“This Is Not Going To Go… The Way You Think!” – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Spoiler Free Review)

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“This is not going to go… the way you think!”

Luke Skywalker’s ominous words, highlighted in the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, could easily stand as the film’s throughline.

The overwhelming message of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that families are complicated and move in unexpected directions. It also has a lot to say about being screwed up by our fathers.

Overwhelming also accurately describes what I felt about the film at the end of its two and a half hour journey. It’s somewhat overlong but it features some astonishing action sequences, is one of the visually richest Star Wars films and contains what might be my single favourite moment from the entire franchise.

In many ways, The Last Jedi mirrors both the darkness and structure of the Original Trilogy’s middle film, The Empire Strikes Back, but writer and director Rian Johnson is smart enough to take off into some truly wild new directions during the final third.

Picking up right where The Force Awakens left us, this new installment hits the ground running and the pace barely lets up. The expanding group of characters, old and new are pretty successfully juggled so that everyone is given satisfying arcs, this particularly benefits Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron, and Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill as Leia and Luke. Daisy Ridley continues to command the screen, especially in her dealings with Adam Driver, their interactions are electric.

John Boyega gets to play off new-to-the-franchise Kelly Marie Tran – both of who are great value but unfortunately shuffled into the film’s weakest thread – a trip to a casino world that’s given a decent barbed comment on the social structure of the Star Wars galaxy but feels rather unnecessary, structurally, and also, dare I say it, feels rather like an outtake from the dreaded Prequels. Indeed, this thread also manages to waste the always welcome presence of Benecio Del Toro.

While Johnson’s generosity to give everyone breathing room is commendable it does also see The Last Jedi surrender some of Empire’s structural elegance in favour of a more scattershot approach that leaves the film feeling a little overstuffed.

Still, this is a film with more on its mind than just rehashing the franchise for a new generation or showing off special effects. The relationship dynamics established are nicely developed, and not all in ways you might be expecting, Johnson keeps things surprising, and manages that to the very last frames. The Last Jedi is drenched in darkness but garnished with light and hope.

The consequences of familial actions, in particular those of fathers, is a deep running vein through the film, but it also suggests that family finds its own shape and can be forged in new ways.

Alongside all the drama Johnson gives us breathless action and some of the most gorgeous filmmaking and visuals of the series, using the colour red to particularly strong effect. An opening space battle and a dizzying lightsabre battle are among the highlights.

There are lots of callbacks (visually and thematically) to both Empire and Return of the Jedi, and a beautiful closing moment for one character which returns us right to the heart of Star Wars (Episode IV). To say any more would involve spoilers, but suffice to say there are some big emotional pay-offs.

As I mentioned before, The Last Jedi also features a sequence, possibly my favourite of the franchise, so balls-out audacious that it more than makes up for any deficiencies the film might have. You’ll know it when it arrives, a moment so glorious and exciting it will leave you very happy that Johnson is forging the future of Star Wars with his upcoming new trilogy.

I’m not certain The Last Jedi is quite the masterpiece many have been proclaiming, it’s too inelegant for that, but it’s eager to please and will leave you exhausted as you emerge from the cinema. It’s a shot of pure Star Wars adrenaline.

Like family, The Last Jedi is messy and doesn’t go the way you think. Ultimately though, you can’t help but love it.

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Justice League: Dawn of… Something.

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After a great deal of anticipation and no small amount of concern at its production woes, the best we could hope for with Justice League is that the film wasn’t going to be a complete mess.

Well, it is a mess, but it is also a lot of fun, more so than expected.

The Warner Bros/DC universe has been a wobbly affair from the outset. First of all, Zack Snyder presented a version of Superman in both Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman which suggested at best that he didn’t understand the character and at worst that he actively disliked him. This was followed by the incoherent Suicide Squad, and frankly the less said about that, ever, the better.

Finally, Patty Jenkins launched Wonder Woman (after a cameo in Batman vs Superman) with reverence and respect to the qualities that have made her such a much-loved character since 1941 and a palpable sense of joy. In a case more shocking than snow being white, audiences responded favourably.

While Diana of Themyscira was cleaning up at the box office, Warner Bros and DC decided on a spot of course correction for their characters. Joss Whedon (director of Marvel’s first two Avengers movies) was brought in to oversee rewrites and reshoots on Snyder’s Justice League. Industry scuttlebutt suggested this was an attempt to steer what had been Snyder’s overriding grim vision for the cinematic DC universe towards something more hopeful, and more fun.

A viewing of Justice League will clearly show this has been the case. In the opening moments Superman is given an introduction which attempts to make us understand why the world feels such a profound loss at his death. While welcome, it does come across as a rather clunky retcon, since what we’re shown fails to jibe with the lofty, distant character seen in his previous outings.

The film’s threat is then introduced and if you were hoping the casting of Ciarán Hinds would result in a character of subtlety and nuance then you’d have been better off hoping for a cameo from Batgirl as played by Adam Sandler. Steppenwolf is a CGI mope who wants to take over the world. And uh, that’s it. Frankly he makes the weakest Marvel villain seem like a character in a Mike Leigh film.

The rest of the plot, such as it is, sees the League introduced, but here again the film fails since these introductions feel more like trailers for forthcoming movies. This was always a danger for Justice League since DC decided not to put in the legwork that Marvel did, firmly establishing their characters in individual movies before bringing them together for The Avengers.

So we have a group of characters we barely get time to know, one whose place in the world is very obviously rewritten and a barely one-dimensional villain. As a film, it’s a shambles, but there is something more going on here.

Despite all of the above, the characters are a great deal of fun. That they are is testament to both the well-cast actors and, I strongly suspect, Whedon’s rewrites. Jason Momoa is obviously having a blast as Arthur Curry/Aquaman and that translates well (his ‘bro with a trident’ being more enjoyable than the trailers would have us believe), Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen/Flash is a little more of an acquired taste – but his over-earnest shtick mostly works a treat, while Ray Fisher’s Victor Stone/Cyborg gets the shorter end of the stick and is barely developed at all. Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot (Bruce Wayne/Batman and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman) continue to do great work with their characters (but then we’ve been given time to get to know them). Gadot is definitely the MVP of the DC Extended Universe.

Thankfully, the gloom and doom portentousness of Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman has been entirely done away with, instead the mood here is downright pulpy, with events unfolding at a breakneck pace (that studio-dictated two-hour running time has really paid off). While the characters suffer from that, there is at least no time to be bored.

And then, of course, there’s Superman. It’s not really a spoiler to say the Man of Steel returns in Justice League, as his resurrection was teased just moments after his demise in Batman vs Superman. What is a pleasant surprise is that we are finally given a more recognisable version of the Last Son of Krypton than either of his previous outings. Even Henry Cavill’s super-suit has been colour-graded (in glaringly obvious post-production) to more closely resemble its comic book counterpart. Incidentally, Cavill’s real-life moustache, grown for the filming of  the newest Mission: Impossible movie and unable to be removed for Whedon’s reshoots, is also given a post-production erasing with frankly bizarre results.

But it’s pleasurable to see Superman, the real red and blue Superman, in action. It’s impossible to imagine Snyder’s version of the character asking “Is this guy still bothering you?” as he hurtles head-long into the villain. Let’s hope the long-in-gestation Man of Steel 2 picks up on this revitalised iteration.

The ultimate problem with Justice League is that, Wonder Woman aside, each of the films has left us hoping that DC/Warner Bros will learn from their mistakes and get it right next time. So much was riding on Justice League: this should have been the movie to get everything right, set up the individual characters and firmly establish the world and the tone of the movies to come. Instead we have a film where everyone is given rushed introductions, a dull villain to fight and some of the worst CGI seen in a major movie since The Hobbit trilogy.

Let’s be clear, just the fact that it tries to inject heart and hope into the flagship DC legends means that it’s already way more fun than either Man of Steel or Batman vs Superman (and it’s light years ahead of Suicide Squad, despite its similarly troubled production).

The film is not the complete disaster many were expecting, but neither is it the triumph many were hoping for.

While it’s a positive sign that the company has taken notice of Wonder Woman, at what point precisely can audiences stop hoping for DC to get it right next time and just enjoy the movies as they arrive!?

These iconic characters deserve a better movie. Maybe next time they’ll get it. But then I’ve said that before…

Have You Heard The One About Thor: Ragnarok?

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Thor: Ragnarok has laughs. Plenty of them. Perhaps too many. Allow me to explain…

I’ll start by saying there is a huge amount to love about Marvel’s third solo outing for the God of Thunder. First of all it’s the most fully rounded vision of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s four-colour hero to date, Kirby’s cosmic visuals are like a roadmap for Thor: Ragnarok. It’s also yet another step forward for both the Thor solo franchise and indeed the Marvel Cinematic Universe in embracing its comic book roots.

There’s little desire to coddle non-comic book fans with grounded scenes set on Earth (and the whistle-stop moments we do get on our home planet actually push things into even geekier comic books realms, particularly in one cameo sequence, teased at the end of a previous movie). Within the first twenty minutes or so we’ve been taken to Hell (or the Norse equivalent), Asgard (including another couple of genuinely jaw-dropping cameos), Earth and then into the vast reaches of outer space. It’s all colourful, exciting and breathtaking, and the pace doesn’t really let up, cutting between Thor’s adventures in space and events back on Asgard.

We’re also given the best version of the onscreen Hulk yet, realised by Mark Ruffalo along with state of the art mo-cap, animation and fine attention to detail with character so he now has full Hulk-speak dialogue scenes (and jokes) with other characters. Special mention to Tessa Thompson too, for giving us a delightful, kick ass version of a much-loved Marvel character. I really hope we see more of her in future movies. Idris Alba is given a little more screen time as Heimdall but still feels wasted. Director Waititi features as another comic character, alien stone man Korg, engaging and pretty much played for laughs.

The film also mostly succeeds in breaking the curse of the underwhelming Marvel villains by giving us several of them, all in various hues and shades of villainy. Cate Blanchett is obviously having a bad guy ball as Hela, Queen of the Underworld, Karl Urban crops up to reaffirm his geek cred as Skurge, The Executioner, there’s the ever mercurial Loki brilliantly essayed by Tom Hiddleston, of course, plus we have Jeff Goldblum doing his best Jeff Goldblum thing as The Grandmaster. They’re all layered, interesting and fun.

Ah yes, then we get to the laughs. Ragnarok might best be described as Marvel’s first comedy, so far do Waititi and his team push the humour of the film. I’m all about seeing Marvel broaden their canvas, playing with expectations and giving each film a fresh tone,  an approach that’s paid dividends with the likes of James Gunn and it mostly pays off here as this is most definitely a Taiki Waititi film. It’s an approach which should help the longevity of Marvel movies and keep audiences on their toes (and anyone who thinks of Marvel films as being cookie cutter affairs really needs to open their eyes to the palettes of movies as far apart as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and now Thor: Ragnarok).

So far, so Marvel dandy. However, we’re also here for the drama, and occasionally the jokes are laid on so relentlessly in Thor: Ragnarok that they frequently end up severely undercutting the drama.

A major event, foreshadowed all the way through, actually comes to pass near the end of the movie. It should be quite the dramatic moment, as it affects most of the characters and shakes up some of the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, a big deal. There’s a nice, humorous set up to the moment, then straight after it happens any drama arising from the scene is wiped out with a not particularly firing-on-all-cylinders quip. It’s unnecessary, and damaging to our empathy for the characters we’ve been following for six years since Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor movie. That’s quite an investment, and one that takes a hit for the sake of a throwaway gag.

I should reiterate, Waititi and Marvel have produced a top-notch film which will undoubtedly leave you with a smile on your face and the knowledge you’ve spent a good night out at the cinema. But finding that sweet spot between drama and humour takes a careful aim, and this time it feels like Thor’s hammer missed the target by a few inches.

More Human Than… Blade Runner 2049

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Let’s get this out of the way first: Blade Runner 2049 has not resulted in the kind of film I feared it would be when I first heard that this belated sequel would happen and thought: “That has to be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.”

Quite the opposite, in fact. Director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriters Hampton Fancher (also partly responsible for the original) & Michael Green, executive producer Ridley Scott and their crew have offered up one of the most powerful science fiction films of the new millennium. It’s been a long time, in fact, since we’ve been given a cinematic experience as pure as this.

Set 30 years after Scott’s classic, the sequel sees a mystery set in place when Ryan Gosling’s Blade Runner retires a Replicant-in-hiding who has been guarding a secret which could change the course of the world forever.

From just that plot description it’s clear this is no mere retread of the first movie, which had a fairly contained hunter versus hunted narrative.

Villeneuve and company paint on a much broader canvas, and this time the questions seem to revolve around not what it is to be human, but what it is to be more than human. It has an utterly palpable mood of tense gloom, giving you the constant feeling that something big and awful is about to happen, but it does this by widening the scope of Scott’s world, which is quite an act to pull off.

The music (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, with plenty of nods to Vangelis) is bold and wonderful, the sound design by Theo Green and Mark Mangini is overwhelming and the cinematography by the cinematic god that is Roger Deakins is dazzling and beautiful, all of which work together to produce something that absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen. As big a screen as possible.

Gosling is great in the lead (as ‘K’), and while it’s a little difficult to go into depth on his role while avoiding spoilers, he finds just the right balance of what must have been a tricky character to get right. The rest of the cast is filled out by superb actors who know how to make the best of smaller roles, but the film really belongs to Gosling and, of course, Harrison Ford.

Ford returns as Blade Runner, Deckard, and I honestly can’t recall when I last saw him so fully engaged and fully immersed in a role. He is magnificent, Deakins’ camera loving every deep crag and crevice on his sandblasted face, and is a full-on the movie star of the old guard. I hope this is the beginning of a renaissance for the actor, because I’ve missed seeing him do great work onscreen.

There is a slight thorn in this rose, however. An unfortunate element that stands out is that the future as presented here is very much patriarchal: street-walkers roam in packs, artificial women are everywhere, as companions and toys for men, their sole aim to pleasure. And there’s a great deal of violence towards women (four female characters are brutally murdered). This troublesome theme pushes to the forefront of the story with Jared Leto’s Wallace, as he casually kills one of the synthetics his company has just given birth to. It’s a (deliberately) horrific scene, and I’m still trying to decide whether this is a deliberate part of the texturing, a barbed comment on misogyny in society and even if so, whether it was a necessary choice for the film. I’m not so sure.

I love the original with a vengeance, and while I’m glad they didn’t attempt to replicate (…sorry…) that film, what results is a somewhat colder effort than Scott’s remarkable and enduring tone poem, and only time will tell whether this will similarly work its way into my affections.

It’s rather like hearing  a new track by Led Zeppelin, riffing on one of your favourite Beatles songs, you know you’re getting something astonishing but you’re not sure if you’ll grow to love it.

However, against all the odds, Blade Runner 2049 is a towering achievement, a smart, powerful juggernaut of a movie which ultimately suggests something akin to hope for mankind. In an era of cookie cutter sequels that we’ve been given a sequel to a great movie that forges it’s own unique path is close to a miracle, which means that, much like the original, it’s a film which comments on its own premise (you’ll need to see the film to fully understand that).

Movies like this don’t come along too often and when they do we should celebrate them. Go to a cinema and experience it.

 

This Mummy Should Have Stayed Buried…

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In 2014 Universal released Dracula Untold and bravely announced it would be the first of a Marvel Cinematic Universe-style reboot of their classic stable of monster characters. Despite a reasonable return at the box office, this toothless retread received a decidedly lukewarm reception and it seemed the studio’s monsterverse was stillborn.

Jump ahead a few years and Universal announce another stab at The Mummy, which will herald in the first (or rather, the first yet again) of its Dark Universe films (now playing down Dracula Untold’s connection and seemingly forgetting poor old Luke Evans’ Transylvanian Count in the process).

This latest catalogue of Egyptian shenanigans has more in common with the previous trio of movies headlined by Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon God) than the 1932 original starring Boris Karloff (or that film’s four successors). This means we’re in for another round of big budget, high adventure rather than anything remotely horrifying.

Tom Cruise is dull and woefully miscast, in a role that might have worked better with someone more adept at comedy (I kept thinking of Bruce Campbell), as a none-too-bright treasure hunter (read: thief) who inadvertently revives an evil Egyptian Princess with a plan to find a human host for the god, Set. The Princess has her eyes on Tom (presumably for the way he looks, because his character is rather irritating), and once Set moves in they’ll… I don’t know, take over the world, or yada yada, blah blah. It’s entirely possible I may have zoned out for a moment or two and missed some of the finer details.

This kickstarts a lot of big action set pieces, some dire attempts at comedy (including a huge and completely inappropriate swipe from John Landis’ seminal An American Werewolf in London), a lot of running around and away from dull CGI, and not one sequence that manages to be creepy or horrifying. Rather unfortunate for a would-be horror franchise, I’d say.

Russell Crowe shows up in an attempt to be the glue which holds together the Dark Universe but settles instead for chewing huge chunks of scenery and (presumably unintentionally) hilariously descending into a Mary Poppins/Dick Van Dyke Cockernee accent when his Doctor Henry Jekyll begins to play Hyde and seek. #sorrynorsorry

Sofia Boutella, as Princess Ahmunet/The Mummy, tries hard to do something with her role, managing to reveal shades of vulnerability through the bandages, through sheer force of will rather than anything the script gives her. It’s a shame the writers, producers and director didn’t trust the actress with more to do.

It’s astonishing and sad that Warner Bros/DC and now Universal have looked at the Marvel movies and learned nothing whatsoever from their success. When will studios understand that trying to shoehorn a shared universe into one movie is a bad idea!?

The film feels like nothing more than a checklist designed by a committee who wanted to tick off as many boxes as possible for Tom Cruise fans, giving them the kind of action they’ve grown used to from the Mission: Impossible series. Sadly this committee have seemingly never actually watched, or at least understood, a horror movie (and certainly none of the studio’s original films from the 1930s and 1940s), because bolting together a Tom Cruise action movie and a horror movie with no horror is most definitely a failed experiment that would have Doctor Frankenstein hanging his head in shame.

Finally and lethally, The Mummy is boring, it isn’t scary and the Dark Universe it tries so desperately to unwrap is dead on arrival.

Valerian – The Flawed Jewel

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I didn’t know exactly what Luc Besson would be giving us with his big budget adaptation of the Valerian and Laureline comic books, but a sci-fi film with a pro-EU message definitely came as a surprise.

Besson first seriously considered adapting Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin’s long-running comic book series while he was making The Fifth Element. The decision to hold off until special effects caught up with the imagination needed to fully realise the characters and the universe they inhabit was probably a wise one, and it has paid off handsomely.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets literally screams out to be experienced at the cinema, preferably on as big a screen as possible – and in 3D if your local theatre understands how to properly project that format. It is without a doubt one of the most visually luxuriant films you’ll see this year (and possibly many other years), and is a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty.

Besson’s film takes no prisoners, and with little pre-amble launches us into a fully-formed world (or rather, universe) and expects us to embrace the story in progress. It’s an exhilirating rush and one which might leave some viewers who expect to be spoon-fed information a little disoriented (don’t worry, there’ll be another Transformers film for them soon, I’m sure). Valerian is a Luc Besson joint, full of the off-centre tics expected from his work, and is draped in his wonderful Gallic sensibility like a well-cut designer outfit.

It’s decidely not a Hollywood cookie cutter film, instead it’s madly ambitious and joyfully exhuberant though I didn’t feel quite the same eccentric voice as The Fifth Element was being given full reign. Perhaps this film’s astonishing budget led to more pressure on Besson.

Even if this was the case, Besson has mangaged to present us with something wonderous and completely topical, because snuck in between all the talk of extra-dimensional shoppng centres, converters and space pearls is a message that seems to focus on the importance of unity between different races. And with much of the action taking place on Alpha, a space station where millions of creatures from different planets live peacefully and exchange their knowledge and cultures, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the current situation between the UK and the EU seeping through into the fabric of this production. It’s quite a thing to see but with its core message of space unity, Besson has seemingly given us the first “we’re better together, despite the problems”, anti-Brexit, sci-fi fantasy.

Cara Delevingne makes for a fetching and spiky Laureline, the camera loves her and the character is pretty much elevated to the lead role (something which might irritate comic book purists, but fuck them because it works), another quality which sees the film stand out from the crowd. Indeed the film might better be titled Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets, which does lead me to the one big issue I had with Besson’s choices.

Dane DeHaan is a fine actor, but he has a dark, somewhat surly quality which I didn’t feel was right for this role. While there was certainly no need to have Valerian as a wisecracking, Peter Quill/Starlord clone, the chemistry with Delevingne feels somewhat unbalanced at times, and a lighter touch was needed to stop Valerian coming across as something of a creep towards his partner. While this moves their interplay away from cliche, it also undercuts vital empathy and an actor with a little more screen charm would have worked wonders. It’s a shame because this central dynamic is vital to the film, and that spark could have made a big difference. I’m sure he’d disagree (hey, it’s his movie) but for me it’s a rare moment of casting weakness from Besson.

But this unusual misstep shouldn’t deter you from seeing Valerian, for despite this it’s a big, glorious attempt to give cinema something different and in an age of blue and teal colour-graded action movies that’s to be cherished and celebrated. Valerian is a jewel of a film, albeit one with an unfortunate flaw at its heart.

If nothing else, Valerian is a cult film in the making, and I can pretty much guarantee that in fifteen or twenty years time enthusiasts will be singing its praises as one of those films that everyone should have gone to see at the cinema.

Vive le Besson!

Apes Together Strong – War Continues A Great Summer

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Frankly, when Fox announced a (second) reboot of their beloved Planet of the Apes franchise back in 2010 it elicited little more than a resigned sigh from me. When news came that the apes would be fully realised with CGI my heart sank.

As a long-time fan of the original series of films (I saw most of them at the cinema in the early 1970s) I’d already been burned by the reboot attempted by Tim Burton a decade before this most recent announcement, in 2001. That film still arguably stands as Burton’s worst (even though it had some great design and make-up work).

Still I trudged dutifully into the cinema in 2011 to see James Franco kickstart the Rise of the Planet of the Apes and came out two hours later with a pleasantly surprised smile on my face. Rupert Wyatt’s prequel reimagining (and my fingers tremble even just typing that phrase) was a thoughful and engaging movie, and the work of the actors (including Andy Serkis) and animators meshed almost seamlessly to give us an exciting new take on the apes.

My surprise grew to actual anticipation for Matt Reeve’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014 and I was not disappointed. The visuals improved again and we were given an even more exciting and thought-provoking story with Caeser (Serkis) doing his best not to lead his apes into war against mankind’s few survivors of the simian plague which had all but wiped them out at the close of the previous movie.

By now I was actually excited to see Matt Reeves, Andy Serkis and co. return for the third film in this respectful but fresh series of films, and I’m happy to say that War for the Planet of the Apes not only met my expectations but far exceeded them.

First a word about the ape work. The actors and animators combine talents here to give the most astonishing performances yet seen in motion capture. These apes live, breathe and feel to such a high level that it simply becomes impossible to look at them as special effects. For me, Caesar, Maurice, Rocket, “Bad Ape” (a hugely enagaging new character) and the other apes have reached a point where you feel the awards bodies should really be bringing in a new category to recognise these remarkable types of roles.

The story opens with Caesar’s clan fighting against a human military faction called Alpha-Omega. Once again Caesar attempts to take the higher ground by moving the apes to another location, one which will see them leave the worsening human aggression behind. But Alpha-Omega’s leader, a mysterious, Colonel Kurtz-like character (played with layered gusto by Woody Harrelson) soon escalates events to a very personal level, taking Caeser on a mission which will see the leader tested as never before.

War of the Planet of the Apes is constantly surprising and totally enthralling, it continues in the vein of the best of the Apes films by telling a story which is both thoughtful and exciting. It leads towards a war of almost biblical proportions, but one whose combatants are something of a surprise. As with the very best summer blockbusters, Reeves and his team give us exactly what they promise, just not in exactly the way we might expect.

Kudos also to the screenplay (by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves), to Michael Seresin’s beautiful cinematography and also to Michael Giacchino for a truly memorable score, one that reminded me of John Barry’s work in several places. These combine to give a movie which really should be experienced at a cinema.

The film is also surprisingly emotional (I was weeping openly at the finish) and if this turns out to be the final film of a trilogy (highly unlikely, right Fox…?), then it will end as a triumph. We have been gifted with two wonderful runs of Apes movies and this latest trilogy is proof that an old idea can have new life breathed into it in the right hands.

Summer 2017 has seen a remarkable run of truly excellent movies and this might just be the best of an exceptional bunch. It’s definitely the best of the new Apes trilogy.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Amazing, At Last!

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Considering Spider-Man has been with us since 1962, it’s somewhat difficult to understand why he’s never come close to appearing on the cinema screen.

Oh sure, there have been five movies, some more successful in their approach than others, but regardless of how close each of them got to capturing that magic quality which has kept the character in print for fifty-five years something always felt… just slightly off.

Sam Raimi and co. certainly got close, especially with Spider-Man 2, which held the gold standard for superhero movies for some time. But I was never happy with the casting of that trilogy, as good as Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are as actors, I never felt they were right for Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Marc Webb swung closer with his stars, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) but the approach taken to the two Amazing Spider-Man films was just completely wrong-headed. Making Peter Parker a disaffected skateboard kid who ends up swinging into his graduation ceremony to kiss the prettiest girl in school was so far removed from what makes these characters special it was absurd. Sadly these entries also felt like the worst kind of committee-led filmmaking.

And both sets of movies shared a very particular missing quality. In the comic books Spider-Man has always been a vital cornerstone of the Marvel Universe, but in the movies the character has always swung through a New York bereft of other superheroes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming corrects that from its opening moments, as we are dropped into a New York recovering from alien invasion with criminals using stolen alien technology, a world where Avengers tower looms large over the city and superheroes are commonplace in everyday life.

But here is where the new collaboration between Marvel and Sony has really paid dividends, in the understanding that our Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man is the contrast to the other characters who fly around seeing off aliens from space and demons from dark dimensions. Spider-Man works best as a street level character, interacting with New Yorkers who cheer or jeer as he goes about his daily web-slinging.

Finally we’re given the opportunity to see Peter explore his newfound powers without the tiresome retread of an origin story, instead following a hero learning from his (plentiful) mistakes. Stakes are kept personally high but distinctly low-key (in superhero terms), from Spider-Man realising just how long it takes to climb the Washington Monument (and suddenly seeing how high up he is at its top) through to the climactic battle between hero and villain.

Speaking of the villain, I’d happily watch Michael Keaton reciting the phone directory and while there are one or two moments I’d like to have seen him given more to chew on, he also manages to bring an interesting, almost political motivation to his character and in one sequence set inside a parked car, a palbable sense of threat and menace in a stand-off involving no costumes, with no powers used or punches thrown. It’s a stand out moment in a film full of them.

The casting is excellent overall, as Peter Parker’s high school friends feel natural and unstereotypical, and director Jon Watts gives the film a John Hughes vibe that’s hard to ignore and impossible to dislike, with a fresh feeling that’s quite distinct from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet completely at home in it. Jacob Batalon’s Ned and Zendaya’s Michelle are particular stand-outs.

As seen in Captain America: Civil War, we’re given a fresh take on Peter’s Aunt May, now played with delightful MILF-relish by Marisa Tomei. She’s not given huge amounts to do in this first outing, but she’s such a fine actress she supports here perfectly and hopefully we’ll see more from her in the already-announced sequel.

Finally, every filmed attempt at Spider-Man stands and falls with its Peter Parker, and here we are given a true representation of the character. Tom Holland simply nails the role, his boyish looks giving Peter an average Joe quality, an awkward, earnest, ordinary teenager blessed, or cursed, with extraordinary abilities, who ultimately uses his powers because he knows it’s the right thing to do.

While this iteration plays loosely with the source material it stays true to the good-natured heart that has seen these characters loved by millions for so long to produce a film that’s as full of charm as it is action set-pieces. It’s a feel-good film about a decent, 15 year old boy, his friends and family and the responsibility he feels to protect them and the world in which they live. It seems like such a simple trick, but it’s been frustratingly elusive.

With their flagship hero returning to the Marvel fold as a result of a studio deal between the company and Sony, we’ve finally been given a Spider-Man who deserves the Amazing adjective.

This is the homecoming Spider-Man fans have been waiting for!

She’s A Wonder! – Jenkins’ Princess Rules!

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Director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman had a lot of baggage to carry when it arrived in theatres. The previous DC Extended Universe movies (Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad) had performed well (though not as well as hoped) at the box office, but were the subjects of vast swathes of critical scorn. Besides this was the more serious battle against Hollywood sexism, where the common perception among those with the power to greenlight productions has long been that women could neither helm nor feature as main stars of big, action franchise movies.

While I’m somewhat late to the game with this review (unusually, Wonder Woman has opened later here in Norway than in many other territories), it has given me the chance to see both of these issues blown out of the water by both the film’s success and critical reaction. The film set records for the biggest domestic opening for a female director ($103.3 million) and the biggest opening for a female-led comic book film, and has, to date, grossed over $500 million worldwide.

And I’m very happy to reiterate the good news. Taken on its own terms Wonder Woman is bright, funny, charming, exciting and a genuine feel-good movie. Taken against the issues weighted against it stepping into the ring you might also call it an outright triumph.

The origin story, well known to comic book fans since American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston and artist Harry G. Peter brought her to the pages of All-Star Comics # 8 in 1941, is weaved into a World War I adventure which also brings in several of Princess Diana of Themyscira’s supporting characters (including Queen Hippolyta and the Amazons, Steve Trevor and Etta Candy) and in itself is a thoroughly entertaining romp.

Where the film really scores however is in several key ways that contrast sharply with the previous DC movies. Gone is the relentless grimdark misery of Batman vs Superman, the distancing ‘god above us’ approach to Superman and, praise the gods of film craft, the incoherent characterisation, storytelling and editing of Suicide Squad.

Jenkins’ film is generally full of clear storytelling and fun action sequences, even utilising Zack Snyder’s trademark speed ramping to actually help with both clarity and story (its use in an important moment where the Amazons face off against bullets for the first time not only looks cool but packs quite an emotional wallop). There are some genuinely exciting moments of action (Wonder Woman crossing No Man’s Land on the Belgian Front and her subsequent attack on a German stronghold are… sorry… wonders served more by character than empty cool visuals).

Wonder Woman moves at a breezy clip, from Paradise Island to London and finally to the battlefields of Belgium and, while it does ultimately succumb to the usual climax of two super-powered folk hurling big, heavy things at each other, it at least does so in an almost low-key way that provides a little emotional weight. However it doesn’t quite succeed in making the villainous character involved (I won’t name the actor either so as to avoid spoilers) seem massively threatening, which is a shame and sees some points knocked off.

Jenkins does have two extra special weapons: leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine share terrific chemistry and carry more than their share of the film’s appeal. Pine has slowly become one of our more interesting screen presences, leading one particularly perceptive critic (and he/she will have to forgive my failing memory as to who exactly) to accurately describe him as “a character actor in a leading man’s body.” He’s a pretty face who’s pulled off a number of whip-smart performances and Wonder Woman is no exception, basting Steve Trevor in easy going, old time, movie star charm.

As for Gadot, the camera loves her and she’s well served by Jenkins and her writers (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, and Jason Fuchs) who together make Diana a warm, relatable character. There are plenty of small moments gifted to her which show why the world falls in love with Diana, and Gadot radiates atomic levels of charm while giving us a genuinely heroic hero, and make no doubt about it, one both men and women can root for!

At one point in the film, Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor tells Diana he’s taking her to London to meet with “the men who can” end the war. “I’m the man who can!” Diana replies, completely on point.

Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot and Wonder Woman? They’re the women who can.

Alien: Covenant – Look On My Works And Despair!

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When Ridley Scott returned to the Alien franchise with Prometheus in 2012 hopes were high that the venerated director would give audiences the kind of scares associated with his original 1979 classic. What we got instead was a disjointed meditation on creation with a group of characters whose actions often seemed more alien than the series’ title creature.

During production of Alien: Covenant word of mouth suggested that Scott and the production team had taken onboard complaints that Prometheus had strayed too far from the formula and that this time… this time… we would see our beloved xenomorph restored to its full, chest-bursting glory.

Picking up ten years after we last saw Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender (as Dr Elizabeth Shaw and David) wander off into deep space to find mankind’s creators, we focus now on the crew of the colony ship, Covenant, heading for a remote planet, Origae-6, with two-thousand colonists and a thousand embryos on-board, monitored by an upgraded android resembling the earlier David, named Walter (also played by Fassbender).

Of course things go wrong on the mission and the ship is soon taking a detour to investigate a human signal coming from an alien planet – seemingly also ripe for colonisation.

Before you can say “In space, no one can hear you scream” the landing party runs into further trouble and for a while the film seems to be leading us along a familiar path with new forms of alien creatures, the neomorphs, making short work of everyone.

Then Fassbender’s David reappears and the film lurches into gothic Hammer horror territory. This might seem like an intriguing diversion but while Covenant IS more of a horror movie than Prometheus, Scott and his writers appear to have lost all interest in the alien. The real monster here is David, serving as Victor Frankenstein to the now dethroned star of the franchise.

Events reach a climax on the planet and the survivors return to the Covenant for a bizarre and utterly shoehorned in final fifteen minutes which attempts to recreate elements of both Scott’s 1979 original and James Cameron’s equally loved 1986 sequel, Aliens.

I have too much respect for Scott to suggest that Covenant’s Reader’s Digest abridged-version finale was a studio-dictated necessity but that is, sadly, exactly what it feels like. Events are rushed through and more crew members are dispatched with such rapidity that it would be easy to miss the true (and highly effective) horror enacted by David in the film’s final moments.

There are two movies struggling against each other, the attempted return to the scary roots of the franchise and the story Scott and co. are really interested in, that of David and Walter and the struggle with what they are, where they come from and their quest to find answers among the stars – which provide some of the most interesting moments of Covenant. Sadly, these two movies fail to cohere and we’re left with a story that satisfies neither requirement.

Scott is far too good a director for Covenant to be a disaster: there’s lots to enjoy and admire and there are moments of beauty, of intrigue and of genuine horror (and also, sadly, of unintentional humour… the baby alien raising its arms to copy David is a series low point). Unfortunately the ambition to turn the franchise into something of wider philosophical concerns dilutes the simple funhouse horror of the central creature, leaving him somewhat toothless and the film itself oddly schizophrenic.