Tom Hiddleston

Early Man

27/01/18

If the film industry ever handed out awards for sheer determination, Nick Park and his animation team would surely be first in line to pick up a gong. Give these people an unlimited supply of plasticine and several years in which to manipulate it and they’ll invariably come up with something eminently watchable. That said, it’s many years since the likes of The Wrong Trousers first brought Park to widespread attention and there’s something dispiritingly familiar about Early Man. Furthermore, set it alongside the jaw dropping spectacle of Coco and you begin to sense the limitations of the medium. Plasticine, when all is said and done, can only stretch so far…

Early Man opens in Manchester in the ‘pre pleistocene’ era as cavemen slug it out alongside a couple of warring dinosaurs. (This, of course, is an affectionate tribute to the work of pioneer animator Ray Harryhausen – apparently One Million Years BC was the film that first inspired a young Nick Park to experiment with a movie camera.) A sudden meteor strike eliminates the remaining dinosaurs and inadvertently inspires the surviving cavemen to invent the game of football.

Many eons later, we are introduced to a tribe of Stone Age warriors living in the fertile valley created by the meteor strike. Led by the cautious Bobnar (Timothy Spall), the tribe spends much of its time hunting rabbits, but plucky, snaggle-toothed youngster Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has loftier ambitions. Why not hunt mammoths, he reasons? There’s a lot more meat on them. Bobnar, however, is reluctant to accept any form of change.

But change soon arrives anyway, in the shape of a tribe of bronze age conquerors, led by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston sporting an ‘Allo ‘Allo-style French accent). He wishes to mine the valley for it’s rich bronze deposits and Bobnar’s tribe soon find themselves banished to the volcanic badlands – but not before Dug has been kidnapped and taken to Lord Nooth’s stronghold. Here, he discovers that this technologically advanced civilisation is addicted to two things – capitalism and football, a game that Dug’s tribe have somehow managed to forget over the years. In a desperate bid to save his homeland, Dug challenges Nooth’s resident team – Real Bronzio – to a football match. If Dug’s tribe wins they get to stay in their beloved valley. If they lose, they will be condemned to work in the bronze mines until they die… so, no pressure there.

Okay, it’s a promising concept and Park manages to exploit it skilfully enough, finding much humour in the telling, even if some of the jokes are so old they might have originated in the Stone Age themselves. The tribe’s smaller roles are filled by a stellar cast of voice artists and Park supplies all the requisite grunts for Dug’s porcine sidekick, Hognob. If, like me, you don’t care a jot for soccer, don’t despair, it’s not going to spoil your enjoyment of this quirky and typically charming story one little bit. But you may find yourself wondering, as I did, where Park goes from here. A pre-film trailer announcing that Shaun the Sheep is a mere year away doesn’t exactly fill me with anticipation… and we’ve been hearing for a long time that a new Wallace and Gromit is still in the pipeline, despite the death of Peter Sallis.

But wouldn’t it be great to see Nick Park try something completely different? Something totally unexpected? Meanwhile, Early Man offers an enjoyable couple of hours at the cinema, even if there are no real surprises on offer.

4 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

High-Rise

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19/03/16

In a relatively short career, British director Ben Wheatley has produced an interesting selection of films, all quite different but all in their own way, intriguing. High-Rise, an adaptation of the novel by J.G. Ballard, represents the flowering of that talent. Here is a film so packed with interesting ideas, it sometimes threatens to explode in all directions, as Wheatley throws idea after idea into the mix and hits the ‘mix’ button. While the end result is far from perfect, it’s never less than riveting. I’ve read that David Cronenberg planned to film this back in the day and it’s easy to see the attraction – some of the scenes here put me in mind of his debut feature, Shiver; but having said that, this is Wheatley’s vision and for the most part it works beautifully.

Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a massive high rise apartment and attempts to make friends with the neighbours. They include the promiscuous Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a belligerent TV documentary maker, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife, Helen (Elizabeth Moss). It’s clear from the very start that Laing doesn’t quite fit in, but he clearly intends to give it his best shot. He is soon summoned up to the penthouse to meet the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) who has created a lavish rooftop garden for his wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes) complete with flocks of sheep and a white horse for her to ride. At first, it all goes relatively smoothly, but when the tenants on the lower floors start to encounter electricity blackouts and food shortages, it’s not long before rebellion begins to spread irresistibly upwards, resulting in outbreaks of pillaging, looting and the weirdest Abba cover version you’ve ever heard.  The toffs in the top floors decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands and set about commandeering everything they can get their hands on. Laing (a typically amoral Ballard antihero), watches it all with a detached air but eventually finds himself drawn into the chaos as he tries to survive as best he can.

Ballard’s story is an obvious allegory about class and privilege and the ways in which society has to adapt to changing circumstances in order to continue. Wheatley, working as ever with his writer companion, Amy Jump, has cleverly opted to set the story in the 70s, just like the source novel, creating wonderful sets of brutalist architecture, together with some quite horrific fashion statements. The first forty minutes of this zips along with complete confidence and looks absolutely ravishing; the last third is perhaps a little less sure of itself, but having said that, there are more great ideas on offer here than you’ll see in most Hollywood movies and once again, the pace rarely falters.

The conclusion (which features the voice of Margaret Thatcher) will have you discussing the film’s message long after the final credits have rolled. Please don’t miss this one, it really is rather fabulous.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

Crimson Peak

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17/10/15

When I last reviewed a Guillermo del Toro movie, I expressed the fervent wish that he would abandon the thick-eared nonsense he was currently engaged on – in which giant robots repeatedly thumped reptilian monsters in the head – and went back to the kind of cinematic terrain he’d mined so brilliantly in Pan’s Labyrinth. While Crimson Peak isn’t exactly that, it’s about a million miles away from Pacific Rim, which is something to be extremely thankful for.

What we have here is a gothic ghost story and if we’re looking for film precedents, maybe the best of Hammer Horror, as directed by Terrence Fisher or Roger Corman’s 60s interpretations of the works of Edger Allan Poe, might be the appropriate places to look. Crimson Peak is a gorgeous piece of film making – the sumptuous look of the production, the painterly evocations of the settings are a cineaste’s delight, while the story exhibits all the conventions of the true gothic horror story – histrionic and compelling in equal measure.

Aspiring novelist Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) (note the tribute to Hammer horror actor, Peter, right there) meets up in New York with baronet and would-be inventor, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and immediately falls under his spell, despite the misgivings of her rich industrialist father, Carter (Jim Beaver). Almost before we can draw breath, Carter has been brutally murdered (a typically Del Toro scene of extreme violence) and Edith is whisked away to Sharpe’s remote Cumbrian family pile, Allerdale Hall, a derelict mansion that makes the Amityville House look like a cabin in Happy Valley.  Mysterious Sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain, struggling a bit with her English accent) goes along for the ride. The house itself is an extraordinary piece of design, as much a character as any of the human actors, and Edith soon discovers that there are secrets hidden in its shadows – secrets that are being explained by ghostly apparitions.

It’s not quite a perfect production – there are one or two lines of clunky dialogue that invoke involuntary smirks and, like so many other directors, del Toro needs to learn the basic lesson that CGI ghosts are simply not as terrifying as mere actors dressed up in rags and makeup – but this is the kind of filmmaking that hasn’t been attempted in a very long time, and mostly it pays off handsomely. Literate viewers will spot references to Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw and a whole collection of other literary and filmic references, but the best thing about Crimson Peak is the sumptuous look of it. Del Toro’s origins as an illustrator are writ large in every scene. Curiously though, while every imaginable trope of gothic horror is on display here – clockwork dolls, moths, mysterious labyrinths and ghastly spectres – it’s the occasional excesses of physical violence on display that scare us much more than any of the supernatural elements.

This is sterling stuff, though, and should keep del Toro’s legions of fans happy while we wait to see what he will do next.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney