HAIL, CAESAR! CHARMS LIKE FILMS OF THE PAST

Hail, Caesar! is another delight from the Coen brothers, one of their lighter fare that tend to come out between their award winning dramatic films almost like a palette cleanser.

Set in 1951, it stars Josh Brolin as studio fixer Eddie Mannix charged with keeping stars out of the gossip rags and smoothing out production problems. In a week that he is being courted for a higher paying job at the Lockheed Corporation, the studio’s biggest star Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is kidnapped and held to ransom while their biggest starlet DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) is revealed to be pregnant and unwed. Brolin who can play bruisers is refreshingly restrained here playing Mannix as someone who more often than not has to think 3 steps ahead and remain calm while everybody else is losing their cool. The actor is joined by an all-star cast including George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum and a delightful cameo by Christopher Lambert. The film may just be stolen from them all by Alden Ehrenreich in a break out performance as Hobie Doyle, a musical western star who has been cast against type in a period drama and is a lot smarter than people expect in an old practical way country folk often are.

The film is at its most charming when meticulously recreating the style of films of that era and then subverting them. Great care has been taken to use film stock, implement CGI to create effects that appear like rear projection and model work of yesteryear and make original musical numbers that evoke the past classics. While there are references to our own times and not everything from the 1950s is seen through rose tinted glasses it is made by filmmakers who adore their medium. The classic Coen wit is in full force, a particular stand out sequence involve religious leaders debating what they will support being shown in the studio’s latest religious epic. Unlikely to become a cult classic like their best comedies it is still a beautiful Valentines letter to Old Hollywood and will be appreciated best by people who truly love movies.

-Lloyd Marken

FOR A MORE DETAILED REVIEW PLEASE CHECK OUT MY MAIN SITE HERE.

ZACK SNYDER DEFEATS SUPERMAN FAR MORE THAN BATMAN EVER COULD

Batman Vs. (I’m not calling it V) Superman is a buffet of a movie full of tasty morsels, exciting from a distance, bloated with too many ingredients and ultimately leaves you wanting a more elegant meal with one purpose that it achieves well. This is a film that relies on making money off bringing together two iconic characters but struggles to stay true to what those characters so beloved.

Continuing the cynical navel gazing of Man of Steel, this originally intended sequel opens with the best sequence of the whole movie showing the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod in Metropolis from the perspective of Bruce Wayne as he makes his way to the local Wayne Enterprises building using all his skills to get out of the way of the large scale destruction and rescue people but ultimately being powerless to intervene against these super beings and what they reap. Batman (Ben Affleck) here is a 20 year veteran of fighting crime, more bitter and haunted than previous onscreen iterations and his rapport with Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) who acts as his nagging aunt, trusted counsel and armourer are some of the best bits of the film. We want to see more of this in a stand-alone Batman film and that is saying a lot after 8 previous films featuring these characters with very talented actors previously inhabiting them.

Bruce Wayne sees the threat of super beings and investigates finding a way to stop them which brings him into the sphere of Lex Luthor who is also involved with the U.S. Government in studying the Kryptonians. Superman meanwhile comes more and more under trial by the media and government as his presence shakes mankind’s standing in the universe. There were probably very good ideas to be mined here but Superman ultimately doesn’t stand for something and declare what he will do. A montage of saving people is delivered joylessly. Fans of Christopher Reeve’s characterisation will weep at the mopeyness of Kal-El here. Of course they’ll fear you, show them they have nothing to fear, you’re Superman for fuck’s sake. Amy Adams as Lois Lane subtly conveys that she is the biggest anchor for Clark’s humanity but their conversations ultimately go nowhere and come across as lazy writing. The film feels like a series of impressive set pieces in amongst these mopey dialogue exchanges. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, already a source of contention, is at least swinging for the fences. His motivation remains under explained given how much Luthor risks but he is bat shit crazy although a more underplayed performance would have better sold how he could manipulate Wayne and Kent who are investigators in their work after all.

Visually Snyder has always been a strong director and it continues here. The world might be dark and murky but it is effectively epic and operatic with the final fight almost looking like a medieval fantasy showdown. The film falls down with too many plot holes and lazy conveniences where characters make poor decisions that insult our and their intelligence. For example Lois Lane has a good heart but she puts herself in danger a lot in this movie and it would have been nice if just once she had been given more agency in the story.

Warner Bros is coming off a few box office misfires and is a take-over target. They needed this to be a hit and to set up the other films already in production of the DCMU. That is a lot of pressure to put on one film and it is kind of admirable how they’ve done it with reckless abandonment in this film. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) for example isn’t really needed in this movie that already has a lot of plates spinning but she is a welcome addition. Remaining an enigmatic character throughout, Gadot spars well with Affleck in one scene and sells the warrior aspect of the character in her action scenes increasing interest for her upcoming solo movie. A clunky introduction to other Justice League characters is badly timed in the narrative of the movie but by not explaining everything the filmmakers kind of leave one intrigued. That is probably the best thing you can say about Batman Vs. Superman, it makes you hopeful and interested in what is to come even if not fully satisfied with what it is as a film in and of itself.

-Lloyd Marken

PLEASE NOTE: A LONGER, MORE COLOURFUL, SPOILER FILLED REVIEW OF MINE CAN BE FOUND HERE.

EYE IN THE SKY: PURE PERFECTION

Eye in the Sky is the first great movie of 2016 and coming so close after all the Oscar race releases is a welcome treat. More than just a drone strike film it is a multi-layered film about the implications and realities of modern warfare traversing the globe and giving an intimate account from various points of view including military, civilian and political.

In Nairobi, Kenya a young family starts their day like any other. The father Musa Mo’Allim played by Armaan Haggio goes about running his business in his front yard and his wife puts bread in their wood fire oven to later be sold while their only daughter Alia (Aisha Takow) plays nearby. The story covering one day will take us around the world, to military bunkers in England, corridors of power in Washington and Whitehall, airbases in Nevada, comms stations in Hawaii, trade shows in the Far East. But all eyes will be on Nairobi and a handful of blocks that show terrorists and a girl selling bread on a street corner.

Helen Mirren leads an all-star cast as military intelligence officer Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking these terrorists for years and is leading an operation to have them captured by local Kenyan forces while providing the eye in the sky. The drone is operated by pilots remotely in Las Vegas by 2nd Lieutenant Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Airwoman Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox). When the mission’s nature changes Powell must confirm facts on the ground with Kenyan undercover agent Hama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) and get approval from political authorities on both sides of the Atlantic via Lieutenant General Frank Benson played by the late great Alan Rickman.

Early on the Kenyan family’s details seem calculated by the filmmakers to create sympathy. For example Alia is revealed to be learning how to read by her father who is obviously not supportive of the local rulers and their ways referring to them as ‘extremists’. Ultimately though these details ultimately feed into the ideas of the film and Aisha Takow is so good in her performance we become emotionally involved.

The film also has a sly sense of humour whether it is generals ordering dolls for granddaughters or Foreign Secretaries taking important calls while suffering food poisoning. The political characters are also funny in their defiance to push decision making upstairs while a military situation escalates in real time. That is not to say every joke is at their expense, some compelling points are made by these characters too. The cast is uniformly great, it is a particular delight to see Barkhad Abdi getting to play a heroic role, but it is Helen Mirren who pulls it all together playing many notes as Powell from cool authority, manipulation to thoughtfulness watching a threat halfway around the world. This is a military officer not without a heart but certainly with a mission.

This is not a film against the advent of new military technology, bemoaning collateral damage or questioning foreign policy. The screenplay, a brilliant piece of work by Guy Hibbert, is full of small observances and neat contradictions holding true to personal points of view and yet mindful of more far reaching consequences. It is a court room drama before the fact and invites the audience to be the jury.

General Benson tells his political masters at one point that he’s been on the ground at five bombings with the bodies, concluding “Never tell a soldier they don’t know the cost of war.” And yet we look at two USAF members who may know the cost of war but who have never been on the ground with the bodies. At one point a politician takes off his jacket and we see he has been sweating very heavily, miles away from any danger he is still under stress and carefully weighing potential life and death decisions. Conversely Col Powers who will have the most to answer for from a bad decision is ice cool throughout. Missiles hovering high in the sky waiting for civilians at trade deals to come and answer their phones. Boys selling cheap plastic buckets to act as a cover story for an agent while he operates multi-million dollar miniature drones to fly inside a house. Bread in a wood fired oven potentially being a death sentence. Gavin Hood’s film powerfully conveys a brave new world with the same old truths of human nature. We want to raise our children in peace, go to work, come home and see them playing in our yards. But war has always existed and people die in wars.

-Lloyd Marken

P.S. For a more detailed review by me check out my main page here.

ZOOLANDER No.2 MAYBE MORE ACCURATE THAN INTENDED

Derek Zoolander returns to our screens for a belated sequel 15 years after the original became a cult hit. Comedy sequels are notoriously hard to pull off especially once the cultural zeitgeist has moved on, what was once hip and fresh becomes derivative and sad. So it must be said there are new ideas here and some decent laughs, Stiller and co. are prepared to even develop these shallow characters and recognise the passing of time.

To that end the film opens with a montage of events of the past few years to get us caught up to speed. Zoolander opened in cinemas on the heels of September 11, 2001 and inexplicably imagery in this montage recalls those events while showing the Derek Zoolander Centre for Kids Who Can’t Read Good collapsed in a tragic accident which killed love interest Matilda Jeffries and disfigured Hansel (He’s So Hot Right Now!) McDonald. Ripping up the happy ending of the first film is necessary but killing off a love interest to introduce a new one is a tired trope for Hollywood. None the less this proves the catalyst for Derek losing custody of his son and becoming a recluse. Now in the present day the former model is enticed back into the fashion industry in order to prove himself as a contributing member of society so he can regain custody of his son. Someone is killing off famous singers who all sport Blue Steel as they pass. Interpol Fashion Agent Valentina Valencia believes there is a connection that Zoolander might be able to help with before more murders occur.

The film is funniest when developing things from the original in an organic way and when referencing how culture has changed. Whether that is Benedict Cumberbatch’s androgynous model All or pointing out that smart phones are growing larger as opposed to years ago when the cool thing was to have a smaller mobile. Too many cameos of the fashion industry show up making the joke too inclusive perhaps although Sting and Kiefer Sutherland are two of the best additions to this sequel. Accepting the characters are older too and having them deal with parenthood is a natural progression but ultimately the film is not as fun or as fresh as the original. A handful of lines are worth remembering whereas the original was endlessly quotable. Kristin Wiig mocking Donatella Versace and the return of Will Ferrel as Jacobim Mugatu are good but the best moments have already been seen in the trailer and Penelope Cruz despite appearing in a red leather biker outfit fails to make much of an impression here (Christine Taylor fared so much better in the original), she is severely under used.

There are incredibly talented people who worked on this and they didn’t lazily just rehash what came before. They told a new story and it has some funny moments. Comparisons to the original may be to the detriment of the film; audience members for whom this is the first introduction to the character may be more forgiving. The death of Matilda seems unnecessary and unfunny but it does reveal that Stiller is not afraid of dark humour and for some may be so random that they enjoy that anything is on the table moving forward. Anchorman 2 though seemed to fare better as a belated sequel to a comedy cult comedy classic. By comparison there is no ‘Cruise Control’ scene in this movie unless you count the whole thing.

-Lloyd Marken

TARANTINO’S HATEFUL EIGHTH FILM

The Hateful Eight may be the year’s most accurate movie title. An exciting cast of Quentin Tarantino regulars and Jennifer Jason Leigh headline this film and they are colourful, memorable, vital and challenging but they are not to the very last one of them likeable. This may be the director’s most divisive film yet.

The plot begins with Bounty Hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) with his bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) making his way via stagecoach to nearby Red Rock where Daisy is to hang for her crimes. Unable to outrun a snow blizzard he is hoping to make it to a lodge named Minnie’s Haberdashery in time to wait out the blizzard. Along the way they pick up another Bounty Hunter Major Marquis Warner (Samuel L. Jackson) with his own dead bounty and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to Red Rock to take up his newly appointed post as Sherriff of Red Rock. Mannix and Warner were on opposite sides of the Civil War so there is already tension in the air when Ruth agrees to take them both into his coach.

When they reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, there are a host of other characters in the form of Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) running the lodge in Minnie’s absence, Oswaldo Mobray the Hangman (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) a cowboy and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) a former Confederate General. At this point the story having been mostly confined to the interior of the wagon is now confined to the cabin while being shot in 70mm. While this may seem an indulgence on the part of Tarantino the larger lenses allows more detail to show up in the background and in the expressions of faces that might be hiding secrets. The inhabitants of the Minnie’s might be there to rescue Daisy or simply take her to collect the bounty on her head for themselves. The film plays like a murder mystery and audience members may enjoy paying attention to see reveals ahead of time but there is not much reward in it.

All of what people have grown to love about Tarantino is alive here, witty dialogue, cartoonish violence and shock value storytelling. Something has changed though. In the director’s previous efforts the victims of cruel retribution were white slave owners, Nazis and rapists. If a likeable protagonist was hurt it usually led to them exacting this furious vengeance. Here Jennifer Jason Leigh is repeatedly smashed in the face, her eyes blaze defiantly and we are told she is dangerous and a criminal but we are not shown it and I grew uncomfortable at the attempt to make humour out of being violent towards the only onscreen actress. There is more involving oral rape which may or may not have taken place but I suspect without providing a likeable protagonist carrying out extreme vengeance like previous Tarantino films did all the cruelty takes on a darker edge. That creates a challenge for the audience but Tarantino is being honest here, he didn’t title the film “The Hateful 7 and the Somewhat Justified 1”. I have seen some troubling nihilistic films in my day which I respected for their brutality and message. Tarantino has a message in this film and the message is that America was borne out of savagery, injustice and robbery. Yet the ideals that the country’s common folk coated themselves in like freedom, civilisation and brotherhood will ultimately project us forward closer to their fruition every year. We’re getting there and that is not a bad sentiment and it is not lacking in ambition to want to tell a stylish rather than realistic tale nevertheless rooted in these hard truths. For a more positive review on The Hateful Eight which I think makes good points please click here.

Samuel L. Jackson by the way is stone cold brilliant in this film, possibly the greatest character Quentin has ever written for him. Kurt Russell too comes in with his John Wayne cadence, hard demeanour and reveals both a viciousness and naivety we don’t get to often see from him. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays up the physical comedy of her character but like the rest of the cast there is a great deal that will be revealed throughout the course of the film. Walter Goggins might just get the biggest arc but I enjoyed Bruce Dern and Tim Roth just as much. One scene played as an introduction for a whole raft of new victims that seemed pointless until it became obvious that the scene showed the bonds of certain characters before tearing them apart.

I can’t fault a lot of Tarantino’s work here and I’m still of the opinion that Quentin Tarantino is one of the great filmmakers of my generation. However if this film is designed to enrage then the understated The Big Short and Spotlight are far more moving and thought provoking. If The Hateful Eight is not designed to enrage but to merely make fun of the absurdity of how cruel we are to each other well then I’m sorry Quentin, I get it but I’m not laughing.

-Lloyd Marken

EX MACHINA: A SMALL FILM WITH BIG IDEAS

Ex Machina marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland who wrote amongst others Dredd, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It is a solid and confident effort that impresses less with big sequences but more with elegantly articulated big ideas and uneasy answers. It is old school science fiction released for a new age.

The premise is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a programmer at a tech company has won a competition to go and meet with the CEO of the company at his secluded retreat to hang out for a week. There is suitable build up to this with the retreat being remote and isolated and Gleeson having to make the last part of his journey by foot. The CEO Nathan Bateman as played by Oscar Isaac is introduced working out before grabbing a beer and speaking like a college frat boy while still pulling power dynamics wherever he can. Caleb has been nominated to interact with an artificial intelligence android named Ava to see whether it has become a fully sentient being. He is to interview Ava who is portrayed by Alicia Vikander and who remains in her room at all times over the course of the week and report back to Bateman each night to see what they think. The only other character present is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who is Nathan’s housemaid.

How each audience member reacts to each character may say as much about themselves as it does about the characters and certainly one of the pleasures of the film is seeing these very different creatures bounce off each other. The movie enjoys playing with the ideas of who is being tested, either anybody else maybe a robot, who is sympathetic or being dishonest and just where this all may lead? I wouldn’t dare spoil it, it is nice to not be sure of a film’s outcome and yet also at the end be satisfied with it. To create this balancing act you need good performances and Ex Machina has some of the most exciting young actors working today Domhnall Gleeson as the lead and audience surrogate should conventionally have the least to hide but he gives many layers to his character. Oscar Isaac plays the alpha male here with coiled aggression and relaxed dominance but as the film goes on we see more and more as this may be a mask. Alicia Vikander, with this the first of three films for her break out year of 2015 is great, unnervingly creepy at times and at others naïve and vulnerable. Sonoya Mizuno given the least to do is mostly a mute performance having to convey character through physicality which she does effortlessly (I’m not surprised to discover she is a Royal Ballet School graduate), one of those performances that can be underappreciated but with which the whole film would’ve suffered if she hadn’t delivered.

Set in and around the retreat for the most part with a small cast the film makes a mark the minimalist architecture of the location clashing strongly with the imposing natural landscape. The understated and cold nature of the text is echoed in this design and also in the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. All the effects were created in post-production with scenes being shot twice (once with Vikander and once without) to capture the background as well. The design of Ava is quite compelling incorporating transparent machine parts replicating human organs, coupled with body parts often sexualised coated in rubber and then topped off with the doe eyes of Vikander. This is a design meant to confront your own ideas about gender, sexuality and what it is to be human or machine. For the machine parts Vikander’s body was rotoscopped out but to retain her movement camera tracking systems taken of Vikander were transferred in. Close to half of the effect shots are in service to Ava’s presence, think about that for a second, half of the effect shots are in service to a character.

Apparently Garland worked hard to keep the script low key so that the budget would remain small and he could retain creative control without having to throw in a third act action sequence. That is not to say the third act isn’t exciting, the whole film is a build up to it and it’s gripping as these characters finally reveal what they’re truly capable of while coming to a head. They should make more movies like this.

-Lloyd Marken

THE FORCE AWAKENS IN STAR WARS FANDOM

Quite possibly the most heavily hyped film of all time Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit cinemas. After being burned by the prequels long term fans just want to know one thing-is it any good? And the quick answer is yes! With expectations being raised so much by the nostalgic laden marketing we have overlooked that the new movie The Force Awakens would buy an awful lot of goodwill just by being better than the prequels. However it didn’t beat the North American Box Office records in 16 days just by failing to be bad. Yes The Force Awakens is good yet more importantly it is fun.

Picking up the story 30 years after The Return of the Jedi, different forces throughout the galaxy are in search of the long absent Luke Skywalker. Poe Dameron a pilot with The Resistance is dispatched to pick up plans which may lead to Skywalker’s location but is unfortunately captured by the First Order led by Kylo Ren. The map remains with his trusty droid the seriously cute BB-8 who makes his way marooned on the desert planet Jakku where he comes across the scavenger Rey. star wars the force awakens haters rolling bb8Meanwhile a Stormtrooper having witnessed his first battle in the capture of Poe sees the Resistance pilot as a way for them to both escape the First Order.

The three new leads of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are inherently good people who make you laugh and like them almost immediately. Rey has come under criticism in some circles for being good at everything. Not a complaint without merit but Ridley makes Rey very believable and likeable that it seems churlish not to enjoy the character’s success for the most part. Kylo Ren as played by Adam Driver, like Vader before him starts off as a forbidding threat and becomes more complicated and fascinating as the story goes along albeit also far less intimidating. Out of all the returning ‘legacy’ characters Han Solo and Chewbacca are given the most screen time. Chewbacca has never been used better but Han Solo still roguish is now older and more vulnerable and Ford revels in playing the same character at a different stage in his life with very real new stakes.

J.J. Abrams is a story teller noted for great set-ups of premises and reinvigorating old franchises anew. Yet he is also known for jumping ship to work on new projects. He also specialises in pacing that carries the audience along at a zippy intoxicating rate that upon reflection appears to have helped gloss over coincidences and plot holes. The Force Awakens still suffers from this but it is arguably Abrams best film. It is not a bad thing he is stepping aside for Episode 8 and how that film answers some of the questions left hanging from this one will determine how fondly we remember both. star wars explosion crash the force awakens desertYet J.J. has pursued practical effects and location shooting to help match the aesthetics of the first trilogy, he’s referenced the past with the original cast and tons of Easter eggs but established a new mythology with lots of open-ends to speculate on for the next two years. Crucially he’s given us new characters to root for and sprinkled solid character based humour throughout. The highest compliment you can give this film is it makes you excited about Episode 8. Who would have thought?

BOND IS BACK… FOR NOW

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in the new Spectre, a film that utilises the history of his previous 3 goes at the role and acknowledges the ageing of the actor. If you look back, George Lazenby in Oh Her Majesty’s Secret Service shows more character growth than the other actors exhibit over their whole run. Daniel Craig’s Bond though remembers and ages and in a train cart in North Africa he arrives at a crossroads. Imprisoned, on a personal vendetta, married, returning home; these series of films have been electrifying when they’ve done something new with James and the ending of Spectre sees Bond in a very different place. It’s difficult to speak about the film without revealing spoilers but unlike some professional critics I will at least try. Let me just say that Spectre’s whole finale felt contrived and yet the last shot I really enjoyed despite being disorientated by it. It could be a curtain call for Craig and that’s fine. If not well then, as M once said, my advice to Eon productions is “Don’t muck it up.”

We open in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead celebrations with an uninterrupted tracking shot that takes us from crowded streets to deserted rooftops. This could be the best bit of the film. Bond in disguise, anonymous in a crowd, a female companion both part of the disguise and giving him a way in, their bodies heady with the promise of sex that is not to come before the spy…actually well spies on someone.

The dramatic action that follows augmented by CGI is not nearly as interesting but there is some nice tongues in cheeks and great use of the crowd, location and two crazy stuntmen hanging off a helicopter.  The opening credits and song showcase beautiful but unsettling imagery of two lovers threatened by the spectre of death. Notable for two things, first Craig who has always featured heavily in his credits is here bare chested and objectified like the women and second an early shot looks like a threesome involving an Octopus.  No I’m not joking and no that’s not my idea of an enjoyable Friday night.

Returning to London the secret agent finds an intelligence community under threat from government bureaucracy and an M under pressure. Bond doesn’t trust him like his predecessor so he sets fourth on an unsanctioned mission of his own. Fortunately for Bond he does trust the people he needs support from in Q and Moneypenny and with their help he sets off to Rome next. Snowy Alps and Tangiers will follow and he will eventually track down the mysterious Mr White who links Spectre to Quantum of earlier films. The film is grand in scale but going for a moody dreamy feel, most locations are at night and deserted. It’s epic (including a spectacular explosion late in the piece) but drained with a colour palette of yellows, grey, browns and whites it’s ghoulish rather than pretty. The dead are alive the opening proclaims and in more ways than one. This is all about Bond putting his ghosts to rest, White, Vesper Lynd, M and new villain Franz Oberhauser played by Christoph Waltz. A perfect film then to finally have a boogeyman come for him and Mr. Hinx played by Dave Bautista fits the role well. Dressed well and with a wry sense of humour he is still effectively first and foremost a daunting physical presence put to good use in a close quarters fight scene aboard a train. Craig is now leaner and older and we’re genuinely worried when Hinx comes at him with not just a hulking frame but lightning speed.

That fight scene is without doubt the highpoint of the action in this Bond film which is disappointing although I enjoyed the effort put into a pursuit where an airborne Bond goes after bad guys in cars for a change. The car chase in Rome feels like a mixed bag of intentions that never quite comes together. I kind of liked Moneypenny getting yoghurt out of the fridge in London while talking to Bond via phone in Rome. The chase is even an afterthought almost for Bond as Hinx shows up beside him almost as if to remind him that he’s being chased. There is no real sense of speed or jeopardy in it though and I’m sorry but you know what the new Ashton Martin-not that pretty.

A lot of excitement was created by Monica Bellucci at 50 becoming a Bond girl and as someone who can appreciate a woman whom appreciates garters I was very excited to see where this led. Sadly garters are the high point. She’s cast off fairly early in proceedings for you guessed it – a younger woman.

Fortunate then that Lea Seydoux saddled with a great deal builds an awful lot in a very short time frame. As Dr Madeline Swann she is the daughter of her Mr White whose work came to his house one day when he wasn’t there but she was. Dr Swann is full of layers, a woman who knows Bond’s world but has escaped it and does not want to return to it. As a result she understands Bond but also represents possibilities he’s never seriously considered.

Craig’s Bond has always inhabited this world of killers with a sense that one day a bullet could come for him. Skyfall in fact showed the character possibly getting shot for the first time ever-twice! Spectre really asks is Bond more than just a trigger man? Swann is at the heart of that question and she may just be one of the best Bond girls ever. And I haven’t even mentioned that dress.

Spectre is not a perfect Bond. The personal stakes were higher in Casino Royale which felt more real and Skyfall which was more fun. Those who complained about the plot holes in Silva’s plan will be driven crazy here by the decisions both Bond and Oberhauser make in tracking and trying to kill their opponents. That might feel a bit rich given the history of the series but after the reality of Casino Royale I did find it off putting. Christoph Waltz sits in the back of a helicopter in the finale kind of looking bored. A great actor diminished in a role that should be crackling, he’s playing a Bond villain for crying out loud. I don’t want to say he is what is wrong with the film, the projection of power in a shadowy board room scene early on is sublime but the handling of his character and the pointless backstory given to him is muted at best. Spectre is a good Bond entry with an ambitious theme of love’s triumph over death and Daniel Craig once more in the role he has made his own. Enjoy him here, James Bond will return but Daniel Craig may not.

 

-Lloyd Marken

JURASSIC WORLD IS NO JURASSIC TURD

Jurassic World either thinks it’s a lot cleverer than it actually is or is a lot more clever then we give it credit for. It’s usually a fine line between the two. Regardless Jurassic World essentially remakes Jurassic Park lacking the Spielbergian touch and freshness of the original. Like all sequels World goes bigger not better but it also playfully acknowledges dare we say criticises these conventions. The everyman scientist is replaced here by a Navy hero, the corporate career woman takes centre stage in the finale -not cast off in a side plot, the hubris of the CEO here leads to an action scene not a quiet moment of regret and the signature monster of the piece is both the cause of so much carnage and also a reflection of our own unhealthy desires for corporate excess and new unnecessary products, the kids are not just smart and cute but kinda hurting due to their parents divorcing, the treacherous human here is neither the instigator of the crisis nor in it purely for profit but he is far more evil as well. There is also restraint displayed in the use of the dinosaurs with a handful of species gradually coming into the narrative for their respective scenes, only the popular raptors and the brand new super dinosaur star throughout. That last minute reveal of one species made me break out in a grin. The plot might be uninspired but the riffs on the original formula are and create some good will towards the film. The film currently holds various opening weekend records and is the 3rd highest grossing film of all time. The Force Awakens might give it a run for the money but the film’s comparative success would suggest it’s time to tap into 90s nostalgia far more so than 70s or 80s nostalgia themed vehicles. Alas nobody told Adam Sandler and Arnold Schwarznegger.

As the trailers intoned The Park has opened twenty years after the disastrous events of Jurassic Park. In fact it’s been running for some time without incident but wouldn’t you know it-all hell is about to break loose. Claire Mitchell is the operations manager of the park with her two nephews Zack and Gray being dispatched there for a holiday under her care while their parents divorce.  The park, the only one of its kind in the world, is seeing dwindling interest in the phenomenal and unique novelty of dinosaurs existing in the modern world!!!!!!! So they genetically engineer a new dinosaur called Indominus Rex or I-Rex for short (that can’t be coincidence and kudos to the writers) made out of all of the demands of focus groups who want a bigger meaner deadlier dinosaur for the sequel-I mean park. I won’t spoil the break-out but you know one is coming. The film thankfully sets things up in a call back to old school blockbusters by leaving the first act relatively action free. We get introduced to the characters and their relationships to each other. We get a sense of the scope of the park and then we are suitably unnerved by the new monster that immediately seems like a bad idea. Once all those things are ticked off the film lets the proverbial hit the fan.  If there is one criticism I can’t shake it’s the lack of an immediate lockdown the second a dinosaur is on the loose but distance from the break out and the main park gives the powers that be confidence they can recover the creature with minimal PR damage.  I guess. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Chris Pratt (a far more rounded performer then he probably gets credit for) plays a lot of beats from his Captain Star Lord performance but it’s a likeable persona right at home in a blockbuster and he’s positively a bona fide movie star when he turns in the control room and says “Evacuate the island.” He hasn’t been studying dinosaurs for years; he’s been training them like a lion tamer for a little while after leaving the Navy.

Bryce Dallas Howard is arguably the main character of the film as Claire, she’s basically running the park and is a successful career woman mostly office bound having to liaise with clients and potential sponsors. It’s not impossible to imagine she would wear heels or find herself still wearing them outfield (albeit I know plenty of career women who always have a pair of joggers under their desk however I digress) but it has certainly been the source of much mocking over this American summer. I’ve run in heels (hey I was a drama student once upon a time) and it is not easy but not impossible as clearly displayed here by Rachel McAdams in Morning Glory. Howard is great in the role, her first real go at a blockbuster since her M. Night Shymalan films really and clunky dialogue aside she grounds the film well. She’s a professional doing her job, she is trying to spend time with her nephews despite clearly big things happening in her workday and she sets out to find them when it becomes obvious the situation is dire

The two kids who the primary audience will identify with are Gray and Zack Mitchell. Gray is wonderfully enthusiastic about his holiday and far more emotional about the reality of his parent’s divorce. Zack Mitchell his older brother like all teenagers coats his pain with outward indifference and frustrated hormones. These kids are hurting with something far more terrifying than a raptor and as the divorce rate stands at 40-50% in the U.S. there are certainly a lot of kids watching the film who are going to find it relatable.

Irrfan Khan played by Simon Masrani is both a cheerful and likeable CEO if not a maker of smart decisions and Vincent D’Onofrio is suitably slimy as Vic Hoskins head of security. A smile breaking out across his face halfway through the film seals his fate and when it comes it is wonderfully satisfying. Vince you can play scumbags any time you want buddy. The cast is filled out by very talented actors who mostly get at least one moment to shine but these are the main hitters.

One of the smartest decisions I think the filmmaking team have made here is the characterization of the dinosaurs themselves. The I-Rex keeps pulling out a new surprising capability long after somebody-anybody should have thrown Dr Henry Wu up against the wall and made him spill everything but as monsters go she looms large as a threat for the whole film through several encounters and that is pretty impressive.  The Raptors being given names if not personalities (except you Blue, you’re my boy Blue) and getting to be used for good is also a nice development. The film boasts likeable humans thank God but nobody forgot that some good dinosaur on dinosaur action holds massive appeal.

But I’ve dissected the film like an adult looking for double meanings and narrative originality. This is a big kid’s film and after watching an interview with director Colin Trevorrow claiming he directed the whole film as if from a child’s sensibility-immediately the film shot up in my estimates. The repetition of the words Animals and Assets that Honest Trailers picked up on, the bickering between the female and male lead at the beginning, the stolen kiss later on, the set pieces, the inexplicable lazy fat security guard for the I-Rex’s enclosure, the overtly long staring at girls from Zack and pretty much every characterisation is informed by this viewpoint and all for the better. In particular the seriousness and lack of silliness in the scenes referencing the divorce become more poignant too. In my humble opinion there were better blockbusters this American summer Jurassic World I suspect made more money for a very good reason. Maybe Jurassic World doesn’t think it’s smarter than it is. Maybe I do. Check it out, only a fool wouldn’t enjoy it.

-Lloyd Marken

SAY WHAT YOU WILL ABOUT ETHAN HUNT

There really never has been stunt like Tom Cruise’s dry hump of an Airbus while taking off from the ground and rising to 5,000 feet. It’s a ballsy move with a great payoff. As the subwoofers in the cinema kick in and Cruise’s little legs kick out behind him before the ground drops away in a heartbeat there are just some things worth seeing on the big screen. Rightfully so Paramount have made it the lynchpin of their media campaign, yet even ballsier than doing the stunt itself is putting it in the first five minutes of the film where its link to the rest of the plot is minor at best. The message is implicit “You ain’t seen nothing yet folks.” And you haven’t. While it might remain the most spectacular stunt of the film there are three major set pieces to come with my personal favourite being an assassination plot at the Austrian Opera House.

I suppose I should explain the plot but at this point these films survive on mood, performances and yes set pieces. Caring about Ethan Hunt seems almost inconsequential. Maybe because Ethan Hunt is really Tom Cruise and whether you like Mission Impossible depends on whether you like the Cruise persona. For my money only Simon Pegg shows up playing a character with heart and personality. I suspect this is why he gets the lion share of the support work despite Alec Baldwin, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames appearing.

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None of these supporting characters matter next to Rebecca Ferguson as Isla Faust, a spy whose loyalties remain in question throughout. The camera lovingly lingers on her frame in a ball gown but also capture her face beautifully in a series of mysterious gazes. A star is most definitely born. The script makes her the equal of Hunt in several showdowns and Ferguson sells it including two big stunts she performed. Unlike Paula Patton and Maggie Q, Ferguson has real impact here and needs to return in the sequel. Because ladies and a gentleman a star is born!

Hunt can’t trust Isla for most of the film and previous entries in the film have seen Ethan turn his back on romance for the greater good. Isla suggests to Hunt when the stakes are getting high that they can run away together. They’ve paid their dues and there will always be another mission. This may be his last chance at happiness. An exchange of looks between them later speaks a thousand words. They make their choices.

There’s something incredible meta about what each Mission Impossible film has been and where it has landed in Tom Cruise’s career, the first back in 1996 was Cruise’s first stab at a franchise and being an action hero. 19 years later and Cruise’s biggest movies are his action vehicles at a time when maybe he should be slowing down and acknowledging his age. Ethan Hunt isn’t very loved or appreciated by his employer in this film as he continuously risks limb to successfully carry out his mission. Sound familiar? The film also displays a lot of humour about Hunt’s supposed invincibility. Whatever ego Cruise shows in real life, as producer and star he wisely pokes fun at himself here. 

I never did get to the plot but not to fret. Mission Impossible 5 is mostly style over substance. Those furtive glances are about as much as the characters talk about their feelings. What glances though. Hell just do a super cut of Rebecca Ferguson looking down the lens of the camera. Did I mention a star is born?! The first entry is still the best film of the lot but despite its faults Mission Impossible 5 crucially creates excitement for a sixth film. Well done Mr Hunt. Mission Complete.

 

 -Lloyd Marken