Chris Evans

Knives Out

25/11/19

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit for our times. Although reliant on the tropes and clichés of the murder-mystery, the delivery makes this a thoroughly modern thriller.

The cast is stellar. Christopher Plummer is Harlem Thrombey: a successful eighty-five-year-old novelist with a penchant for games and a vast fortune to bequeath. The morning after his birthday party, he is found dead, his throat cut in an apparent suicide. But just as the police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Began) are ready to finalise the cause of death, enigmatic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) turns up, hired by an anonymous client to investigate further.

Thrombey’s children and grandchildren are all present, and it turns out each of them has a motive for his murder – although I won’t reveal the details here. His daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a forbidding businesswoman, visiting with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their feckless son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Thrombey’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is a gentle soul, but a hopeless case, incapable of making it on his own. He has a wife too (Riki Lindome), and an alt-right-leaning teenager (Jaeden Martell), who spends his time perusing questionable websites on his phone. And finally, there’s Thrombey’s yoga-and-crystal-loving daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her student daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).

As you might expect of the genre, the setting is a remote country house, and so – of course – there are staff too: housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), both of whom prove central to the plot.

There’s an appealing playfulness here, with zingy dialogue and witty repartee, and the performances are as sprightly and assured as you’d expect from these marvellous actors. But the plot is a little predictable: there are no real surprises here, mainly because the various ‘twists’ are too heavily signalled. The middle third sags under the weight of a lengthy red herring, where the focus drifts from the larger-than-life characters and their shenanigans, following instead a more muted, less engaging thread.

Nonetheless, this is a lively and eminently watchable film – just not the masterpiece I hoped that it would be.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Avengers: Endgame

30/04/19

It’s pointless to try and give this one a body swerve. It lumbers over the cinematic horizon like a behemoth, gobbling up viewers and crushing box office records beneath its massive feet. Resistance is futile.

As one of the few reviewers who was distinctly underwhelmed by Infinity Wars, I still need to see how the Russo Brothers are going to extricate themselves from the corner they’ve seemingly painted themselves into. Oh, right… like that. Well, I guess it was the only way possible…

By the way, those of you who like to cry ‘plot spoiler!’ every time a tiny detail is revealed may want to think twice about reading the following two paragraphs. Just saying.

Endgame opens briefly on events shortly after Thanos (Josh Brolin) has made the most calamitous finger-snap in history. It then moves on five years to show the remaining Avengers trying to come to terms with what has happened to the world. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is now a ruthless swordsmen, carving up Japanese gangsters with relish, whilst sporting a disastrous new haircut that makes him look like a disgruntled cockapoo. Captain America (Chris Evans) is attending therapy classes, but is still impossibly clean and healthy. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), on the other hand, has really let himself go and now sports hippie dreadlocks and a fearsome beer belly. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has learned to manage his anger issues and is permanently trapped in his green, oversized alter ego, Hulk. And… well, so on.

Then, up pops Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) recently returned from imprisonment in the quantum realm. He brings along an idea that might just undo the Infinity Curse and return the world to where it was five years ago. So the Avengers assemble for one more mission.

OK, so my main beef with this is the same as it was with Infinity Wars, only even more so. There are just too many superheroes for comfort. The way things stand here, they seem to outnumber ordinary people, which can’t be right, surely? And you know, I, for one, am happier with those movies (like Shazam!, for instance) that know they are essentially kids’ film’s and feel no shame about it. Endgame, however, is for the most part so serious it hurts – it’s a great lumbering leviathan, creaking beneath the weight of its own self-importance. Happily, the po-faced stuff is leavened every so often by some much-needed humour, most of it coming from Hemsworth’s corner. (I love the fact that Thor never has to apologise for losing that gym-ready look and Hemsworth always has a cheeky glint in his eye that suggests he knows how ridiculous it all is but couldn’t care less.)

To give the Russo Brothers their due, this doesn’t really feel like a bum-numbing three-hour marathon. It’s action packed enough to allow the time to zip by and, if the script occasionally feels ridiculously over-complicated, well that’s just par for the course when you have an audience that picks so avidly over every little detail. And pick they will. Reports are that people are going back to watch the film over and over again.

Of course, as ever, we are presented with a great big climactic battle, made even more of an endurance test by the fact that the scriptwriters feel duty bound to include every single lead character from the preceding twenty-one movies in the Marvel EU. That’s an awful lot of spandex to take in. And then of course, once the punch up’s done and the dust has settled, there’s the little matter of tying up all those loose ends…

Look, the cinema going public has made its mind up on this, and who am I to say that they’re wrong? I can only speak for myself when I repeat the old mantra ‘less is more.’ Give me one superhero and one villain, and I’m a relatively happy bunny.

Endgame is undoubtedly a big movie, but maybe not in the way it thinks it is.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Gifted

18/06/17

In this enjoyable tearjerker, Chris Evans hangs up his Captain America outfit in order to play something a little more down to earth – an ordinary joe. He’s Frank Adler, a freelance ‘boat-builder’ who has appointed himself guardian of his young niece, Mary (an extraordinarily accomplished performance from McKenna Grace) after her mother’s suicide. The two of them live together in a Florida trailer park with one-eyed ginger cat, Fred. Next-door neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) pitches in to help out with babysitting duties when Frank needs to hit the local bar. But problems occur when he decides he needs to enroll Mary in elementary school – up to now he’s been tutoring her at home. There’s a reason why Frank has been holding off on this. Mary’s mother, Diane, was a mathematical genius who devoted her life to trying to solve one of the infamous Millennium Prize Equations – and it soon becomes apparent that her daughter has inherited her skills, when Mary finds her school maths lessons laughably easy and treats them with contempt.

Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) recognises her new student’s potential and informs the school’s principal. Before anyone has time to think about the implications of this, Mary’s Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a solid gold, pole-up-the-ass Brit) appears on the scene with plans to whisk Mary off to a special school where she can devote her life to  completing Diane’s unfinished project. Frank’s view is that Mary deserves to have an ordinary childhood and wants to keep her suitably grounded. Inevitably, he and Evelyn end up in court, fighting for custody of Mary.

This is undeniably emotionally manipulative stuff – and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have me in tears at a couple of key points. But there’s plenty here to admire, not least Tom Flynn’s witty and acerbic script, which knows just when to lift the tension with a well-placed zinger. Director, Marc Webb (best known for the 2012 Spiderman reboot) handles the subject with skill, managing to stay just the right side of mawkishness and always ensuring that his characters are believable – even Evelyn (herself a gifted mathematician who sacrificed her own career to have a family) has reasons for acting the way she does.

But ultimately it’s McKenna Grace who makes this fly. I’ve no doubt that she has a huge future ahead of her. Meanwhile, this is well worth catching if only for the novelty of seeing Evans wearing blue jeans instead of spandex.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Captain America: Civil War

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19/05/16

I’ve been going through a severe bout of spandex withdrawal recently, so I approached this film with extreme caution, despite having heard several favourable reports. The Marvel universe is becoming an out-of-control behemoth, which seems obliged to draw in more and more comic book characters as it trundles along, until there are so many costumed characters onscreen, it starts to overpower the story lines.

Having said that, Captain America: Civil War starts promisingly, roping in some surprisingly serious ideas that for once, do not seem aimed purely at its teenage fan boy audience. In Nigeria, to thwart an attempt by some bad guys to steal a dangerous chemical agent, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and three of the other Avengers get a little carried away with the general kick-assery and in a scene that put me in mind of Team America: World Police, a whole bunch of innocent civilians are killed in the crossfire.

The United Nations decides to issue an edict that the Avengers are not to act off their own bat any more but only if and when granted permission to go into action. Half of the team, headed by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Junior) think this is a reasonable idea and elect to sign the necessary forms – but the other half, headed by Captain America, refuse to commit to it. And then, Bucky Barnes /The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is roused from his slumbers to undertake a mission on behalf of his Soviet puppet masters and the Captain finds himself torn between helping his old friend or hunting him down…

Up to this point, it’s all nicely done, but then, inevitably, the opposing sides in the United Nations squabble square up for a battle, enlisting extra help from other Marvel characters and the story buckles under the weight of servicing the antics of so many costumed characters – Ant Man, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Black Widow, War Machine, Vision… even Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is brought back into the proceedings as an eager-to-please teenage recruit (a single fun idea in the midst of the mayhem, though it’s nowhere near enough to rescue the film from what’s coming.) The resulting airport-based punch-up seems to go on for ever in that cartoonish 12A way that Marvel have perfected over the years and any hope of coherence goes straight out of the nearest window. Of course its all skilfully done, but it’s somehow distressing to witness so much expertise (and dare I mention, so many millions of dollars) wasted on what amounts to a souped-up brawl.

I appreciate that I’m not in the target audience for films like this, but honestly, Marvel need to understand that less is more. This feels like a great big, bloated exercise in extreme tedium. An accompanying trailer for X-Men Apocalypse appeared to offer another indigestible helping of the same sort of pudding.

Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney