A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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Universe travelling and diverse storytelling are on show in Ava DuVernay’s big budget Disney film, but the grand visual pleasantries to look at don’t override the ambitious scope and its ineffectual handling of the subtext.

Distracted and struggling student Meg Murry (Storm Reid) misses her father, after he randomly disappeared four years ago. Dr. Murry (Chris Pine) was a brilliant scientist and had possibly cracked the notion of teleportation and our existence. One day, three powerful travellers of the universe appear and take Meg, her brother and a school friend to Uriel in the hope of finding Dr. Murry.

I’ll begin with the positives because there’s a lot of negatives I wish to cover. Firstly, the visuals are splendidly colourful and some of the landscapes the characters visit, are lush and rife with stunning cinematography that looks great on the big screen. I liked or perhaps appreciate the bold ideas stemming from the 1962 novel; these themes of family, spreading love and ridding hate are nice enough and espicially with the state of things currently, I found those ideals hold up well but they did feel forced and/or twee. A sequence on a beach with Michael Pena was pretty good with the most tension I absorbed but, alas it was short-lived.

The main issue, I feel, is that the movie never seems sure of what it’s projecting and it heavily flits between moments of science mumbo jumbo that most children wouldn’t grasp and saccharine annoyance that adults will tire of. It’s as if the writers and director were trying to mix childhood fantasy with profound statements on life and love together, which never succeeds, sadly.

Attempts at humour fall massively flat and again feel forced, costume and make up on display from the three astral beings are impressive but they change without reason anytime they shift location, like the movie is shooting for an Oscar nod for Costume Design and Make Up and Hairstyling next year. Meg’s adoptive brother Charles Wallace is mega annoying plus the fact they can’t ever just say Charles becomes grating. CGI in places is less than inspired and wholly distracting in a cheap way, which is odd considering the nine figure budget behind this production.

Generally, I was never by hooked any of the film. Scenes that were obviously going for tension never felt like they were raising stakes. Even with the dramatic altering of the sibling relationship, I still felt bored with the story. I for sure lost my patience fairly early on with this movie which is a shame because there could have been something very special and triumphant about it all, instead of the restrained, sickly sweet and messy feature it turns out to be.

Reid is by and large another one of the only other positives I got from this film, she’s a powerful performer with an evident understanding of this hard subject material and how to portray Meg as a difficult, somewhat stubborn but loving and brave character. Oprah Winfrey delivers messages of hope, light and typical Disney fortune cookie tid-bits in a way that stirs quite nicely. Reese Witherspoon plays Mrs Whatsit, someone without much tact and still learning, she showcases that well but is another annoying factor, as is the performance from Deric McCabe as Charles. Just Charles. Mindy Kaling plays Mrs Who, but is all but pointless in a turn that mainly has her spouting quotes from scholars, playwrights and Chris Rock. Levi Miller is Meg’s friend Calvin who is extremely pointless and I never understood why he was there.

This is a Disney dud that I’ll try and forget in a hurry. There’s only tiny wrinkles in the run-time that kept me engaged but the majority is frustratingly bad.

4.5/10

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Black Panther (2018)

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We’re into the second half of MCU’s Phase Three and what a way to enter it. The King of Wakanda doesn’t just step onto the big screen but pounces. This is a film rife with character and importantly; culture.

After ‘Civil War’ saw the death of T’Chaka, his son returns to his hugely advanced home of Wakanda, where he takes the path to become the new king and rightful Black Panther. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has the support of most around him but returning baddie Klaue (Andy Serkis) and some stolen vibranium doesn’t help. Moreover his crimes introduce T’Challa to Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier hell-bent on taking over Wakanda.

Marvel and its cinematic world have done spectacularly well thus far in creating hype and fun escapism, but admittedly they quite often miss the mark with their characters and villains, gladly both work very well in this movie. The community of Wakandans feel real and a lot of the forefront officials are fleshed out with enough dialogue and/or screen-time to ensure that it isn’t solely the titular hero that nabs the focus. In regards to the villain; this film gives us two big ones, the first is the resurgence of OTT but deliciously snarly Klaue, the second is Stevens who works brilliantly because, as an audience member you can feel for him and buy into his cause, at least when he’s not taking these notions too far.

Ryan Coogler; in what is just his third film, directs a powerful film that feels right within the comic book world but also throws in such interesting dynamics of globe shattering consequences, self beliefs and the bigger picture of black people and personal struggles which of course is undeniably vital within this day and age and state of the world. There’s a gleeful fun within tie-ins and action sequences but better than this, director Coogler with Joe Robert Cole, as a fellow writer manage to gift this feature a drive and political motivated subtext.

Seeing it on the glorious IMAX screen of course makes the entire film a thing of beauty and massive spectacle but I just know that it would still have the same impact however it is seen. There is an unmistakable rich quality to the production value; the colours, fabrics and fashions, the settings, the music all come together and culminate with a force of life and soul. It’s a film that had my skin buzzing with excitement and the eye is taken by almost every scene and frame.

There’s a slight DC and yes, Marvel weakness of the CGI overload these films can so often swerve towards, which is what worries me about the sprawl of generated figures and Thanos in the ‘Infinity War’ trailer. No more can this be seen in a battle on some grassy fields and some CG rhinos that appear, which slightly lost me from the film, but that’s pretty much the only negative I had.

Boseman is an amazing hero and plays the demanding role of king and leader with gravitas. There’s great emotion behind his eyes that shows he can also see the problems with his place and people, which makes a superhero, human. Lupita Nyong’o plays the ex of T’Challa but she isn’t as one dimensional as that. The actor packs a punch and effortless spy magnitude to her role. Letitia Wright is Shuri; Black Panther’s sister. She scatters the movie with great humour and tech know-how that makes her like a more capable Q persona. Jordan almost rivals Boseman and Wright by stealing the majority of the show with a charismatic and deeply engaging turn as the hopeful throne taker. He too ensures to not just be panto villainy and adds remarkable layers to his character. I would be writing for a long time more if I commented on all the other terrific actors in this film, who all unite with a crackling sense of energy and seriousness that helps make this more than just a comic book movie.

Long live the King…and Coogler, let us hope he returns because he has masterfully given the MCU a breath of fresh air and stunning culture.

8.5/10

 

The Commuter (2018)

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A typical set up of mysterious question and the capable Irish action star come together on a plane…sorry train this time but in fact it’s not as bad as you’d think. Sure it has flaws and is something akin to what we’ve seen before but it’s a silly delight.

Serial commuter, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) is used to familiar faces and the hustle and bustle of travelling back and forth through New York but this one day sees him approached by the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him there’s $25’000 hidden away, plus a further $75’000 if he works out who doesn’t belong on the train before it reaches the end of the line.

From the trailer alone; I guffawed at the typical Liam Neeson vehicle we’re now used to see him starring in. Gladly it surprised me and was a more enjoyable flick than the generic trashy kind of movie I was expecting to witness. That isn’t to say that’s a fantastically well made film that can blow your mind but it’s damn entertaining and comes with carriage loads of thrills to keep the film chugging along nicely.

Director of reasonable shark thriller ‘The Shallows’ and previous Neeson feature ‘Non-Stop’, Jaume Collet-Serra manages to keep the film from derailing for the majority of the thriller outing. There’s a neat set up in the repetitive routine of Michael’s morning and the character introductions are all well and good, nothing special but there’s enough going on to set up the oncoming mystery to be solved. It’s in the strained searching of an unnamed passenger that the film hits a nice stride, as we too attempt to uncover the missing puzzle piece.

There are some downright dumb moments, where actions taken feel forced or action set ups fill the CGI quota and big spectacle box is ticked but the unexpected pleasure is in the storytelling of what the heck is going on and who Michael is trying desperately to find. There are a few twists along the way and some are ones I didn’t see but one quite big reveal is quite an obvious one but it didn’t take away from the fun I had in watching this movie unfold.

A train full of passengers makes for a great cast of characters and it’s these many faces of possible suspects that create the best aspect of the film. Neeson himself is in a role well tailored to him by now and he has the gruff charisma that makes Michael a believable figure to lead the way. Farmiga is a fantastic actor and this possible sinister presence she carries suits her down to the zebra striped shoes she wears. Even the sound of her voice on the phone carries a mysterious air of calm and danger. Jonathan Banks, Roland Moller and Shazad Latif are interesting in their roles of possible players knowing more than they let on; in the sense they are thrust forward a lot more as people to keep an eye on. I won’t go on much more as I feel more cast chatter could spoil the reveals of the movie but it’s a ensemble that work together greatly, in a mostly single set narrative.

This shuttling train thriller has more intrigue and whodunnit suspense than last years ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Who would have thought that Neeson on a Train would be more engaging and mysterious than an Agatha Christie classic!? Not me, but it truly is a fun and exciting popcorn movie.

7/10

Justice League (2017)

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They’re finally united after what feels like a well earned age…hang on a sec…nope…just over one year later. DC and it’s universe has the League team up big style and through some horrendous and expected barrage of CGI and more weak story I can surprisingly say it’s not a bad film. It’s not good…but not bad either.

With the world mourning the passing of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is trying to piece together a mystery. He hopes to bring a team together and with the help of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), they manage to create a league for justice with The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to try and stop the havoc of an alien army leader.

In comparison to ‘Dawn of Justice’; this movie is fantastic but then that’s not exactly saying much because 2016’s setting up of the League was incredibly dull and dire. One of the main issues in this DCEU outing is the dialogue. In some places the writing by Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio is clunky and overly on the nose. They try to mix in lighter moments and you can tell former Marvel hand Whedon is behind this, but with the odd balance of gruff moodiness in the DC films with the quips, it just doesn’t quite work.

It isn’t solely the dialogue aspect, it’s within the story itself where there are next to zero stakes raised. There’s no gripping factor of worry to be had watching these characters do battle. Everyone in the league becomes so right for the fight they’re partaking in, that at no point did I feel that anyone would ever lose. It just becomes painfully convenient how characters fare to tackle the obstacles. The plot shuffles along from one moment to another as is the case with Zack Snyder films and it doesn’t sink in to really let tensions rise. Threat levels are at an all time low even though apparently it warrants Bruce needing to call a super-powered team together, the dispensing of villains throughout always seemed on the cards and more than anything, every way out was achieved in an easy manner.

The scene on Themyscira was one of the stand out moments and a couple of cool sequences can be found seeing The Flash with his electrically charged bursts, they’re entertaining but not as neatly executed as Quicksilver’s similarly slowed down scenes. Wonder Woman is my MVP and even though Snyder’s direction and the different writers thin her out and set her up for more male gaze than her standalone feature, she carries a great charisma and believable care for justice in this movie.

Amongst some slight hits and clear misses, this film and the DC franchise as whole seems obsessed in CGI. That’s not always a problem if handled correctly but they always go overboard and this movie has an abundance of chaotic computer generated imagery taking precedence. It looks OK in places but on the whole it’s cheap looking and everywhere, including the less than believable wonky face of Steppenwolf. Also battles are back lit like a Michael Bay special with excessive explosions and slow motion.

Affleck is alright again in his turn as the bulkier and moodier caped crusader. Gadot as mentioned brings a needed charm and likeability to the action and her guitar riffing moments of bad-assery are as cool as ever. Cavill does show up, I’m not calling that a spoiler because obviously he’d be there and he’s less boring than usual and in fact is the most interesting part of the film behind Gadot. Miller is clearly set up by the writers as the comedic relief and he delivers the majority in a convincing and funny way but it doesn’t always hit the mark. Momoa seems shady but two dimensional as the protector of the seas even if the CGI water worlds looked awful, hopefully his feature will look visually stunning unlike here. Fisher as the enhancing Cyborg is the Ultron of the pack just handily updating when the script calls for it. J.K. Simmons is hardly involved which could be a blessing. Amy Adams is in it more than I expected and gladly brings a human touch to the events even if she takes a back seat as the continuously boring Lois Lane.

There a mass of flaws within the ‘Justice League’ but saying this, I actually think it’s an entertaining film and enjoyable in a number of places. I also like, perhaps their self retaliation against #MarthaGate by having Motherboxes, as if alluding to that atrocious moment before.

5/10

Doctor Strange (2016)

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A visual treat; this new instalment to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe looks absolutely fantastic, it’s just another expected formulaic tread in the well established world of comic book heroes and origin stories.

After a humongous car crash, top neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) hopes to find a cure to his nerve damaged hands. He travels to Kamar-Taj in Nepal seeking help from the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who helps Strange learn powers and manipulation of worlds. Strange must learn fast as former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who wants to know more about the rituals of the Ancient One and bring a ruler of a dark dimension to Earth.

Scott Derrickson certainly stays in keeping with the rest of the Marvel features, in that they all feel warm and welcoming, that sense of knowing what to expect when you sit down for an MCU film is both good and slightly weakening. On the plus side he ensures there’s a fluid feel to this outing but perhaps doesn’t dare to present the non-CGI moments in a different manner, one we’d not expect from a Marvel movie.

The only big problem sitting with this film is the story and that typical formula that most of these comic-book pictures have. The hero is one that quips and more than ever feels like a Tony Stark re-do. There is a villain in this movie, kind of two to be honest but both are nowhere near fleshed out or seen enough to feel any trepidation about them or their devious planning. If DC has one good thing over Marvel it’s their baddies. Also, the love interest like Pepper and Jane, is sort of tepid, doing little to push themselves out of the mould that they’re there as the romantic figure.

It may be felt that the story is strong and clever because of the timey-wimey stuff, big words and grandeur of spiritual enlightenment but in fact it’s a simple plot to follow that basically boils down to Strange discovering his inner powers and helping save the world from three different sanctums. Again, like Marvel adores aliens coming from the sky, this movie features just that which is little more than purple-y special effects.

Crediting the film and the effects team though, this movie looks so damn good. The ‘Inception’-esque warping of the world as we know it is taken to overdrive and gloriously so. There are moments that feel like we’re zooming into a kaleidoscope and times when lands shift and buildings twist that certainly do enough to give this movie a mind-melting appearance. I loved every scene where the CGI came to full power and it’s not normal for me to say that so they did everything perfectly right when it came to highlighting the surreal powers of Strange’s journey.

Cumberbatch may have got the shaping of hand gestures right and tugged nicely with a magical cloak but he’s still delivering that usual Benedict routine just with an American accent. Swinton felt right for me in her part, I know there was controversy but she gives the character a balanced knowledge and hidden power in a calm and believable way. Chiwetel Ejiofor was a great addition, trying to stick to the mantra of what he knows and teaching the arrogant Stephen what he once was taught. Mads Mikkelsen looked the part with superb make-up and has that usual menacing posture and stare but it’s the writing that let him down, not his performance. Rachel McAdams too, is let down by a mildly dull character.

Though this doesn’t stray too far from the formula that Marvel seem scared of breaking, it’s entertaining nonetheless packed to the rafters with hair-raising spectacles of CGI and a neat air of fun that keeps everything ticking over as the MCU conjure up so well.

7/10

 

The Shallows (2016)

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Once again, it’s time to not go into the water. Move aside Bruce from ‘Jaws’ because this big guy seems to be peeved and stalking shallow waters making life difficult for a holidaying Texan. The threat keeps at a unnerving high for the most part if not sadly dissipating during the last act.

Medical student Nancy (Blake Lively) is travelling to a secret beach where her mother once sat pregnant with her. She’s there to surf but soon the water becomes a dangerous place as a blood-thirsty great white shark circles the shallows. There’s only a buoy or mass of rocks for Nancy to survive on and the waiting game grows worryingly tense.

After glimpsing a Spielberg like opening that establishes the setting and menace to come, we meet young American Nancy who had hoped to spend a beach day with her friend but now gets some alone time after the mate bails. She’s a fine enough character, enough in the sense that you like her and do root for her which is all a survival thriller film can ask for.

Jaume Collet-Serra uses his mix of horror and thriller directing background well to give this movie enough suspense and bone-rattling unease as we sit waiting for the inevitable beast to strike. Sharks get a bad rep, none truly seek killing humans as a sport so we know this predator is bad news when it actively hunts down surfers for food and that means poor central lady Nancy is on the menu. Collet-Serra ensures that the majority of the film has a taut feel and the stunning location captured by Flavio Labiano ends up becoming sun drenched yet scary.

It’s an interesting watch, just for the fact alone of watching this capable woman suffer yet attempt to stay strong and smart in a situation most, if not all of us would fail in. That adrenaline of survival is always an entertaining watch because it makes us ask “what if?”, what if I ended up in that problematic scenario and that’s the power of good cinema, to immerse the audience which this film does well.

It’s a gimmick and been done in other ways before, but I quite liked the use of social media pics and video call communication appearing on the screen, like visual bites helping the movie look a little glossy and different before the watery kick of danger sets in. The other characters however small are also interesting enough in how they advance or break apart the hope of Nancy’s survival. Oh and I can’t do this review without mentioning the awesome and somewhat cute sidekick of the summer: Steven Seagull.

On the weaker end of the scale, the final act is messed up by an over use of CGI, from glowing jelly-fish which somehow appear just to help Nancy against the shark, and the shark itself gets seen to much. Like the curse of fake looking Bruce from the classic 1975 feature, this villain becomes an almost laughable vision as it attacks more and more. Also, the end in how stuff is resolved feels way less than solid than everything that came before.

Blake Lively aka piece of meat on some rocks is brilliant in this. I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything else so this has made me hope to see her in other projects because as a near solo movie she carries off the plot greatly. The emotion and weakening progression is truly felt as she makes Nancy scrape and bleed through the ringer.

Begins well and has a meaty, tense middle but a lot of lucky moments and a weak ending gives the film a general popcorn, silly feel which is not a bad thing, just I felt the film could have been grittier and better.

6/10

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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From the character by Edgar Rice Burroughs comes this newest feature, seeing the man known as ‘Tarzan’ head back into his ‘homeland’ and stop a nasty trade of ivory, diamonds and slavery. It’s a film that looks good but isn’t as epic as it probably thinks and it’s too slow in places.

The Congo has been divided, King Leopold of Belgium has sent Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) in search of Opar diamonds, but they’re up to more than that. John Clayton the 3rd aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is invited to see the developments in the Congo and is helped on by George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who travels with him. Whilst there Tarzan and his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) see that Leopold and Rom are neck deep in slave trade and wanting Tarzan dead.

This whole idea of Tarzan as the spirit of the jungle, a son of Africa because of his feral upbringing is delivered well. It’s clear that the muscled presence of Skarsgard shows his dominance so in a weird way even as he’s fighting a huge ape, you can actually buy that he’d have some kind of chance against it. He knows the jungle so he can dance through it; swinging like the wild-man we all know with ease. These scenes as he trails the trees and flies on vines are captured well and I can imagine in IMAX would look very cool.

David Yates who directed the last four of the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise does an okay job here in putting across a fairly obvious story. The sunlit flashbacks are enticing and snip in and out of the present day narrative at the right places I’d say but it’s the main story-line that becomes extremely slow feeling in numerous places. Perhaps Yates from the family friendly Potter movies can quite handle building tension because this film centred in the dangerous depths of the jungle should be more gripping. Jon Favreau’s ‘The Jungle Book’ actually managed to create a darker sense of this eco-climate.

Being honest I wanted to see the story that flitted in and out. The past of Tarzan and how he grew up in the jungle around unknown beastly Mangani great apes is the film I wish I’d seen. Instead it focuses too much on a gentleman Tarzan of England travelling back into the jungle. There is at least some genuine comedy thanks to Samuel L. Jackson and the CGI of the animals, especially the lions is impressive. Watching this film though, just made me hungry to watch the 1999 Disney animation with the fun Tarzan experiencing the jungle through Phil Collins songs.

Alexander Skarsgard certainly looks the past, his ripped body and tall presence selling himself as the fabled Tarzan, but he acts a little blandly and doesn’t push past the brooding performance of Eric Northman. Samuel L. Jackson gives the movie a much needed comedic lift and helps take us through the jungle as an ordinary pair of eyes. Margot Robbie unlike the plain Jane acting of Skarsgard is a great Jane. She isn’t a damsel in distress and gets to save people, kick butt, look pretty and be a wise lady never showing fear. Christoph Waltz is a fun addition, he’s menacing and unflinching in his quest to take over the Congo and defeat Tarzan. He excels when on a boat dining with Jane, as a confined scene like that, as from ‘Inglourious Basterds’ he can pull of so well.

Trying to skew in a heavy backdrop of politics, this Tarzan film becomes one with too many ideas leading to a slow pace, but there’s a faint wonder in its adventure and it’s entertaining.

5.5/10