Month: July 2016

Finding Dory

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31/07/16

Pixar don’t often do sequels and they’ve certainly waited a long time before offering this one, following on from Finding Nemo (2002). This film concentrates on the character of Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) the fish with short term memory disorder. We start with her as a child desperately trying to follow the instructions of her parents and then cut to one year after the events of ‘Nemo’ with Marlin (Albert Brooks) still trying to cope with his best friend’s irritating habit of repeating everything at five minute intervals. Somewhere amidst the flashbacks she regularly encounters, Dory remembers her doting parents and before you can say ‘tunafish’ she and Marlin and Nemo (Hayden Rolance) have set off on an epic quest to find them.

What can I say about this film? Obviously, it’s not aimed at people of my age and obviously, it reintroduces a raft of characters from the original film. I remember enjoying Nemo and I guess I mostly enjoyed this one. The animation is as customarily dazzling as you’d expect from Pixar and perhaps it’s unfair to attribute the occasional forays into cheesy fridge magnet mawkishness to the fact that Disney now own the animation studio and are bound to exert a certain influence. It also occurred to me somewhere along the way that the story could be interpreted as an metaphor about senile dementia, but perhaps I’m over over-thinking something that has much less serious intentions.

There are good elements scattered throughout proceedings. I particularly liked a pair of indolent (English) sea lions and Hank (Ed O Neill) the intrepid octopus (or should that be septopus, since he’s missing a tentacle?) A sequence towards the film’s finale depicting an articulated lorry going over a cliff in slow-motion is suitably awe-inspiring, and  – even if, ultimately, Finding Dory is just swimming gamely along in the wake of its ground-breaking progenitor – it is beautifully done and there’s much to commend it.

Kiddie-winks will love this; and do try to get along early enough to see Piper, the by now traditional short animation that precedes the main feature.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Jason Bourne

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30/07/16

The Bourne franchise has been through some interesting twists and turns since its inception in 2002. Created by director, Doug Limon, the first instalment was successful enough to engender two assured sequels, both directed by Paul Greengrass, at which point its influence could be seen in several other films, most notably in Casino Royale, where the Bond series could almost have been accused of plagiarising Greengrass’s frantic, shakey-cam style. When Matt Damon and Greengrass both announced they’d had enough, The Bourne Legacy attempted to fill the gap with Jeremy Renner stepping into the lead role, but it failed to do the kind of numbers that the previous films had achieved and many people thought that it had run its course.

Now, despite all their protestations, Damon and Greengrass are back at the helm and the big question on everyone’s lips is ‘can they pull it off a third time?’

The answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ There may not be much depth to these films but they do grip like a steel vice as they race relentlessly from one chase to another, while all the supporting characters gleefully double cross each other at every opportunity. This is kinetic cinema at its most compelling. It puts you right in the driver’s seat and it’s an enthralling, exciting ride.

When we first meet Jason in this adventure, he’s been reduced to illegal boxing to make ends meet, something he does with his customary mixture of skill and melancholy – but when Nicky Parsons (Julia Styles) comes back into his life, it soon becomes evident that Bourne is not yet finished with Treadstone and it is not finished with him. Reptillian CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) is still pulling the strings and now he has ambitious new recruit Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) to help him engineer the capture of his most elusive enemy. He also has The Asset (Vincent Cassel) hiding behind every corner with a high-powered rifle, ready to blow Bourne’s brains across the screen should he try to evade the elaborate traps that have been set for him by the powers-that-be. And just to add a touch of contemporary relevance, there’s a Mark Zuckerberg-like entrepreneur (Riz Ahmed) who’s multi-billion dollar social network empire has, it appears, been built on rather dodgy foundations.

Stir it all together with a selection of pulverising car chases, brutal punch ups and vicious shoot-outs and we have another pulse pounding instalment of one of the most successful franchises in film history. If you liked the other films, you’ll enjoy this one. You might argue that Jason Bourne offers nothing new to the established formula but when it’s put together as brilliantly as this, you’ll get no complaints from me.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Star Trek Beyond

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23/07/81

Star Trek has had a somewhat chequered history in the movies, a series that started well, peaked around the  third film and then become increasingly moribund with each successive instalment. In 2009, J.J. Abrams managed to deliver a great big kick up the franchise, revitalising the whole shebang – and while his sequel, Into Darkness wasn’t quite as assured, managing to upset a lot of Trek stalwarts with it’s reinventions, it was nonetheless, well told and fairly absorbing. Now Justin Lin (of the Fast and Furious movies) picks up the baton and attempts to run with it. Oh dear, oh dear…

Things start promisingly enough with a clever sight gag and soon after that, a sequence where The Enterprise arrives at a remote space station, a stunning construction that looks like it might have been designed by Escher – but when Kirk (Chris Pine) agrees to go and help some captives on a beleaguered planet, he and his intrepid crew soon realise that they have wandered into an elaborate trap, set by the villainous Krall (a virtually unrecognisable Idris Elba) and a huge space battle ensues. It goes on for what seems like weeks and the fact that it occurs in murky, half-darkness does nothing for an audience’s ability to follow what’s happening. Soon, the familiar characters are aboard escape pods and hurtling towards different locations, where they will have to regroup in order to stop Krall from employing a terrible weapon…

There are a few moments here, where Lin remembers that what has always fuelled Gene Roddenberry’s creation most effectively is the interplay between the characters. But whenever there’s a danger of things getting interesting, the script by Simon Pegg (who should have known better) and several other broth-spoilers, flings us back in the direction of yet another interminable pitched battle. And the franchise finds itself  in the doldrums once again, undoing all of Abrams hard work. A coda where a character solemnly intones the old bit about ‘boldly going to strange new worlds’ seems all the more ironic.

There’s nothing new or interesting here, just the resounding clunk of a missed opportunity.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

The BFG

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22/07/16

It sounded like a marriage made in heaven – Steven Spielberg takes on one of Roald Dahl’s best-loved tales, with a screenplay by ET author Melissa Mathison (who recently died of cancer and to whom this film is respectfully dedicated). And there’s surely much to admire in this handsomely mounted, big screen production. Newcomer Ruby Barnhill, who plays the role of Sophie, is leagues away from the usual cheesy Hollywood starlet and, as the titular big friendly giant, Mark Rylance is perfectly charming, his features projecting a whole range of emotions to camera. And yet… there’s something curiously inert about this film. Every image might look like something you could put in a gilt frame but the story itself is… dare I say it? A bit dull. There’s none of the peril that you’ll usually find in a Dahl story; indeed, the plot here is thin and, at times, downright illogical. And then, of course, there’s Spielberg’s inevitable proclivity for the sentimental, something that Dahl (bless him) could never have been accused of.

In 1980s London, young Sophie dwells in a peculiar sort of orphanage. In the small hours of the morning, she looks out of the window and spots a giant wandering the alleyways of the city and, because she has seen him, he grabs her and takes her away to ‘Giant Country,’ where she quickly discovers that this big friendly giant is, in fact, a bit of a runt, constantly bullied by other, bigger giants. She accompanies him to his work, where he catches dreams and stores them in bottles – it’s never really clear why.

The audience this afternoon is largely made up of youngsters but it’s quickly apparent by all the restless trips to the toilet that the film isn’t really grabbing them. An extended farting sequence at Buckingham Palace has them laughing but it’s over much too quickly,  and they’re soon back to fidgeting and chatting. I’m afraid I am in total agreement with them. Spielberg is the closest you could reasonably expect to provide  a capable set of hands at the tiller of any celluloid voyage but this particular journey soon finds itself becalmed and that’s a genuine shame.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Ghostbusters

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15/07/16

The 2016 Ghostbusters reboot is an interesting phenomenon, having caused something of a storm with its supposedly controversial recasting of the phantom-fighters as women. The predictable misogyny that followed threatened to overshadow a film that surely never purported to be a political vehicle of any kind: it’s a goofy, spoofy comedy, all slime and silliness.

And those who protested must feel foolish now, because the all-female team works really well. The film is about four people; their gender is never an issue here. It’s refreshing, too, to see larger women on screen without a focus on their size. There are no fat jokes. And this is good. The performances are uniformly strong, the bold, cartoonish characters brought wonderfully to life. Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, and Kristen Wiig make a great ensemble, and Chris Hemsworth’s nice-but-dim receptionist is a neat little role-reversal that simply shows how poorly women have been served in film.

It’s a shame, then, that the story isn’t stronger, that there’s never any sense of peril or tension. In fairness, this could equally be said of the 1984 original, but it was something I hoped they’d improve upon. It all feels very safe indeed. Maybe I’m fussy, but I like my ghosts to be scary – even if they’re funny too. It’s much more of a kids’ movie than I expected, with little in the way of extra layers or subtlety to elevate it from its central premise.

It’s fun though, and worth seeing.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

HMS Pinafore

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14/07/16

I had better come clean here and admit that my knowledge of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan is scant to say the very least, extending to viewings of Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy (1999) and The Pirate Movie (1982), both of which I enjoyed. So the opportunity to review this visiting production at the Lowry theatre left me feeling slightly apprehensive, aware as I was that fans of the Victorian composers are a devoted crew who would instantly sense if I don’t really know what I’m talking about. To add to the potential pitfalls, Sasha Regan’s adaptation of the musical is not exactly a straightforward one. No petticoats and bonnets here. The gimmick – and I think it’s fair to call it that – is that every role is portrayed by a male performer. Yes, even Buttercup!

The setting is that of a World War II battleship and the action takes place almost entirely below decks, with rows of metal bunk beds as a backdrop. The intimation here is of the crewmen putting on an impromptu performance to keep themselves amused on a long voyage. Costume changes are achieved merely by ‘tweaking’ the sailor’s uniforms, by the actor’s body language and by the pitch of the voices. Ben Irish (Josephine) affects a startling soprano, while David McKechnie is totally convincing in the pivotal role of Buttercup. By contrast, Neil Moors as Captain Corcoran is blusteringly macho (the physical exercise routine he leads as he croons I Am The Captain of the Pinafore is a particular highlight while in the second half, a mostly acapella rendition of A Many Years Ago is actually breathtakingly lovely.

There’s no orchestra here, just a highly skilled piano player, who must qualify as the hardest working member of the cast. If not every word of every song is audible that’s more a problem of the venue’s acoustics and the fact that as far as I can see, nobody is wearing a microphone. The elderly lady sitting next to me, who introduces herself as a G & S fanatic, tells me it helps to know all the songs by heart, but she thinks the idea of an all-male cast is ‘a delightful concept.’ I tend to agree with her. Clearly, the audience loves what they hear and applauds heartily at the conclusion. Admirers of Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan will need to get themselves along to the Lowry pretty smartly if they wish to enjoy this as HMS Pinafore is only there until the 16th of July after which it sets sail in the direction of Salisbury.

All aboard!

4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Neon Demon

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12/07/16

The films of Nicolas Winding Refn are never less than thought-provoking. His thriller, Drive, had him teetering dangerously close to creating a mainstream hit, while the ‘mad-as-frogs-but-utterly watchable’ Only God Forgives offered a weird mash up of sex, violence and extreme karaoke. In The Neon Demon, Refn takes on the fashion industry and the result might be his most assured effort yet.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is a naïve would-be model, newly arrived in the charnel house of Los Angeles haute couture, hoping to carve out some kind of career for herself. In her own estimation, she can’t write, sing or act, she has no talents at all but she is pretty and she can sell that. She is blessed (or possibly cursed) with an innate quality that makes casting directors look favourably upon her, much to the chagrin of others in the industry who only perceive her as a rival. She’s quickly taken under the wing of Ruby (Jena Malone) a makeup artist who services top models in the daylight and attends to the look of the recently deceased by night. Jessie, meanwhile, lives in a sleazy motel operated by the world’s creepiest landlord (Keanu Reeves) but as her star begins to ascend, it looks as though she might just be on the verge of major success…

Refn’s cinematic influences are apparent at a glance. The ‘Gallo’ films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are referenced in the opulent use of colour and in the pulsing, electronic soundtrack, while the storyline has echoes of traditional fairy tales, particularly Snow White. (The Grimm brothers would surely have approved of the stomach-turning excesses displayed here – cannibalism, necrophilia and voyeurism all rear their unsavoury heads. Be warned, this is not for the faint-hearted.)

With so many potential pitfalls waiting to claim the film, it’s to Refn’s credit that he steers his story so expertly through the rapids. Yes, he seems to be saying, the fashion industry is a vile, sexist construct that feeds upon the objectivism of the female form and ultimately consumes and destroys those who dare to enter into it – and he’s not afraid to show exactly that; and yet, his film never feels gratuitous, never comes across as a case of the director having his cake and eating it. We are appalled by what we’re watching, which is just as it should be.

With its slow, languorous direction and eye-popping visuals, The Neon Demon is a stunning slice of contemporary cinema that will have you discussing its content long after you’ve left the cinema.

5 stars

Philip Caveney