Tuesday 26 April 2016

Movie Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

In 2013, Man of Steel began as not only a reboot of the Superman franchise but also the first in DC's shared universe to compete with the Marvel equivalent that began with Iron Man in 2008. Three years on, the sequel has arrived - or, at least what originally seemed to be a sequel, and what has now been malformed into some sort of confused, not quite Justice League film; seemingly an overly keen attempt to pump this franchise out as soon as possible. The end result simply proves that rushing such things never leads to good results.

Following on from the chaos caused in Metropolis after Superman and General Zod's rivalry, eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) dons his Batman alter ego to fight crime in Gotham City whilst also drafting a plan to bring Superman to justice, feeling his powers cause danger to society after witnessing the lives lost at his hands during his destructive battles. Meanwhile, Superman, and by extension his alter ego Clark Kent, faces trouble with coping how the public see him - some as a hero, some as a villain, with the latter strongly influenced by sociopath Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has some sinister plans fuelled by his obsession to bring Superman down once and for all.

I find it hard to summarise the plot as it really is a complete mess from start to finish, with little to no redeeming factors. The pacing is ungodly sluggish and the tone unbearably dull; director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have sucked all of the fun from the source material and transformed it into something extremely depressing, slow moving, and dramatically uneven. The characters simply share no compelling chemistry, and the titular rivalry is completely uninteresting - the motivations are seldom explored in any true detail and so watching them duke it out is less than satisfying because it simply makes no true sense. Their battle is equally contrived and super brief, and ends on an abrupt note with their character arcs completely changing on the spot with no definitive, believable reason. As for Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) whizzing in out of nowhere - well, her presence, as well the majority of the film itself if I'm honest, serves as naught but a lame cocktease for the Justice League movie and seriously damages the pacing and focus that the film already struggles with.

The climax itself is so ridiculous that it's evident the writers took little time and effort into deriving a compelling tale from a great premise, instead settling for some stereotypical fight scenes mixed with a number of other random conversations that come and go sporadically, many of which bare little significance. Action wise, it's nothing special, as we've seen it all before - huge explosions, over the top punches, characters smashing through walls; and it's all so noisy and overlong that it loses any of what little charm it had extremely quickly. To its credit, the acting isn't so bad, with Ben Affleck delivering a respectable performance considering his limited material, and Eisenberg particularly impressing when it comes to capturing Lex Luthor's sociopathic, manipulative, intelligent nature. On a tragic flipside, Henry Cavill is extremely bland, most likely due to how poorly written Superman is throughout the film; it seems he had no real way of escaping the outcome of a mediocre performance, but it equally doesn't seem like he put a whole lot of effort into it either. Overall, it's as bad as the trailers convinced me it'd be, and I certainly have no interest in future instalments.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Movie Review - The Jungle Book (2016)

Disney has reimagined many of their animated classics into live action features in the past two decades, from 101 Dalmatians to Alice in Wonderland, yet recently, with the evolution of special effects and popularity of blockbuster cinema, it's becoming far more common than ever before - introducing a wave of new audiences to these classic tales whilst still, for the most part, keeping ahold of their core charm. This is where, in almost every possible way, this year's The Jungle Book succeeds without a doubt.

Staying true to the original Disney narrative, The Jungle Book features young man cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) adopted by a pack of wolves, having been abandoned in the jungle many years ago, and raised over time by with the help of black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley). However, when the vicious tiger Shere Kahn (Idris Elba) learns of Mowgli's presence, he vows to kill him at any cost, leaving Mowgli with no choice but to be taken back to his own kind in the man village; along the way, he finds himself on an epic journey throughout the jungle, encountering a number of new friends and foes including, most notably, beloved sloth bear Baloo (Bill Murray), who forms a close bond with the man cub as their paths eventually cross.

The most amazing thing about The Jungle Book is that, as many know, none of it was filmed on location - all filming took place on sound stages both in the USA and UK, with live action sets and actors seamlessly blended with computer generated backdrops and characters in post production. Disney's latest live action remake sets new standards for computer graphics in modern cinema - from start to finish, the animation, texture, and overall rendering on every character is absolutely stunning; it pretty much feels like you're watching real animals perform all these bizarre humanoid actions, which is a testament to how far special effects have come in the past decade. The backdrops beautifully capture the tone of each scene, from lush jungle forests to large open cliffs; again, the fact that none of this was filmed on location is almost difficult to comprehend when you see how mind bogglingly authentic it looks.

Neel Sethi gives a decent performance as Mowgli considering his age and the fact that this is his Hollywood debut, and one has to admire all the physical exertion undertaken for the role and his dedication into a very active performance. However, the voice cast is the truly outstanding merit - major stars including Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, and Christopher Walken bring to life some of the most beloved characters from the original tale, with Murray as Baloo particularly standing out as one of the best performances in the film - not just because of his jubilant voice work, but also the characters loveable nature and beautiful comedic timing. Kingsley also captures the wise and proud essence of Bagheera flawlessly, thankfully not making him too silly as he was in the 1967 animated original, which perhaps wouldn't have fit in too well with this modern update; and, of course, Elba as Shere Kahn and Walken as King Louie shine as memorable villains, even if the latters role is somewhat brief. Elba is especially threatening in the role of Shere Kahn, which is far more expansive than it was in the original, making him more complex a villain - and a genuinely terrifying one in certain scenes.

A controversial casting choice was Scarlett Johansson as Kaa, and while I myself was never won over even when the trailers launched, her voice work in the finished product is surprisingly well done, even if Kaa's role is disappointingly short compared to his animated original. Johansson's cover of the renowned Trust in Me, playing in the closing credits, is equally as surprising, given that it's both beautiful and seductive, capturing a new tone for the character in a way that suits this modern retelling; but again, it's a shame that her talent could only be shown in a very brief scenario. But of course, one also can't ignore the song we all awaited eagerly for - Murray himself effortlessly sings Bear Necessities with the same energy and vibrancy that Phil Harris did in the original, and Walken's cover of King Louise's I Wanna Be Like You may seem a but sluggish at first, but quickly becomes just as likeable as the original by Louis Prima.

From a story perspective, when it comes to development and pacing, The Jungle Book is equally as engrossing; it has moments of comedy, moments of drama, moments of genuine thrills, and tons of new surprises that make it more than a predictable rehash of the original, with the only real flaw being an occasional lack of focus on certain characters, as there are rare instances where some seem pushed to one side with no focus on what exactly happened to them until an uncertain amount of time later. But alas, finding flaws is a tricky task, for director Jon Favreau and the rest of the crew have done an amazing job in reinvigorating the tale with new blood and fresh ideas, creating another superb example of how Disney is truly getting the hang of these live action updates these days.

Saturday 16 April 2016

Movie Review - Midnight Special

The feature debut of writer/director Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special tells the tale of protective father Roy (Michael Shannon) and his closest friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run from the FBI with Roy's only son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses unusual supernatural powers that must be hidden from those who attempt to misuse them. In the ensuing chase, more dark truths come to fruition, forcing Roy, Lucas, and Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) to eventually accept a difficult yet inescapable truth.

Midnight Special is an unusual film in that it has a lot of potential within it's concept, but this is sadly not met thanks to it's obsession with vague storytelling that makes it seem like Nichols assumed that the audience would have as good a grasp of his story as he did, thus negating the need for him to truly explain certain key events in detail. Whilst pandering to the audience when it comes to elaborating on simple narrative trademarks is of course never a good thing, not explaining complicated narrative threads and just letting them come and go as if they bare little to no real importance is the sign of both a poorly written screenplay and a poorly directed finished product.

The weakly constructed story is partially redeemed by a lineup of strong performances, namely from Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, and especially from young newcomer Jaeden Lieberher. Their characterizations are equally as entertaining, perhaps the most compelling part of the otherwise delirious storyline, though it would've been nice if a little bit more depth was explored in terms of their motivations and backstories - the occasional lack of such exploration makes certain actions they do a little random and certain character interactions a little weak.

Midnight Special thankfully isn't light on thrills, with a number of chase scenes and set pieces keeping us on our toes as we join the main characters in their attempts to escape from those who seek to misuse what is closest to them. However, as previously stated, the plot is too flimsy and underdeveloped that it's hard to fully justify why all these chases take place, leaving them quite tiresome as we enter the middle of the story; and while the excitement regenerates a little as the climax begins, the story sadly doesn't expand much further. The ending reaches a high point of ridiculousness, considering it's abrupt and visually bizarre nature, and by the time the credits rolled I was left confused and slightly saddened at a deeply wasted premise.

Monday 11 April 2016

Movie Review - 10 Cloverfield Lane

After enduring a sudden car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) finds herself trapped in an underground bunker owned by the elusive Howard Stambler (John Goodman), who informs her of a nuclear attack that has devastated the world above and left it a poisoned wasteland. Forced to accept her future within the bunker alongside Howard and other rescue Emett (John Gallagher, Jr.), Michelle adjusts to the situation around her, but slowly discovers that things were not as simple as initially thought.

By far the driving force of 10 Cloverfield Lane is the performance of John Goodman who, despite some occasionally conflicting character traits, provides a creepy yet compelling portrayal of a deluded, unnerving character, delivering the majority of the films jump scares (for lack a better term) and tension. Winstead and Gallagher also shine in their roles, demonstrating their vulnerable yet resilient nature as the film goes on, though Goodman is arguably the most impressive attribute by a long shot.

Most of the film takes place within this underground bunker, designed with extensive attention to detail, and it's surprising how compelling a story the filmmakers manage to tell in such a limited space with only a trio of characters. It's gripping, consistently enjoyable, and deftly blends emotion, tension and, in surprisingly fitting moments, a gentle dose of humour. Despite such a strong, consistent first and second act, this all sadly transits into something quite the opposite as we enter the films climax, which is abruptly bombastic and somewhat random, as well as vague and overlong. It not only seems out of place, but also a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise tense and thrilling script.

But while I'm not fond of it in context, as a visual sight and a general burst of excitement, it's still a reasonably entertaining finale, and sure to thrill fans of more eventful action sequences. But as it stands, the film mainly impresses when it remains an eerie, unsettling thriller, with a narrative that evolves in a thought provoking manner with a number of intriguing twists and turns. Everything is fleshed out beautifully despite the limitations of the setting, and so we have a near perfect thriller that's only bogged down by some occasional vague narrative hiccups and an unfit (if somewhat entertaining) climax.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Worst to Best - Ice Age

With nearly $3 billion in worldwide revenue, set only to expand beyond comprehension with this year's Ice Age: Collision Course, Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age franchise is the second highest grossing animated movie series behind Shrek. Though it generates most of it's earnings from international markets, it's still baffling just how much of a, er herm, mammoth this series really is, considering it's less than inspiring relationship with critics and certain moviegoers.

The series began in 2002 and is set to continue, again, with Collision Course, in July. In typical fashion, let's rank each installment, in a worst to best list that (not to give anything away) features more of the former than anything else.

#4 - Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)

The entire storyline of Ice Age: Continental Drift feels like an afterthought, written in seconds and used as a weak template to justify the existence of all kinds of stereotyped, try-hard comedic characters and an endless slew of outdated jokes. The main trio, Manny the Mammoth, Sid the Sloth, and Diego the Sabre, find themselves stranded amongst a pirate crew as the ice around them begins to melt and break apart - but they soon find themselves free and on a quest to return to their home and family. Incoming negativity aside, my personal highlight of the film is Peter Dinklage, who provides an entertaining voice for Captain Gutt, the film's occasionally amusing villain. Sadly, he is often trapped in a role that's burdened by little to no development and cliché dialogue; so while he is enjoyable, even his talent can't overpower the lazy writing.

The slapstick antics of Scrat the Squirrel aren't as funny as they once were, and most of the plot points are lazily recycled from previous entries, showing that the creators are pretty low on ammunition when it comes to generating original concepts at this stage. The animation is certainly pretty, but that aside, this is largely an unfunny, boring, cliché, and painfully rushed effort that has little to no redeeming factors for those outside the hardcore fanbase.

#3 - Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

Ice Age: The Meltdown took the witty humour of the original and malformed it into something ugly, creating a film that's more irritating than anything else. Cheesy gags, ruined characters, and a generally monotonous narrative make this a sequel that showed the series was never meant to expand beyond even one film, let alone god knows how many will follow at this stage. Whether it's the predictable story, bland characters, painful comedy, irritating voicework from Queen Latifah, and her equally annoying possum-loving character Ellie, or her equally equally irritating possum brothers voiced by Seann William Scott and Josh Peck, there's really not much to crave here except for the occasional hilarious slapstick scenes with Scrat and his continuing lust for acorns.

It's a shame that series that began with a decent level of promise tanked into something so mediocre so suddenly, and while it was never going to be an Oscar winning, critically lauded franchise, it's still a pretty disappointing outcome to say the least.

#2 - Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009)

Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a marginal improvement over it's predecessor thanks to the toned down annoyingness of Ellie and her possum brothers and the inclusion of the nicely animated dinosaurs, who bring their own appeal to the story with some fun set pieces and witty slapstick moments. For the most part, however, the story is still generic and dull, and some of the characters seem genuinely, well, out of character in certain scenes, making it difficult to get a sense of any consistency. Simon Pegg joins the cast as Buck, an adventurous weasel; while he is a talented man capable of delivering plenty of charm, his talent is often squandered on a slew of overly loud one liners and irritating, lightning fast speech. The character is also generally unlikeable, hampering any chance of us enjoying his attempts at comic relief.

To this day, Dawn of the Dinosaurs remains the highest grossing Ice Age film both domestically and worldwide, with $196 million in US earnings and $886 million globally. Clearly, the franchise continues to attract a gargantuan audience, but with the ever declining quality with each new installment, the explanation for this is a mystery. Dawn of the Dinosaurs has it's moments of humour and wit, but is often content to rehash tired animated film clichés and brings nothing new or compelling to the table, both for the franchise and the entire genre.

#1 - Ice Age (2002)

"Who's up for Ice Age 2?"
Manny's face just about sums it up

The original Ice Age doesn't provide the same wow factor as Pixar or Dreamworks when it comes to the technical prowess of the animation, and it's certainly a little derivative, but it's without a doubt the best and, as we've gathered by now, the only good installment of this now tired series. The plot is nice and simple, but still surprisingly nimble in certain areas, and the main trio consisting of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary all yield their own comedic appeal within their likeable roles. Sid the Sloth, voiced by Leguizamo, can grate on the ears a bit during certain scenes, but he still provides a lot of the film's steady comic relief, and is shown to be a somewhat deeper character, albeit very briefly, in some surprisingly touching scenes.

The misadventures of Scrat the Squirrel, frequently intertwined with the main narrative, provide some of the best slapstick gags seen in an animated feature, but thankfully don't outshine the main story and characters themselves - as was the case with the sequels. Again, it's a simple animated effort, not offering anything overly remarkable when it comes to technical innovation or boldly original storytelling, but the creators still managed to create something thoroughly enjoyable for audiences of all ages from a simple, loveable premise.

Thanks for reading!