Starring: Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty), Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight), Keri Russell (Mission: Impossible III), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In), Toby Kebbell (Dead Man’s Shoes)

Director: Matt Reeves (Cloverfield)

Writers: Mark Bomback (Unstoppable) and Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes

Release Date: 11 July (US), 17 July (UK)

I don’t think many predicted that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would end up being as good a movie as it was. Despite the swells of other unsuccessful reboots and the stench of Tim Burton’s failed remake still fresh, Rise ended up being both a fun summer blockbuster and a surprisingly smart and tender sci-fi story. Now the adventures of Caesar and his apes continue in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Are apes together strong, or should this movie be darned to hell?

Set ten years after the events of Rise, Dawn is much bleaker than its predecessor, but hope still shines through; by the film’s close, we are closer to where the original Planet of the Apes began but still with plenty of room to grow. The story and setting is far more dynamic and interesting than the first, expanding and adding to the themes explored in Rise, but what Dawn truly nails is something few movies rarely even dare to do: moral ambiguity. Unlike Rise where the lines in the sand were clearer, Dawn’s sense of morals are far blurrier; much like Caesar himself comes to realise, it is not as simple as “apes good, humans bad”. Every character’s motivations feel justified, even when they commit horrible acts, which creates for far more interesting drama and tension. Whereas the initial seeds of the story suggest it could easily become clichéd, the film regularly avoids the obvious and crafts a narrative that is both gripping and exciting. The film is perfectly paced, moving from heartfelt drama to rip-roaring action seamlessly, before reaching a very well-judged ending that is sombre and foreboding yet somewhat hopeful as well.

Andy Serkis is the unrivalled King of Performance Capture at this point, and once again he delivers a fantastic performance as lead ape Caesar. The character has grown from fearless rebel to wise leader, and Serkis imbues Caesar with just as much emotion as any of his human co-stars. All of the other apes are well portrayed as well, but special mention must go to Toby Kebbell for his terrific performance as the blood-hungry Koba. Jason Clarke leads the human cast this time around and, whilst not getting as much focus as James Franco did in Rise, he is certainly more relatable. Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee do fine work as well, though their screen time is fairly limited. Gary Oldman’s presence is also small, but he squeezes every moment for maximum impact, making what in most movies would be a stock arsehole character into something far more human and understandable; a brief scene where he sees old pictures of his family is heart-breaking and just one of the film’s many great examples of visual storytelling.

The effects that went into creating the apes in Rise were impressive, and the technology has only improved. Whether showing hundreds of them or an extreme close-up on one, the attention to detail done here is astounding; some of Weta Digital’s best work for sure. The film’s production design is well executed, often reminding me of the mossy world of The Last of Us, which combined with the inventive cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully classic score creates for an engrossing atmosphere that most films can only dream of. 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes does what sequels should do: it takes the concepts of the first film and builds upon it, creating a grander story not just in scale but also in execution. Like Rise, it has everything you want from a summer movie in terms of entertainment value, but also backs it up with smart writing and a good heart. It’s one of the best sequels in recent memory and also one of the best films of the summer. Considering the quality of the films so far, this franchise can take as long as it wants to reach that inevitable moment when George Taylor steps out of his spaceship and into the world of these damn dirty apes.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

Starring: Ellar Coltrane (Fast Food Nation), Patricia Arquette (True Romance), Ethan Hawke (Sinister), Lorelei Linklater (Waking Life)

Writer/Director: Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused)

Runtime: 2 hours 46 minutes

Release Date: 11 July (US, UK)

Making a movie can be a very time-consuming process. It eats up your entire livelihood, exhausts your body and mind, but by the end of it you have a product that you can be proud of and show off to the world. Now can you imagine spreading that process over the course of 12 years? Well, Richard Linklater has just finished doing that with Boyhood, which he began filming all the way back in 2002. I’ve been hearing about this film for as long as I have been on the Internet, and the fact that the film has even been finished is an achievement in and of itself. But has this lengthy process been all for naught, or has all that extra gestation made the pay-off that much more sweet?

For a film 12 years in the making, Boyhood is a very simple coming-of-age story. Growing pains, arguments, romance, family, it’s all there. But just because something is familiar doesn’t mean it is bad, and Boyhood manages to be a fantastically told interpretation of classic themes. It’s heart-warming and fun, but it never shies away from the real facts of life and goes to dark places when called for, making it also far more genuine that most films of its ilk. Considering the schedule it was shot on, the story has a very episodic feel to it, with each year have a beginning, middle and end that segue into each other quite flowingly. However, in between those shifts there does seem to be a bit too much dead weight. There are certain scenes and characters that feel inconsequential to the overall story and could have been cut without any major affect on the story. On top of that, I feel the movie had plenty of opportunities to end sooner than it did. Every time I thought the movie would cut to credits, it kept going and going with details that, while interesting, weren’t exactly necessary. The moment it does decide to end on is good, but by that point it feels like a good cap to an overall insignificant section of the film. Despite this though, the film remains engaging and well paced, mainly thanks to Linklater’s strong direction and writing. Whilst both this and the equally lengthy Transformers: Age of Extinction both overstay their welcome, Boyhood does feel far more worthy of the exuberant run time; it needs only maybe twenty minutes of trimming rather than an entire hour.

Seeing actors grow up over the years is something we’ve seen through a series of films such as the Harry Potter franchise, but seeing one grow up during the process of a single movie is a far more captivating concept. Finding a good child actor is hard enough as it is, but finding one who stays consistently good over such a long period of time is a minor miracle, and Linklater has succeeded in that with Ellar Coltrane. From innocent child to despondent teen to young adult, Coltrane manages to give a genuine performance throughout. The character of Mason isn’t always a likable one, especially in his later years, but he always feels like a real kid and never an adult’s interpretation of a kid. Similar praise can be given to Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei, though I feel her character progression was a bit wavier and near the end she slowly drifts out of the movie. But praise must also go to the adults, whose physical changes may be less drastic but their performances are just as excellent. Patricia Arquette hasn’t been this good since True Romance in my opinion, playing one of the most frustrated but sincere mothers put to screen; her final scene with Coltrane in particular being a real show-stealer. Ethan Hawke isn’t in the movie as much, but whenever he is it lights up. Hawke brings a lot of humour and fun to proceedings, and many of the film’s best moments are thanks to him. I was always disappointed whenever he left the screen, but it just made me anticipate his return that much more.

Boyhood is a simple tale told in the grandest of fashions. Even taking away the nature of the production, it is still a wonderful film that tells the story of a boy and his family in the most honest but uplifting way. Perhaps it could have done without some of its embellishments, but overall it works tremendously well and I highly encourage you to give it a watch. The filmmakers spent 12 years making it, so it’s only fair that you give three hours to experience it.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Mark Wahlberg (2 Guns), Nicola Peltz (The Last Airbender), Jack Reynor (What Richard Did), Kelsey Grammer (X-Men: The Last Stand), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), TJ Miller (How to Train Your Dragon 2)

Director: Michael Bay (Armageddon)

Writer: Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon)

Runtime: 2 hours 45 minutes

Release Date: 27 June (US), 5 July (UK)

Sigh. I’m tired, dear readers. I’m exhausted and I can barely comprehend what I’m writing at this moment. I just want to go to bed. Not because I’ve done anything physically stressful. Because I just sat through nearly three hours of Bay-hem and my mind is frazzled. But I’d best get my thoughts out now whilst they’re fresh, because before long most of this movie will have probably escaped my brain.

I’ll give Transformers: Age of Extinction this much: it perfectly captures the sugar-infused insanity of a child playing with his toys whilst rambling some nonsense story he’s making up as he goes. That’s how the plot of this fourth instalment feels: haphazard, thrown together, needlessly complicated, filled with clichés, derivative of every other sci-fi film on the market, and without any sort of internal logic or consistency. As I write this, I got out of the theatre less than an hour ago and I can only recall the barest of plot details because most of the film’s unforgivably brutal runtime is just filled with noise. The movie just refuses to end, bombarding you with everything it’s got even when there’s nothing left to throw. Even with the constant carnage, the film just becomes boring as the plot flimsily connects from one overblown action set piece to the next with only the quickest and laziest breaks for plot exposition and character development. I could go into far more detail, but my brain hurts too much for me to bother. If you’ve seen one Transformers movie, you’ve seen them all, so just expect the obvious but with even more OTT bombast.

The bag-wearing lunatic formerly known as Shia LaBoeuf has finally departed the franchise, leaving the post of “unnecessary human protagonist” to be filled by none other than Mark Wahlberg. Whilst having basically nothing but bare bones to work with, Wahlberg does his best to keep the movie alive but he ends up falling back on a lot of his old tricks; he’s far less obnoxious than LaBoeuf, but also far less dynamic. Nicola Peltz might be the best lead actress of the series so far, but she’s also the least well-written character of the lot. She’s is basically there as eye candy and as something to be rescued; when you’re making Megan Fox look like a better-rounded and more three-dimensional character, you are seriously failing. Equally pointless is Jack Reynor, whose relationship with Wahlberg can basically be summed up as, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. Wait, now I like you”. The villains fair a bit better; Kelsey Grammer manages to be a genuinely threatening presence and, surprisingly, the most well defined character. Stanley Tucci is basically playing Evil Steve Jobs (which some may say is the same as regular Steve Jobs), and like in everything he’s in he gives it his all even in the most ludicrous of situations, and also luckily manages to avoid embarrassing himself John Turturro-style. And that’s an impressive feat considering Age of Extinction has some of the worst dialogue I’ve heard this side of a Twilight movie (“Autobots, I vowed to never kill a human, but whoever is responsible for this is going to die.” A bit contradictory, eh Optimus?). As for the Transformers themselves (oh yeah, they’re still in this movie), they just feel like afterthoughts at this point. Peter Cullen still does as good a job as always as Optimus Prime, but the awful dialogue and inconsistent characterisation of the role just ruins it. Bumblebee feels pointless now without LaBoeuf around, John Goodman’s Hound won’t shut up, Ken Watanabe’s Drift is a racial stereotype bordering on offensive, and both Galvatron and the Dinobots are completely wasted. The only interesting new Transformer is Lockdown, a Boba Fett-like rogue with no allegiance and a bad attitude. Pity he gets nowhere near enough screen time.

Do I really need to describe at this point how a Michael Bay movie looks and sounds at this point? Oversaturated colours, sweeping cameras, explosions that look more like fireworks, gratuitous product placement, pervey shots of women’s legs, slow motion, clanging metal, you name it. Bay brought his entire toybox to the party and just threw it on the floor. You know what to expect, you get it in enormous spades, but there is some much of it that the film becomes oversaturated. Do I need to say more?

The first Transformers film is still a guilty pleasure for me; it’s stupid, but not too stupid. This instalment is nowhere near as bad as Revenge of the Fallen (still easily the worst Hollywood blockbuster I can think of), but it’s so monotonous and dull that it makes Dark of the Moon look like a breezy 90-minute romp. The story makes no sense, the characters are bland and/or annoying, the action is just more of the same but bigger, and did I mention that it’s NEARLY THREE HOURS LONG?! If you like the Transformers movies, fine. Go munch on your popcorn and have fun. But I implore everyone: it doesn’t have to be this way. Movies can still be mindless fun and not have to be this insulting. I’m all for movies about giant robots riding on giant dinosaurs that breathe fire and can fly. But you CAN make a movie about giants robots riding on giant dinosaurs that breathe fire and can fly AND give that movie a well-structured story, interesting characters and good balance between action and drama if you just try and put the effort in. The problem is that nobody can be arsed when you can make billions without even bothering with the second part.

FINAL VERDICT: 2.5/10

 

“Mr. Wahlberg, are you hiding Optimus Prime?”

“No, man. We’re not.”

“Is he hiding in that barn over there?”

“What? No!”

Starring: Jon Favreau (The Wolf of Wall Street), John Leguizamo (Ice Age), Sofia Vergara (Modern Family), Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Oliver Platt (X-Men: First Class), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man 3)

Writer/Director: Jon Favreau (Iron Man)

Runtime: 1 hour 54 minutes

Release Date: 9 May (US), 25 June (UK)

Jon Favreau has certainly had one of the more interesting careers in recent film history. After writing and starring in indie classic Swingers, Favreau continued to be a familiar face in movies and on TV whilst transitioning to directing with films like Made, Elf and Zathura, before finally getting a huge break by directing Iron Man and kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a bang. After dabbling with the big boys for a few years, Favreau now returns to his roots with his newest creation Chef. Is this picture the freshest flick on the market, or should it be sent back to the kitchen?

Chef certainly feels like a very personal film for Favreau. Not just because it has the flavour of his earlier work, but also because the film’s story does mirror his own career in many ways. Not that the metaphor ever becomes grading or obtuse, as Favreau resists the temptation to turn the film into an “I hate critics” anthem the way Roland Emmerich and M. Night Shymalan have done in the past, but it’s hard not to see Carl Casper’s struggles paralleling the flack Favreau received for Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens (which I personally think are unfairly shat upon). But putting aside any potential deeper meaning, the story of Chef is a simple but heart-warming and effective tale of a man learning to do what he loves no matter what. The film could have maybe trimmed a little fat around the edges, keeping the pacing and timing a bit tighter, but otherwise this is exactly what I want from this kind of picture. Favreau injects a great deal of passion into the film and it shows on screen, making for a sweet and highly enjoyable trip through the culinary world.

Favreau has certainly never stretched too much as an actor, but he’s very good at what he does and here he’s as endearing as ever. That said, when he flips out on Oliver Platt’s character, it is golden; one of the best freak-outs I’ve seen on screen recently. Favreau has also made some good friends during his time in Hollywood and has assembled an impressive supporting cast to liven up the proceedings; standouts being John Leguizamo, who ends up giving one of the best performances of his career, the young Emjay Anthony, who manages to balance that fine line between cute and smart whilst never feeling like a third wheel, and Oliver Platt as probably the best depiction of a critic since Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

There’s not much to talk about on a technical level here, so instead I’m going to eschew tradition and devote this paragraph to talking about how good the food looks in this movie. In short: I am now very, very hungry. The way the camera lovingly gorges over the food on display here just makes your mouth water, almost like it’s teasing you. I know everyone who’s seen this movie has said the exact same thing, but it bears repeating: don’t see this movie on an empty stomach. You’ll regret it. Not much else to say but if I was working on this movie, I hope this was the stuff they had at craft services.

Chef is a simple but well-crafted and lovingly made dish of a film. I love a good movie about following your passions without worrying about what anyone else thinks, and this is the best film in that vein I’ve seen in quite a while. It can feel a little self-indulgent at points, with the overlong runtime and occasionally invasive subtext, but they’re gripes I can forgive. Much like Chef Casper himself, Jon Favreau has gone back to making the kind of movies he loves and I graciously encourage him to continue his career with this amount of honesty and passion.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

EIFF 2014 Round-Up

Posted: July 2, 2014 in Film Reviews

Here are some quick rambling thoughts on the films I had the opportunity to see at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year:


 

Life After Beth

Amusing and charming little rom-zom-com, though perhaps a little too indie for its own good. Some fun and unexpected performances from Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza and certainly a unique take on the zombie apocalypse, but could have done with some better pacing. If you though Warm Bodies felt too tame, perhaps you might enjoy this take on an undead love story better. 8/10

 

Palo Alto

Yet another Coppola, Gia, has taken up the directing gig, and unfortunately it makes some of Sofia’s worst efforts look like Francis’ best. Adapted from James Franco’s collection of short stories, the film is a meandering contemplation on teen angst but with nothing new or interesting to say about it. The actors try their best and the cinematography is admittedly pretty, but beyond that there was nothing to keep me interested in this flat piece of celluloid. 2/10

 

Intruders (Jo nan-ja-deul)

Fun little Korean horror film. Good use of suspense, location and dark humour. Genuinely didn’t know where it was going, especially the seemingly out-of-nowhere but actually well foreshadowed ending. Perhaps a little too drawn out though; could have been trimmed to speed up the tension. 7/10

 

The Skeleton Twins

Funny and heart-warming dramedy with a warped sense of humour. Some of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s finest work, held together by good supporting work from Ty Burrell and Luke Wilson and a fantastically witty script. Definitely one to watch. 8.5/10

 

Snowpiercer

Bong Joon-ho’s long-awaited sci-fi action extravaganza certainly lives up to the hype, even if it’s not the most original piece of work. Fantastically imaginative production design and action set pieces surrounded by Bioshock-esque satire and some wonderfully broad performances from the likes of Tilda Swinton and John Hurt contrasted against Chris Evans in one of the finest performances of his career. The echoes of Brazil can clearly be heard in this picture along with plenty of other obvious influences, but it has enough it can call its own to be certainly worth a look. Overall, Snowpiercer is just a lot of fun. 8.5/10

 

Castles in the Sky

Inoffensive but ultimately very dry historical drama that feels less like a movie and more like something that would air on BBC Four on a Monday afternoon. Eddie Izzard is perfectly serviceable though I still found his casting somewhat questionable, whilst everyone else is a broad caricature (see Tim McInnery’s performance as Winston Churchill, which basically consists of him jutting his lower lip and slurring his words). Not bad, but not much good either. 4/10

 

Set Fire to the Stars

Interesting if somewhat full-of-itself little film. Gorgeous black and white cinematography, some good performances from Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones, and a few cool scenes both funny and tragic. Found it somewhat unfocused and self-important at points, as the pacing does tend to drag and lengthen a film that isn’t actually that long. Good, but if you want something similar but better, I recommend Kill Your Darlings. 7/10

 

Coherence

Cool and inventive indie sci-fi flick. Grounded but witty script combined with unique and interesting concepts as well as some fun black humour. Saying much more would ruin the fun. I went into this one completely cold, and I think that’s the best way to watch it. If you liked Primer, you’ll probably like this. 7.5/10

 

Cold in July

This one is now in cinemas, and I highly recommend you check it out. Gripping and tense old-school thriller with plenty of twists and a retro synth soundtrack. Fine acting work from Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and a scene-stealing Don Johnson. Possibly my favourite film of the festival. Give it a watch. 8.5/10

 

The Anomaly

Noel Clarke makes his directorial debut with this sci-fi action flick with an interesting premise but terrible execution. The pacing is spotty, the script is plagued with forced exposition and on-the-nose dialogue, and whilst the fight scenes are well shot and choreographed, they overuse the “speed up, slo-mo” effect so much that even Zack Snyder would say it was too much. Plus, apparently the only thing you have to do to make your film look futuristic is slap superfluous blue lights on everything. 3/10

 

The Infinite Man

Humorous and touching Aussie sci-fi rom-com; like Groundhog Day set in the outback. Fun use of repeating and altering scenes. Plus, it gets points for being a sci-fi film that actually, you know, uses science. Also a good example of how to make a high-concept film on a dirt-cheap budget. 7.5/10

 

That Guy Dick Miller

Hilarious and informative documentary; a must-see for film geeks. You’ve probably seen Dick Miller in several films and never even knew who he was, and its great to finally see the story behind the man whose been invading our screen for so long. 8/10

 

Hellion

Touching little indie drama. Strong performances from its kid leads, and good supporting work from Juliette Lewis and Aaron Paul, who thankfully proves he can still act (though I think its safe to say he’s better off as a character actor than trying to be a leading man. Sorry, Need For Speed). 7.5/10

 

We’ll Never Have Paris

Hilarious rom com that doesn’t sugar coat the details; one that feels honest and much closer to real life. A fantastically clever script with fun performances from the entire cast, especially leads Simon Helberg, Melanie Lynskey and Maggie Grace. It’s like a date movie for people who don’t particularly like date movies. 8.5/10

 

X/Y

Occasionally interesting but mostly flat. A series of short stories about the modern concept of romance, but rarely do these people’s problems feel more than just the whining of over-privileged twenty-something Caucasians. Some interesting moments and decent performances, but overall nothing much outstanding. 5/10

 

Joe

Nicolas Cage finally goes back to his roots and gives us possibly his best serious performance since Adaptation; it’s like his answer to Mud, some much so that they actually got the kid from Mud. Also a return to form for David Gordon Green, who has finally escaped the realm of bad studio comedies (still doesn’t excuse Your Highness). Funny, poignant and bleak, often all at the same time, any true fan of His Cageness should certainly give it a watch. 8/10

Starring: Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Ansel Elgort (Divergent), Nat Wolff (Admission), Laura Dern (Jurassic Park), Sam Trammell (True Blood), Willem Dafoe (Platoon)

Director: Josh Boone (Stuck in Love)

Writers: Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer)

Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes

Release Date: 6 June (US), 19 June (UK)

As if creating a compelling love story wasn’t already a hard enough task, the concept of trying to craft one where your leads are slowly dying seems excruciatingly difficult. But much like the protagonists of The Fault in Our Stars, this is a film that isn’t afraid of insurmountable feats. It stands tall and does its best to tell the story it wants to tell, and despite the odds it comes out a winner.

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As mentioned above, The Fault in Our Stars deals with the sensitive subject matter of cancer. But rather than using this concept for overwrought schmaltz, the film goes for a jovial but grounded tone. The film’s story always tries to look on the bright side of life, but it never tries to sugar coat every moment. Whenever I felt the movie was getting a little too trite, they would always reel it back in and drop some heavy stuff. This balanced approach makes the film feel that much more genuine, for what is love and life but a series of ups and downs? I will admit that I think the film does go on a little too long and could have been trimmed a bit here or there, but otherwise the film feels well paced and structured. It’s a film that manages to hit all the emotional beats it is going for, and that is surprisingly rare for most movies in general these days.

Besides a strong and convincing script, every great love story needs its leads and Fault in Our Stars has wrangled together a winning couple in Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. The film ultimately belongs to Woodley, who brings a genuine heart to every moment. There was never a second where I doubted her performance, her personality outshining her character’s affliction and hitting every beat with just the right amount of warmth and honesty. I can’t quite say the same for Elgort, whose overeager optimism occasionally made him feel like a person too good to be true. But every time I began to lose faith in him, Elgort would say or do something that just made him endearing enough, and his strong chemistry with Woodley cannot be denied. The rest of the cast works fine as well. Nat Wolff provides some fun relief as the bland Isaac, even though his character’s arc seemed blatantly obvious from the moment he opened his mouth, whilst Laura Dern manages to squeeze in a real genuine moment between her and Woodley near the close of the film. Willem Dafoe’s role is very brief, but as always with Dafoe he is a magnetic presence whenever he is on screen, especially when playing a bitter bastard like he is here.

The Fault in Our Stars is a sweet but genuine love story, one where the heavy subject matter works to its advantage rather than the other way round. The film ultimately works due to Woodley and Elgort’s fantastic chemistry, supported by a well-crafted screenplay and simple but effective direction, managing to keep the schmaltz levels to the absolute minimum. It will certainly be a tearjerker for some, but the film’s final triumphant message means that you shouldn’t be too depressed when you leave the theatre.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

Starring: Jay Baruchel (This Is the End), Gerard Butler (300), Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), America Ferrera (Ugly Betty), Craig Ferguson (Kick-Ass), Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), T.J. Miller (Cloverfield), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Kit Harington (Game of Thrones)

Writer/Director: Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch)

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 13 June (US), 11 July (UK)

How to Train Your Dragon was a humungous step forward for the folks at DreamWorks Animation. After years of providing Shrek and Shrek-like films, the studio proved they could make a more mature animated film that was more about heart than pop culture references. With that said, I was immediately wary when they announced a sequel. The first film worked so well as a self-contained story, and continuing with no purpose other than the allure of the box office is never how a good sequel comes to fruition. But after finally seeing the finished product, my heart rests easy. How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn’t just meet expectations. It defies them.

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The film’s story avoids the easy option of just doing the same film again but bigger, and does what all great sequels are supposed to do: widen the scope of the world and bring the characters on a raw emotional journey with high stakes. Unlike most sequels that play it safe, How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes some pretty big risks with the storytelling, making for a much more thrilling but also darker film. The Empire Strikes Back constantly popped in my mind as the film went on, but in very much a good way. But with that said, the film never looses the heart-warming charm that made the first film so endearing. The humour remains strong but avoids being too cartoony, and that grimmer tone just makes the triumphant moments that much more powerful. The pacing is expertly balanced, moving from character building to action with nary a fault, and because of that there is never a single dull moment to be had. In a nutshell, How to Train Your Dragon 2 does everything a sequel is supposed to do to near perfection.

If I had any fault with the first film, it was that the character of Hiccup was somewhat of a generic kids’ film protagonist: the clever but bumbling neurotic that doesn’t fit in and no one listens to. The character ultimately works thanks to his relationship with his dragon Toothless, and this time around Hiccup has far more to worry about than fitting in. The film is ultimately Hiccup’s coming-of-age story, and the arc plays out beautifully thanks to the strong writing and Jay Baruchel’s vocal performance (on a side note, it was amusing to finally see a film call out Baruchel on his odd voice and mannerisms). America Ferrera gets a little more to do as Astrid than she did in the original, but like with the last film I wish there was more time to develop her and Hiccup’s relationship. Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller and Kristen Wiig all return also, and whilst they basically do the same shtick they were doing last time, it still feels fresh enough and they remain a fun presence; similar comments can be made about Craig Ferguson’s Gobber. Gerard Butler’s Stoick remains a gruff but appealing character, but is also allowed some true emotional moments as well that round him out in many ways. On the new blood front, Cate Blanchett’s Valka feels like a strong addition and provides a lot of the whimsical moments the series does so well, whilst Kit Harington as Eret is a somewhat inconsequential but fun character to add to the mix (and also a role that finally allows Harington to play someone other than Jon Snow or characters exactly like Jon Snow). Where the film falters somewhat is in the villain Drago, played by Djimon Hounsou. Whilst there is a little bit more to him than just “evil madman who wants to take over the world”, it still never feels quite enough to make him feel like more than just a menacing face.

The first How to Train Your Dragon was lauded for its beautiful animation and incredible use of 3-D, and the same can be said for its sequel. The quality and fluidity of the animation is awesome, rendering this beautiful and varied world in much better detail. Whereas the first film was about impressive fire effects, this one animates water, ice and snow to almost photo-realistic levels; whenever a character isn’t directly on screen, you could mistake some of the environments for reality. The 3-D pops just as much as the first, making those flying sequences just as exhilarating as you remember. The production design remains strong, especially in all of the imaginative designs of the new dragon species, with both them and the locations having a very strong Miyazaki influence to them. Finally, John Powell’s score is just as excellent as his work on the first, providing strong retoolings of the original’s themes as well as some great new pieces.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is exactly the kind of sequel you want but rarely ever get. The story never feels like a rehash and crafts a narrative that builds upon the strengths of the original, expanding this tale of a boy and his dragon into something far more spectacular. The characters are as endearing and memorable as ever, the action sequences are packed with energy and imagination, and the animation quality is easily the best DreamWorks has rendered to date. Aside from a somewhat weak villain and some minor niggles not worth mentioning, this is everything you want from a sequel, an animated film, and just an all-round great film in general. Ultimately, I think the reason both How to Train Your Dragon films work so well is that they’re not just films for kids. They’re films that anyone can enjoy for all the right reasons, and I think both of them are strong enough to become timeless classics that will be enjoyed for many generations to come.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

Starring: Karen Gillan (Doctor Who), Brendon Thwaites (Maleficent), Katee Sackhoff (Riddick), Rory Cochrane (Argo)

Director: Mike Flanagan (Absentia)

Writers: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard

Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes

Release Date: 11 April (US), 13 June (UK)

It’s very hard to impress me with horror films, usually because after watching so many I now know all the tricks. They’re fairly simple to make, but extremely difficult to make well, and most don’t cut the mustard. Every year, dozens of horror movies are released but maybe only one or two actually work for me, and even then I often appreciate them for anything but the actual scares. So how does Oculus fare in this crowded market?

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Despite containing some gore and slasher elements, Oculus is a psychological horror film at heart; it wants to mess with your mind as much as it wants to shock you with horrid imagery. The film does have a good set-up and a haunting ambiance about it, helping proceedings greatly. The story is told through two simultaneous narratives, one in the past and one in the present but both following the same characters. These stories often reflect and even cross between each other in odd ways, creating a very disconcerting atmosphere and keeping you in the characters’ mindset of “What the hell is going on?” The story has a classic feel to it, but brings modern technology into the mix which it then uses to further f*ck with the characters; it’s nice to see a horror film actually use phones, computers and cameras to its advantage rather than disregard them. The exposition at times can be a bit clunky, as evidenced by an extended scene where Kaylie (Karen Gillan) literally talks to the camera and explains the history of this haunted mirror. I know they’re trying to get away with it because she’s recording all this information for safety, but it’s not exactly a sound way to get across your back-story. The somewhat stitled dialogue penetrates other scenes as well, such as a scene where Kaylie wakes from a nightmare and her fiancé decides to say, “It’s OK. It’s just one of your night terrors”. Yeah, like we didn’t get that. Also, some of the foreshadowing is a little obvious, including one detail that I saw coming a mile away that actually caps off the story, and the film runs just a little too long for comfort.

I’ve not really watched Doctor Who in a long time so I can’t judge Karen Gillan as a whole but here she’s effective, mainly because Kaylie is thankfully not written as some shrieking scream queen. She’s a confident and determined person, but she’s still human enough to be freaked out by all the events going on around her. Brendon Thwaites fares better here as Tim than he did as Prince Plot Device in Maleficent (yes, I’m still not over that), though his early scenes where he’s constantly doing the whole “rational explanation” bit that I so hate in modern horror films can be somewhat grading. Annalise Basso and Garret Ryan play Kaylie and Tim as their younger selves, and they are surprisingly much more convincing than most child actors. I think the film ultimately works because of the brother/sister relationship between Kaylie and Tim, a dynamic not seen in enough films in general, as they both bond and bicker like real siblings in the midst of this terrifying situation. Katee Sackhoff is allowed to show a lot of range here as the pair’s mother, switching from confident mother to paranoid wreck to possessed monster and doing all very effectively. Rory Cochrane as the father comes off as a little too much at points but still provides a good menacing presence, whilst every other character in the movie is basically just a plot point. I know films often have incidental characters, but when you introduce a character’s fiancé and they end up being a footnote in the plot it’s a bit distracting.

As I said before, Oculus’ atmosphere is thick. Whilst the scares themselves aren’t often anything that special, it’s the build-up and aftermath of them that really sinks in. This is thanks to simple but very effective cinematography and editing, timed acutely to the action and blurring the borders between past, present, imagination and reality. The film’s production design isn’t anything special with exception of the haunted mirror at the centrepiece of it all. The look of this thing strikes the right balance, being different enough to be more than just any old mirror but not so overly designed that you’d question why no one else thinks this thing is evil.

Oculus isn’t a game changer in any way for the horror genre, but it has enough going for it to be worth your time. The acting and characters are solid enough, the general idea of the story is captivating and the atmosphere of the piece is genuinely disconcerting. I just wished it trusted the audience a bit more and didn’t feel the need to feed us clunky exposition and make all the symbolism so blindingly obvious.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Starring: Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Channing Tatum (White House Down), Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Amber Stevens (The Amazing Spider-Man), Wyatt Russell (Cowboys & Aliens)

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie)

Writers: Michael Baccall (Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and Oren Uziel (Mortal Kombat: Rebirth) and Rodney Rothman (Grudge Match)

Runtime: 1 hour 51 minutes

Release Date: 6 June (UK), 13 June (US)

“Sequels, man. They’re rarely ever as good as the original,” said everyone ever. It’s a statement repeated so many times, the statement itself has become a cliché. But for every few inferior sequels, there is that one that equals its predecessor or, in super-special cases, surpasses it. So which camp does 22 Jump Street fall into? Comedy sequels are usually especially tainted to be terrible, so Phil Lord & Chris Miller were really going to have to pull something special to make this movie work. But remember: they are Phil Lord & Chris Miller, so why should we be worried?

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Very much like how 21 Jump Street was aware of itself as a reboot of an 80’s property that no one cared about and played with it, 22 Jump Street is aware of itself as a sequel to a highly successful movie with a similar plot and bigger budget and they play with that. The story feels very similar to the first one, but they know it and they both make fun of it and play with your expectations at the same time. It’s a comedy goldmine that keeps giving every time you think it runs dry, though all the great non-meta humour also helps support the film and makes sure the film isn’t just a bunch of deconstructive, self-referential jabs at Hollywood sequels. Taking away the humour, the story itself isn’t quite as good as the first one but the movie works where it really counts, moving at a fast clip and never stooping to crass humour. Oh, and one more hyperbolic note: best end credits sequence from any movie ever. Ever!

The main reason 21 Jump Street worked was because of the fantastic chemistry between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum and it’s just as sharp here, if not more so. Their bromantic relationship is played to the limits (and I mean THE limits), and the two never seem lost for words as they throw jokes back and forth. They’re a classic comedy duo for the modern age, and I’d love to see these two do more movies together. Ice Cube returns and is even funnier here in what might be the man’s finest performance, even managing to get in on the action this time around. Tatum has a fun subplot with Wyatt Russell as his new BFF, though its resolution feels a bit rushed. Hill’s relationship with new love interest Amber Stevens feels similarly cut short, but the jokes mined from that are so funny that it doesn’t matter. The villains are a bit weaker here than the first, with Peter Stormare’s one joke of being behind the times starts to run thin, but the film quickly wraps up before it starts to get grading. I also wish there was a bit more from cast members of the first film, as Tatum’s old nerd friends only have a couple of walk-ons and Brie Larson’s character isn’t even mentioned; a subject that could have made for a fun self-referential joke, but they totally pass it up. The movie is also super-stuffed with fun cameos, none of which I’ll spoil here, but rest assured they all work extremely well.

Action comedies need to deliver on the action as well as the comedy, and 22 Jump Street manages to deliver on both ends of the bargain. Whilst not exactly as spectacular as something you’d find in a straight-up action flick, the film does have some entertaining set pieces leading to a really fun climax at Spring Break. The cinematography is bright and colourful, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s music brings back a lot of the cues from the first one as well as some fun uses of popular tunes. The visual effects aren’t that important, but their use during the new drug trip sequence is really cheesy in a good way.

22 Jump Street transcends the expectations of the Hollywood sequel by picking it apart bit by bit and then reassembling it into something new but familiar. Everything you loved about the first one is here in spades, and is easily the best comedy of the year so far. Phil Lord & Chris Miller have managed to make two excellent movies in one year, certifying their status as a creative team that can’t be rivalled. Where the franchise goes from here is very much addressed in the film, but I do think it’d be best to stop now whilst they’re on a high or go in a totally new and insane direction for the follow-up. But as for where Lord & Miller go next with their career? That’s the question I wanted answered.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Maleficent, Disney’s reimagining of their beloved classic Sleeping Beauty focusing on it’s beloved antagonist, recently hit multiplexes across the globe to box office success but mixed reviews. What did I think of it?

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To quote the late Roger Ebert’s classic review of North: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it.”

But until I really thought about it, I couldn’t figure out exactly why. Sure, there were obvious things like the contrived and nonsensical plot, the bland and uninteresting characters, the terribly stilted dialogue combined with the flat direction of the actors, but there was something else deep within this film that just didn’t sit right with me. And when I finally figured it out, this film went from just another bad movie to quite possibly the worst film I’ve seen so far this year. And I saw Sabotage. But to do this, I’m going have to go into SPOILERS. So only proceed if you’ve seen the movie or you don’t plan on doing so. If it’s the latter, best keep it that way.

To give you an idea of what leads into this insanity, allow me to briefly recap the plot. The story opens with a young Maleficent, who’s now a fairy or something with massive wings and horns, flying around through the magical forest without a care in the world. She comes across a young boy with a horrifically overdone Scottish accent called Stefan, who tries to steal some glowing rock that never becomes important (my guess is it was some unobtainium). The two begin to bond through the briefest of montages, culminating in them sharing “true love’s kiss”. But Stefan’s lust for power, hinted at offhandedly when Stefan points at the castle and says, “I want to live there one day”, draws him away from Maleficent. Because all men are evil or some sh*t.

“You see that over there? That’s my poorly defined motivation sitting on that hill.”

So it’s years later and Maleficent has grown up into Angelina Jolie, causing her skin to become paler and bright red lipstick to be permanently stuck to her mouth. The king and his men come to her forest for its “treasures” (again, I’m pretty sure it’s unobtainium), but Maleficent and her not-Ents ward off the evil men and injure the king in the process. Now on his deathbed and without an heir, the king promises the crown to whoever can slay Maleficent. And who should happen to be in the room but Stefan, now played by District 9’s Sharlto Copley with an even more overdone Scottish accent, who I guess went from random farmboy to nurse to the king during…however long it’s been since he dumped Maleficent. With his “evil man” urges kicking in, Stefan sets off to the woods. And this is where it starts to get disturbingly bonkers.

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: the wings, the horns, or those massive cheekbones.

Stefan reunites with Maleficent, who seems initially bitter about Stefan’s abandonment but then quickly forgives him for being such a power-hungry jerk. Actually, correction: the intrusive and unnecessary narrator tells us she quickly forgives him for being such a power-hungry jerk. After snuggling together by the lake, Stefan gives Maleficent a drink from his flask. But surprise! Stefan has pulled a Snow White on Maleficent and fed her a sleeping potion. Knocked out and I guess now numbed to any pain, Stefan initially plans to kill Maleficent in her sleep but can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he simply chops off her wings and brings those before the king as proof that he “killed” her. Maleficent wakes up the next morning to discover her wings gone. She cries out in grief, now believing that “true love” is a lie and her path to the dark side begins.

Here’s where the disturbing symbolism kicks in…

If the whole subtext wasn’t made clear in that last paragraph, I’ll spell it out for you. Stefan seduces, drugs and rapes Maleficent. Not literally, but he might as well have.

(Feel free to burst into an overly jovial and awkwardly out of place rendition of “Once Upon A Dream” here to offset the dirtiness of that last statement.)

Wow. Just…just…wow. I never thought I’d see the day where the main motivation of the character of a Disney film is revenge for their metaphorical defilement. Words can barely describe it, but I’m going to try anyway.

Firstly, the lead-up to this event. Maleficent forgives Stefan for ignoring her and lusting after power instead of staying with her. Since when did one of Disney’s most iconic villains become one of those abused girlfriends who refuse to leave their dick boyfriends because “he didn’t mean it. He’s sorry. He really does love me.”? Even before we get to the wing cutting, I could tell something was up from that. The way the narrator tells us that “Maleficent forgave him for his follies”; it came off with a very disturbing vibe. Then Stefan drugs her with a potion that might as well be labeled “Ye Olde Rohypnol”. That doesn’t help sway this metaphor either.

It’s a real accomplishment when the malformed half-alien man you played is less disgusting of a character than this.

But now the “rape” itself. Several times before this, we’ve seen Maleficent fly around her forest and the sky. Her wings represent her freedom, her individuality, her feminine prowess and, most prominently, her innocence. When she does this for the first time as an adult, we get the sense she’s doing it to distract her from the fact she’s felt lonely since Stefan lost interest in her. It’s clear that she’s now a woman, but she still wants that “true love” promised to her as a child. So when Stefan returns to her, she forgives him because she thinks she’s going to get that love. But when Stefan her wings, he takes away what defines her and leaves nothing but an empty shell. The young girl who believed in true love has been destroyed, and she weeps and screams in agony when she realises what has happened to her. Stefan effectively robs Maleficent of her innocence.

Enjoy those wings while you can, Maleficent. Because soon the evils of man will rob you of your ability to escape.

Now let me make this clear: I’m not saying that turning Maleficent into a rape revenge story is a bad idea. If done in a way that lets it go balls to the wall and rip the source material to shreds the way someone like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore might do, it has the potential to be an interesting deconstruction of the fairy tale. The problem is that it isn’t that at all. The filmmakers don’t have the balls to go through with it, and it just makes the film even more of a jumbled mess of ill-conceived ideas than it already is. If the story had been bright and whimsical but then after Maleficent loses her wings it becomes a darker story, I would have been more on board. But the film is still trying to appeal to the kids in the audience, throwing in bad comic relief such as the three fairies (who, by the way, have gone from the most competent characters in Sleeping Beauty to Three Stooges levels of buffoonish) and instead of an outright revenge flick we get a story about Maleficent learning to become good again through her sudden connection to Stefan’s daughter Aurora. Bull. F*cking. Sh*t.

Maleficent: mistress of all evil and reluctant nanny.

So you’re going to go as far as to have pretty obvious symbolism for rape in your kids’ movie, but then you’re going to sugarcoat it and turn it into a weak attempt at girl power? I’m sorry, I don’t buy it. If you want me to take that subtext seriously, you’re going to have to back it up and make this go in a far more destructive direction. For f*ck’s sake, Maleficent’s name is derived from the word ‘malefic’, which means ‘causing or capable of causing harm or destruction, especially by supernatural means’. Why isn’t she going all out crazy on Stefan and the humans, Magneto style? Why is her joy in causing Stefan pain so short-lived before she starts playing Fairy Godmother to Aurora for no adequately explained reason (I like to think Maleficent sees Aurora as the child she and Stefan never had, which is just another whole shade of wrong.)? It almost feels like the film was initially pitched as more aimed towards an older audience, but then Disney made them tone it down to have broader appeal. If the movie ever had an edge to it, it’s been lost and, much like Maleficent’s wings, any potential power the subtext could have had has been chopped off at the roots. If after all of that bad sh*t happened to her she became the exact character she was in Sleeping Beauty and stayed that way, making her outright villainous but still retaining that sympathy because we can get behind her motivations, this could have maybe worked. Say what you will about Oz The Great and Powerful, but when The Wicked Witch of the West turns evil in that movie she becomes fully evil. Here, Maleficent almost immediately regrets cursing Aurora and tries to reverse it but can’t, and the only way to break the spell is “true love’s kiss” which, because of her scorning, she made the breaker of the curse because she doesn’t believe it exists.

Oh yeah, the prince is in the movie. Basically he’s here as a plot device and as a way to rip off the end of Frozen.

But the main reason I take umbrage with this whole concept is because it shockingly comes across as both misandristic and misogynistic at the same time. Now there’s an oxymoron for you! The story paints all of the humans, but especially the men, as complete douches who want nothing more than to rule over everything, and it just comes across as shallow and lazy feminism. I know you can say it’s a fairy tale where everything is morally black or white, but if you’re going to try and give Maleficent all of these shades of grey, why not portray Stefan that way too? Why not make his motivations and character more complex and interesting, or give him a character arc beyond becoming MORE crazy and power hungry as the film goes on? Instead, Stefan becomes a cardboard cutout of a misogynist with nothing up for interpretation.

“Why am I evil? I don’t know. Testosterone or something, I guess.”

But by doing this, it all backfires in the message of the film’s face. The story makes Maleficent a woman scorned in order to give her motivation. But my question is: why, of all the things in the world, did they choose love? Oh right: because she’s a woman, and apparently that’s all they care about. By making her motivation so insultingly simple and belittlingly broad (in both senses of the word), it completely undermines the point it’s trying to get across. Maleficent is, essentially, trying to be a power fantasy for women who feel they’ve been wronged by men and wish they could take revenge; basically Sucker Punch but without the fetishistic tendencies.

I know what you’re about to say: “What about all the male power fantasy movies we always see? Why isn’t it OK for it to be flipped around on men for once?” I’m not saying that at all. I’m all for strong female characters. You don’t see enough of them and even when they try they usually get it wrong. Maleficent is one of the ones that gets it wrong. Instead of trying to subvert, it simply reverses the target. Instead of trying to take a more interesting view on the subject of an abusive relationship, it panders to the female audience for lazy empowerment. And that’s what I meant by that aforementioned oxymoron: it’s misandristic because it paints the male characters in such a despicable light, but it’s misogynistic because the film basically says, “If you wrong a woman, she will turn evil and become hell-bent on taking revenge on you”. Because all women who have an abusive boyfriend apparently become obsessed with causing them misery.

So Maleficent’s motivation went from being “angry because she’s not invited to a party” to “angry because her childhood sweetheart turned out to be a dick”. Not sure that’s an improvement.

What I’m trying to say is: after years of women being portrayed in films and other media as curvy objects meant to fulfil men’s sexual desires, wouldn’t you rather see the women try to take the high ground? Wouldn’t you rather see them be the better people instead of just throwing the hate back in the other direction? Because have both sides throwing venom at each other doesn’t solve the problem. Yes, men more than deserve some sh*t for how women are often treated, but not like this. Can’t we all just act like modern and civilised adults, put aside our grievances, and make something a bit more mature? And by mature, I don’t mean adult or dark. By mature, I mean balanced, thought-out, and provoking in the right way. Maleficent fails as a piece of feminist media because it doesn’t do anything to make itself better than chauvinists it’s fighting against, and by making its protagonist an allegorical representation of a rape victim it highlights this problem with flashing lights and diminishes any respect I could have had for the film. That’s why I find it more than just another poorly made Hollywood blockbuster. That’s why I find it far more egregious than boring trash like Pompeii or I, Frankenstein. Because it horrifically and shockingly fails to do what it’s trying to do. Because of this movie, I will never be able to watch Sleeping Beauty the same way again (for all the wrong reasons), and I’m dreading to think what warped subversion Disney and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella film will make when it is unleashed next year.