that the story is set in a world where Dinosaurs didn't become extinct just felt a little bit lazy to me. What really bugged me however is that the dinosaur family at the heart of the film are farmers. This is the stupidest thing I've seen in a kid’s film for a while. I have issues with animals with humanistic traits in kids films as it is, the way I see it; it's is fine for Goofy and Pluto to both be dogs, one wears clothes, speaks and drives a car while the other is naked, barks and walks on all fours. Anything in-between I have issue with. I don't understand why dinosaurs need to farm but I’ll move on. The 'Good' dinosaur of the film's title is Arlo, the runt of a family of five Apatosaurus'. Arlo finds life as a farmer difficult (ugh) and unlike his two siblings who excel at it, he still hasn't been able to 'make his mark' (make a muddy footprint on the family's silo) or prove himself somehow worthy of being a farmer or dinosaur or something else as tiresomely derivative. Arlo's big chance to prove his worth comes when his father asks him to kill a young human that he has caught eating their winter supplies. Now I'm no Palaeontologist but I'm pretty sure the Apatosaurus was a docile herbivore that would forage off the bountiful land. Also, what makes a bad dinosaur while we're at it? Still, Arlo's dad soon gets his comeuppance but Arlo soon finds himself far from home and has to somehow find his way back, thus proving his worth, or luck, or bloody mindedness, I'm not sure and stopped caring fairly early on. It's unfortunate that this tired old story hasn't become extinct. Arlo and his pet human are fairly cute but that is about as good as the film gets. The background animation is superb but it is ruined by the shocking simplicity of the characters. It looks like a cheap cartoon in a live-action setting but nowhere near as great as Who Framed Roger Rabbit ever was. Pixar are famous for their attention to detail, not just in visuals but in ideas, but everything that makes them great is absent without leave here. Something obviously went very wrong alone the way. It's okay for a studio to make a mistake, we all do it, but this one is quite the shocker and no amount of cuteness can make up for it.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Jupiter Ascending
Dir: Lilly Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, The Wachowskis
2015
***
The Wachowskis' Jupiter Ascending is a bit nuts, fairly incoherent, completely ridiculous and a bit of a mess but it was also heaps of fun. There are times were I couldn't help but be reminded of films such as The Fifth Element, Flash Gordon and even Barbarella but credit due, there is something uniquely original about this sci-fi oddity. I think the problem probably lies in trying to please too many cross-sections of film fans. It has space travel covered, the 'chosen one' story, a bit of gothic, a bit of steam-punk, aliens, alliances, alien alliances, etc so that covers the Star Wars/Star Trek fans, The Lord of the Rings nuts and all youth-literature fans in-between. It has its tongue firmly in its cheek at all times and there are plenty of nudge nudge, wink wink moments to enjoy, it only really trips up when it asks the audience to take it seriously. It's escapist fantasy for the best part but there are times where it looks like an episode of Dynasty in space, it gets a little too complicated and hilariously straight-faced. I'm not too sure if Mila Kunis really brought anything to the character but that said, her character is pretty simple and not particularly well written. The same could be said for Channing Tatum, although playing a half solder, half wolf mercenary with stupidly pointy ears can't have been easy. Sean Bean is Sean Bean, a Yorkshireman in space, doing his bit when there's trouble at mill. The award for most spectacular performance goes to Eddie Redmayne. He may have wowed audiences in his roles as Stephen Hawkins and Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl but it's his deep-voiced, angry Princess Diana type character in Jupiter Ascending that he will be remembered for in years to come. What I really liked about the film was all the little things you don't usually see. There is an action scene that involves the main characters flying around the skyscrapers of Boston at dusk. How many scenes in any film do you see filmed at dusk? The sky is a beautiful blue, light on the horizon and royal above it. Add the young light from the street below and you've got quite the striking background that I'm pretty sure hasn't been done before as one of the golden rules of film making is that you never film at dusk. They had the technology to make it work, so why not. Visuals have never been a problem for the Wachowskis and I would argue that Jupiter Ascending is their best looking. The special effects are absolutely stunning, so much so that it really does highlight how dodgy everything else is. If you were to ask me if it worked as a coherent film I would have to say no, not at all, but then again, I was entertained throughout and it impressed me on several occasions. A music video without the music (although the soundtrack is excellent). It's something very original that also looks like loads of films that have been made before, certainly unique but certainly not as bad as everyone says, if you're looking for a boring formulaic sci-fi adventure, then this isn't the film for you but then the same goes for if you want to watch something intelligent and convincing. I wouldn't pick it to be on my team but I'd stick up for it in a fight. Destined to be one of cinemas great oddities maybe.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Miles Ahead
Dir: Don Cheadle
2016
****
Back in 1999 Don Cheadle, then in his mid-thirties, auditioned for the part of Ali that eventually went to Will Smith who won the Oscar for his performance. During the audition however, writer Christopher Wilkinson, a friend of the Davis family, suggested he would be perfect to play Miles in a film biopic. It was just a suggestion and nothing came of it. Seven years later, Cheadle was surprised to read that Miles Davis' nephew had announced a film would be made about his uncle and he would be playing him. Cheadle became interested in playing the great musician but didn't like any of the film scripts he had received. He decided that the only way he would play the Jazz great was if he called the shots, wrote the screenplay and directed the film. His idea was totally different from the others but the family approved it. Instead of telling Davis' life from start to finish Cheadle gives the impression of the man through an event that didn't necessarily happen. Much of his life and achievements are left out, that's really for others to discover, this is far more of a portrait of the man himself and what became of him later on in his career. It explores his contrasting incarnations, the myths, his muse and the drugs and what they made him into without kicking up the usual clichéd idea of a flawed and past-it musician, although on paper it may read that way. Ewan McGregor plays a Rolling Stones journalist hell-bent on bagging an interview, specifically to find out if the rumours of a comeback are true. The film covers three days of drug fuelled parties, boxing matches, car chases, shoot-outs and secret recordings, inter-played with flashbacks of love, loss and regret - focused mainly on his doomed relationship with Frances Taylor (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi). Cheadle's performances in front of and behind the camera are nothing short of awesome. He looks, sounds and sounds like the man himself because he didn't just get the voice right, he also played his music perfectly, having played Sax and Trumpet for most of his life. He directs the film as if it was one of Davis' pieces, a drum or a cymbal splash is all that divides Davis' earlier, cool and clean-cut persona and his present day, cocaine-fuelled reclusive existence. Each corner of his psyche, myth and music is played out in what is essentially a visual representation of his life played out as one of his songs. He is aptly referred to as 'the Howard Hughes of Jazz' although as the man himself said, Jazz is a poor choice of word to describe the music, it should be referred to as 'social music'. The legend and the contradiction continue in this entertaining and refreshing take on the often formulaic biopic. It doesn't rewrite or reconstruct historical events, it merely dips the audience's toes in the water of a pool they may not have swam in.  A fitting tribute, approved by friends and family, and one of the best edited and directed films I've seen for a long time.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2
Dir: Bill Condon
2012
*
I'm fairly amazed that after four books and five films this is the best conclusion they could come up with. Fans of the books and of film series may well be happy, I am too in some respects now that it's over but I can't help but think that everyone who experienced the franchise should feel a little cheated. So Bella is a fully fledged vampire, she has a healthy vampire/human baby and the awkward love triangle thing has been solved by Jacob settling for an unofficial uncle role rather than Bella's lover. Vampires and Werewolves, living in harmony, deep in the woods. Dull, boring but supposedly very wonderful. However, everyone remembers in sudden unison that actually, the child might resemble a vampire child, rather than a human/vampire child, and apparently, they're not allowed due to the damage caused when one has a temper tantrum. A hilarious plot twist handled most seriously. Captain Vampire, or whatever he's called, finds out and slowly comes for the child (even though he can walk at a billion miles per hour, we know this because throughout the film, every vampire is seen walking at a billion miles per hour). Then, in what is supposed to be the big dramatic conclusion, good vampires and good werewolves (and some of their relatives made up of global stereotypes including Russian vampires, Jungle Vampires and Confederate Vampire) run towards (again, slower than they are capable of) the bad vampires who have rules and stuff and won't leave them alone. Cue lots of blood-free beheading and the worst fight/battle scene ever to have been rendered in CGI. The CGI is, once again, the funniest thing about the film and almost worth watching the film for. The CGI baby is back and grows from CGI toddler to CGI child within a matter of days without losing that special creepy look that makes everyone adore her so. I am of course making fun of the film which is pretty futile really. You really don't need to read my review to see learn how laughable the film is, you really need to see it for yourself. It's really hard to tell if Bill Condon is taking it seriously anymore or if this is in fact an intentional comedy spoof. If so then I take it all back, bravo, have five stars, but I suspect this is supposed to be a serious film, in which case, what on earth compelled anyone to make it and why on earth was it ever so popular. One of life's little mysteries.
I Remember Mama
Dir: George Stevens
1948
*****
I Remember Mama is George Stevens' 1948 film based upon the play by John Van Druten, which was itself based on the novel Mama's Bank Account which was a heavily fictional account of author Kethryn Forbes' childhood. It is narrated by the stories would be author, Katrin, eldest daughter of the Hanson family, who immigrated to San Francisco from Norway at the turn of the century. The original title refers to the family's continued money situation as they struggled with the cost of living, when times were tough they would have to visit the 'little bank', an emergency stash of money hidden in father's sock draw, but the family were regularly relieved on pay day night when it was calculated that they wouldn't have to visit the real bank. If a child needed school books then the family would rally round and work for the money with Mama calling the shots as head of the household. Each character of the story represents an attribute to a close working family, although Katrin the author is the 'emotional one' and every bit of the story is somewhat melodramatic. I used to watch it with my elder sister and grandmother and it brings back very warm memories indeed. I always saw myself and my sister as the bickering sisters of the film and my Grandmother as the matriarch of the family. Each chapter would end in fresh tears, tears of the good kind. Mama would do anything in her power for her children, often with heart-warming and hilarious results. A favourite scene of mine sees Mama try to put down her daughter's tom cat (called Uncle Elizabeth) with chloroform after it is fatally wounded in a fight. She ends up not using enough to kill it but enough to give it the rest it needs to recover. It's incredibly emotionally manipulative but also rather wonderful. The performances are fantastic, particularly from Irene Dunne as Mama and Oskar Homolka as Uncle Chris. There are also notable appearances from the great Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Edgar Bergen and legendary drag racer Tommy Ivo, as well as an array of wonderful character actors of a golden era. It is somewhat rose-tinted but it's also very charming, irresistible even and meticulously directed by the great George Stevens.
Ender's Game
Dir: Gavin Hood
2013
**
Being somewhat of a sci-fi enthusiast I actually read Ender's Game around the same time as it came out, along with John Carter of Mars and Lord of the Flies. I loved the other novels, and I loved Ender's Game, but there was always something about it I thought was wrong. Without wanting to give away the ending, I always thought that Ender, who we had been repeatedly told was a genius, should have predicted the big plot-twist. It's a hell of a plot twist and it had quite an impact on my impressionable mind back in the late 80s but now as an adult I can see the stories bigger message. A big screen adaptation had been on the cards for some time but author Orson Scott Card had always been reluctant to sell the rights. He eventually did once he finally found a script that he liked. There had been many over the years. One could argue that it was the first 'young adult' novel, I would argue that it wasn't but I'm glad others thought it was otherwise I wouldn't have ever read it. It's very much an adult novel that just so happens to have a child as the main character, and for a very effective reason. I'm not sure the adaptation should have been in the guise of a kid’s film. It's certainly not for young kids but it is clear for kids all the same. Orson Scott Card is a questionable character, by questionable I mean detestable. I don't like anything about him or what he says. Ender's Game has been called all manner of things such as a justification of western expansion and genocide and that Ender is an intentional reference by Orson Scott Card to Adolf Hitler. Sci-fi writer John Kessel has written at length about the dangers of morality, or lack of, within the story and focuses on the dangers of removing responsibility from solders. The fact that it is on the US Marine Corps profession reading list for new recruits is astonishing, if a little unnerving. The big question for me has always been what the conclusion really means. There are two ways of looking at it but is it really open to interpretation. I think not, especially given how outspoken Card has been over the years. Ender's Game can't just be seen as an escapist fantasy because it isn't, there is a message there and it is as mixed and contradictory as Card himself. Such is life, but I question the ethical and moral angle that Card explores and I think what could have been a truly awesome story is in fact a flawed look at war from a deluded author. The film however, is a slightly more fixed version of his 1985 story. I think there is a great story in there somewhere but the conclusion is always key and I think it is still a huge missed opportunity. Not a bad film but I don't like where it comes from and I would argue that it does matter.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Fifty Shades of Grey
Dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson
2015
*
I haven't read the best selling novel by E. L. James that this film is adapted from and quite frankly, I'm never going to. I don't think I've heard anything positive said about it and it really doesn't sound like it's the sort of thing I'd enjoy. However, that hasn't stopped me before. I'm no 'best seller' snob either, I'll read what I want without any regard to public opinion because that's the kind of open-minded free thinker I am. The real reason I'm not interested in reading Fifty Shades of Grey is because it is in fact originally written for a Twilight fan-fiction website. Fan-fiction fantasists have been going for decades, most of them are cheap romance rip-offs that slowly descend into dirty talk. I read one once based on the original Star Trek series. It was about Kirk and Spook's secret desire for each other. I read it quite by chance thinking it was something else but it was actually quite well written and rather funny but certainly never serious. Fifty Shades of Grey was originally titled Master of the Universe (I probably would have read it again by accident if it still was) and was all about Edward and Bella getting somewhat frisky with each other. It was promptly removed from the website and E. L. James decided to develop it further. Its initial appeal was said to be among married women in their thirties and various publishers began to describe it as 'Mommy porn'. A deeply unpleasant thought, and a little stupid too, especially as Mills & Boon had been doing this sort of thing for decades. It really isn't anything new. The thing that really got people talking, apart from a rather clever whispering campaign, was that it featured BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism). I'm a bit surprised that this kind of thing is still shocking to many people, each to their own, I can only imagine it became a best seller because everyone is secretly interested, it's either that or society has become so dictated to, so desperate to have something to complain about and so uninteresting that this is seen as a major thrill, but I'm sure that's not it. 'Live and let live', that's what I say but I also say 'do your research'. My biggest issue with the whole thing is that it is quite clear that E. L. James has wondered into a world she knows very little about. Injecting a supposed romantic element into a subservient story of submission is okay if you do it properly but she hasn't. There is a certain formula to romantic novels and a certain formula to sexy books. By all means do something new, but break the formula if you do. First love and anal fisting don't really work together. If it was meant to be a provocative stand against the norm or something of a rebellion against formula then great, but it isn't, for starters E. L. James can't tell a story to save her life. The film seems to suffer the same issues as the book, in that sense it could be regarded as a faithful adaptation, but you'd have to ask someone who has read it and will admit to it. The tone of the film is all wrong. The flighty music that accompanies the bondage scenes doesn't strike me as an intentional attempt post-modernist irony, just a poor creative decision. The light-hearted way our submissive leading lady declares she won't be partaking in vaginal clamping, as if she was the same as drinking caffeine late at night or swimming straight after lunch, is laughably worrying. It's not trying to be satirical, it wants the audience to take it seriously. I thought I might be astonished by the spanking bits but instead I was perplexed and left agog as to what the film makers would try and convince us of next. It is a romantic film about bondage that isn't the least bit romantic and that features very little bondage. The acting is terrible, the script is amazingly bad and the mood, tone, structure are all wrong and there really isn't any story to speak of. You just know that everyone involved probably think the last scene was striking and bold but the truth is it is probably the worst filmed/written in the last twenty years.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

The Jungle Book
Dir: Jon Favreau
2016
****
Disney can't seem to leave Rudyard Kipling's classic stories alone. It hit the jackpot in 1967 with what is arguably one of the studio's greatest achievements but they let the side down somewhat in 1994 with a live-action version that boasts some impressive visuals but had none of the joy of the animated version. Neither version was particularly faithful to the source material, although I've always thought the 1967 version was a nice amalgamation of the original Mowgli stories. 1967's The Jungle Book is a vibrant musical, full of character and charm, with unforgettable songs. 1994's Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book was a rather quiet affair in comparison, the animals couldn't even talk but at least they were real and not CGI. Personally, I would ask whether the risk of attempting an amalgamation of the two is really worth it but after watching the end result, I would answer with a resounding yes. Jon Favreau can direct. All his films are well structured and visually impressive, but more than that, he understands his projects and is a thinking director. That might sound stupid but many directors simply shoot, they have their formulas and most of the time it works but Favreau is an ideas man and I think this is why he got the job and was the best choice. He understood that the Jungle itself is probably the most important part of the story, something the previous adaptions have missed. He insisted that the live-action version had to have the very best special effects and he hired the best people working in photo-realistic rendering, computer-generated imagery and motion capture technologies. The Jungle, quite rightly, engulfs all else in the film. He said of the project that in Kipling's time, nature was something to be overcome. Now, nature is something to be protected, and this is clear within the structure and mood of the story. The character of Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) seems to have more weight to it also, particularly in this day and age of multicultural misunderstandings, intolerance and the propaganda it adopts. More time is spent on the fact that Mowgli was raised by wolves and his relationship with his adopted family and his overall cultural awareness is explored rather effectively. Ultimately, it is a story of someone who proves he belongs somewhere when it doesn't initially seem apparent that he does. The original book is heavy in colonial misgivings, never malicious but very much of its time, but how screen-writer Justin Mark and Jon Favreau update the story is quite wonderful; subtle and respectful and after reading up on Kipling, the sort of thing I believe he would approve were he alive today. Young Neel Sethi is an adorable and convincing Mowgli, the CGI animals are some of the best I've ever seen and Ben Kingsley (as Bagheera), Idris Elba (as Shere Khan) and Lupita Nyong'o (as Raksha) are all brilliantly cast (listen out for director Sam Raimi as 'giant squirrel too). However, having Christopher Walken play King Louie as a sort of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz character (Marlon Brando's role in Apocalypse Now) is a genius move, as was the decision of turning him from an Orangutan to a Gigantopithecus, not only because of the presence felt due to his increased size but because Orangutan's were never native to India in the first place. 1967's classic is loved for its characters, everyone's favourite arguably being Baloo the bear, voiced by Phil Harris and then Ed Gilbert in the strange but loved (especially by me) Talespin. A tough act to follow but Bill Murray was the perfect fit, Baloo once again, being the best thing about the film and rightly so. The inclusion of Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Kaa (originally a male character) works really well too, Favreau stating that the original was 'a little too male-oriented' and it needed a little female attention. They are clearly friends from working together but I think this is a great decision, particularly as Johansson sings 'Trust in me' so perfectly. This brings me to what was probably the films biggest dilemma. It was never considered that the animals wouldn't speak but should they sing, should this remake of sorts be a musical or not? You could try and come up with some great new songs but quite sensibly, they stuck to the old ones. You can't improve on perfection but then at the same time there really wasn't any point in making a direct copy, so although the film features some of the favourite songs of the 1967 animation, they're not the big production they were, they are fleeting and subtle but remarkably well done. In conclusion, Favreau's Jungle Book is the perfect balance of Kipling's work and Disney's classic, utilizing modern technology and classic literature perfectly. They've achieved what I honestly thought was impossible, and I applaud them for it.
The Jungle Book (AKA Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book)
Dir: Stephen Sommers
1994
**
Disney's 1967 The Jungle Book was the first film I ever saw in the cinema and I have a real soft spot for it. If a live-action remake announcement had been made for any other of my animated childhood favourites I would have been outraged but it was important to remember that The Jungle Book wasn't really Disney's creation and a pure adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's original work was well over due. I remember the trailer being pretty impressive too and I was quite impressed with the cast that included John Cleese, Sam Neill, Cary Elwes, Jason Flemyng, a young Lena Headley who I had quite a thing for and a young Jason Scott Lee who had made quite a name for himself after playing Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story the year before. I knew that the animals wouldn't be able to talk in this version and nor was there going to be song but that was fine by me, a faithful adaptation was okay with me and the fact that it was titled Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book convinced me it would be. Spoiler alert. It is even further from Kipling's original than Disney's 1967 all singing, all dancing animated version. It was nice to see real animals, this was early days for CGI and thankfully there is very little of it, but everything else is just wrong. None of the characters really come out, Baloo is just a bear and Mowgli is a man in his late twenties. Most of the characters are brand new, human and have very little to do with the jungle. The acting is fairly shocking and the script is abysmal. There is a sense that they were trying to make a 1940's boys adventure story, much like Indiana Jones, rather than adapt the original stories. It wasn't too unpopular at the time, I remember hating it and it really hasn't aged well. It’s typical of the early nineties, make a cheap live-action remake of something, stating that it is an adaptation of the original, that results in a mess of a film that is nothing like the source material or as good as the first non-faithful adaptation.
The Jungle Book
Dir: Wolfgang Reitherman
1967
*****

After the release of 1963's The Sword in the Stone Disney illustrator Bill Peet convinced Uncle Walt that 'animals' was their strength and they should continue along this route, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book being an obvious and opportunistic example. Walt agreed but decided to be far more hands on than he had been during the last couple of films as The Sword in the Stone really didn't do as well as was expected. Disney 'Disnified' Kipling's literary classic like it had with many a literary classic before, added music, dancing, new characters etc and steered quite far from the source material. This is something I usually detest about the Disney Company, however, I believe this is the rare exception where it both works and is exceptionable. Bill Peet was right, Disney were good at animals and they were also very good at songs too. The original Jungle Book was a series of stories, Disney took the all the best bits in my opinion and put them together rather well. The seriousness of the stories is completely lost but 60s Disney is all about the jazz. The songs are irresistibly catchy and remain a classic and are easily Disney's best to date. It was directed by one of Disney's original nine old men Wolfgang Reitherman and the main character of Mowgli was voiced by his young son Bruce. Its memorable characters were voiced by a group of Disney regulars who were all musicians, comics and actors and each is perfect in their role. Sebastian Cabot's deep and well-spoken accent was perfect for Bagheera, the Black Panther that takes Mowgli under his wing and Jazz singer and trumpeter Louis Prima played King Louie perfectly, breaking into the occasional scat along the way. Sterling Holloway's slippery lisp provided the perfect voice for the hypnotic python Kaa but it is Phil Harris' role as the lovable Baloo, who teaches Mowgli about the easy life, who really steals the show. Disney is known for its brilliant characters but no other film contains as many as memorable. You're probably humming one of the many songs as you read this review. It's a classic, impossible not to love and thanks to Disney's re-release habit it was the first film I, and many other who were born after the 60s, first saw in the cinema. What an experience it was. Disney was passionate about the film but sadly died during its production. His last may well have been his best and a fitting tribute.