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In and of itself, the third episode in the rebooted Star Trek franchise is entertaining enough, containing the usual mix of jokes and frenetic action, though after around six hours with these reinvented characters it’s hard to see where this trilogy is actually going, and therefore one wonders whether it will run out of steam sooner rather than later (though it must be said all of the cast members seem to be retaining their enthusiasm). The important crew members of the USS Enterprise are in the same position at the end of Star Trek Beyond as they were beforehand, and although there is a little relationship development here and there in this film, there’s nothing to suggest that any great masterplan is in place. That said, in a world where the majority of franchises seem to be constantly building towards something (something that never seems to arrive, in one or two cases), perhaps there is room for this kind of well-executed exercise in water-treading; the Mission: Impossible series of movies seems to be in good health having done just that for close to 20 years.

In fact, at times Star Trek Beyond plays out like a big budget, extended episode of the original TV series, much in the same way some of the earlier, pre-reboot Star Trek movies have done. Justin Lin – director of four Fast And The Furious films – has taken over from J.J. Abrams, while Doug Jung and Simon Pegg – still playing Scotty with the kind of accent that must make Scottish people weep – have taken on the writing duties. Their story revolves around little more than a desperate to-and-forth battle for a macguffin – alien artefact blah blah bioweapon blah blah blah – and it manages to incorporate giant space stations (you know, the kind with their own ecosystems where you see lots of people strolling around on big, open walkways), a quite devestating (and well-staged) assault on the Enterprise by an alien race led by warlord Krall (Idris Elba giving average bad guy), and an extended rescue mission after most of the ship’s crew are captured during the aftermath.

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Sofia Boutella as Jaylah

Yet it’s what happens in-and-around this meat-and-two-veg plot that provides Star Trek Beyond‘s most notable moments. There are a few vague attempts to make the audience care about the on/off relationship between Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Zoe Saldana’s Uhuru, though in truth the various TV and film incarnations of Star Trek have always been more notable for the bromances, and the wittiest scenes here involve Spock and the permanently catty ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban, who has consistently been very funny throughout this franchise). There are also a couple of scenes dedicated to the hesitant – though asexual – relationship between Spock and the Enterprise‘s captain, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, now looking decidedly similar to William Shatner in his 1960’s pomp); like the TV show these great friends have been side-by-side for several years, and yet the characters seem to be unable to talk openly to one another and share their personal feelings. It’s a shame that their screen time together in this film is limited.

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Karl Urban as ‘Bones’ McCoy

There are interesting touches elsewhere. It is revealed after all these years that John Cho’s helmsman Sulu is gay, and that he has a partner and an adopted daughter. The dialogue between Pegg and George Takei – a prominent champion of LGBT rights as well as being the man who played Sulu for a number of years – has been interesting to follow in light of this development. Takei felt it would have been better to create a new, openly gay character; Pegg, meanwhile, thought it was a shame that the franchise had never featured a major LGBT character, but that the film would be accused of tokenism if it brought in an entirely new person who happened to be gay. Personally speaking, I found it a welcome surprise to see this, particularly as big budget sci-fi tends to be quite shy around such matters, although you can sense there’s a bit of hesitation, as if the studio has said ‘you can show it, but you’ve got a maxmimum of 15 seconds’. Just speculation on my part, of course, but you can imagine the money men being wary of the effects that prejudice can have on box office takings, and of the ease with which the sequence can be cut for the film’s release in less-tolerant markets. Not that it should be, of course, and hopefully (a) that hasn’t been the case and (b) will not be in the future. Additionally, there are a couple of subtle and sweet tributes to the late Leonard Nimoy, it’s sad to see Anton Yelchin so soon after his death, and Sofia Boutella is a good addition to the cast as an ass-kicking alien named Jaylah.

Though the desire to work in 20th Century cultural signifiers is a little cringeworthy – The Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, Public Enemy’s Fight The Power, a motorbike – it’s a half-decent, entertaining blockbuster in a year of disappointments. Lin is known as a director of frenetic action with a penchant for busy camerawork, and there’s plenty of that as crew members fight inside and outside the various spaceships; I lost count of the number of scenes that begin with the camera turning from an upside-down position, though due to the film’s heavy reliance on crashing spaceships and controlled gravity some of it is justified. It’s not a style that I’m particularly fond of, all told, but the director seems to be popular, and as cinemagoers like spending time with these characters I dare say most will feel fairly satisfied by this film. No attempts have been made to re-invent (or even improve on) a well-turned wheel but the cast are comfortable in their roles, there are a few laughs and a few thrills, and maybe…just maybe…we’ll actually end up getting somewhere in episode four. Eventually someone – a writer, a director, anyone – has to boldly go etc. etc.

Directed by: Justin Lin.
Written by: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung. Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry.
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella.
Cinematography: Stephen F. Windon.
Editing: Greg D’Auria, Dylan Highsmith, Kelly Matsumoto, Steven Sprung.
Music:
Michael Giacchino.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
122.
Year:
2016.

 

10 Comments

Zootopia – released as Zootropolis in the UK and some other territories for reasons that have never been made completely clear – is a witty animated buddy cop movie from Disney that’s set in a vibrant city of anthropomorphic animals, and although it probably comes across a little heavy-handed to adults in terms of the way that it delivers underlining messages of tolerance and harmony, the more important thing is that kids of all ages may be influenced for the better having seen it. I liked it very much: the city itself is an imaginatively-designed and colourful setting, with lots of cool inventions and specially-tailored areas allowing the animals to live together side-by-side (rodents get their own tiny borough, for example), while the voice acting is pretty good too, specifically by stars Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman. The former plays Judy Hopps, the first bunny rabbit in history to pass the police officer entrance exam, and the latter plays a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, who joins Judy in investigating a plot to turn certain docile animals back to being savages. I was also impressed by Maurice LaMarche’s Corleone-esque kingpin (an arctic shrew!) but best of all are the sloths, doggedly working away in the Department of Mammal Vehicles and subjecting every customer to their own painfully slow brand of bureaucracy. It’s funny enough to forgive and forget about the formulaic plot, and in all honesty 2016 has been so full of bad news stories from around the world that relate to intolerance, fear, prejudice and hatred in some way or other I’m really glad that there’s a mainstream Disney movie touching on these issues, and that it has been a huge hit. No other major animation studio is on the ball, as far as I can see.

Directed by: Byron Howard, Rich Moore
Written by: Jared Bush, Phil Johnston.
Starring: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, JK Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, Shakira.
Cinematography: Thomas Baker.
Editing: Fabienne Rawley, Jeremy Milton.
Music:
Michael Giacchino.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
108.
Year:
2016.

10 Comments

Alarm bells start to ring when one of the opening scenes in a modern crime film features a law enforcement agent receiving a dressing down from his superiors (because he’s reckless and insubordinate, of course, and his behaviour endangers the lives of others). Unfortunately this action thriller – directed by James Watkins (Eden Lake) and scripted by Andrew Baldwin – contains several other clichés that no filmmaker or writer should be going near in 2016, as well as corny twists that are delivered so lumpenly they unintentionally induce mirth. In fact – and I take no pleasure in saying this – there’s very little in Bastille Day that can honestly be described as original. Idris Elba is the Paris-based CIA agent whose methods are generally overlooked (he’s unconventional but he gets results, etc. etc.), while Richard Madden (hitherto best known for his role as Robb Stark in Game Of Thrones) plays an American pickpocket helping the CIA after he becomes embroiled in a bizarre criminal operation. Said plan, due to be executed on Bastille Day, involves an unnecessarily-complicated mish-mash of terrorists, bombs, a burgeoning Front Nationale-style right wing party, a bank robbery and a stitch-up of the city’s Muslim community, and it’s up to Elba and Madden’s characters to thwart it. As you can probably deduce the writer has tried very hard to inject currency into (or disguise) a basic, thin genre plot – the kind we’ve recently seen in this year’s Triple 9 – but it’s hard not to let out an exasperated sigh when a band of Anonymous-style activists are also thrown in to the mix. Bastille Day couldn’t be any more 2016 if it tried, though perhaps we should just be thankful that it doesn’t include a news report about a celebrity unexpectedly carking it.

The screenplay’s full of banal expository dialogue, tired exchanges and cardboard cutout bad guys, while the acting is patchy at best: Elba, Madden and Kelly Reilly – who plays a high-ranking CIA official – are all British actors in roles that require American accents, and all three fail to convince (a surprise in Elba’s case, given his earlier consistent performance in The Wire). The supporting actors are generally disappointing, too, with Anatol Yusef and Charlotte Le Bon delivering turns that aren’t quite up to scratch and which make you wonder whether their characters have grasped the importance of the situation at hand. However – and lo, there’s some fresh pickle on the mouldy burger – Watkins proves to be adept at directing action, and there are a couple of scenes here that stand up to a lot of the set pieces you’ll have seen in the past decade’s Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt or James Bond-related films. A breathless chase across the rooftops is an early highlight, with some fine stunt work, while a later fight involving five characters in the back of a van is very well choreographed and superbly stitched together by editor Jon Harris. Unfortunately such moments of quality are few and far between, and they cannot save Bastille Day as it careers into a final act of nonsensical, preposterous twaddle. And I don’t use the ‘T’ word lightly.

Directed by: James Watkins.
Written by: Andrew Baldwin.
Starring: Idris Elba, Richard Madden, Charlotte Le Bon, Eriq Ebouaney, José Garcia, Kelly Reilly, Anatol Yusef.
Cinematography: Tim Maurice-Jones.
Editing: Jon Harris.
Music: Alex Heffes.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 91 minutes.
Year: 2016.

5 Comments

Up until a couple of days ago I had no intention of seeing Jon Favreau’s live action/computer-animated remake of The Jungle Book at all. I’d cynically dismissed it as yet another of those pointless retreads designed to line Disney’s coffers and, having seen the trailer a few weeks back, I’d decided there’s no way it could possibly reach the same heights as Wolfgang Reitherman’s original, which to this day remains one of my favourite animated films. Across-the-board positive reviews changed my mind, and on balance I’m glad I went to see it, even though I’m not quite ready to relinquish those opinions. The likeable and energetic child actor Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli, a man-cub raised in the jungle by wolves, and he’s joined by an all-star cast of voice actors, including Bill Murray (Baloo the bear), Idris Elba (Shere Khan the tiger), Scarlett Johansson (Kaa the snake), Ben Kingsley (Bagheera the panther), Christopher Walken (King Louie the orang-utan) and Lupita Nyong’o (Raksha the wolf). As ensembles go that’s pretty impressive, and most of them seem to have had fun in their roles, with Elba offering threatening menace, Johansson purring away seductively and Murray doing the laconic Murray thing. Best of all is Walken, who Favreau introduces with a joke that references Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now before the actor enters a short mobster-inflected ramble that eventually leads to an updated version of the famous Sherman Brothers song I Wan’na Be Like You, once memorably performed by Louis Prima.

As is the fashion these days Favreau’s version is noticably darker than the original – Shere Khan isn’t merely allowed to run off into the distance with a flaming torch attached to his tail this time round – but there’s still plenty of humour and the youngest kids in my screening didn’t seem to be spooked by anything (except one small boy sitting behind me who declared to all and sundry that he didn’t like snakes). Sethi makes a convincing Mowgli and, like Suraj Sharma in the similarly green-screened Life Of Pi, his interaction with the animals is believable; it can’t have been an easy job, even if Favreau employed stand-ins. When he’s not interacting with his animal friends and foes, watching Mowgli leap from branch to branch and swing around on vines is certainly fun, and this is absolutely the kind of film that adults and children can enjoy equally, with exciting action sequences here and chucklesome jokes there, usually involving the jungle’s smaller inhabitants. The biggest shame, though, is the way that this iteration of The Jungle Book doesn’t really capitalise on the wonderful music that was written for Reitherman’s original. Bill Murray deadpans his way through The Bare Necessities, while Walken’s tune only runs for a couple of verses and choruses (though there is an extended version during the end credits), leaving you longing for the upbeat, extended songs of 1967. Perhaps Favreau wanted a little distance between his film and the animated classic, but here those iconic numbers feel like an afterthought, when they should really be the standout moments.

Directed by: Jon Favreau.
Written by: Justin Marks. Based on The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling.
Starring: Neel Sethi, Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito.
Cinematography: Bill Pope.
Editing: Mark Livolsi.
Music:
John Debney, Various.
Certificate:
PG.
Running Time:
105 minutes.
Year:
2016.

6 Comments

Though the title references the second coming of Jesus Christ, this debut drama by playwright-turned-director Debbie Tucker Green largely keeps Christianity out of the story, which is concerned with a Londoner’s unexplained pregnancy and the effect it has on her life and her immediate family. Suggestions of a miracle or an immaculate conception taking place are present, but are generally and suggestively left on the periphery, with Green choosing instead to concentrate on the familiar: first and foremost this is a kitchen sink drama (occasionally, like last year’s Glassland, in a literal sense), although there are some flights of fancy as pregnant Jax (Nadine Marshall, excellent) experiences strange, watery visions in her bathroom. Aside from those jarring and increasingly-disturbing interjections it’s a film that is firmly rooted in the routine of modern life: cooking, eating, sleeping, working, Sunday lunch with family, and so on.

We follow Jax’s entire term from start to finish, and obviously as a result the narrative occasionally skips forward several weeks or months at a time. She can offer no explanation for the pregnancy to those around her and can’t seem to find any answers from medical professionals. Jax’s 20-year relationship with railway engineer Mark (Idris Elba, every bit as good as we have come to expect) is partly characterised at this point in time by its lack of a sex life, something that Mark is struggling to accept, and somewhat understandably their lack of intercourse during the previous months informs his reaction when he hears the news that she is expecting. It’s also revealed that she has had four miscarriages in the past, though the couple have had one child together, the 11-year-old JJ (Kai Francis Lewis, also very impressive). So it this a miracle, or is Jax repressing an earlier unseen assault, or is there some other explanation? The ambiguity never dissipates, and it informs the mood of Green’s film throughout.

The majority of scenes take place in Jax and Mark’s house. Occasionally the action shifts to Jax’s place of work (a benefits office), or her car, while there are several passages that follow sensitive, nature-loving JJ that are set in a nearby park or heath. These bucolic interludes provide the film with its most obvious birth- and rebirth-related symbol a wounded bird that also has its own miraculous story while they also make for an interesting contrast to the majority of London-set films I’ve seen recently, which seem to go out of their way to cram as many recognisable locations in as possible, perhaps trying too hard to turn the city into a living, breathing character. Cinematographer Urszula Pontikos uses a lot of close-ups, both inside and outside of the family home, and these block out a lot of the contextual information with regard to location or the immediate environment of the characters, but more importantly they allow us to study the character’s reactions to certain lines and events without being distracted. Second Coming is, after all, a character-driven piece.

There are moments that jolt and surprise: a bitter row between Jax and Mark takes place off-screen, and throughout the camera rests on JJ, who isn’t allowed to leave the room even when his parents’ heated discussion descends into points-scoring; Jax’s aggressive, awkward sister Sandra (Seroca Davis) briefly enters the fray on a couple of occasions and acts like the proverbial bull in a china shop; and there are the aforementioned ‘visions’ that Jax experiences in the bathroom. The rest of it may be a little slow for some tastes, and many viewers who do not live in London will probably struggle with the London Afro-Caribbean dialect (or, to give it its more general and academic term, MLE); but those who give the underseen Second Coming a try will be rewarded with an engrossing family story and a trio of strong acting performances by the three leads.

Directed by: Debbie Tucker Green.
Written by: Debbie Tucker Green.
Starring: Nadine Marshall, Idris Elba, Kai Francis Lewis.
Cinematography: Urszula Pontikos.
Editing: Mark Eckersley.
Music:
Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
103 minutes.
Year:
2015.

2 Comments

The Gunman is a thriller that’s severely lacking in lustre: it’s no surprise that it flopped earlier this year, and the poor reviews it received at the time of its release seem entirely justified. Pierre Morel’s film has plenty of star power, at least, and it looks like Sean Penn’s trying to muscle in on Liam Neeson’s generous share of the old man action flick market, as he spends much of the running time being Really Good At Killing People (which is handy, because he doesn’t really do much else) in a Neeson-esque fashion. His character, the bizarrely-named Jim Terrier (to which I say: ‘why not go for “Rick Poodle” and give us all a much-needed laugh?’), is an ex-special forces mercenary lone wolf black-ops agent who doesn’t do what he’s told and squints a lot and is regularly topless and smokes cigarettes like a maaaan and has a code that he sticks to and has a load of passports stashed away and blah de blah de blah de blah. We first meet him in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he is supposedly providing security to a mining company, though in fact he’s a member of a hit squad that has been paid to assassinate the country’s Minister for Mining, who wants to renegotiate all the unfair contracts his country has made with visiting corporations. Despite the fact tough-guy Terrier has clearly done this kind of thing day-in, day-out for years, this latest cold-blooded murder sends him into a bad place, bizarrely triggering a debilitating cognitive disease as well as a huge crisis of conscience: when we next see him, eight years later, he’s back in the country doing penance as a charity worker with an NGO, building wells for small communities. (At least Jim Terrier has more time for the African country and its people than director Morel and the film’s three writers, of which Penn is one: the political situation in the DCR is conveyed via the hackneyed technique of brief, simplified news reports, while only one African character gets a name, a line and something to do.)

The action moves to Europe, and mainly to Spain. Terrier has a nemesis, of sorts, in the shape of Javier Bardem’s odious, one-dimensional Felix, who is introduced after one minute with the kind of rumbling bass note on the soundtrack that leaves you in no doubt as to his duplicitous and evil nature. Felix a fully-paid up member of the Society of Professional Arseholes marries Terrier’s girlfriend Annie (Jamine Trinca) after the assassination, when Jim goes into hiding, but the three are re-united in Barcelona. Here Bardem chews his way through so much scenery I doubt there’s much of the city left for anyone to visit, the highlight being the most unrealistic portrayal of a drunk man I’ve seen for some time. Anyway: someone is out to get Terrier for his part in the earlier murder, for some reason or other, and it could be Felix, or it could be Mark Rylance’s ex-special forces black ops lone wolf mercenary, or it could be Ray Winstone’s cockney geezer stereotype, or it could be Idris Elba’s Interpol agent, who is the kind of spook that mysteriously appears out of nowhere, says something vaguely cool or cryptic, and departs after leaving a card with his name and number on it so that he can conveniently return to the film at a later, crucial point. Yeesh. The male supporting actors here are really poor, the film’s three Terrier vs Henchmen battles in three different locations appear back-to-back, while the script is often laughably bad. At one point Penn’s character actually says the words ‘I was video-documenting on my cellphone earlier like a goddamn wazoo’. Well, I’m sick of text-documenting on my computer like a goddamn wazoo, and refuse to  spend any more time and effort discussing a movie that is every bit as tired and uninspired as its title.

Directed by: Pierre Morel.
Written by: Don Macpherson, Pete Travis, Sean Penn. Based on The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette.
Starring: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Javier Bardem, Mark Rylance, Ray Winstone, Idris Elba.
Cinematography: Flavio Martinez-Labiano.
Editing: Frédéric Thoraval.
Music:
Marco Beltrami.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
115 minutes.
Year:
2015.

8 Comments

720x405-beast_pds_008_hCary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation can be seen as a statement of intent by Netflix, given that the company has spent a year and many millions of dollars getting its original movie arm up and running; one or two Netflix’s own documentaries have already received critical praise such as last year’s Oscar-nominated Virunga – but this is the first original feature film they have put out, released for a week into selected cinemas to make it eligible for next year’s Academy Awards but now available to stream via the ever-expanding service. It was made for $6m, and Netflix bought exclusive rights for $12m, yet its relevance and future success may prove to be unmeasurable in fiscal terms: it signals the beginning of a new era in which the VOD industry will seek to further influence the viewing habits of millions and take its share of the financial pie away from the megaplex cinema chains, some of which unsurprisingly boycotted the movie.

It’s an engrossing but tough watch, and one that will surely result in the company gaining many new customers during the next six months. Fukunaga’s star has been in the ascendancy ever since he made the acclaimed Sin Nombre a few years back, and he has since displayed a keen desire to work within different genres and media; he took on costume drama with Jane Eyre, directed all eight episodes of the magnificent first season of TV drama True Detective, and now turns his attention to African child soldiers, adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s bestseller. Based around the life of a young boy named Agu (played superbly by Ghanaian actor Abraham Beasts of No NationAttah, making his screen debut), the story begins by detailing the child’s upbringing in an unnamed African country (though linguists and academics studying the original book have suggested it bears a strong resemblance to Nigeria). When we first see Agu he’s with several other kids and busy trying to sell what he calls ‘imagination TV’ to a few ECOMOG soldiers, the director filming the kids through the shell of a television set, perhaps aware of the fact that the majority of the audience will be used to watching images of African in such a way. The tone at the beginning is initially light: though war rages elsewhere in the country the lives of the children and their families in this village do not appear to be in any great immediate danger, but ruthless military-aligned rebels soon arrive and Agu is left to fend for himself in the jungle. He is eventually found by a platoon of the NDF, another rising rebel faction led by Idris Elba’s charismatic but despicable Commandant, and much of the subsequent running time of the film is devoted to Agu’s upsetting metamorphosis from carefree kid to ruthless child soldier. This incorporates a brutal initiation, abuse and several harrowing scenes of conflict and violence, the action staying with the platoon for the majority of the duration.

Made in Ghana, Fukunaga who is also the cinematographer shows no sign of being cautious or overwhelmed by the environment, which was presumably unfamiliar to him, and his camera movement is graceful while his numerous crisp shots from on high allow us to get a handle on the numbers of the militia group and the scale of the various camps they set up; first on top of a hill, later in an abandoned gold mine. He does not hold back with regard to the violence but neither does he milk it or stuff his film with action; when it comes it is quick, and extremely brutal: a boy murdered for failing to complete a training task, for example, or a woman who is shot in the head while she is being raped, and so on. Many of these acts are being perpetrated in the film by kids and teenagers, some of whom, like Agu, are barely able to lift and point the automatic weapons they carry. It’s understandable that some people will be put off from watching such upsetting subject matter, but Beasts Of No Nation is worth praising for the way it successfully highlights a growing problem: it is estimated that there are more than 300,000 child soldiers forced to fight in Africa today, and the film will surely draw more attention to their plight. It’ll be hard for Netflix to measure just how many new subscribers they receive as a result of any critical praise the piece receives, but hopefully the company will share at least a small percentage of its profits next year with charities such as War Child. Special mention must go to the cast: Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye also making his debut impresses as a mute child soldier named Strika, while Elba and Attah should both be receiving Oscar nominations. If they do not appear on the list of nominees it could potentially be the result of some kind of industry smackdown delivered to the company that happens to be distributing their film; I can’t think of any other good reason for either being ignored, with the usual caveats as we head into the season.

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on Beasts Of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye.
Cinematography: Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Editing: Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, Pete Beaudreau.
Music: Dan Romer.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
137 minutes.
Year:
2015.

25 Comments