Tag Archives: Film

Young Solo Adventures would have been better suited to streaming and the small screen

I was sceptical when Alden Ehrenreich – who doesn’t look or sound anything like Harrison Ford – was cast as young Han. Where Ford is tall, rangy, chisel-jawed and rugged, Alden could be a member of a galactic boy band (except he’s solo).

After a troubled production and reports of an acting coach, it seemed as if the odds of Alden successfully navigating young Han were approximately 3,720 to 1.

But the wise-cracking smuggler never did set much store by the odds, ‘cos if you have enough swagger, you can pull anything off. So I can vaguely imagine Alden maturing into Original Trilogy Han. Better than I could reconcile Hayden Christensen with the man in the mask, even after I watched it lowered onto his charred face.

Solo is a fairly straightforward, pulpy adventure that introduces Han on his scuzzy home planet of Corellia, long before he met a Princess and fathered a Supreme Idiot. He’s serving a slimy crime boss, a bit like Rey did on Jakku, except Han and his girl Qi’Ra have more time for hair salon appointments.

After an escape bid sees Qi’Ra captured, Han signs up for the Empire – who use the Imperial March in recruiting drives. Kicked out the Academy, he meets pro thief Tobias Beckett (the least imaginative SW name) and co. They chuck Han to ‘The Beast’ – no not a Rancor…it’s Chewbacca!

Beckett is stealing hyperfuel for a crime syndicate, but at the first sight of pirates, Han drops his shipment, angering boss Dryden Vos. He wants his fuel or else, so it’s all aboard the Falcon for that infamous Kessel Run. Dryden orders Qi’Ra, now his top lieutenant, to supervise them.

Han could be such a dark character: he grew up in Corellia’s murky underworld as a child slave, he fought for the Empire on a planet resembling a WWI hellscape, he lost his childhood sweetheart. But all he wants is to be a cool pilot and make a quick buck.

Qi’Ra knows that under the cocky attitude, Han’s one of the good guys. (Was it just me or did a certain bad guy look happy to get ‘closer’ to Emilia Clarke’s Bond girl femme fatale? Isn’t he a cyborg/robotic below the waist?)

Anyway, Emilia does a great mix of resigned and ambitious, a survivor in too deep. She’s more interesting than her former flame, and the other female characters – so much for Thandie Newton’s ‘prominent’ role, while Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hyped droid L3 doesn’t get the same chance to shine as Rogue One’s K-2SO.

Considering the weekend box office, mooted sequels are unlikely.  I wonder why they didn’t do “Adventures of Young Han Solo” on Disney’s new streaming channel. Then Alden would have been TV Han.

There’s going to be a lot of analysis about ‘what went wrong’. Perhaps Rogue One benefited from the novelty of being the first ‘standalone’, and from charged audiences wanting something to sustain them until Episode VIII. Plus Darth Vader going berserk in the rebel-rousing finale probably helped.

There just wasn’t the enthusiasm for a full movie about a non-Force user. Now Obi-Wan on the other han……

NETFLIX: Annihilation – future cult classic or subpar sci-fi?

A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries some kind of alien mineral, and it ain’t Vibranium. It smashes into a lighthouse: the invasion of planet Earth has begun.

Ground Zero is covered by an iridescent dome – like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. They call it ‘the Shimmer’. Inside, communications fail, and those who enter don’t return. The government are keeping it top secret, but not for long; the phenomenon is expanding, and will eventually swallow up whole cities and states…

‘Annihilation’ started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘weird fiction’ Southern Reach trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the unknown Area X. (A fifth turns back.) One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.

In Alex Garland’s adaptation, the biologist – now Lena – is played by a characteristically poised, brittle Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal her cheating on her angelic-looking husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).

We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane. They playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unusual ‘silence’ around Kane’s deployment. Kane tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her husband.

Kane goes MIA but materializes a year later at their home, clearly unwell. The couple are ambushed and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.

With Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, a guilt-wracked Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip. The rest of the team are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez is recovering addict Anya, while geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.

Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled and time is distorted. Flowers twist into the human form, deer have tree branches, and alligators have shark teeth.

“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie, meaning DNA gets reshuffled and recombined. When Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her surviving fragment; shoots and buds are already pushing out of her self-harm scars, and she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest.

For most, the thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem would be grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia. Lena realizes that Ventress was already dying and is resigned to her fate, but wants to face the alien entity while still herself.

So is Annihilation about how we accept the inevitable? Some viewers saw it as a movie about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt. To others it’s a searing depiction of depression, or all about Pokémon. Garland, meanwhile, said he was actually going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.

annihilation swimming pool

F U Humanity!!

OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. And although Lena believes the organism doesn’t ‘want’ anything, it’s hard not to take it personally; there’s something about the fruiting corpse in the swimming pool and the artfully arranged skeletons that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.

Despite the triumph of Ex Machina, Paramount had little faith in Annihilation; international rights went to Netflix. American audiences – who had the benefit of experiencing this admittedly visually and aurally accomplished movie on a cinema screen – only gave it a ‘C’ CinemaScore.

Maybe it’s because of the incoherent narrative. Some claim to enjoy the fact that it “doesn’t give us all the answers”. Others might point to the umpteen articles ‘unpacking’ the movie as a sign that it falls back on making audiences feel stupid for finding it all a bit of a muddle.

Tomb Raider’s Terrible Reboot. (OK it was more ‘meh’ than terrible.)

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London has never looked like a better location for a twee romantic comedy than it does at the start of the rebooted Tomb Raider, a capable origin story and actioner with no sense of humour or wonder.

Kickboxing at a local gym and bantering with her bicycle courier co-workers, Lara Croft is slumming it harder than most; all she has to do is sign some documents declaring her missing father (Dominic West) dead, and she inherits a fortune.

Although he’s been gone for seven years, Lara (Alicia Vikander) adamantly refuses to accept that Richard Croft – superrich business man, adventurer and aristocrat – is no more. Flashbacks show the Crofts in sappier times, where West keeps calling Lara by the nickname “Sprout”, and declaring “Daddy loves you”.

Swede Alicia Vikander is a good actress, whatever those three crazy Michael Fassbender stans say. She makes a tomboyish Lara, whose defining characteristic is bullheaded stubbornness. Having beaten the likes of Daisy Ridley for the role, she’s convincingly English enough to be to the (Croft) manor born.

While participating in an illegal and reckless bike chase through our capital’s streets, Lara crashes into a police patrol car. Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), an associate at Croft’s company, pops up to post bail and warn Lara that if she doesn’t claim her inheritance, her father’s estate will be sold off.

I must check and see if Scott Thomas did any interviews to promote this artistic endeavour, because I just live for her witchy rants about life as an ageing actress. The still beautiful KST grits her teeth at the sight of Vikander’s dewy prettiness, and wishes the fool had got crunched under those cop car wheels.

Oblivious to the KST death rays, Lara stumps into swanky Croft HQ to meet lawyer Derek Jacobi. She finds her father’s secret office, and his pre-recorded message detailing his research into Himiko, the mythical Japanese queen known as “the mother of death” or something. Richard warns Lara to destroy his work, in case it ends up in the wrong hands.

Hot on the trail of her father’s final destination, Lara heads east but gets captured by mercenaries funded by a shadowy organisation called Trinity, who definitely qualify as the wrong hands. They’d been failing at the task of locating Himiko’s resting place when Lara turned up with Croft’s map, which pinpoints the exact spot the tomb is hidden on the undocumented island of Yamatai.

Earlier in the movie we saw a waifish Ruby Rose lookalike easily put Lara in a headlock, but her survival instinct really kicks in, as she overpowers the hired toughs in hand-to-hand combat, before discovering Richard Croft living as a Tom Hanks castaway. He mutters, “Ignore it, it’s not real, it’ll go away, it always does,” when Lara appears, which is what my dad always says when he sees me.

Seconds later Lara’s dear old pa is back to normal. So did Sprout go to Oxford, or Cambridge? Look, Lord Sprout, this girl keeps landing on her thick skull, and the only reason there’s no damage is because she’s so dense.

Sigh. Croft performs amateur surgery on an injured Lara/Sprout and finally – it’s time to raid some tombs! Or rather, stop other people from raiding them in the case of the Trinity morons versus Himiko.

In what could be the start of an exciting-sounding premise (shame it comes at the end), Lara discovers that Trinity is actually a subsidiary of Croft Holdings, and a front for a secret organisation hunting for mysterious artifacts to control humanity. If Scott Thomas is in on it, believe me, they’ll be looking for the elixir of eternal youth 24/7. I know how she ticks.

New to streaming & DVD: Wind River lingers like a chill…

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I wish I hadn’t watched Wind River on a Saturday morning. It’s an evening movie; when it’s over, you can lock your doors and hopefully not have nightmares.

That’s the unsettling effect Taylor Sheridan’s latest had on me. I’m currently working through some of the most buzzed-about movies of 2017, and of course this was something I wanted to see.

Sheridan’s screenwriting career so far has given us the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario, which starred Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent helplessly mixed up with shady alphas Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro in the war on drugs.

In Wind River – Sheridan’s first time as writer-director – Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner is another FBI agent out of her depth, this time not in Sheridan’s native Texas but in the wintry wild west of Wyoming.

Jurisdictional matters have dragged Banner in to investigate the death of a teenage Native American girl, who was found frozen and barefoot in the snowy tundra by Jeremy Renner’s quiet wildlife officer, Cory Lambert, for whom the case has disturbing echoes of his own grief.

Technically Olsen is in charge of the investigation, but with his deep connections to the land and to the dead girl’s marginalized community, the story belongs to Renner’s softly-spoken cowboy as he supports the outsider FBI and the tribal police.

Olsen is not completely robbed of agency like Sicario’s Kate Macer, yet she has no backstory, and we never learn what makes her so driven.

She looks like she should be reading the news in a warm studio somewhere, as she is comically underprepared for the conditions and isolation (‘Shouldn’t we just maybe wait for some backup?’ she bats her lashes. ‘This isn’t the land of backup, Jane … this is the land of “you’re on your own.”‘)

Where Macer was caught at the border by political forces beyond her control, Banner plants face-first into a community blighted by poverty, addiction and hopelessness. I wasn’t sure if she was merely incompetent and inexperienced, or if she was truly meant as a symbol for governmental disinterest and mishandling.

The violence, when it comes, is more personal and depressingly universal, but no less brutal and shocking.

Verdict? Despite the shaky camera triggering my vertigo, I thought Wind River was another well-made action thriller. Renner and Olsen are great, but I don’t feel that the movie is as ambitious or exciting as Sicario, perhaps because it lacks the tension and moral conflict between the leads.

Sheridan really stands out for his dialogue, and as auteur he delivers on a similar level to previous directors of his scripts, especially in the realistic-yet-stylish bursts of violence, and that creepy sense of dread that outlasts the film.

The SOLO trailer saunters on to our screens. I already love Qi’Ra

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I wasn’t going to post about the new Star Wars spin-off trailer, when and if it ever arrived. But after being ill and feeling so low, a trailer has been about the most demanding thing I’ve been able to watch and review in weeks.

Solo seems so nonchalant about the whole publicity machine, like it knows it’s a surefire hit anyway. The action scenes, the visuals and the extension of the Star Wars mythology will probably make it another Rogue One.

Of course the cast looks great too. Emilia Clarke, who has really grown on me lately, looks very regal.

Qi’Ra sounds like a Game Of Thrones name, but ‘Kira’ was actually Rey’s original name during The Force Awakens production, and it also crops up a lot in the old pre-Disney books and games. I always thought it was a nod to the director Akira Kurosawa, whose Hidden Fortress was a direct influence on a young George Lucas.

Donald Glover as Lando will walk away with Han’s movie (payback for Han taking the Falcon), while Alden Ehrenreich – who looks and sounds nothing like Harrison Ford – is probably going to be the most divisive element.

Although Alden is diminutive next to Ford’s 6’1, and his voice is nasal-sounding, they’ve still slapped the same hairdo on him that Ford had in the Originals, as if that’ll help. Fans have offered unconvincing in-canon explanations for the physical differences like, “Oh men can have growth spurts really late”, or ‘Voices deepen with age.”

I’ll just accept that they either couldn’t or wouldn’t find someone more like Ford (I think people at Lucasfilm really wanted Alden, and a Ford clone from Kamino would’ve had the door slammed in his face). Alden’s obviously a talented actor, even if he isn’t a movie star/leading man, and he has to make the role his own.

Younger kids and future generations will probably like Alden more than Harrison anyway. He’ll be their definitive Han.

The galaxy is changing.

Mudbound – historical page-turner becomes solemn NETFLIX prestige

“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.

The female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, seems to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).

It is also extremely well-timed; it follows in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, and appears during a season when the industry is under scrutiny for its systemic sexism.

One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters apparently remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.

There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, and warning voters that the movie should not be overlooked.

For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it – while I can’t compare it to its competition, as Oscar movies tend to reach UK screens after awards season.

Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan) and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains leave them stranded in acres of mud.

The lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keep house for the McAllans. Their voices are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who are both returning from WWII Europe.

The veterans form a bond that riles racist McAllan patriarch Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law (although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t check his shirts for lipstick, or take her frustrations out on Florence).

Some writers have described the movie as focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders...”

This is an interesting projection, as writer-director Dee Rees concentrates on the friendship between two men. 6’2 leading man Hedlund’s Jamie is portrayed as more heroic and enlightened, while Ronsel (as played by quirky little character actor Mitchell) is far less remarkable than his book counterpart.

There is a frightening and brutal scene near the end, but so much of Jordan’s historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s comic encounter with a hapless cow) that I can’t work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.

With a small budget and short shoot, it has a sparse yet epic feel, especially in the flashback scenes, and we get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography (the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category).

Blige got a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.

On the Millennial mainline: Murder on the Orient Express

“Not another remake!” is a familiar online cry, normally accompanied by declarations that Hollywood has run out of ideas.

The word ‘remake’ provokes a knee-jerk hostility – and having just dodged the new BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve already seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s perennial, while the still-fresh 1994 Winona Ryder/Christian Bale film with a young, scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst sits in my DVD collection.

Luckily, I realized my aversion to the Beeb’s take wasn’t because Winona Will Forever Be My Jo March! – it was because the new three-part show looked genuinely bad. The American accents sounded atrocious, and the actresses looked more like college girls in 2017 than impoverished sisters during the Civil War. (Dunst at least was the right age to play Amy.)

Agatha Christie’s 1934 Murder on the Orient Express, featuring her best-known creation – genius detective Hercule Poirot – is another novel regularly adapted for stage and screen.

I saw a lot of online negativity around the release of director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster Orient. A perfectly good, Oscar-nominated 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation already exists, starring Albert Finney, the argument kept going, so there was no need…

Au contraire, mon ami! OK, no need maybe, but judging by the box office, people were pulled in by the promise of this gorgeous new production – which loses a lot of the mystery and suspense of the Lumet version, while upping the action.

David Suchet’s performance in the long-running BBC Poirot is considered closest to Christie’s peculiar, egghead creation. Where Suchet was an odd duck, Branagh’s detective is eccentric by way of a comedy Belgian accent, an OTT moustache and little perfectionist quirks, like straightening peoples’ ties. He certainly knows his own worth, calling himself the “greatest detective in the world”.

We meet him in Jerusalem as he closes a preposterous jewel theft case (easily the dullest bit), and then finally he’s on the Orient thundering west across Europe when an avalanche derails the train. While trapped high in the stunning Alps, a passenger named Ratchett is murdered, making everyone in First Class a suspect.

Was it Judi Dench’s Russian princess? Or could it have been Michelle Pfeiffer’s vampy husband-hunter, or Penélope Cruz’s missionary (reminding me of her early role as a nun in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother)?

There’s an achingly relevant younger cast, giving us the first chance to see Daisy Ridley outside Star Wars, and she’s fantastic, like a lighter, less grating version of Keira Knightley. Rising actress Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) is a enigmatic aristocrat, and Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is Dr Arbuthnot – played in ’74 by that old dinosaur Sean Connery.

Fresh off Beauty and the Beast, Josh Gad is the gangster Ratchett’s assistant, bringing us to another problem people have with the movie – Ratchett being played by none other than alleged train wreck Johnny Depp.

Depp-boycotters should know that despite starring prominently in the marketing bumf, he plays a) the most hateful character (“I do not like your face,” says Poirot) and b) is swiftly bumped off, with a troupe of Hollywood actors all in the frame for his brutal stabbing. Imagine if they’d cast Harvey Weinstein as a baggage handler.

Although the critics have insisted that it all “offers nothing new,” the contemporary cast open the story up with different races, nationalities and ages – even if everyone only gets a thin slice of screen time. (Michelle Pfeiffer alone is worth seeing.)

Cinema continues to modernize and amaze us, and Orient is meant as an immersive experience, with a much-raved about epic five minute 65mm Steadicam closing shot. It’s like being in a theatrical snow globe, and really captures the allure of the golden age of travel. And I hate travel.

Perhaps I liked this film for superficial reasons, but it was surprisingly poignant, presenting a moral conundrum for Poirot – the man who sees everything as right or wrong with no in-between.

Leaving me only to add that I didn’t cry at the end when the Patrick Doyle score was playing. I got some orange juice in my eye, and anyone who says otherwise is 100% lying.

Like my review? Please consider liking it and following my book, film and lifestyle blog as we go forward into 2018! Happy New Year everyone! 

The Last Jedi: Luke what you made me do

Actor Mark Hamill said he hated everything Rian Johnson decided to do with his character, Luke Skywalker, in The Last Jedi. I’m sure he later changed his mind (it’s hard to keep up, Hamill speaks his mind a lot) but I have to agree with the actor’s first instinct.

I understand what happened between Luke and Ben. Luke, like Anakin, wanted to stop a bad thing from happening. Luke sensed the danger in Ben, and had the fateful impulse to strike the boy down while he slept. He was immediately repentant, but it was too late – Luke had created the thing he sought to avoid.

Living with the legacy of Vader,  it’s not surprising Luke sees the dark side in shadows and minds everywhere. Yet what I saw in The Last Jedi was not the son of Vader, but the son of Owen Lars festering away on that island. The only way he could have been more revolting would have been if he’d hit on Rey.

Chucking the lightsaber over his shoulder may have got a laugh (a very nervous one, in my theatre) but as I watched the story unfold, it struck me that his twin sister should have understood that Luke had gone to a lot of effort to disappear, and let him go.

Leia had been through terrible losses too – her entire planet, her son, her…Han. Luke skulked off to let her deal with everything on her own. The Luke that millions loved would never have been so weak.

He was never the coolest member of his gang. He had to work to become the calm, lethal Luke of Return of the Jedi. And Han still laughed in his face. But although Luke wasn’t necessarily the obvious tough guy type, but he was resourceful, and he never gave up.

We got one glimpse of the cool Luke who faced down Darth Sidious; at the end of The Last Jedi, he Force-beamed his soul across the galaxy to tell his hilariously unhinged nephew that he’s a stupid ass, while wearing an outfit that would have made Padmé Amidala proud.

Did Luke think Kylo was beyond redemption, or did he know it wasn’t his personal destiny to save him? Kylo is Rey’s problem now. Sucks to be her.

Although he hasn’t always been as well-regarded by the wider public – or by some journalists, incredibly – Hamill was the real acTOR out of the classic trio. Carrie was a true original and a writer, Harrison was the movie star. And Hamill gave a great send-off performance, even if he didn’t agree with the director’s vision.

It’s not Luke’s story now. This is a franchise hoping to pick up new fans. Considering Luke looked like he last took a bath that night on Endor, he probably didn’t have any children to carry on the family name. Unless ‘Broom kid’ (Tamiri Blagg) is Luke’s long-lost son. No, I’m joking, please.

I imagine creatives overseeing the new global franchise want to lob most of the inherently limiting original trilogy off the edge of Skellig Michael too, along with that lightsaber.

Um, so on that note,

xx —-Merry Christmas!—- xx

Kylo Ren takes off his helmet. And his shirt. (Spoilers)

All the teasing, all the memes, that SNL sketch and the parody Twitter accounts took their toll on poor Kylo Ren. There is only so much all-round mockery an unhinged young Dark Sider can take.

Supreme Leader Ren will see you now.

Snoke huh? His faith in his apprentice, misplaced may have been. Snoke – the biggest, baddest guy in the galaxy, worse than Sidious, worse than Vader; his apprentice kills him with a two finger salute, a literal sleight of hand.

I mean, the creation and the appearance and the presence of Snoke ARE terrifying, but that’s it. He didn’t see it coming, like Han Solo. In fact, I think even Han had an inkling of what would happen when he stepped out on that teeny tiny, narrow bridge in The Force Awakens.

Of course Jedi is so twisty, I honestly kept expecting Snoke to force-knit himself back together after getting lightsabered through the middle. (Talking about smoking torsos, I can confirm Kylo Ren is shredded. Kylo Ren has an eight-pack.)

I’m a bit hazy straight after my first viewing, and I’m not sure when Kylo made the decision to snuff Snoke.

I think it was when he found out that Snoke had been arranging those Force FaceTimes between him and Rey, when Kylo thought it was just fate. Even in TFA, when Kylo wanted to be Rey’s ‘teacher’, it seemed he might be prepared to cast Snoke aside for her.

When Rey calls him ‘Ben’ he gives her a sulky side-eye and basically ignores it. Still so much angst. So far, we seem to have ascertained that Rey is Rey Random of non-famous parentage. Kylo’s a bit of a snot about it, as if it’s good of him to see her as an equal, what with his mom being a princess and all.

Great performance by Adam Driver.

I just can’t believe it’s been two years since the last Star Wars (one year if you count Rogue One, but somehow, I never seem to). There are many journeys and other strands to this huge and very long movie, and I’ll probably do a review in a week or so. For now, MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU!!

A ghost story for a chic spooky season: PERSONAL SHOPPER starring a striking Kristen Stewart

It’s 2007, before audiences would learn that Kristen Stewart was to be their Bella Swan, and there’s dizzying acclaim for her tiny role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Anyone would think that the former child actress was being prepped for major stardom.

Of course, Stewart totally killed the Twilight gig, and became an object of obsession for girls everywhere, and a fixture on Hollywood’s Most Hated lists. Now, in 2017, she’s finally the ‘Best of her Generation’ — as Olivier Assayas described her after directing her to a César for her performance as a personal assistant to a neurotic actress in Clouds of Sils Maria. 

Stewart made history as the first American to win the French equivalent of an Oscar, and Assayas would write Personal Shopper with her in mind to star as a young expat in Paris. Once again, she’s a flunky to an unpleasant celebrity, only this time we merely glimpse the supermodel employer – Kyra – who dispatches her to upscale boutiques to pick up couture and priceless baubles for the red carpet.

Instead it is Stewart’s Maureen who takes centre stage, and she is so much more than an underling: she’s also a psychic medium, a grieving twin sister, and an artist. And who exactly is the model here? KStew looks preternaturally gorgeous when she tries on her boss’s designer clothes.

Maureen hates her job, but she’s in limbo in the French capital mourning her brother, who died from a heart defect she shares. She sits alone at night in his Parisian mansion, waiting for him to show her a sign from the other side. The building creaks and the pipes rattle, before a rageaholic spirit scratches out her artwork.

Later, when Maureen is harassed by text message, we’re supposed to be unsure whether or not she is at the mercy of something more sinister than a fashionista; have ghosts made the jump-scare to the digital era, or has she got a stalker?

If this sounds like a weird blend of high fashion, ectoplasm, and suspense…you’d be right – it really is an engrossing addition to the whodunnit/horror/coming-of-age genre.

And it probably wouldn’t have worked with a typical lead actress. But Stewart has such incredible authenticity and sincerity, that when she talks – or does that notorious Stewart mumble, mumble, shuffle – about the difficulty of finding portals to the spirit world, it seems perfectly reasonable.

From that truthful base, she is fascinating; you just want to keep watching her and watching her.

Verdict: Personal Shopper is a beautiful and detailed treat, from the Vionnet and Chanel dresses, to Maureen’s beanies, polo shirts and sloppy sweaters. It looks like a fashion shoot, all carried off with Stewart’s trademark insouciance and ambiguity.

She even makes the name ‘Maureen’ sound cool.

For those that celebrate it, have a Happy Halloween! If you have a low fear threshold, check out my Guide to Scary Movies, or if you fancy a really creepy read try the book that inspired Alex Garland’s new movie, Annihilation.

BOOK REVIEWS: Annihilation & The Book of Strange New Things..

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I’m too scared to see the movie ‘It’. I know it involves an evil clown and sewers and things that float down there – and of course that it started out as a book by Stephen King.

Recently, I’ve been reading books that are being adapted for the big screen, and one such pick was Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series, a novel that King himself called ‘creepy’…

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

Four women are sent by a secretive government agency to investigate Area X, a quarantined coastal zone in the USA.

The Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor and the Anthropologist (no names are given) uncover a terrifying force writing on the walls of an uncharted subterranean tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Eek.

And as if I had breathed in the spores from the cover, Annihilation is immersive, sinister, and genre-defying. Although part of a trilogy, it can definitely be read as a standalone.

One issue I had was that it takes the Biologist’s field journal as source material, and while she may be happy spending hours observing lifeforms in tidal pools, I’m not! (The novel also flashes back to her life with her husband, who volunteered for an earlier, doomed, expedition.)

I hope the movie doesn’t end up feeling like Alien Covenant – scientists behaving stupidly while trudging through the wilderness and wrestling with weird mind-bending phenomena.

Luckily, it’s directed by Alex Garland, who proved he knows a thing or two about creepy tension with Ex Machina, and it stars Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber 

From a woman of science to a man of faith. The King of the North has gone interstellar in the Amazon pilot ‘Oasis’.

It takes as its veeery loose inspiration Michel Faber’s (Under the Skin) melancholy novel The Book of Strange New Things – published in 2014 before the Netflix phenomenon.

The good book focuses on Chaplain Peter Leigh, who leaves his beloved wife for a job with a shadowy multinational, ministering to the native inhabitants of a distant colonized planet named Oasis.

Peter’s new congregation were introduced to the Bible by his (missing) predecessor, and they’ve really taken to it enthusiastically, calling themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, etc. Their ‘faces’ resemble “a placenta with two foetuses…nestled knee to knee.”

To speak their language, Peter would “need to rip off his own head and gargle through the stump.” (Any linguists want a challenge?!)

It’s not a mystery or a religious satire, but a tale of grief and failure of communication – interplanetary email can be a bitch.

A word of caution: The Amazon pilot is very different. It’s a budget sci-fi, and the sad heart of TBOSNT is gone. There’s no word yet on whether it will go to series, but the book is certainly worth the near-600 pages.

I’m currently slogging through the latest Zadie Smith, but I should be back with a Wind River review soon……

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

valerian-v-poster-full-highres-01The search for a male star who can replace Harrison Ford continues. As the eponymous Valerian, Dane DeHaan is supposed to be a happy-go-lucky, square-jawed hero and roguish galactic agent.

Instead he looks like he should be playing a space cadet in some sort of academy somewhere with fellow cast member Clive Owen as the bullying principal.

Unfamiliar with the comics, I briefly and mistakenly thought Valerian and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) were siblings, like a Luke and Leia crime-fighting duo.

But Valerian drools over Cara (more than Luke did Leia) and it quickly gets annoying to watch the little twerp sexually harassing model Delevingne. “He’s got no chance!” I thought.

The French-Belgian Valerian et Laureline comics were a suspected early influence on one Mr. George Lucas, and watching Valerian, I could lovingly remember the prequel trilogy. The romance between the leads is pure Attack of the Clones level space crash, complete with stilted dialogue.

There are hints of Avatar’s Na’vi in the humanoids from the destroyed planet of Mül, who stow away in the bowels of a giant free-floating metropolis called Alpha – the City of a Thousand Planets – where different alien species all pool their knowledge in brilliant harmony.

There’s a plot involving the annihilated planet, Alpha’s Commander Clive Owen, plus a kidnapping and a little MacGuffin creature everybody is trying to get their hands on.

Agents Valerian and Laureline both get captured umpteen times and have to save each other – Laureline puts a giant mind-reading jellyfish on her head to find Valerian, who later has to swoop in with a shapeshifting Rihanna to stop Laureline from getting her brains eaten by a race of master chefs on Alpha. So much for harmony!

My largely teenage audience were probably there for RiRi, but it’s just a cameo really. There’s a rushed immigration subtext involving her character, and the film has a message of love conquering all.

Director Luc Besson has an established reputation for style over substance. Valerian – his passion project – is a zany, hot mess, with the characters slaloming and sloshing around his crazy pinball machine universe. I tried to enjoy it – I loved the score and the soundtrack – I just would have liked better dialogue too.

Verdict: Valerian is like spending two and a quarter hours on the now-defunct Bubbleworks ride at Chessington. Isn’t it amazing the childhood nightmares that can be dredged up years later?

The Light Between Oceans is Instagram-worthy, if not awards-worthy

The Light Between Oceans, or as I keep calling it – The Light Between Oscars – was once quite buzzy, tipped to give Alicia Vikander another shot at Best Actress after she lifted the trophy for The Danish Girl in 2016.

Based on a very popular work of historical fiction by M.L Stedman, an Australian serviceman, Tom Sherbourne (Fassy), returns from WWI. He marries Isabel (Vikander), and they go and live in his remote lighthouse.

After Isabel suffers two harrowing miscarriages, a lifeboat with a dead man and a squalling baby washes ashore.

A hesitant Fassy lets his wife keep the baby and raise her as their own. Things then take a Hardyesque twist when Fassy stumbles across Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping beautifully beside a memorial at the same church where the Sherbournes are holding their child’s christening.

the-light-between-oceans

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One

This is, I think, the first big studio film by Derek Cianfrance, director of the indie hit Blue Valentine (skipped it – Ryan Gosling does my head in).

Light is a melodramatic, sweeping romance but Vikander is so intense, and the premise so far-fetched, that early on I wondered if it would veer off into psychological horror, with the lighthouse and the baby manifestations of the character’s break with reality.

After that early, creepy suspense, it gets really overwrought, with an ending that felt badly rushed.

Rachel Weisz is surprisingly a gentle undercurrent to the lighthouse couple; Fassy gives a very reserved, stoic performance as the traumatized veteran, while the new Lara Croft Vikander is a storm to be reckoned with once again.

As husband and wife, they have an interesting chemistry and are quite contrasting onscreen. Vikander is still such an ingénue it looks like Fassbender might have plucked a child bride from the sea. He’s a rarefied thespian; she’s raw and tumultuous.

By all means, I think people should see The Light Between Oceans, just for all the talent on board. It is probably the most beautiful film of last year, with the stunning coast and stark lighthouse interiors. You could Instagram the living daylights out of it.

NETFLIX REVIEW: To the Bone…

to-the-bone-sundance-e1495026297494-03To the Bone opens with two alien stick figures walking down a bright corridor. It’s peaceful, as the beings glide from the light towards the camera.

….and into a group therapy session/art class. A girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness, when a sarcastic voice interrupts.

“Ugh. Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die.” Meet Ellen (Lily Collins), a twenty-year-old anorexic artist bored out of her mind. “There’s no point in blaming everybody. Live with it,” she sneers, before holding up a crude sign saying “suck my skinny balls.”

Not eating makes you cranky. The anorexic Queen of Shade – in off-duty model chic – goes to the middle-class Californian home of her stepmother and half-sister, where she does sit-ups, counts calories, and misses meals. Anorexic stuff.

Ellen’s mother and her lesbian partner are living at their ranch in Arizona and “feeling blessed” on Facebook. Ellen’s father is always working, and interestingly, he’s never onscreen.

His wife, Ellen’s stepmom, played by Carrie Preston, is the driving force behind finding a new specialist, Dr Beckham. He’s described as ‘unconventional’, although it’s not clear why. Perhaps because he’s good-looking and played by Keanu Reeves. He agrees to treat Ellen, as long as she is admitted as an inpatient.

She moves to Threshold, a facility for young people with anorexia and other types of eating disorder such as bulimia and binge eating disorder. Here she befriends a young Brit patient named Luke, who is an annoying show-off. He already knows who Ellen is, thanks to a whole angsty subplot about her Tumblr artwork supposedly inspiring a girl’s suicide.

Family therapy with Keanu Reeves proves to be a waste of time, although it does allow the film to communicate the contemporary understanding that eating disorders are complex conditions with no single ’cause’. The film is also good at portraying the powerlessness and frustration that families often feel.

Viewers are likely to be as confused as Ellen’s sister, wondering why she doesn’t “just eat.” Anorexia is abstract and internal. Films can show emaciation with weight loss, body doubles, makeup and CGI. But anorexic thoughts, or a compulsive urge to get ‘down to the bone’, is a challenge for storytellers.

Perhaps anorexia could be better explored through fantastical, less literal means. To the Bone’s opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she sees her malnourished form with a different lens also had the inkling of something more original.

As balance, there’s a cringe-making dance scene that goes on forever, as artsy dance scenes tend to do.

Verdict: Lily Collins proves there is more to life than being beautiful and the product of nepotism. To the Bone is a conventional teen drama, with a message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity.

The Mummy and Wonder Woman

I haven’t been enjoying the cinema very much lately. I keep getting hit with mild vertigo every time I go. I think I’m overpowered by all the fragrances and aftershave that people seem to douse themselves with before they head to the multiplex.

Yet I have bravely fought on, just like the wondrous Diana of Themyscira charging across No Man’s Land into enemy fire. (OK slight exaggeration.)

I realise everything has already been said about Woman Woman so I’ll keep it very brief: It’s a really good superhero movie. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are great (all the cast are), and I thought the decision to shift the backdrop to WWI worked really well.

Well done DCEU, I always knew you had it in you.

The Mummy was… a different experience.

The Tom Cruise-starrer kicks off Universal’s Dark Universe, but it seems there just wasn’t an appetite for another Mummy. It needed amazing word of mouth to entice people.

To my surprise it was a 15 certificate, although as the movie progressed I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t a 12A. It starts off a bit dark and intriguing, with Russell Crowe in the present day finding a crypt, then a load of exposition involving Ancient Egypt and a curse, before we’re back to now, where tomb raider Tom Cruise triggers said curse.

I would make a crack about Cruise being too old for this kind of action hero thing, but a load of fiftysixty-somethings (and one seventy-year-old) totally crushed me at running 5k (3.1 miles) last week, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut on that score.

Chris Martin’s girlfriend is also in the movie as an archaeologist who has an affair with Cruise.

I felt sorry for the actress Sofia Boutella because her Mummy is an interesting idea. Ahmanet is an Egyptian princess who got royally screwed over and then makes bad choices by entering into a pact with the evil god Set. She is way scarier than campy old Imhotep. (Weird thing, there was a guy who looked just like that crazy high priest right behind me.)

It’s a heavy, oppressive summer blockbuster, with out-of-control sound levels, but there is a good movie in there – perhaps it was the rumoured troubled production. Keep going Universal, you’ll get your Wonder Woman.

REVIEW: Alien: Covenant (randomly deleted..)

There are probably certain things you just know about yourself – like whether or not you’d be cut out for daring interplanetary exploration. Personally, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be much good. NASA ain’t calling.

However, in the Alien franchise, it seems I’d be well-qualified. In Interstellar the crew represent the best of humanity; they’re the bravest, the best scientific minds. Compare this to the inept crew of Prometheus, and the hardscrabble, quotable marines of Aliens. Truth is, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce are never exactly first draft. No offence, Ripley, ma’am.

This brings us to the Covenant, a beautiful hunk of a ship that houses a crew made up of married couples, all jolted out of hypersleep following a neutrino burst. (Yes I’m going to totally pretend I know what that is.) Playing nursemaid is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the nice android brother/updated model to Prometheus’ smarmy malcontent David.

Now I loved Prometheus. I loved the blueness of it, I loved Shaw – despite everything – and I loved David because the crew were so infuriatingly stupid and hostile you rooted for the evil robot genius. Shaw and David survived the events of Prometheus together and set off to track down the Engineers – the race who created humans.

shaw

Sadly missed: Dr Elizabeth Shaw Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

I was probably alone in the universe in basically just wanting Prometheus 2, and with ‘Covenant’ in the title it looked like my prayers might still be answered. More dodgy philosophizing please! I avoided trailers and publicity because I wanted to be surprised in the theatre.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (and, ahem, there were a fair few) had made their feelings known, and as with all things, those who shout the loudest tend to get their way. So I had to get over the disappointment that Covenant wasn’t a continuation of the adventures of David and Shaw, but a return to typical – if bloody – blockbuster terrain.

Covenant’s newly-awakened crew are lured away from their target planet by an eerie transmission that I think was Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Upon hearing her, I realized I just couldn’t care about these Covenant losers and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), our Ripley-esque heroine. Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s also now second-in-command to Billy Crudup’s wimpy Captain Arm (OK it’s Oram, but it sounded like they were saying ‘arm’).

Daniels and Arm lead some of the other marrieds and a security team on this strange new world and despite knowing nothing about it, people are soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like this is just a routine rekkie. There’s no professionalism, no training, no common sense. I wanted to scream at the screen: “It’s not Earth guys!”

Luckily David is back, so ha-ha for our marrieds! Bye, suckers! David’s been busy experimenting with the Engineer’s black goo bio-weapon, which infects the Covenant idiots, who are so rubbish with firearms they shoot up their own landing craft.

Apart from the creepy android-on-android flute scene, we know where all this is headed: an all-action face-off with an Xenomorph through the halls of the Covenant. This is Aliens minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the memorable supporting cast.

If Ridley Scott couldn’t do a George Lucas and remain unrepentant following Prometheus, insisting this was the prequel story he always wanted to make only he didn’t have the tech – it might have been better if this venerable franchise had stayed in a permanent cryo-sleep since the 80s.

TV REVIEW: King Charles III on BBC2 and PBS

charlesiii

BBC/Drama Republic

When “Charles III” trended on Twitter last Wednesday there were probably more than a few people who feared that an era had ended.

Luckily, Wednesday’s tweets were about the BBC TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s award-winning future history play.

After the glossy Netflix hit The Crown, and ITV’s vapid Victoria, it was a more unsettling production. First staged in 2014, it imagines the current Prince of Wales as a tormented ruler who causes constitutional chaos by refusing to grant Royal Assent to a bill passed by Parliament.

What draconian new law upsets Charles so much he’d risk the monarchy? Banning homeopathy on the NHS? War on one of his other pet causes? Nope, he’s royally peeved about a nasty bit of legislation that restricts the freedom of the press. (Hooray for Charles! Journalists probably aren’t his favourite people.) Cue rioting outside the palace and Diana apparitions wafting down the corridors.

The actors in this play-turned-TV-drama make the blank verse dialogue sound easy (most of the cast are veterans from the stage run): the late Tim Pigott-Smith is Charles; Chris Oliver is a dithering, weak-willed Wills; Richard Goulding a dour, hunched, Daniel Radcliffe-like (Prince) Harry.

The cast aren’t doing impersonations so much as original portrayals of real people in a parallel universe; the only thing Goulding’s Harry shares with the prince is red hair.

And poor Harry! While the real ‘spare’ has created a role for himself, in the play he’s a ‘ginger joke’. There are really embarrassing, unbelievable scenes featuring the melancholy prince with Working Class Londoners who don’t recognize him.

There’s an unlikely love interest in a working-class woman named Jessica (Tamara Lawrance), who is not Meghan Markle, the glam, highly-educated American actress and true-life Harry girlfriend. She came along too late to be written in, although there is Camilla (Margot Leicester), and there is Kate (Charlotte Riley.)

The BBC were criticised for portraying William’s wife as a scheming Lady Macbeth when Catherine has actually always seemed more quietly traditional than quietly revolutionary.

While the real Kate doesn’t seem career-driven or devoted to public service, in Bartlett’s play it’s her children’s royal status that is jeopardized, and she acts decisively to protect them and their social standing. (Charlotte Riley defended her character as ‘just being pragmatic’…)

Charles III might be a little alienating and cold for some audiences, with its Shakespearean black verse and apparitions etc. It reminded me of Pablo Larraín’s crazy Jackie biopic: a dark little 90 minute horror with powerful, haunting music (by Jocelyn Pook), while a country is in limbo and mourning.

REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell

The live-action Ghost in the Shell is a box office dud then, and there are people who are really happy about that. Not necessarily because they are die-hard fans of the original Japanese manga and anime, but because of so-called “whitewashing”.

To some, this movie was actually an “opportunity” to cast a hitherto largely unknown Japanese or Asian-American actress, instead of a big Hollywood star. But Paramount hired Scarlett Johansson, the Tony Award-winning actress who looks good in a catsuit.

Her character is Mira, or Major. Created by the shadowy Hanka Robotics, her brain is housed in a fully cybernetic body. People have all kinds of cutting-edge enhancements, like X-ray vision, but we’re told Mira is the first of her kind and the future of humanity.

As an agent of an elite government task force called Section 9, she is dispatched across a grimy, futuristic city to fight criminals, like the mysterious hacker Kuze. (Forget whitewashing – the robot workforce is coming to take everyone’s jobs.)

There were very mature themes and concepts that were posed by the cult 1995 anime movie. But this 12A (or PG-13) remake really struggles doesn’t really bother with questions like: “What is it to be human in a technologically advanced society?”

Ghost is basically a dark, stylish actioner that doesn’t get too philosophical. As with director Rupert Sanders’ debut movie Snow White and the Huntsman, it is remarkable for dazzling visuals and sounds.

The performances do match the spectacle, with Pilou Asbæk as Major’s second in command Batou, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano as the boss of Section 9, Juliette Binoche as the scientist Dr Oulet, and Michael Pitt as the villain Kuze. Johansson, for her part, has onscreen appeal and proven action prowess. She might not be able to open a $100 million movie, but she can carry one.

This isn’t a kitschy fun film, like Johansson’s 2014 sci-fi hit Lucy. It isn’t as famous a property as other recent blockbuster releases, like ‘Kong’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and it just didn’t capture the public imagination. Ultimately, Ghost was probably doomed to fail.

Still, it isn’t the travesty that the 46% Rotten Tomatoes rating suggests. (The casting negativity may have had a discouraging effect on critics.) Yes, the story needed more work, but the soundtrack, the cool visuals, and the acting make it a solid three out of five stars.

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast

I was never a Disney kid. I managed to avoid nearly all the studio’s nineties hits, including the ‘classic’ Beauty and the Beast. The only Disney animation I ever saw on a reasonably big screen was The Lion King, and that was just because I was trapped on a ferry to France at the time.

So I wasn’t going to take umbrage with the live-action remake offensive that Disney seems to be on these days.

Still, I was aware there was a lot of fuss surrounding this particular release. For starters, Belle –  Ms. Emma Watson – is said to have passed on La La Land for the role, which is pretty understandable; nobody could have known that the Damian Chazelle-directed feature was going to become such an overrated hype job.

And luckily, Watson has come up smelling of roses. She’s made serious bank as Belle and will now have first pick of future roles. She’s young enough and pretty enough – she’ll get her Oscar. Cynicism intended.

Problem no. 2: Watson has also been front and centre in the media selling Beauty as a modern, empowering, feminist take on the fairy tale. For what it’s worth, I thought Belle is brave and courageous. Although a simple village girl, she knows her own mind and has no trouble rejecting Luke Evans’s ghastly Gaston.

So despite all the concerns that the movie was going to be a retread of a ‘problematic’ tale, once the friendship between Belle and Beastie is established, he’s revealed as her intellectual equal, and thankfully he doesn’t turn on her like a snarling dog later on.

To my utter surprise, Emma Watson is not nails-down-a-chalkboard. (Maybe she wouldn’t have been bad in La La Land; she can’t particularly sing, but then neither can Emma Stone.)

The rest of the cast are all on good form, including Ewan McGregor as a candlestick holder, Ian McKellen as a clock, Emma Thompson as a teapot, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as Belle’s pa, and Josh Gad as Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou (what gay storyline?).

If I’m going to nitpick, I’d say it’s too long and I wasn’t 100% on the Beast’s CGI, but my audience applauded and I’ve been happily humming the songs since I left the cinema.

Mini Reviews: Doctor Strange, Deepwater Horizon, Kubo And The Two Strings

Well, there was a monumental flub at the Oscars ceremony just over a week ago: I wasn’t invited. I know right! (The organizers obviously read my blog and know that I don’t like travelling. Yes, yes, that must be it.)

Last year I watched part of the show, but that was only because I was up all night with a streaming cold. This year I went to bed, knowing full well there wouldn’t be any nice surprises. Sigh. #OscarsSoDull.

But I don’t want to write about the awards and their tedious machinations and untrammelled sexism/ageism. Instead, I’m going to concentrate on the fact that some of the films I’ve got the most enjoyment from over the last few years have tended to be nominated in the technical categories.

Out of this year’s crop of visual effects nominees, I’d seen Rogue One and eventual winner The Jungle Book, but it was time to check out the other contenders…

Doctor Strange 

A bunch of baddies led by Mads Mikkelson rip some pages out of a book and chuck it on the floor, so Smug Superior Being Tilda Swinton goes all Inception on them. Meanwhile, Doctor Strange, an arrogant surgeon with a good grasp of popular culture, has a horror car crash and damages his hands.

When he goes to Smug Being for a cure we swap medical blah blah for spatial paradoxes and continuum probabilities. The Avengers may protect us from physical perils, but Smug’s Sorcerers, including Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), guard against mystical threats.

Smug doesn’t want to train Strange because she fears he may fall to the dark side like Mads and start damaging library books, but po-faced Mordo vouches for him. Cumberbatch and Ejiofor score some very actorly shouting matches, while Mads and Strange’s GF Rachel McAdams have settled for the more thankless Marvel roles.

At least we don’t get the usual metal-clanging-against-metal final showdown that superhero movies usually give us. Instead, Strange and the crew do some Parkour and freerunning over buildings and stairways that move and shift like Hogwarts on acid.

Anyway, thanks Doctor – I nearly made it through a Marvel thingy without resorting to the headache pills.

Deepwater Horizon

In Peter Berg’s re-staging of the 2010 offshore rig disaster, early scenes set electronics technician Mark Wahlberg up as a family man married to Kate Hudson, who will be pulling worried-wife-on-the-phone duties.

There’s a scene where their cutesy movie daughter demonstrates her school project (“My daddy’s job”) on deepwater drilling (which goes right over my head because these things always do), and then we’re off to the rig!

Once the predictable one-liners and jokey banter have been mined to completion, we get a volatile situation onboard the rig where wild-eyed BP exec John Malkovich is riding roughshod over Transocean employees, including Wahlberg and Kurt Russel. If you’ve ever seen the SNL sketch of Kylo Ren as an Undercover Boss – it’s like that.

Once the first thing goes wrong on the rig it seems to start a chain reaction and from there the action doesn’t let up. This is devastating movie mayhem that makes Titanic and every other disaster movie look tame, with Berg letting the explosions do the talking.

Watching Horizon, I got the impression the explosion occurred because Malkovich was a money-hungry %$&*. “We just the help ya’ll hire to drill a hole”, grumbles Russell. The reality was more complex, but the movie does its best to serve as a tribute to the bravery of survivors and those that lost their lives.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo is the latest stop-motion from Laika studios, the same people behind The Boxtrolls and Coraline. This latest offering got a major thumbs up from all quarters, and was hailed as the animation movie of the year.

Set in ancient Japan, young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson – Rickon in Game of Thrones) lives in a cave with his ailing mother. No ordinary boy, he is a one-eyed storyteller who can bring his origami figures to life. He uses his magical gifts to entertain local villagers, but he must be home before it gets dark.

This is because his grandfather and wicked aunts (who dwell in some kind of cold spiritual realm) plan to steal his other eye. When Kubo stays out one night, the aunts appear, and his mother uses the last of her magic to spirit him away.

Charlize Theron voices Kubo’s monkey-guardian in the kind of bored, superior tone she might use for press interviews, while Matthew McConaughey plays a dopey samurai-figure cursed to live as a beetle. Ralph Fiennes resurrects the ghost of Voldemort for the Moon King, and Rooney Mara memorably lends her voice to the fluttering Dementor-like aunts.

Kubo definitely has atmosphere to spare and a beautiful soundtrack, but I could see the plot surprises coming. I have to acknowledge the painstaking work that goes into creating something like this, but I know the child version of me would have been bored.