Saturday, 30 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

It is without question that the first film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, can be called one of the biggest surprises of the last few years. So, it’s also no surprise that the sequel was met with immense expectations. By bringing back the visionary director, the fun cast, and exhilarating action, Kingsman: The Golden Circle looked to be a worthy continuation of the world the original set up, but did it succeed? Spoiler alert... No, it did not.

Following an attack from a powerful drug cartel that devastates the Kingsman organisation, Kingsman: The Golden Circle follows Eggsy and Merlin as they travel to America in order to team-up with their American counterparts, the Statesman. It turns out that the Statesman have been looking after a somehow still alive Harry Hart since he was shot in the previous film, but the retrograde amnesia he's suffering from means he remembers nothing from his life as a Kingsman. Around the same time, the leader of the aforementioned drug cartel, the Americana-obsessed Poppy Adams, announces to the world that she's been poisoning her product, and won't release the antidote to her hundreds of millions of users around the world until the President of the USA ends the War on Drugs once and for all.


There's a lot going on, and that's just one of the many problems that Kingsman: The Golden Circle suffers from. Matthew Vaughn has admitted in interviews that if he'd known Kingsman was going to become a franchise then he wouldn't have killed off Harry Hart in the first film, but undoing that decision ends up costing a lot more than it's actually worth. We spend a lot of time jumping through hoops in order to explain and attempt to add some dramatic weight to Harry's return, but when all is said and done his character has no purpose in the film beyond merely establishing that he's still alive and available for future movies. 

As far as the American counterparts are concerned, their roles feel rather wasted. Those that received so much attention during Kingsman: The Golden Circle's marketing campaigns are ultimately little more than extended cameos. Channing Tatum may have been a focal point in trailers and posters, but he, much like Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges, has no purpose in the film - Elton John has more screen time than most of the Statesman crew combined, as well as being far more vital to the story. And maybe that would have been forgivable if the plot was more interesting. Unlike Kingsman: The Secret Service, which slowly doles out information about Richmond Valentine's plan to the audience as the Kingsman investigate (which in effect positions much of that film as a mystery), we're told the full extent and intent of Poppy Adams' plan early on in the film, and spend the rest of the time waiting for Eggsy and Merlin to catch up as they get distracted by the Statesman and the return of Harry. It's a pretty fundamental mishandling of an otherwise perfectly acceptable, albeit uninspired, plot that robs it of any urgency or intrigue it might have had, meaning that by the time the finale actually rolls around it all feels totally perfunctory. 

These plot problems are only made all the more damaging by the simple fact that the film-making of Kingsman: The Golden Circle isn't a patch on that of Kingsman: The Secret Service. Vaughn's approach made everything feel artificial and weightless, both physically and dramatically. There are a few action scenes here that could and should have been spectacular, but in attempting to top the now infamous church scene from the first film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle can't help but come across as trying far too hard. This is particularly noticeable during the film's opening and closing action sequences - they're at times virtually incomprehensible thanks to the swooping and diving from the camera, rapidly cutting from extreme close-up to extreme close-up in a way that ends up feeling far more reminiscent of a sequence of live-action comic book panels than it does a well shot and edited action scene.


But by far the biggest problem with Kingsman: The Golden Circle is that it lacks the kind of spirit, heart and creative drive that the first film had in droves. It's easy to forget that "fun spy flick" was only one part of what made Kingsman: The Secret Service so enjoyable - Eggsy's journey through the British class system and his subsequent rejection of the upper class was the real story of the film, working in tandem with Vaughn's own commentary on the ruling elite to create a surprisingly smart and subversive piece of satire.
Ultimately, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a film that simply lacks any real reason to exist from a creative or artistic perspective, and is instead content to be nothing more than a substandard spy movie. Kingsman: The Secret Service deserves a far better sequel than this.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

It

Here we go, the most anticipated horror reboot since the Evil Dead in 2013... at least according to me. As a self confessed horror, thriller, gore, suspense super-fan, the 2017 remake of Stephen King's infamous It, filled me with excitement from the very first casting announcement through to the trailer and up to now as I type after having left the cinema in the dark nearly an hour ago.

Based on the 1986 novel, and thankfully not on the 1990 TV movie, the 2017 reboot is directed by Andy Muschietti with a screenplay from Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman. Muschietti also directed the 2013 hit Mama, which was not particularly thought provoking but did it's job with jump scares and creepy children. It follows seven young outcasts who face their worst nightmare in the shape of an ancient, shape-shifting evil that emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town's children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer, the friends overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise.

It is almost as much a coming-of-age film as it is a horror thanks to the way that fears of the self-described "Losers' Club" often represent a more general fear of growing up, and the characters we follow throughout - particularly Bill, Bev, Eddie and Richie - are believable, authentic ones whose interactions with one another ring true. They're so well-developed and enjoyable to spend time around that one has to wonder if It would have still been a decent, entertaining movie even if the horror aspects hadn't have worked - I know for sure that my interest in the second part of this story comes more from seeing how these characters will have grown and changed over the best part of three decades than it does in seeing them fight Pennywise the Dancing Clown for a second time.

Which itself is a credit to It's young main cast, all of whom give great performances throughout - a good thing too, considering how easily the film would have fallen apart if even one of their performances hadn't been up to scratch. Obviously, Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard is excellent as the mouthy Richie, but surprisingly he doesn't overshadow the rest of the cast - with the sole exception of Chosen Jacobs (who unfortunately simply doesn't get enough screen-time to leave much of an impression as Mike Hanlon) the entire "Losers' Club" have their time in the spotlight. Particularly brilliant are Sophia Lillis as Bev, Jack Dylan Grazer as Eddie and Jackson Robert Scott as Georgie - Lillis really helps sell a number of scenes that could have come across as clichéd with a weaker actress in the role.

But that's not to say that It stumbles when it comes to the horror - quite the contrary, in fact. For large stretches of it's running time It operates more as a montage of brilliant little set-pieces than it does a traditional narrative. Between director Andy Muschietti's firm grasp of tone throughout, Chung-hoon Chung's gorgeous cinematography and a brilliantly unrestrained performance from Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise, It manages to achieve the effect it is going for, whether that be a subtly creepy moment in a library, outright terror in a darkened garage and everything in between. There are a lot of elements in It that could have wound up feeling outdated or even cheesy in 2017 (it's about a child-eating clown who lives in a haunted house, after all), but from literally the opening scene It is performing a careful balancing act that ensures that's never the case.

There are minor nitpicks to made but they do little to hurt It in the grand scheme of things thanks to how enjoyable it is when it's firing on all cylinders. All in all, It ends up being the film that I imagine it was always meant to be - an enormously entertaining and effective horror with slightly more going on under the surface than most, and one I hope to revisit sooner rather than later.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Moana

I have seen Moana 10 times. That means I have watched this film once a month since it was first released in the UK last December. I regret nothing. With that said, I have finally compiled my thoughts and feelings into one small-ish post. 

Moana can't have been an easy film to make. Three years on and it has become all the more clear the kind of impact that Frozen really had - despite being hideously awful... sorry not sorry. Anything attempting to get away with a "one true love's kiss" is going to seem trite and old-fashioned after Frozen went about deconstructing many of the tropes most closely associated with these kind of films, and that puts Moana in a very difficult position. How does a princess movie follow the film that killed the princess movie?

Moana's answer to that question is a simple but effective one - move with the times. The cliches so expertly refuted by Frozen are instead ignored entirely by Moana, making it feel like just as much of an evolution of the princess movie as Frozen does, albeit in a quieter, less obvious way. Our main character is a princess in status only, and there isn't a romantic subplot or a damsel in distress to be found within throwing distance of the film - in fact, she may well be the single most capable female heroine Disney have ever created, a natural leader right from the start of the movie played perfectly by young Auli'i Cravalho.



In a lot of ways Moana feels like a return to form for Walt Disney Animation Studios, really managing to recapture the magic of the Disney Renaissance era for the first time. By my reckoning, this is their first film to really explore another culture since Mulan, and Moana makes the most of it. The legends and myths used by Moana feel authentic, and the plot - which sees Moana sailing across the sea in order to deliver demigod Māui to the goddess Te Fiti - is made all the more engaging, all the richer for it. It feels as if there is an expansive history informing everything that happens in the film, helping flesh out this world beyond what we see of it.

Not that what we do see of it is underwhelming - Moana is gorgeous, probably one of the best looking films of 2016 if not 2017 too. There are subtleties to the facial expressions and movements of the characters that make them feel more real than ever, and the vivid colours and inventive visuals on display set the film apart from predecessors, especially when combined with the themes that Moana is playing with and the spiritual nature of the story being told. Whether it be in the wonderful mix of animation styles that accompanies the song You're Welcome or the spectacularly imposing figure of antagonist Te Kā, Moana is a treat for the eyes throughout.

Realistically, Moana almost certainly won't be as popular as Frozen - I simply can't see it registering with that film's primary audience in the same way - but there is no doubt in my mind that it deserves to be. In successfully providing all the heart, energy and charm that you'd expect from a traditional Disney film without bringing nearly 80 years of baggage along for the ride, directors John Musker and Ron Clements have created one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the year, one that really feels like something special even while you're watching it - and one that deserves to be seen several times by as many people as possible.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is often accused of being an emotionless director, and while it's a criticism I've only ever half agreed with in the past, Dunkirk certainly doesn't provide much of a counter-argument. It's a movie he's been wanting to make for the last 25 years, one he deliberately put on the back-burner until he felt that he had enough experience directing blockbusters to do it justice.

Dunkirk is finely tuned and impeccably crafted, but there's simply not much more to it than that. By weaving through three overlapping time-frames that each follow a different part of the evacuation - land, sea and air - Nolan is able to ensure that the pace never dips for even a moment while also giving Dunkirk the ability to explore three very different types of action, and it is this variation that allows the film to remain spectacular throughout. It is, in effect, a roller-coaster, and as such its entertainment value comes far more from the up and downs along the way than than it does actually reaching its destination.


And from that perspective Dunkirk is difficult to fault, keeping its audience on the edge of their seats from its opening scene to its final minutes thanks to Nolan's sheer ability behind the camera. Interestingly for a war film, we only ever catch a mere glimpse of the enemy soldiers, a decision that only heightens the tension - danger could come from any direction at any time, keeping the characters we follow on the back foot throughout as they merely try to survive impossible odds rather than achieve any grand victory. Between excellent staging, a preference for practical effects and some truly brilliant sound design, Nolan ensures that we're right alongside these soldiers as they find themselves trapped on sinking ships or unable to hide from the enemy places screaming overhead, and the result is deeply engaging, at least in the moment. But to what end? All this craft is ultimately in service of a film that feels surprisingly shallow and almost entirely uninterested in the events themselves, to the point where one has to wonder why Nolan even wanted to make Dunkirk. For all the effort that went into making it as historically accurate as possible, Dunkirk could be set on another planet without altering the thrust of the story or its function thanks to Nolan's unwillingness to really have a viewpoint or opinion.

It's this distancing effect that robs Dunkirk of much of the long-term impact it could have had, and while it might not be as big a deal in other circumstances, Dunkirk's lack of characters worth caring about only makes the aforementioned lack of perspective and purpose all the more noticeable. With the sole exception of Mark Rylance's Mr Dawson, the people we follow throughout Dunkirk are less definable characters and more avatars for us to experience the evacuation through - I'd have a hard time assigning any of them with a personality trait or characteristic, never mind remembering their names. And it's not that the performances are lacking - everyone from lead actor Fionn Whitehead to Tom Hardy to Harry Styles are giving it their all - it's simply that there is very little on the page for them to work with.

Ultimately, Dunkirk shows us a Christopher Nolan who rather than testing himself as a director and story-teller has chosen to play to his strengths and all but entirely ignore his weaknesses, and while it still ends up being quite the feat of film-making from a technical perspective, it also means that it never risks being a genuinely great movie.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

I can't help but feel that in ten years time, we're going to look back at the Planet of the Apes prequel/reboot trilogy and be amazed. Both Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes offer smart, complex, emotionally engaging science fiction for adults on a blockbuster budget - frankly, it's a minor miracle that they even exist in a time when studios seem more risk averse than ever, never mind that they've somehow avoided the kind of interference that has hindered so many movies of late. It's that which has marked this franchise out as something truly different since the beginning, and War for the Planet of the Apes takes that to the next level by delivering not just one of the best, most satisfying conclusions to a trilogy I've ever seen, but also a genuinely brilliant and artistically uninhibited piece of cinema that is quite unlike any other big budget film you're likely to see this year.
Set a couple of years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which I reviewed in 2014), War for the Planet of the Apes sees Caesar and his clan at war with a military faction that are obsessively hunting them. After a peace offering from Caesar to the Colonel leading the faction backfires, Caesar orders his clan out of the woods and across a desert in order to ensure their safety - but motivated by revenge, he chooses to enter the heart of darkness in order to find and kill the Colonel himself. Whether it be the Apocalypse Now inspired plot or a sequence evocative of The Great Escape, War for the Planet of the Apes quite clearly has the blood of a great many classic films flowing through its veins. Ultimately, it ends up most closely resembling a biblical or historical epic - if Rise of the Planet of the Apes showed us Caesar the revolutionary and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed us Caesar the leader, then War for the Planet of the Apes shows us Caesar the savior, a conflicted, almost mythical figure whose external struggles are matched only by war waging within him. He's tested both physically and mentally throughout the film, wrestling with his own humanity as he confronts someone who has almost entirely lost his own.

It's a superbly directed film, one that doesn't put a foot wrong at any point and even manages to avoid some of the problems that slightly held back its predecessors - unlike Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes doesn't feel the need to split its focus between the apes and the humans, instead choosing to place its focus firmly on the apes and staying there throughout. Naturally then, this final film lives or dies on our ability to truly believe in these talking apes, but as with the previous two movies the excellent performances given across the board, the stunning CGI work supporting them and the brilliant writing throughout ensures that our suspension of disbelief is never tested. Andy Serkis is yet again perfect as Caesar, imbuing this complex and at times contradictory character with all the humanity and emotion required, but he's far from the only performance worth talking about - franchise newcomer Steve Zahn finds himself in the difficult position of having to sell us on a tragic character who mostly exists for comic relief without sucking the tension or the intelligence out of the film, but he pitches his performance at the perfect level to do exactly that.

20th Century Fox have already confirmed that they intend to keep this franchise going, but it isn't needed - what we have here is quite literally a perfect conclusion to a stellar trilogy, and further entries only run the risk of watering that down. If you've seen the previous films in the franchise, seeing War for the Planet of the Apes should be an easy decision - if not, now is the perfect time to catch up before going to see what will almost certainly end up being one of the finest pieces of blockbuster cinema this decade.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

After just under a decade of consistently producing some of the best blockbuster entertainment each year, you can be pretty sure that you're in for a good time if you go to see a movie with the Marvel Studios title card in front of it, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 offers no exception to that. Fans of the first film are going to find a lot to enjoy here, and while this review may come across as very critical at times, it's important to take that alongside the knowledge that despite being noticeably more flawed than its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is still an entertaining, engaging film in its own right, and one that I personally enjoyed very much.

The film is tasked with juggling two mostly unrelated stories for much of its running time, and it's here that the film suffers at least somewhat thanks to the absence of an overarching plot. There are times when Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 feels almost directionless, lacking any sense of urgency or real purpose beyond an exploration of its characters, and that puts it in stark contrast with its tightly plotted predecessor in a way that isn't all that complementary. In fact, there are a lot of comparisons that can be made between Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that don't do the latter any favours. I can understand why director James Gunn attempted to hem so close to the style and tone of the first film given the impact it had on pop-culture at large, but ultimately the sequel is at its weakest when it's trying to live up to the expectations set by its predecessor, whether that be in its soundtrack or in its attempts to recreate the sense of energy and originality that made Guardians of the Galaxy stand out as much as it did.


That being said, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's significantly more personal story and its willingness to really explore these characters and their relationships with one another is truly brilliant. The recurring motif of family and parenthood is the driving force behind Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, providing a thematic link between the main story of Peter's father and the film's many side-stories, such as the continued sibling rivalry between Gamora and Nebula, the existential unhappiness that Rocket and Ego share about being the only one of their kind, and the Guardians' attempt to give Groot the safe and healthy upbringing that they all lacked. The film's final scene can only be described as genuinely touching, easily ranking as one of the most emotional and perfectly judged moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, and it only works because of how well Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 develops its characters throughout the film.

It should go without saying that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is colourful and vibrant and imaginative and funny in all the ways that you might have expected. Even ignoring the aforementioned brilliance of the film's character work, it's great to have an excuse to spend more time with these characters thanks to Gunn's superb writing, and the new additions of Mantis (a socially-stunted alien empath who steals a lot of the scenes she's in) and Baby Groot.

Whether or not the trade off between plot and character ends up being worth it is really going to be dependent on you, but as far as I'm concerned it was a sacrifice worth making for the highs that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 contains. On the whole it's undeniably a more uneven, less refined movie than its predecessor, but those flaws are ultimately a small price to pay for the personal and significantly more emotionally engaging story. No, it probably won't be as widely loved as the first film was - but that doesn't mean that it has nothing to offer, and I'm sure that fans of the first film will still find a lot to love in a sequel that while imperfect, could never be accused of playing it safe.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Wonder Woman

There's a lot riding on Wonder Woman, the latest DC superhero film from Warner Bros, and not just because it's the first female led, female directed superhero film of the modern era. The previous three films in the DC Extended Universe have all underwhelmed to various degrees, either critically, financially, or both - all eyes are on Wonder Woman to prove that there is value to be found in this franchise yet, and while obviously imperfect at times, I'm pleased to say that it manages to do just that.

Told as an extended flashback framed around the photograph she was trying to reclaim in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman sees Diana Prince, Gal Gadot, getting involved in the First World War after learning of its existence when American spy/pilot Steve Trevor, Chris Pine, crashes his plane into the sea surrounding her home, the island of Themyscira. Concluding that only Ares, the God of War, could be behind this madness, Diana travels to London and later the Front Line with Steve to kill Ares and put an end to the war once and for all.

It's a fairly simple story that borrows more than just a little from Captain America: The First Avenger, but by no means is that intended to be a criticism of Wonder Woman. By taking a step back and choosing to tell a lean, character-focused origin story, the film has plenty of time to build Diana as a character and endear us to her, and from that perspective it's hard to fault. Diana is everything that previous DC protagonists haven't been - likeable, for a start, but also truly heroic, a genuinely good person not just deep down but outwardly too. Her compassion for others and deeply held belief that humanity is worth fighting for is the driving force not just of the character but the film as a whole - what we have in Diana Prince is DC's version of Captain America, and as with Chris Evans, it's almost as if Gal Gadot was born to play her. Regardless of the reservations some may have had about her casting, she's brilliant in the role, and I really can't imagine anyone else playing her.

It's the film's character-focused middle section where Wonder Woman is at it's strongest. It would be easy to look at the scenes set in London as nothing more than "fish-out-of-water" comedy, but Diana's unwillingness to adhere to the social norms of the time speaks volumes about her priorities, as well as being very funny. Likewise, the stunning, instantly iconic action sequence that sees Diana storming No Man's Land may be a very good action scene, but it's also showing us just how much she's willing to do for those in need, speaking to that innate sense of compassion she's imbued with. All the best aspects of Wonder Woman are rooted in showing us who Diana is, what she believes in and what she stands for, lending the film a sense of focus and cohesion that it may have otherwise lacked.

Which is why Wonder Woman's finale is ultimately such a major disappointment. Not only is it willing to embrace all the worst tendencies of modern superhero films - it's yet another incoherent, incomprehensible CGI punch fest between two virtually invulnerable beings focused only on appealing to what a 14 year old might think of as "cool" - it also contains a number of really strange storytelling choices that completely undermine Diana's character arc while removing any shades of grey or complexities that the film could have contained, problems only compounded by Ares being such a weak, boring antagonist when he finally does show up.

While there are other criticisms to be made of Wonder Woman - the consistently ropey CGI, the odd tonal misstep - it's really just the finale that holds it back from being the genuinely great, rather than just very good, piece of blockbuster entertainment that it could have been. Whether or not Warner Bros will be able to follow this up with something worthwhile remains to be seen - and I'm skeptical to say the least - but for now, Wonder Woman is certainly a pretty big step in the right direction.