Sunday 30 July 2017

Movie Review - Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan - even the most laid back film fans will be no stranger to this name. Arguably one of modern cinema's most famous filmmakers, Nolan has tackled numerous genres and given birth to some of the most innovative blockbusters in recent times; be it the acclaimed reboot of DC Comics' Batman in the form of his Dark Knight Trilogy or the mind-bending sci-fi flick Inception, something always referenced when referring to the need for more originality in the summer movie season.

Now the man returns with his latest summer hit, Dunkirk, a retelling of the renowned evacuation within the midst of the Second World War. Not unusual for Nolan is the concept of narratives with multiple threads, and Dunkirk is not exception: the story follows three key segments of the eponymous event across the land, air, and sea. Within land, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) finds himself under threat alongside thousands of other soldiers as they seek to return home from the compromised French town, whilst at sea the likes of mariner Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) venture to the thousands of soldiers of who find themselves stranded and without hope of rescue.

Intertwined with this is of course the air, featuring Spitfire pilots lead by Farrier (Tom Hardy) fighting off the German armada whilst the rescue below continues with great difficulty. What makes this branching narrative pattern work well is that, whilst it can sometimes make character development an issue, it actually helps render the film as a sort of reenactment of the event and not an overly sentimental adaptation of it. We aren't treated to onslaughts of hefty backstory and it's clear not too many liberties have been taken within the creative process; instead, what we see is grim and down to Earth, not reaching the likes of Saving Private Ryan in terms of visual intensity but still giving birth to some extremely tense and gripping scenes, many of which also catch audiences off guard and so make the thrills all the more impactful.

A strong cast also helms a number of superb performances. Solider Tommy is sometimes a tad underdeveloped, but the genuine fear yet determination Whitehead demonstrates within his performance helps us relate more to the overall struggles such troops must've been forced through - the same can be said for the supporting cast and extras surrounding him, and of course for the likes of Rylance, Hardy, and of course Kenneth Branagh in their surprisingly powerful roles. Their acting ability flourishes more than ever to bring even more life to an already smartly written script. Nolan also remains a fab visual stylist, of course - overall the aesthetic perfectly replicates the time period and once again helps understand just how hellish some of these experiences must've been. Dunkirk is a brilliant watch from beginning to end, and while not without flaws in instances of some sluggish pacing and mediocre development, it remains an exciting yet also thought provoking war film that shows yet again how Nolan is an expert of his craft.

Sunday 23 July 2017

Movie Review - Cars 3

Though one of the biggest franchises of all time when it comes to merchandise, Disney Pixar's Cars hasn't exactly been their most acclaimed; the 2006 inaugural installment, while receiving a fairly positive response, was considered one of their worst efforts at the time, and it's 2011 sequel later found itself widely (and understandably) branded as Pixar's first bad film. This subsequent mixed reception of the series has made it's third installment one of the studio's least anticipated and currently lowest grossing films to date...however, I'd certainly dub it far from their worst in terms of overall quality.

Cars 3 sees Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) struggling to maintain his top positions in the racing league after the arrival of a new lineup of advanced opponents who outmatch him in almost every category. His subsequent ambitions to top them lead to naught but failure, and he soon finds himself questioning his future as a racer whilst also fighting to try and overcome these new rivals, mainly the arrogant wannabe champion Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer).

Cars 3 is as gorgeously animated as any Pixar production - everything from lighting, textures, and overall emotion within each characters' facial expressions is spot on, and this is further brought to life by some excellent voice work across the entire cast. The overall tone is a decent balance of genuine heartfelt emotion, without going to extremes, and plenty of approachable comedy, something I felt the original Cars also handled quite well, but one it's sequel ditched in favour of an onslaught obnoxious gags. As it may initially seem, the story for this threequel is a little predictable at first glance, but some respectable twists that come into play towards the climax certainly help make it more interesting and more what we expect from Pixar.

Whilst Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) was more of the lead hero in Cars 2, he returns to a comic relief this time round, and thankfully is always enjoyable to watch during his brief appearances - Lightning finds himself the star of the show once again, building upon his redeemed personality after the original Cars. The relationship developed between him and wannabe racer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) leads to some surprisingly touching moments, but said moments thankfully never become too sappy. Perhaps the only major issue with Cars 3 is the somewhat bloated run time, which can make simple scenes drag out to uncomfortable lengths; this aside, Pixar's latest effort largely finds itself as a worthy redemption from it's lame predecessor and an enjoyable animated flick for a wide range of audiences.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Movie Review - War for the Planet of the Apes

Following a mediocre remake of the classic original in 2001, the Planet of the Apes series entered a further hiatus and soon returned with an unexpectedly brilliant reboot in the form of Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 - both a successful return to form for the series and a huge landmark in the field of motion capture CGI, with Andy Serkis helming things as protagonist Caesar. Many who disregarded motion capture as traditional acting found their minds changed quite abruptly, and the same newly set standards also applied to the overall quality of the series and made sequels both welcome and even necessary in many ways.

Following on from Dawn, the relationship between the newly formed intelligent apes lead by Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the surviving humans has reached a state beyond repair and war has been promptly declared, with the humans now helmed by their mysterious, power hungry Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Despite Caesar's mercy towards the attacking humans and the insistence that peace can be achieved, his actions are rejected and his tribe continuously threatened, forcing him to take actions not only to save his family but also put a stop the humans and their lust to become Earth's dominant species once more.

First thing that obviously must be discussed are the special effects - War for the Planet of the Apes is arguably one of the most visually impressive films in recent times, building upon the already stunning motion capture techniques utilised in it's predecessors to create the primate characters with genuine emotion and lifelike mannerisms. Not only is everything beautifully rendered with a sharp level of detail, but the aforementioned motion capture effects make them more lifelike than ever before. They largely communicate via sign language, once again translated via subtitles, but the level of emotion injected into their behaviours make them mesmerising to watch every time they appear on screen, and so the quieter scenes with little talking and more gesturing never feel awkward or tedious to sit through - if anything they make up some of the films' most emotionally stirring moments.

But of course it's the performers who bring this all to life - Serkis being the star of the show for sure, but the talents of Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, and Terry Notary (just to name a few) mustn't go unappreciated; their performances certainly aid the already stellar effects to set new standards for CGI in modern cinema. The pace of the film is what helps capture their acting so beautifully but also keeps thing very tense and atmospheric - large scale set pieces are kept to a surprising minimum, though this actually supports the film in becoming a more engrossing experience. The plot also tackles some very dark themes things progresses, which bolster the story into something far beyond even the already promising initial expectations.

Though his screentime may not be as long as is normal for a strong villain, the overall development of the Colonel himself certainly override these minor setbacks to make him a surprisingly intimidating and memorable foe, thanks to some very strong writing and a superb performance by Harrelson himself. Not only are his villainous actions perfect in crafting him as a villain we love to hate, but his motivations are surprisingly thought provoking, and in some ways it helps us almost see why he does what he does - something that's never easy to pull off with a nasty antagonist, but one War masters in an exceptional way. The climax, while ending a little abruptly, is still incredibly exciting and thrilling to watch, feeling like much more than a generic, bombastic set piece that a lot of summer hits like to settle with. Without a doubt, War for the Planet of the Apes is a masterful conclusion to one of the best reboots in modern cinema, and certainly worth a watch for people who don't even consider themselves diehard fans of the overall franchise.

Saturday 15 July 2017

Movie Review - Despicable Me 3

It's already been seven years since Illumination launched their careers with the much loved Despicable Me, a funny, unique animated blockbuster with a superb lead performance from Steve Carell. It's certainly clicked with audiences across the globe, particularly due to the beloved Minion sidekicks, leading to a even more successful sequel and a spinoff for the aforementioned Minions themselves. So, as was the obvious way forward, a threequel has arrived - it's success certainly doesn't rival the standards set by the series, though it thankfully doesn't detriment it further in any way.

This time the focus is back on Gru (Steve Carell) and his retirement from evil and recruitment into the Anti-Villain League, living alongside wife Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) and his three adoptive daughters. Their role in the AVL faces new challenges when rising supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) and his antics are on the rise, but Gru also faces his own personal dilemmas upon discovering his long lost twin brother, Dru (Carell), and further revelations of his past.

From the get go it's apparent that Despicable Me 3 is as a colourfully animated as it's predecessors, and most of Illumination's efforts in general, maintaining it's loveable art style and becoming very expressive during it's most zany moments. This is bolstered further by some superb voicework from all those involved, particularly Carell as both Gru and Dru, and especially Trey Parker as entertaining albeit forgettable villain Balthazar Bratt; Parker's efforts can't help but feel wasted in the long run as whilst Bratt is always enjoyable to watch and contributes nicely to a lot of the overall humour, his random absences for large chunks of the film and relatively dull motives make him feel like a disappointing afterthought in hindsight.

The story is certainly laid back and charming enough, and while it's sometimes content to recycle concepts and gags from the previous films, it's simplicity is something that'll help it appeal to a wide range of audiences. The same praise extends into the relationship between Gru and Dru; something kept simple but still appealing in many ways, even if Dru himself can too often shift into something annoying and obnoxious. Those are the words I feared I'd also be using to sum up the Minions, considering how their appeal seems to be milked grandly these days, though thankfully their role is kept to a solid minimum and their antics genuinely funny for the most part - making them fit in as nice comedic sidekicks and not insanely repetitive irritants. With all this in mind, Despicable Me 3 is a harmless and enjoyable family flick, even if it now already seems clear that the series really doesn't have the potential and depth to keep going for much longer. 

Monday 10 July 2017

Movie Review - Spider-Man: Homecoming

With all the *insert business jargon here* finalised between Sony and Disney, Spider-Man has finally found his place in the forever expanding MCU and made a widely appreciated debut in last year's blockbuster Captain America: Civil War. Now, in arguably one of the franchises most anticipated films to date, the web head returns for his second reboot and what's arguably gonna be one of his most successful films yet: Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) struggles to balance his school life with the superhero prospects he so desires, following the evolution of his unique powers as well as his brief but influential role within the Avengers and their recent conflicts. Aided by the influence of his idol Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), his understanding of his responsibilities develops as his conflicts continue, which soon brings him to his most dangerous foe yet - Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), whose undercover plans seek to challenge the very thing the Avengers stand for.

Obviously we've all wanted to see Spidey spin his way into the MCU, but what we don't wanna see is yet another origin story; and Homecoming thankfully acknowledges this. We're not treated to another close up spider bite, another rewording of Uncle Ben's most iconic line, and of course not another take on his tragic death sequence. Here, following on from Civil War, all of the continuity is established, with any important details briefly yet effectively explored without rehashing what we've seen many times before. With that said, the filmmakers haven't forgotten that we're still in Spidey's early days - and so the character's blatant lack of experience and believable reactions to the many dangers he faces add a surprising layer of depth and introduce some interesting themes of...uh...well, great power and great responsibility.

This is all helmed by a fantastic performance by Tom Holland himself - I won't claim to be the biggest fan of Civil War and Spidey's role in the film felt forced, obnoxious, and just downright irritating. But here, while Holland may be excessively "colourful" at times, his talent is still clearly visible from beginning to end; with him effortlessly capturing the cocky albeit genuinely heroic persona behind the mask yet also the vulnerable nature of Peter himself. What also works surprisingly well is Stark's role; Marvel's marketing efforts almost made Homecoming feel like some sort of awkward Spidey/Iron Man crossover, but this is thankfully not the case. Stark mixes into the story well as a likeable and meaningful icon to direct Peter and his choices as a hero, making him genuine and interesting for the most part, and not just a forced integration of arguably the MCU's most profitable character.

Whilst Homecoming masters a lot of the most important factors, it isn't without fault - such fault mainly stems from a script that adopts an occasionally hit and miss sense of humour and a foe who is somewhat disappointing in the long run. As a villain, Vulture rings with potential and promise, thanks to a design that is both loyal to the original and fresh in it's own right and a strong performance by Keaton. He is intimidating yet lifelike, and always entertaining to watch, though it's a shame that his sporadic screentime and lack of depth restrict a lot of said potential from truly coming to fruition. What's more is that as we near the conclusion, more twists come into play. The problem? Their overall influence on the narrative is almost non existent, making them feel like cheap and disappointing attempts at generating some quick wow factor above anything else.

Sounding annoyingly negative is one of my key traits - but there is still much to enjoy in Spider-Man's latest return to the big screen, and most MCU fans are sure to have their hype rewarded. This exciting blockbuster does a largely successful job at balancing an interesting story with a welcome sense of fun and some gripping action sequences, brought to life by some superb special effects - sadly, this also makes it all the more frustrating when the some of the characters and themes it develops are just not given the consistent level of focus they require. Regardless, it's a big step forward from the mixed Amazing series, and a strong start for the web head in this ever expanding franchise.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Out With Old, In With New - The Woman in Black

Many who know me will also know that my favourite horror story is without a doubt Susan Hill's 1985 novella The Woman in Black - I don't read a lot of books myself, but this is one I've always adored and cherished since introduced to it many years ago. Hill successfully crafts a creepy atmosphere with her beautiful first person prose and exceptionally structured narrative, all hosted by well developed characters - it equates to an engrossing, emotionally stirring, and truly frightening ghost story.

When it comes to adaptations, arguably the best known one is the stage play by Stephen Mallatratt, which has been running at London's West End since 1987. However, the novel has also appeared twice on film: the 1989 ITV television special and 2012 theatrical release by Hammer Films. The latter is perhaps the better known of the two simply because the former is so damn rare in today's world, though it's fame has grown since it's modern counterpart launched and made more and more people aware of it's existence. The principle story is kept pretty much the same as the novel in both films - young lawyer Arthur Kipps is tasked by his firm to handle the selling of Eel Marsh House, a lone mansion in the market town of Crythin Gifford, after the death of owner Alice Drablow. Whilst attending to the case, a fearful essence overpowers him and those around him, with more and more frightening truths soon coming to fruition as his duties continue.

Both Rawlins and Radcliffe do a great job as Arthur for sure.

The main character, Arthur Kipps, is portrayed by Adrian Rawlins in the 1989 film and Daniel Radcliffe in the 2012 one. This often brings to mind the common piece of trivia regarding these actors and their association in the Harry Potter series - with Radcliffe portraying Potter himself (probably didn't need to say that) and Rawlins taking on the role of James Potter several times. The role of Arthur is handled well by both - loyal to his well spoken, focused, and somewhat stubborn persona in the novel itself, even though the alterations render Radcliffe's version understandably less cheerful. The element of fear portrayed by them both is well executed and believable, helping us engage within each films' haunting sequences - however, not even the finest of performances can save a horror film that simply isn't scary most of the time, but we'll get to that later...

There aren't many secondary characters in the original story outside of Sam Dailey, a landowner whom Arthur meets upon arrival at Crythin Gifford, and of course Jennet Humfrye, the titular antagonist herself. The role of Sam Dailey is taken on by Bernard Hepton in 1989 and Ciaran Hinds in 2012 - again, both are loyal to their novel counterparts in terms of their empathetic persona, though the character himself is also dramatically altered in the newer release. Whereas Hepton's Dailey, in line with his novel persona, is fearful of the eponymous ghost though fits in with the village community with his reluctance to discuss her presence, he brings forward a very...uh, forward dismissal of her supernatural reputation in the 2012 film, despite a clear knowledge and fear of her deep down. These changes work at times and help to add some variety, but also make him somewhat inconsistent, and sometimes strangely willing to put Arthur in grave danger which goes against his previous behaviours. In contrast, Hepton's portrayal is more loyal to the novel, though one can't deny he sometimes lacks development and so can become a little forgettable; though to be fair, the novel itself sometimes had the same issue.

Pauline Moran as the Woman in Black herself in the 1989 adaptation. Freaks me out even today.

It goes without saying that a novel adaptation must be free to stir things up in order to make for a fresh take on it's basis and avoid an unbearable run time. It's not unreasonable to dub the 1989 film the more loyal of the two in this case, as the 2012 film is certainly more ambitious when it comes to being unique in it's own right - Arthur's wife being dead from the start, Crythin Gifford eager to be rid of him, the quest to reunite Jennet Humfrye's ghost with her deceased son, are just a few examples of it's many alterations. Some of it works, some of it doesn't; latter parts of the film can often feel a bit bloated and loud, lacking the atmosphere the book and original film mastered so well at times, and character development can sometimes be a little inconsistent. When it comes to the 1989 film, it generally follows the book well, though is notably different near the end - I'd easily dub it a weaker ending when compared to the novel, though far superior than the overly sentimental, sporadic conclusion of the 2012 film. Another notable change in the 1989 film are the names - some odd surname alterations simply because pompous writer Nigel Kneale disliked Susan Hill's usage of names from the works of HG Wells. Not really anything to lose sleep over, but still a tad daft regardless.

But what about the titular villain herself? Jennet Humfrye (or Goss) is portrayed by Pauline Moran in the 1989 film, and I'll stress from the start that her appearance is wonderfully crafted despite the limitations, with brilliantly eerie makeup and costume design; all of which is carried into action by a superb performance by Moran herself which proves that less can be a lot more when it comes to delivering truly frightening scares, even if a bizarre climactic scene is perhaps a bit too clumsily filmed and performed to remain scary. The role was taken on by Liz White in 2012, and while she certainly does her best at helming some very freaky moments, she's often a little too twisted up in a series of loud set pieces which often subtract from the core tension of the story. Her appearances just rely too much on jump scares with excessive (if well done) visual effects, making her feel less intimidating and memorable in the long run.

Liz White as the Woman in the 2012 film. Impressive visuals, but I can't say it's as scary as it's 1989 rival.

Which is the better film? Perhaps that's a bit crude given their dramatic differences, and it all comes down to preferences. Some may find the 1989 one boring and slow and the 2012 one fast paced and more entertaining, whilst others may find the 2012 overly loud and repetitive and the 1989 one an atmospheric, far more engaging horror/drama tale. Some may love both just as much, or vice versa - of course the 1989 film stands tall as my favourite horror film to date let alone the superior film in this comparison, and while the 2012 film is a decent modern adaptation of the story and an entertaining film in general, the substantial changes and excessive loudness make it less chilling than it's source material without a doubt. Again, all down to what you prefer from a horror experience, but I'd always go for the 1989 film no questions asked.

Thanks for reading!