Spider-Man: Homecoming – review

Film

So Spidey is back – and now with added baby-faced Tom Holland. Back in the day Tobey Maguire had three goes at the role with Sam Raimi directing: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). Then Andrew Garfield had a crack with Marc Webb in charge: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).

And each, arguably, suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Spidey wasn’t dead but he had been battered pretty thoroughly. Then he popped up, teasingly, in Captain America: Civil War (2016)played by a young Tom Holland. And everyone loved his – albeit short – take on the character. Seems Spidey had returned and this time he was part of the MCU.

Hooray, this felt fresh and well-timed.

So we get Spider-Man: Homecoming a year later. Now some say this version of our arachnid hero is the best yet. Not just because having a younger actor play the role REALLY works and makes more sense (he’s supposed to be a schoolkid), but also because Tom Holland just seems a better fit as an actor than Maguire, and certainly Garfield.

Because, frankly, Holland plays to his strengths, making him cocky and intelligent yet vulnerable and with a big heart, which, naturally, brings him to Tony Stark’s attention. For you see, with Homecoming, he’s very much Tony’s protégé, with Tony a sort of tough love father figure towards Peter.

And as part of that tough love, after helping Stark out in Civil War he gets cuts loose, and told to basically stay out of trouble until he’s called upon, with Happy (Jon Favreau) his reluctant minder.

During which time hard-as-nails salvage guy Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is nicking alien artifacts found during the aftermath of the chitauri attack on New York and turning them into weapons – and in doing so becomes the Vulture.

So little Peter has to prove he’s got what it takes to bring Toomes down, change from boy to man, and prove his hero status to become a fully fledged Avenger.

Which is all well and good. But the nice touches for me in this film come from things we’ve not seen before. THANK GOD the filmmakers didn’t show us how Peter got his powers and came to live with Aunt May. We’ve seen it so many times. Save for a quick line about being bitten by spider and how his aunt has been through a lot, that’s it. Great, let’s move on.

More thought along similar lines has also gone into Peter’s suit. As it’s made by Stark it comes complete with gadgets galore and a PA, but with a little twist to contrast Iron Man’s JARVIS. So from the types of web he can use (grenade, taser) to the suit’s modes (kill, surveillance), it adds a lot more to Spider-Man in terms of his capabilities as a hero and how he can fight.

Yet, as Tony points out, he needs to be a hero without the suit (much like Tony’s own journey in Iron Man). So there’s a couple of pivotal – and fairly emotionally weighty – scenes where we get to see what Peter is really made of. And it helps, of course, to have a worthy foe, because in Michael Keaton we get both comic book pedigree (Batman, Birdman) and oodles of charisma, where he can flip from charm to menace at the drop of a hat (he should really play baddies more often, it suits him).

Ultimately, it’s great that Spider-Man is with Marvel now. Sony, for all their efforts, never really found their groove with this character. And given the fact that Marvel just continue to go from strength to strength as they expand their universe, it’s encouraging that Spider-Man is now a part of that. Roll on Thor: Ragnarok.

Baby Driver: the musical that wasn’t

Film

Edgar Wright first came to most people’s attention with his Cornetto trilogy: Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007) and The World’s End (2013). In-between, he threw in a career highlight – the utter batshit curveball that was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010). For lo, it contained a truckload of cool music and a baby-faced lead (Michael Cera), whose character was part of the delightfully named indie band Sex Bob-Omb.

Uber cool, and oh so fun.

He then went off to do Ant-Man and it all went tits up.

But a true measure of a person’s character is how you bounce back and, with Baby Driver, he’s come back blazing – with a crime flick he’s had brewing for quite a few years, and is quite possibly his best work to date.

The movie features a baby-faced getaway driver, Baby (Ansol Elgort), who’s prodigious behind the wheel but wants out of a life of crime. One last job and all that… However, bad boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) has leverage so Baby, for now, must play the game. Not just with Doc, but also his ragtag group of unhinged robbers, in particular Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Buddy (John Hamm) – who both can’t get the measure of Baby and suspect him of not taking this crime stuff seriously.

Hamm and Foxx are blinding casting. They practically steal the film from Elgort. But you’d expect as much. Ansol has to play the straight hero and it’s always the case that the baddest bad guys get to have all the fun.

Bats, like his name, is batty, batshit, a live wire, totally unpredictable and definitely not a team player – which begs the question as to why he’s there. But why not? He’s mad and has skills, which makes robbing banks more fun, no? Buddy, too, starts with the charm (easy for Hamm), doing his Bonnie and Clyde thing with wild wife and partner in crime Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). But he, too, is not a nice guy. Hamm plays him just on the right side of menacing and cartoonish. Close to caricature at times, but events unfold which cause him to turn on Baby in a deliciously evil way – and this arc is some of the best work Hamm’s done in years.

Moreover, inbetween burning rubber for bad guys Baby has another story. Of love, with the impossibly gorgeous Deborah (Lily James), who literally has nothing going on in her life and falls for Baby’s strong and silent shtick straight away (this only happens in the movies).

But first, he’s got bad guy stuff to do before they can run off into the sunset.

Now this may sound like I’m being cynical but I’m just poking fun.

Yeah, Wright steals a lot from loads of movies, but all filmmakers do. As long as you put your own spin on your work it can feel fresh and fun – and this film really does (96% Rotten Tomatoes). It’s also worth saying that not for a long time have I seen a film that weaves music into its fabric quite so effortlessly. It’s balletic at times and almost a musical (although there’s no bursting into song particularly).

Also, with Tarantino off the boil these days (close to retirement?) it’s left to directors like James Gunn and Edgar Wright to fly the flag for music in film in oh so delightful ways. (We can’t have Hans Zimmer do every score now, can we? And Christopher Nolan does seems to monopolise his time anyway.)

But other than music, there’s no real common ground between Guardians of the Galaxy and Baby Driver – except a sense of fun. I mean, the latter probably shares more DNA with Wright’s Scott Pilgrim and plays like the demented lovechild of Heat, The Town, Natural Born Killers and Reservoir Dogs, but hopped up on sugar, coffee and optimism.

Or Drive if it had a sense of humour. Boom.

There’s very little fat either.

Wright wrote the screenplay and it nips along at a decent pace, each character getting their moment. But Wright, smartly, keeps the focus on Baby, who’s in pretty much every scene.

And what casting Elgort is.

At the time of Scott Pilgrim I remember thinking THAT lead came out of leftfield, but turned out to be genius. I mean, who would’ve thought Michael Cera could pull off fight scenes so convincingly? And here, as Baby, Elgort is an inspired choice.

I knew little about him (The Fault in Our Stars fame and was on the shortlist for the young Han Solo movie) before this film, but reading up, he’s as much a musician as an actor. Even took ballet lessons as a kid, which makes sense, given some of the scenes in Baby Driver required, athleticism, shall we say? (And I don’t mean sex, if that’s what you’re thinking.)

His journey is interesting too. A strong and silent getaway driver (Ryan Gosling in Drive?) who connects to his past by listening to old cassette tapes (Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy?) means he’s following in the footsteps of some big actors. But he owns the role. Particularly when he could have been all but swallowed up by the bigger actors like Spacey, Foxx and Hamm swanning about the place.

Wright has talked about a sequel – which would be the first time he’s done that in his career. To me, this film feels fairly complete as a story, but I’d be open to the idea if it was a REALLY good story. The studio is keen, so we’ll see.

But if you were on the fence, go see this film. It’s so much fun. And if you were expecting a Hott Fuzz type affair, this ain’t it. Wright evolves with each film so you can’t really pigeonhole him. I’m excited to see what he does next.

Wonder Woman: a review

Film

Sitting in the pub with my partner after having just seen Wonder Woman, we got down to the tricky job of dissecting the latest DC offering in a balanced way, lest we get carried away with the hype. (I say we, I’d better recuse her from this review henceforth – as all these opinions are my own. And she’s die-hard Marvel anyway.)

Because when I say hype, I mean the fact that this is the first* superhero film (from Marvel or DC) to have a female lead (Gal Gadot) and director (Patty Jenkins).

*Captain Marvel will have a female lead, director and two female screenwriters, but it’s not out until 2019.

Which, in 2017, is a somewhat ridiculous state of affairs. I mean, how have studios ONLY NOW become dimly aware that women can create good movies that’ll get you a decent return on investment? They can write them, direct them, act in them and produce them. And audiences want to see them. What a revelation. It’s a crazy world in which we live; this Hollywood sausage fest.

But I digress. I’m a guy so I’m part of the patriarchy and thus part of the problem. And it is still a problem, as the backlash to the women-only screenings of the film have demonstrated.

So it’s clear we needed this film to do well.

Not only from a feminist point of view, but also commercially. Because after the slamming DC took with Batman v Superman and Man of Steel and Suicide Squad they badly needed a hit. Not that we can force this film to be good through sheer willpower, of course. But we can hope.

And happily, it’s decent. There you go, there’s my review. You can all go home now. Oh, you want more? Ok fine.

To bring you up to speed, Wonder Woman, aka Diana Prince, lives on a hidden island inhabited solely by women (Amazonians), which is led by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). We meet Diana as a wild child who wants to be a warrior, which is against her mother’s wishes. This is because the land in which they live was created by Zeus to protect them from the God of War, Ares. And Diana, of course, is special.

Then we jump ahead to her all grown up and now the best fighter on the island. She’s ready for a scrap but with no enemy. Luckily, WWI fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) literally crashes into her world; when his plane falls into the sea.

She rescues him and meets her first man. Then learns of the outside world and the fact that it’s engaged in the biggest war in history. Naturally, she suspects Ares is behind it and wants to help. So she joins Steve on his return to civilisation before they take on evil bad guys.

Plot wise, that’s the setup.

And suffice to say, after the relatively damp squib that was Suicide Squad (Margot Robbie aside), this story feels fresher. Perhaps because it’s simpler and the WWI setting helped. Perhaps because it’s got more humour than the last two DC movies. Whatever the case, it’s an exciting ride and fits comfortably in the middle of the DC pack. (Which is no bad thing, sitting behind, in my mind, the likes of The Dark Knight Rises and Watchmen.)

Gal Gadot very much looks the part, too. Lithe, limber, exotic, and immensely beautiful. The one question that hung over her is whether her acting chops were up to it? After all, she’d really just had a few Fast & Furious films to her name. For the most part she’s convincing in the role.

We have to remember she has a lot of screentime and needed to hold the audience throughout. It helped having Chris Pine alongside her and the two worked well together. Trevor as the weary spy, the realist, the pragmatist. Diana as the optimist, full of love and new to the world of man and his murky moralities.

And on the feminist front it has a few nice touches in the script. Such as when Steve and Diana discuss the ‘pleasures of the flesh’ and whether men are needed, other than for procreation. And when Diana is trying on clothes and remarks, ‘How am I meant to fight in this?’

Ultimately, this was a tough gig for both Patty Jenkins (who hadn’t directed since Monster in 2003) and Gal Gadot, to not only deliver a superhero film, but also ensure it was as feminist as it could be, and also got a big return for the studio. No pressure then. Happily it’s smashed the Box Office and seems to have been a reasonable hit with feminists.

I guess the question for DC is, what next? For if they’re clever they’ll introduce more female characters into their movies and, perhaps, it could be their unique selling point over Marvel?

You could argue that female superheroes are nothing new (Catwoman, Aeon Flux, Lara Croft), but this feels like a turning point. In that Hollywood are actually putting some effort, talent and budget into these movies now.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – review

Film

If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain… then you’ll have liked the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Which came out of leftfield at the time and was (yet another) risk for Marvel studios, banking on unknown characters that were not hugely connected to the existing Avengers universe.

And Chris Pratt, as a leading man, was also a gamble. A mostly funny, slightly tubby guy, not known as a big hunky heartthrob, suddenly turns up in an action film as… a big hunky heartthrob. Who would have thought? But, to be fair, Pratt was easy casting when you look at the other leaps of faith Marvel took. With characters that included a foul-mouthed raccoon, a tree that only says three words, a tough guy played by an ex-wrestler, and a purple bad guy that seemed to sit on a throne in space doing very little. (That’s Thanos by the way).

Anyway, the completely laboured point I’m trying to make is that, after Guardians became a huge – albeit unexpected – hit, a sequel was inevitable. It also turned out to be one of the funniest the studio had put out too, which gave the follow-up more license to play in the comedy sandpit.

Which, in a pleasing way, it really embraces. And in the same vein as Doctor Strange, this set of characters really helps expand the Marvel universe, adding more background to the Infinity Stones storyline and getting us, as an audience, thinking about space as a viable addition to the Marvel storytelling canvas. (Thor: Ragnarok, we’re looking at you.)

But that’s all strategic stuff.

In terms of Guardians alone and this film as a sequel, it picks up fairly soon after the first one, where the team have become somewhat of a unit for hire. We start with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) fighting a giant monster, whilst Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dances joyfully front and centre. It’s fun, playful, ridiculous and will put a silly smile on your face. Ok, we can rest easy. This sequel will be good.

Story wise, first time round the plot touched on Peter Quill’s heritage. But here it’s expanded as the main arc and centres around Kurt Russell’s character (yes, you read that right, Kurt Russell is in this) and his link to Quill.

However, this tale also gives more moments to the rest of the gang as well. And whilst they play much the same beats they did first time round, each becomes more well-rounded. We see Drax’s sensitive side and a sort of bonding between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Rocket and Yondu (Michael Rooker) get some rather unexpected scenes.

And then there’s Baby Groot.

Possibly the cutest thing in cinema since Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon. And the sheer inventiveness in terms of the ways they use this tinier, child-like version of Groot will warm your cockles. From his impossibly huge eyes – looking at you with wonder – to his infectious spirit, he lights up every scene he’s in. He’ll have you at the first ‘I am Groot.’

It’s also worth noting that most sequels cannot hold a candle to the original. This, however, might just be better. There, I said it. It’s funnier. It gives more of the characters more to do. The stakes are higher. It has Kurt Russell. It also has another famous movie star (don’t ruin it by looking it up if you don’t know, just go see it). And it’s really just a blast from start to finish.

Where it sits, in terms of the Marvel filmography, is hard to say. It has to be top five, definitely. Although, with the Thor: Ragnorok trailer looking pretty special, perhaps Marvel have found even more ways to delight us with their characters and their universe. By golly, DC have some catching up to do.

Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

Moonlight: tough, tender and touching

Film

‘You say it best, when you say nothing at all.’ Now why am I quoting Ronan Keating? Well, it seemed apt for this review. Given that the (now Oscar-winning) film Moonlight, is a tale where words are used sparingly, so they stand out and have weight. And a lack of words have perhaps even more weight. Particularly these days, when so many films are crammed with endless dialogue, an in-your-face score and flashy editing.

So this film feels distinctly different. And it’s a worthy awards winner, not just because it’s a breath of fresh air in terms of showing not telling a story, but it’s beautifully shot and the score doesn’t hammer you over the head dictating what you’re supposed to feel every five seconds, too.

And subject wise, it’s vitally important. As it’s about a young black man growing up in a poor part of Miami and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. So it’s something you might expect to win at the Oscars, or at least be in the conversation. But, following last year’s #oscarssowhite debacle, if this film hadn’t won, it would’ve lost to one that glorifies Hollywood’s heyday, La La Land. A film in which a white guy educates/mansplains to a white girl about the merits of jazz (historically black music). So Moonlight winning was big news. It really was. It’s the first ever film with an all-black cast, the first LGBT film and the second lowest-grossing one to win Best Picture at the Oscars. And the film’s editor became the first black woman to be nominated, too. So yeah, big news. 

Moreover, if we’re on the subject of talking about subjects on which we’re not an authority, then I’m a prime example. There’s nothing in this film to which I can directly relate. I’m not black or gay and I had a decent upbringing etc. That said, we don’t have to immediately identify with all stories that we see at the cinema, but they have to speak to us in some way and engage us emotionally. And if you’ve ever struggled with identity and loneliness, then this has something for you.

So in terms of the story of this film, plot wise, relative newcomer director Barry Jenkins serves it up in the form of a triptych, visiting the main character, Chiron, at three key points in his life; as a child (Alex Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders), and a man (Trevante Rhodes).

And all are heart-breaking in their own way, filmed in a sort of dream-like, hazy quality, like a nostalgic memory. (I’ve heard someone describe this film as Terence Malick directs an episode of The Wire.) And there’s a grittiness and realism about the whole thing as well, and this extends to the score too, and my Ronan Keating point. Because it’s rare to hear music weaved through a film quite so beautifully and respectfully. In a way that’s not overbearing or intrusive, and in some cases there’s no music at all, which may make you feel uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Some scenes and character moments need that level of discomfort, and Jenkins doesn’t shy away when you might expect him to, letting the camera linger for longer than usual. Which is brave and effective.

He also draws impressive performances from the cast, in particular the three actors that play Chiron are outstanding. Black (Trevante Rhodes) who plays him as a man, really shone, capturing the mannerisms of the two preceding actors astonishingly well. Saying so much with so little. And Naomi Harris as Chiron’s mother also puts in a convincing performance across all three story chapters, squeezing more out of a drug addict role than most actors would manage.

And Mahershala Ali as a father figure to childhood Chiron, adds layers to your standard hardened drug dealer too, breaking down our expectations of masculinity and picking up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his troubles. (He’s also the first Muslim to win an Oscar.) He sets up the first third of the movie in terms of the feel and tone and his section, and the last, were, to me, the strongest. 

So you’ve really got no excuse. If you haven’t seen this yet. Go see it. It’s important, topical and a vital piece of cinema. It’s also a beautiful story. 

A Monster Calls: deeply sad and moving

Film

Quality over quantity. That seems to be how Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has approached his career thus far. His first feature length was The Orphanage (2007), then the immensely sad The Impossible (2012), which was a critical and commercial success. And now, at the start of the new year, he gives us likely Oscar contender A Monster Calls; a tale of a 12-year old boy who struggles to deal with his mum’s slow fight with cancer. Tough stuff. But then, cynics would say it’s awards season, so we should be prepared for some difficult subjects at the movies over the next month.

With A Monster Calls we follow Conor (Lewis MacDougall) as he suffers a bully at school and a rapidly deteriorating mother (Felicity Jones) at home. Then one night a giant Yew tree in a nearby field comes alive, turning into a monster (Liam Neeson) and presenting him with an offer: hear three stories in exchange for one ‘truth’. Conor accepts and each night the monster serves up another tale which helps him deal – or fail to deal – with his family situation in some way. Right up until the inevitable conclusion that we know is coming.

My first thought was that this film shares a lot with Pan’s Labyrinth (and a fair helping of Where The Wild Things Are). It’s a fairytale, it has a young character seemingly having to tackle big problems on his or her own and grow up fast, it has magic and fantasy and, naturally, it has a big bad monster or two (some are human some are pure fantasy).

a-monster-calls

That’s it though. Here, this story is different enough. Where the girl in Pan’s Labyrinth is faced with violence (in her fascist father) and how she deals with that in order to protect her baby brother, the boy in this tale is forced to confront – and deal with – the anger within himself in terms of how he copes with his mother’s illness and truly faces his own sense of conflict.

And you’d think a giant talking tree (voiced by Neeson) wouldn’t manage to put us in the right headspace to feel deeply, but somehow, between Bayona, Neeson and MacDougall, the filmmakers manage it, quite cleverly too. Before you realise it you’re right there with Conor, desparately wishing you could take away his pain and acutely aware of the despair and helplessness he must be feeling at the fact that he’s slowly losing his mother and is powerless to stop it.

Casting Felicity Jones was a clever move, too. In someone that beautiful it’s even more painful to watch her slowly waste away (not that attractiveness has much to do with it, but seeing beauty decay, to me, is somehow more heartbreaking). And, whilst her scenes are not lengthy, you get a true sense of the bond she has with her son, and the chemistry they have feels real and credible.

Perhaps in this, MacDougall is the real revelation. Often child actors get surrounded by older ones to prop them up, but here MacDougall is in almost every scene, and you get the feeling he needs very little propping. And it’s testament to his screen presence that his performance will tug at your heartstrings from the off, but you almost don’t notice it’s happening.

Even if you’ve never experienced loss in any significant way, this film will still resonate deeply. We all fear losing a loved one and this will put you right back to childhood and straight into the shoes of the main character, having you care passionately about his fate, all the way until the credits roll. And we can’t ask for any more from a film, other than that it speaks to – and moves us – in some way.

Rogue One: upping the game

Film

So how on earth do I review a Star Wars film without spoiling it? It’s tough but let’s try. To start with, it’s not called Star Wars colon something, so it already sets itself apart from the others. It’s linked, definitely. But it’s a little rebel of its own, which is kind of great.

Plot wise, I’ll keep it light. Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has left the Empire behind, until they find him and recruit him to build the Death Star. His daughter witnesses this and then grows up to be Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a freedom fighter of sorts – who gets recruited by the rebels. They’ve learned of the Death Star and who Jyn is and want to use her to get close to Galen and perhaps kill him. Jyn learns that her father put a weakness in the Death Star and, if they can capture the plans for it, they’ll know how to take it down. Along the way she teams up with rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a force-believing monk (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Yen), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Trying to stop them is bad Empire chap, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best impression of close to maximum crazy).

So we’ve got a story that slots relatively neatly into the middle of the saga – in that the events that led up to the creation of Vadar come first, then this, then the original films (blowing up the Death Star), then the quest to find Luke (the most recent one, The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley). Got it? Make sense? Let’s carry on.

heres-the-first-cast-photo-of-star-wars-spin-off-movie-rogue-one

Sticking with story, it’s funny. In that you could argue it doesn’t actually offer up anything new if you put it under a spotlight. We get a gang trying to get one over on the Empire on a planet’s surface while a space battle rages above. This gang is made up of a main guy and girl, a robot, a guy who believes in the force, and a shaggy man-creature who doesn’t say much. Our main character has major issues reconnecting with her father, convinced of the good in him when others doubt there is any, sound familiar?

I could go on, but I don’t want to criticise too much. It’s still, in some ways, more original than The Force Awakens. It might not have the same heft of character; in that you’re missing Adam Driver’s Ben Solo – possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the new films so far. But what you do have is a real sense of spectacle and weight. The battle scenes in Rogue One are visceral and impactful and put me in mind of Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy beach landings, and the city battles in Jedha conjured up images of Blood Diamond‘s street skirmishes and Children of Men‘s firefights, all of which are high praise indeed. So hats off to director Gareth Edwards (a normal director, not an evil Imperial one) for the sense of immediacy and danger he gets across.

And in general, the film looks gorgeous too (helps I saw it at the BFI IMAX) and Edwards has gone all out in terms of location and scale. You get a real sense of the different worlds that make up this universe. In particular, the Jedi’s homeworld of Jedha (now fallen into ruin) looks epic and suggests an ancient culture now largely gone from the universe. And the film’s finale on tropical planet Scarif – with all surf, palm trees and beaches, feels fresh and different.

rogue-one-star-wars-story

Cast wise, the film more or less belongs to Felicity Jones and Diego Luna – both of whom put in convincing performances. And there are numerous scenes where they exchange looks or moments that, if left for a second longer, could be seen as romantic. But the filmmakers resisted this, which is great. It isn’t that kind of story. This is war and it’s encouraging they didn’t waver and bow to audience expectation. It’s also perhaps testament to the direction, script and cast that, in a stand-alone film (that’s part of an epic saga), Edwards gets us caring about the main characters pretty quickly. There isn’t a huge amount of time to build their stories, but just enough so that their plight means something. There are high stakes.

So all in all, this is a highly enjoyable entry in the saga. It’s got humour, thrills, spectacle and a certain level of inventiveness. It nods to canon without being overwhelmed, and it puts a twist on a number of things we’ve come to expect to see, making them feel a little fresher, but still familiar. Which is no easy task. So it’s a bit like Russian roulette, in that Edwards has pulled the trigger, the chamber has revolved and he’s gotten away with it. Next up to try his luck: Rian Johnson for Episode VIII. Still, after Looper and his past work, I’m pretty optimistic.

 

 

Doctor Strange: Marvel continue to mix it up

Film

From the opening third of this movie I thought, here we go, Inception on acid with a large helping of Batman Begins. No bad thing, but still… everything draws from something else, so the studio had to make this movie stand out; but also give it that Marvel flavour. Which, happily, they did; with mystic monks bending matter and reality and turning cities into living kaleidoscopes, it’s definitely no cookie cutter approach. Nor should it be, because Marvel – the juggernaut it is now – need to keep pushing the envelope to stay fresh.

Heroes cannot just punch people to solve their problems.

And after all, our hero here is Doctor Strange, so strange is what you want from this character, right? So what follows after the initial sugar rush of monks and warped cityscapes is the introduction of neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); brilliant but arrogant and living the playboy lifestyle. Then a horrific car crash leaves him with severe nerve damage in both hands. So no more surgery and no more perfect career for our hero. His life is effectively over and he’s broken and angry.

doctorstrange_new

So he seeks alternative therapies, which eventually lead him to Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One, the ultimate mystical monk. She sees potential so takes him on, but gives him an LSD style crash course trip before he gets to his training proper. And during this time one of the Ancient One’s former pupils (Mads Mikkelsen) has gone to the dark side and is tearing around the place trying to unleash a being from the dark dimension (as we all are wont to do when we’ve had a bad day).

Amidst this we have Strange desperately trying to stop him; whilst awkwardly learning how to be a hero at the same time. It’s from this that most of the humour is drawn. Because, as he’s no fully formed Avenger, the mishaps work a treat; he’s reckless but inquisitive, arrogant but intelligent, a fast learner but a bit of an idiot. So we have an odd hero, offbeat. More the mould of Ant-Man or early Tony Stark than Thor or Captain America. He definitely doesn’t have all the answers. 

He even has a levitating cloak which, in a genius bit of screenwriting, gets its own rather brilliant introduction and, after a few scenes and no dialogue (being a cloak) half steals the film from Cumberbatch. But every hero needs a sidekick, so it works.

doctorstrangetildaswinton

And Cumberbatch is fantastic in this role.

Did I mention that? Half Sherlock but more of an outright hero with more swagger. With bits of John Harrison (a la Khan) in there, but here much more appealing to root for than a tortured bad guy taunting Kirk.

And for the fanboys (and girls) I can no doubt imagine their excitement to have Cumberbatch now part of the MCU, with his version of Strange interacting with the Avengers in future films an enticing prospect. Picture it: even just him, The Vision and Tony Stark sitting down for a cup of tea could be standout scene in any Marvel movie you care to name.

Then there’s the other fact that, with this film including Strange’s use of an Infinity stone, Marvel have drawn much closer links between Earth’s heroes and the Guardians of the Galaxy gang. And Strange could be the glue that holds them all together. With, er, five Infinity stones now in play, we’re moving closer to the end game.

A slight bum note is that, yet again, the baddies are not that fleshed out. Mads gets one proper scene where he explains why he’s doing what he’s doing, but it’s kind of hard to feel much for him after that. Especially as the rest of the time he’s just scowling and running around after Strange. 

But whatever, it’s nitpicking. And with Cumberbatch, Marvel have struck casting gold again, so the future looks rosy. Not that it was ever in doubt.

I guess it’s just a case of saying… Infinity War here we come!

My favourite movies that deal with… Time

Film

Here’s a thing. I recently watched Midnight In Paris and noticed that time travel drove the story along at a gentle pace. Which got me thinking; filmmakers use time as a plot device like, a lot. And why not? It shapes our existence, it may as well shape our storytelling mediums too.

This made me wonder, which time-based movies are ones that have struck a chord with me over the years?

Obviously there’s loads not included in the list below, like Groundhog Day and Time Bandits. Because whilst they’re great films, I don’t really remember them well. So I’ve got to go with what’s shaped me and made me, well, me.

So here they mine. What are yours?

Back To The Future (1985)
The daddy of time travel films. With tracks by Huey Lewis, score by Alan Silvestri, leading pair in Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd and Bob Zemeckis at the helm, it was bottled movie magic.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
Let’s not forget, before Keanu got serious he started his career with stuff like this. It’s such a quotable film and spawned a trilogy which wasn’t half bad either. Remember, be excellent to each other.

Looper (2012)
Bruce Willis, an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Not likely. But they made it work in this underrated modern sci-fi directed by Rian Johnson. In Emily Blunt, Paul Dano and others it had a great supporting cast too.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
Time travel and comedy. The best combination, right? And whilst the sequel was below par, the original came with added John Cusack, so it was a bit of a treat. Sleeper hit too. One no one saw coming.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Funny choice for this list? In that there’s pretty much no time travel until the end. Well it’s such an odd and sweet film I feel it’s earned its place. Go see it. It’s also probably Aubrey Plaza’s best performance to date.

Source Code (2011)
You wake up on a train set to explode. You’re meant to save it. You fail and go back to the start. Duncan Jones’ execution of this story was masterful and had me gripped throughout. Strong Jake Gyllenhaal performance too.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Like Tom Cruise? Well he’s in this. Don’t like him? No problem, he gets killed over and over again. Bit like Source Code in a way. Our hero keeps reliving the same loop until he can figure a way not to die and save mankind from aliens at the same time.

Interstellar (2014)
Got your thinking caps on? Because this one gets heavy. Maybe in space no one can hear you scream but at the cinema many probably did. Because Chris Nolan’s sci-fi tale got rather ‘out there’ in the final third.

Flight Of The Navigator (1986)
I would have been roughly the same age as the lead character when it came out so had that connection. It was a fun buddy movie too, in that the ship had its own zany personality and learnt about humanity from the boy. So like Terminator, but sweeter.