Tag Archives: movie review

FANTASTIC BEASTS: The Crimes of Grindelwald

You’d imagine J.K. Rowling had earned enough goodwill that people might give her the benefit of the doubt.

Yet even before the Fantastic Beasts sequel hit cinemas, the casting caused controversy, a scene in the trailer supposedly broke canon, and the release of the official cast list drew fury as it messed with the timeline established in books/minds.

But J.K writes great mysteries and she doesn’t make it up as she goes along, right? 

Well, there are some potential canonical problems here, but it’s only the second film of five. What’s worse is the critical consensus that it’s the worst Potter ever – that it has too many characters and confusing subplots, no clear protagonist, and exists only to set up later chapters.

It opens with an impressive action scene, although Grindelwald was already free, so apparently he just wanted his escape to have a certain degree of flair.

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Depp’s Grindelwald is more Black Mass than Captain Jack, but dark magic must take a toll, as Jamie Campbell Bower’s blond, handsome, spindly young wizard is just a mirage in the Mirror of Erised.

Grindelwald’s crimes include cruelty to cute critters (justice for Antonio!), murder, and nearly destroying Paris. He’s also guilty of making hot Dumbledore lovesick and mopey…after they spent a summer together in their teens.

Newt has been convinced by the benignly manipulative Dumbledore to protect Credence – who is trying to discover his origins. And what a way he has – “Hey Newt, you’re not popular, or funny, or charming, but you do what’s right!”

So did Rowling have this sibling twist planned, or did she come up with it between script revisions, à la George Lucas with Luke and Leia?

Well, there was a distinct lack of buildup. Audiences didn’t really finish the first movie speculating about a particular character’s parentage.

Of course Dumbledore always knows more than he lets on. “For the Greater Good” and all that – old ways die hard. Personally, I’ve always suspected he broke his dad out of Azkaban.

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It’s fantastic Rowling is enriching the mythology of her world. I hope she stays true to her original vision. It’s a pity she didn’t leave her new franchise simmering in the cauldron for a lot longer.

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 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 been crunched under those 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 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 locating Himiko’s resting place when Lara turned up with Croft’s map, which pinpoints the exact spot the tomb is hidden.

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.

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

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. 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) 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…” Errrr.

And as if I had breathed in the spores from the cover, Annihilation is immersive, sinister, and genre-defying.

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.

Luckily, it’s directed by Alex Garland, who proved he knows a thing or two about creepy tension with Ex Machina!

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.

The Amazon pilot couldn’t be more 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……

FILM REVIEW: 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.

In fact, the French-Belgian Valerian et Laureline comics were a suspected early influence on George Lucas.

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 romance 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). There, different alien species all pool their knowledge in brilliant harmony. Or not.

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 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!)

The 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.

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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 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, where a girl is feigning righteous anger at magazines for promoting thinness. Suddenly a sarcastic voice interrupts.

“Ugh. Society’s to blame. The world is so unfair. I have to die.” Ellen (Lily Collins) is a twenty-year-old anorexic artist. “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. 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, bulimia and binge eating disorder. 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.

To the Bone’s opening moments promised something more creative, and Ellen’s out-of-body experience where she see finally sees her malnourished form without the veil of anorexia had the inkling of something more original.

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 stock message of hope, recovery, and fighting for your own identity. It would have slipped by unnoticed if it hadn’t been for all the outrage….

FILM REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

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 I wouldn’t be much good.

However, in this sci-fi franchise, I’d be well-qualified. From the hardscrabble marines of Aliens to the inept scientists of Prometheus, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce aren’t exactly first pick.

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

Our newly-awakened crew are lured from their target planet by an eerie transmission of sole Prometheus survivor Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Upon hearing her, I realized I didn’t care about these new Covenant losers, and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the Ripley-esque heroine for the journey. Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s 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 to explore this strange new world, and despite knowing nothing about it, they’re soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like it’s a routine rekkie.

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

Now, I loved Prometheus. Not just David (the crew were so stupid and hostile you rooted for his evil robot genius) – I loved Shaw, and I loved the blueness, and the weirdness of it. I was probably alone in the universe in just wanting Prometheus 2: More Dodgy Philosophizing Please!

But we know where this sequel-prequel is headed: a CGI face-off with an Xenomorph in the halls of the Covenant. It’s Aliens, minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the memorable supporting cast.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (there were a fair few) have got their way: Alien Covenant is a return to typical, hardcore blockbuster terrain. Return it to a permanent cryo-sleep. zzzz

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FILM 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 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 ‘cos the robot workforce is coming to take everyone’s jobs.)

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

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

The performances match the spectacle, with Pilou Asbæk as Major’s second in command, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano as their boss, Juliette Binoche as the scientist Dr Oulet, and Michael Pitt as the villain. 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 her 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 seemed 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.

FILM 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.

FILM REVIEW: Incredible Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in a 90 minute horror

Who in their right mind would want to live in the White House?

In Pablo Larraín’s heady and unsettling look at the days following the assassination of JFK, life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for widow Jackie is more claustrophobic horror than corridors of power.

(It’s no coincidence that it’s reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining – Larraín is a huge Kubrick fan, with some of the shots a deliberate homage to the filmmaker.)

A three-hander starring Natalie Portman, a score by Mica Levy (Under the Skin) and a gore-spattered pink Chanel suit, Larraín has rejected a cradle-to-the-grave biopic formula in favour of the experimental snapshot.

There’s a basic framework in the form of an interview Jackie gave to a journalist (Billy Crudup) a week after the assassination. The film jumps back and forth between roughly three timelines – the interview, Jackie’s infamous 1962 televised tour of the White House, and her husband’s funeral.

Leading up to the movie’s release, critics were hailing Portman’s performance as Oscar-worthy, yet clips from the movie revealing her distracting baby voice sounded absurd, no matter how ‘accurate’ it was supposed to be.

And for the first few scenes I was aghast. It’s a spot-on impersonation, albeit in a ludicrous, spoof kind of way. Even Larraín admitted he initially thought Portman’s accent was “too much.”  If this had been a more conventional picture, (imagine a ten-part Netflix series entitled Camelot) it might have been disastrous.

When Claire Foy was asked about getting the young Queen Elizabeth’s cut-glass 1950s accent right for The Crown, she said it would sound so alien today, they went with a “modulated” version instead.

Perhaps Portman could have tried a similar approach, but a strange thing happens once Jackie’s bubble has encircled the viewer; the diabolical lead performance almost becomes a grotesque strand in Levi’s discordant score. The actress is terrific in this crazy, mannered straitjacket, every gesture and inflection both significant and strange, her only false note the row with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard).

Portman and Kennedy aren’t a great physical match, but even that works – the tiny, frail figure of Portman swallowed up by shock and grief. She looks like a little girl lost clopping about in Kennedy’s heels and bouffant hair, like she raided the dressing-up box.

She’s not entirely fragile – she’s vicious as she wrong foots Crudup’s unnamed journalist. “Don’t think fer a secahnd I’m going to leht you pwint thaht,” she lisps.

This is Jackie crafting her husband’s legacy. It’s the gulf between her public persona (style icon, embodiment of the American Blue Blood) and her private persona. She mentions her miscarriages over and over; the conversations with the priest (John Hurt) stuck with me, as did the scene of the (now former) First Lady removing her blood-stained hosiery and scrubbing the brain matter from her nails.

Verdict: I have a newfound appreciation for the brittle talents of Natalie Portman. Jackie is like shattered glass. Best of all, it’s only 90 minutes. Go see!

Lx