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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Escape Room (2019)

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Escape rooms as a concept are quite the mind-bending rage at the moment; the excitement of something different that both tests your brains and your friendships is a successful business model so surely this cinematic outing could gleefully mould the idea into a intelligent horror? Well not quite, however silly and fun it sometimes is.

Introverted student Zoey (Taylor Russell) is told to do something scary for once and along with five other people, she is sent a mysterious puzzle box which invites them all to take on a new, immersive escape room where the winner can gain $1 million. However things won’t be plain sailing as they realise the game has been tailored to kill them if they can’t get out.

From the outset this is a dumb flick, who would go to an escape room where the winner gets a cash prize? The whole point of them is that they are a team game so it already sounds like a dangerous scheme and generally speaking the story doesn’t get much smoother. The rules of this deadly game change at will which is a frustrating tact and as a games master myself; where I get to witness everyday folk do well, only to go and ruin their chances by making stupid choices as the stress of the 60 minutes whittles away, this film has many convenient points where characters just happen to work out stuff, even though all of them bar one have never played a room before and their panic levels are much higher than found in the place where I work. Obviously it’s a movie but don’t make their leaps to solving problems so sudden and uninspired.

It’s almost like ‘Escape Room’ views itself as smarter than it really is, it’s falls way short of the devilishly clever film it could have been. Mostly, this is a dumb narrative with a group of strangers missing any real pulls of tension which could help throw the audience into the game some more. The connection they have is more like some predictable, half-arsed writing decision and a lot of the film is a fun, yet stupid ride which isn’t majorly thrilling.

In terms of a series of distracting events, this is a great movie. There’s no doubt that the entertainment factor is there and though it is clearly a less than thought through screenplay feeling majorly like ‘Saw’ and ‘The Belko Experiment’, the actors get their teeth into the roles and convince us enough that the tests they’re facing are worthy of our time. The production design must also be praised as this Minos company has an epic scale and each nightmarish new room ups the threat, be it an upside down bar or a freezing cold landscape the look of this film is especially cool.

‘Escape Room’ never goes above and beyond the premise that was so ripe for the taking and it has a ridiculous conclusion but there are enough fairly neat puzzles and bursts of suspense to keep this from being a dud.

5.5/10

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

Vice (2019)

Adam McKay returns with another awards big hitter after the bank crisis content of ‘The Big Short’ in 2015. His latest still concerns a grandiose story with Red, White and Blue oozing out like overfilled jam in a Stateside doughnut which Dick Cheney would eagerly gobble up but left me with a pain in my stomach and head.

After failing at education and being a general hothead, Cheney (Christian Bale) finds himself under the tutelage of Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) he learns the tricksy ropes of U.S government and becomes a concocting piece of nasty work through to Vice Presidency with George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), all whilst being aided by the quiet yet important assistance of his wife Lynne (Amy Adams).

I’ll openly and happily admit I was not a fan of ‘The Big Short’ and I’m definitely no advocate for this movie either. McKay tries to be smart and stylish with an overload of cutaways and general frustrating directorial choices which further my belief that his step up from dumb big comedies like ‘Anchorman’ to Oscar fodder releases are a bridge too far.

The storytelling is all over the place and you can’t shake the fact of how messy the film is. It truly should have ended at the fake-out early rolling credits but alas you have to sit through more trying politics and failed attempts at humour to test your patience to the maximum. It’s a film which really made me angry and I understand in one sense that can work, as the actions carried out by the words of Cheney do boil the blood but the film can’t just tell an impacting, dramatic story, McKay has to feel he’s better than everyone he’s preaching too and he slams political jargon over your head to a point that is both patronising and exhausting.

There’s constant irritation to be had with the editing, from abrupt black outs, random swipes to stock footage and general non-stop fatigue by a film which doesn’t know how to keep on a one track mind, less a parallel to the Dick in question, as he was laser focused on his Republican values and scheme to puppeteer the POTUS and more a shambolic run of tiresome, try hard stylish choices which have you going from voice overs, fourth wall breaks, nature docs, news clips and a ridiculous Shakespearean-tongued conversation.

Bale as the eventual VP is a force to be reckoned with and under his extra weight and thinning white hair becomes a properly terrifying human monster. He’s one of the sole selling points to the film, you completely forget the Welsh actor is involved, he’s a masterful talent in making you despise Dick more than you may already have done before. Adams is as charismatic as ever, though in a more worrying way as she delicately yet powerfully backs and boosts her abhorrent husband. Rockwell is a great actor but his award noms for what is essentially a generic caricature of a figure spoofed countless times feels misplaced.

All in all, ‘Vice’ feels like a pointless film, serving no purpose as it can’t exactly be out to alter minds. A staunch Republican wouldn’t watch and suddenly reevaluate their political agenda nor will people on the right side of the coin go in and be any less appalled at the deplorable nature of Washington politics and the ease in which Cheney could whisper manipulation to the masses. It’s a movie only really there to make you incensed, not just at Dick’s dickiness but at the film being terrible.

4.5/10

Free Solo (2019)

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Nature can be a formidable foe and a challenging friend, this beautiful documentary showcases just how imposing aspects of the natural world really are and how to one man it’s a goal of a lifetime. The weight of what the film puts across never leaves your shoulders, perfectly represented by the filmmakers.

Alex Honnold is a top class rock climber and he’s always been fascinated by upping the anti on bigger climbs. In Yosemite National Park is a 3000 ft rock formation named El Capitan which Honnold wants to do free solo, meaning to ascend peaks with no safety measures of any kind.

What makes this documentary so special and scarily captivating is the fact that the crew are established climbers themselves. They have methodically thought through the planned route of the gargantuan granite structure and importantly they know how and where to be in order to be less of a distraction for Alex as he prepares and ultimately climbs the rock without rope. As the directors plant themselves on ledges or dangle from high, you really gain a sense of how dangerous and mad and exciting it all is.

Jimmy Chin who co-directs with his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi help ensure the film isn’t just pure adrenaline rush for the sake of it. The camera team all being climbers also help humanise the story and they direct with a clear understanding to make us understand Alex as a person instead of solely focusing on the ascension itself. In these personal moments you realise what a strangely endearing figure Honnold is; his distance to displays of emotion, his inner motivation to push himself and his minimalist way of life are all well documented and help you root for him even more.

‘Free Solo’ has absolutely breathtaking visuals to mirror the sheer terror and scale of what Alex has envisioned. The IMAX screen makes the film even more incredible, you can honestly feel the fear bristling over you as we see it unfold. You’ll gasp and possibly look away whilst watching what is a heroic and brave yet utterly bonkers climb. There’s nothing more deadly immediate then seeing numerous birds eye shots of this teeny man hanging on the side of a massive rock with the ground looking like light-years away.

I haven’t been this enthralled by a film in a long time. ‘Free Solo’ is a terrifying but extremely engaging watch which fills up the cinema with epic training, for a possible groundbreaking achievement to blow childhood tree-climbing feats out of the water.

8.5/10

 

 

Second Act (2019)

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Jennifer Lopez is back on the big screen after a 3 year + break which has seen the blockbuster recording artist voice characters for films or focus on a successful NBC series. It isn’t only a return to live action but she’s back to get the rocks that she got in the Big Apple hoping to gain box office success like ‘Maid in Manhattan’.

Maya Vargas (Lopez) has her hopes of becoming a store manager dashed because she doesn’t have the educational background desired by the stuffy office heads. Thanks to the interfering assistance of her godson she ends up getting an interview for a prestigious cosmetics firm, the issue is that her resume has been modified with achievements she’s never gained. As Maya tries concocting a fully organic cream she ends up on a collision course with Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens) which could prove more enlightening than expected.

Going in with little expectations, I can safely say I exited pleasantly surprised by a film that is a fairly fun. As this wintry set movie goes and ticks off boxes for almost every recognisable New York location, you end up with a feature that has a messy yet glittering story of love, self-worth and inner confidence ringing nicely as themes, even if they all muddle together in a plot stitched together by the alluring presence of J-Lo.

There are more than a couple of story moments which feel off, whether contrived or insanely cheesy and the ending is as predictable as they come, there’s also a character called Ariana played by Charlyne Yi who is highly annoying; her vertigo and random introduction of kinkiness are played for laughs but are far from amusing. Also, a weak semblance of villainy is attempted but doesn’t truly lift off the ground but apart from the obvious rom-com pitfalls the film isn’t awful.

A huge story reveal feels like an overly sudden and sappy point but gladly the content of this narrative improves as the film goes on thanks to the star quality of the pair in question. Lopez is a damn fine actor it has to be said, she has this alluring quality of showing effortless comedy chops and an emotional anchor to aid the film of a street-smart woman trying to win her shot when presented with a second chance. Hudgens is a semi adversary to begin with, meaning we get to witness well played sneering glamour and warming appeal to her role.

‘Second Act’ whips up charm, has a swirl of light humour and intoxicating performances with sweet chemistry making the film a cheap yet worthy product that could fly off the shelves like the beauty cream Maya designs.

6/10

Destroyer (2019)

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Harsh and never letting up, ‘Destroyer’ is a ferociously tough thriller; one which certainly leaves you close to stunned silence as the credits materialise.

After receiving a tainted $100 note, detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) believes something from her past has come back. Years ago, she and Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated a gang and their leader could have returned. By any means she can, Bell hopes to get to the man behind it all and close a dark chapter in her life.

Karyn Kusama who previously directed the chillingly great ‘The Invitation’ is behind this near masterful work. The way she ensures that her cast and the story keep on track as this rough and rasping crime which you can’t look away from are fantastic. The story she’s working with is just as merciless. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have, apart from the aforementioned horror film, written a run of mostly comedy duds, this is by and large a soar to excellence. The story is cleverly wound and the way the narrative flits back and forth between past and present draws you in.

Julie Kirkwood’s cinematography is as blistering as the unfiltered heat of the California sun, soaking almost every frame of the film. You can really feel the yellow stained edgy nature of this thriller set in the aptly named Golden State. On top of the great visuals is some brooding music from Theodore Shapiro, whose score crackles with a sharp intensity amplifying the tension of the gritty world of which Erin traipses through.

There is a mother/daughter relationship which does seem like a detracting factor at first but it becomes an all encompassing touch of heart straining to reach through the blood, murkiness and nastiness that the central detective has been a part of for too long. Kidman portrays Erin searching amongst the grime of her past with a sensational presence. It’s a peak performance from the actor who embodies the worn off duty cop with sun-bleached skin, frayed hair and sunken eyes from the make-up department complimenting the fascinating turn from Kidman.

Opening and closing on Erin Bell’s eyes, this movie sees us looking at what is mostly a bleary environment for her nowadays, the why to this becomes clearer and all the more haunting as the film develops. An uneasy watch but a great one.

7.5/10