Sunday, 8 September 2019

Movie Review - It Chapter Two

Splitting film adaptations of popular novels became a common pattern since Harry Potter's final installment in 2011. It was a format other major franchises including Twilight and The Hunger Games quickly embraced, yet one that's seen by many as a tired pattern without any true justification beyond bigger profits. On the flipside, not only is Stephen King's It a novel with over 1000 pages, but also one with two core narrative phases set within different time periods, making a two part cinematic adaptation arguably necessary at the end of the day. With It Chapter Two, we move 27 years onward from the original's 1989 setting, seeing our key protagonists within the Loser's Club as their adult selves, all forced to combat the eponymous monster as it returns to haunt their hometown of Derry once more.

Whilst portions of screentime are still dedicated to the youngsters from the original, who certainly remain as talented as ever, the main story once again focuses on their adult counterparts; counterparts who are brought to life with a superb main cast who flawlessly match the core personalities of their respective characters whilst also adopting believable adult development. This impressive cast includes the likes of James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Jessica Chastain, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, James Ransone, and Andy Bean; and, of course, Bill Skarsgard returns as the villainous monster's primary form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown, arguably standing tall as the highlight of the film in many ways once again.

It Chapter Two has plenty of scares, though the overall approach is different and sometimes less effective this time round. Indeed, there's a further appreciation of jump scares over a consistently tense atmosphere; to be fair, said jump scares are much more than just random thuds and crashes to make you flinch with little after effect, but it doesn't stop them from becoming somewhat repetitive in the end. Repetition is an equally ideal word when it comes to the overall narrative itself, with one of its central concepts being explorations of each character and their disturbing childhood memories from the original film, returning to haunt them once more as the eponymous monster reawakens from its long rest. It's a unique format that's handled relatively well and of course one that's host to many frightening moments, but also one that can't help but feel a tad boring in the long run.

Though these story elements are of course part of the novel itself, faithfulness to source material can't always excuse such flaws; some things arguably work better on paper than they do on screen. Perhaps this can also be applied to the film's chaotic climax which drifts away from horror in some ways, eventually leaning more toward crazy action with bizarre imagery, strange plot twists, and occasional contrivances. For the most part, there is a nice degree of emotional depth and solid overall development for each character, which in turn bolsters some of the film's scariest moments as you genuinely fear for the victims on screen; though with its beastly and not fully justifiable 169 minute runtime, It Chapter Two simply ends up less interesting the more it goes on. It's ultimately just not as consistently entertaining as its predecessor, and while the exceptional cast, superb visuals, and fair share of thrills deserve much praise, its slow pace and repetitive formula also prevent it from reaching its full potential.

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Movie Review - The Lion King (2019)

Disney's live action updates of many of their greatest animated hits continues, this time with The Lion King, arguably their most renowned to date in the eyes of many. An enormous success upon release in 1994, The Lion King's global earnings now sit extremely close to the $1 billion mark, making it one of the highest grossing animated films even 25 years on, and easily the highest earning among traditionally animated films. So with all this fame and success surrounding it, one would expect a live action remake to be handled with extensive care; sadly, this is not quite the case.

The core story, influenced largely by Shakespeare's Hamlet, matches the original without any major changes. Following the murder of his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones) at the hands of his sadistic uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), young lion Simba (Donald Glover) finds himself exiled from his kingdom and left in despair, though soon learns he must follow his destiny and take his rightful place as leader of the Pride Lands before all falls into ruin.

The narrative doesn't need to adopt any significant changes to be good, but when many scenes have near identical shots and dialogue to those in the original, the lack of originality is extremely apparent, leaving us with a film that essentially feels like a discount alternative with a different aesthetic. While the visuals themselves are a major achievement in photorealism, beautifully rendered throughout, such a strong focus on realism leaves no room for any unique style or charm, making many of the story's most iconic moments tragically dull and uninteresting. Consequently, the characters find themselves as little more than well rendered animals with moving mouths; a real shame considering Disney did a great job making similarly realistic animals in 2016's remake of The Jungle Book full of personality for the most part.

The work from this largely decent cast also fails to meet expectations, with the efforts of Donald Glover and Beyoncé (a strange choice...) leaving their respective protagonists hugely forgettable; such criticism applies even more so to James Earl Jones' lifeless performance, making his initially welcome return an unwanted one without a doubt. Perhaps the only real praise can be aimed toward Ejiofor as a suitably sadistic (if slightly cliché) Scar, as well as Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as an admittedly funny Timon and Pumbaa, but they aren't able to carry the weight of all this alone. Those in love with the original's musical achievements should also be prepared for mixed results; while it's good to see not every song being a complete rehash, they still can't help but feel painfully inferior to the originals.

This update of Disney's animated classic has its perks, especially when it comes to the technical side of things, but still finds itself as little more than an uninspired and lazily structured retelling. Disney's ongoing string of live action updates are still met with significantly polarizing opinions, and considering The Lion King remains my favourite film of all time, this poor and disappointing remake, for me, is definitely a deep and personal loss.

Wise old mandrill Rafiki is also one of the most loveable characters in the original, and sadly one of the most, if not the most, forgettable characters this time round. For shame.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Movie Review - Spider-Man: Far From Home

Avengers: Endgame now edges closer to stealing the highest grossing film of all time accolade from Avatar after 10 years; although it certainly brought multiple key story arcs within this beastly franchise to a close, even a film of such scale was certainly never going to finish it all for good. Not every film the MCU has offered has been an entertaining one, and the longer a series like this lasts, the harder it surely becomes to make new instalments consistently engaging. Thankfully, Spider-Man: Far From Home shows that those involved desire a strong future for the series and will certainly make the effort to achieve it.

A sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming whilst also following on from plot elements developed in Endgame, Far From Home sees Peter Parker's (Tom Holland) inevitable desires for a regular life alongside his superhero duties challenged further as he finds himself recruited for yet another mission by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D. An unfamiliar face in the form of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), Mysterio to the world, also joins the fray to helm the fight against a new wave of threats; conflict which soon leads to more unsettling truths.

Most will agree that the MCU has always been relatively flawless when it comes to casting, and Far From Home is another key example of this. Holland exemplifies further his acting talent considering the standards that have to be met with such a major comic book icon, with a performance as an innocent and naive teenager, a character explored with a surprising amount of depth, blending nicely with his more confident persona when donning the suit itself. Jake Gyllenhaal's efforts as one Quentin Beck stand out just as superbly; his character deftly combines humour, an intimidating presence, as well as a genuine emotional core, and his confident performance makes him one of the most memorable characters despite being having many acclaimed talents to rival.

Far From Home succeeds just as nicely on an aesthetic scale, living up to modern blockbuster expectations with ease but also going that little bit beyond with some stylish and unique visuals revolving primarily around the character of Mysterio once again. This twisted imagery adds a touch of innovation to some of its most prominent set pieces, and while not all of them boast this accolade, even those which end up a tad repetitive after a while are still largely exciting. The overall narrative itself is thankfully far from predictable due to smartly handled plot twists; it also cleverly integrates elements from previous MCU films without forced retconning becoming an issue. Indeed, while some supporting roles amongst the villainous crew are fairly forgettable, their integration is cleverly developed. With all this, Far From Home succeeds as another thoroughly entertaining entry to this enormous franchise, showing that it still has room to impress further despite the countless new standards that have been set since it began.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Movie Review - Toy Story 4

The announcement of a fourth Toy Story film would always earn a mixed reception; regardless of the general love for the franchise as a whole, many agreed 2010's Toy Story 3 perfectly wrapped up the story, leaving no room for more. But alas, nearly another decade later, those at Pixar have given us what many now believe to be the true final chapter to the beloved animated saga; and one that certainly does impress considering the limited potential for a further story, at least at first glance.

Sheriff Woody's (Tom Hanks) life takes a unique turn when he and the rest of the gang find themselves at a travelling carnival during a family road trip, joined by Forky (Tony Hale), an insecure spork crafted into a toy by their new owner Bonnie. When Forky's repeated attempts to dispose of himself leave him trapped and in need of rescue, Woody's efforts lead him on a journey that finds him reuniting with a long lost friend from his past; soon challenging his own decisions when it comes to the future ahead.

Considering once again how well Toy Story 3 acted as a conclusion the franchise, this fourth entry succeeds surprisingly well in terms of overall narrative heft, exemplifying the potential still to hand providing those involved know what they're doing. Whilst throwbacks to previous instalments are of course present, most notably the return of the beloved character Bo Peep (Annie Potts), the story remains focused on its own new path and never forcibly retreads the same ground as its predecessors; leaving elements concluded by Toy Story 3 behind and featuring some major plot developments of its own that justify it as its own conclusion to the series, albeit one that may not leave everyone entirely satisfied.

The story embraces this new path with some unique twists, but things aren't always as refined as one might hope; this is notable when it comes to the development of its primary characters. Bo Peep finds herself drastically different in every respect to her original cute and calm persona from the older films, though this actually makes her one of the most interesting characters in the film alongside Woody himself; the chemistry they consequently share also helps bolster their charm as the key protagonists. But when it comes to the many supporting roles, including our entire toy gang (Buzz, Jessie, Rex, Ham, you name it), they offer plenty of approachable humour but nothing else to make them as consistently interesting; quite a disappointment when these are the starring roles that launched the series. The newer cast of characters, including Forky, the obnoxious yet charming Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), or the easily agitated (and extremely funny) stuffed toy duo Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele), end up much more memorable throughout and thus may leave you much more entertained in the long run.

Toy Story 4 is without a doubt a prime example of how much computer animation has developed since its inception. Simply comparing a frame of this to the admittedly somewhat dated visuals of the original film, and even the still refined ones of its 1999 sequel, proves it is an art form that has prospered significantly. It is certainly one of Pixar's best looking films, beautifully rendered and animated throughout, and further brought to life through superb voice acting from its talented cast of old favourites and brilliant newcomers. When rivalling the standards set by its predecessors, this fourth entry perhaps ranks as the weakest entry, and is certainly not quite the emotional tear jerker I was expecting, but it still remains another fine piece of work from one of the film industry's best animation studios that more than justifies its own existence.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Movie Review - Aladdin (2019)

Arguably one of the most controversial Disney adaptations from the moment marketing began, Aladdin treads on thin ice simply because the animated original is one of the studios most treasured classics; and one crucial contributor to this is of course the late Robin Williams' iconic performance as the Genie, now one of Disney's most memorable characters. But what was initially hatred from audiences now seems to have become widespread praise, and this certainly doesn't go undeserved.

After rescuing and befriending Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) within the bustling, frequently dangerous streets of Agrabah, the penniless street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) soon attempts to win her over through the assistance of the scheming Royal Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who initiates a plan for Aladdin to retrieve a magical lamp within the mysterious Cave of Wonders in return for untold riches and royalty. When Aladdin eventually finds the lamp in his own hands, he discovers what lies within: an all powerful Genie (Will Smith), whose ability to grant Aladdin three wishes further progresses his own endeavours to seek Prince Jasmine's hand as he originally aspired.

What's tricky with these live action Disney adaptations is simply retelling the story. Changes are essential to surprise audiences a second time, but too many changes can end up disowning the source material everyone has loved for many years. Aladdin thankfully retells the classic tale in a unique and engaging way, keeping the core premise identical with the same loveable characters (and some new ones to boot), but largely changing the overall structure, and so you'll never feel like you're watching a replica of the original. The musical numbers also have the same impact; the original's most iconic songs are present, but all updated with a fresh modern twist, down to genre influences and even smart alterations of the lyrics themselves. There's also some new songs mixed in, and while they sometimes feel a bit segue amongst the scenarios occurring around them, they remain well performed and suitably memorable.

Will Smith's performance as the Genie deserves praise simply for his unique take on the character, which is never a forced attempt to mimic the comedic charm Robin Williams boasted. Indeed, Smith's effort in the role, while equally zany, fast paced, and funny, is more casual and down to Earth, not referencing pop culture in the same hilarious way, but with his comedic charm instead stemming a lot more from strong, witty dialogue, all delivered with perfect timing, as well as the awkward yet charming chemistry between himself and Aladdin, who also finds himself perfectly performed by a suitably cast Mena Massoud. The cast in general is relatively solid; Naomi Scott plays Jasmine well enough, even if the character is somewhat forgettable this time round, and the same goes for Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, whose casting also stirred up much controversy. He's better than the trailers made him out to be, unique in his own way instead of a lazy replica, but he's also not quite as memorable at the end of the day, and arguably rather bland in scenes that demand more emotion.

Visually, Aladdin certainly delivers any expectations reasonable audiences would have, adding its own surprisingly dark twists and so making scenes that were perhaps more comedic in the original now quite intimidating but still equally stylistic. The CGI effects used to craft key characters including Abu, Carpet, and, of course, the Genie himself are all fantastic through and through; the motion capture technology to turn Smith into a blue magical being is surprisingly effective, and whilst many were reluctant upon seeing it debut in the initial trailers, it's certainly nothing to remain hostile towards. At the end of the day, Aladdin is what a good live action Disney adaptation should be: loyal to the classic premise, yet still adding in its own fresh ideas to take audiences on a new adventure in a whole new world.