How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019)

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DreamWorks Animation close the curtains to the much loved ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ franchise after a long wait since 2014 due to needing more time to animate and new acquirers Universal taking over the studios. Is the film worth a 5 year wait or should the film have remained in its own hidden world?

The land of Berk’s dragon population is increasing, as Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) continues to rescue the creatures from hunters. After remembering the words of his father about a far off place where dragons roam at the end of the world, Hiccup realises he must move the island residents in the hope of finding this area but with a new deadly foe named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) tracking their every move, Hiccups best friend Toothless becomes a target.

In terms of story, this final outing for the series is less than stellar. Annoyingly the hidden world of the title is hardly shown and it’s a real shame the plot doesn’t decide to stretch a little longer to actually let us wallow in the wonder of the twinkling majesty the animators have created here. Generally speaking this third entry written by director Dean DeBlois is the weakest of them all and it boils down to the narrative being less than special; not feeling any different to the previous two and therefore it lands with little interest.

Gladly the visuals themselves keep the captivation levels high, because the work of the animation team is drop dead gorgeous. The detail of each characters face and the way they inhabit the world is mesmerising as are the colours and designs for the countless dragons on display. A lot of this beauty is thanks to the great textures utilised making a lot of the background scenery look almost photo-realistic. Fire, water and glowing caves all contribute to make this Viking environment feel as wonderful as possible.

Admittedly, there is a satisfying level of humour attached to the film, be it general knuckle-head humour, Toothless as this dopey eyed dog/dragon or Kristen Wiig being brilliantly infuriating as Ruffnut, the jokes work where the meaty side of the story doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

Along the way there are some flurries of fun action and a faint pitter-patter of sad emotion works but overall it’s a story that wasn’t totally worth the wait, only the animation itself is. If only the film had the courage to go deeper, be darker and commit to flaunting the hidden world instead of being its most safe feature yet.

7/10

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019)

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Forgery has never looked so gently compelling but ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is out and about in New York to show how unexpectedly sweet and deliciously sour it can all be.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has a NY Times Best Seller book under her belt but has fallen under writers block and other self-made hard times. Whilst trying to compile notes for a new novel she unearths letters sent by the person she wants to write about. This sets in motion a plan to spin money by forging letters from other writers and along with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel gets into her groove once more.

The film is lovingly layered with spot on wit, never over-laden to breaking point, the screenplay has a fair few amounts of razor sharp insults and sniping but it’s still a film that is generally a pleasant watch, like the director has managed to settle her audience in to this calming, jazzy ambience of comedy and drama. It’s like you’re watching this talented yet hard to reach writer figure of Israel, not from a cinema but on a plush armchair with atmospheric lighting setting the mood in comfortable surroundings.

It is also true that it can feel like a biographical picture more like a lazy Sunday afternoon watch because it never changes gears and it takes a bit of time to warm to the aggressive nature of Lee as a person but once she begins her typewriter hustling and forms a bond with flamboyant Jack, the movie becomes a much more investing product.

The film does well in making Lee Israel and her fraudulent letters a rather interesting matter, it’s a story truly deserving of the spotlight and they don’t squander it. It’s made me want to find out more about her and I’m sure it’ll have the same impact on others. ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is a great commentary on the eagerness to lap up literary content and buy into the world of the writer, any unheard of material is ripe for the picking without any due thought which makes her actions all the more understandable. The writers and director never paint Lee out to be some unholy crook but more a mildly unpleasant, anxiety-ridden alcoholic with a mouth on her…so like all writers!

Melissa McCarthy brings amazing presence to the film and silences any critics to her more usual shouty comedy flicks, which was me included. Like in ‘St. Vincent’, McCarthy shines by proving great dramatic chops that she clearly has within her. Richard E. Grant is purely enigmatic with a cheeky smile helping him bring Jack to spritely life. The two actors bounce off each other so well, the characters they play clearly sharing like-minded souls in bittersweet humour and sadness. The pair of performers play the relationship beautifully with a radiant spark flaring up between them every time they’re on screen together.

It’s an intriguing film and very close to being a joyful watch. The witticisms and emotional current that carry the film are wonderfully balanced.

7/10

Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

The Children Act (2018)

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This is a drama with a profound core revolving around a quandary of life and death. It’s very easy to say that Emma Thompson is the crowning aspect within ‘The Children Act’. There is a lot of weighty material going on in this plot and not all of it is as stirring as the film would believe it is.

The Honorable Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is a well respected judge but away from the courts she’s facing a communication breakdown with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci). On top of this she is given a case about a 17 year old with leukaemia; his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are refusing a blood transfusion which leaves Maye to make an informed choice on the teenagers welfare.

Richard Eyre; with a sturdy background in theatre and directing play adaptations for TV certainly knows how to facilitate strong performances for this thought-provoking story. It’s a shame then that he overdoes the melodrama and thrusts too much emotional manipulation onto the audience come the final minutes of this film.

Before that point, the first two acts are solid and methodically attentive to both the trials of court room lore and her marriage behind closed doors. The High Court of Justice scenes are gripping and tackle tricky issues of law and morals, family and love, death and life which are beautifully explored in Ian McEwan’s script. This sensitive development of healthcare versus dignity never backs down by taking one side and that makes the dialogue based within the court rooms very interesting to hear.

After the verdict is decided, it isn’t only the melodramatic nature that spoils the film but the scripted behaviour and actions of one character are apparently signs of a forced upbringing but are just strange and make the story a surreal ache to get through. I was totally out of the film by the midst of the third act and any chance of evoking a sad reaction from me was utterly in the wind.

Thompson is as sensational as you’d expect, she has such a great emotive range which is second to none. In her eyes, a thousand words are spoken even when she is just silently listening or contemplating. Tucci doesn’t have a large role but brings a subtlety to his turn as Jack, there’s definitely an interest he portrays of quiet, honest conflict for Fiona’s personal life.

‘The Children Act’ has a lot going for it and with a powerful duo of performances, the story especially in the first stages is dignified and absorbing but after a while, it views like a train coming to a halt but still with a mile of track left to go.

5.5/10

On Chesil Beach (2018)

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Here is a reunion of sorts, as ‘Atonement’ star Saoirse Ronan and its author team up to tell the story of a young married couple. It’s a small scale tale and one that’s excellently performed, but it’s a film that comes across as quite bland.

Spending their wedding night at a hotel near Chesil Beach; are classical music player Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and country romantic Edward (Billy Howle). As they near the consummation of their marriage, it becomes clear that something could stand in their way.

The 1962 period and quintessential Britishness of the Dorset locations are prettily shot. Sean Bobbitt certainly gives the stretch of uncomfortable looking shingle a vague haunting quality. It also is a place of quiet yet heated reflection which becomes the setting of the revelation that stirs the pot and helps step the film narrative up.

Before this moment, I have to say the movie is quite a slow and dragging affair. There are some humorous moments and within the flashbacks of their courtship, it’s clear to see their adoration but they’re never totally interesting. There’s also the matter, that after the big moment, there’s two points in the plot that are so predictable. Luckily, I can forgive the expect record shop moment and the ending because they’re performed so well that my gut was punched and my eyes almost welled with tears.

Ronan is always an sensational actor to watch and that doesn’t change here. The way she plays the upper class and more stuffy frigid nature of her character is superb, you always buy into Florence’s pained fears of commitment. Howle, surprisingly, stole the film for me. I love Ronan as an actor but I was enthralled by his turn as Edward and especially in the later stages of the film I felt for him.

It’s not a clumsy film but it’s not exactly a serene picture-perfect one either. The acting from the two lovers are what keep the interests just above nap-mode. ‘On Chesil Beach’ comes across like a great Sunday afternoon watch, to have on whilst you’re enjoying a solid British roast dinner.

6/10

Red Sparrow (2018)

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A thriller film is my favourite type of genre to watch, add spies to the mix and you’re surely onto a boiling pot of suspense, substance and ultimately a winner, right? In the case of Francis Lawrence’s new release, starring Katniss Everdeen from his previous directorial work, we get a rather stale movie with less thrills than expected.

Ex-ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) ends up seeing a bloody murder and to keep herself alive she’s ushered into the Russian intelligence as a Sparrow; an operative with the skills to employ seduction as a weapon. Meanwhile, CIA operative Nate (Joel Edgerton) is being tracked by the Russians, after an asset meeting, which leads them to believe the Americans are trying to keep this mysterious mole a safe secret.

‘Red Sparrow’ is deserving of its certification, it’s a ton more brutal than I expected. The amount of sexual violence, murder and torture give this a movie a definite blood soaked edge and gritty quality but more often than not it’s there as shock value and not much else below the surface. It’s with the sexualisation that this feature has been scraping up lots of problems and I agree with the majority of those comments. It’s not insanely gratuitous all the way through but and this is a big but, the movie fully seems to revel in the ‘whore school’ aspect of training and selling itself as a talking point of the skin factor with its leading lady showcasing her body.

This manipulative manner of training young cadets hoping to be important spies for Mother Russia, may be apt and the humiliation they go through is something I can truly believe still happens in the process of training, but this movie feels so cold and calculated to be more about style than any intriguing substance. Unlike the well constructed suspense and Cold War stakes of television series, ‘The Americans’, this film fails to follow in that vein in any sense, there are no interesting dynamics behind closed doors, it seems to merely wallow in the easy exploitation of its Sparrows and degrading J Law in flesh revealing outfits.

Francis Lawrence directs in an uneven manner, the movie totally meanders from scene to scene and this is what causes the pace to suffer. I did find the final thirty minutes to be of more interest as the mystery began to finally unravel more than before and frequent twists and turns came into play. The final ploy by Dominika is well executed and sustained my interest nicely and with a bubbling score to add tension it woke me up. Generally though, this is a long film that feels long; one that made me almost bored of what can only be described as a bland thriller.

Jennifer Lawrence is the best aspect in this entire thing, she’s a fine actor and she goes through a wheelhouse of almost every emotion as a spy taught to seduce and stay one step ahead. Joel Edgerton possesses a vague Yankee charisma as the American for J Law to keep in contact with but there’s something almost dimly grey about his performance, as with Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons who both appear to be giving about 20% to their characters. Matthias Schoenaerts is the next best performer as a man carrying untrustworthy motives like a suitcase, in his convincing turn as a rather creepy uncle.

There are minor moments when this ‘thriller’ is faintly intelligent and committed to espionage-like drama but it’s nowhere near as slick or smart as I think it believes itself to be.

5.5/10

All the Money in the World (2018)

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I must admit I knew nothing of Getty or this 1973 abduction before the film started production and went through the well publicised adjustments. In that sense it’s a film that neatly sheds light on an event in history but it’s not one that fully grabbed me or will stay with me.

Sixteen year old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is grandson to the wealthiest man in the world; J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) who made a fortune in oil. Whilst in Rome, the teenager is kidnapped and held for ransom but the tycoon refuses to pay, leaving Paul Getty’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to try and get her boy back.

It isn’t an understatement to say this movie is receiving a lot of attention due to the Kevin Spacey drama and subsequent re-shoots. This is a fantastic and praise worthy feature just in the comradery and work from all involved to hustle and get back together to replace the in the can scenes with new actor Christopher Plummer; and he is a sensation throughout the film almost stealing the movie with his performance.

Ridley Scott manages to direct an almost fully engaging account of this crime ridden event, it just needed a slight more trimming down as the full film feels too long and it is somewhat of a slow affair considering it’s something that could have been more of a thriller. I left the cinema feeling like I got almost into the story but never truly felt immersed or gripped by it. It isn’t just the dragged out narrative that lets the film down, sadly this whole release will be overshadowed because of what it went through.

The screenplay by David Scarpa based on a 1995 book about the scandal, is one that manages to balance the scales well, showcasing the evil of money on one side and the unrelenting motivation and love from a mother on the other. It’s a film and script that comes into its own by the third act when moments heat up and the ‘thriller’ aspect finally seems to kick in but it’s just a shame that it takes forever to get to this point in a long drawn out kidnap plot that becomes boring to a point.

Michelle Williams is the light and soul of the drama, leading us through the majority of the run-time with a confident and incredible aura. She portrays the emotive strength of a caring mother and backs it up with ease of wits and smarts to counter the wily evils of Getty and his money backed reasoning. Christopher Plummer is a force throughout the film who expertly shows us the gross traits of greed and power, he gifts the film some comedic moments but more in the sense of exasperated laughter at how selfish and mean this man is. Mark Wahlberg brings a certain degree of charisma to a role that sees him play Getty advisor Fletcher Chase. It’s a fairly bland figure just shuttling along with former CIA know-how but it leaves Williams to capably swallow the limelight.

It’s an incredible feat to see a film that has openly gone through last minute changes and yet unlike the dire car crash of ‘Justice League’ this movie demonstrates how alterations can become unseen and effortless, in fact the scenes with ‘Plummer formerly known as Spacey’ are some of the strongest. It might not be a wholly engrossing or riveting film but it’s led by strong acting and an absorbing introduction and a solid third act.

7/10

A Monster Calls (2017)

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Thematically powerful with a strong emotional message, this is not a typical fantasy film. It’s better than that, cleverly balancing a talking tree with stunning animation sequences whilst retaining the necessary coming of age narrative.

Artistic Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) tries coping with his terminally ill mum Lizzie (Felicity Jones), being beaten up at school and now a huge yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) is arriving at specific times to deliver three stories to him. These tales may eventually help Conor in revealing his own truth and understanding more.

Patrick Ness’ novel written from an idea by Siobhan Dowd who died of cancer before completing the book, is a fabulously rich story with a central tug of grief that is handled very well. Ness who also wrote this screenplay ensures the interpretation of the Monster’s stories are clear enough to transfer to Conor’s real life. It’s just a really smartly told plot that keeps you interested and attached.

The water colour animations that arrive with each story are creative, bold and quite dark too. This weaving of human complexity within these sequences are engaging and lifts the film even higher. The CGI and mo-cap of the tree monster is great also, thin branches or wisps of wood curling round items add to the fantastical element, he’s an interesting coach for Conor, looking brutish and menacing but having a kind heart within his trunk.

I’ll openly admit that I found the movie emotional, it never reached that overly sentimental try-hard point. Yes it does go towards that area but the way director and writer handle the subject matter keeps it from being soppy drivel. I will also go further to say that I cried from watching this movie, the film is very affecting because you get wrapped up in the vivid world and it’s certainly a more adult feature than you’d think.

Felicity Jones is gripping during the movie, her condition gets bleak and she becomes a paler gaunter figure but still keeps hold of a hopeful glint in her eye, making her a likeable and strong mother figure. Sigourney Weaver like the witch in the first tale is a see-saw of characteristics but one, ultimately that you know will be good. Liam Neeson’s work playing the booming monster is perfectly cast and he adds gravely gravitas to the part. The show is truly Lewis MacDougall’s though as he carries fear, courage, sadness, confusion and anger through the entire picture with spellbinding conviction.

Only the very ending featuring a book felt like a twee moment, aside from that this is a movie to kick off 2017 in fantastic fashion. The emotional vein running through the story is constant, touching and intelligent.

7.5/10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Cue magical music and the Warner Brothers logo in the clouds and rejoice because we’re back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This time we’re across the pond and in the jazzy 20’s as J.K Rowling steps up for her first screenplay and David Yates is back to kick start another series of fantastical fantasies.

Hufflepuff member and Hogwarts alumni Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in New York with a suitcase filled with interesting and exotic creatures. Unluckily some escape and with the help of non magical aka No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler) he tries tracking them down and evading the attention of Graves (Colin Farrell) who is a director for Magical Congress in America. Whilst they find beasts, humans are rising against the fear of witches and one group may harbour something more powerful than they know.

Managing to avoid spoilers myself I will refrain from any hint of ruin for people that may read this and not have yet seen the film. I can 100% say though that the dazzling effects and wide-spread world conjured up by the amazing Rowling is on form. As soon as the movie begins you cannot help but feel that Potter nostalgia wash over but gladly it starts moving away and feels tonally different as we enter the busy streets of the Big Apple.

It’s the mythology and attention to detail that truly sells this film and makes it the enjoyable spectacle it is. The moment we follow Newt stepping into his suitcase is a brilliant sight to behold and a great scene to watch. The landscapes and animals contained in his travelling pack like the TARDIS-esque tents from ‘Goblet of Fire’ are incredible and it’s the earlier fun segment of the movie that is better than the latter portion.

J.K Rowling takes her small Comic Relief funding book and transports it to the big screen with what feels like ease. Newt and his love of beasties is believable and the 1920’s American set era helps lift the story, giving it an intriguing edge. This newness lets us see the expanding world of magic and how our trans-Atlantic cousins deal with wizards amongst the towering scenery.

Another highlight in the film is when we see a speak-easy and I was happy to hear some 20’s inspired music, though that’s all we get. The scene flows nicely and though it’s small it features a new character that screams perfect 20’s NYC. Yates returns as director and though he doesn’t provide anything wholly special or creatively outstanding, he brings the audience back into that comforting mould we like from the previous HP outings.

On the whole I really found myself wrapped up in this film and liking it; I only have three complaints. One was probably down to me because I guessed a twist from literally 2-3 minutes in. Secondly the latter half as mentioned nearly lets down the more adventurous gleeful first half, as we drift into the reveal of a dark force rattling through the city. All this wreckage with swirling smoke and black fire is quite messy and feels like too much, like a stitched on story to compete and fail with the better Newt journals of finding beasts and clearing his name. Thirdly, the end seemed to drag out and for me should have came before the last tiny scene which felt tacky.

I know that looks like a big paragraph but trust me, I enjoyed the move a lot. Positives totally outweigh the negatives and the cash cow is mooing heartily I’m excited for the announced sequels to come. This new look into the wizarding world with a great Redmayne had me mostly under their spell and is very entertaining.

7.5/10

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

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The grand ideal of hope is positively put to the test in this bleak and amazingly creative take on the zombie genre. Sure there’s things we’ve seen before, but overall it feels tonally different and has issues about life and survival that never felt more engaging, thanks to seeing them from the side of this young girl.

Dystopian England is where we meet a base of soldiers and wheelchair bound children locked up at night. During the day, they are taught by Helen (Gemma Arteton) who is liked by Melanie (Sennia Nanua), one of the children and definitely the smartest and most special of the bunch. As the army location is put under threat, a small core group leave to find human contact elsewhere but with fungi-infected crowds everywhere, their journey is tough.

What I liked most about this film was the huge feeling of tension/unease in the landscape presented. The majority of the movie is very intense and it’s almost as if you’re there with this small party of 5 trekking through a dangerously different London. It’s true to say that movie monster movies get tiresome, vampires and zombies have been done a lot so thankfully this story gives a grand spin on the latter and makes the walking dead a collective you want to find out more about.

Both the screenplay and the novel it’s based on were penned at the same time by M.R. Carey who injects a sense of fear but also wonder in having us focus on infected children and their possible cure for us. In a great way, this film has made me want to buy the book to read it and see what differs and what is similar and just to immerse myself into the world all over again. What is unique and good about the plot is that we stay with Melanie and see her discovery of humans and the city, she’s confident, inquisitive and likable and in fact, though people at times have villainous streaks, they’re not baddies, it’s just them trying to understand the mess.

I couldn’t leave this review without praising the efforts of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, his score/music effects for this British apocalyptic drama has such a reverb around the speakers, the opening scene with his work over the top is fantastically rich, intense and sets the mood just right. I already loved his sounds from the great TV series ‘Utopia’ and that chorus sound of electronica is felt again with this film.

Nanua is a blistering break-through in her debut role as Melanie. She quite literally eats up the screen and ensures her dramatic eagerness to learn is felt which keeps us on her side throughout. Arteton brings emotional depth to what could have been a bland jolly teacher. She’s interested in Melanie and wants her to thrive which is truly felt by the time we rest upon the ending. Paddy Considine starts with a rough exterior but gladly brings dimensions to his sergeant character, as does Glenn Close playing Dr. Caldwell, who is more than just the needle-happy doctor.

It’s a brilliant British film with plenty of frightening imagery to explore directed with imagination and realism by Colm McCarthy. Zombies have never felt more alive.

7.5/10