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

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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