Benedict Cumberbatch

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

12/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

This eccentric biopic of Edwardian illustrator Louis Wain is a curious kettle of cat litter, a story so weird it can only be true. It’s centred around an impressive performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and features such a wealth of talent in the supporting roles that I can’t help feeling that the actor (also executive producer on this) must have called in some favours from his friends.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain at various points in his life, from bumbling, hyperactive youngster to grey and mentally frail in his final years. Cumberbatch manages to convince at just about every point of the journey. When we first meet Wain, he’s a freelance illustrator, who, at the age of twenty, is struggling to provide for the upkeep of his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and his five sisters, none of whom seem to have any prospect of marriage.

However, the family budget does stretch to paying for a governess to teach the younger girls and she’s Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), who, despite being ten years older than Louis, soon has him hanging on her every word in open-mouthed adoration, much to the disgust of his sour-faced older sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough).

It isn’t long before Louis and Emily have married and moved to a picturesque cottage in the countryside. But then Emily receives some devastating news about her health – and moments later, the couple discover an abandoned kitten wandering in their garden, whom they promptly christen Peter. The cat is to have a profound effect on Wain’s career…

The film’s early stretches have a charmingly ramshackle quality, and I’m initially prepared to put aside my reservations about the screenplay by Will Sharpe and Simon Stephenson, which fails to give actors of the quality of Riseborough enough to do. Other luminaries can be missed in the blink of an eye. Hayley Squires, Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett… they flit across the screen like phantoms with barely a line of dialogue between them.

When Wain’s patron, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), assigns him a double-page spread in The Illustrated London News to be filled with images of ‘comical cats,’ the artist’s career takes an unexpected leap skywards, but the film fails to soar in the same manner. It becomes bogged down in Wain’s inescapable problems, including his increasingly desperate struggles with schizophrenia and his inability to profit from his own artistic endeavours. (Message to all aspiring illustrators: ensure you copyright your work before you put it in the public domain. You’re welcome.)

From this point, the story fails to maintain a consistent tone and Wain’s bizarre ‘electrical’ theories are never explained clearly enough for us to understand either what they are or why they are considered important enough to include in the title. In its final stretches the film becomes more and more surreal, with landscapes turning into paintings and people turning into cats, while a theremin whines mournfully on the soundtrack. Having Nick Cave appear as the author H.G. Wells seems a step too bizarre and makes me wonder if this is supposed to be one of the hallucinations that Wain suffered towards the end of his life. Whatever it means, it feels like a misstep.

So, all plaudits to Cumberbatch for yet another in his dazzling collection of character studies. It’s quite an about-turn after the toxic masculinity of The Power of the Dog. Perhaps Charms of the Cat would have been a more appropriate title?

And, as for the film that contains said performance, it’s muddled and a bit of a disappointment.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Spider-Man: No Way Home

17/12/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I’ve seen most of the superhero movies and the one franchise I consistently enjoy is Spider-Man. I suppose it makes perfect sense. I was a big fan of the comic books back in the day and the films – all three of the major strands – have always had that lightness of touch that somehow steps aside from the pomposity of so many Marvel projects. Played mostly for laughs, the ‘Spidys’ have a levity about them, as their young protagonist goes about his heroic duties, whilst trying to woo his girlfriend and ensure that he gets a proper education.

I was somewhat apprehensive when I picked up on the various rumblings about the Multiverse (inevitable, I suppose, after the success of Lord and Miller’s wonderful Into the Spider-Verse) and also, the heavily-trumpeted presence of a certain Doctor Strange, but, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. While this is undoubtedly the most complex Spider-Film to date, the sparky script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers manages to keep things moving briskly along. Every time a scene threatens to become too portentous, they throw in a snarky comment or a bit of tomfoolery and everything blurs back into motion. The two hour running time is never allowed to drag.

No Way Home picks up at the cliff-hanging moment where Far From Home left off – with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) being publicly outed. The ensuing fallout from that event kickstarts the new film straight into action and it barely stops to take a breath. It all feels horribly real as Peter, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), MJ (Zendaya) and Ned (Jacob Batalon) are trolled, mocked and despised by the right-wing buffoons who have been listening to shock-jock, J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons). It’s weirdly prescient.

Feeling cornered and understandably worried about those he loves, Peter has what he thinks is a brilliant idea. He approaches his old pal Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks him to reverse time (as you do) so everyone will forget that he’s actually our favourite neighbourhood web-slinger.

Needless to say it’s a very bad idea.

Strange’s celestial tinkering accidentally opens a breach in the Multiverse and, almost before Peter knows what happening, he’s being pursued by adversaries from across time – they include Doc Octopus (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and many, many others, most of whom are astonished to find that Peter doesn’t look anything like the man they remember, but are perfectly happy to try and kill him anyway. Luckily, he doesn’t have to fight them off single-handedly, because he’s offered help from an unexpected quarter…

As is so often the case with these movies, there’s an extended super-powered punch-up at the conclusion, but even this is saved from becoming tedious by liberal deployment of the aforementioned witty dialogue – and there’s a surprisingly poignant coda to the film, which ties all the multifarious strands neatly together. Holland has hinted that this may be as far as his involvement will go and I have to say, if he does choose to step away, he’ll be leaving a very accomplished trilogy to remember him by.

Mind you, it’s clear that this won’t be the end. A post-credits teaser dangles the dubious prospect of a Spawn/Spider-Man mash up, which really isn’t something I relish, but Sony are bound to want to involve their other big-selling franchise at some point, so we’ll see what happens on that score.

Those who are willing to stay in their seats till the credits stop rolling will be rewarded with a trailer for the upcoming Dr Strange movie, which looks… strange, to say the very least.

But meanwhile, No Way Home is well worth your attention. Even unapologetic spandex-haters should give this one the benefit of the doubt. Because, you know what? It rocks.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Power of the Dog

04/11/21

Netflix

It’s been twelve years since Jane Campion directed a movie and now here’s The Power of the Dog, a ‘western,’ filmed in her native New Zealand, masquerading as Montana in 1925. It’s an interesting period in which to set a story. On the one hand we have cattle drives, carrying on pretty much as they have since the mid 1800s and, on the other, the streets are full of Ford automobiles, the new era clashing headlong with the old. Ari Wegner’s majestic cinematography recalls the best of John Ford, the machinations of mankind constantly in battle with the awesome wonders of the landscape.

It’s in this world that Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), struggle to perpetuate the traditions of their family business, but they are dinosaurs, doomed to yield to the changing times. This is the first film in which writer/director Campion has chosen to feature a male lead and Phil is, perhaps inevitably, the consummate toxic male: cantankerous, vindictive and quick to demolish anybody who offers an alternative to his established way of life. Phil refers to his brother as ‘Fatso’ – to his face – and is not slow to heap disdain on anyone who stands in his path.

When George unexpectedly marries widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), Phil is brutally critical of her, particularly when George encourages her to play the piano, something that she protests she’s actually not very good at. (She’s right, she’s not.) To rub salt into the wounds, Phil is an accomplished banjo player.

Rose has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a predilection for making paper flowers and who is quietly studying to be a surgeon. Phil initially takes every opportunity to belittle him, encouraging the other ranch hands to mock him, because of his supposedly effeminate mannerisms.

But Phil has a secret. He is openly in thrall to the late cowboy Bronco Henry, the man who taught him to ride a horse, a man who he still keeps a shrine to in the stables. But as the story progresses, it’s clear that there was something more between the two of them, something that Phil hides from the eyes of the world. When Phil appears to soften and takes Peter under his wing, the scene is set for a psychological drama with a conclusion that you probably won’t see coming. I certainly don’t. It’s only after the credits have rolled that I’m able to piece the clues together.

Cumberbatch went ‘method’ for this and he inhabits the sweary, sweaty, alpha-male world of Phil Burbank with absolute authority. You’ll almost certainly despise him, which is, I think, Campion’s aim. Smitt-McPhee creates an enigmatic persona as Peter, a boy who keeps his cards close to his chest.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that Dunst’s character feels somewhat overshadowed in this male-dominated world, a woman who will allow herself to be driven to alcoholism rather than stand up for herself. What’s more, Thomasin McKenzie, a rising star after Last Night in Soho, has a thankless role as a housemaid with hardly a line of dialogue. I guess that’s simply a reflection of the era.

Plemons, as the monosyllabic George, is nicely drawn, though he’s mostly absent from the film’s second half and I miss the silent confrontation between the two brothers, where I think the story’s true power lies. Jonny Greenwood – who seems to be popping up all over the place at the moment – submits one of his quirky soundtracks.

Once again, Netflix has backed a winner. The Power of the Dog is a handsome film, expertly created and a genuine pleasure to watch. Cumberbatch has been hotly tipped for an Oscar and it won’t be a huge surprise if it comes to fruition.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Courier

19/08/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

The Courier is a spy movie, so we know what to expect, right? Gun fights, car chases, heart-stopping stunts…

Well no, because this ‘based on a true story’ tale, set in the cinematically-neglected Cold War era, plays it straight and, for the most part, sticks pretty closely to the facts. It’s 1960 and America and the Soviet Union are engaged in the arms race, the two super powers moving inexorably nearer and nearer to nuclear conflict.

High-ranking Soviet intelligence officer Oleg Penskovsky (Merab Ninidze) can see the disaster that lies ahead. He contacts a couple of American tourists and asks them to take a message to the American Embassy, offering to supply the CIA with inside information in exchange for safe passage to the USA for him and his family.

Some time later, CIA agent Emily Donavan (Rachel Brosnahan) approaches MI6, asking if they can suggest somebody who might act as a go-between for them. Agent Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) thinks he may have chanced upon the perfect recruit, innocuous businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who spends most of his time travelling the world, wining and dining potential clients for his various business interests. Wynne would surely be above suspicion? So they ask him if he will be their inside man. At first Wynne is non-plussed, if perhaps a little flattered by their invitation, but, after some prevarication, he accepts their offer. Shortly thereafter, he finds himself making contact with Penskovsky in Moscow and carrying various secret messages back and forth between Russia and Great Britain.

But, of course, while this all might look dreadfully routine on the surface, the dangers of being discovered are just as nerve-wracking and the consequences every bit as deadly.

Director Dominic Cooke ensures that The Courier is strong on period setting: the drab, chain-smoking world of the early 60s is accurately depicted in every shot. Both Cumberbatch and Ninidze nail their roles with aplomb and Tom O’Connor’s script focuses on the developing friendship between the two men, making Wynne’s ultimate actions totally believable. Jessie Buckley takes a thankless role as Wynne’s buttoned-up wife, Sheila, and wrings every ounce of possibility out of it, proving once again what a consummate actor she is.

While the film might be short on action tropes, it never lacks suspense and, as Wynne’s deception begins to unravel, the stakes are increasingly cranked up for maximum tension. Also, this is a film that doesn’t back away from depicting the horrors of Wynn’s subsequent incarceration. (Next time I dine out, I think I’ll skip the soup course.)

Some heroes, it seems, are less showy than the Bonds and the Bournes – and here’s the proof that a spy movie can be thrilling without regular recourse to flashy sports cars and semi-automatic weapons.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Mauritanian

11/04/21

Amazon Prime Video

The Mauritanian has received mixed reviews, but I find it hard to see why anyone outside the “flog’ em, hang ’em” brigade would have a negative reaction here. It’s a nuanced and informative piece, making public the true story of Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), the eponymous young Mauritanian, who, suspected of links to Al Quaeda, was detained without charge at Guantanamo Bay for fourteen long years.

Kevin Macdonald’s film never points the reader in the direction of Slahi’s guilt or innocence, because that’s literally the point: we don’t know, and neither do the people who incarcerated him. Defence lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) reinforces the importance of this when she admonishes her young assistant, Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), for responding emotionally to Shahi’s written confession. ‘Everyone is entitled to a defence,’ she tells her, and, ‘Since when did this country start locking people up without a trial?’ Because Slahi has been picked up on the flimsiest of evidence, and if we lose haebus corpus then surely we lose the right to refer to our legal system as ‘justice.’

Military prosecutor Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch, who is – disconcertingly – even more convincing as a US army man than he is as an English toff) is tasked with representing the state and, initially, he’s more than willing. Shahi is accused of plotting the 9/11 terror attack, where Couch lost a close personal friend. But Couch is a man of principle, and he can’t proceed in good conscience when he realises that Shahi’s confession was coerced through torture, and that the rule of law has been abandoned. Couch wants the guilty parties to pay – but he wants to make sure they are, actually, guilty. (He’s picky like that!)

Rahim is a revelation in the central role. He is charming, erudite, angry and afraid. The torture scenes – artfully shot, hallucinatory flashbacks – are horrifying; no one, no matter what they’ve done, should be brutalised this way. Foster shines as you’d expect her to, depicting a version of Hollander that is all grim determination and moral rectitude, a fierce advocate for doing the right thing.

This isn’t an exciting film: it’s the slow, careful unveiling of an unpalatable truth – namely, that the USA is violating its own doctrine in a detention camp deliberately situated far beyond its shores. Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the hope, but – as long as there are people like Hollander in the world – they will, hopefully, eventually, be called to account. In the meantime, there are still more than forty prisoners there, and their plight needs addressing.

The Mauritanian is well worth a few hours of your time.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Brexit: The Uncivil War

31/05/20

Netflix

As an unabashed remainer (and a sore loser), I didn’t bother to seek this out on its theatrical release. But enough political water has passed under the bridge for it to pique my interest when I spot it still lurking on Netflix. Besides, it’s interesting to look back on this story at a time when Dominic Cummings has become arguably the most loathed man in the UK. He’s played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, but who delivers a pretty good impersonation nonetheless.

Any fears I might have that the film would portray Cummings as some kind of maverick hero figure are soon dismissed. It’s clear that writer James Graham has no particular love for his subject. Indeed, Cummings is depicted as a self-serving nihilist, a man handed a difficult job, plus complete autonomy, who is determined to win at any cost, no matter how many lies and misdirections he needs to spin. The Cummings depicted here has no political convictions whatsoever, just the all-consuming need to demonstrate that he knows how to bend the voting masses to his will.

The film does a pretty good job of nailing the sequence of events that led to the ‘Leave’ victory and uses a combination of lookalike actors – Richard Goulding is a pretty convincing Boris Johnson and Paul Ryan spot on as Nigel Farage – with occasional glimpses of some of the real players thrown in for good measure. It’s left to Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, leader of the ‘Remain’ movement, to portray one of the few sympathetic (if inept) characters in this story. His bewilderment as he sees the possibility of winning the campaign rapidly slipping away from him is palpable and there’s a lovely scene where he and Cummings have a pint together and realise just how much of a game-changer the referendum has been – and how little the two men have in common.

It’s to the film’s credit that it never really takes sides. The Remain campaign is shown to be out of touch, unable or unwilling to change its traditional approach to suit the social-media-dominated times. Leave voters aren’t demonised either – they demonstrate legitimate concerns about the way they’ve been increasingly sidelined over the years.

If nothing else, this is eloquent proof that Cummings, a man who cares not a jot about political values might have no hesitation in flouting a set of rules he helped to create – and why Johnson and his crew might be so desperate to hang onto him, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

While I can’t say I enjoy this film – it feels suspiciously like having my nose rubbed in something rather nasty – it’s a thoroughly decent investigation of recent political history. And those seeking answers will find them here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

The Current War

26/07/19

This biopic concentrates on the rivalry between two famous inventors and their race to be the first to give America the ‘miracle’ of electric light. The film starts in the year 1800, with Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) on the verge of a breakthrough with his direct current system. But then up pops George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), already a rich man from the gas industry, who proposes an alternating current version, which, he insists, will provide a cheaper and more powerful solution to the problem.

In the ensuing struggle to win the contract to light up America, fair play falls by the wayside; meanwhile, a Croatian genius by the name of Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult) struggles to make waves with a series of inventions that have the potential to eclipse the achievements of both Edison and Westinghouse combined.

It’s a fascinating but incredibly complex story, and Michael Mitnick’s script intially feels scattershot as it leaps frantically from location to location in an attempt to nail down all its disparate elements. But it’s worth sticking with, because – after a rather shaky start – the film hits its stride and becomes genuinely compelling, with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon doing a creditable job of capturing the period. The film highlights a fascinating conundrum when Edison is approached to use his technology to create a ‘humane’ way of executing criminals.

There’s a starry cast here with the likes of Tom Holland, Katherine Waterston and Matthew Macfadyen relegated to supporting roles.

It’s clear where the filmmakers’ loyalities lie. Edison is exposed as a hypocrite, a man obssessed with winning at all costs, at first opposed to using his technology as a weapon, next electrocuting animals willy nilly in order to cast his rival in a bad light. Westinghouse, on the other hand, is portrayed as a much more reasonable type, a man willing to step aside from the glory in order to achieve the greater good. It’s also clear (correctly in my opinion) that Tesla is held up here as the true genius, a man who constantly found his ideas appropriated by his rich financiers and who died destitute, without ever achieving his extraordinary potential.

The Current War isn’t exactly a perfect film, but it does illuminate the difficult birth of something that we now all take for granted, an invention that genuinely transformed the world as we know it. It also depicts the depths that people will sink to in order to see their names go down in history.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

20/12/18

You have to feel a little bit sorry for Andy Serkis. This film was his brainchild and he worked on it for something like five years, only to find himself pipped at the post by Jon Favreau’s (admittedly, impressive) live action Jungle Book, made for Disney. After that, the projected release dates for Mowgli were repeatedly pushed back by Warner Brothers, who clearly believed the public wasn’t quite ready for yet another version of such a familiar tale – and then, of course, along came Netflix, waving a chequebook and everything changed.

The first thing to say about Serkis’s film is that it’s a much darker and more feral beast than either of the Disney incarnations. This has a 12 certificate, so those parents thinking of sitting their toddlers down in front of it while they get on with the Christmas dinner might want to think twice. Screenwriter Callie Kloves, for the most part, sticks closely to Rudyard Kipling’s original short stories, so within a few minutes of the film’s opening I’ve witnessed the slaughter of Mowgli’s parents by man-eating tiger, Shere Kahn (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a scene that little children may find too red in tooth and claw for comfort. Kipling’s story was always a brutal one, reflecting the abandonment he felt as a youngster when his parents left him in the care of ruthless guardians while they headed back to India, and this film reflects that wildness.

Baby Mowgli grows up to be young Mowgli (Rohan Chand), who lives with wolves headed by Akela (Peter Mullan), but he never feels as though he’s a full member of the pack. As he grows, he is tutored by good-natured bear, Baloo (Andy Serkis, and by stern black panther, Bagheera (Christian Bale), both of whom try to teach him the basic laws of the jungle. (Happily they achieve this without ever bursting into song, something that Favreau’s version couldn’t quite resist.) Meanwhile, Mowgli can’t help casting an enquiring eye in the direction of the ever-encroaching humans, who day-by-day are venturing closer to the wolves’ hideout.

It’s when Mowgli visits the human’s village that the biggest changes to the original story occur. The presence of big game hunter, Lockwood (Matthew Rhys), is clearly intended to be a comment on white imperialism (though why it was decided to give this character the same name as Kipling’s father remains an enigma). Lockwood gives the impression of being a benevolent saviour, always ready to hand out gifts to the local villagers, but his home is full of grisly hunting trophies, one of which provides the film with its most poignant moment. Ultimately, Mowgli learns that while he isn’t an animal, he isn’t exactly a human either. He must somehow be the bridge that unites the different species and the only way to achieve this aim is for him to take on his greatest foe.

Once again, here’s a Netflix Original that really deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. There are lush landscapes, stunning aerial shots and dramatic chases. The animal characterisations are particularly interesting, eschewing the photo-realistic approach of Favreau’s effort in favour of more stylised creatures that really do reflect the expressions of the actors that play them. Cate Blanchett as Kaa, the snake? She’s right there and, weirdly, you can tell it’s her.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a remarkable creation in its own right and one that deserves to exist proudly alongside those earlier screen versions of Kipling’s classic tale. But be warned, this has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney   

Avengers: Infinity War

02/05/18

The furore has settled. That inevitable record-breaking opening has come and gone. The embargoes have finally been lifted and, hopefully, the Marvel die-hards have accepted that reviewers are actually allowed to talk about what has been widely touted as the ‘holy grail’ of comic book movie adaptations. It’s time to take stock of Avengers: Infinity War. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the genre but, that said, I have seen most of the eighteen films that lead up to this one – and, you know what? I actually enjoyed a few of them. But I can’t help feeling dismayed that this has been accorded such awe-struck reverence. Let’s face it, it’s not some major cinematic milestone. It’s not Citizen Kane. It’s a big dumb movie about people in spandex who hit each other. 

Of course, such movies always require a big, bad villain and here that post is filled by Thanos (Josh Brolin, somehow still recognisable under the layers of pixels), who admittedly has a little more nuance than most Marvel villains – but only because, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t advocate the destruction of all humanity – just half of it. And even that’s because he believes said destruction is the only sure way to ensure any kind of future. Which sort of makes him a pragmatist, I suppose. He’s currently on the search for the Infinity Stones that will make him the ultimate force in the universe. One of them is in the possession of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other is, rather inconveniently, embedded in the forehead of Vision (Paul Bettany).  There’s a final ultra-mysterious stone somewhere but nobody seems to be sure where that one might be hiding.

Thanos dutifully sets off on a mission of destruction and The Avengers get the old group back together in order to oppose him. So that’s Iron Man and Spider-Man and Black Widow and… many others. Just in case that wasn’t enough, they are augmented by The Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and just about anybody else available… apart from Hawkeye, who presumably isn’t considered super enough, having only a humble bow and arrow to work with. Actually, I can’t help feeling the makers have missed a bit of a trick here by not including an Uncle Tom Cobley-Man, but hey, maybe I’m just not reverential enough.

It’s probably pointless to say anything else about the story – it will only incur shouts of ‘plot spoilers!’ from those who have appointed themselves as the guardians of such things – but the film’s main problem is evident from very early on. Too many superheroes. There are virtually herds of them, racing across the screen and doing super heroic things to try and slow down the seemingly invincible Thanos. (If he’s this powerful without the Infinity Stones, you can’t help wondering why he’s going to such lengths to get his mitts on them.)

To be fair to directors, the Russo Brothers, they do a decent job of keeping this potential sludgefest moving merrily along, mainly by cross cutting from one major plot strand to another – there are five to choose from. The film is at its best when it keeps things light and snarky – usually whenever Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is onscreen – but when it tries for solemnity, well… I just can’t stop reminding myself that this is actually a film about people in spandex punching each other – and look, I really wouldn’t mind that so much, if it didn’t go on for quite so long. An action set piece in Wakanda, starts well, but seems to last for what feels suspiciously like a week.

Of course, the big thing here is that, unusually for this genre, there are several high-profile casualties… but who amongst us is naive enough to believe that, with a second instalment already being made, those ‘shocking’ deaths will be allowed to stand? What, kill off several billion-dollar franchises in one fell swoop? I seriously doubt it. Call me cynical; I don’t care.

In the end, Infinity Wars is a decent enough attempt at tying up a bunch of narrative loose threads but it’s not the masterpiece that many have claimed and, trust me, if you haven’t seen at least a few of the earlier movies referenced here, you’ll struggle to figure out what the hell is going on. Kids (and those who generally think that bigger and louder automatically equals better) will no doubt have a field day with it, but as far as I’m concerned, Infinity War Part Two can take as long as it likes to get here. I’m not holding my breath.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Thor: Ragnarok

27/10/17

Regular readers of this blog will already know that I usually tend to steer clear of superhero movies – and of all of Marvel’s extensive franchise, the Thor movies have long been anathema to me. So why did I make an exception this time? Two words. Taika Waititi. The New Zealander helmed two of my favourite films of last year, The Hunt For The Wilderpeople and What We Do In the Shadows. Surely, if anyone can put a rocket up the Norse God’s backside, he’s the one?

The good news is, he’s been pretty successful on that score. Thor: Ragnarok is played mostly for laughs and, once you get used to the idea, it really works. Chris Hemsworth is clearly enjoying himself as Thor takes on a whole new persona – clumsy, vainglorious and full of witty one-liners. I actually find myself enjoying large sections of this film, which I really didn’t expect. Waititi even has Stan Lee give Thor a haircut, lopping those infamous blonde locks off once and for all and you know what? It’s an improvement. Waititi makes an appearance himself, supplying the voice for a character called Korg, and he’s one of the film’s ace cards, supplying the kind of much-needed comic relief that Baby Groot delivered in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2.

After some adventures on Earth, Thor (Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find that things have changed drastically in the land of the Gods. His father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), has gone missing and his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), has installed himself as ruler in the old man’s absence. Thor insists that Loki takes him to find his father, who has been unceremoniously dumped in a retirement home on Earth but, when they do eventually locate him, he announces that his time has come and that he is about to shuffle off the old immortal coil (apparently even gods can go past their sell-by date). Then Loki somehow manages to unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett) the evil sister that he and Thor didn’t even know they had. Turns out she’s the goddess of Death and she’s intent on ruling Asgard and… ah, you know what? It’s pointless recounting the plot, because it’s basically the usual old nonsense, but this time out it’s nicely written, beautifully presented nonsense, which really helps. It’s interesting to note that a lot of fans have objected to Waititi’s modifications. It’s as though they think that a story about a buff Norse god with a magic hammer needs to be approached with po-faced gravity. Really? Trust me, this works a whole lot better.

Okay, so as I said earlier, Waititi is only partially successful with his approach. The usual tropes that I have come to dread still apply: there are overlong cosmic punch ups, the insertion of as many Marvel characters as possible to trade in on the ‘Marvel Extended Universe’ – here it’s The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who make guest appearances – and, as ever, the feeling that the storyline is utter nonsense. It’s almost as though… well, as though the whole thing’s been based on a comic book.

Hardcore fans will want to know that there are a couple of post-credit sequences here but the second of them, after you’ve waited patiently through what seems like an eternity of scrolling text, barely seems worth the wait.

Good – but not Marvellous.

4 stars

Philip Caveney